With the Pope and the devil in the news again, I thought I’d talk a bit about the two.
Political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote that individuals and groups “…define their identity by differentiating themselves from and placing themselves in opposition to others. While wars at times may have a divisive effect on society, a common enemy can often help to promote identity and cohesion among people. The weakening or absence of a common enemy can do just the reverse.”
Enemies are important, especially strong ones. Good leaders realize, at least intuitively, that a common foe can provide cohesiveness and goals for a group of people. After 9/11, for example, Americans were uncharacteristically united against the forces of evil. Whether it’s al-Qaida, Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden or the Devil, the bad guy defines us through contrast. We are good and full of love; they represent evil and are full of hatred. We want harmony and peace; they want death and destruction.
It makes sense, then, that Pope Francis would reintroduce Satan as the Catholic Church’s grand cosmic antagonist. Given that the Church has been hobbled from decades of scandal, leaving it weakened and vulnerable, what better way to resuscitate an ailing institution than to identify the cause of its illness and to declare war against the universe’s oldest enemy? The Pope has warned followers, “…there is no shadow of a doubt. A battle exists, a battle in which the eternal salvation of us all is at stake.” He has said that the devil wants to divide Christians, destroy the family and make love disappear. Satan doesn’t want people to be disciples of Christ nor does he want peace between nations.
Humans construct their identity by opposing and differentiating themselves from the undesirable other. This kind of black-and-white thinking underlies religion’s worldview. In order to know who you are, you also have to know who you are not. If there is no evil “out there” threatening the Roman Catholic empire, what indeed does it mean to be a Catholic? Where do the sinful acts, the pedophiles, the abusers come from? Although this is a simplified worldview, the dichotomy makes it easier to deal with the ambiguity and unpredictability of complex human behavior. You’re either one or the other.
Lucifer not only provides a contrast to define what makes a good Christian, his perceived omnipresence and power invoke intense fear that keeps Catholics in check, that makes them stay the course in their faith. Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter 5:8).
Who will save them from the Prince of Darkness? God? No, God does not come to the rescue of possessed mortals. Only the Pontiff and his consort of exorcist priests can keep believers safe here on earth. The devil is strong, but the Church, with its trained exorcists, is stronger. It keeps the great garden of faith weeded of evil and growing.
By referring repeatedly to Satan, the Pope is summoning and reinforcing an old narrative of good versus evil. He is rallying his troops and giving them focus. The Devil has been the reason for the winter of discontent. Now that the enemy is “out there” and in the holy sight, evil is no longer an intrinsic part of the Church but a separate, identifiable other. The war on Satan is how the Church is healing and redeeming itself. This is how it will reclaim its followers and its reputation.
The devil is good for the business of religion.