3 Anti-Catholic Parts in the Pilgrim’s Progress

John Bunyan was the Puritan writer of the famous book The Pilgrim’s Progress (late 1600s). As we all well know, the Puritans (and other Protestants) didn’t get along too well with us Catholics. Though I greatly admire Bunyan’s work and personally enjoyed the read, various parts throughout the Pilgrim’s Progress criticize the Catholic Church (to little surprise). Here are three instances where Bunyan shows his disapproval of Catholicism, both implicitly and explicitly.

1. The Character Formalism

The first instance of Bunyan casting stones at Catholics is Christian’s encounter with the character Formalism, accompanied by Heresy at the foot of the hill Difficulty. Here, both Formalism and Heresy are disenfranchised by the steepness of the hill and resolve instead to traverse around it.Formalism represents those who ascribe to (in Bunyan’s mind) dogmatism, or merely rule-following, to pursue salvation. On the otherhand, the Heretic is one who bends the rules (doctrine or morality) to “overcome” difficulty (literally the hill Difficulty). Both, in Bunyan’s tale, take the easy path to their destruction.

While Formalism does not outright represent Catholicism, it is a common criticism of it by Protestants. Formalism is defined as “excessive adherence to prescribed forms.” Catholics generally have much more ritual and formalized doctrine than our Protestant brothers and sisters, but the belief that Catholicism is excessive in this regard is purely subjective. 

The belief that Catholics are formalists likely stems from the fact that the Church has a well-defined hierarchy and doctrine. And, I would agree, Catholics are quite organized – superbly so, considering Roman Catholicism (not to mention our Eastern Catholic brothers and sisters) consists of more than 1.2 billion people. But, Bunyan is saying something more troubling here by essentially accusing Catholics (and other highly ordered denominations) of placing our hope for salvation in the rituals, doctrines, and hierarchy themselves – which is, ironically, refuted within our doctrines themselves.
Another irony here, is that Heresy and Formalism should really be two of the same kind: a formalist who does place his or her hope for salvation in the formalist structures themselves would indeed be a heretic. I digress.

2. Pope the Giant

Immediately after Christian passes through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, he comes to a cave where the giants Pope and Pagan had made home. Obviously, Pope represents the powerful patriarch of the Catholic Church or at least the might of the Catholic Church as a whole, and Pagan represents the pagan, godless civilizations and cultures. Here is the direct passage from Bunyan:

I espied a little before me a cave, where two giants, Pope and Pagan, dwelt in old time, by who Power and Tyranny the Men whose bones, blood, ashes, etc. lay there, were cruelly put to death…Pagan has been dead many a day, and [Pope], though he yet be alive, he is by reason of age, and also of the many shrewd brushes that he met with in his younger days, now so crazy and stiff in his joints, that he can now do little more than sit in his Cave’s mouth

From this we glean that while paganism claimed many lives in the past, it is now dead or nonexistent. Oh if this were true! Perhaps Bunyan could not (in fairness) see that the 21st century has in many ways brought back a pagan or godless culture as a norm. This is a subject for another time, however. 

The giant Pope, in Bunyan’s tale, claimed as many lives as Pagan, though he still lives harmlessly in his Cave. These lives likely refer to those killed during the Inquisition and wars between Catholics and Protestants. While the former has merit as a criticism, the latter at least is the fault of both the Catholics and Protestants doing battle. One might argue the Crusades also added bodies at the mouth of the giant Pope’s Cave, but in all truth, most of those bodies were put there in self-defense from Muslim conquests into Eastern Europe – invasions that soon threatened areas surrounding the Papacy itself. To be completely fair, yes the Crusades did result in the pillaging (among other crimes) of innocent people along the way to the Holy Land, but these were by no means sanctions by the Vatican (the Cave). Those terrible things were perpetrated due to the plight of human condition: sin, which is no stranger to Catholics nor any other group.

I also found it interesting that in the eyes of a Protestant or Puritan, the giants Pope and Pagan may also be viewed as the extremes of religion: a dogmatic, highly structured religious organization on the one hand, and a godless free for all on the other hand. This viewpoint of Protestantism as a rational middle road between dogmatism and freedom is likely the reason Bunyan placed Pope and Pagan together in this scene. I, of course, disagree with such a view, but such a viewpoint makes sense in consideration of Protestantism’s rejection of both orthodox elements and paganism.

