What Does It Mean If Pope Francis Won’t Stop Talking About the Devil?

If you want to know whether Catholicism is about to get more conservative or liberal, don’t consider what the Church is saying about God. That stays more or less constant. Instead, look at what it has to say about the devil.

From that perspective, it seems like the Church is heading into a very conservative historical moment with Pope Francis at the helm.

You see, Pope Francis loves to bring up Satan. Within the first few hours of his papacy, he quoted French author Léon Bloy, declaring confidently that “who does not pray to God prays to the devil.” Then, in case we had somehow missed the point, he repeated that in his own words: “when one does not profess Jesus Christ, one professes the worldliness of the devil.” He made it clear right from the beginning: in the Church’s spiritual war against invisible beings sent here from the fiery pit, you’re either with God or you’re with the terrorists.

It didn’t stop there. The very next day, he mentioned the Devil again in an address to the College of Cardinals. On the Twitter account he inherited from Pope Benedict, he referenced “the Evil One”, and in his Palm Sunday address, he pointed out the moments of discouragement at which the devil tries to tempt us.

So if Pope Francis has the devil on the brain, what does that tell us about how he’s likely to run the Catholic Church?

Consider the recent history of Catholic exorcism. The story of the Catholic Church in the twentieth century is a turbulent one; the beleaguered institution has confronted more change in the past hundred years than at any other point since its inception. And as the theology and politics of the Church have shifted, so have its attitudes towards demonology, exorcism, and spiritual warfare.

As recently as the 1960s — and for an institution as slow-moving as the Church, that’s not so long ago — exorcism and demons went from being important components of Catholic doctrine to an embarrassment the Church tried to delicately sidestep. Following Vatican II’s modernizing efforts, references to Satan were scrubbed out of Catholic Mass and the Church’s focus shifted to more real-world concerns like birth control, abortion, and what should be done for the world’s poor and oppressed.

During this liberalizing period, priests were discouraged from attempting the Rite of Exorcism or seeking an exorcist. There were better, more modern solutions for troubled parishioners; the devil was considered more metaphorical than real, and treating him as a real actor in the world would open Catholicism to ridicule. As the Church overhauled its rituals, exorcism was such a low priority, translators didn’t even bother issuing the new version until 1990.

That’s when the backlash began.

According to the Vatican’s most prominent exorcist, Father Gabriele Amorth, the rewritten Rite of Exorcism was so ineffective, it was utterly useless against demons. Fortunately, though, a certain cardinal working within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — one Joseph Ratzinger — had made sure the new rules put in a provision allowing exorcists to return to the old ritual (with their bishops’ permission, of course).

Naturally, after becoming Pope Benedict, Ratzinger continued to support exorcism’s revival. In the wake of his resignation, Father Amorth praised Benedict’s leadership, under which the Church loosened restrictions on exorcism and encouraged greater focus on the spiritual-war aspects of Catholic life.

Pope John Paul II had a timid investment in the language of the demonic, as compared to Benedict. Whereas John Paul II sought to recollect the devil without giving him too much focus, Benedict sought “to fight the devil head-on” by creating “exorcist squads”. Whereas John Paul II shyly recommended a prayer to St. Michael the Archangel that had been stricken from the Mass in the ‘60s for employing the language of demonology (“protect us from the wickedness and snares of the devil”), Benedict hoped to restore it as a respected part of the liturgy. Both popes were cagey about their own involvement in the actual rite, though; any news stories about possible papal exorcisms were always denied by Vatican spokespersons.

It’s not clear whether Pope Francis will take it to the next level and speak openly about his role in any exorcisms, whether past, present, or future. But the extent to which he feels comfortable speaking about Satan as a real actor in the physical, literal world makes it likely that we’ll see Catholicism become more focused on that spiritual battle between good and evil as this pontificate goes on.

And if you’re wondering why that makes any difference in a world where Satan is a fairy tale no matter what the Pope believes, consider this: the framing of one’s beliefs can have powerful consequences, and a wartime mentality doesn’t leave much room for tolerance or empathy. Especially when the battle involves, in the minds of believers, the ultimate stakes — eternal bliss or torment. Consider, then, how Francis has invoked the devil’s influence in discussing same-sex marriage (“a move of the Father of Lies”).

The Church has always professed belief in Satan, but being open about it is a sign of a rightward swing, and a deficit in empathy just when the world’s Catholics most need an increase.

(Image via Shutterstock)

About Sara Lin Wilde

Sara Lin Wilde is a recovering Catholic (and cat-holic, for that matter - all typographical errors are the responsibility of her feline friends). She lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, where she is working on writing a novel that she really, really hopes can actually get published.

  • Roy Gamsgrø

    Satan is the bad one, eh?
    Let’s take the Bible as truth for a moment, shall we?

