Do Catholics worship a pagan goddess in the disguise of Mary?

I received an email that said:

The problem protestants have against worshipping Mary isn't the fact that she is some sort of pagan god. Not at all in fact. We know that she was righteous and that she loved God. The problem is that you worship her at all. Jesus was the ONLY perfect one, sent by God. Jesus and God are the only one's that should be prayed too. I'm not trying to force my idea's on you, i just think this is a more accurate description of what evangelicals think.

I'm glad our friend understands that we are not worshipping a pagan goddess. I'm also glad that he likes Mary and thinks she was righteous. The difference between him and me is that he says Mary "was" righteous. I suggest that Mary "is" righteous.

Catholics believe people in heaven are alive. (Mat 19:29, 25:46, Mat 10:17-22, Mk 10:30, Lk 10:25-30, Lk 18:18-30, Jn 3:15-16). But that's for other articles: "Mary in the Bible" and "Do Catholics Pray to Mary".

The fact that we Catholics honour Mary in heaven is part of the reason that some Evangelicals say we worship a pagan goddess. Sadly, John MacArthur, who is a popular Evangelical radio personality, and others accuse us of that.

And so we come to address this same age-old goddess heresy of paganism in its newest form with the modern goddess having stolen the name of Mary, a terrible dishonor to her.  (John MacArthur, Exposing the Idolatry of Mary Worship: Catholic Dogma, Pt. 1)

This is unfortunate because I don't know of any serious Catholic who actually knows anything about pagan religions or their goddesses. When Catholics think of Mary in heaven we think of the mother of Jesus, who is a 24/7 prayer warrior for faithful Christians. Her only goal is to point people toward her Son, our Lord and Saviour Jesus.

Mary is a "born again" Christian who received the Holy Spirit at the Pentecost and spoke in tongues 2000 years before Pentecostals got the gift.  (Acts 1:14, 2:3) She knows how to pray - yes even in tongues :-)

The Evangelical Ralph Woodrow previously held the view that Catholics substituted the historical Mary for a pagan goddess. He wrote a popular book connecting Catholicism to paganism based on an book written in 1857 by Alexander Hislop called, "The Two Babylons." After the integrity of Hislop's research was called into question, Woodrow decided to research these things for himself. He was shocked to find that Hislop's research was faulty (at best) and scandalous (at worst). He has removed his previous book from print and has published instead "The Babylon Connection." On pg 33-38 Woodrow disassembles Hislop's arguments against Mary. He is ashamed of his fellow Evangelicals who use this approach to condemn the Catholic Church's relationship to Mary and is sorry for propagating these views. He is still an Evangelical but no longer associates the Catholic Church with paganism.

Is Mary the goddess Gaia?

An honest, careful study of the pagan goddess cults will reveal that, apart from a few externals (i.e., the goddess may be considered a virgin and/or mother), they have nothing in common with the Catholic relationship to Mary. The Catholic relationship to Mary cannot compare to the profane, debauched worship once offered to goddesses. The goddess Gaia (Mother Earth) is a symbol that stands for everything that goes against what Mary would have us to believe. Mary would not have us worship the earth, Mary would not have us exalt the sensual pleasure of sex outside of marriage, Mary would not have us profaning the name of her Son Jesus. Mary is not into watering down her Son's message with other religions. Mary is about one thing and one thing only - her Son Jesus.

...every single Roman Catholic I have ever known has regarded Mary as a woman of spotless character, a virgin, one that was totally dedicated to God and virtue - not any of these attributes fit the pagan goddess Semiramis! Her lifestyle was the very opposite. (Ralph Woodrow, The Babylon Connection? pg. 35)

Problems with the Syncretism claim

Early converts to Christianity from paganism despised the darkness and superstition of their old faiths. Many of them became martyrs who gave their lives rather than offer incense to an image of Caesar. They would never have worshipped Gaia, Isis or Cybele, even under the guise of Jesus' Mother!

