Roman Catholicism as the last Western paganism

7 06 2010

He saw himself as a son of the Catholic Church, which he did not regard as simply one of several Christian confessions, but as the great collecting tank of all religions, as the heiress of all paganism, as the still living original religion. That the Church after Vatican II no longer corresponded to this ideal, was more painfully aware to him than to anyone. And so, that much more easily did he decide to emigrate from the present, the analysis of which, of course, helped him to formulate his fragments of an “eternal anthropology” against it.

-Martin Mosenbach, regarding Nicolás Gómez Dávila found at this site

The superficial reflection of the week on my part is that I find sedevacantists to be a very sympathetic group of folk. Sure, I would never hang around them in person since I find that they are crazy enough in print, but I know where they are coming from. They love Catholicism more as an ideal than as a reality. I don’t know how one could love the reality without having had at least a minor lobotomy. Nowadays, educated people who speak of what they like about the Catholic Church speak only of an ideal, and if that is the case, one should become like the sedevacantist and go all the way. Or be a vagante bishop saying Mass in his garage.

But if I am to love an ideal, I will love it for the right reasons. The most prominent voices in modern Catholicism seem to portray the Roman Church as the wayward stepchild of rabbinic Judaism. I have nothing against rabbinic Judaism in comparative terms: it seems to be rich in folklore, cultural color, and magic. But once Catholic parishes start offering Passover seders and classes as to why everything in Catholicism has its type in Judaism, it is there that I realize how low the Faith has sunk. The genius of Catholicism is not that it is Gentile Judaism for Jesus, but that it was up to very recently the last great pagan Western faith. Yep, it’s just like Jack Chick suspected, since even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

Whatever shape “Patristic Christianity” actually had, what emerged fairly quickly was a cult to angels and heroes (we call them, “saints”) that could fill the imaginational void that other Abrahamic religions tend to create. Even to this day, theorists will decry and mourn the fact that people’s allegiance to the Church is superficial, and that the Church militant is not as militant as it should be. How many bishops will say that the goal of the Church is to give people “Jesus”, as if Jesus could be separated from two thousand years of history and beamed right into the heart of believers as a burning in the bosom? Perhaps people shouldn’t be robbing, lying, and fornicating as much as they do, but does all of this still entail that people are too hung up on “superficial things”, missing the Jesus forest in the ecclesial trees?

To be honest, maybe people should not listen to me. I could give a rat’s ass about evangelization, and my drive to convince people of anything is so non-existent that I seem cynical. The truth is, I consider the truth to be greater than its institutional manifestation. Indeed, my own conception of history is not that of the triumph of the Church over her enemies, but of an Ideal making itself manifest in space and time. Unlike Hegel, however, I do not think this is a progressive movement. History moves in an inverse motion: we are experiencing a Great Unraveling, the Kali Yuga (the Age of Aquarius?)

If I could give that ideal a name, perhaps I would call it, along with Mosenbach’s characterization, “paganism”. Not a purification, or some external revelation that hit the world as a complete novelty, but the completion and repository of the elan of ancient religion. And perhaps, in this sense, what came around and out of Vatican II was the beginning of the end of this religion, at least in the developed world. Even those who pretend to some continuity with tradition have a substantially different worldview from what came before. But of this we have written too much before.

What is for sure is that what I seek to do is also build an eternal bulwark against this decadence. Whether this is portable to others or whether people completely “get it” is not my main concern. What is for sure is that the rhetorical bricks for this bulwark will be different from those of “institution-speak”.



20 responses

10 06 2010

“Only religion can be popular without being vulgar.”
Sólo la religión puede ser popular sin ser vulgar.
–Nicolás Gómez Dávila

10 06 2010

I was very fortunate to experience a pagan rite in full glory during the time I spent in Japan. The ceremony was called “Omizu okuri,” which means “water sending.” Sacred water from the Wakasa well is drawn and poured into a river, which flows to a sacred well in Nara. The water is received and offered to Kannon, the Bodhisattva of Compassion for the welfare of the nation. The legend behind the rite is that when Kannon was first introduced to Japan, all the local Shinto deities came to pay their respects, except for the god of Wakasa, who was off fishing in Wakasa bay. The other gods gave him shit about it, so to make up for his negligence he promised to send sacred water every year. The ceremony takes place at Jingu-ji, a Tendai Buddhist temple in Obama, Japan. The ceremony features lots of fire and water, and a massive torchlight procession from the temple to the river. Most people carry simple torches, but there are also groups that carry huge torches made from a large bamboo pole. There
is a video of this year’s ceremony on youtube:

That, my friends is what real religion looks like; it certainly has little to do with the sanitized stuff that most people think is Buddhism.

