Should the Catholic Church apologize to Pagans?

Cara Schulz —  June 18, 2015 — 37 Comments

On Thursday, Pope Francis released his long-awaited 184-page encyclical on climate change and environmental protection. We will have reactions to this work in the coming days. In the meantime, we consider one particular phrase from that document as it relates to a question recently raised by Debra Macleod in The Huffington Post.

Macleod asks whether the Catholic Church should acknowledge its role in the destruction of classical Pagan culture and religion. In the new encyclical, Pope Francis says, “Human Beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start.” Using that framework, Macleod’s question can be rephrased. Should the Church “rise above itself, choose again what is good and make a new start?”

[Photo Credit: Neokortex &: Kallistos via Wikimedia]

[Photo Credit: Neokortex &: Kallistos via Wikimedia]

In the article, Macleod explains:

Forced conversions to Christianity were common, as was the seizure of property or assets belonging to pagans. And in an unprecedented move of religious tyranny, it became illegal – upon pain of torture or death to honor Vesta or other gods and goddesses even within the sacred privacy of one’s own home.

It isn’t pleasant to hear — especially for those who hold their religion dear — but forced conversions and cultural destruction, done on a massive scale, played a significant role in the way Christianity established itself as the dominant religion.This approach set the tone for the fear and oppression of the “Dark Ages” when anything that wasn’t Christian — including science, medicine and free thought — was deemed heretical and violently suppressed.

…To solidify Christianity as the sole religion of the Empire, early Christian leaders legalized brutal policies that persecuted pagans. This gave Christians the legal green light to commit atrocious acts of vandalism that destroyed centuries of Classical art, history and culture.

Christian vandals smashed the heads and limbs off statues of beloved gods and goddesses that had been venerated for generations. They knocked the noses off the faces, and carved crosses into the foreheads, of deities, heroes and emperors. They burned ancient texts, obliterating centuries of knowledge, literature and heritage.

While some comments on Macleod’s article note the similarities between the early church’s destruction of historical sites and forced conversions to ISIL’s current actions, many people appear to refuse to acknowledge this history, or they believe the early Catholic church was justified in its action in order to save souls. However, this history isn’t news to many Pagans. It has been outlined in books. In 2000, a group of Pagans even sent a formal letter asking for such an apology.

We decided to ask several Hellenic Pagans what they think. Should the Catholic Church acknowledge its role in the destruction of classical Pagan culture and religion?

Here is what they had to say:

This is a difficult question to answer. On the one hand if they do acknowledge the destruction of the Temples and statues, it would be a nice gesture, but actually rather meaningless unless they are going to rebuild them. Which I am fairly certain they aren’t. The more important thing though is what they did to the status of the worship, the practice of the religion. That legacy lives on today. I’ve been flat out asked by a Christian, ‘How could can you believe in that Zeus crap?’ My rather indignant answer was,’because Zeus has been around for six thousand years or more. A whole lot longer than you guys.

The actions of the Church were in many ways unprecedented, they set out to completely destroy another religion, not for political reasons like the ones between the Romans and the Druids, but because they wanted to. Like The Huffington article said, the early Christians were determined to make their God the one and only. And they didn’t stop with Greco/Roman religion/culture, they carried it wherever they went for centuries.They have never acknowledged the harm they have done throughout the world. This would be a first step, but only if they acknowledge the harm on a spiritual level, a cultural level and how wrong it is to attempt to only allow one religion in a world of 7+ billion people. By one religion I mean all three monotheistic religions because they are related. I’m a hard polytheist so I see each pantheon as being different individuals. – Victoria White

*   *   *

292232_408317739179337_410892228_nThe Catholic Church’s denial of wiping out the Greek and Roman polytheistic religions was for centuries a matter of academic interest only. In recent years, however, more and more people have been embracing these spiritual modalities, not just as a curiosity but as a viable belief system, imbuing them with life again. Denial stands as a major obstacle to effective interfaith dialogue between the Catholic Church and contemporary practitioners of the revived Greek and Roman polytheistic religions. What is needed is an environment of transparency and openness.” – Tony Mierzwicki, author

