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BY JOANNA BOGLE
On the train into
London recently a girl next to me was reading the Pagan Times.
I thought it was a joke paper, but
no — there were headlines urging people to oppose the public celebrations of
Christian feasts and any form of official support for Christian events.
In Britain, it is now a widely
held belief that Christianity — and Catholicism in particular — is a dangerous,
repressive, unjust religion that historically replaced a gentle, “green” and
tolerant pagan ideology in Europe.
Britain’s tour guides boast a
number of places where we can see something of what our long-ago ancestors
built and where we can speculate on what they believed and why, and for
centuries these have intrigued visitors, scholars and historians. But today
there is a fashionable vogue for announcing that these places have much to
teach us about “the real, genuine old religion” that we need to rediscover.
stone circle a couple of summers ago, we watched as barefoot ladies in flowing
dresses and bearded men in tatty jerseys swayed and hummed together in circles,
and then settled down for a picnic — and here, as at Glastonbury where similar
events take place, they were being assured that they were reviving an ancient
and beautiful pre-Christian religious faith that will make the world a better
and more tolerant place. A nearby gift shop sold crystals said to have magic
powers, books of spells and material promoting various occult messages.
But did our pagan ancestors really
eat veggie burgers and rice salads while talking about aromatherapy workshops
and buying crystal earrings to promote spiritual balance? And, if they didn’t,
so what? Shouldn’t we charitably allow self-styled pagans a pleasant day out at
Avebury, even if it is enhanced by some fantasizing?
Perhaps we should. But we need to
be aware that pagans had their day in the sun once before in modern times.
Consider two examples.
First, a “grace” that was used by
children at a holiday center. To avoid using any Christian language, it praised
nature instead of God:
“Earth that did this food bestow,
Sun that made it riper grow,
Dearest sun and dearest Earth,
We will not forget your worth.”
Second, a country yearbook for
farmers that banned all mention of Christian feasts, substituting pagan ones,
and with a gratuitous mention on Good Friday of the “4,500 Saxons massacred by
Charlemagne as well as of the 9,00,000 others — fighters for justice, heroes of
the faith, heretics and witches — who were murdered, tortured to death and
burned at the stake.”
Both these examples come from
Germany in the late 1930s, and are quoted in a most interesting book — now out
of print — The Persecution of the
Catholic Church in the Third Reich: Facts and Documents.
It was published in Britain in
1940, clearly partly to impress upon the British public the pagan and viciously
anti-Christian nature of the enemy they were fighting. But it makes
extraordinarily interesting reading today.
There are, of course, horrible
examples of Nazi brutality and repression, such as we cannot, thank God,
imagine taking place in a democracy: arbitrary arrest, priests beaten up,
Catholic youth gatherings disrupted.
But of more worrying relevance is
the steady and quite sophisticated emergence of alternatives to Christianity —
particularly nature worship — and the resurrection of older and supposedly more
attractive beliefs that a cruel Church destroyed centuries earlier.
Here are some samples:
A German newspaper described
country customs in April 1939 this way: “Easter, the spring festival of our
forbears, in spite of all attempts to falsify it, has preserved its original
meaning as the feast of victory, the celebration of the resurrection of life
and victory of the sun over the forces of winter.”
The story omitted to add that the
village customs it described specifically centered on an outdoor Way of the
Cross that took place through the local woods and hills with traditional hymns
and prayers, and that local Easter fireworks were greeted with a hymn
At Christmastime, the government’s
employment service suggested that Germans light bonfires to celebrate the
winter solstice, with the fire greeting the dawn light as it emerged over the
mountains, and everyone honoring this with outstretched arms.
I don’t mean to say that the
families picnicking next to ancient stones are Nazis. The Nazis emerged in the
aftermath of misery created by World War I and capitalized on the confusion
created by the abolition of Germany’s monarchy and the chaos of hyper-inflation
and acute poverty. They had evil racist ideas and were eventually crushed by
the united efforts of other nations in which our own played a spectacularly
courageous and noble role.
But their treatment of religion
was one of the key elements in their rise.
For instance, in 1936 the local
authority banned the decoration of any public buildings for the traditional
feast of Corpus Christi in Bavaria, adding that, of course, “There is no
objection to civil servants taking part, as private individuals, in the
religious services and the accompanying procession for the feast.”
In other words: Religion was
acceptable, so long as it was strictly private. Sounds all right? Think again.
It turned out that official
“neutrality” on Christianity was only a mask. There were deeper ideological
battles taking place. Religious acts are public acts. To force religion into
privacy was to deliberately crush Christian tradition in a country with deep
Of course today the essential
problem lies with us, as Christians, and especially as Catholics.
Mass attendance across the
once-Catholic parts of Europe has slumped in the last three decades. We feel
embarrassed and unable to uphold the idea of a wide and deep heritage that is
part of community life. We feel vaguely guilty about the Church’s claim to
public territory. We bend before the torrent of words that assure us that the
Catholic Church has been responsible for half the wars in history, for massive
genocide, for evil crushing of human dignity in public and private for
But are we right to feel this way?
Should we succumb?
The feast of Corpus Christi,
German Catholics were assured in an official publication in the 1930s,
originated as a feast in the 13th century to celebrate the Church’s vicious
slaughter of innumerable innocent people under the guise of crushing the Albigensian heresy. The subsequent processions and
festivities were a way of binding ordinary people unjustly to obedience to
Church law and to Catholic moral teachings (and for good measure, the moral
teaching that sex be confined solely to lifelong marriage was also later to be
denigrated in the same official publication).
To oppose these moves by the
German government wasn’t “old-fashioned and narrow-minded.” It was the only
right thing to do — and the world did it.
Today, to submit to the notion
that the Church has always behaved badly and that one’s own private faith is
but a personal whim isn’t “tolerance” or “equanimity.” It is a betrayal. The
Catholic faith is the foundation for the civilized values of Europe. When it
fades, those values will fade, and with them all that makes life worth living.
Does it matter that at the
beginning of the 21st century there is pressure to marginalize signs and
symbols of the Christian faith from public life in once-Christian countries?
It will matter very much if the
The resulting culture in America
and across Europe will not be a vacuum: Nature notoriously abhors that.
Don’t assume for one moment that
pagan beliefs will automatically include charity to the poor and sick,
forgiveness, neighborliness, protection of innocent life, respect for
individual rights, fidelity in marriage, or the fostering of what is true and
beautiful in art and culture. If we want those things, we need to be part of a
faith that holds them central and sees them as gifts from a God who loves us
and became one of us.
Defending the faith has always
been a prerequisite for ensuring its survival in any one country at any one
time. Christ promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against the
Church: It’s God’s will that it survive. But the promise did not specify
America, Britain, France, Italy — or any other nation.
These will only survive to the extent
that they embrace the one who made that promise.
writes from London.