I’ve Always Liked Chesterton’s Blunt and Refreshing Assessment…

…of St. Thomas’ belief in devils.  Moderns hem and haw and are embarrassed about the devil.  Chesterton, not so much. In his Introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox he writes:

I have not thought it necessary to notice those critics who, from time to time, desperately play to the gallery by reprinting paragraphs of medieval demonology in the hope of horrifying the modern public merely by an unfamiliar language. I have taken it for granted that educated men know that Aquinas and all his contemporaries, and all his opponents for centuries after, did believe in demons, and similar facts.

Devils are facts of our universe. They are not psychological projections, myths, or legends (though, of course, the mind of man takes them–as it takes everything other concrete reality of creation–and makes up stories about them so that devils, like kings, lamps, ants, elephants, and grasshoppers, become part of the vast legendarium that man has been creating ever since he spun the first yarn around a campfire. But just only a fool would conclude that elephants are unreal because somebody once told a tale about one that could fly, so only a fool conclude that devil cannot exist because he once saw a picture of horned gent with a goatee in red tights.

In my discussion of the clause “deliver us from evil” in The Heart of Catholic Prayer I discuss the two principle ways humans come to the realization that devil’s exist. The shortest and easiest route is simply to listen to Jesus Christ who, being God, oughtta know since he keeps and up to date inventory on every creature that he has ever made and he warns very plainly about the reality of Satan.

The other way, of course, is through direct personal encounter with the demonic, which happens more than you might think. I relate one story of such an encounter here:

Years ago, I heard a Black Pentecostal pastor in Spokane talking about a time he and some other local non-denominational pastors had been asked by a family they knew to come and pray for their granny who, her family said, “had an evil spirit”. One of the pastors was of a more modern frame of mind—the sort of frame of mind that fancies itself “open-minded” by closing itself off to the very possibility of the supernatural ever actually occurring. He somehow found himself invited to this meeting of pastors who were going to the house of this family to pray for granny. The liberal pastor reluctantly agreed and joined the circle as they gathered round granny and began to ask God to intervene on her behalf.

The doubting pastor happened to have taken up a position right behind granny, perhaps due to his reluctance to look at her face during what he considered to be a hugely superstitious bit of medieval hocus pocus. Granny, who was quite long in the tooth and rather frail, submitted to the prayer, but as it went on she began to act oddly and, quite suddenly reached behind her (over her shoulders), seized the doubting pastor and lifted him clean off the ground.

“That kind of thing changes your theology,” observed the Black Pentecostal pastor drily.

Another such account is found here in the story of a formerly unbelieving psychologist who did something rationalist skeptics so rarely do: he went and looked.

Rationalist skeptics love to pride themselves on being tough-minded empiricists with the courage to follow the evidence wherever it leads–and to accuse Christians of relying on dogma in the teeth of the evidence.

Rubbish. Nine times out of ten it is the materialist who is the kneejerk dogmatist.

“Even if all the sick in Lourdes were cured in one moment, I would not believe [in miracles]!” – Emile Zola

  • Andrew Simons

    The NRSV translates “deliver us from evil,” in Matt. 6.6 as “rescue us from the evil one.” The Greek word for “evil” used there, ponerou, has the definite article in front of it — tou ponerou, i.e., the evil one.

  • http://hjg.com.ar/ Hernán J. González

    > Jesus Christ who, being God, oughtta know since he keeps and up to date inventory on every creature that he has ever made

    I’m afraid this is sloppy christology, Mark. Here’s a nice little book that can help http://www.amazon.com/An-Introduction-New-Testament-Christology/dp/0809135167/

    • chezami

      A casual and light-hearted blog entry is not filled with precise Christology? Heaven forfend!

  • guestimator

    Why is Thomas Aquinas right about the devil’s existence but wrong the creation story? I think science and evolution has proven that there was no Adam and Eve, there was no Sampson, and there is no devil.

    • chezami

      I am intrigued by your faith in the power of science to thread needles with a hammer. How, pray, does “science” and evolution prove these things?

      • guestimator

        Any board licensed psychiatrist could explain away “possessed” behavior and proscribe appropriate medication.

        Additionally, politically savvy people can understand the fundraising motivation and interests of a Pentecostal pastor who may use the mentally ill person as a token to raise money to fight “the devil inside all of us.”

        Of course, it could be that science has proven evolution, the nonexistence of Sampson, yet our Catholic faith demonstrates that there are little devils and angels such as those at Lourdes. I just wish someone would give me a proper decoder ring:

        *Creationism – False – foolish mythology
        *Sampson – False – “you don’t really believe that do you uneducated peasant?”
        *Suffering of Christ and Resurrection – True – “believe it or die in hell forever and also eat your bit ‘o Christ”
        *Miracle of St. Paul casting out demons during his missions – False – foolish mythology, science has disproven this
        *Lourdes – True – miracle of angles and The Virgin
        *Revelation of John – False – foolish mythology, and if it is true it fits badly to historical events of around 70AD as Scott Hahn says.

        Can someone give me my Catholic decoder ring? Is there some sort of overlay equation to filter the Bible/Tradition stories to know which are “true and must be believed under penalty of banishment” and which are “obviously myths you stupid fundamentalist.”

        I am serious here – is there a website where you could direct me to know which theories are preposterous myths and which unlikely truths must be believed? The Catholic catechism is not clear, but the consequences for believing the wrong theory as fact or fiction are serious.

        • Dan F.
        • Rosemarie


          There’s no “decoder ring”; we have the Magisterium of the Church to tell us what to take literally and what need not be taken literally.

          The Church has always, from the day of Pentecost on, proclaimed that Christ died for our sins and rose from the dead. So that’s not just figurative language, it’s real, literal and historical, a required belief enshrined in all the Creeds.

          OTOH, the Magisterium has never so required that we take the six days of creation absolutely literally. So we can interpret that figuratively to harmonize with the discoveries of science, the same way we don’t take Scripture literally when it speaks as though the sun goes around the earth.

          Yet that doesn’t make the Creation stories “false” or “foolish mythology.” Such talk denigrates Sacred Scripture; you may hear it from some haughty modernist theologian but not from the Magisterium. None of the things you listed above are false or foolish; just because the Bible may sometimes use figurative language doesn’t make the story false, for it still conveys deeper levels of moral and spiritual truth.

          (EDIT: BTW I see no reason, based on Church teaching, not to take the account of St Paul’s miracles literally. The Apocalypse is clearly not “literal” but a figurative vision given to St. John which people have interpreted in different ways. That doesn’t mean it’s “foolish” – just because something isn’t literal doesn’t mean it’s bad.)

          Jesus sometimes spoke in parables; just because we don’t take those stories hyper-literally doesn’t mean we disregard them as false or foolish. They still have something to teach us. As do the biblical stories of Creation, found in Genesis and other parts of Scripture.

          As for Lourdes, it’s a private revelation which no Catholic is required to believe in. So it doesn’t belong in the same category as the contents of Scripture. Yet we can accept it with human faith. Any true miracles that occur there (or at any apparition site for that matter) are the work of God quite apart from whether an apparition is legitimate. The Church tells us that God performs miracles even today, so it’s legitimate to believe what is happening at Lourdes.