To accuse the early Church of this would be to doubt the sincerity of the pagans' conversions. These converts were thrown to the lions for their faith in Jesus. Why would they hang onto their old pagan gods?  Christians considered pagan deities to be demons, and the formula for Baptism involved (and still involves) a renunciation of Satan. So in order to receive Baptism, catechumens had to renounce their former gods! How could they continue worshipping demons after renouncing them? And why would they identify the Mother of their Savior with demonic impostors? I feel that people who advance that theory are not practising sound reasoning or research.

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Collyridians?

Some may point to a group called the Collyridians, a small fourth-century sect in Arabia, mainly composed of women, who evidently worshipped the Blessed Virgin, offering cakes to her during a religious ceremony. They claim this is an early example of former pagans worshipping Mary as a "goddess."

The Collyridians were not Catholic. They were a syncretistic cult which, like the Gnostics and other such groups of that time, blended practices from various religious traditions. They were a heresy. They took the figure of Mary from Catholicism and offered her sacrifices reminiscent of those offered to certain pagan goddesses (see Jeremiah 44:18-19). This was an odd blending of contradictory faiths, but it was never sanctioned by the Catholic Church. In fact, the only reason why we know about this small sect is because Saint Epiphanius, one of the Church Fathers, condemned them in his work called the Panarion.

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Mother of God?

I got an email that said. "Mary needed a savior." Catholics agree Mary needed a Savior. She was saved by her Son. And she was his mother too. Luke 1:46-49

My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
For He has regarded the lowly state of his maidservant;
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.

Mary needed a Saviour and all generations will call her Blessed. This passage is read every night by every priest, nun, sister and religious order in the world. Every day we say Mary needed a Saviour.

Some Evangelicals feel that Catholics have turned Mary into a goddess because of the Marian title Mother of God. They seem to think that Catholics call her this because I believe that she gives Jesus his Deity. After Jesus was born the Bible says:

"And going into the house they [the Magi] saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him" (Mt 2:11 my emphasis).

Let's unpack that line a bit. The Bible calls her by her name, "Mary," and by her title "mother" while the passage calls Jesus by the title "child," which puts him in relation to her at the very moment the Magi worshipped him (as God). I think the Bible was trying to teach us who Mary is in relation to Jesus (God). This appears to be confirmed when Elizabeth said "Who am I that the mother of my Lord would come to me?" (Lk 1:43). Catholics think the title "Mother of God" is very Biblical.

In a special way, she is mother of the incarnate God, who is fully God. Jesus didn't become divine some time later in life. He was always God, and Mary gave birth to him as such. The Magi kneeled down and worshiped Jesus, while Mary, his mother, was holding God in her arms. Today, Catholics don't have a problem kneeling in Mary's presence either. She is as much with Jesus today, as she was on that day when she held him, while the Magi kneeled in her presence to worship of him. When we kneel in the presence of Mary it is because she is with her Son, Jesus. I saw a cool bumper sticker that said:

"Wise men still find Jesus with his mother."

This does not mean that Mary's title "Mother of God" infers that she existed before God. Jesus is present from the beginning of time. "In the Beginning was the Word" (Jn 1.1). In the Old Testament, Jesus was the "rock in the desert" (Exo 17:6, 1 Cor 10:4).

The official title "Mother of God" was instituted as a response to a heresy of Nestorious which was an attack on Christ's divinity. The heresy tried to present Jesus as pure spirit who only took on humanity as a convenience, like a coat, thereby separating his human and divine nature. The Council of Ephesus (431 A.D) said that the relationship between the divine and human in Christ was so closely united that the Virgin Mary was actually Theotokos (Mother of God). Far from distracting from the divinity of Jesus, the title "Mother of God" actually affirmed the identity of Jesus as truly God/Man. His divine and human natures were inseparable. Jesus was born of Mary so that He could become Man. If she were some kind of divine being, how could He have derived his humanity from her?

