Is Catholicism a cult?
This is a fun question. When some Protestants call Catholicism a “cult,” there has never been a better example of the proverbial pot calling the kettle “black!” Religions are defined by their definition of God. If Catholicism is a “cult,” then so is every Protestant denomination and affiliation, as they all subscribe to the same Catholic doctrine of the Holy Trinity and belief that Jesus Christ is God.
Protestants (particularly Evangelicals) are connected to Catholicism both through history and baptism. They are essentially catholics (with a small “c”) because, unlike some churches that also use the name Christian [These include Jehovah’s Witness, Christian Science, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, just to name a few.], Protestant churches accept the Trinity, as well as other distinctively Catholic traits.
These functionally catholic Christians actively protest various teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church, hence the name Protest-ant. Some Protestants prefer to be called Reformed, Evangelical or “born again” Christians. Others just prefer to be labeled according to their denomination. (The term “Protestant” itself is simply a descriptive way to refer to all of them and is in no way intended as a pejorative.) They all accept the Trinitarian definition of God. They worship Jesus Christ as God the Son. They use a New Testament that was compiled and canonized by the Catholic Church sixteen-hundred years ago. They celebrate Christian feasts (Christmas, Easter, All Hallows Eve, Saint Patrick’s Day & Saint Valentine’s Day) according to the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar. Eastern Christians use a completely different liturgical calendar, marking different dates for Christmas and Easter, as well as different Saint days. While Protestants continue to cling to the Western calendar, formulated by the Roman Catholic Church, for the celebration of these holidays. They follow the Catholic practice of worshipping on Sundays. They arrange their churches with pews, an elevated sanctuary and occasionally an altar. All of these are essentially Roman Catholic traits. They’ve even retained some traditional Catholic hymns in some cases.
What makes them different is their rejection of Catholic authority, and some Catholic traditions, which they pick and choose as they see fit. Some Protestants, like the Anglicans for example, follow Catholic tradition quite closely, minus full submission to the authority of the pope of course. Other Protestants, like Seventh Day Adventists for example, reject just about every Catholic tradition they can, including worship on Sundays. Most other Protestant denominations fall somewhere in between. If Catholicism is a “cult,” then so is every Protestant church in the world.
No, Catholicism is not a “cult.” We believe in the same God as Protestants and we don’t engage in cult-like methods of deception and mind control. The Catholic Church is very transparent about its teachings and what it expects of its members. Some people may not like those teachings, for various reasons, but everyone knows exactly what they are.
Do some Catholic practices have Pagan origin?
This is highly unlikely even though that accusation has been repeatedly made over the last two centuries. In fact, it’s been said so much, by so many different people, that it’s often just accepted as “fact,” even by some Catholics! Many of the so-called “Pagan” practices of Catholicism actually come from ancient Judaism, not Paganism, and in particular the Temple ceremonies of the ancient Jewish religion, coupled with common synagogue practices from the first century.
For example, when Catholics burn incense, it’s sometimes thought to be of Pagan origin, but it was actually a common practice in the Jewish Temple period and commanded by God [Exodus 30:8]. This custom was transferred to the New Testament era, in St. John’s revelation of pure heavenly worship [Revelation 5:8]. Thus, in imitation of pure heavenly worship, and the ancient Jewish worship of God, Catholic priests will typically burn incense around the altar within a Catholic church.
Another common accusation is that Sunday was used to worship the Pagan sun idol. Thus, it is said, Catholics transferred worship from Saturday (Sabbath) to Sunday, so as to accommodate Pagan converts. Actually, that is false. The institution of Sunday, as the designated Christian day of worship, was put into place by the Apostles [Acts 20:7] and was called the “Lord’s Day” in Scripture [Revelation 1:10]. This was done in recognition of Jesus’ resurrection on a Sunday, or the “first day of the week.” – (John 20:1)
Yet another extremely common accusation is that the celebration of Christmas comes from the Pagan feast of the winter solstice and that the Catholic Church simply absorbed this practice to again accommodate Pagan sun-worshippers. These accusations seem to have originated in the middle nineteenth century and offer no definitive proof of their validity. Most history scholars have now debunked the “Pagan-origin theory” of Christmas even though it is still widely accepted by the general population. A deeper investigation into the ancient Roman sun-cult revealed that its holiest day was on August 9th, and that Roman sun-worshippers ironically did not observe the equinoxes and solstices. On the other hand, two other things were going on at that time.
First, the Roman Jews, who followed Jesus as the Messiah, were put out of the synagogues (excommunicated from Judaism) in the late first century. Thus, they no longer had access to the Jewish calendar. The Jewish feast of Hanukkah always fell on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev. However, without access to that calendar or the synagogue, it became difficult to calculate the proper day for this celebration which had great cultural significance to Jewish people. This was especially true for Jewish Christians, who commemorated Jesus’ celebration of the feast recorded in John 10:22-23. Since the Jewish month of Kislev most commonly overlaps with the Julian month of December, it is believed many of these Jewish Christians in Rome celebrated their Christianized version of Hanukkah on December 25th instead, which usually falls close to Kislev 25th. Just as regular Jews celebrated the light that came into the Temple during this feast, so Christian Jews in Rome celebrated Jesus, the Light of God, who came into the same Temple during this feast. This Jewish-Christian Hanukkah, being an eight-day festival, with its conclusion on January 1st, eventually came to be known as the “Christmas Octave” on the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar.
Second, December 25th later came to be associated with the birth of Christ due to an earlier commemoration of his conception. This Feast of the Annunciation came to be celebrated on March 25th (which also came from another, completely different, Jewish custom), that is exactly nine months before December 25th. Now all of this is just liturgical commemoration. Jesus didn’t really need to be born on that literal date for us to celebrate it as his birthday, though there is considerable evidence that he was.
Still, that doesn’t stop some groups from using this as a straw-man to attack the Catholic Church’s celebration of Christmas. As ancient Christians in Rome increasingly marked December 25th as a holy day, the Pagan Roman emperor created the Feast of Sol Invictus (The Unconquered Sun) on December 25th in AD 274. He allegedly did this in an attempt to unite Christians and Pagans in the empire under a common date for their religious celebrations. If indeed that was his intention, it turned out to be a miserable failure, as both Sol Invictus, and the Roman sun-cult, died out within a couple centuries.
No, it is not Catholicism that adopted Pagan dates and practices, but rather it is much more likely the other way around. The evidence seems to suggest that it was the Pagans, who in the twilight of their glory days, desperately tried to adopt Christian dates and practices to revive their dying cults. There are, of course, many more false accusations of crypto-Paganism within the Catholic Church, but the above demonstrates that these can be easily refuted with a little knowledge of history, religion and culture.
The above paragraphs are taken from the book Are Catholics Christian? A Guide to Evangelical Questions about the Catholic Church, written by Shane Schaetzel. The book is highly recommended by priests and catechists alike. The Foreword is by Fr. Chori Seraiah, of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.