What is Pope Francis on about with all this talk of Satan and evil?

The idea may seem ‘old-fashioned’, says Pope Francis, ‘But look out because the devil is present! The devil is here … even in the 21st century!’ EPA/Maurizio Brambatti

Pope Francis’ discussion of the devil (or Satan) has been greeted with surprise by many. Why would a “progressive” Pope speak about an “old-school”, passé topic like the devil? Has not the Catholic Church left behind its fear tactics and does not this pope represent its modern face?

The Catholic Church, along with other religious traditions, believes that human life is a drama in which human choices have eternal consequences, as they determine our character. In this regard, Francis has been formed by the Jesuits, with a long and developed spiritual tradition, especially for spiritual discernment. Francis is speaking about the devil because he is concerned about the spiritual lives of people and sees the unrecognised influence of evil in them:

Firstly, his (the devil’s) temptation begins gradually but grows and is always growing. Secondly, it grows and infects another person, it spreads to another and seeks to be part of the community. And in the end, in order to calm the soul, it justifies itself. It grows, it spreads and it justifies itself.

Before examining Francis’ teaching here, it is important to clarify: what is a spiritual life? Do all people have it? The spiritual life of a living being refers, broadly, to the non-material life of that being – that is, the conscious operations that are not motivated by material ends.

In other words, when a human person thinks or feels in a way that is unrelated to the material sustenance of their body they are engaged in a spiritual activity. The life of the human person is very much a spiritual affair: most of our lives are taken up with non-material activities – activities that are not primarily concerned with eating and drinking – such as listening to music, watching TV, talking with friends, learning at school or engaging in worship.

Even the activities that involve satisfying material ends (such as eating) can be united with spiritual activities when, for example, we commune and converse with others over a meal, or saying a thanksgiving “grace” to God. When humans converse they are engaged in a non-material operation: the sharing of meaning, through language, that builds friendship.

How does evil work?

Evil is essentially concerned with the distortion of our spiritual activities – the activities of meaning and desiring that allow humans to flourish together – so they are turned away from friendship and into discord and violence. In this regard, Pope Francis often uses the example of gossip. Gossip distorts the goodness of language and conversation by using them against others.

Language is a good – it allows us to share our lives with others through meanings. However, gossip is parasitic off this good and twists language into a weapon that discounts the whole of a person’s character and judges them in an absolute and unjust way.

The Pope cites gossip as an example of how evil works. MicroWorks/Shutterstock

Gossip is ultimately motivated by distorted desire: by envy, resentment or hate in which we unite our desires with others against another. It involves scapegoating that gives a certain titillation and satisfaction, which covers over our own individual or collective problems. This is exemplified in celebrity gossip: it takes us out of our own problems, broken relationships and ordinariness into a world of projection where we can unite with others in voyeuristically judging others.

French philosopher René Girard calls the process by which we unite our desires in scapegoating others “satanic”. “Satan” in Hebrew refers to the accuser; in contrast, Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as the “Paraclete”, that is, the defender (for example, of the victim).

According to Girard, human violence arises as our desires are distorted into an irrational contagion against others – in which we lose control but from which we gain great satisfaction.

There is a synergy in the descriptions of Girard and Francis. For example, in the case of gossip: jealousy or resentment arises in one person, through rivalry with another; words are spoken; distorted desire is spread; and verbal or physical violence is unleashed. We believe that we are doing the right thing – whereas in fact we are destroying the life of another, and ultimately harming ourselves by distorting the goodness of our relationships.

Why do we choose evil over good?

Still, we need to ask: why do we do violence against others, rather than love them? We can point to reasons for why people commit evil – such as envy or greed – but we are still left with the question: why choose evil over good?

The devil is a part of answering this question, but one should be careful about jumping to definitive conclusions. Ultimately, evil is irrational and not completely understandable. Evil involves humans losing control of themselves and losing sight of their ultimate good, as their desires and thoughts become distorted.

We may be able to think of examples in our own lives or others’ lives when we do, think or feel evil things in ways that shock us and seem inexplicable. Where did that thought come from? Where did that desire emerge? Why did I hurt that person? One can find oneself acting or thinking irrationally, almost in a fog of rage, resentment, greed or hurt.

Alongside the strange manifestations of evil in our lives, Pope Francis emphasises that the descent into evil definitively involves human choice. The Catholic Church is not looking to give any support to superstition (remember Jesus died in a very human way).

The Catholic Church’s long experience of evil leads it to acknowledge the possibility of different sources for evil, but it does this to assist humans in their freedom to choose good. It also does this with the assurance that God is defeating evil and helping us – that evil and death have been overcome with Jesus.

There are other philosophical and theological arguments concerning the devil, but Francis is concerned with the practical implications of evil in people’s lives. Francis points out that evil, especially the devil, works through our normal ways of living (for example by distorting our freedom or language) and tries to ensnare us. Evil can also take on a life of its own that appears like a personal force that becomes harder and harder to resist.

These temptations are a constant struggle. Francis is seeking for us to recognise them and overcome them, with God’s help. Hiding from evil only feeds evil. As philosopher Edmund Burke said:

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men [people] do nothing.

Francis wants us to be realists: there is evil in our lives; we need to face it. The Catholic Church offers ways to help, by affirming that evil is never equal to the power of good, of which God’s love is the powerful source.