Here's what Martin Luther, the founder of the reform said about Mary's title of "Mother of God"

"St. Paul says 'God sent his Son born of a woman, ' These words which I hold for true, really sustain quite firmly that Mary is the Mother of God." (Martin Luther, Martin Luther's Works, vol 7, pg 592)

"This article of faith- that Mary is the Mother of God- is present in the Church from the beginning and is not a new creation of the council but the presentation of the Gospel and the Scriptures." (Martin Luther, Martin Luther's Works, vol 7, pg 572)

"It is certain that Mary is the Mother of the real and true God." (Martin Luther, Martin Luther's Works, vol 24, pg107)

". . . she is rightly called not only the mother of the man, but also the Mother of God. . . . it is certain that Mary is the Mother of the real and true God."
Ref: Sermon on John 14. 16: Luther's Works ( (St. Louis, ed. Jaroslav, Pelican, Concordia. vol. 24. p. 107

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Is Mary the pagan goddess Ishtar?

The "Queen of the Universe" statement in the Lumen Gentium (a Catholic document from 1964) causes some people to think the Catholic Church is putting her at the head of heaven. They point out that "Queen of Heaven", was also once applied to Ishtar by her Babylonian devotees (Jeremiah 44:18-19). They think that this somehow proves that Mary and Ishtar are the same being, and that Catholics really worship Ishtar when they honor Mary. First let us look at the Scripture that is being used against the Catholic Church on this matter.

Don't you see what they do in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? The children gather wood, and the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead the dough, to make cakes to the Queen of Heaven, and to pour out drink-offerings to other gods, that they may provoke Me to anger. (Jeremiah 7:17-18)

Never has the Catholic Church offered cakes (or any other sacrifice) to Mary. The passage says "and to pour out drink-offerings to other gods." Catholics never have presented any offerings to any but the one true God as found in the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Ghost).

The purpose that  Mary has been given is laid out in Scripture "My soul magnifies the Lord, And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior." (Lk 1:46).

Many monarchs of different nations are called "Your Majesty" by their subjects, but that does not prove they are all the same person! Numerous pagans also called their gods father, like Zeus, who was called "Father of gods and men", and Odin, the "All-Father." That does not mean that Zeus and Odin are identical with God the Father.

My name is David. There have been many convicted murderers named David. There have also been many wonderful leaders named David. Obviously, I am none of them. I am me. And Mary, the mother of Jesus is Mary the Mother of Jesus.

It is perhaps understandable that Evangelicals have been alarmed at the "Queen" statement about Mary, given the cultural context of this generation. We live in a time when the Queen of England is the highest in the Commonwealth. There is no king. She wears the commonwealth trousers. She is it. She is the focus. Everyone is talking about the queen and singing "God save the Queen." So it is natural that our contemporary understanding of the word queen would be that she is someone in highest authority. But in a monarchy, such as they have in England, when there is a king, he has the authority.

Mary receives all of her graces from the fact that she is related to the King. She works miracles by a whisper in his ear (Jn 2:3). So I don't believe that calling Mary the Queen of the Universe diminishes the King's (Jesus') authority in the least. In fact it reinforces it.

Catholics look to Scripture for evidence of Mary's Queenship. Revelation 11:19-12:2 says:

Then God's temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; ... A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant ... And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne.

This passage presents Jesus as a King. It also presents his Mother wearing a crown in Heaven. Catholic's feel that Scripture is clear.

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Lumen Gentium

I've snipped a few passages from the Lumen Gentium, an official document of the Church from Vatican II. It is often quoted by Evangelicals for its "Queen of Heaven" statement. I think the document accurately makes clear Jesus' authority over heaven and earth:

60. There is but one Mediator as we know from the words of the apostle, "for there is one God and one mediator of God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself a redemption for all." (298) The maternal duty of Mary toward men in no wise obscures or diminishes this unique mediation of Christ, but rather shows his power. For all the salvific influence of the Blessed Virgin on men originates, not from some inner necessity, but from the divine pleasure. It flows forth from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, rests on his mediation, depends entirely on it and draws all its power from it. In no way does it impede, but rather does it foster the immediate union of the faithful with Christ. (298 1 Tim. 2, 5-6).

