Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Do We Have An Antipope?

Election of Antipope Paschal III
fresco in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, by Spinello Aretino

The title of this essay is meant to be provocative, but not because I'm asking that question. I am not. Rather, this is the question I've been hearing over and over again, starting shortly after my conversion to the Catholic Church in 2000, and much more frequently after the election of Pope Francis in 2013. That question is: "Do we have an antipope?"

What is an antipope? For some of my non-Catholic readers, this may sound a bit ominous. I imagine that some of my Evangelical friends might wonder if I'm speaking of the Antichrist. I am not. An antipope is not the same thing as an antichrist or the Antichrist. In fact, they have virtually nothing in common. An antichrist is a person who is pretending to be Christ. While an antipope is a person who is pretending to be the pope. Since the pope is not Christ, there is a huge difference.

To simplify, an antipope is really nothing more than a man who is presumed to be the pope, but in fact he is not, either through impersonation or some kind of defect in his election to the papacy. In the case of impersonation, that would imply a wilful act of deception on the part of the papal pretender. In the case of election defect, the pretender to the papal throne may not even realise he is an antipope. Because of this, it is possible to have a very good man (even a Saint) acting as an antipope, who has no intention of deceiving others and no ill intent whatsoever. He himself may be a victim of unfortunate circumstances. Such was the case with Saint Hippolytus of Rome (AD 170 - 235), who allowed himself to be "elected" as the first antipope from AD 217 - 235, but was reconciled with the true pope shortly before his death. He was later canonised as a Saint and shares the same feast day with Saint Pontian (August 13), who was the legitimate pope he reconciled with.

Antipope Michael
Photocredit Youtube
All this has happened before. Throughout the 2,000 year history of the Catholic Church, there have been approximately 42 antipopes of significant following, but most of this came to an end in AD 1449, presumably because of more accountable election processes.  Since then, there have been a few more antipopes, but these people are not usually taken seriously. For example; today there is a former SSPX priest, by the name of Victor von Pentz, who took on the name Pope Linus II after his "election" in 1994 and currently lives in Hertfordshire, England. His following is small and insignificant. Another example is a former SSPX seminarian by the name of David Bawden (pictured right), who took the name of Pope Michael, after his "election" in 1990 and currently lives in Jackson County, Kansas. Again, his following is small and insignificant, consisting of approximately just 30 people. He was featured in a documentary film which you can view here.

In short, antipopes are a real thing in Catholicism, and a real problem. Fortunately they haven't been that big of a problem in a very long time. That is, unless you're part of a small group of Traditional Catholics called sedevacantists which is translated as sede, meaning chair, and vacante meaning vacant. Thus the term means "vacant chair" and is a Latin reference to the notion that the Chair of Peter (the papacy) is currently vacant, and we have no lawful pope. These people propose that every pope, following the death of Pope Pius XII in 1958, is an antipope. This would include: John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Pope Francis.

I should be clear in stating that most traditional Catholics are NOT sedevantists. However, I think it's safe to say that most sedevacantists are traditionalists. In other words, sedevantism is a small strain that runs within traditionalism, but we should never pin sedevanctism on all traditionalists. In fact, most Traditional Catholics are loyal to the current pope.

I first encountered these sedevacanatist shortly after my conversion to the Catholic Church in 2000 and quickly dismissed them. Then, after Pope Benedict XVI liberalised the celebration of the old Latin mass in 2007, a number of them came out of the woodwork in the years following. Apparently they had been in hiding for some time, but thought they could reveal themselves now that the old Latin mass was back. Sadly, there is quite a disproportionate number of them in the Ozarks where I live. I believe this was because of some poor decisions made long ago, wherein the old Latin mass was denied to the faithful for a number of years, and many traditional Catholic practises were openly discouraged.

As a former Evangelical, and Anglican, I learned that one simply does not deny accommodations to those who seek traditional expressions of faith. For example; as an Evangelical, I remember our community having both traditional and contemporary services. The traditional service had old hymnals, a piano player, and a choir. While our contemporary service had a band, with a drummer, and the lyrics of praise and worship songs projected onto screens. As another example; while I was an Anglican, I distinctly remember every Episcopal church I attended as celebrating two "rites" from the Book of Common Prayer. Rite One consisted of traditional English (thees and thous), traditional sung liturgy, pipe organ music, incense, bells, etc. While Rite Two consisted of contemporary English, a much more modern spoken liturgy (similar to the new Catholic mass), some occasional stringed instruments, with much less pomp and circumstance. In both the Evangelical and Anglican world, those who preferred traditional worship always had that option available, and those who preferred contemporary worship always had that option available too. My wife and I frequently bounced back and forth between both forms of worship, as we found positive aspects in both. Never, and I mean never, did we encounter an Evangelical or Anglican community wherein those who preferred traditional worship were "denied." So when we encountered this very thing in the Catholic Church, in our own diocese no less, I was both surprised and extremely curious.

I firmly believe this denial of traditional Catholic liturgy is the very thing that spawned this disproportionate rise in traditionalism and sedevacantism within the Ozarks. My family and I have since transferred to the Ordinariate for former Anglicans, but in the diocesan territory we still reside, a number of corrective actions were undertaken by the previous bishop, and as a result a significant amount of healing has thankfully taken place. Now, various forms of traditional liturgy are much more accessible to local Catholics. This hasn't completely eliminated the problem, but it has gone a long way toward preventing it from getting any worse.

The question arises as to why. Why do some Catholics go down this road? Why does this happen? In ages past, this sort of thing was much more understandable. The papal election process wasn't always clear, and often enough, too influenced by ancient and medieval politics. That came to an end, however, in AD 1449, and since then we haven't had any antipopes with significant following. So what would compel some Catholics to actively believe that every pope following Pius XII was/is an antipope?

I think the trouble that many devout Catholics sometimes run into is the question of "how?"  Specifically; how can the Church be in such a crisis today, when we have a pope? This has led some traditional Catholics to the sedevacantist position. The assumption here is that the Church simply could not be in such crisis today if we had a real pope on the Chair of Peter. A real pope would straighten this mess out. A real pope would "put the hammer down" so to speak. A real pope would excommunicate all the trouble makers. A real pope would put a stop to all of this. Mixed into that mindset is the notion that a real pope would never make any serious error, and a real pope would never tolerate any heresy. Thus, there is a strain of ultramontanism in the mindset of today's traditional Catholics, which has led some into sedevacantism. The term ultramontanism is Latin and translated as "beyond the mountains." It was a term that was used in medieval Europe to point to the power and authority of the pope, who lived "beyond the mountains" (specifically the Alps) and ruled from Rome. The concept here is one of a highly centralised Church, wherein the pope exerts absolute control. Some aspects of ultramontanism won the day in the First Vatican Council (1869 - 1870), but that was counterbalanced by some aspects of conciliarism in the Second Vatican Council (1962 - 1965). Many traditional Catholics put less emphasis on Vatican II, and some of them reject it entirely. (On a personal note, I fully accept Vatican II, but interpret it squarely within the larger context of the Council of Trent and Vatican I.) This ultramontane approach to the papacy, typical of many traditional Catholics, has led some to the conclusion that the pope can make no serious error in the governance of the Church, because he is always guided by the Holy Spirit. It doesn't allow much room for the pope to have free will, and reject the guidance of the Holy Spirit if he so chooses. Therefore, they surmise that if we have a pope who is making serious errors in the governance of the Church, we must have an antipope on the Chair of Peter. Or at least, that's how the thinking goes. To accompany this, they usually cite a long list of grievances against the popes they claim to be antipopes. These include such things as; limitation of the old Latin mass, discouraging the traditional practise of Catholicism, allowing liturgical innovations in an innumerable amount of parishes, ignoring immoral and scandalous behaviour from Catholic public figures, and finally a general failure to teach the Catholic faith in its entirety since the Second Vatican Council.

