Nobody Knows What Archbishop Chaput Meant By “Pagan,” But It Seems Kinda Bad

Religion News Service surveys a number of experts and theologians, but gets no closer to answering a question that’s been on our minds for about two weeks now: What did Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput mean a couple of weeks ago when he said: “A new evangelization must start with the sober knowledge that much of the once-Christian developed world, and even many self-described Christians, are in fact pagan.”

The experts are cautious. And Chaput isn’t talking, telling a reporter via email that ““the words and the context of the words speak for themselves. It is all quite obvious.” (It’s starting to feel like we’re interpreting the final scene of the The Sopranos here.)

Others, however, aren’t so sure his message is clear given the many meanings of “pagan.”

“It’s kind of a sliding word,” said the Rev. Patrick McCollum, a leading practitioner of pagan religion and a peace activist who promotes religious pluralism.

In its original context in the ancient world, pagan simply meant a “country dweller” and was only mildly derogatory — like “hick” or “redneck,” said McCollum, who lives near San Francisco. A pagan may have been viewed as uncultured, but there was no particular moral or spiritual opprobrium attached to the label.

Yet as the Abrahamic religions, particularly Christianity, began to spread, “pagan” took on negative connotations as the antithesis of the “true faith” of the monotheists.

CS Lewis preferred pagans to old-fashioned atheists—pagans at least worship something higher than themselves. But Chaput may not feel the same way.  “In the common currency, words have a certain balance, they have a certain weight and the words that he’s using could broadly be taken as judgmental,” said Lawrence Cunningham, a emeritus professor at Notre Dame.

In other words, no, Chaput probably wasn’t complimenting his fellow Christians. We didn’t really expect differently.