May 21, 2014

Pope Francis vs. The Devil

Even before his inauguration last year, Pope Francis was established as something of a media darling. In the eyes of the secular media, the Holy Father is a daring reformer determined to remake the Catholic Church into a more modern, more progressive, and more relevant institution. This narrative persists despite the fact that Pope Francis has yet to make any major changes to the structure and doctrine of the Church. But recently, a crack emerged in this narrative. To the horror of The Washington Post and countless others, Pope Francis believes in the Devil. What’s worse, he openly admits it!

To begin with, I find it odd that The Washington Post et al. are only now noticing Pope Francis’ tendency to evoke the Devil. In his very first homily as pope, Francis expressed his belief that evil and disbelief in God are primarily demonic in nature, saying “Anyone who does not pray to the Lord prays to the Devil. When we do not profess Jesus Christ, we profess the worldliness of the devil, a demonic worldliness.” Only two months after he became pope, outlets like the Associated Press were fretting over Pope Francis’ “obsession with Satan” and asking “Is Pope Francis an exorcist?” (a headline that led liberal Evangelical columnist Kirsten Powers to quip, “BREAKING: Pope Francis believes the Bible”).

The headline of the Post piece says it all: “A modern pope gets old school on the Devil.” The implication is pretty clear: Pope Francis is a modern, cool Pope who is for some reason stuck on a old, uncool belief like the Devil. The Post even finds “progressive theologians” to frown upon all this Satan talk. “He is opening the door to superstition,” says Catholic theologian Vito Mancuso. (Conservative news watchdog Newsbusters pointed out that Mancuso also does not believe in original sin, Christ’s resurrection, or Hell, meaning he probably isn’t all that representative of Catholic theologians.)

The Washington Post somewhat insultingly suggests that this focus on the Devil might be because the Pope is from Latin America, “where mystical views of Satan still hold sway.” But even Catholics in the “enlightened” West have upped their “mystical” Devil talk. Earlier this month in Rome, the Vatican hosted its largest ever conference of exorcists. Exorcism has also seen something of a renaissance in the United States, with more and more bishops performing and sanctioning the ritual. Just last year, an Illinois bishop straightforwardly said that his state’s acceptance of gay marriage was caused by Satan, and performed an exorcism on the Church and state.

I suppose it is a sad reflection on the state of modern Christianity that the mere fact that Pope Francis mentioned the Devil is seen as “old-school.” Sad, perhaps, but accurate. Far too often, in Protestant and Catholic circles alike, serious discussions of the Devil and demonology are relegated to the fringes… if serious discussion happens at all. Far more often, the Devil gets no more than a passing nod in sermons about sin. Perhaps the most pertinent example was the Church of England’s flirtation with removing references to Satan (and sin) from its baptism rites. To be sure, ignoring the demonic is to be preferred to a certain Presiding Bishop’s taking a Biblical passage about demonic possession and labeling it a “gift of spiritual awareness.”

Kudos to Pope Francis and other Catholic leaders for reinvigorating their Church’s discussion of the spiritual and demonic. I see no reason why other traditions and denominations shouldn’t follow. There’s certainly nothing in Protestantism’s DNA that should keep us more silent than our Catholic brothers. The great leaders of the Protestant Reformation were not Devil-deniers, nor did they see him in allegorical terms. John Calvin believed in a real, powerful Satan, and Martin Luther reported being personally plagued by Satan and demons on a regular basis.

To this day, the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, the Church of England, the Lutheran Churches, and the Southern Baptist Convention all maintain official policies affirming exorcism and laying out guidelines for doing so. That clearly presupposes the existence of Satan. Many and more denominations require sponsors of baptism to deny Satan, and even the catechisms of the severely liberal United Church of Christ affirm the literal existence of Satan. Yet how many church leaders from these denominations speak as frankly, as often, and as forcefully about demonic influences as Pope Francis? How many even stress the Devil’s existence?

The relative silence from other church leaders can’t really be explained by dissent in the pews, at least in America. A 2013 YouGov poll found that 66% of American Catholics believe in the Devil, compared to 70% of Protestants. 59% of both Catholics and Protestants say they believe in demonic possession. The only major difference is that 67% of Catholics believe in the power of exorcism, compared to 42% of Protestants. (Yes, there are more Catholics who believe in exorcism than believe in demonic possession; I don’t get it either.) Christians across the board are more likely to say they “don’t know” if they believe in the Devil than to deny his existence, suggesting that many simply lack direction.

For what it’s worth, the narrative of the Gospels is fairly explicit: demons, exorcisms, and the Devil are real. Exorcism is the second most commonly recounted miracle performed by Jesus, second only to healing. It seems fair to say that at least some of accounts of Jesus’ casting out of demons could be how the Gospel writers understood his healing of mental illness. But there’s still the matter of Christ’s personal temptation by Satan, his casting demons from one person into a herd of pigs (Luke 8:33), and possessed individuals who have intimate knowledge of Christ’s divinity (Mark 1:24) and superhuman strength (Luke 8:29).

Basically, there isn’t really a way to deny the literal existence of demons and the Devil without admitting that the Gospels contain lies or exaggerations, or that Jesus was a fool. I don’t know why you’d bother remaining a Christian if you genuinely believed either proposition.

Ironically, in the speech that spurred the Washington Post article, Pope Francis had pretty prescient words for those who downplay the Devil:  “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.”

Pope Francis shouldn’t just be commended for speaking out against the Devil, but for perfectly highlighting why Christians should talk about the Devil: in the battle for our soul, we face a greater power than ourselves.  “We are all tempted because the law of our spiritual life, our Christian life, is a struggle… That’s because the Prince of this world, Satan, doesn’t want our holiness, he doesn’t want us to follow Christ.”

Those who see the Devil and demons as metaphorical can still teach about mankind’s inclination towards sin, and even that the cost of sin is Hell (although I’d suspect that many Christians skeptical of the Devil would also be skeptical of Hell’s existence). But that downplays the extent of the problem we face. Human desires and human tendencies can be fought by humans. But alone, we are helpless against the forces of darkness. A spiritual war requires a spiritual power, one that can only come from God.

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