Now, in recent years, two camps have developed among the sedevacantists. The first is the old guard, which I call the old sedevacantists. These are those traditionalists who insist that every pope since the death of Pius XII (in 1958) was/is an antipope. Then we have the new sedevacantists, who believe that Pope Benedict XVI was the last lawful pope, and that his retirement was an act of disobedience which resulted in the election of Pope Francis. They claim that Pope Francis, and he alone, is now an antipope. To prove this, they point out many of the various actions Pope Francis has taken that have been interpreted as unfriendly toward the traditional practise of Catholicism, culminating in two scandalous synods on the family, and his recent apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia which appears to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion without an annulment.

While I admit that all of these complaints are in some way legitimate, and simultaneously problematic, that does not automatically mean the popes responsible for these things are antipopes. The Catholic Church has never been free of scandal and crisis. Understanding history is to understand that the Catholic Church is ALWAYS in some kind of struggle, either internal or external, and often this struggle leads to the level of crisis. The crisis escalates until it is no longer sustainable. Something breaks. Then some kind of correction is finally made, (which should have been done years prior), and the Church gradually heals, just long enough to find itself in another crisis of some different type. Now admittedly, from a historical perspective, some crisis are worse than others. One of the worst was the Arian Heresy of the early 4th century, and I think its probably safe to say the current situation in the Church is rapidly approaching a crisis comparable to that. How will it end? I don't know exactly. But if things stay true to historical form, it will go something like this. The crisis will escalate until something breaks. The Church will be put into a tailspin, and something will need to be done to pull it out. At that time some corrective measure will be put into place (late as usual), and the problem will gradually be corrected. Then the Church will be given enough time to heal before the next crisis comes along.

Does any of this, however, mean the pope is illegitimate? Well, no. Because if we measured a pope's legitimacy by the level of crisis in the Church, almost no pope would qualify as legitimate. I dare say that St. Peter himself would be disqualified! The plain and simple truth is, throughout history, we have had good popes, bad popes, and mediocre popes. Just because a pope is bad or mediocre doesn't mean he's an antipope. On a personal note, I try to look at things through the lens of history, not the media. If we judged all the popes since Vatican II through the lens of the media, they would all be judged as Saints, except of course for my favourite -- Benedict XVI -- who many in the media dislike. I, however, try to look at things more historically. Since Vatican II, I would judge one pope as great, one as good, one as bad, and two as mediocre. I won't tell you which is which, but I will say that as of this date, Pope Benedict XVI was my favourite, and I'll leave it at that. I think that if we judge our popes through the lens of the media we run the risk of a kind of ecclesial narcissism, which looks only at the good while ignoring the bad.  If we judge them through a more historical lens, we end up with a much more objective view.

Now I should note here that no papacy can truly be judged until it is over, because you see, popes can change. Indeed, they have changed in the past. The first half of Pius IX's reign was very different from his second half. The same can be said of Saint John Paul II, who's reign began as very progressive and ended as very conservative.

In closing, I think the sedevacantists end up shooting themselves in the foot with their own arguments. Because you see, if their ultramontanist (absolute rule) view of the papacy is to be taken seriously, then they would have to admit that nobody can judge a man as an antipope, except of course a legitimate pope. For nobody can sit in judgement of a pope, except another pope. By calling Pope Francis, or any previous pope, and antipope, they are in effect acting as "little popes" themselves. As Catholics, we must always operate under the assumption that the current elected pope is indeed the legitimate pope. Failure to do that puts us in a very bad position. We have to operate under this assumption until we hear otherwise from a legitimate Catholic authority.

Shane Schaetzel is an author of Catholic books, and columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of 'CatholicInTheOzarks.com -- Apologetics and random musings from a Catholic in the Bible Belt.'

A Catholic Guide
to the Last Days
Catholicism for
Regnum Dei Press

Monday, December 26, 2016

It's Christmas - Now What?

Photo by David Singleton

December 25 has come and gone, and for those of us who are Catholic, we know the Christmas celebration is not over, but rather just begun. However, with the gift-giving bonanza that many households have already celebrated on the 25th, its sometimes hard to know what to do next. This is especially difficult for converts, of which I am one, or Catholics just recently trying to rediscover their faith.

Admittedly, as a convert, it's taken me about a decade to figure this out, and I must confess that every family does things a little differently. That's okay. There is nothing wrong with a little diversity in the Church, especially for private family devotions. 

The trick, insofar as I have been able to figure it out, is not going too far outside of our cultural norms. For example; some Catholics won't set up their Christmas tree until Christmas Eve. Of course there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, and if that is what a family is accustomed to, more power to them. However, in our Anglo-American culture, the standard practise is to set up the Christmas tree and decorations sometime in Advent, and in my family, we usually have ours up, with all the decor, by the first Sunday of Advent at the latest. (We love Advent/Christmas and really get into it.) So in extending our Christmas celebration, one of the first things we did was just leave the decorations up longer, rather than starting later.

Now there are 12 days of Christmas; starting on December 25, which is the solemnity of the Nativity, and going all the way through to January 6, which is the solemnity of the Epiphany. We all know what the Nativity is, with the birth of our Saviour in the stable, the chorus of angels, and the shepherds in the fields. Anglo-American culture puts less emphasis on the Epiphany. As we shall see, however, learning how to put emphasis back on Epiphany is the secret for making the 12 days of Christmas work out. We all know the story of the three wise men (magi) who came to visit Christ about 2 years after his birth. This is the Epiphany. Yet in Anglo-American culture there is a tendency to lump that story in together with the Nativity. What we Catholic Christians need to do, in order to enjoy the 12 days of Christmas, is learn how to spread that story out a bit. On the Nativity (December 25) we put emphasis on the birth of Jesus and the visit of the shepherds. However, on the Epiphany (January 6) we need to start putting emphasis on the visit of the wise men (magi) to the Christ child. Lot's of Catholic families have different ways of doing this. For families with young children, they will sometimes take the three wise men (magi) figurines and gradually move them from one side of the room to the other, starting December 26, until they meet the figures of the Holy Family on January 6. My kids are a little old for that now, but its a great little tradition.

One of the things that we try to do now is use the time from Nativity to Epiphany to get the kids thinking about what they want to give to Jesus (as a gift) this year. It might be a poem, a song, or some act of charity or religious devotion. This allows them to participate with the wise men (magi) in giving gifts to our Saviour. As parents, we usually save one special Christmas gift for last, as an extra surprise on Epiphany. 

