Whether we are talking about pre-Christian or post-Christian paganism, the task of the Catholic is always the same: to bear witness to Jesus Christ. The question is: how?
In the New Testament, different approaches to pre-Christian paganism are evident. Paganism is a search, but it is a search hampered by confusion about the goal, about how to reach the goal, and about even desiring the goal. In short, it is a search for the happiness who is God that is befogged by concupiscence: the disordered appetites, weakened will and darkened mind that result from original sin.
That is why Paul’s language so readily shifts from sounding, at times, as though paganism is a human delusion to saying it is the worship of devils to saying it is a thing shot through with what the Church would later call “seeds of the Word”: hints of revelation from God himself.
Here, for instance, is Paul addressing the Lycaonians after they have tried to worship him as a god in the wake of his miraculously healing one of their number:
Men, why are you doing this? We also are men, of like nature with you, and bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways; yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good and gave you from heaven rains and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” (Acts 14:15-17)
Notice how Paul sees the many-sidedness of pre-Christian paganism. Pagans are, at once, devoted to “vain things” ranging from lifeless idols to devils. Yet they are also “not without witness”. Paul will say the same thing to the worshippers of the Unknown God in Acts 17, even quoting their own poets as though they are some sort of quasi-inspired writers. So, on the one hand, the pagans are “feeling” for God. They desire him and are searching for him. But they are also commanded to repent because the “times of ignorance” are over with the coming of Christ.
Of what are they supposed to repent? Paul’s diagnosis is unequivocal:
The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles. (Romans 1:18-23)
If the essence of paganism is a search, its central blunder is this: it ignorantly worships the creature instead of the Creator. For us moderns, ignorance is always exculpatory. In the New Testament it sometimes is, but not always. Jesus cries out on behalf of the pagan soldiers who are driving nails through his hands and feet: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 24:34). But Paul also tells us that pagans are “darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart” (Ephesians 4:18). In other words, Paul recognizes that sometimes we are ignorant because we have chosen to be ignorant. Concupiscence darkens the intellect.
This brings us back to the distinction between pre- and post-Christian paganism. Pre-Christian paganism often is a search for God that results in repentance and the response to grace. In post-Christian paganism, we face something different: the deliberate search for something besides God and the attempt to return to the worship of the creature instead of the Creator. That places the error far more deeply in the will than in the intellect.
The impulse to worship the creature seldom expresses itself these days in the crude forms of pagan antiquity. There aren’t too many statue worshippers out there. But paganism is still as diverse as it was 2000 years ago, and in many ways, it is now more resistant to the antibiotic of the gospel. Catholics who wish to speak to it intelligently must therefore take it on a person-by-person basis and never try to treat it as a blanket ideology. As Pope John Paul II says, “Man and woman are the road the Church must walk.”