*   *   *

“My personal belief is that any such apologies only develop from within a given organization, not from without. So, since not a current practice, not something for us to decide. Reparations for groups persecuted within past 200 years by entities are much more valid pursuits, such as the Native American population and Japanese Americans in the 1940’s, for example.” – Kalen Cap

*   *   *

Dr. Gwendolyn Reece [courtesy photo]

“I would like them to apologize because what I want acknowledged is that there is a political reality of oppression that is behind the triumph of Christianity and not its inherent superiority that is an expression of a greater stage of spiritual evolution. That is a myth that continues to be largely promulgated and it is not true. However, that is also why I don’t think that they will apologize for the destruction of classical Paganism. Also, at least in the Hellenic situation, it predates the split between the Roman and Orthodox churches. The Greek Orthodox church is still highly repressive.” – Gwendolyn Reece

*   *   *

“It is the continuing fact of the continuing denial of the authenticity of the Gods and our religions. I am pleased to say that their God is authentic. Why can’t they return the civility? I don’t want to see anyone’s religion destroyed. However, our Gods were around for a lot longer than theirs and for them to claim that They do not exist is hubristic.” – Julia Ergane

*   *   *

11356266_10206618088587980_67432500_n“The apology would be valuable because it would help pierce the idea that “people just changed their minds.” It’s time this discussion took place within Jan Assman’s coordinates, “religion” and “counter-religion.” Those coordinates are so crucial that any discussion of Abrahamic atrocities without them seems philosophically naive. The point, briefly, is that the Abrahamic religions developed as a reaction against and anathematization of traditional (read “Pagan”) religions. The oppression of traditional religion isn’t some “wrong choice.” It’s a structural prerequisite of Abrahamic religion.” – Todd Jackson

*   *   *

“There is a need to acknowledge that the philosophy of the Greeks and Romans was appropriated by Christianity in the Classical Era. There needs to be an acknowledgement that the temples of the Gods were turned into things like brothels and animal pens in a way do insult the Pagans and discredit the Gods.

There needs to be an acknowledgement of the destruction of scientific knowledge in things like the destruction of the Library of Alexandria and the murder of scholars like Hypatia. If these things had not happened we might have been much farther along in both the physical and social sciences than we are now instead of having regressed because even knowledge that wasn’t “approved” by the Church powers was “of the Devil”.

Until we can get the general population to acknowledge these things intellectually, an apology from the two largest Christian denominations (Roman Catholic and Orthodox) would be essentially a meaningless gesture. It took many years of increasing awareness by the Jews and African-Americans before apologies were offered in any meaningful way.”  – Anne Hatzakis, GreekRevivialistMommy blog

Cara Schulz

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Cara Schulz is a journalist and author living in Minnesota with her husband and cat. She has previously written for PAGAN+politics, PNC-Minnesota, and Patheos. Her work has appeared in several books by Bibliotheca Alexandrina and she's the author of Martinis & Marshmallows: A Field Guide to Luxury Tent Camping and (Almost) Foolproof Mead Making. She loves red wine, camping, and has no tattoos.
  • Segomâros Widugeni

    It seems to me that the Churches – Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox, all heirs to the single Church of late antiquity – owe an apology not only to Pagans but to the Western World as a whole. What took place in the Conversion Period was the destruction of entire civilizations: torture, murder, looting, and desecration on a vast scale. The loss to literature, art, folklore, mythology, science, philosophy, and spirituality were incalculable.

    Jason Mankey’s recent column on the Burning Times shows that we cannot minimize them, even if they did not happen on the scale modern Pagan historical mythology would have us believe, and even if the victims were mostly self-identified Christians. Well, the atrocities of the Conversion Period *did* happen to our forebears – our spiritual forebears and the forebears of Western Civilization. These atrocities were real, brutal, oppressive, and horrible, particularly in Eastern Europe, and their legacy lives within us. They are less popular as a founding myth for modern Pagans no doubt because of the influence of the idea of Witchcraft on the modern Pagan self-image. It also has to be admitted that the ancient Pagans who suffered these persecutions were less attractive to modern sensibilities than we have made out the accused witches to be, and they very often gave as good as they got.

