Is the Pope Obsessed with the Devil?

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.

Dr. William Oddie


Dr. William Oddie is a leading English Catholic writer and broadcaster. He edited The Catholic Herald from 1998 to 2004 and is the author of The Roman Option and Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy.

  • Dick Prudlo

    Dr. Oddie, as the Brit’s would say, is spot on.

  • Joe DeCarlo

    The reason that the mainstream media is shocked about the pope talking about the devil is that the Catholic church, since VatII, has rarely mentioned the devil, evil, hell. When was the last time that any of you who attend a Novus Ordo Mass heard the priest talking about the devil or hell? I’m glad to hear that Pope Francis is talking about the Evil One.

    • WRBaker

      You are very much correct. You could also add Purgatory, the Four Last Things, etc, etc. You know things are bad when even a priest says he didn’t know what the Sins that Cry to Heaven for Vengeance were.

    • Bill S

      I think Catholics have to decide whether Satan is fictional or real. He is fictional in the Book of Job, where he challenges God to test Job. I believe that he is fictional in the story of the temptation of Jesus in the desert (since there were no eyewitnesses). I really don’t know any case where he isn’t a fictional character.

      • Tony

        Excuse me, Bill, but that’s flat nonsense. There were no eye-witnesses, eh? Jesus was there. Or do you think it is simply impossible that Jesus TOLD HIS DISCIPLES WHAT HAPPENED?
        He is not “fictional” in the book of Job in any other sense than God Himself is “fictional” in the Book of Job. It would require some theological and literary acumen to determine, I grant, how we are to interpret the figure of Satan in the Book of Job, but that is a different question.
        Jesus says of Satan, “He is a liar and the father of lies,” and, “He was a murderer from the beginning,” and, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from the heavens.” Jesus speaks of Satan as an actual being. I’ll go with Jesus.

        • Bill S

          “He is not “fictional” in the book of Job in any other sense than God Himself is “fictional” in the Book of Job.”

          Since the story itself is a fable, both God and Satan (and Job) are fictional. The writer is obviously a storyteller not a reporter or a historian.

          Same goes for most if not all of the stories about Jesus. They weren’t recorded until many years later and were primarily folklore. I’m surprised that you have built your whole worldview around believing that Bible stories are literally true. That would make you a Fundementalist.

          • Marc L

            Focusing on the Gospels: by this standard, how does anyone discern truth from fiction? Plausibility of each story? Repetition? Whether it just “feels true?”

            • Bill S

              Historians record events differently than story tellers tell stories. The Bible is just a collection of stories that don’t have to be true to make their point. When you read a novel, you don’t worry about how the author knew what two characters were saying to one another. The stories are written more like a novel than like a history book.

  • jsmappy

    Come out of her my people

  • Tony

    I find the reluctance to believe in the existence of beings of an order greater than the human to be most curious, since our “science” fiction is absolutely filled with such beings — the notorious Q in the second Star Trek series. If string theory (for which there is no evidence and can theoretically be no evidence) is imaginable, why then not a being that straddles times and places? I also find that reluctance odd, given the obvious presence in history of an evil that seems to transcend even the idol-factory that is the imagination of man. I should think that people who can recall Mao, Stalin, and the third and perhaps least in that evil troika, Hitler, would be slow to assert dogmatically that there is no devil. But perhaps they were too damned busy making a middle-class nice-guy enlightener out of the pervert and sex criminal Kinsey, or a hero out of the gun-running drug-pushing Malcolm X, or a sophisticate out of the grubby-minded Hugh Hefner, or a Friend to Man out of the ten-thousandfold murderer Henry Morgentaler, or the necrophilic creep Jack Kevorkian … Nothing to see here, folks, just keep on moving — the direction is down.