Beyond that, I recommend the following actions to keep the Christmas celebration going...
  1. Go to mass. The best way to keep Christ in Christmas is to keep the Mass in Christmas. In addition to Christmas Eve midnight mass and Christmas Day mass, there are many other lower feasts and observances held during Christmastide. Any one (or more) of them would be a good choice to attend, and we must not forget to attend mass on January 1, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.
  2. Absolutely keep all the decorations up until at least January 6, even if that means you're the last person on your street with Christmas lights on your house. Just tell your neighbours (if they ask) that you're Catholic and we celebrate the full 12 days of Christmas. I find that 99% of the time they usually find that intriguing and are very accepting of it. 
  3. Absolutely keep the Christmas music going. In these days with digital music devices (iPods, MP3 players, Echo, Pandora) that's pretty easy to do. Keep it going in your home, and in your car. 
  4. If you're feeling especially frisky, call your local Christian radio station and start requesting Christmas music after December 25 all the way through January 6. Eventually they'll start to wonder what's going on, and may actually extend their Christmas music selection.
  5. Spend time with family! Instead of doing that one crazy get together on Christmas Day or Christmas Eve, maybe stagger things out a bit. Have some in-laws over on the day after Christmas, and then the other in-laws over a day or two after that. Plan some family recreation and entertainment during those 12 days. One of the things my family used to do, when we lived in Southern California, was plan a Disneyland day trip. Here in the Ozarks, however, we plan movies and dinners, with occasional trips to local attractions. 
  6. Keep saying "MERRY CHRISTMAS!" all the way to January 6. Undoubtedly, you'll start getting lots of confused looks after the new year. Most of the time, people will just say "Merry Christmas" back and wonder what's wrong with you. Occasionally however, you'll get a question or two. That's no problem. The answer is short, simple and easy. Just say there are 12 days of Christmas, and we're still in it.
  7. Come up with a candle lighting ceremony you can still do with your kids. In our family we sing "O Come Emmanuel" during Advent while the children light the Advent candles. During Christmas, we sing "What Child is This?" every evening we are home when we light Christmas candles. Learning all the lyrics to this song is a phenomenal way instill the Christmas spirit into your children.

What child is this, who, laid to rest,
On Mary's lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:
Haste, haste to bring Him laud,
The babe, the son of Mary.

Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spears shall pierce him through,
the cross he bore for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
the Babe, the Son of Mary.

So bring him incense, gold, and myrrh,
Come, peasant, king, to own him.
The King of kings salvation brings,
Let loving hearts enthrone him.
Raise, raise a song on high,
The virgin sings her lullaby
Joy, joy for Christ is born,
The babe, the Son of Mary.

This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:
Haste, haste to bring Him laud,
The babe, the son of Mary.

Many of these things are just suggestions, but you get the idea. Of course you have to do what works best in your own family, and like I said, diversity is a good thing within the Church, especially when it comes to family devotions. What matters is that we're all making an effort to celebrate the full 12 days of Christmas. How you do it in your family will undoubtedly be a personal endeavour. Still, the important thing is that we all just try our best.

In this modern world we often lament the commercialisation of Christmas. Well, this is our big chance to put an end to that. After December 25 the commercialisation is over. All that remains is religious and family celebration. So celebrate already! The world needs a Christmas free of all the commercialisation, rushing and obligatory gift buying. We can give that to them, and most of them will enjoy seeing it -- a Christmas as it was meant to be!


Shane Schaetzel is an author of Catholic books, and columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of 'CatholicInTheOzarks.com -- Apologetics and random musings from a Catholic in the Bible Belt.'

A Catholic Guide
to the Last Days
Catholicism for
Regnum Dei Press

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Anti-Catholicism in Southern California

Los Angeles, California

Shane Idleman is the founder and lead pastor of Westside Christian Fellowship in Lancaster, California, just North of Los Angeles. It's a medium size Evangelical church, very typical of what one might expect of the Evangelical Protestant belief system. Today one of Shane's articles came across my Facebook news feed, and I had to comment it on here. It was published in Charisma News and can be viewed here.

Pastor Shane's misunderstanding of Catholicism is typical of many Evangelicals. There are basically two hotbeds of Evangelical anti-Catholicism in the United States today. The first is the Bible Belt, where I live, and the second is California. I know this may shock many but it's true. When I lived there I found that anti-Catholicism was really quite common. Catholicism is the dominant form of Christianity in California, but unfortunately, most of California's Catholic bishops have become so liberal, for so incredibly long, that the majority of Catholic Californians are so terribly uncatechised that they don't even know what they're supposed to believe, let alone are they able to defend it. This makes them very easy targets for Evangelicals seeking to pull them out of the Church. I remember when I was an Evangelical, living in Southern California, I would frequently ask Catholics why they worship Mary. Do you know what the most common answer I got was? It went something like this: "None of your damn business!" or "I don't want to talk about religion" or "You wouldn't understand." That's pretty pathetic if you ask me, and as a result, California is a hotbed of Catholics who have left the Church to join Evangelical sects, and spend the rest of their lives preaching against the Catholic Church. In fact, many anti-Catholic Evangelical pastors in California are themselves former Catholics. Pastor Shane apparently did attend a Catholic school, and served as an altar boy, according to his own testimony. (So I presume he was once a Catholic.) If his experience was anything close to mine, then it's no wonder why he grossly misunderstands both the Catholic Church and Christianity in general. 

(Bishops of California, take note! You're losing your flock and you have nobody to blame for this but yourselves. Stop focusing on all this social justice nonsense and get back to the basics, or California may one day end up like Holland. Warning! It can happen very quickly -- in just one generation. See here.)

Now when I say anti-Catholicism please don't misunderstand. I'm not talking about a hatred of Catholics. I lived in Southern California for the first 23 years of my life, and now in the Bible Belt for the remaining 23 years of my life, and I don't think I have ever met somebody who just hates Catholics. However, during my 46 years I have met literally thousands of people who hate the Roman Catholic Church and what they mistakenly believe it represents. Most anti-Catholics will tell you they love Catholics but hate Catholicism, and for the most part, that is true. They really don't hate anybody. They're just horribly confused about what the Catholic Church teaches, as well as what Christianity is all about in the first place. I think Pastor Shane fits into this category nicely. Though I don't believe I've ever met him, I'm sure he's a very nice man who is sincere about his faith. He just happens to be sincerely wrong. I've decided to comment on his article today because he very succinctly outlines the issues that most Evangelicals have with Catholicism. 

From his article, Pastor Shane insists that there cannot be two authorities in the Church. He writes: "In the same way that we cannot believe both the Bible and the Book of Mormon or the Bible, we cannot believe the Bible and many traditions that are not grounded in Scripture but actually contradict it." Okay, first of all, there is no single Catholic tradition that contradicts Scripture. Rather, there are many Catholic traditions that contradict the classical Protestant interpretation of Scripture, but none that contradict Scripture itself. Second, placing Catholic tradition on par with the Book of Mormon reflects a typical Evangelical arrogance in their approach to any religion that is different than their own. The Book of Mormon was written by Joseph Smith Jr. in the early 19th century, and Mormonism contradicts 1,900 years of Christian teaching (both Catholic and Protestant). While Catholic tradition comes from Apostolic Tradition, which has been around longer than the Bible. Third, the Bible itself is a product of Apostolic and Catholic Tradition. 

