The New Paganism

by Fr. Benedict J. Groeschel, CFR

          Paganism today is not simply an ancient aberration. Rather than bothering with religious sensibilities such as beauty, morality, punishment, or tragedy, neo-pagans are caught up in embracing plain, old fashioned materialism. We human beings tend to think we are more important or better than others because of what we possess. We often focus on accumulating more goods, bigger and better houses, newer automobiles. Few people give shopping on Sunday a second thought. Flying first-class or jumping on a cruise ship and having people wait on us is utterly enticing.

Here are some clues for identifying modern paganism in our own lives: "Give me... I want... Let me have... We'll go first-class... Everybody can wait on us... All we need is money." Do you recognize those themes in your own life? Too often we buy what we don't need and cling to what we have. Then we give to the needy from what is left over.

Modern pagans see human beings as objects to be used and then cast aside. In times past, pagan philosophers retained some sense of decency, but today that is fading fast. No issue demonstrates modern paganism more clearly than the pro-choice, pro-life debate. Nothing is absolute if one can take a human life simply because it is convenient or expedient to do so.

Some ancient pagans, like the Romans, were so horrified by infanticide that when they took Carthage, they killed all four hundred priests of a pagan temple where children were sacrificed. By comparison, I heard of a Catholic woman, active in pro-life, who wanted her daughter to have an abortion! She never showed her face around the pro-life movement again, but she continued to be a very opinionated Catholic.

People have reverted to being gods themselves, deciding when to take their own lives or the lives of loved ones who are suffering too much pain. The recent publication of Final Fate by Derek Humphrey, the president of England's Hemlock Society, has fueled the euthanasia and suicide debate. This slim volume, which details various methods of self-assisted suicide, has proved to be surprisingly popular. Even the young and healthy seem morbidly curious about their options in case of need.

This kind of paganism is violent. It is anti-human, appealing to our basest instincts. I'm not talking about the paganism of the Romans, Greeks, and Nordic tribes, or of those who sought the one, true God and later embraced the good news of Jesus Christ. The most vicious paganism often festers in those who have been sealed by holy Baptism and have then turned their backs on Christ. The evening television will bring you a number of commentators and entertainers who were raised Catholics or Protestants but now make war on the teachings of Christ.

The new paganism has a blatant disregard for the presence of Christ in others and their essential value and dignity as God's children. How many times in history has Christ been defended in paganistic ways? When the Crusaders took Jerusalem, they killed the Moslems and Jews in the name of Christ! They were acting like pagans, covered with blood. How many people consider themselves devout believers and yet support governmental policies filled with hatred, violence, and vindictiveness? How many times, even in our defense of Christianity, do we act in an un-Christian way?

In the past, how many Americans considered themselves devout Christians, while wholeheartedly supporting slavery and segregation? And today, how do we Christians treat those of a different color or race? How do we treat the poor? Do we see Christ in them? As society becomes more pagan, it will return to outright slavery. You watch! Even in a democracy, subtle ways exist in which the powerful can control the weak, making them their chattels, their beasts of burden. Take an American dollar, fold it into ten sections, and cut off the tenth part. That represents the capital earned in the United States by slaves for the first ninety years of our existence as a nation. Ten percent of the basic capital of the United States is estimated as having come from slavery.

Is slavery in America really a thing of the past? We still have all kinds of prejudices by which we treat other people as less than human because of their race, creed, color, circumstances, pathology, weakness, or handicap. Sometimes we reject someone just because we don't like the expression on his or her face! In most underdeveloped countries a huge underclass is growing in an alarming way: masses of unwanted people, many of them descendants of the victims of slavery or the exploitations of Latin American countries by American business interests. The growing gap between the rich and poor is rooted in paganism.

When the poor got out of hand in ancient Rome, the ruling class gave them bread and circuses. Modern society offers them drugs and television.

The riots in Los Angeles following the Rodney King verdict in 1992 were a volcanic eruption of racial and social discontent. People all over the country looked on in disbelief after the jury found the four white policemen not guilty of excessive force in the beating of a black motorist. Feeling powerless and betrayed by the justice system, revengeful mobs launched days of killing, burning, and looting. Over forty people died in the worst civil violence of this decade. Pagan values led to pagan responses.

Pagan gods were projections of the religious and personal needs of human beings. These gods, then and now, are made in the image of humankind. They have eyes and see not, ears and hear not. Christians do not follow a god of their making. We follow a real God, creator of heaven and earth, begotten, not made, one in being with the Creator, who came down from heaven. He does not need to ask our needs and desires, even less our opinions. Christ asks only that we believe and follow him.

Unfortunately, even when we are trying to be faithful followers of Christ, we must live among people who are under the influence of paganism, sometimes in our own families, among our friends, and in our parishes. Whenever we accept paganism we cloud our ability to perceive clearly and appreciate the full meaning of salvation. Whenever we change what is revealed by God to suit our fancy, we take a step toward paganism. At the same time, we must not become self-righteous. Remember that we all fall short of the Commands of God; we are all in need of ongoing conversion. Our own struggles should keep us humble and compassionate toward others.

 Read other articles of spiritual enlightenment in the September 2000 edition of The San Francisco Charismatics or return to the Main Menu by clicking on the blue.