    • Bill S

      “I find the reluctance to believe in the existence of beings of an order greater than the human to be most curious, since our “science” fiction is absolutely filled with such beings”

      Yes. It is fiction. Within the limits of space travel, humans are the highest order. If there higher order beings in the universe we will likely never know about them. Regardless of scripture and unsubstantiated claims, no one has ever encountered a higher order of being than humans. All accounts to the contrary are legends, lies, delusions, falsehoods, etc.

      • Joe DeCarlo

        Do exorcists extract a fictional character out of possessed people?

        • Bill S

          Exorcisms are based on superstition and deal with psychosomatic illnesses.

  • Lygeia

    I think this is an attempt by the religious hierarchy of the Church to paper over the financial and sexual abuse scandals in the Church by getting the faithful to say: “Oooooh! Let’s focus on the devil and blame Satan for everything!”

    If evil supernatural and discarnate entities exist, why are we such a fit extension for them?

    We need to look to the evil in the human heart and stop blaming the devil.

    • jacobhalo

      put a d in front of evil.

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  • Marcelus

    Pope Francis: Satan exists in the 21st century and how we can fight him

    (Vatican Radio) Pope Francis said Satan exists in our present century and we must learn from the Gospel how to fight against his temptations. This was the core message of his homily at the Mass celebrated on Friday in the Santa Marta residence.

    Listen to this report by Susy Hodges:

    Pope Francis said the life of every Christian is a constant battle against evil just as Jesus during his life had to struggle against the devil and his many temptations. And he warned that whoever wants to follow Jesus must be aware of this reality.

    “We too are tempted, we too are the target of attacks by the devil because the spirit of Evil does not want our holiness, he does not want our Christian witness, he does not want us to be disciples of Christ. And what does the Spirit of Evil do, through his temptations, to distance us from the path of Jesus? The temptation of the devil has three characteristics and we need to learn about them in order not to fall into the trap. What does Satan do to distance us from the path of Jesus? Firstly, his temptation begins gradually but grows and is always growing. Secondly, it grows and infects another person, it spreads to another and seeks to be part of the community. And in the end, in order to calm the soul, it justifies itself. It grows, it spreads and it justifies itself.”

    Turning to the bible, the Pope recalled how Jesus’s first temptation by Satan was almost ‘like a seduction.’ Satan told Jesus to throw himself down from the Temple so that all the people will see that he is the Messiah! And warned the Pope, when the devil is rejected, he grows and comes back stronger than before. Jesus himself noted this in the gospel when the devil went around looking for companions and with them returned to Jesus. Satan got involved with Jesus’s enemies and what seemed at first like a calm trickle of water turned into a flood of water. In this way, the temptation grows, infects others and justifies itself. As an illustration, the Pope recalled how when Jesus preached in the synagogue, his enemies belittled him by saying “but isn’t this the son of Joseph, the carpenter, the son of Mary. He never studied so with what authority can he speak?

    “We have a temptation that grows: it grows and infects others. For example, let’s look at gossip: I’m a bit envious of this or that person and at first I’m just envious inside and I need to share it and go to another person and say: “But have you seen that person?’.. and this gossip tries to grow and infects another and another… This is the way gossip works and all of us have been tempted to gossip! Maybe not one of you, if you’re a saint , but I too have been tempted to gossip! It’s a daily temptation. And it begins in this way, discreetly, like a trickle of water. It grows by infecting others and in the end it justifies itself.”

    Pope Francis concluded by urging people to be vigilant and not to give in to that initial temptation and thus allow it to spread to others and justify itself.

    “We are all tempted because the law of our spiritual life, our Christian life is a struggle: a struggle. That’s because the Prince of this world, Satan, doesn’t want our holiness, he doesn’t want us to follow Christ. Maybe some of you might say: ‘But Father, how old fashioned you are to speak about the devil in the 21st century!’ But look out because the devil is present! The devil is here… even in the 21st century! And we mustn’t be naïve, right? We must learn from the Gospel how to fight against Satan.”

    Text from page
    of the Vatican Radio website