It is on this third point where Pastor Shane really gets it wrong, but he's not alone. A whole lot of other Protestants have gotten it wrong for centuries on this one. Without Apostolic/Catholic Tradition, you can't even have a Bible. This is because the Bible was formed, in its current cannon, as a result of Apostolic/Catholic Tradition in response to the Arian heresy during the 4th century. A rogue (Anti-Trinitarian) priest, named Arius, opposed the Apostolic/Catholic teaching that Jesus Christ is divine. So he made his own canon of Scripture (The Arian Bible) to back his teaching. In response, the CATHOLIC CHURCH held an ecumenical council in the City of Nicea (Asia Minor) to combat this heresy. During this council Arius was put down and two major decisions were made. The first was that henceforth all Christians would recite a creed outlining their faith at every liturgical gathering (mass or church service), and this was called the Nicean Creed. The second was that the Catholic Church would compile its own canon of Scripture to counter Arius' false Bible. That canon of Scripture, approved by various synods and papal decrees in the late 4th and early 5th centuries, is the Bible we use today. That's where the Bible comes from. It was compiled from ancient Hebrew Scriptures, and Apostolic correspondence, using the TRADITION of the Catholic Church in the late 4th century. If you eliminate Catholic tradition, you eliminate the Bible, because the canon of Scripture we have today is 100% dependent on Catholic tradition. Open your Bible and see for yourself. Look at the front of the book. There you will see a list of books called the Table of Contents. Pay particular attention to the New Testament list. That is a CATHOLIC list, invented solely by the Catholic Church in the late 4th century.

You see, Evangelicals really blow it on this one, because the Bible alludes to this within its own text. It is the Church which is the "pillar and foundation of truth" not the Bible, and oddly enough, Pastor Shane cites this very Scripture next: "The church is the 'pillar and foundation of the truth' (1 Tim. 3:15)—it comes under the truth; it's not equal to it." I have no idea what he's trying to say here. It doesn't make sense when you really think about it. The Bible just said the Church is the pillar and foundation of truth. Then Pastor Shane says that means it comes under the truth. Does he not know basic rules of construction? Foundations and pillars support things. Without them a structure will collapse. This is what the apostle is saying. Truth comes into this world by the teaching of the "pillar and foundation," which means were it not for the "pillar and foundation" of the Catholic Church, we wouldn't have any truth in the world today. This is because Jesus established the Catholic Church (Matthew 16:16-19). Jesus gave us the Catholic Church, and the Catholic Church gave us the Bible. It's pretty simple and straight forward. I find that Evangelicals have to do a whole lot of reinterpreting and mental gymnastics to get around this.

From his article, Pastor Shane insists that Catholics adore (worship) Mary. This is a canard that's been repeated ad nauseam among Protestants for centuries. It's also repeated among Muslims too. (Protestants and Muslims make strange bedfellows.) The assertion that Catholics worship Mary is the result of a profound lack of understanding about Catholic doctrine and Christianity itself. Muslims can be excused for this, but Protestants should know better. Most traditional Protestants have finally figured it out, but there remains these stubborn Evangelicals who insist on taking the Muslim side of the argument. Here Pastor Shane attacks the perpetual virginity of Mary but gives no Scripture to back his argument. Perhaps it's because he knows that those Scriptures commonly used actually fall flat when examined closely. Instead he goes directly into the early Christian claim that Mary was immaculately conceived and serves as Mediatrix to the faithful. He even cites the writings of an early Christian to support his claim. In his attack on the Immaculate Conception, Pastor Shane states that "the Bible teaches that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (cf. Rom. 3:23)." His citation of Scripture is correct, but once again, his interpretation is massively oversimplified. Does the word "all" really mean "each and every human being." If that is the case, than the word "all" must include Jesus Christ himself because he was fully human, as well as fully divine. If "all" have sinned, then that must mean Jesus sinned too. Otherwise "all" can't mean each and every human being. Obviously Pastor Shane and Evangelicals don't believe this. So they have to admit, if they're honest, that "all" can't really mean each and every human being. They must make at least one exception -- Jesus of Nazareth. Yet if they make one exception, then they can't deny the possibility of two. It would be logically inconsistent to do so. If Jesus can be conceived without sin, then so can Mary, which is exactly what the Scriptures tell us in Luke 1:28 wherein St. Luke uses the Greek word kecharitomene to describe Mary, which is often translated as "full of grace." The translation of "highly favoured one," used in most Protestant Bibles, seriously fails to capture the meaning of that word. The word kecharitomene is in the perfect tense, which means it is past, present and future. The word states that Mary is "full of grace" which is to say "grace filled" or "without sin" as in the state every Christian finds himself in after baptism, and the state Adam and Eve were created in before the fall. But the tense of the word implies that Mary had always been this way, from her very conception, all the way to her death/assumption. It's a constant state. Pastor Shane is using the typical Protestant mistranslation of kecharitomene to support his insinuation that Mary was not immaculately conceived.

He then goes on to to state that: "Historical Christianity teaches that Mary was highly favored, but she does not play a role in redemption." So does this mean that bearing the Son of God and Saviour of the world plays no role in redemption? No role at all? Come on! Even a dyed in the wool Atheist can see through this. If she bore in her womb, and gave birth to, the Saviour of the world, then she must play a role in salvation.

Pastor Shane immediately goes on: "nor should we pray to her. We believe that Jesus is the only way, the only truth and the only life. No one comes to the Father except through Him (cf. John 14:6)." Well, he's right about the "no one comes to the father" part. Jesus Christ is the ONE AND ONLY way to salvation, and the Catholic Church very specifically teaches that in no uncertain terms. In fact, it is reiterated ever time the mass is celebrated, as it is clearly states in the liturgy of the Church which Catholics hear and recite every Sunday. However, what Pastor Shane seems to be asserting is that prayer to somebody is the same as trusting in that person for your salvation. So does that mean that if I ask somebody to pray for me, I'm trusting in that person for my salvation? No. Obviously not. In fact, I would venture to say that Evangelicals ask others to pray for them all the time. How is that any different? We Catholics ask Mary, the Saints and the angels to pray for us, because the Bible tells us they do (Revelation 5:8, Revelation 8:4). The title Mediatrix simply means that Mary prays for us. It does not mean she replaces Jesus as mankind's one and only Mediator to God the Father. Every knowledgeable Catholic knows that. The only people who don't know that are Muslims, stubborn Evangelicals and ignorant Catholics who aren't adequately taught their own religion. (Bishops take note.)

From his article, Pastor Shane wrote: ''Catholicism promotes submission to the teachings of the Pope, bishops and traditions that often contradict Scripture." Once again, he states that the Church follows traditions that contradict Scripture. As I said above, this is not the case, however the Church does follow traditions that often contradict the flawed Protestant interpretation of Scripture. However, one thing he gets right is that Catholics are encouraged to follow the pope, bishops and priests. This is supported by the Bible of course. Like many Evangelicals, Pastor Shane is quick to point out Scriptures that back his point, but generally ignores Scriptures that counter it. For example; Jesus delegated his own authority to Peter (the first pope) and his apostles (Matthew 16:18-19; Luke 10:16; John 16:13; John 20:22-23). Christians are required to follow them and keep their traditions (Matthew 18:17-18; Luke 10:16; 1 Corinthians 11:2; 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 2 Thessalonians 3:6; 1 Timothy 3:15). The apostles appointed successors to replace them (Acts 1:13-26; Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5; 1 Timothy 4:14). As I pointed out above, the Bible comes from the Church, and the Church comes from Jesus and the apostles. The bishops of the Catholic Church today are the successors of the apostles. Pastor Shane points out that all believers are priests in his citation of 1 Peter 2:5. He's right about that. But the Old Testament tells us that all the Old Testament Hebrews were priests too (Exodus 19:6), but in spite of that, God called specific men to serve as ministerial priests exclusively (Exodus 19:22). The same is true in the New Testament, as Pastor Shane rightly points out all Christians are priests (1 Peter 2:5), but fails to acknowledge that in spite of that, God still calls certain men to act as ministerial priests (Romans 15:15–16; 2 Timothy 1:6–7; 1 Timothy 4:14; Titus 1:5-9).