    - Made laws that said you should execute gays and rape victims.
    - Ordered his followers to murder their children in his name.
    - Ordered not one, but several genocides.
    - Wiped out most life on the planet.

    - Gave Eve and Adam knowledge.
    - Tried to tempt Jesus.

    And -Satan- is the evil one?!

  • Jason Horton

    Good news, the more extreme they are the more they’ll put off people and the easier it’ll be to leave the faith.

  • Greg G.

    Uh-oh. Malachy was right. Pope Francis is Petra Romanus. He is already converting the church to

  • SecMilChap

    “who does not pray to God prays to the devil.” – Pope Francis

    “If you are not with us, you are against us.” – Paul Joseph Goebbels

  • PietPuk

    “If you are not with us, you are against us.” – George W Bush

  • http://www.facebook.com/brian.westley Brian Westley

    “According to the Vatican’s most prominent exorcist, Father Gabriele Amorth, the rewritten Rite of Exorcism was so ineffective, it was utterly useless against demons.”

    And he was right!

  • Chris B

    The first thing to do here is disavow yourself of the notion that there is such a thing as good or evil. There are only things that are helpful or harmful to acquiring a result. When we say something is good, we usually mean the former, and evil the latter.

  • jdm8

    It sets such a low bar for becoming the enemy.

    Also, the Barna survey posted yesterday wrote people off as “antagonistic” towards the Bible if they simply didn’t believe in it or didn’t read it.

  • SophieUK

    Oh dear. I’d actually come to a point where I could see many Catholics as being good people. But I’m simply incapable of believing that anyone who worships a God who would send his children to eternal suffering is a decent, moral human being. Now the Catholics have fallen back down to the level of so many protestants in my eyes and the eyes of so many more. Massive loss of respect in the time it took me to read this article.

  • Octoberfurst

    Maybe we should be pointing those facts out to Christians and tell them that Satan really is the good guy in scripture. It will be fun watching their heads explode. :-)

  • MNb

    “protect us from the wickedness and snares of the devil”
    So the pope is a polytheist.

  • Octoberfurst

    I find it sad that the Vatican is going back to its Medieval crazy period when it comes to Satan and demons. (I had thought that at least on THAT topic it had tried to modernize.) But no. So now they are going down the path of seeing demons hiding behind every bush and the cause of all bad things that happen.
    I remember when I was an Evangelical. They were really big into seeing Satan behind every calamity that happened. They didn’t do exorcisms but they did pray to “bind the power of the evil one” over some parishioner that had a problem in his or her life. I look back and laugh at how silly it all was.
    The good part about all this is that it will drive more rational people out of the church leaving only the gullible and the stupid. The bad part is that those who remain will be even more into an “us vs them” mentality. After all, if you’re not for the Church then you are obviously on the side of Satan.

  • Rev. Red Mage

    On the upside, this might call for SNL to herald the return of Dana Carvey as the Church Lady.

    “Could it be… SATAN?!”

  • http://chaoskeptic.blogspot.com Rev. Ouabache

    “If you are not with me, you are my enemy.” – Anakin Skywalker

  • Tom

    The character of Jesus is a far worse tempter than that of Satan. Consider: he offers you the chance to shrug off all responsibility and guilt for everything bad you’ve ever done, every person you’ve ever harmed (without, it must be pointed out, actually undoing any of that harm or requiring the forgiveness of the actual victim) just for basically paying lip service to him and, depending on your denomination, maybe doing a few other trivial things. There’s no greater temptation than that. Has anyone ever wondered if maybe that’s been the real test all along, that in order to earn their place in heaven a truly good, moral person is actually supposed to reject Jesus’ offer of a get-out-of-hell-free card and continue to own their own crimes and mistakes? I mean, Jesus clearly offers the easier way out, and how often is the easy answer to a moral test the right one?

  • Rain

    “If you are not one of us, you are one of them.”-Morpheus

  • trj

    We all know that tired old saying fundies like to trot out: “The greatest lie the devil ever told was convincing the world he doesn’t exist.”

    Actually, a much greater lie, and one that seems to fit the Bible perfectly would be if the devil convinced the world that he is God. If God is in fact the devil it would make perfect sense for him to be the instigator of genocides, punisher of innocents, and all-round jerk we find God to be in the Bible.

    After all, doesn’t it seem like something a devious and lying fallen angel would try? Maybe he succeeded. Maybe the reason we can’t explain God’s actions isn’t that he works in mysterious ways, but that he is simply just an evil bastard.

  • Carmelita Spats

    Pope Francis will never mention this…

    Bible body count by the end of the OT:


    Satan…60…Satan’s body count is only 60 and he needed God’s permission to achieve that while God’s death toll is almost 32,000,000 by conservative estimates.

    Just sayin’.

    Satan is the RCC’s convenient excuse for the sexual torture of children:


  • pagansister

    One of my favorite SNL characters ever!

