In Understanding Catholicism’s Satan, A Struggle over Symbolism

"Satan Before The Lord" by Corrado Giaquinto is licensed under CC0 Public Domain (via Wikipedia)

Arturo Sousa, the Superior General of the Society for Jesus (Jesuits) recently said in an interview with Spanish newspaper El Mundo that, “we have formed symbolic figures such as the devil to express evil.” His words seem to imply that Satan is not a real being, but just a symbol; the devil would be more akin to Lex Luthor than Adolf Hitler, i.e., a fictional character.

This has naturally raised some eyebrows in the Catholic world. The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly states: “Behind the disobedient choice of our first parents lurks a seductive voice, opposed to God, which makes them fall into death out of envy. Scripture and the Church’s Tradition see in this being a fallen angel, called ‘Satan’ or the ‘devil.’” The Church teaches that Satan was at first a good angel, made by God: “The devil and the other demons were indeed created naturally good by God, but they became evil by their own doing”” (article 391).

In the past, Sousa has had some leftist political sympathies. The fact that he is the Superior General of the Jesuits (a Catholic order that has always been steeped in controversies) has led some conspiracy theorists who believe, at last, there is an inner Masonic plot to destroy the Church from within, by teaching humanistic heresies (this has been a common fear amongst traditionalist Catholic conspiracy theorists, ever since the French Revolution).

From an ethical perspective, Sousa’s comments are very welcome. The idea that the devil is a real being has caused great misery. The concept of the devil has many antecedents in the history of religion, but it can be clearly traced to Persian Zoroastrian religion, at around the seventh century B.C.E. Most historians of religion agree that true monotheism did not arise in Israel until after the Babylonian exile. After being deported from Jerusalem, the Israelites were deported to Babylon. There, they likely encountered Zoroastrian ideas, which were stricter in monotheistic terms. Upon their return to Jerusalem, the Jews (as they were now known) definitely believed that Yahweh was not just a more powerful god, but in fact, he was the only god. Every other god was nonexistent.

However, the Jews also incorporated the Zoroastrian idea that there is a cosmic battle between God and his enemy, the devil. The Jews eventually came to call this being Ha Satan, “the adversary”. However, in the early days, this Satan was not truly God’s enemy, but just an adversary to God in the same manner that a prosecutor is an adversary to a judge. In fact, this is how Satan is portrayed in the Book of Job.

The Zoroastrian influence eventually set up a markedly dualistic cosmic vision for the three Abrahamic faiths. The “us-versus-them” mentality took root, and ever since, religious wars have been the norm. People of different faiths, or even political opinions, have not been considered just competitors in the religious market, but rather, cosmic enemies that have to be defeated at all costs because, in a sense, we are on God’s side, and they are on the devil’s side. Satan deserves no truce.

The idea of Satan is thus intimately related to intolerance. In order to ensure animosity towards a particular group of people, instigators can achieve their goal by demonizing them. There have been very few instances of genuine devil worshipping in the history of religion. But, many persecuted groups (the Templars, the Cathars, witches, etc.) have been severely victimized as a result of accusations of being in league with Satan and performing rituals to worship him.

Yet, the concept of the devil may also be ethically relevant. For, Satan represents absolute evil. In our postmodern age, there seems to be a tendency for many people, especially youth, to believe that there are no objective universal standards of right and wrong, i.e., moral relativism. For them, nothing is absolute, and therefore, there is no such thing as absolute evil.

Despite all its ethical shortcomings, the idea of Satan is ethically constructive, in the sense that it reminds people that morality is not just a matter of taste. There is an objective difference between moral right and moral wrong. However, even if we accept that, indeed, there is an objective difference between good and evil, that needn’t imply that absolute evil is personified in a real being. Sousa is right when he says that the devil is just a symbol, a prosopopoeia to colorfully express the concept of absolute evil. In the same manner that love is real but Eros as a god is not; evil is real, but Satan is not.

I still wonder, however, why Sousa is willing to accept that Satan is just a symbol for evil (hence implying the devil does not really exist as a personified being), but he does not seem to be willing to accept that God is just a symbol for good, and hence, accept that God does not exist as a person. In fact, many scientifically oriented theologians of the 20th Century have actually gone as far as saying something similar. Paul Tillich, for example, refused to believe in a personal God, and believed that God was more akin to a symbol to express the idea of “the ground of all being”. John Shelby Spong believes something similar, to the point that many of his detractors call him an atheist. Progressive priests like Sousa seem to be willing to move away from archaic mentalities, but not entirely; they think the devil does not exist, but continue to think that God does exist.

There is also something additionally troubling in Sousa’s remarks. Unlike other religious denominations (say, Islam), Catholicism is very precise about what is considered orthodox doctrine, and what is considered heretical. And, as the passage from the Catechism quoted above makes very clear, Catholic doctrine states that Satan is a real being. If Sousa believes that Satan is not a real being, shouldn’t he be more honest and step down from his position as a high representative of Catholicism? One may argue that people like Sousa are valuable, because they may reform the Church from within, and Catholicism is in desperate need of that. But, when Sousa took his clerical vows, he upheld Catholicism’s articles of faith, which include the existence of the devil. Reforms are always welcome, but when they come as a result of deception, they are ethically objectionable.

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