Pastor Shane then goes into a typical Evangelical refutation of the real presence in holy communion. Transubstantiation, he says, is not Biblical, and then ironically he cites the very passages of Scripture that points to the transubstantiation more than any other (John 6). But to do this, he must reinterpret these passages outside of their most plain sense, forcing a symbolic interpretation on what is obviously supposed to be interpreted literally. If Pastor Shane is correct, than Jesus was a cruel teacher, because he allowed his own disciples to leave him over a misunderstanding he could have easily corrected. In spite of that, the Scriptures not only teach the transubstantiation in John 6, but also the other three gospels (Matthew 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:17) where Jesus said: "Take, eat; this is My body." The last time I checked the dictionary, the word "is" still means is. It does not mean "symbolically represents." Then we have St. Paul's testimony that those who fail to recognise the Eucharist as the body and blood of Christ are guilty of sinning against his body and blood of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:23-32).

From his article, Pastor Shane wrote: "The priests in the Old Testament were encouraged to marry, but Catholicism encourages celibacy. 1 Timothy 4:1-3 says that in latter times some will depart from the faith by forbidding to marry and commanding to abstain from certain foods."  Only somebody completely ignorant of the Scriptures would easily fall for this one. Unfortunately a lot of people do. First and foremost, the Catholic Church does not require celibacy of all priests. Some married men are admitted to the priesthood. That is a fact. Second, the Bible does indeed encourage celibacy among Christian ministers. It does not require it (and neither does the Catholic Church in all cases) but it most certainly does encourage it (Jeremiah 16:1-4; Matthew 19:12; 1 Corinthians 7:8; 1 Corinthians 7:22-35; 1 Timothy 5:9-12; 2 Timothy 2:3-4). As for forbidding certain foods, the Catholic Church does not forbid anyone from eating certain foods. Yes, certain days of fast and abstinence are part of Catholic discipline, but these are rare, and such foods can still be eaten of course, just on the days outside of fast and abstinence. Jesus himself said his Church would do this (Matthew 9:15), and Jesus himself gave regulations as to how this should be done (Matthew 6:16-18). What St. Paul is doing here is warning Christians about those who will try to enforce kosher dietary laws in the last days. The Catholic Church doesn't do that. Also, by using this passage in reference to the Catholic Church, Pastor Shane is specifically citing the Catholic Church as: "giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron."  Now that's not very charitable words toward his Christian brethren in the Catholic Church. 

From his article, Pastor Shane wrote: "Suggesting we need purging after death contradicts Christ's finished work on the cross (cf. Heb. 10:14)." This reflects the typical Protestant attack on Purgatory. However, he fails to cite that Jesus himself said that some sins must be forgiven in the next world (the afterlife) in addition to sins forgiven in this life (Matthew 12:32). St. Paul explained to us how Purgatory works (1 Corinthians 3:10-15), and even prayed for the soul of his dead friend (2 Timothy 1:16-18). Belief in Purgatory comes to us from ancient Jewish tradition, recorded in the Second Book of Maccabees (2 Maccabees 12:44-46), which Protestants jettisoned from their Bibles in the 16th - 19th centuries.

From his article, Pastor Shane wrote: "Catholicism teaches that good works help to maintain our righteousness before God. But the Bible says that we are justified because of Christ's work on the cross. There is nothing additional to work for. We "work out" our salvation with fear and trembling (cf. Phil. 2:12b), but we don't "work for" it, nor do we maintain it." This is an extremely common Protestant assumption which is built on Martin Luther's assertion of Sola Fide or salvation by faith alone. The only time the Scriptures use the phrase "faith alone" is in James 2:24, which specifically says: "You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone." The Catholic Church specifically does not teach that we EARN our salvation through our own merit. Rather, it teaches that salvation is a free gift, merited through the life and death of Jesus Christ, and that we may participate in this salvation by being united with Christ, and being transformed into his image. News Flash: that takes work. Giving up sin and becoming a follower of Jesus is often a process that lasts a lifetime. Nobody is instantaneously made perfect into the likeness of Christ. Christians spend a lifetime working at it. That's what it means to be a Christian, and that's what it means to "work out our salvation" (Philippians 2:12), and that is EXACTLY what the Catholic Church teaches.

From his article, Pastor Shane wrote that his Catholic mother used to suffer from nightmares as a little girl after she lost her father in a car accident. This was because she dreamt that she was trying to pull his soul out of hell because she was worried that he might not have made it to the Sacrament of Confession before he died. This is tragic, and both Pastor Shane and his mother have my deepest sympathies for this. However, we must not blame the Church for a misbelief. The Church doesn't teach that one is automatically damned for failing to make it to the confessional, especially if one already has true contrition for mortal sin but just failed to make it to the confessional due to lack of availability, time or some other reason. The confessional is there to help Catholics receive closure for repented sins. Those who don't make it to confession, through no intentional avoidance, might have to receive that closure in the afterlife instead, but it doesn't mean they go directly to hell for failing to perform a particular sacrament in a timely manner. The world is an imperfect place, and sometimes we just can't do things in a perfect way. That doesn't mean God automatically punishes us for it. The sacrament of confession was given as a gift, not a ball and chain. In this particular case of a 12-year-old girl having nightmares for the soul of her diseased father, what we have here is a failure of catechises. Somebody failed to instruct that girl properly about how things really work, and this falls back to her pastoral guidance (bishops take note), not the doctrines of the Catholic Church. 

I do hope that Pastor Shane will take some time to do a little more research about Catholic teaching before writing about it, and I do hope that a good number of his readers will take into consideration that just because he used to be a Catholic, doesn't mean he's an expert on Catholicism. In fact, by his own admission, he needed to interview a Catholic priest to learn what the Church taught on certain doctrines.

Shane Schaetzel is an author of Catholic books, and columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of 'CatholicInTheOzarks.com -- Apologetics and random musings from a Catholic in the Bible Belt.'

A Catholic Guide
to the Last Days
Catholicism for
Regnum Dei Press

Friday, December 09, 2016

A New Book is on the Way

Four Horsemen of Apocalypse, by Viktor Vasnetsov, Painted in 1887.

I am formally requesting your prayers now. I've completed a new book, which I hope to have published sometime next year. I would like to request that you pray the editing process goes smoothly, and that an imprimatur will be granted in a timely manner after I submit it for one, probably in January. Here is what I can tell you about the book...
  1. At 200+ pages, it's about twice as long as my previous book.
  2. It's in a standard chapter reading format -- not Q&A like my last book.
  3. The topic is Last Days eschatology
  4. It's a "big picture" kind of book that introduces concepts without getting too hung up on details.
  5. It is highly critical of Protestant Last Days eschatology (Historicism, Futurism and Dispensationalism).
  6. It includes a short commentary on the Book of Revelation.
  7. It includes a riveting chapter on Catholic prophecy dealing with Marian apparitions, from approved and reputable sources alone.
  8. The photo above is the cover art for the book.
  9. Retail price will be about $17 (US), and a free Kindle version will be made available to anyone who orders the paperback.
  10. The publication date is tentatively set for May 13, 2017.
I need your prayers on this one folks. There are a lot of powers out there that don't want this book published. I'm asking you to storm heaven with at least one rosary for this intention, and PLEASE SHARE this notice with others.