    Interestingly, the shining exception would appear to be Ireland, where no Christian martyrs were made, and where the local Church used less violent methods to spread their faith. Even here, though, pressures existed. Druids had their honor prices reduced, which made it effectively easier to commit crimes against them, by reducing the penalties for doing so.

    Anyone who has read Pliny’s Letter to Trajan knows that a certain amount of real persecution of Christians did take place under the Roman Empire. While not anywhere near as widespread as Christian martyr stories would have us believe, there were real cases of torture and murder inflicted on Christians by ancient Pagans. Perhaps each side owes the other an apology, as well as a commitment to a more realistic understanding of their own history – and perhaps such apologies would help overcome the sense of victimization felt by both sides.

    I wouldn’t expect to see it anytime soon, though.

    • Michael Strojan

      Conversely, while I definitely think it’s attractive to think of the Catholic Church as a great monolith that contributed to the destruction of classical
      religion(s) and do in fact think that at some point there needs to be an
      honest dialogue internally within the curia and externally with others
      about the nature of past persecutions; the reality is, is that the lines
      aren’t so clean cut. The majority of the destruction happened long
      before what we could call the Roman Catholic Church was even in
      existence. The Great Schism happened only in the 11th century, which is
      some time removed from the conversion of Constantine and the
      Christianization of the Empire under the Edicts of Theodosius and
      Thessalonica; prior to that there was perceived to be ‘one church’
      straddling on two sides of Empire. If one were to desire apology from
      the Catholics or the Orthodox, that would be hard since they effectively
      didn’t exist at the time.

      • kenofken

        It’s true there are historical complexities, but at some point, that can become a lawyer’s dodge to try to diffuse responsibility into the atmosphere aka the modern corporate “mistakes were made” strategy. Both the RCC and the Orthodox churches stake claims as true heirs of the early church’s spiritual and temporal authority. Both have plenty of evidence to support those claims in one aspect or another. Morally, if not legally, both churches have something roughly akin to corporate successor liability.

        Moreover, the religious genocide perpetrated by the Catholic Church spans far, far beyond the days of Constantine and Theodosius. Just to pick a few examples, Charlemagne slaughtered 4,500 Saxons in 782 for refusing to convert. Medieval popes authorized the use of force to make people adhere to the faith even if they had been converted under duress. In the very year Columbus was sailing for the New World, his royal sponsors issued a “leave, convert or die” order for Jews in Iberia. Popes expressly condoned the forcible conversion and enslavement of pagan peoples in the Americas and elsewhere. For all of its allusions to Nordic pagan symbolism, the National Socialist movement and the anti-Semitism that fueled the Holocaust were entirely informed by Catholic theology and culture.

        The Catholic Church did not even acknowledge the idea of religious freedom until Vatican II, and in fact vigorously advocated for government compulsion of Christianity to the end of the 1800s. In 1858, Pope Pius IX actually kidnapped a 6-year old Jewish boy and raised him as Catholic!

        • That’s true: it is a lawyers dodge as both institutions (Catholic and Orthodox) claim continuous legitimacy from the early Church. From the Philippines to Brazil, from East Timor to Argentina, from California to Guatemala forced conversions continued under colonialism. At present, Native Californians are protesting the attempt to make Junipero Serra, founder of the California mission system, under whose administration genocide occurred, a saint.

  • I would say: why limit this to apologizing for classical Greco-Roman civilization? This is applicable to every place that Christianity went.

  • “So, since not a current practice, not something for us to decide.”

    The modern practitioners of African animistic and polytheistic religions, including magical witchcraft practices, who are being forcibly converted and killed today might beg to disagree with that assessment.

    • Deborah Bender

      Most of the active evangelization in Latin America, Africa and Asia is currently being done by Protestants, Mormons and Muslims. Protestants and Muslims are more serious opponents of traditional African religions than the RCC. If they limited their conversion efforts to nonviolent methods, I wouldn’t have a problem with that, because traditional African religions aren’t perfect either and some interfaith dialogue and choice would probably benefit the people of those places.

