Vancouver Courier
January 31, 1999

When faced with having to explain the inexplicable, devout Christians sometimes resort to the catchphrase “God works in mysterious ways.” It doesn’t explain anything, but at least it eases the mind. Perhaps it’s the best way to try to comprehend the Vatican’s pronouncements on Satan. Christians of all denominations must be thinking that God has outdone himself.

The Catholic Church has issued an 84-page Latin text Roman Ritual to update the church’s 1614 exorcism ritual. For the first time, officially approved exorcists will be urged to consult modern medicine, thus bringing the church more into line with modern science. The equation of exorcism with science is dubious in itself, but this turned out to be a non sequitur of biblical proportions.

According to Reuter’s, “officials made it clear at a news conference that the traditional belief in the devil was not optional for today’s Roman Catholics. “The existence of the devil is not an opinion that you can take or leave,” said Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estevez. “It belongs to the Catholic faith and doctrine.”

Praise the Lord and pass the obfuscation!

If the Vatican wants to cultivate an air of modernity and scientific rationalism, it may not link science to a dogmatic postulate of faith; namely, the devil. The church can’t have it both ways.

In fact, Roman Ritual appears to contradict the Pope’s widely praised encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason) published on Oct. 15. In Fides et Ratio, John Paul II laments the separation of faith and reason and declares them to be compatible. He spoke out against both atheism as expected, but also against an excessive reliance on faith.

“It is an illusion to think that faith, tied to weak reasoning, might be more penetrating; on the contrary, faith then runs the grave risk of withering into myth or superstition,” he wrote.

Since the devil is merely asserted, not proven, we can safely assume that Roman Ritual meets the test for weak reasoning, and that the belief expected of the Catholic faithful amounts to superstition. However, what would happen if belief in the devil really were founded on an objective foundation? What then would an argument look like?

Renowned religious scholar Elaine Pagels explains in her book The Origin of Satan, that Satan is largely a Christian invention and has nothing to do with the embodiment of absolute evil. It’s worth quoting her at length:

“In the Hebrew Bible, as in mainstream Judaism to this day, Satan never appears as Western Christendom has come to know him, as the leader of an ‘evil empire,’ an army of hostile spirits who make war on God and humankind alike. As he first appears in the Hebrew Bible, Satan is not necessarily evil, much less opposed to God. On the contrary he appears in the book of Numbers and in Job as one of God’s obedient servants—a messenger or angel, a word that translates the Hebrew term for messenger (mal’ak) into Greek (angelos)…

“In biblical sources, the Hebrew term the satan describes an adversarial role. It is not the name of a particular character. Although Hebrew storytellers as early as the sixth century BCE occasionally introduced a supernatural character whom they called the satan, what they meant was any one of the angels sent by God for the specific purpose of blocking or obstructing human activity... (The Greek diabolos, later translated ‘devil,’ literally means ‘one who throws something across one’s path.’)”

Most of The Origin of Satan, consists of Pagels’ meticulous discussion of how the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John—in that order—progressively demonized the Jews for the death of Jesus, while downplaying the responsibility of the Romans, especially that of Pontius Pilate.

In so doing, the evangelists identified Satan not only with the forces opposed to God, but with the Jews who denied that Jesus Christ was the messiah. Thus the Jews became enemies of God, agents of Satan, especially in John’s gospel. The church later expanded this view of Satan to encompass pagans and Christian dissenters—essentially anyone who challenged the Church’s authority.

At the close of the 20th century, does the Vatican really expect its followers to believe in the existence of a bogeyman whose existence is more political than religious? What’s next—an updated manual on witch trials?