62. ...For no creature could ever be counted as equal with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer. Just as the priesthood of Christ is shared in various ways both by the ministers and by the faithful, and as the one goodness of God is really communicated in different ways to his creatures, so also the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a sharing in this one source. The Church does not hesitate to profess this subordinate role of Mary. It knows it through unfailing experience of it and commends it to the hearts of the faithful, so that encouraged by this maternal help they may the more intimately adhere to the Mediator and Redeemer. [Jesus Christ]

66. ... according to her own prophetic words: "All generations shall call me blessed, because He that is mighty hath done great things to me." (301) ...while the Mother is honored, the Son, through whom all things have their being (302) and in whom it has pleased the Father that all fullness should dwell,(303) is rightly known, loved and glorified and that all his commands are observed. 301 Lk. 1, 48. 302 Cf. Col. 1, 15-16. 303 Col 1, 19.

67. .. But it exhorts theologians and preachers of the divine word to abstain zealously both from all gross exaggerations as well as from petty narrow-mindedness in considering the singular dignity of the Mother of God.(23*) Following the study of Sacred Scripture, the Holy Fathers, the doctors and liturgy of the Church, and under the guidance of the Church's magisterium, let them rightly illustrate the duties and privileges of the Blessed Virgin which always look to Christ, the source of all truth, sanctity and piety.
(23) Cfr. Pius XII, Nunius radioph., 24 oct. 1954: AAS 46 (1954) p. 679. Litt. Encycl. Ad coeli Reginam, 11 oct. 1954: AAS 46 (1954) p. 637.

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Mother and Child Statues

Portrayals of Mary holding the Baby Jesus are sometimes said to be copied from statues of Isis holding Horus, or some other goddess holding her child. Motherhood is common to all the cultures of the world, and is a powerful connection for people. It's not hard to believe that this image would have made its way into the various world religions! In fact the Cross has too.

Catholics portray Mary holding the Christ Child because that is what she did when He was a baby. Most mothers hold their infants, and Mary held her Son when He was little. That doesn't make her a pagan goddess!  We could make the same charge about any artistic portrait of any mother and child, but it would be no more legitimate.

"And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him" (Mt 2:11). I don't think the Magi committed idolatry when they bowed down before a Child held by his mother. Would you refuse to fall down and worship Christ if you saw Him in his mother's arms?

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So when and how did Marian devotion start?

It started with the angel Gabriel who said to Mary, "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you" (Luke 1:27). It started when her cousin Elizabeth, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, cried out to her, "Blessed are you among women ...blessed is she who believed" (Luke 1:41-45). It was God who inspired the first honouring of Mary! He even inspired Mary herself to prophesy, "From henceforth all generations shall call me blessed" (Luke 1:47). This is the biblical basis for Marian devotion.

The Catholic relationship to Mary did not originate with pagan goddess worship, but with early Christians who despised paganism and would never have adopted its practices.

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Vatican condemnation of New Age goddesses

The Vatican has released a position paper on the New Age. It speaks to how the Pagan, New Age Gaia, mother earth theories work against the Catholic faith and against the faith of all Christians. This is the link to the paper. Below that are excerpts that discuss Gaia Mother Earth.

James Lovelock's erroneous book on the Gaia Hypothesis claims that "the entire range of living matter on earth, from whales to viruses, and from oaks to algae, could be regarded as constituting a single living entity, capable of manipulating the Earth's atmosphere to suit its overall needs and endowed with faculties and powers far beyond those of its constituent parts".(38) To some, the Gaia hypothesis is "a strange synthesis of individualism and collectivism. It all happens as if New Age, having plucked people out of fragmentary politics, cannot wait to throw them into the great cauldron of the global mind". The global brain needs institutions with which to rule, in other words, a world government. "To deal with today's problems New Age dreams of a spiritual aristocracy in the style of Plato's Republic, run by secret societies...".(39) This may be an exaggerated way of stating the case, but there is much evidence that gnostic elitism and global governance coincide on many issues in international politics.

It can be seen as the heir to movements in the early 20th century that promoted a world government. The consciousness of the unity of humanity sits well with the Gaia hypothesis. ..Positive Thinking: the conviction that people can change physical reality or external circumstances by altering their mental attitude, by thinking positively and constructively.

