Small “p” Pagans & Pope Frank

RevKessPhil in Studio

Since Wednesday, December 18th, I have seen many Pagans on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere express their disappointment and sometimes anger at the words of Pope Francis I in his weekly public address in Rome. You can read/hear what the Pope had to say in the video below. The whole clip is worth watching, as it gives context and perspective on what he meant.

“It’s a bad thing when one sees a Christian that does not want to come down, a Christian that uses everything to show off. Not nice, eh? That is not Christian, that is paganism,” Pope Francis said. His comments on greed, luxury and the unwillingness of some Christians to embrace their less fortunate brothers and sisters can be heard around the 1:53 point in the video. These statements came the day after Pope Francis celebrated his 77th birthday with four homeless men, a dog, and his staff.

Clearly this Pope is making a reputation for himself as the Pope of the People, not just the rich and influential. I’d dare say that he values the less fortunate, the less wealthy, the less powerful more than he values those who hold sway over the banking industry or the governments of the world. He has repeatedly pointed out the hypocrisy of those who promote themselves as God-fearing Christians yet refuse to reach out and help the poor, the sick, the elderly; call homosexuals the Devil’s own and turn a blind eye to the mistreatment of other nationalities, creeds, or races.

From the outset, Francis I has been different from previous Popes. He eschewed the fancy dress of most other pontiffs in favor of the simple white suits and ecclesiastical gowns that we have come to expect of him. He’s spoken more leniently on homosexuality than any of his predecessors and spoken out on the Church’s apparent obsession with abortion and birth control. All of this and more makes Pope Francis I a leader of today, not just within the Catholic Church, but on the world stage. Even The Advocate has declared him Person of the Year.

I’ve seen many Pagans, of many flavors, say that they are impressed and pleased with the words and actions of this Pope. But now, after his statement on Wednesday, many of those same Pagans are angrily expressing their disappointment in the Pope. Out of respect for those who have expressed such anger, I am not going to quote them or even name. They know who they are and may well choose to make their thoughts known through me in the future. For now, I am going to leave the particulars out.

Now that I have laid out that Pope Francis I speaks out against things, or in favor of things, that his predecessors did not; that he puts off the affluent robes of the pontiffical throne; that he has called upon Catholics everywhere to be kinder to their less fortunate brethern, it is time to point out concerns over his quote from the 18th, “It’s a bad thing when one sees a Christian that does not want to come down, a Christian that uses everything to show off. Not nice, eh? That is not Christian, that is paganism.”

Putting the argument aside of whether “Pagan” is the term that is generally accepted by the various religions, belief systems, philosophies and individuals that practice some kind of Earth-based honoring system, the media has plainly imparted that Pagan encompasses Wicca, Druidry, and many other flavors of Earth-centered spirituality. Whenever a person of note uses the term “pagan” to describe something or someone that is unlike them or something or someone that they find to be immoral or debased the followers of Wicca and other “Pagan” traditions react. Often with negativity.

Small “p” pagan is a much different thing than big “P” Pagan. Webster defines the word “pagan” to mean primarily two things. The first definition is of the religious use that many who walk an Earth-centered or non-Abrahamic path would use, “a follower of a polytheistic religion” while the second definition is the more generally accepted use of the word by media, politicians and most likely the Pope himself. “One who has little or no religion and who delights in sensual pleasures and material goods :  an irreligious or hedonistic person.”

Francis’s use of the term “pagan” to describe Christians who are unwilling to come down to the level of those who are in need, Christians who are unwilling to help the sick or the poor or the elderly, Christians who value their wealth and position above their beliefs and the teachings of their Christ. This use of the word is more in tune with the definition from Webster describing people as hedonistic, delighting in the sensual pleasures of the world and in material goods. His use of the word “pagan” has nothing to do with our religions or spiritual beliefs. In the Catholic world, anything that is not Catholic is “pagan”. (Note, I am using big “C” Catholic here, not small “c”. Again, there is a difference.)

Long before we began to use the word “Pagan” to describe our modern religions and spiritual beliefs, even before we used the term to describe the religions of our ancestors, the ancient Romans used the term to describe the unsophisticated, the people who lived outside the city. Even our word “Heathen” comes from the old term for a country dweller, one who dwells on the “heath” or is a “heathen”. In that context, it is easy to see that many within the Catholic Church are still using the word “pagan” to mean those who are not Catholic, those who do not believe as they do. Even Protestants used the term to describe the beliefs of indigenous peoples in their missionary work.

A recent petition on Change.org may help remedy the issue, at least in print. We may never be able to determine in conversation if someone is saying “pagan” or “Pagan”, but with a concerted effort by journalists, bloggers, authors and other text based commentators we can help to clarify what it is that we are talking about with proper capitalization. It is clear to me that Pope Francis was using “pagan”. It is clear to me that he was not comparing hedonistic Christians to Wiccans or Druids or Native Americans. It is clear to me that he was comparing them to those who have found more value in things and position than in their own faith.

Take this all as you will. I welcome comments and discussion on this article.

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