9 06 2010

Very true, Matt. The stripping down of the ancient Latin liturgy into supposed “patristic elements” is necessary to create a new ecclesiology. My earlier (stream-of-consciousness) post in this thread intended to highlight the complexities of organic liturgy. The “uncertain” origins of the ancient liturgy form a bulwark against radical innovation. Although we “moderns” do not fully understand the antique properties of the Mass, our faith necessarily follows a proven path set before us. That path is often obscured in the reformed liturgy and attendant ecclesiology and theology.

The advent of the “liturgist” nomenklatura fills the void left by organic development. Progressive Catholic blogs often extol endless innovations that attempt to conform ecclesiology to the (post)modern world. The results are predictable: the “footsteps” of the liturgical path trod before us by the ancients are replaced by novelties and “relevant” activities that do not reflect a history beyond the preferences of a generation or two.

9 06 2010

Oh yes, Jared, I’ve heard that one before. It’s casuistry, of course, and its object is the stripping away from the faith of everything an outsider might find “weird” or that a self-hating insider might find embarrassing.

8 06 2010
Jared B.

With one caveat: that our processions (and vestments and everything else about our rites) do not mean the same things to us that they meant to the ancients — both pagan and earlier Christians — and we never can know with absolute certitude everything that the rites did mean to our forebears. So differences in form and detail are valid developments. That’s one huge mistake that caused the simplifying of our sacramental rites in the reform, the hubris that we could know everything that “the early Christians” had in their minds, so a bit of archeological research could therefore serve as a basis for revising all our rituals.

I’ve heard many varieties of these kinds of non sequiturs like, “Latin Rite vestments are based on Roman garments, many of them ordinary clothes not originally designed for liturgical use. Early Roman Christian presbyters wore those clothes while celebrating Mass. Therefore they did not intend for any special or distinct liturgical clothes to be worn, therefore it would be *more traditional* if priests wore the ordinary clothes of today, all the time.” Oy.

8 06 2010
Jared B.


I think you’d read that bit about “an Ideal making itself manifest in space and time” in a better light if you think of it as a Neoplatonist Idea/Form, not ideal as in “how I wish things were”, more like “what things truly are in God’s mind”. To abandon an Ideal in that sense, I think you’d agree, would be to relegate the Church to a purely earthly institution that is nothing more than how we see it in the present.

8 06 2010

sortacatholic : Of course. The Corpus Christi procession is, basically, a triumph. The ruler making himself visible, with all his retinue and pomp.

It’s important for the people to see the ruler occasionally, and the Sacrament is the closest thing we have to a physical presence of Christ the King. So the parallel makes perfect sense.

8 06 2010
Mike Walsh

It is about the Incarnation. Christ sweats, bleeds, dies. Christ is not an ideal, nor is His Church. They lack humility, your idealists, and love not so much an ideal of the Church, but an ideal of themselves. An ideal? An idol.

8 06 2010
Jared B.

To the extent that Judaism also participated in a “cult to angels and heroes” — the Talmudic debt to Persian and ambient mideastern religiosity, etc. — it too was a part of that sort of paganism that is the common patrimony of humanity.

Oh go ahead and ask away w/o fear of offense. This is the internet; one must have a thick skin.

8 06 2010

I do believe that is the image of Nuestra Senora de la Esperanza de Macarena, who is regarded by Sevillanos as the most beautiful of all the Spanish Virgins. On dawn of Good Friday her image is processed around the streets of Seville (the so-called Madrugada procession) from the Basilica where her image is kept, to the cathedral. This procession can take as long as 12 hours. It’s said the candles are there in front of her to shield her gaze from the torment of her Son.

8 06 2010

Whatever shape “Patristic Christianity” actually had, what emerged fairly quickly was a cult to angels and heroes (we call them, “saints”)

…and who exactly told you that cult to angels isn’t “Rabbinic” or “Jewish”? 😐

8 06 2010

I agree with all you have written in this article, Arturo…so how do we live this today, now, in our own lives? Some people say it is too late and impossible, but I don’t believe that.

8 06 2010

One more thing: Arturo, which Lady is in the photo at the beginning of the post?

8 06 2010

Arturo: If I could give that ideal a name, perhaps I would call it, along with Mosenbach’s characterization, “paganism”. Not a purification, or some external revelation that hit the world as a complete novelty, but the completion and repository of the elan of ancient religion.

