In 1862, the French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote that “The finest trick of the devil is to persuade you that he does not exist.” The quote was paraphrased –somewhat more famously, perhaps — in the 1995 film The Usual Suspects, as “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
Over the course of more than a century, a poet and a filmmaker kept before the minds of their audiences this important truth of spiritual warfare. But now, Father Arturo Sosa — the new Superior General of the Jesuits — wants you to forget all that. In a May 31 interview with the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, Sosa opined:
“We have formed symbolic figures such as the devil to express evil. Social conditioning can also represent this figure, since there are people who act [in an evil way] because they are in an environment where it is difficult to act to the contrary.”
As others have aptly pointed out, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (and Christ’s own words in the Scriptures) leave no doubt that the Devil exists, and that he is the enemy of our immortal souls:
394. Scripture witnesses to the disastrous influence of the one Jesus calls “a murderer from the beginning”, who would even try to divert Jesus from the mission received from his Father.273 “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”274 In its consequences the gravest of these works was the mendacious seduction that led man to disobey God.
The wrongness of Fr. Sosa’s commentary is obvious to any moderately well-formed Catholic. But it prompts evaluation of a larger question that has been looming in my mind for some time now: do the leaders of the Catholic Church as a whole still believe in Catholic eschatology? For those unfamiliar with the word, eschatology is the theological study of the so-called “Four Last Things”: death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell.
In the same vein, I wrote about the February, 2016 edition of “The Pope Video”, which I described at the time as something that effectively re-branded the Vatican as “a non-denominational ecology and social-justice driven NGO”. I quoted Bishop Athanasius Schneider, who gave a homily in which he stated:
The priesthood is concerned not with temporal things, but with eternal things. It is the same with the Church. The Church is not concerned with climate change, or ecology. That is the job of the government! The Church is concerned with eternalthings!
But this has, indisputably, been a papacy with a demonstrated emphasis on immanent rather than eternal things. From environmentalism to arms dealers, poverty to politics, the Catholic Church under Francis has become almost indistinguishable from any number of progressive social justice or grassroots organizations. The irony here is notable, since the pope admonished us to remember, from the first days of his papacy, that the Church is not “a humanitarian agency, the Church is not an NGO (non-governmental organization). The Church is sent to bring Christ and his Gospel to all.” As I wrote in my September, 2015 Op-Ed for USA Today, on the occasion of the papal visit to America:
As Thursday’s congressional address emphasized, however, Francis’ priorities are climate change, economic justice, marginalization and the poor, while little emphasis is placed on the deep moral and spiritual crisis that threatens our eternal salvation or our subsequent need for authentic conversion.
This diversion from the church’s traditional focus has won critical acclaim from the secular world and raised expectations that at last there’s a pope who will force Catholicism to “get with the times.”
At the core of our faith, however, is the belief that its doctrines — founded upon divinely revealed truths — are unchangeable.
Yet under the auspices of “pastoral concern” or “mercy,” we hear a commonly expressed anticipation that Francis will reverse this or that long-held teaching. This is pure wishful thinking, but it is indulged by many high-ranking church prelates, and at times, it seems, by Francis himself.
Stewardship over creation is one of the first responsibilities God gave to Adam and Eve. Care for the poor and the destitute was an important tenet of Jesus’ public ministry. But Christ was not a divine ecologist or social worker. Jesus Christ fed the poor, but his principal concern was their spiritual nourishment.
Appropriate Christian concern for temporal matters is virtuous, but when isolated from the salvific message of the Gospels, the Church risks becoming the very NGO Francis has condemned.
When true sanctity is replaced with ersatz religious materialism, we easily forget our reason for existence: to know, love and serve God in this life, and to be happy with him in the next.
Truly, “our common home” is not earth, but heaven. More than ever, our world needs the pope to fix his eyes firmly there — not here — and to lead us to our eternal destination.
So what does all of this have to do with Fr. Sosa and his alarming belief that the Devil does not exist?
A Church overly concerned with material realities gives the appearance that it no longer believes in eternal ones. If the Devil isn’t real, what is? Clearly not Hell. What about God? Mary? The Saints? Heaven? A friend once told me the story of their encounter with a nun a few decades ago who was actively engaged in social justice work, particularly with the poor. As I recall the tale, when this friend noticed that there appeared to be no spiritual component to the work — nothing that would help the souls under her care stay on the path to eternal salvation — they asked the question: “Excuse me, Sister, but what about getting their souls to heaven?”
“Heaven?” Came the mildly incredulous reply. “We don’t believe in heaven anymore. That’s why we try to do what we can to make heaven here.”
Nowhere in Sacred Scripture do we find warrant for the popular myth of the Devil as a buffoon who is dressed like the first “red.” Rather is he described as an angel fallen from heaven, as “the Prince of this world,” whose business it is to tell us that there is no other world. His logic is simple: if there is no heaven there is no hell; if there is no hell, then there is no sin; if there is no sin, then there is no judge, and if there is no judgment then evil is good and good is evil. But above all these descriptions, Our Lord tells us that he will be so much like Himself that he would deceive even the elect — and certainly no devil ever seen in picture books could deceive even the elect.