Thank you and God bless.


Shane Schaetzel is an author of Catholic books, and columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of 'FullyChristian.Com -- The random musings of a Catholic in the Ozarks.'

A Catholic Guide
to the Last Days
Catholicism for

Please share this story. Social media links provided below for your convenience... 

Monday, December 05, 2016

A 2016 Christmas Gift Idea

Shane in St. John's Chapel, Mercy Hospital Springfield, Missouri

Do you know anyone who doesn't understand the Catholic Christian faith? Do you have Protestant friends and family who "just don't get it?" Worse yet, are you confronted on holidays and family get-togethers with challenging questions, even accusations, about Catholicism and the Catholic Church? Or, are you looking to explain Catholic teaching in a way that Evangelical Protestants can easily understand?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then my 2013 book "Catholicism for Protestants" might be for you. While I admit this to be a shameless promotion on my part, it may be worth consideration. I wrote this book specifically for the purpose of helping Protestants (particularly Evangelicals) understand our faith, and also to help Catholics better explain our faith in a way Evangelicals can understand. The book is short and arranged in a question/answer format by general topics that are major points of difference between Catholics and Evangelicals. It could make an excellent Christmas gift, or simply a pre-holiday handout for troublesome relatives who like to grill your Catholic faith during family get togethers.

Conversion is a matter of the heart, not the mind. So it's unlikely that any book will convert a non-Catholic in and of itself, unless that person already has a seeking heart. For seekers, this book has proved to be very helpful in directing them toward the Catholic Church. For non-seekers, this book has proved very helpful in redirecting questions away from accusation into genuine curiosity. So in other words, it resets the debate, levelling the playing field a bit, and allows you to engage them on a level that is at least civil and intelligent.

This book has also been used by catechists in parishes around the country to educate Catholics in how to defend their faith. Sections of it have even been used as inserts in parish bulletins.

I recommend getting the paperback from Amazon, so that you can acquire the Kindle version for free. This allows you to keep a digital version for yourself, while giving the paperback version to your friend or loved one. It's literally two books for the price of one.

So please consider this as a Christmas suggestion. Below you will find my interview with Michael Voris of Church Militant, who highly recommends the book, as well as various ordering options.

Buy the paperback through Amazon,
and get the Kindle version for FREE.

Barnes & Noble

The book contains a NIHIL OBSTAT from Reverend Allan Saunders, Censor Librorum, and an IMPRIMATUR from the Most Reverend James V. Johnston, Jr., former Bishop of Springfield - Cape Girardeau (now the Bishop of Kansas City - Saint Joseph).
"There are many books addressing the difference between Protestants and Catholics. Some are very detailed and cumbersome; others are too simple or not complete in their scope. Shane Schaetzel has provided us with a simple question and answer format that is both complete and thorough, but also simple and easily approachable. May it be used to reach many souls for Jesus and his Catholic Church."   
-- Steve Ray: Catholic Apologist, Author, Film Producer, CatholicConvert.com 

"Shane Schaetzel has done a great service to Protestants and Catholics alike by presenting Catholic truth clearly and simply through a series of questions and answers."  
-- Fr. Christopher Phillips, Catholic convert and priest, AtonementOnline.com 

"A great read!"  
-- Michael Voris: Catholic Journalist, ChurchMilitant.com

Monday, November 28, 2016

Why Christmas is NOT Pagan

The Christmas Tree, Albert Chevallier Tayler, painted in 1911

Having once been an Evangelical, I was heavily exposed to the "Christmas is Pagan" or "Christmas has Pagan origins" movement in the Western world. The movement is heavily concentrated in the United States, with large pockets in Canada, Australia, and other parts of the Anglosphere. It's primarily a Protestant problem, which was popularised during the Protestant religious movements of the 17th through 19th centuries. Today it is most aggressively pushed by Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, Church of God and other Fundamentalist sects. Sadly, attacks against this holiday are used to introduce suspicion of mainstream Christian denominations, and the Catholic Church in particular.

The Fundamentalist attack on Christmas is centred around the date of December 25, and actually has a rather ancient origin. The 12th-century Syrian Orthodox Bishop, Jacob Bar-Salibi, proposed the following:
"It was a custom of the Pagans to celebrate on the same 25 December the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and revelries the Christians also took part. Accordingly when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnised on that day." 
-- Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries, Ramsay MacMullen. Yale:1997, p. 155 
Even though the quote comes from an Eastern Orthodox bishop, many Western Fundamentalist groups seized upon it in the late 19th century because it fit their anti-Catholic narrative. The only problem here is that the good bishop, as wise as he may have been on many other issues, was just plain wrong about this one. We have to remember that the Eastern Christians celebrate the birth of Christ on or near January 7. This has always been their custom, which is fine of course, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. The quote from Bishop Bar-Salibi above appears to be an attempt to explain why Western Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25, as opposed to January 7. It appears to be directed toward the Eastern Orthodox faithful, and it appears the bishop has some cursory knowledge of Western history on this matter. However, it also appears he made an historical error, by getting the proverbial "cart before the horse," and (probably unintentionally) reversed the order of events. It is important to note however, that Bishop Bar-Salibi nowhere intended for his comment to be misconstrued as a blanket condemnation of Christmas, the Christmas celebration, or even the Western date upon which it is celebrated. It was simply intended to be an explanation of why Eastern and Western Christians celebrate Christmas on different dates. That is all.

Nevertheless, some Western Protestant Fundamentalists, and Jehovah's Witnesses in particular, took Bishop Bar-Salibi's quote and just ran with it to the greatest extreme. Using it as proof text for how the Christmas celebration was started, and an indictment against the Catholic Church and Western Christianity in general. So they branded Christmas a "Pagan holiday" celebrated by "Paganised" Christians who are engaging in a "Pagan celebration" whitewashed to only "appear Christian." Of course, they argue, in order to be a "better Christian," and please God more than others, one must immediately cease and desist from this Pagan festivity. Likewise, the Catholic Church, and mainline Protestant denominations, should receive all the blame and shame for perpetrating this "ungodly hoax" on the "poor unsuspecting people" of the Christian faith. This is usually followed with a technical lesson of how it is "impossible" that Jesus could have been born on December 25, and that he was likely born sometime in September instead. This is followed by the customary condemnation of Christmas trees, evergreen and mistletoe as "Pagan customs" that continue to "infiltrate" into Christianity. Of course, their solution is to snidely turn their noses up to such things as "unfit" for a "real Christian." This is Fundamentalism run amok. Here we have Christians that have more in common practice with Muslims than they do their fellow Christians, and for some of them (Jehovah's Witnesses in particular) this actually bleeds over into the doctrinal realm as well. Tragically, the propaganda has even worked its way into the Catholic Church. I cannot tell you how many Catholics I have heard repeat it, telling others that Christmas is really just a christened version of a Pagan celebration.

Now that you've heard the fake story about the origin of Christmas, let's take a look at the real story. We'll have to start with the origin for the date of Christmas, and why this is commonly misunderstood as connected to ancient Pagan observances.

