Satan, Sin, and Sociology

A clear-eyed understanding of sin has been replaced by a therapeutic culture and "psychological man”

In his first homily, given on March 14th, Pope Francis cautioned the faithful that “he who does not pray to the Lord, prays to the devil.” “When we do not profess Jesus Christ,” he further insisted, “we profess the worldliness of the devil, a demonic worldliness.” Since that day, he has spoken often of the one he has called the “prince of this world,” and the “father of lies.” And, in the book, On Heaven and Earth, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio devoted an entire chapter to “The Devil”, warning that Satan’s fruits are “destruction, division, hatred and calumny.”

For many Catholics—especially post-Vatican II Catholics—speaking aloud of evil, sin, and Satan is something they may never have experienced, even in Church. Some may have to resort to the internet (or dictionary) to look up a definition of calumny. It seems that after a long hiatus, evil and sin have been “rediscovered” by some.

More than sixty years ago, T. S. Eliot wrote about the sense of alienation that occurs when social regulators begin to splinter and the controlling moral authority of a society is no longer effective. He suggested that a “sense of sin” was beginning to disappear. In his play, The Cocktail Party, a troubled young protagonist visits a psychiatrist and confides that she feels “sinful” because of her relationship with a married man. She is distressed not so much by the illicit relationship, but rather, by the strange sense of sin. Eliot writes, “Having a sense of sin seems abnormal” to her—she had never noticed before that such behavior might be seen in those terms. She believed that she had become “ill.”

Writing in 1950, Eliot knew that the language of sin was declining even then, yet most of us would assume that the concept of sin was still strong. Looking back though, it seems that for many, the sense of sin was already beginning to be replaced by an emerging therapeutic culture. Within that growing culture of “liberation”, people no longer viewed themselves as sinful when they drank too much, took drugs, or engaged in violent or abusive behaviors. Rather, such actions were increasingly viewed as indicators that such individuals were victims of an illness they had little or no control over.

Promoted by the psychological community and popularized by practitioners like Carl Rogers, the therapeutic mentality began seeping into the Church as psychologists began advising Catholic dioceses about implementing the therapeutic culture within the Church itself. Seminarians were instructed to move away from making judgments about others, and instead, use the language of illness and therapy. Suicide was no longer a sin that deprived the victim of Christian burial, rather, it was evidence of sickness. Drug and alcohol abuse were no longer character flaws or the result of choices, rather they were evidence of a defective gene pool that “forced” the victim into the illness of substance abuse.

Sociologists—who understand better than most how deviant behavior becomes defined and re-defined—began paying attention to the culture shift. Sociologist Philip Rieff, an expert on the thought of Freud, warned in his now-classic book, The Triumph of the Therapeutic that “psychological man” was beginning to replace “Christian man” as the dominant character type in our society. Unlike traditional Christianity, which made moral demands on believers, the secular world of “psychological man” rejected both the idea of sin and the need for salvation.” Speaking of a “sense of sin”, an “occasion of sin”, or sinfulness itself was no longer allowed.

Perhaps this is why it is so unusual to experience the revival of the language of sin now that Pope Francis actually speaks of “real” sins—not just metaphorical ones. Speaking of specific sins—sins like calumny—that we may have learned about long ago, but have forgotten about, Pope Francis has begun the process of chipping away at the therapeutic culture in the Church and beyond. And as he reminds us of sin, he reminds us that there is evil—real evil—in the world and in our lives, with a real entity called Satan as the source of this evil.

Indeed, it is Pope Francis’s references to Satan that are so striking, especially since so few public figures speak of Satan. And, whenever anyone dares speaks openly of Satan, “enlightened” people are scandalized. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia found that out last October when he was interviewed by a skeptical reporter for New York Magazine. Justice Scalia casually responded to a question about his legacy in a way that appeared to startle the interviewer. Claiming that he has “never been custodian of my legacy,” Justice Scalia said “When I’m dead and gone, I’ll either be sublimely happy or terribly unhappy.”

The New York Magazine reporter was incredulous—asking him: “You believe in heaven and hell?” And, Justice Scalia responded “Of course I do.” The reporter said she didn’t.

Justice Scalia then astonished the bewildered reporter even more by leaning in, and whispering, “I even believe in the Devil…Yeah, he’s a real person. Hey, c’mon, that’s standard Catholic doctrine. Every Catholic believes that.” She could hardly believe it—responding that “Every Catholic believes this? There’s a wide variety of Catholics out there.”

It is true, sadly, that there are indeed a number of Catholics who have never been taught that the Devil is “real”. It is just unbelievable to them. But when Pope Francis said Mass in the Vatican’s St. Martha guesthouse last October and warned the faithful, “We must always be on guard against deceit, against the seduction of evil,” he meant a real evil presented by a real demon. For Pope Francis, “there is a battle, and a battle where salvation is at play, eternal salvation.” He has also said, “The presence of the devil is on the first page of the Bible, and the Bible ends as well with the presence of the devil, with the victory of God over the devil.”

So many Catholics seem to have forgotten that, and we should be grateful to Pope Francis for the reminder. Some of us may not even know what is on the first page of the Bible because we have not read it. Many of our Evangelical sisters and brothers have never forgotten it. As Russell Moore, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, recently wrote on the pages of First Things, “Evangelicals are a narrative driven people…The centrality of the Gospel demands a certain form of public engagement. The Gospel, after all is the announcement of God’s redemption of sinners through the life, death, resurrection, and ongoing reign of Jesus Christ.”

Catholics need to re-learn that language—and Pope Francis, building on the work of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, is teaching us to go back to the Bible to see as Russell Moore reminds us, “the universe is shaped around the Gospel of Jesus Christ and that losing our living sense of the ultimate telos leads to an unsustainable teleology.” Perhaps we all just needed to reminded that Satan is real.

Religious writers have often called Satan an “evil genius” because of his ability to hide in plain sight and tempt us in subtle ways. C. S. Lewis offers a compelling description of the way in which the “Father of Lies” cunningly tries to convince us to turn away from God. In his satirical Screwtape Letters, Lewis creates a senior demon named Screwtape who is instructing Wormwood, his young protégé on how best to capture a soul for hell. When Wormwood wants to tempt the target to commit great evil for great profit, Screwtape advises his young demon-in-training that it is not necessary to get the target to commit the “big sins.” Rather, as Screwtape says in Letter XII, “the safest road to hell is the gradual one, the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

Pope Francis is warning us of these gentle slopes without signposts. Cautioning us about the “small” temptations—the greedy reach, the neglect of the poor, the dangers of gossip, or pride. Francis has already spoken many times in just a few months of the temptations of Satan and the reality of evil. But, that is not enough—Catholics need to begin to believe that the devil is real and active. In Letter VII, Screwtape tells his young protégé that the most effective thing he can do to bring souls to hell is to convince people that Satan does not even exist: “The fact that “devils” are predominantly comic figures in the modern imagination will help you. If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in his mind, suggest to him a picture of something in red tights, and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that, he therefore cannot believe in you.”

Pope Francis refuses to allow this deception to continue—and this is why he is so very important for our Church.

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About Anne Hendershott 105 Articles
Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University in Steubenville, OH

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