In the midst of all his seeming love for humanity and his glib talk of freedom and equality, he will have one great secret which he will tell to no one: he will not believe in God. Because his religion will be brotherhood without the fatherhood of God, he will deceive even the elect. He will set up a counterchurch which will be the ape of the Church, because he, the Devil, is the ape of God. It will have all the notes and characteristics of the Church, but in reverse and emptied of its divine content. [emphasis added]
Fr. Antonio Spadaro, one of the pope’s “mouthpieces” and a fellow Jesuit, reflected on the election of Fr. Sosa with words that take on a new significance through the clarifying prism of Bishop Sheen’s analysis:
Sosa had the courage to say in his first homily as General: “We also want to contribute to what today seems impossible: a Humanity reconciled in justice, that lives in peace in a common home well cared for, where there is a place for all of us because we recognize our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of the same and one only Father”. He spoke of the “audacity of the impossible” that flows from faith. Only a man who has gone through the ideologies knows that you must not be afraid of utopias if they are able to supply the gasoline to move forward in the building of a better world. In a time in which one lives fears and disappointments, in a time in which you only take account of secure things, with few certainties at your disposal, Arturo Sosa invites us to not lose that healthy utopia that allows us to believe that the world is not destined to perdition and that it is possible to work to make it what the Lord wants it to be. [some emphasis added]
Utopias, of course, are for those who intend never to leave the earthly plane. For those with eyes fixed on beatific vision, we are constantly at war with our desire for creature comforts as we attempt to embrace not just the joys, but the “sufferings and sorrows of this valley of tears.” We don’t seek temporal beatitude, because we know we’ll never find it. We worry somewhat less than our secular counterparts about global ecological disaster, because our world is scheduled to be demolished when Our Lord comes again — and not a moment before.
has known Francis since both were together in the 1983 General Congregation that elected Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, and has grown closer to him since Sosa moved to Rome in 2014 to take charge of the Jesuit houses in Rome.
“Their current friendship will without doubt help the Jesuits better collaborate with the Holy See,” says Father Luis Ugalde, a Spanish Jesuit in the Venezuela province who knows Sosa well, and was provincial before him.
One wonders, therefore, what the Holy Father thinks of Fr. Sosa’s deconstruction of Satan as a merely human artifice. One of the most commented-upon aspects of this pontificate has been the penchant of Pope Francis to speak openly of the Devil. He has done so many times. To be honest, I have often questioned if perhaps this “symbolic figure” conception of the Devil that Fr. Sosa speaks of was the framework Francis was working from; the notion of a preternatural bogeyman deployed in parables intended to keep people on the desired ideological path. But it is hard to believe such an interpretation in examples like those found in a homily given by the pope in November, 2013:
“There are some priests who, when they read this Gospel passage, this and others, say: ‘But, Jesus healed a person with a mental illness’. They do not read this, no? It is true that at that time, they could confuse epilepsy with demonic possession; but it is also true that there was the devil! And we do not have the right to simplify the matter, as if to say: ‘All of these (people) were not possessed; they were mentally ill’. No! The presence of the devil is on the first page of the Bible, and the Bible ends as well with the presence of the devil, with the victory of God over the devil.”
Is Francis just better at hiding his allegorical understanding of the Prince of This World, or does he know something that Fr. Sosa does not?
It would seem appropriate, considering how often Francis has asked us to believe in a figure his own Superior General would have him believe is merely a figure of our imagination, that the pope might remind his friend of something his predecessor, Pope Pius XII, once said in an allocution to the Jesuits*:
Truly, among the noble deeds of your forefathers, of which you rightly boast and which you strive to emulate, this one surpasses the others, that indeed your Society, cleaving as closely as possible to the throne of Peter, has endeavored to guard, teach, defend and advance intact the teaching proposed by the Pontiff of that See, with which, on account of its preeminent authority, it is necessary that every Church, that is, all the faithful everywhere, should agree and also that it does not tolerate anything that smacks of dangerous or insufficiently-tested novelty.
Moreover, let no one steal from you this renown for orthodoxy and faithfulness in due obedience to the Vicar of Christ; nor let there be among you a place for any pride of “free-thinking,” which belongs rather to a heterodox than to a Catholic mentality, by which each man does not eschew to summon to the scale of his own judgment even those things that proceed from the Apostolic See; nor let there be tolerated any connivance with certain persons who assert that standards of behavior and of striving for eternal salvation are to be chosen from among those things that are done rather than from those that ought to be done; nor let there be allowed to opine and to act according to their pleasure those to whom it seems that ecclesiastical discipline is something antiquated—empty “formalism,” as it’s called—which it unquestionably behooves someone to dispense with so that he might be a servant of the truth. For if a mentality of this kind, borrowed from the throngs of the unbelieving, should slither unhindered among your ranks, will there not be shortly discovered among you unworthy and faithless sons of your Father Ignatius, who ought forthwith to be cut off from the body of your Society?