3. The Wares of Rome

The third criticism of Catholicism within the Pilgrim’s Progress occurred during Christian’s time in the town called Vanity Fair.  Here Bunyan wrote, “But as in other fairs, some one Commodity is as the chief of all the Fair, to the Ware of Rome and her Merchandise is greatly promoted in this Fair: only our English Nation, with some others, have taken a dislike thereat.” Here, each street in Vanity Fair is particular to some institution, mostly regarding different nations (the French, German, Spanish, etc.). However, Rome is singled out as the worst of all because it is the center of the Catholic world, being derived from the fact the the Bishop of Rome (i.e. the Pope) always held the chief power of the Church since the first or second century A.D. To this day, of course, the Pope occupies Vatican City in Rome, the city considered the “center of world” in Christ’s time and for some time afterward.

Bunyan likely points out the particular vitriol of “Rome Street” due to the rise of the Church of England a hundred years before Bunyan, in which Henry VIII’s failure to obtain an annulment of his marriage motivated the English church to break away from the Catholic Church and papal authority (see The English Reformation by Professor Andrew Pettegree). 

From the very name of the city, Bunyan is clearly accusing the Catholic Church of being vain, or prideful. This is not entirely unfounded, as the Church leading up to the Reformation did have its problems: the selling of Indulgences, priests breaking their vows of celibacy, etc. In these regards, the Church did need reformation. The key is that reformation within the Catholic Church did occur, and these failures were corrected in time, most before Bunyan’s time. (Side note: The term, “Protestant Reformation” is really quite a bad name. Real reformation is enacting change within the movement or organization, not a departure from it.)

Here might be a good place to interject that all the failures of the Catholic Church were never a result or fault of the Church as an institution. Ultimately, Revelations indeed claimed that the “gates of Hell” would never prevail against the Church (thus, why the Catholic Church has existed 2000 years despite its many human failings). The Church is composed of people who are all touched by original sin. It’s the human condition: that people do bad things. These are inevitably going to affect the behaviors of those explicitly within the Church as well. So, it’s no surprise to any informed person that Catholics, clergy and laymen alike, sin. Hint: Christians of all denominations sin, too. Only those as large and organized as the Catholic Church will appear to have “widespread” or “rampant” problems because all the others are too small or opaque for their problems to be public. Anyway, I digress again. Perhaps I’ll write more coherently and at proper length on this subject in the future. 

In summary, Bunyan is accusing the Catholic Church of having excessive pride, partly from his view of the Church’s past and perhaps also influenced by the outward appearance of wealth and extravagance often criticized of the Church.


Bunyan, a Puritan writer through and through, was not so kind to the Catholic Church, my home for now four years. While, I admire his writings and the Pilgrim’s Progress in particular, I don’t personally find his criticisms to be surprising, well-informed, nor well-founded. Rather, I believe his was a man of his times and geography mostly, wound up in Puritan disdain for central authority (the Pope and formal structures of the Church of England alike). Nonetheless, his work remains a must-read example of the early novel (after Cervantes’ Don Quixote) and Christian literature. The tale of Christian’s journey to heaven has certainly inspired me to seek Heaven ever more intentionally. 

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Published by Christian Poole

Catholic | Father | Husband | Founder of ThinkingWest .com

5 thoughts on “3 Anti-Catholic Parts in the Pilgrim’s Progress

  1. Thank you for your work in summarizing Pilgrim’s Progress. I have never read it, so I appreciate your efforts.

    1) Yes, Christ never said His Church would be impeccable (sinless), but He did say it would never teach error. It hasn’t and perhaps our non-Catholic Christian brethren are a little envious because we don’t have to re-invent the wheel for on-going moral dilemmas because the Church has already figured it out. Also, when new issues arise, we have justified confidence that the Magisterium will guide us before long…thus, we don’t have the contradictions resulting when non-Catholics try to debate among themselves with insufficient wisdom.

    2) Few know that the Inquisition was nowhere near as brutal as our Protestant-leaning history would like us to believe. In fact, many would blaspheme so that they would be placed into the Inquistion’s jails which were more humane than the secular cells! This and other “surprises” can be found in the book “Bearing False Witness” by Rodney Stark — a non-Catholic whose stated mission was not to justify Catholicism itself but the incorrect anti-Catholicism “history” which is so prevalent.

    Thanks again for this blog article! — Tony

    1. Hi Tony! Thanks for adding these helpful points. Regarding 2), I’ve encountered some inkling of this through the book “The Compact History of the Catholic Church” by Alan Schreck as well. However, it sounds like Stark’s work might provide more details on the “hot topic” historical issues many have with the Church. And, the particularly non-Catholic authorship is a powerful fact that bodes well for apologetics. Thanks for this suggestion, I’ll be sure to look for it.

  2. I was a little unclear in my statement of Mr. Starks’ purpose. From various other authors as well, he wanted to correct the false assessments of the Dark Ages, most of which were from the anti-Catholic proponents of the “Age of Reason or Enlightenment” which really wasn’t when it came to its attacks on religious thought.

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