The Pope and the Devil

VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - MAY 18:  Pope Francis attends the celebration of Pentecost Vigil with lay Ecclesial movements in St.
VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - MAY 18: Pope Francis attends the celebration of Pentecost Vigil with lay Ecclesial movements in St. Peter's Square on May 18, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. This weekend tens of thousands of people descend on the Vatican to celebrate the Pentecost Vigil together with Pope Francis. Echoing similar celebrations that took place with his predecessors Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the Holy Father has called the New Movements and Ecclesial Communities to invoke the Holy Spirit upon them and their continued mission in the life of the Church. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

"The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness." --Joseph Conrad

Recently, there has been quite stir about Pope Francis' remarks regarding the devil and his influence on human affairs. A recent L'Espresso column by the Italian journalist Sandro Magister in particular focused on a homily that the pope gave to the staff at the Domus Sanctae Marthae, the Vatican hotel for visiting clerics where the pope has chosen to stay rather than the papal apartments. According to Magister, Pope Francis takes the Gospel warnings against Satan very literally, seeing the modern tendency to write the devil off as a kind of mythical expression or literary fiction as a kind of victory for evil's influence in the world. On the other hand, Cindy Wooden, writing for the Boston Archdiocesan newspaper, the Boston Pilot, sees the pope's manner of expression as formed by his training as Jesuit, this shaped primarily by the Spiritual Exercises where St. Ignatius of Loyola, the ex-soldier who founded the Jesuits back in the 16th century, trained his recruits to think of themselves as soldiers fighting in the front lines of the battle under the banner of Christ the King against the forces of Satan, the Prince of Darkness.

Having been trained by Jesuits, at least for a short period in my early years, and having made several retreats directed by Jesuits -- although in a somewhat shortened form compared to the full 30-day treatment envisioned by Ignatius -- I think I can say that I do understand where the pope is coming from. But at the same time, I also have my reservations about taking this kind of language too literally. I say this in light of the following considerations which pretty much sum up what I've thought all along.

To begin with, Christianity took root in a world obsessed by the devil -- the belief that most, if not all, human ills, whether physical, psychological or moral, were caused by evil spirits of one sort or another. Even philosophers, like Plato and Aristotle, believed that the human soul was driven by various "demons" whether for good or for bad. So too, religious thought of the time was dominated by a metaphysical, even theological, "dualism" which saw the universe in terms of an epic battle between two cosmic forces, the good or "divine" and the bad or "diabolical." Late Old Testament era literature, like much of that found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, is filled with such imagery, as is the New Testament book of Revelation. The mythical serpent of Genesis became identified with the fallen angel "Lucifer," and just as divine messages became personified as "messengers" (angels) so too temptations became personified as the tempter -- in Hebrew, Satan. What for us is largely explainable in psychiatric and psychosomatic terms was, even for the authors of the gospels, as for many others of that era, evidence of diabolic possession. Apart from this kind of understanding, how else could even Jesus have made himself understood?

Unfortunately, the exaggerations of such a mindset soon dominated Christian spirituality, for according to this dualistic thinking, the body and its appetites were seen as almost inherently evil. One of the early Christian sects, the Messalians, even went so far as to teach that each human soul was inhabited by a personal demon -- after all, if one believes in a specially assigned "guardian angel," why not a specially assigned tempter as well? So too the early monks and hermits went off into the deserts of Palestine, Syria and Egypt, not just to find God, but, first of all, to engage in personal combat with these evil spirits, while their publicists played up this aspect for all it was worth.

Today, of course, we know better. We know, for example, that in terms of psychological growth, dualistic thinking characterizes not only our earlier growth stages, but especially that stage when a person is first emerging from collective or inherited "group-think" to take a position or stand of one's own. At this point in life -- which includes the life of institutions or cultures -- everything has to become clearly defined in terms of black or white, yes or no, true or false. Especially if one is still in a struggle with one's own personal demons, there can be little tolerance for shades of grey. In addition, there is the psychological phenomenon of "projection" -- attributing to others our own inner attitudes or accusing them for our own faults.

The disturbing part about all this is not just the inspiration it gives comedians (Flip Wilson's "The devil made me do it!") but the opportunity for self-evasion of responsibility it still affords. As the "Desert Fathers" soon discovered (much like Pogo), the real enemy is ourselves. Solitude, quicker than anything else, makes this evident. All too often, society or constant company is the refuge of those who can't face themselves. And in turn, the society or institution is made to serve as a refuge to avoid facing up to the real evils in the world. And we must make no mistake, evil is very much a reality. Perhaps the psychiatrist Carl Jung was on to something when he suggested that Christianity had erred in describing divinity as totally good and neglecting the "shadow side of God" -- although I personally think a fuller understanding of the evolutionary process yields a more satisfactory explanation for the evil in the world. In other words, I tend to stand with Joseph Conrad, who, back in 1899 probed "The Heart of Darkness" with uncanny accuracy and saw humans as "quite capable of every wickedness."

But as for "Satan" and the other "devils," if there really are such beings, I think it is best just to ignore them. For if Christian tradition is correct in attributing the devils' fall from their angelic status to pride, then the logic of human experience would seem to dictate that we ignore them altogether. After all, for those who are filled with pride, there is no worse fate than being treated as if they didn't exist!