If you want to know whether Catholicism is about to get more conservative or liberal, don’t consider what the Church is saying about God. That stays more or less constant. Instead, look at what it has to say about the devil.
From that perspective, it seems like the Church is heading into a very conservative historical moment with Pope Francis at the helm.
You see, Pope Francis loves to bring up Satan. Within the first few hours of his papacy, he quoted French author Léon Bloy, declaring confidently that “who does not pray to God prays to the devil.” Then, in case we had somehow missed the point, he repeated that in his own words: “when one does not profess Jesus Christ, one professes the worldliness of the devil.” He made it clear right from the beginning: in the Church’s spiritual war against invisible beings sent here from the fiery pit, you’re either with God or you’re with the terrorists.
It didn’t stop there. The very next day, he mentioned the Devil again in an address to the College of Cardinals. On the Twitter account he inherited from Pope Benedict, he referenced “the Evil One”, and in his Palm Sunday address, he pointed out the moments of discouragement at which the devil tries to tempt us.
So if Pope Francis has the devil on the brain, what does that tell us about how he’s likely to run the Catholic Church?
Consider the recent history of Catholic exorcism. The story of the Catholic Church in the twentieth century is a turbulent one; the beleaguered institution has confronted more change in the past hundred years than at any other point since its inception. And as the theology and politics of the Church have shifted, so have its attitudes towards demonology, exorcism, and spiritual warfare.
As recently as the 1960s — and for an institution as slow-moving as the Church, that’s not so long ago — exorcism and demons went from being important components of Catholic doctrine to an embarrassment the Church tried to delicately sidestep. Following Vatican II’s modernizing efforts, references to Satan were scrubbed out of Catholic Mass and the Church’s focus shifted to more real-world concerns like birth control, abortion, and what should be done for the world’s poor and oppressed.
During this liberalizing period, priests were discouraged from attempting the Rite of Exorcism or seeking an exorcist. There were better, more modern solutions for troubled parishioners; the devil was considered more metaphorical than real, and treating him as a real actor in the world would open Catholicism to ridicule. As the Church overhauled its rituals, exorcism was such a low priority, translators didn’t even bother issuing the new version until 1990.
That’s when the backlash began.
According to the Vatican’s most prominent exorcist, Father Gabriele Amorth, the rewritten Rite of Exorcism was so ineffective, it was utterly useless against demons. Fortunately, though, a certain cardinal working within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — one Joseph Ratzinger — had made sure the new rules put in a provision allowing exorcists to return to the old ritual (with their bishops’ permission, of course).
Naturally, after becoming Pope Benedict, Ratzinger continued to support exorcism’s revival. In the wake of his resignation, Father Amorth praised Benedict’s leadership, under which the Church loosened restrictions on exorcism and encouraged greater focus on the spiritual-war aspects of Catholic life.
Pope John Paul II had a timid investment in the language of the demonic, as compared to Benedict. Whereas John Paul II sought to recollect the devil without giving him too much focus, Benedict sought “to fight the devil head-on” by creating “exorcist squads”. Whereas John Paul II shyly recommended a prayer to St. Michael the Archangel that had been stricken from the Mass in the ‘60s for employing the language of demonology (“protect us from the wickedness and snares of the devil”), Benedict hoped to restore it as a respected part of the liturgy. Both popes were cagey about their own involvement in the actual rite, though; any news stories about possible papal exorcisms were always denied by Vatican spokespersons.
It’s not clear whether Pope Francis will take it to the next level and speak openly about his role in any exorcisms, whether past, present, or future. But the extent to which he feels comfortable speaking about Satan as a real actor in the physical, literal world makes it likely that we’ll see Catholicism become more focused on that spiritual battle between good and evil as this pontificate goes on.
And if you’re wondering why that makes any difference in a world where Satan is a fairy tale no matter what the Pope believes, consider this: the framing of one’s beliefs can have powerful consequences, and a wartime mentality doesn’t leave much room for tolerance or empathy. Especially when the battle involves, in the minds of believers, the ultimate stakes — eternal bliss or torment. Consider, then, how Francis has invoked the devil’s influence in discussing same-sex marriage (“a move of the Father of Lies”).
The Church has always professed belief in Satan, but being open about it is a sign of a rightward swing, and a deficit in empathy just when the world’s Catholics most need an increase.
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