Hanukkah Menorah
Photo by Gil Dekel. 
All of this goes back to the Jewish roots of the Christian faith. Remember, the first Christians were all Jewish converts. Naturally they took many of their Jewish customs into Christianity as well. Contrary to popular opinion, the celebration of Jewish things (in the context of Christian interpretation) is not Judaising. Rather, Judaising is when you impose elements of the Mosaic Law on non-Jews (Gentiles) as if it were part of the Christian faith. Only the Catholic Church has the authority to determine which Jewish customs are binding on non-Jews, and there aren't many. The Council of Jerusalem in AD 50 (recorded in Acts 15) recounts them in detail. That being said, the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah is NOT part of the Mosaic Law. It is a celebration that developed much later in Jewish history. The celebration of Hanukkah centres around the theme of light, relating to the re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem after the Maccabean Revolt, and is customarily observed by the lighting of candles on a special type of Hanukkah menorah, called a Hanukkiah. The celebration lasts eight days, and it always begins on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev. That's important. Hunukkah is always celebrated on Kislev 25. The month of Kislev on the Jewish calendar overlaps the month of December on the Julian/Gregorian calendar. Sometimes the overlap is so close, that Hanukkah is celebrated at the same time Christians are celebrating Christmas.

Early Jewish Christians would have associated Hanukkah with Jesus Christ in some way, as they did with everything else. They most certainly would have associated his incarnation with the re-dedication of the covenant God made with his people. They would have associated his incarnation with the light entering the Jewish Temple. They most certainly would have remembered the account of Jesus entering the Temple in Jerusalem during Hanukkah, and referring to himself as the Son of God and thus revealing his fully glory, or light, in the Temple (John 10:22-39).

Jewish Christians were not treated well by their fellow Jews back then, and were often "put out of the synagogue" (shunned or excommunicated). Since the synagogue was the source of Jewish life, the dates of the Jewish calendar were calculated from there based on rabbinical interpretation of Mosaic Law. Jews who were "put out of the synagogue" would gradually lose connection with Jewish life, and that would include the Jewish calendar. It is theorised that to simplify matters, many Jewish Christians of the ancient world simply used the Julian calendar along with their Gentile Christian brethren. Thus the celebration of Jesus as the incarnate "Son of God" and  "Light of the world," came to be associated with the 25th day of December instead of Kislev, which often falls pretty close to Kislev 25 anyway. Building on the theme of dedication, this happens exactly eight days before the Julian new year (January 1). Thus Christmas, understood as a christened version of Hanukkah, would be an eight-day celebration, beginning on December 25, marking the Light of God coming into the world, and ending on January 1, marking the re-dedication of time with the new year. All of this would have happened within the first few centuries of the early Church. However, this eight-day (octave) of Christmas, paralleling the eight-day celebration of Hanukkah would later be overshadowed by the longer twelve-day celebration of Christmastide, from December 25 to January 5, with Epiphany on January 6.

There is more to this. We can see above how December 25 came to be associated with the incarnation of Jesus Christ in general, as well as the connection to Jesus as the "Light of the world." However, how did it get to be associated with his birth or nativity? The answer again comes to us from very early Jewish Christians who believed that the world was created on Nissan 14, according to the Jewish calendar, which came to be associated with March 25 on the Julian calendar. These Jewish Christians not only associated the beginning of the world on that date, but also the beginning of the new world, meaning the conception of Jesus Christ. Thus the Annunciation by the angel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary, came to be celebrated on March 25, and is still celebrated on that date today. Now count exactly 9 months from March 25, and you arrive at December 25, which is the associated date for the birth of Jesus Christ. According to ancient Jewish Christians, he was miraculously conceived on March 25 and born on December 25, by the reckoning of the Julian calendar. The Christian historian, Sextus Julius Africanus, who lived between AD 160 - 240, specifically held to the belief that March 25 was the day the world was created on, and the day of Christ's conception (Joseph F. Kelly, The Origins of Christmas, p. 60). Saint Irenaeus, who lived between AD 130 - 202, in his work Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies), specifically identified the conception of Jesus Christ as occurring on as March 25, according to ancient Church tradition, and linked it to the birth of Christ exactly nine months later, on December 25, at the time of the winter solstice. So here we have a completely different account of the reason for Christmas falling on December 25, predating Bishop Jacob Bar-Salibi's mistaken explanation by nearly 10 centuries!

So we have two explanations for the marking of December 25 as the celebration of the birth of Christ. The first comes from a time period of the early Church, close to the event itself, during a time when Jewish and Gentile Christians were intermingling and sharing traditions. The date is associated with the early Jewish Christian reinterpretation of Hanukkah, as well as marking 9 months since the conception of Jesus Christ on March 25 according to early Jewish Christian custom. The second comes from a time period nearly 10 centuries later, in which an Eastern Christian, living far away from the West, who celebrates Christmas on an entirely different day, is trying to explain to his contemporaries why Western Christians celebrate Christmas earlier than they do.

Which one do we want to believe? Well, if you're a Protestant Fundamentalist, you'll believe the second explanation, because you can twist what this bishop said, in a way he never intended, to condemn the celebration of Christmas as "Pagan" in total, and accuse the Catholic Church of perpetrating a "hoax" on the unsuspecting Christian faithful. However, if you're a reasonable person, regardless of your belief system, you can accept the most ancient explanation available, and believe this date was the product of blending early Jewish Christian beliefs into a Gentile calendar. I don't know about you, but I prefer the first explanation as a more rational choice. I mean, considering the Jesus and his apostles were Jewish and all, and a great number of early Christians were Jewish as well, I think it's far more plausible to believe the first explanation.

Does this mean there is no association at all between Christmas and ancient Pagan observances? At the core of it, there is no association. Superficially however, there is some. It was between AD 270 - 275 that the Pagan, Roman Emperor Aurelian, dedicated December 25 as Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, meaning the "birthday of the unconquered sun." This occurs a few days AFTER the winter solstice, when the days are just starting to get longer again. It is associated with Pagan sun worship. As you can see, however, this event happened long after the dates I noted above, from Sextus Julius Africanus (AD 160 - 240) and Irenaeus (AD 130 - 202), who noted Christmas as being celebrated by early Christians, marking the birth of Christ exactly nine months after his conception. The historical evidence is clear, early Christians (many of them Jewish by heritage) were celebrating December 25 as a date closely associated with Christ, long before the Roman Emperor Aurelian dedicated December 25 as the birthday of the sun. So why did he do this? Remember, we're talking about a time period in the ancient Pagan empire when Christianity is gaining significant traction in spite of two centuries of periodic persecution. Could it be that Aurelian was simply trying to upstage the Christians? Is this a case of Pagans copying Christians and not vice versa? The historical dates seem to indicate this is exactly the case. Again, actual history (the bane of propaganda), tells us that the ancient Pagans were not in the habit of associating the winter solstice with sun worship. For example, one ancient history scholar writes...
While the winter solstice on or around December 25 was well established in the Roman imperial calendar, there is no evidence that a religious celebration of Sol on that day antedated the celebration of Christmas. 
--  S.E. Hijmans, The Sun in the Art and Religions of Rome, p. 588 
Another similar scholar writes...
Thomas Talley has shown that, although the Emperor Aurelian's dedication of a temple to the sun god in the Campus Martius (C.E. 274) probably took place on the 'Birthday of the Invincible Sun' on December 25, the cult of the sun in pagan Rome ironically did not celebrate the winter solstice nor any of the other quarter-tense days, as one might expect.  
-- Michael Alan Anderson, Symbols of Saints, pp. 42–46
Study of ancient Roman sun worship indicates the principle feast date of this particular cult fell on August 9, not December 25. There has been found some documentation of minor sacrifice dates to the sun on August 28 and December 11, but nothing for December 25. All we have is Aurelian's late (post-Christian) proclamation of the sun's birthday in about AD 274, and nothing more. While sun worship was popular among some of the Caesars, there is no indication that it was a major cult within the ancient Roman Empire. So what are we to make of Aurelian's decree of December 25 as the suns birthday? Well, I think the word "birthday" gives us a clue. Christians were already celebrating December 25 as the birthday of Christ, who is the light of the world. The only way to upstage them would be to royally declare December 25 as the birthday of the sun, which lights the world. History showing the dates for what they are, would seem to indicate that this is the case. So it wasn't Christians who joined in Pagan celebrations in an attempt to hijack them, but rather it was a failed attempt by Pagans to hijack a Christian celebration. It's important to remember that this Aurelian declaration came sandwiched between two great Roman persecutions against Christianity. Emperor Valerian's persecution of Christians came between AD 253 and 260. While Emperor Diocletian's persecution of Christians lasted from AD 284 to 305. It makes more sense for a Roman Emperor, like Aurelian, who reigned between these persecutions, to attempt to upstage Christian celebrations with his own Pagan feast on December 25, than it does for Christians to adopt a Pagan Roman feast day as their own, in between Roman persecutions that were attempting to wipe them out. Remember, Christians were going to their martyrdom because they refused to observe Pagan rituals. Why would they adopt them in between persecutions? It makes no sense.