      Today’s Roman Catholic Church is repressive in places where it can be, but to the best of my knowledge, it rarely engages in forced conversion and it isn’t killing anyone except pregnant women who need abortions for medical reasons. With the possible exception of what is done to indigenous peoples in parts of Latin America, most of the forcible conversions and murders that the Catholic Church has not acknowledged as crimes are in the past or just barely within living memory.

      If the RC Church were to own up to its deeds, acknowledge its crimes, admit that the circumstances in which those crimes were committed did not justify them, make amends where possible and resolve to do better in the future, it would be a better church.

      For both historical and contemporary reasons, I don’t have much hope that the Orthodox churches will do anything like that in my lifetime.

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    It’s an interesting thought, but I think there is a major problem in suggesting this, which is–to an extent–something that we have created ourselves, whether we like it or not or have acknowledged it or not.
    Most reconstructionist pagans are pretty clear that “we’re not them,” i.e. we aren’t our ancient spiritual ancestors, and that is often touted as a “good” thing because we like antibiotics, glasses, not being slaves, and the internet, amongst other things. But, if the question of apologies (much less reparations) is raised, then the issue becomes: apologize to whom? The Catholic Church has been reluctant enough in even acknowledging modern Wicca exists, much less other forms of paganism that are closer to the classical religious systems, cultures, and civilizations which they deliberately suppressed, oppressed, and destroyed, and they’d be the first ones to point out that “you [i.e. modern Hellenistai, etc.] are not them [the ancients,” and therefore any apology in their mind would be meaningless.
    So, which I would be in favor of something like this occurring, I suspect that it never will. Until such a time as a modern pagan organization owns hundreds of millions of dollars in property worldwide as a unified institutional edifice (which, as I’m sure you all can guess, I’d surmise will never happen, nor would most people want it to), and posed any kind of “real threat” to the hegemony of the Catholic Church, they have nothing to profit by acknowledging us, and can therefore afford in their privilege to entirely ignore us.

    • kenofken

      I think any apology would ring hollow inasmuch as the attitudes and contempt underlying the old crimes has not really changed in Rome. Those who think Pope Francis is a progressive on this issue are deluding themselves. “Pagan” is still used as a shorthand for spiritual degeneracy and backsliding, and many of our practices are still identified as Satanic.

      Vatican City, Nov 7, 2014 / 10:13 am (CNA/EWTN News).- In his daily homily for Mass at the Santa Marta residence, Pope Francis urged the faithful against living as lukewarm pagans who are merely Christian in name, for these are “enemies of the Cross.” This tidbit from November of last year:

      Reflecting on the day’s reading from Paul to the Philippians, the Holy Father spoke of two types of Christians: those who advance in their faith, and those who behave as “enemies of the Cross of Christ.”

      Pope Francis condemned this latter group as “Christian pagans,” describing them as “worldly, Christian in name,” but living a “pagan life.” They are “pagans with two strokes of Christian paint, in order to appear as Christians.”

      I can’t quite agree with the proposition that modern Pagans will have to amass wealth and infrastructure and vast numbers of adherents to be taken seriously by Rome. They clearly consider us to be a threat, or at least a force to be reckoned with. They’re tripping over themselves to get in line with environmentalist concepts that arise entirely from OUR theology!

      We also dominate the cultural narrative on sexuality and LGBT rights. The RCC (aided in no small part by their own actions), just had it’s collective ass handed to it on a silver platter in the recent gay marriage referendum. Ireland, the most Catholic country in the West, has re-Paganized! Apart from the ultra-conservative wing of Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity, virtually every Christian denomination is striving to look and act more Pagan, to one degree or another because that is where the culture is at, even if most of them do not expressly identify as such or attend our rituals. We are punching far above our demographic weight class, and Rome well knows that.

  • Kristina Karina

    Hi Cara, I didnt know you are pagani!