What has been successful is the generalization of ecology as a fascination with nature and resacralisation of the earth, Mother Earth or Gaia, with the missionary zeal characteristic of Green politics. The Earth's executive agent is the human race as a whole, and the harmony and understanding required for responsible governance is increasingly understood to be a global government, with a global ethical framework. The warmth of Mother Earth, whose divinity pervades the whole of creation, is held to bridge the gap between creation and the transcendent Father-God of Judaism and Christianity, and removes the prospect of being judged by such a Being.

In such a vision of a closed universe that contains "God" and other spiritual beings along with ourselves, we recognize here an implicit pantheism. This is a fundamental point which pervades all New Age thought and practice, and conditions in advance any otherwise positive assessment where we might be in favor of one or another aspect of its spirituality. As Christians, I believe on the contrary that "man is essentially a creature and remains so for all eternity, so that an absorption of the human 'in the divine' will never be possible"...(31)

However, it is enough to point out that New Age shares with a number of internationally influential groups the goal of superseding or transcending particular religions in order to create space for a universal religion which could unite humanity. Closely related to this is a very concerted effort on the part of many institutions to invent a Global Ethic, an ethical framework which would reflect the global nature of contemporary culture, economics and politics. Further, the politicization of ecological questions certainly colours the whole question of the Gaia hypothesis or worship of mother earth.

...the Holy Father remarks on the great interest in spirituality found in the secular world of today, and how other religions are responding to this demand in appealing ways. He goes on to issue a challenge to Christians in this regard: "But we who have received the grace of believing in Christ, the revealer of the Father and the Savior of the world, have a duty to show to what depths the relationship with Christ can lead" (n. 33). To those shopping around in the world's fair of religious proposals, the appeal of Christianity will be felt first of all in the witness of the members of the Church, in their trust, calm, patience and cheerfulness, and in their concrete love of neighbour, all the fruit of their faith nourished in authentic personal prayer.

(The Catholic Church wants nothing to do with "Gaia" and that pagan Goddess worshipped by New Agers has nothing whatever to do with Mary the Mother of Jesus)

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A personal note about Mary

Many people wish that this thing about Mary would go away and that the Church would be in greater unity with other Christians if it would.

It appears that most of the closed feelings against Mary have crept into the reform movement in the last 100 years. Many great Protestants have had strong feelings for Mary including C.S. Lewis. Most early reformers had strong positive feelings for Mary including Calvin, Heinrich Bullinger, and John Wesley. Even Martin Luther spoke to her in the first person saying:

No woman is like you. You are more than Eve or Sarah, blessed above all nobility, wisdom, and sanctity.
(Martin Luther Sermon - Feast of the Visitation, 1537)

We are not apologists. Apart from all this doctrine and stuff, the reason we believe that Mary is in heaven helping us is because each of us had an experience with Mary that we cannot refute (David's testimony here, Kirsten's testimony here). No one can tell us she is dead. We don't worship her. She is a friend who prays for us and has shown us very cool things about her Son, Jesus. We believe we are better Christians today because of Mary.

If you are afraid to talk to Mary, we invite you to:

Pray to Jesus about Mary.

Any Evangelical would say it is perfectly safe to pray to Jesus about anything. Ask Jesus what's up with Mary. Give him time to respond. We pray you have the same experience that has led to our powerful convictions about the validity of Mary as a helper for the helpless, and a great prayer warrior.

 

ENDNOTES:

Part of this article was adapted from http://home.nyc.rr.com/mysticalrose/index.html (interspersed with some additional notes by David )

1Ralph Woodrow, The Babylon Connection, (Palm Springs, CA: Ralph Woodrow Evangelistic Association, 1997) 34.

2Means "Godbearer" or Mother of God. This title came into Christian use very early.

Vatican position paper on the New Age

See also:
Mary in Scripture
What did Martin Luther say about Mary
What's this Co-Redemptrix nonsense?

 

Lord Jesus, let Your prayer of unity for Christians
become a reality, in Your way.
We have absolute confidence
that you can bring your people together,
we give you absolute permission to move.
Amen