Saint Patrick: Was He Really a Catholic?

I’ll admit off the bat that I am no theologian, at least not on a professional level. That said, I want to take a look at someone who has his name on every calendar in the western world: Saint Patrick. Of course, I let my mind wander down this tangent because Saint Patrick’s Day is on Saturday. I’ll share with you briefly my impressions of his main workthe Confessions of Saint Patrick. It is the only truly revealing writing that has come down to us from the earliest Christian missionary to Ireland. My thought while reading it was this: was Patrick really a bonified Roman Catholic? as they would like us to unquestionably believe today?

The preponderance of evidence that I pulled from his writings led me to see Patrick as being a far cry from the quintessential modern Catholic. A “modern Catholic” is a burdensome concept in and of itself, because of the serpentine evolution of the church. Leaving that rabbit trail, I find the lack of Catholic terms used by Patrick to be of some evidentiary weight in this argument. Granted, he was living on the very edge of civilization, ministering to a pagan people, but if he were as solidly Catholic as the church wants us to believe, why does he never use a blatantly Catholic term in his writing? He never lauds the pope; he never alludes to the authority of Rome or the Virgin. I realize that he lived during a formatory period of the Roman church, and was quite removed from the centers of power, but this does not totally excuse his lack of reference to that center.

Instead, Patrick makes numerous, repeated reference to terms that have a distinct Protestant ring to them. And again, he lived during a period before the Catholic church’s rise to dominance; even further before the Reformation and rise of Protestantism. But if we today compare his words to the beliefs of these two camps, to which camp do his words belong?

I find it convincing that Patrick mentions faith in Christ and repentance to God, tenets which are bedrock of Protestantism. He entreats the steersmen of his ship to “Be converted by faith with all your heart to my Lord God, because nothing is impossible for him.” He also states his belief that the Holy Spirit is the gift of God to the believer only. He mentions his view that Jesus is the very Son of God, and salvation is accessible by his atoning blood.

An argument such as this presents curious difficulties. Patrick himself lived and died before these differences of doctrine were fleshed out between the two church structures. The Catholic Church had not been extant for very long, and many of the beliefs that make it Catholic had not yet been uttered in ex cathedra.

It seems to me, however, that Patrick would not want to be associated with what the Roman Catholic Church of today espouses. The Church did not co-opt him as it’s poster boy of Irish Christianity until well into the 17th century. By then, they had become proponents of transubstantiation, the divinity of the Virgin Mary, extreme unction, forgiveness of sins by a priest, confession, penance, and countless other unscriptural doctrines. In summary, Patrick’s religious beliefs bore little similarity to those of the Catholic church, then or now. He has been taken as a popular symbol and slapped on a “religious feast” as a method of advertisement. Hopefully I will continue this examination of Patrick’s life and belief, plus it’s relation to the popular conceptions of today, in future posts here.

I could not find a non-Catholic depiction of Saint Patrick, so I’ll share my favorite city’s March 17th tradition instead!

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