Recently I found myself matter-of-factly defending the very pagan nature of the traditional rites. The Corpus Christi procession reflects many aspects of late antique Roman civic and cultic heritage. The vestments, canopy, schola, and heavily gilded monstrance remind me of a famous Roman procession. Josephus’ depiction of Titus’ victory procession into Rome after the fall of Jerusalem describes Roman largesse in great detail. The seemingly endless parade of dignitaries, choruses, plunder, and plebs capped by the semi-divine genius of Rome in the person of the emperor remains intact, although attenuated, in public adoration of the Eucharist. Now, the Dominus/Deus of Christianity carried is carried aloft at the head of a hierarchial structure clothed in the finest display of institutional and religious power. The transmission of the antique world through classical Catholic liturgy fulfills Arturo’s observation that Catholicism is an “Ideal making itself manifest in space and time.” This space and time stretches far past the reaches of modern perception into a socio-cultic world far beyond current perceptions of society and religion.

Arturo: in this sense, what came around and out of Vatican II was the beginning of the end of this religion, at least in the developed world. Even those who pretend to some continuity with tradition have a substantially different worldview from what came before. But of this we have written too much before.

Perhaps one might contend that processions and feasts remain important in many “Catholicisms”. Yet these processions now resemble hollow shells of their former glory. Missale Romanum 1969 eviscerated the theurgical underpinnings of liturgical procession by undermining Christian sacramental theurgy. MR 1969 completes the Enlightenment project: rationalism has collapsed the manifold words and gestures that gird the Roman-Hellenistic mystery cult known as Catholicism. Now all must be shown and spoken aloud. All must respond, even if many do not know what they say. The selective and gradual revelation of the theurgical act through space and significance has collaped in favor of a textureless TV-like unidimensionality that offers false familiarity. The general abandoment of processions in postmodern Catholicism severs its link to the political, social, and cultic antique antecedents that had informed the sacraments over centuries. The synchronization of liturgy and sacrament with postmodern mores has rendered Catholicism indistinguishable from a world that bears no familial resemblance to the socio-cultic fabric of antiquity.

8 06 2010

@Jared: it seems you picked up on something else I wanted to ask you (about your faith journey), but wasn’t sure if the question would be offensive.

As for Moon-Cash (Llewellyn), I’m already familiar with the crap they put out. Like you said, Marlbrough is the exception, and he seems to write like he wants to put out something that either a Catholic or a Pagan can read without being offended. I certainly wouldn’t say he accomplished that particular goal, but I’ll give him credit for being a lot better at it than a lot of the authors for that particular publishing house.

Btw, I’m not so sure about Arturo taking on “Mama Silver,” or Raven Grimassi, or D.J. Conway, and so on and so forth, since he might get bored/sick with them early on. Not to mention, attempting to read through these books is very much the equivalent of intellectual slumming.

On to other things, I have to say I agree 100% about every age having its religious disorder, and ours does face the dictatorship of personal preference, but I’d supplement it by saying that those who “exercise” their “personal preference” don’t want to think too hard in order to “decide” what they “prefer.” Hence we have a tendency of otherwse-intelligent minds groping towards short, pat, easy-to-understand answers and the power of peer pressure enforcing conformity upon anybody who thinks outside the box and tries to understand those answers. It’s a definite paradox, but it’s a sure sign of the religious mentality of our age.

8 06 2010

Jared B.

I looked at Wicca in the mid 90s, but I was never much impressed with neo-pagan systems. I figured that to be a “real” pagan was to adhere to a living, not reconstructed or fabricated, religion like Hinduism or Shinto, although the latter is hardly vibrant anymore.

An argument against this is that these eastern religions aren’t part of the patrimony of descendants of Celts, Vikings, etc. Two things: one, if someone is picking and choosing why would that matter, and second Hinduism comes from the same ancient source as other Indo-European paganisms. Parenthetically, the Kalash people are very fascinating. Unfortunately they’re converting to Islam.

Anyway, the problem with European paleo-pagan religions is that they’re dead…or are they? Perhaps that’s why I ended up in the catholic Church.

7 06 2010
Jared B.

Guilty as charged on the Malbrough. I had a well-worn copy of Charms, Spells, and Formulas, too.

The publishing imprint Llewellyn churns out tons of easy to read, do-it-yourself-religion “neo paganism” that talks high and mighty about being more ancient than Christianity (there is no shortage of anti-Christian polemic in many of those books) but reflects very white middle class American sensibilities and assumptions. In short, I would LOVE to see Mr. Vasquez write an exposé 😉

That, ironically, may be why I am so much more patient with the whole neo-cath thing than the traditionalist Catholics (who are unceasingly infuriated with me for not being more impatient with an airbrushed Catholicism that resembles Daystar TV with a Popish veneer) — I’ve already participated in most of these arguments, and took the traditionalist side, just in a different religious tradition.