  • pagansister

    Did anyone really expect a liberal man to be pope?

  • CultOfReason

    I’ve noticed a strong correlation between believers from third-world countries and an obsession with the devil as well as a broader obsession with superstition in general.

  • CultOfReason

    This article brings to mind a very funny skit from Seinfeld:


  • Randomfactor

    Catholicism in general is a fractal religion. Claims to be monotheistic, but with its saints and Mary-worship it’s actually somewhere in-between, with gods of all sizes at all frames of reference.

  • C Peterson

    Hey, exorcism is making a big comeback, as well. And now, the completely discredited Shroud of Turin is going to be displayed.

    Looks like this church is hell-bent on marginalizing itself as quickly as possible in the developed world. Maybe it’s a deliberate strategy; if they feel they’ve already lost those people, why not go back to medieval mysticism and ideas that will appeal to many in the undeveloped and underdeveloped world?

  • DoctorDJ

    “What Does It Mean If Pope Francis Won’t Stop Talking About the Devil?”

    It means that Jorge Mario Bergoglio/Frank is just as silly and deluded as we knew he would be.

    The Catholic Church: less and less relevant with each passing pope.


    You should always limit your expectations when dealing with those who obsess on the super natural, the unknowable, and the invisible. Nothing says, “bronze age” quite like demonic possession.

  • LesterBallard

    I don’t care about a less conservative pope. I want the whole fucking mess to disappear.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mark-OLeary/1313741338 Mark O’Leary

    It might seem like a trivial quibble, but it isn’t: that stock photo is pitiful. The alleged priest is not holding a rosary. Those are called Misbaha, which are used in some forms of Islam to track repetitions of the name of Allah as a kind of mantra. Why is this not trivial? Theists are often guilty of woeful ignorance regarding non-theists, calling us Satanists and other demonstrably false things. There is no excuse for US being ignorant in our criticisms of THEM. In short, the validity of a criticism is compromised by ignorance.

  • Claude

    “For whoever is not against us is for us.” – Jesus of Nazareth

  • Claude

    I read somewhere that the only thing that keeps young Catholics awake during catechism class is the subject of exorcism.

  • alfaretta

    Look on the bright side — American/Western European Catholics haven’t considered it necessary to conform to what the Pope says for about 50 years now.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Harrison/23417637 Michael Harrison

    I call for a revival of Gnosticism! Who’s with me?

  • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

    Don’t forget, ha-Satan also tried to get God to stop torturing Job for a stupid bet.

  • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

    Then how and why are they still nominally Catholic? I mean, papal infallibility is a Big Deal in Catholicism.

  • baal

    Don’t forget the monastic orders. They are functionally different religions but still count as catholic.

  • http://twitter.com/atwas911 Atwas911

    The part i find really hysterical.. Pretty much the entire old testament is filled with warnings of the devil coming to deceive you.. Then.. All of the sudden.. BEHOLD! BABY JEEBA! Worship me.. not my father.. I’m your path to salvation..

    But.. we never claimed the religious were any good at critical thinking. The writers must have assumed that would have been overlooked. And it was.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

    let’s face it: god is boring. xtianity and other religions need demons and devils or believers would lose interest. “the devil made me do it!” is a marvelous excuse, and there’s plenty of money to be made “sanctifying” stuff so that those pernicious busy devils won’t corrupt it. guilty of murder, adultery, or fraud? blame it on satan! no need to make restitution or serve any jail time. plus: sex. satan gets all the good sex, and regularly tempts helpless mortals to indulge in the same. why, my bed is filled with demon temptresses, what with me being a homosexual and all.

  • John

    I think actual Satanists would consider that idea insulting. Sure, the selfishness of their philosophy isn’t really my cup of tea, and all the stuff about magic is of course nonsense, but I’d take them over an organization of child abusers and child abuse enablers any day.

  • The Commenter

    Good luck with getting Gnosticism’s horrible treatment of women to fly as a moral guide around here.

  • http://twitter.com/docslacker MD

    Gave us trouble sleeping too.

  • Emmet

    Eh? Not at all. How are they “functionally different”?

  • Emmet

    Nope. It might look like that from the outside, but if you read what the Church says about the saints and Mary, you’ll see that it’s not. Go with the evidence, the facts, mate, like a good atheist, not the appearances or the assumptions.

  • Emmet

    Ha! I was going to say the same thing – wondered if anyone else might have picked up on it.

    I’m been harping on in a few comboxes recently about atheists not knowing what they’re talking about when it comes to the Catholic Church – that they get hold of a bit of information, a half-truth, and think, “Yep, that sounds right, let’s go with that”. I’ve been assured more than once that “studies prove that atheists know more than Christians about Christianity” but things like the image above put the lie to that, and prove, rather, the truth of my assertion.

