Piers Paul-Read

Satan is back

Francis is giving new voice to an unfashionable perception

Satan is back
Text settings

It used to be said by Catholic priests back in the 1950s that the Devil was delighted when human beings decided that he did not exist. In those days it seemed unlikely that he would disappear altogether from human consciousness because he was so well known — as Baal or Beelzebub in the Old Testament, the Prince of Lies in the New, as Lucifer in the King James Bible, as Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, and as Mephistopheles in the legend of Faust; but it has turned out that a subtle move from scripture into myth, folklore and finally literature has been an effective way of becoming unreal. Today we hear his name more frequently in lectures on English literature than in seminars on theology. Films about demonic possession and exorcism still send shivers down the spine, but we know it is make-believe. The precipitous decline in Britain in the number of those who believe in God was long preceded by the disappearance of the Devil even from the cognizance of Christian believers.

Is this about to change? Soon after his election, Pope Francis told the College of Cardinals not ‘to give in to the pessimism, to that bitterness, that the Devil places before us every day’. More radically, in his first homily as Pope, he quoted the French author from the turn of the 20th century, Léon Bloy: ‘He who does not pray to the Lord prays to the Devil.’ Bloy was a zealous, even belligerent Catholic: he believed, like Pope Francis, in spiritual renewal through poverty and suffering, and eschewed any compromise with the world.

But who, or what, is the Devil? Even in scripture he is elusive. He tempts Christ during his 40 days in the wilderness; he prompts Peter to refuse to wash the feet of Jesus (‘Get thee behind me, Satan’); and in some translations of the Lord’s prayer, we are enjoined to ask God to deliver us not just from evil in the abstract but from ‘the evil one’ — a personal adversary of a personal God. Jesus makes plain that Satan has his own realm where unrepentant sinners are tormented for eternity: there are around 17 references to Hell in the Gospel of Matthew alone. Hell is mentioned in the Nicean Creed but not the Devil; and he plays no significant role in the Epistles of Saint Paul.

Satan figures in a number of ceremonies: the baptismal vows taken by godparents on behalf of their godchild include a promise to reject Satan and all his works and all his empty promises. He is to be found in icons, paintings and the statuary of medieval cathedrals. If he is given less prominence than one might suppose, given his role in the Fall of Man, it is probably because the dualist heretics — the Manicheans, Bogomils, Cathars, etc — made too much of him, believing that he and not God was the creator of the material world. Mystics like St John Vianney, the Curé d’Ars, have been acutely aware of his presence — but it is not always clear, even to the most devout Christian, how he operates in our everyday world. A Catholic prays to God; he believes in miracles — not just dramatic cures in Lourdes but mini-miracles as when a prayer to St Anthony of Padua leads to the finding of lost car keys. Do Satanists pray to the Devil? Are there anti-miracles or modern Fausts who sell their souls?

The poet W.B. Yeats said that the great Catholic historian Lord Acton was a hypocrite because though he purported to believe in him, the Devil was not mentioned in any of the many volumes of the Cambridge Modern History edited by Acton. The Crusaders believed they were defeated in the Battle of Hattin because of their sins: a modern historian would ascribe the debacle to an unwise deployment away from a source of water. Every Sunday in the 1950s, at the end of mass, Catholics prayed for the conversion of Russia. There was no doubt in Catholic minds that Bolshevism was the work of the Devil, and some now believe that the collapse of communism was thanks to the intervention of the Virgin Mary. Again, historians may point to other causes; and even though Orthodox Christianity has made a comeback, Putin’s Russia is hardly heaven on earth.

It is therefore difficult to discern how either God or the Devil intervenes in human history. One can point to cases of heroic virtue that seem evidence of the working of the Grace of God and, all too easily, to extremes of evil such as the Holocaust, unknown in any other species, that defy anthropological or sociological explanation and so can only be ascribed to the genius of a being that is actively and purposefully malign. Liberation theologians talked of sinful structures, but according to orthodox Christian teaching, the cosmic struggle between good and evil is played out in the soul of each individual human being: salvation or damnation are personal, not collective. Today we tend to point to world-historical villains such as Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot as the epitome of evil; and, closer to home, perhaps to a paedophile priest or a Jimmy Savile. Savile was raised as a Catholic, and in ways his formation followed the pattern of some paedophile priests; but no one would be satisfied now if he excused his crimes by saying ‘the Devil got into me’. On the other hand, in the case of Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, whose trial I covered for the Daily Mail, I found it impossible to decide whether he was evil or insane.  He was tried as if responsible for his crimes, but soon after sentencing was sent off to Broadmoor. It seemed to me then that demonic possession was as good an explanation as any.

With Peter Sutcliffe and Jimmy Savile, there is no divergence about good and evil between the view taken by the Catholic Church and that of our secular society.  More problematic is an issue such as same-sex marriage. Most secularists and some Christians regard it as right and just: however when it was passed into law in Argentina, it was denounced by Pope Francis, then the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, as the work of the Devil. ‘At stake is the total rejection of God’s law engraved in our hearts. Let us not be naive: this is not simply a political struggle, but it is an attempt to destroy God’s plan. It is not just a bill… but a move of the Father of Lies who seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.’

As Pope Francis will surely be aware, a large number of Catholics reject the Church’s teaching on same-sex marriage, as they do on contraception. Three-quarters of Argentinians consider themselves Catholics but polls showed that 70 per cent supported same-sex marriage. As in Argentina, so too in Britain’s House of Commons, where 47 Catholic MPs voted in favour of the same-sex marriage bill. What will Pope Francis do to counter this apparent schism? Will there be a circling of the wagons of the pilgrim church — true believers within, sons and daughters of Belial without? Will bishops be urged to deal more firmly with dissent — not excommunications, perhaps, but the refusal of the Eucharist, as has happened in some dioceses in the United States to those who vote in favour of same-sex marriage or abortion? From what we have already heard from Pope Francis, we can be sure that there will be no trimming of the Church’s core teaching on moral questions, and even as he preaches a gospel of truth and love and shows compassion for the poor and suffering, the Devil will be given his due.