In the contemporary Neo-Pagan scene, the Wiccans criticize the New Agers for being too caught up in Modernist love-affair with science. The self-described plain ol’ Neo-pagans level basically the same criticisms at the Wiccans: that their religion is less ancient than my grandmother, that it is artificially constructed, overly rational in its rituals, etc. etc. There are die-hard traditionalist who want to drop the neo- out of pagan, go back to original Druid (or Scandinavian or whatever) sources and live a faithful reconstruction of real ancient religions instead of piecing together new ones based on person preferences. Works like those by Ray Malbrough were exceptions to the general rule that they all had an allergy to anything resembling Christianity, paralleling how most Christians in the north are anxious to prove the absense of any paganism in their religion either. I leaned hard enough on the traditionalist end of those arguments to motivate me to do enough library research to convince me (if no personal religious experience or lack of had before) that we were worshiping our own Jungian archtypes, so to Hell with it.

So the conservative fish eating the progressive fish, and the traditionalist fish eating the conservative fish…all looks very familiar to me. Every age since long before the Apostles had some characteristic disorders in its religious life, that could ruin a religion at its worst and be really annoying at best. Our age happens to be beset by historical amnesia, the dictatorship of personal preference above all other considerations (which pretends to be justified by either reason or a quest for “authenticity”), and what I can only describe as a kitschy, tacky suburban blandness to 95% of religious experience available to us. [tbc…]

7 06 2010

Let me guess. . . Ray Marlbrough’s Magical Power of the Saints, right? Or Power of the Psalms by Anna Riva?

7 06 2010
Jared B.

I converted to Christianity — at first in an Evangelical, “low church” form, later “neo-con” Roman Catholicism — from Wicca / Neo-Paganism. While I had no illusions that that religious group has exactly the same worldview as the “real” pagans of the 3rd world or of Europe’s past, I was raised with a decidedly anti-WASP sensibility. I only hung on with the Evangelical mega-church (complete with worship songs heard on Christian radio and with all the architectural sacredness of my dentist’s office) for about a year and a half, long enough to learn some fundamentals of the Gospel, and to be driven nuts by how “scrubbed down” their religion was.

Sure I missed the candles, images, and variety of season-based holidays my old religion afforded me, but the final straw is when I got into a theological argument with a fellow church-goer over whether prayer, y’know, actually *worked* or not. He concluded that my viewpoint was borderline “superstitious”. I silently felt grateful that I hadn’t thrown out a volume I owned on practical Hoodoo…it made more use of the Psalms than the average church service I’d been attending up till then.

7 06 2010

“The superficial reflection of the week on my part is that I find sedevacantists to be a very sympathetic group of folk. Sure, I would never hang around them in person since I find that they are crazy enough in print, but I know where they are coming from.”

Maybe I should be glad I moved from sedevacantism to sede-indifferentism, then. Though in the current Catholic climate, I’m sure that not caring is probably more bizarre than caring about the subject at all.

Actually, this particular theme in your article (sedevacantists loving an ideal of the Church) reminds me of something I once heard; I think Archbishop Sheen said it: that very few people truly hate the Catholic Church, but many hate what they think the Catholic Church is (i.e. their ideal of Catholicism). If you change the word “hate” to “love,” then I think you may have nailed the majority of modern-day first-world Catholicism, be it Sede, Neocon, Liberal, or otherwise.

“The most prominent voices in modern Catholicism seem to portray the Roman Church as the wayward stepchild of rabbinic Judaism.”

I would accuse this of being a response to the “strong debunking tendency” another commenter once noted to exist within Protestantism, and the Protestant (Evangelical in particular) tendency to nit-pick at anything they can find an excuse to call “Pagan.” Hence Catholics made the response along the lines of “Pagan is bad, so we have to do something to prove we’re not Pagan. That’s it, now we’re Jewish!” To me, that comes off as the worst way to respond. Most of the “imports from Paganism” are adiaphora anyway, and are used by Protestants (since Middleton onward) to avoid arguing the real meat, like the five solas, predestination vs. free will, etc. Better to respond with “So what? You’re still wrong!” and keep focusing the argument to deal directly with the theological meat, instead of letting them get away with this type of distraction.

Of course, the other problem tied up with this is the general assumption that just because a thing may have originated within a Pagan community, then that thing must automatically be “bad” and must have nothing to do with “our pure faith.” This is the tack that Protestantism has used ever since Calvin first mentioned it in the Institutes, and Catholicism in the English-speaking world internalized this mentality a long time ago; this is why I think American Catholics are always on the defensive about this kind of thing, when it’s better to ask the accuser, “So, how exactly is a thing automatically bad just because it originated in Paganism?” Put them on the defensive, and force them to think it through, instead of constantly trying to explain one’s way out of it or avoid it altogether.

As always, that’s just my opinion, but then again, I don’t think like most people.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: