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Evils done in the name of Religion: Part 1, Catholicism

Bridges were to ancient Romae what the internet is today.
Bridges were to ancient Romae what the internet is today.
Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

People have no problem with the statement that“Religion,” in the general sense, has been a source of evil. But typically (except for atheists) they mean, ‘most religions except mine.’ As mentioned in the previous article, no religion has a monopoly on evil deeds. In furtherance of that point, we’re going to take a close look at the history of several faiths, starting with the Catholic Church.

The Church is big on titles. They love the title “Father” just as the Pharisees did in Jesus’ day, in direct violation of Jesus' command to avoid the title. (Matthew 23:9) “Pope” is just another word for Father, ‘Papa.’ Another title he carries is Pontifex Maximus. What does that mean?

‘Maximus’ obviously means simply maximum, chief, or head. What about pontiff? Bridges in France have names like ‘Pont Neuf,’ in Italy, 'Ponte Aelius.' The army calls a portable bridge a ‘pontoon.’ A doctor refers to the middle connective (bridge) of your brain as the ‘pons.’ But what does “bridge” have to do with “priest”? The mystery clears up a bit when we recall that the Church stole the title from pagan religion in Rome.

One of ancient Rome’s greatest achievements was the stone arch bridge. They built over 900 of them! Amazingly, many are still standing. For its day, the Roman system of bridges, roadways, viaducts and aqueducts was as important as the internet is today.

Not too surprisingly, then, early generals and other sub-rulers of Rome were given the title, among others, Pontiff, that is, ‘Bridge builder.’ “Pontiff” eventually lost its meaning, and came to mean simply 'big shot;' after that, it was inevitable that it be grabbed by pagan priests. And, naturally, the guy who presided over a body of other pontiffs got the title Pontifex Maximus. His real power, of course, was in being the final word on all things religious, and thus an influential adviser to the head of state. Some of these advisers went on to actually become the head of state. The title is known to have been held by Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar; and finally Augustus made the title inseparable from Caesar.

In 375 Emperor Gratian, a nominal Christian, dropped the title because of its pagan origins. But it was promptly picked up by the supposedly Christian bishop of Rome who became known as Pope Damasus. The title has no Christian significance; he coveted it simply for the power it implied.

By accepting the title Pontifex Maximus, Pope Francis is acknowledging that his authority descends, not from Peter, but from pagan Rome.

Now, none of this really qualifies as “evil,” as my title suggests. So their priests are using a pagan title (and pagan garb, and pagan rites, but that's fodder for another column.) So what?

Before we get to any of that, we need to deal with one bold, underlying claim: The Church's claim that Peter the apostle was in fact Peter the Pontifex Maximus, the first in an "unbroken chain" of popes from Pope Peter to Pope Francis. If that's true, they must have God on their side. If it's not true, their whole foundation, and the pope's authority, is a lie. Which is it?

We’ll look at that next.

To read my previous columns click here.

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