Sense and Nonsense: Satanism

L’osservatore Romano, English edition, (29 January—5 March 1997), ran five essays on “satanism.” Reference was made there to an earlier study written by an unnamed French theologian entitled “Faith and Demonology,” published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in 1975. The latter document covers the history of papal and Church thinking on Satan. The recent essays are contributed by various authors, including Angelo Scola, bishop-rector of the Pontifical Lateran University; Mario Maronta Rodriquez, bishop of Los Teques in Venezuela; and Professor Giuseppe Ferrari of the Italian National Organization for Research and Information on Sects. They react to the contemporary phenomenon of satanic cults.

If the practice were not widespread, L’Osservatore Romano would not have sought to account for it.

In dealing with Satan, the Church is characterized by two principal attitudes: 1) She never excludes a priori the reality of a satanic presence in the world; 2) She is never sensationalistic or overly reactive. The Church is both attentive and skeptical. She is always calm, objective, willing to count and discount evidence, but unwilling to exclude scriptural testimony.

In this sense, be it noted, the Church is rather more scientific than what usually passes for a science that excludes such a discussion as a matter of theory. The Church’s analysis begins with facts that are reported or observed. Many of these are false or exaggerated. But not all are. The Church does not have a theory stating that diabolical influence is by hypothesis excluded from reality. Rather it has a theory of evidence that wants to know the circumstances and the nature of the reports about Satanism and its influences.

The 1975 document cites an address of Paul VI in which he observed: “It is a departure from the picture provided by biblical and Church teaching to refuse to acknowledge the Devil’s existence; to regard him as a self-sustaining principle who, unlike other creatures, does not owe his origin to God; or to explain the Devil as a pseudo-reality, a conceptual and fanciful personification of the unknown causes of our misfortunes.” The Church, in her history, has learned many things by having to reject theories and proposals. Thus, this passage is based on her rejecting the idea that there is an independent principle of evil that is autonomous, apart from God—that there is a god of evil, in other words.

The Devil, in his existence, is good. This does not change even in his damnation. The cause of evil is not Satan’s being but his choice—what he does with his being once it is given to him. Thus, the Congregation itself affirms that the Devil, as a creature, has his origin in God but, as a devil, in himself.

Today the more prevalent temptation is to believe that evil is sort of vague, a kind of fate. The seriousness of evil is downplayed. We do not have to take account of it. Indeed, the first thing that we must acknowledge about evil in the Christian tradition is that it is likely to disguise itself as good. We simply deny that Satan exists. Our present culture has difficulty in identifying anything but social policies as evil. We are like Rousseau, for whom men were good. Evil results not from our choices but from our institutions. Thus, there is no drama of personal existence before God, but only of political turmoil before the state.

Professor Ferrari remarks that “membership in satanic sects, the participation in the rites introduced by them, the evocation of demonic entities, the personal and sole cult of the Devil, and the affirmation of ideas deriving from the area of Satanism, have assumed an unexpected dimension in today’s society.” We are not talking here solely about darkest Africa or far-off Asia. We are talking about a society of a post-Christian hue, of one that prides itself on objective knowledge and great worldly sophistication. But we also are dealing with a culture of death that denies the goodness and being of the human person, especially the human child, who is destroyed both in law and practice in the name of good social policy. We can speak of this policy lightly as a cultural question; but looked at from the angle of the rise of Satanism, it takes on a much different aspect.

“The ordinary action of Satan,” Bishop Scola writes, “consists in leading us to sin, which is a culpable loss of freedom.” We think of Satanism in terms of flamboyant action, but notice what Bishop Scola says—the ordinary action is to lead us to sin. And what is sin? A choice. A “culpable loss of freedom.”


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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