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The Devil You Know

It has been 50 years since the movie, The Exorcist, made a big splash, bringing exorcism, and spirituality, back to the public’s consciousness.

According to Wikipedia, “The story follows the demonic possession of a young girl and her mother’s attempt to rescue her through an exorcism by two Catholic priests.

“The Exorcist had a significant influence on pop culture,” the Wikipedia article says, “and several publications regard it as one of the greatest horror films ever made. In 2010, the Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Surprised by the Reaction

I was in graduate school, studying Journalism/Mass Communications, when the movie came out. I remember being surprised by the reaction of my classmates – some of whom I believed to be thoroughly secular, even atheist – on seeing the movie. Knowing I had been a priest, they started asking me questions about exorcism and other things spiritual. It was as if the movie resurrected questions and interests that had been mentally buried.

So, what are people who are searching for God supposed to believe about the existence and significance of the devil?

First, there should be no debate about the existence of evil. It’s all around us and we consider ourselves lucky when war, crime and fraud don’t affect us directly.

But does a spiritual being called the devil, or Satan, exist?

I wrote a blog about this subject in 2021, expressing my personal opinion at the time: “I don’t know.” And that blog considered a second question, “Do people searching for God need to worry about him/her?” My answer: I don’t.”

View Not Shared

I acknowledge that this view is not shared by many believers, including Pope Francis, who wrote in a 2018 encyclical, “We should not think of the devil as a myth, a representation, a symbol, a figure of speech or an idea. This mistake would lead us to let down our guard, to grow careless and end up more vulnerable.”

As far as I can tell, however, belief in the existence of the devil as an actual creature is not an official teaching of the Catholic Church. Instead, it seems to be presumed. If I’m wrong about that, I don’t deny anything my church teaches, but some doctrines are more important, or more relevant, than others.

And for me, belief in the devil would be among the less important and less relevant. I prefer to focus on my relationship to God, my loving Father, and take full responsibility for my actions, good and bad.

An opinion that is even weightier, however, is that of Jesus, who in gospel accounts spoke often about Satan. However, as with much in the gospels, his actual opinion isn’t clear. In Luke’s gospel, for instance, after the 70 disciples returned from their first missionary journey, he told them, “I have observed Satan fall like lightning from the sky.”

Was he speaking literally or figuratively? My view, and that of some Scripture scholars, is that he was probably using a figure of speech, as he often did.

Terrible Things

So, what accounts for evil in the world, those terrible things we humans do to each other? Fr. Louis Cameli, a Chicago theologian, is quoted in a recent issue of America magazine.

“…Because God granted human beings free will, we can make decisions that are either in accord with God’s desire for us or that ultimately harm us and others. For God to compel us to choose one way or another would make our freedom less than total, and in effect make us less than human.”

In a 2014 article, Fr. John Switzer, associate professor of theology at Spring Hill College, a Jesuit institution in Mobile, Al., had this to say on the subject of Satan.

“…The question remains whether we are best served by the idea that the inspiration for evil belongs with a mythical creature who roams the world infecting Christians with sinful desires. Evil is most powerful when we fail to recognize its source: the broken human tendency toward selfishness and apathy.”

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