Wednesday, 1 May 2013

The devil


Beyond his great humility, simplicity, personal poverty, warmth and approachability, what struck me about Pope Francis have also been his frequent references to the devil. He mentioned him as early as his first full day in office and keeps bringing him up at least on a weekly, if not a more frequent, basis in his sermons.

Since the devil is not part of what consciously constitutes my spiritual life, I have at first just glossed over his mentions, but I am now growing curious about why it is that Francis so frequently refers to him. It is not that I have an issue with the devil being referred to - it is more that I just haven’t given him much thought. The Christianity I try to practice is about love rather than the avoidance of sin, about following Jesus rather than combatting the devil and about seeking to encounter goodness, truth and beauty rather than learning how to recognize evil. It is not that I don’t care about avoiding evil, but I believe that to be a necessary side-effect of seeking good.

The problem of evil is unquestionably challenging though and its manifestations in the world are a source of horror and sorrow for me, which does make me want to understand why it is that Francis speaks so often about the devil. In fact, I have been reading Steven Pinker’s excellent The Better Angels of Our Nature precisely for the sake of gaining a better understanding of how it is that we, humans, are capable of the shocking atrocities that we keep perpetrating on each other. While Pinker is certainly critical of religion and opposed to the idea of the devil, he makes two points that I think are relevant here: first, that “[we] need to make the case that [our inner demons] exist, because there is a resistance in modern intellectual life to the idea that human nature embraces any motives that incline us toward violence at all,”1 and second that “[violence] is not a single motive, let alone a mounting urge. It is the output of several psychological systems that differ in their environmental triggers, their internal logic, their neurobiological basis, and their social distribution.” In other words, Pinker argues both that there is a tendency to deny the ubiquity of the capacity for violence and that its origins and manifestations are complex.

These two points are in fact a great bridge from contemporary psychology and anthropology to the Church’s teaching about evil and the devil. In its most recent (1975) review of the subject of the devil, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith starts with the same kind of realization as Pinker makes in the context of violence - that “the very existence of the devil is frankly called into question.” On the point of complexity too, it calls for caution and reason: “The many forms of superstition [and] obsessional preoccupation with Satan […] have always been condemned by the Church. […] Reserve and prudence are in fact demanded. [… O]ne must exercise discernment. And one must leave room for research and its findings.” Finally, it also dispells a potential misunderstanding, where the devil could be used as an excuse and a barrier to seeking scientific understanding: “It is clear that [the Church] has never allowed man to rid himself of his responsibility by attributing his faults to the devil. The Church did not hesitate to oppose such escapism when the latter manifested itself, saying with St. John Chrysostom: “It is not the devil but men’s own carelessness which causes all their falls and all the ills of which they complain.””

So, why is it that the Church speaks about the devil? By far the most obvious and compelling answer is that Jesus himself did so - calling him “tempter” (Matthew 4:3), “accuser” (Revelation 12:10), “father of lies” and “murderer” (John 8:44). Who is this devil though, whom Jesus speaks about? Jesus himself describes him as follows: “He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in truth, because there is no truth in him.” (John 8:44). Two things are important here: first, that the devil has been present “from the beginning,” which the Catechism explains by saying that ““[t]he devil and the other demons were indeed created naturally good by God, but they became evil by their own doing.” 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.” (§391-392). This means that the devil is God’s creature, rather than an equivalent but opposed being, which in turn leaves God as having created only what is good and the devil opposing him out of pride and his free choice. The second part of Jesus’ profile of the devil is equally key: the devil has “no truth in him” - his temptations are lies and the sufferings they lead to are a consequence of an opposition to the truth.

Coming back to Pope Francis, let me just pick out a couple of his references to the devil:
  1. In his very first sermon after being elected pope, Francis quotes the French poet Léon Bloy: “Whoever does not pray to God, prays to the devil.” I read this as him pointing to there being no middle ground between truth and falsehood.

  2. During one of his morning masses in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, he points to the seriousness of falsehood: “We are all sinners; all of us. We all commit sins. But calumny is something else. It is of course a sin, too, but it is something more. Calumny aims to destroy the work of God, and calumny comes from a very evil thing: it is born of hatred. And hate is the work of Satan. Calumny destroys the work of God in people, in their souls. Calumny uses lies to get ahead. And let us be in no doubt, eh?: Where there is calumny, there is Satan himself.”

  3. On another occasion he places the impulse to gossip at the feet of the devil: “When we prefer to gossip, gossip about others, criticize others- these are everyday things that happen to everyone, including me – these are the temptations of the evil one who does not want the Spirit to come to us and bring about peace and meekness in the Christian community.”

  4. Finally, he also warns that “the devil, lead[s] us to believe that ghosts, fantasies, are reality,” again underlining how it is the absence of truth that is the root from which evil springs.
As you can see, the above is just my attempt to structure some first notes rather than an exposition of some clear insight. I am at the point of trying to begin to make sense of why it is that Francis keeps bringing up the devil and trying to understand why it is that Jesus, and subsequently the Church, speaks about him. The picture I am getting is one that certainly makes sense in the bigger context of creation and has the following as its core idea: The truth presented to a free recipient can be rejected out of pride, where subsequent lies result in evil and suffering. To have this rejection of the truth be the act of a creature, albeit spiritual, rather than “just” an abstract concept or principle is again consistent with the personal nature of the Trinity and the ultimate superiority of good to evil.

1 This reminded me of the following line from The Usual Suspects (delivered by the character Keyser Söze), which comes from Charles Baudelaire’s Le spleen de Paris: “The finest trick of the devil is to persuade you that he does not exist.”