“Ask a Priest: What Should We Make of Ancient Faiths?”

Q: We now have a decent understanding of ancient civilizations, and with that understanding comes knowledge of their religious practices. I would like to know how these ancient faiths are viewed in Catholicism. These religions were generated before Christ, and many before Judaism, and they had thousands if not millions of devout followers. Also, many were polytheistic, so any indication that they were perhaps worshipping the same God that we worship today is destroyed because they worshipped many gods. One thing that hit me especially hard was learning about how ancient Mayans used to compete in their sport, and the winner of these games would be allowed to be the individual who was sacrificed. This hit me hard because it showed me just how devout these individuals were to their faith, and obviously the glory of our God had nothing to do with their devotion. So, in God’s eyes, what were these people doing? And what makes Catholicism so much more legitimate than their faiths? It seems their belief was just as strong as most Catholics; was God simply happy to be idle until revealing the truth around the time of Moses and thereafter? – J.R.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: You raise big questions! A proper answer would require a book-length e-mail. But perhaps a few observations could help here. Let me try to address some of your specific questions.

— I would like to know how these ancient faiths are viewed in Catholicism?

Let me preface my observation with a very quick overview of salvation history.

After the fall in the Garden of Eden, God promised a redeemer (see Genesis 3:15. God in his wisdom didn’t send the redeemer right away; in fact, the world had to wait a long time for the coming of Christ.

One theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas, likened this delay to the case of a patient battling an illness. Sometimes medicine can’t be given to a sick person right away. It takes time for an illness to run its course, before the medicine can be effective. The same could be said of the world. It had to let the illness of sin runs its course for a while before the cure (Jesus) could be administered.

Now, man, who is made in the image of God, always looks for something transcendent. He looks for ways to understand what life is about. He looks for ways to connect with a deity that he intuits is “up there somewhere.”

Hence, various cultures and peoples who didn’t know about Christ or the Triune God developed ways of searching for the transcendent, of giving what they believed was glory to the deity or deities they believed in. In other words, they groped in the darkness. But at least they were searching for something.

So what does the Church think about these ancient religions? It recognizes that there were probably sparks of the truth in them. But it also holds that the fullness of truth was revealed in Jesus Christ. (For more reading see the declaration “Dominus Iesus“.

How will God judge peoples who practiced those ancient faiths? He will certainly judge them differently (that is, less strictly) than he will judge those of us who should know better.

Permit me to quote at length a passage from the Second Vatican Council document on the Church, Lumen Gentium, No 16:

“Finally, those who have not yet received the Gospel are related in various ways to the people of God. In the first place we must recall the people to whom the testament and the promises were given and from whom Christ was born according to the flesh. On account of their fathers this people remains most dear to God, for God does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues. But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place among these there are the Muslims, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind. Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things, and as Savior wills that all men be saved. Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found among them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel. She knows that it is given by Him who enlightens all men so that they may finally have life. But often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator.”

— So, in God’s eyes, what were these people doing? And what makes Catholicism so much more legitimate than their faiths? It seems their belief was just as strong as most Catholics, was God simply happy to be idle until revealing the truth around the time of Moses and thereafter?

As mentioned, God probably recognized that these ancient peoples were trying to express some kind of worship to some kind of deity. Religion comes naturally to people; we are built to reach out to the infinite.

Why is Catholicism more legitimate? Because the Church is founded by Jesus Christ, the Son of God who took on human nature and walked among us. Our beliefs are what Jesus taught. Jesus is the height of God’s revelation in the world.

The fact that ancient people felt strongly about their faith — maybe even more strongly than some Christians feel about their faith — might speak to the sincerity of these folks. But intensity of belief is a separate issue from whether someone actually has the truth. Today, for instance, there are terrorists who believe strongly that their faith allows and encourages them to kill innocent people. The intensity of their belief doesn’t make their ideas true.

As for God’s timing, yes, there is something mysterious about it. It is kind of remarkable that he started to reveal himself more intensely to individuals and peoples in very specific locations in the Middle East, at very specific times of history. But then, Jesus entered the world in a specific time and place, too. The meaning of his Incarnation and what it means for us is the kind of topic that could fill a small library with books. As for the ancients who didn’t know of Jesus or of the God of Israel, suffice is to say that somehow the Almighty gave them assistance in their journey through life.

What is the upshot of all this? We could say that our faith, our baptism, our knowledge of Jesus Christ is a great grace. Not everyone has had that grace. And that means that God will expect more from us who know of Jesus. He will hold us to a high standard at Judgment Day.

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