  • Amy Crofford

    Ask the holy Mother what she thinks, I am pretty sure she has been with all of us, Pagans and Catholics from the beginning, Peace.

  • It was Constantine who manipulated the early church into being One True Faith™. And it was generations of rulers and nobles who were only too happy to use Christianity as another way to control their citizenry, especially when the citizens got too uppity.

    I’m not excusing the churches for what they did. But they couldn’t have done it without the help of sovereigns and potentates.

    Never overlook the greediness of the politicians.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      That could also be said about things the church has apologized for.

      • Yes.

        Odd how the early church takes the blame and the rulers don’t, isn’t it?

        Religion can’t be allowed the coercive power of government, government can’t be allowed the moral justification of religion.

        Especially if the religion has no competition to keep it honest.

        • Deborah Bender

          That’s the genius of Enlightenment values in general and the parts of the US Constitution that forbid any religious test for holding public office. Wherever there is weak separation of Church and State, the state-favored church becomes corrupt and oppressive. No religion is immune from this. And all religions learn to play better with others when they don’t have access to state power to enforce their values and dicta.

  • I don’t want an apology so much as an acknowledgement that they became the majority religion through violence, threat of violence, theft and vandalism/desecration. As opposed to their white-washed ideas that theirs is a “natural/higher evolution” of religious thought or that their religion “won” in the marketplace of ideas, that Christianity was chosen rather than forced upon others. I won’t hold my breath waiting for such a statement though.

  • zormpas

    As a Hellenic polytheist myself, I shudder at the mere mention of Theodosius “the great” and the Theodosian code. I absolutely see parallels between what Daesh/ISIL is doing today vis a vis what the “middle child” of Abrahamic monotheism did 2,000 years ago.

    An apology? An apology wouldn’t do any good – those people are 20 centuries dead – but an acknowledgement could help a lot, particularly with the gullibility of people regarding the “Christian Nation” nonsense being spewed these days.

    The greatest breach of ethics I can think of is to needlessly interfere with the free will/thought of another. Since a Theocracy is all about exactly that, I can think of no greater evil.


    • Thank you for using Daesh to refer to those thugs.

      • zormpas

        Isis asked me to. 😉

        • I should hope so! Drives me nuts when pundits–but not Pres. Obama, I’ve noticed.

          • zormpas

            Even Obama gets something right once in a while!

  • Heather Frigiola

    An apology would be great, but I disagree with the one quote that Christians need to rebuild the temples that they destroyed. Hear me out: the Christians alive today had absolutely no part in the destruction of the temples. A lot of them probably aren’t even aware that it happened. They wouldn’t understand why we are holding them personally responsible for constructing temples for us. I agree with those who say that at this stage, we need to focus on increasing the awareness of what happened first.

  • Todd Jackson endorses rape culture, believing that male victims cannot be sexually assaulted, and has said, in no uncertain terms, that consent or lack thereof is an illusion. His partner, Brandie, is arguably worse, and she has a long history of harassing people on the Internet.

    Publishing his statements is tantamount to miasma.

    I’m sure you’re going to defend him, though.

  • Derek

    As a facilitator of a pagan community I am not new to this discussion. My response is; not unless modern Pagans also apologise to the Church for their predecessors’ torture and execution of early Christians. We are not those Pagans. The current church is not those Christians. Let’s call it a draw and get on with communicating.

    • kenofken

      The current church, at an institutional and leadership level, IS very much “those Christians”. The RCC has been in continuous operation since the days of the old persecutions and claims an unbroken lineage of ordination and authority going back to the Apostles. They are the benefactors of 15 centuries or so of stolen wealth, artifacts and real estate.

      • Derek

        …and that is exactly the kind of thinking — that some imagined ‘enemy’ cannot change — that prevents peace breaking out all over the planet.

        • kenofken

          The RCC is not an “imagined” enemy of paganism. It’s a declared one, and not just in some distant 5th Century past. The message of enmity is reiterated by Rome explicitly and at regular intervals in the present. I don’t believe they cannot change, but they clearly are not willing to do so anytime soon.