Those particularly zealous against December being the month of Christ's birth will point to the Scriptures that say the shepherds were tending their flocks the night of his birth (Luke 2:8). They argue that December is too cold for this to happen, that frost and snow on the ground would prohibit any reasonable grazing of sheep. Thus they fall back to their September dating for the birth of Christ. Others spring forward to March or April. While their observance of winter climate may be true in Europe, or even most of North America, it is not untenable for the area of Judea around Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The mean temperature in Jerusalem during December runs between 47 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, which is plenty warm enough for green pastures. Frost and snow on the ground is extremely rare in this part of the world.

The 1963 edition of Smith's Bible Dictionary, under the heading "Palestine: the Climate," explained...
As in the time of our Saviour (Luke 12: 54), the rains come chiefly from the S. or S.W. They commence at the end of October or beginning of November, and continue with greater or less constancy till the end of February or middle of March, and occasionally, though rarely, to the end of April. It is not a heavy continuous rain, so much as a succession of severe showers or storms with intervening periods of fine bright weather, permitting the grain crops to grow and ripen. And although the season is not divided by any entire cessation of rain for a lengthened interval, as some represent, yet there appears to be a diminution in the fall for a few weeks in December and January, after which it begins again, and continues during February and till the conclusion of the season.
This would have been optimal weather for grazing sheep.

So now that we've allowed real history to obliterate the the Christmas-Pagan conspiracy propaganda, let's accept that December 25 was celebrated by Christians before Pagans, and move on to other Christmas customs of alleged Pagan origin.

Saint Boniface
painted by Cornelis Bloemaert
 in 1630
Chief among these is the Christmas tree. Under this propaganda conspiracy, the Christmas tree is actually a secret Pagan practice from ancient times, that has stealthily infiltrated the Christian faith, so as to make Christians unknowingly honour Pagan gods. But is this true? Again, real history helps us find the truth.

While it is well known that ancient Germanic tribes in Germany and Scandinavia worshipped trees, oak trees in particular, they were not known to bring them into their houses. In fact, the story of St. Boniface cutting down Donar's Oak Tree illustrates how Medieval Christians evangelised these Germanic Pagans in the early 8th century. When St. Boniface (an English bishop and missionary) chopped down the Donar's Oak Tree to prevent a human sacrifice, the German Pagans watched in horror and then dropped to their knees in terror, fearing that Thor would soon send a lightning bolt to kill them all for such sacrilege. However, when the lightning bolt never came, Boniface noted that a small fir tree (about knee high) was growing between the roots of the oak tree he just chopped down. He used this as an evangelistic tool. He pointed out to the stunned Pagans that their Germanic gods are helpless and could not stop the destruction of their sacred oak tree, but the Christian God has provided in its place this small fir tree. He pointed out the fir tree was triangular, symbolically representing the Trinity, and that its leaves are always green, representing God's eternal love for us. Finally, he pointed out that the needles of the tree always point up toward God. That same year he brought a small fir tree into the chapel during the winter months to serve as a constant reminder to his congregation of these truths.

However, the modern Christmas tree, as we know it today, originated in Germany during the 16th century. It was a Protestant, not a Pagan, who took St. Boniface's winter tree and turned it into the Christmas tree. Martin Luther is said to have first added lighted candles to an evergreen tree, in an attempt to recreate in his chapel the starlight he saw, shining between trees in a forest, while walking home one winter night.

Christmas trees remained a European custom for centuries, but were considered rare in North America until after the decline of the Puritan influence. The association between evergreens and Paganism is a thin one at best. There is simply no reason why Christians can't use these as a seasonal decoration, anymore than bringing plants or flowers into the home.

Mistletoe does have some Pagan connections, as do many things in nature. In Pagan cultures, it was associated with fertility simply because it bloomed during the coldest time of year while everything else was dormant. Thus, ancient Pagans ate it for medicinal purposes to assist with fertility. That's ironic, since mistletoe is a known abortifacient. I imagine this added to their frustration. The very medicine they were taking to increase fertility was actually making them infertile. However, the modern practice of hanging mistletoe and kissing under it has nothing to do with ancient Paganism. It is rather a modern tradition of the modern age. It came about in the middle 18th century, and was associated with Christmas parties. A sprig of mistletoe was hung on a beam, and the custom was that if a maiden were to find herself standing under it, she could be kissed. It was somewhat of a party game.  In another game, couples were instructed to pluck a single berry from the mistletoe with each kiss, throwing it aside, and to stop smooching once they were all gone. We can debate about whether or not such party customs are prudent for Christian celebrations, but there is nothing about them that is directly linked to Paganism.

Then of course there is Santa Claus. While Christians of all types have just grievance against the commercialisation of Christmas using this figure, the figure himself is a legendary representation of a real person. St. Nicholas of Myra was a Catholic bishop from Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). There are many stories and legends surrounding him, but one thing is certain, he is a Christian figure of Christian origin.

The Christmas - Pagan conspiracy is really nothing more than Protestant Fundamentalism run amok. In their desire to implicate the Catholic Church as the source of all evil and villainy in the world, and to justify their own schism with the the Catholic Church, they must create elaborate conspiracy theories wherein the Catholic Church is implicated as a kind of cypto-Pagan organisation, seeking to stealthily impose Pagan worship upon unsuspecting Christians. Their ignorance of history causes them to implicate Martin Luther as a co-conspirator in this, which is ironic and a bit amusing when you consider the animosity between Luther and the Catholic Church. As I said though, all of this comes from people who think they understand history but really don't. They're sources are highly sectarian tracts and books, which are filled with historical revisionism, not recognised by actual historians, and completely foreign to any original source documentation from the time period in question. So the next time one of these folks knocks on your door, or slips you a tract, telling you that Christmas is a Pagan holiday, just kindly ignore them and go back to drinking your eggnog while trimming the tree.

Shane Schaetzel is an author of Catholic books, and columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of 'CatholicInTheOzarks.com -- Apologetics and random musings from a Catholic in the Bible Belt.'

A Catholic Guide
to the Last Days
Catholicism for
Regnum Dei Press