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

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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

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“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

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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

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“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

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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

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“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.