          I’m not about fostering grudges, but about demanding a realistic accounting of history. Meaningful reconciliation cannot begin to happen without that. Forgetting the past does not produce real peace. It is naive at best and suicide at worst.

          As a Pagan, I am under no obligation whatever to forgive. I tend to do so because it is often the best or only way for individuals and societies to move forward. In order for me to forgive something, and for that act to have any meaning, several conditions must be met. 1)There has to be an acknowledgement and honest accounting of the injury. 2)There has to be sincere contrition, (not “I’m sorry you were offended”). Needless to say, the offending party must stop the injurious behavior if it is still going on. 3)There has to be an offer of reparation of some kind. I don’t think it’s possible or realistic to expect the church to rebuild every Pagan temple or to pay out gazillions of dollars in damages. We are not the true heirs, in most cases, of ancient Pagan religions and societies.

          Reparation in this case could be something relatively modest, if it is sincere. What if the Vatican for instance returned some statuary or other important artifacts to, say, ancient Greek or Roman sacred sites which are maybe in current use by recons? Maybe they could fund a little museum on one or more sites that educates people about the lost heritage.

          Hell, even an honest papal encyclical or paper of some kind with a true accounting and sincere apology would go a long way in the right direction, as would an offer of true and respectful dialogue with any of our contemporary traditions.

          I’m all for peace and healing, but it has to be rooted in honesty about the past. If you look at anyplace in the world where societies have had to heal the wounds of an ugly past – Apartheid, the “Dirty War” in South America, the Holocaust, Cambodia, dozens of bloody civil wars and genocides, you will find that often the guilty are not properly punished, the victims never made truly whole. In any of the successful cases, you will find extensive efforts to document the truth.

  • Ellen Evert Hopman

    Apparently the writer of this piece is not aware of the PAPAL APOLOGY PROJECT which was the first international Pagan project, as far as I am aware. We worked hard to get an apology from the last Pope. You can see the letter we sent, the signatories and the Pagan FAQ we created here; FAQ

  • linguliformean

    It’s a nice idea but I don’t think it will make much difference if the church apologises to modern pagans; we are far too removed culturally, historically and religiously to actually feel like that we are personally affected by an apology.

    FAR better the church simply acknowledge that in their earlier years they did some appalling things to humanity as a whole, not just pagans.

    As to rebuilding temples; I don’t think we deserve them; we are too far removed. Besides, once built who would pay for their upkeep? maintenance or even use them?

    AAT…should modern pagans apologise to Christians for the treatment of early Christians?

  • Sir Loin

    Every geologists is going to tell you that global warming is a load of crap. I just don’t get you folk, I could disprove Global warming using Plato! Your being lead off the cliff, like leming.

  • Wolfsbane

    The Catholic Church should be required to do far more that just apologize.

    They should be required to submit their archives and collections to inspection for stolen documents and items pertaining to the indigenous faiths they subverted. Those items should then be returned and become accessible to those who wish to study them. Upkeep and expenses related to that should be covered by the Catholic church in perpetuity.

    They should be required to pay to completely restore and rebuild all indigenous religious sites and buildings they caused to be destroyed and damaged. Upkeep and expenses related to that should be covered by the Catholic church in perpetuity.

    They should be required to pay reparations for their crimes against humanity to all affected peoples.
    They should be required to publically admit their guilt in writing for all these acts in perpetuity.

    • No, they should not.

      There is no way that such a judgment can be made and enforced without making the enforcers into monsters every bit as big as you think the Catholic Church is.

      How much is enough? Is it the original amount or with interest? Should there be further reparations? What about those faiths and religions that have had no followers for centuries? How do you know that the Roman Catholic Church was responsible?

      And even if there was a day where everything was restored and payment was made in full, what then? All that would happen is that thousands of religions have become dependent on the collective guilt of Catholics (and possibly other Christians). Those religions would be unable to survive without the pity of Catholics. It would change Catholics yes, but it would change the “beneficiaries” much more.

      It would make those religions weak and unworthy of Divine notice, much less Divine gifts.

      They would be victims in perpetuity.