Bethany Blankley writes in the Christian Post Opinion website that “The mainstream media is at it again”: “‘The Pope And The Devil: Is Francis an Exorcist?’ an Associated Press (AP) headline reads. The AP reporter writes that ‘Francis’ obsession with Satan’ is because he has mentioned the devil ‘on a handful of occasions’ within a two month period.” Ms. Blankley’s own headline expresses well the obvious rebuttal: “No, Pope Francis is not ‘Obsessed with Satan,’ He’s Just a Christian who Believes in the Devil.”
And indeed, belief in Satan, for Catholics certainly, is not an optional extra. Here’s the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
(391) Behind the disobedient choice of our first parents lurks a seductive voice, opposed to God, which makes them fall into death out of envy. Scripture and the Church’s Tradition see in this being a fallen angel, called “Satan” or the “devil”. The Church teaches that Satan was at first a good angel, made by God: “The devil and the other demons were indeed created naturally good by God, but they became evil by their own doing.”
(392) Scripture speaks of a sin of these angels. This “fall” consists in the free choice of these created spirits, who radically and irrevocably rejected God and his reign. We find a reflection of that rebellion in the tempter’s words to our first parents: “You will be like God.” The devil “has sinned from the beginning”; he is “a liar and the father of lies.”
David Mills, in First Things, quotes C.S.Lewis, not from Screwtape but from a sermon he preached during the war: “nearly all the references to this subject in the New Testament come from a single source. But then that source is Our Lord Himself. People will tell you it is St Paul, but that is untrue. These overwhelming doctrines are dominical. They are not really removable from the teaching of Christ or of His Church. If we do not believe them, our presence in this church is great tomfoolery. If we do, we must sometime overcome our spiritual prudery and mention them.”
So why don’t we? In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis has a senior devil called Screwtape impress on the mind of an apprentice tempter the vital importance of maintaining disbelief in the existence of Satan, his devils, and their activity in the world, by convincing the object of his attentions of the absurdity of any such idea.
If we disbelieve in the devil’s existence, says Lewis, then that is because Satan himself has successfully convinced us of his non-existence. It’s quite a thought. Here’s Screwtape: “I do not think you will have much difficulty in keeping the patient in the dark. The fact that ‘devils’ are predominantly comic figures in the modern imagination will help you. If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arrive in his mind, suggest to him a picture of something in red tights, and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that he therefore cannot believe in you.”
People who write at all regularly about the Church keep one eye on the website of Sandro Magister, who is not only well-informed about events in Vatican City, but is also a regular source of perceptive comment on what’s going on.
Quite a few writers have spotted and quoted from his recent piece “Francis and the Devil,” in which he begins with the stand first “He refers to him continually. He combats him without respite. He does not believe him to be a myth, but a real person, the most insidious enemy of the Church,” and he goes on to point out how rarely we hear of the subject, despite its centrality to the biblical witness: “In the preaching of Pope Francis,” begins Magister, “there is one subject that returns with surprising frequency: the devil. It is a frequency on a par with that with which the same subject recurs in the New Testament (my emphasis). But in spite of this, the surprise remains. If for no other reason than that with his continual references to the devil, Pope Jorge Mario Bergoglio parts ways with the current preaching in the Church, which is silent about the devil or reduces him to a metaphor.”
But why, why, why? The existence of Satan and all his angels, ever since I became a Christian, has seemed to me self-evident; that prayer we all say after Mass in the Usus Antiquior (in other words that practicing Catholics without exception once said regularly) for me has a particular and vivid credibility: “Holy Michael Archangel, defend us in the day of battle; be our safeguard against the wickedness of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray: and do thou, Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God thrust down to hell Satan and all wicked spirits, who wander through the world seeking the ruin of souls.”
This is no Catholic invention: it is fundamental to the New Testament vision of the world and therefore to the Christian faith: In the words of that unforgettable injunction of St Peter himself: “Be sober, be vigilant: because your adversary the devil, as a roaring Lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (I Peter 5:8); “Whom resist stedfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world” (I Peter 5:9).
It is excellent practical advice; and if you want to know more about its biblical origins, Sandro Magister reproduces an article by Inos Biffi, originally published in Osservatore Romano, called “How the Scriptures speak of the devil,” which Biffi ends by expressing his astonishment at “the absence in preaching and catechesis of the truth concerning the devil. Not to speak of those theologians who, on the one hand, applaud the fact that Vatican II declared Scripture to be the ‘soul of sacred theology’ (Dei Verbum, 24), and, on the other, do not hesitate, if not to decide on [the devil’s] nonexistence, to overlook as marginal a fact that is so clear and widely attested to in Scripture itself as is that concerning the devil, maintaining him to be the personification of an obscure and primordial idea of evil, now demystified and unacceptable.
“Such a conception is a masterpiece of ideology, and above all is equivalent to trivializing the very work of Christ and his redemption.
“This is why,” concludes Biffi, “those references to the devil which we find in the discourses of Pope Francis seem to us anything but secondary.” Precisely so.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared May 28, 2013 in the Catholic Herald of London and is reprinted with permission. The image above entitled “St. Michael Defeats the Devil” was painted by Eugène Delacroix in 1854-61.