    Mark O’Leary’s right, the use of that image is ignorant – it’s lazy and really quite funny. I’ll be linking to it as just one small example of the fairly typical atheist intellectual hubris.

  • Emmet

    I find it surprising that you didn’t know the Catholic teachings on hell before you read the article.

  • Emmet

    Good question. What does it mean to call oneself Catholic but dissent from major points of doctrine?

  • Emmet

    “Sanctifying” what stuff? What does that mean? What stuff? How is money made from it? Do Catholics just blame crimes on Satan and not get convicted for them?
    And are you just blowing hot air?

  • Emmet

    How then do you say Osama’s terrorism was bad? It acquired the result he was after. Plenty of people have decried, rightly so, the abuse of children by some Catholic priests as evil – yet it achieved the result, presumably, that they wanted – how then can we call it evil, according to your ethic system? No, I think you need something else there pal.

  • Emmet

    Fr Amorth is not “the Vatican’s chief exorcist”, btw. That he’s referred to as such by the mainstream media doesn’t make it so. (If you’d like to prove me wrong, I challenge you to find an authoritative source that says otherwise.) He is in fact regarded as something of a loose cannon by many Catholics. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/markshea/2013/03/why-do-people-take-fr-gabriele-amorth-seriously.html

    As to what the Church teaches about Satan – the blogger is right – there have been different emphases over the centuries. I’m curious as to what has changed in the Mass though – any citation for that?

    Part of the reason for less talk of demons in recent years is the belief that psychological causes should be ruled out first in suspected cases of possession – that’s an emphasis we can all get on board with, no?

    Here’s what John Paul II’s Catechism has to say about Satan: http://ccc.scborromeo.org.master.com/texis/master/search/?sufs=0&q=satan&xsubmit=Search&s=SS

    - so it’s still all there. That Francis talks more starkly about Satan is interesting – we’ll have to wait and see, I think, to find out what the ramifications are. Like many of the early indicators as to “what sort of papacy this will be”, it’s too early to tell at this point.

  • Emmet

    Big lulz from me when I saw the blogger had cited the Fisheaters website as a source… I mean, come on.

  • Chris B

    All I am saying is that “good” and “evil” are simplifications. If we say something is good, we usually mean either “helpful to obtaining a result with which I agree” or “harmful to obtaining a result with which I disagree.” When we say something is bad, we usually mean “helpful to obtaining a result with which I disagree” or “harmful to obtaining a result with which I agree.”

    Each of your statements above falls into one of these categories. I vehemently disagree with both child abuse or terrorism. But I promise you if you ask Osama, he would consider his means and ends noble. People who sexually abuse children are effectively saying that their sexual release is more important to them than the development of a happy, healthy child. I would certainly call both such things “bad”, but that is exactly my point. They can also be described as I stated above. Whether something is “good” or “evil” is a matter of perspective.

    Looking at the world this way, Christianity falls apart. There cannot be a supernatural cosmic battle between good and evil because there is no good and evil.

  • 3lemenope

    Why is what the hierarchy says is the “right way” to do Catholicism any more or less legitimate and amenable to critique than the very different way in which many Catholics experience and practice their faith? If many Catholics are Maryolatrists, why would it matter that official Catholicism frowns upon the practice?

  • 3lemenope

    If religion is something done, rather than something that floats in some platonic space, then how it is done, how it is executed, is crucial to understanding its character. And not for nothing, but monastic orders do tend to practice Catholicism in ways distinguishable from the laity and from other orders.

  • 3lemenope

    Unsurprisingly when you read another metaphysics into a belief system, the system stops functioning.

  • 3lemenope

    It only means that people are people. Even Catholics.

  • Petter Häggholm

    Not a new idea: many ancient Gnostics believed in a supreme being and a “demiurge”, a lesser divine creator, who was not perfect and might be evil.

  • Love you

    Satan hates you and wants to kill you ! That’s no joke , Jesus loves you and wants to take away your sins ! What will you choose !!!

  • Emmet

    Because Catholicism is a religion with its doctrine written down. “This is Catholicism” it says, “and this is not”. So if someone is actually worshipping Mary with the worship due God alone, in that aspect they’re not being Catholic.

    How many Catholics are “Maryolatrists” anyway? How does one objectively give that label?

  • Emmet

    Sure. Doesn’t mean it’s a different religion. Religion is not just something done, is the thing. The same belief can be “done” (expressed) in two different ways, according to two different charisms, as per two different orders – still it’s the same belief.

  • Emmet

    A matter of perspective – so it comes down to “might is right”? Whoever’s got the power – the US military for Osama, the priest for the child – decides what is right. There’s no outside source to define good and evil? A chilling thought when it comes to governance of a country.

  • taco

    wow you all need to rethink your life before it is too late.

  • Luke Schilperoort

    “If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you…. If they persecuted Me they will persecute you… for they do not know the One who sent Me.” John 15:19-21