Pope Francis on Knowledge, Faith, and Demons

"The demons know very well what the Creed says, and they know it is the truth."

Pope Francis gives the homily during Mass at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Rome earlier this year. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis gives the homily during Mass at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Rome earlier this year. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

“To believe is immediately an act of the intellect, because the object of that act is the true, which pertains properly to the intellect. Consequently, faith, which is the proper principle of that act, must needs reside in the intellect.” — St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, 4, 2.

“Thus, ‘we can recite the Creed, theoretically, even without the faith.’ He (Pope Francis) said, ‘and there are many people who do so! Even the demons.’” — Pope Francis, Homily, Santa Marta, February 21, 2014.

Pope Francis’ “style” is more familiar to us. Every morning, he diligently gives a sermon that reflects on the daily readings, but can touch on just about anything that comes to his mind. Obviously, these morning reflections are prepared, but are not written so that they might someday appear in a “collection” of papal sermons. But some gathering of these lively sermons will certainly be made available. What we have in L’Osservatore Romano is a summary, with many direct quotations, of what the Pope has said that morning. Not a few of these somewhat off-handed papal comments, like his reference to Robert Hugh Benson’s novel, The Lord of the World, make morning headlines throughout the world.

Recent Mass readings were from the Epistle of James, the letter that Martin Luther did not at all like. Though many of these things have long been hashed out in Catholic-Lutheran dialogues, the initial impression was that Luther did not like James because of the latter’s insistence that faith had also to result in works. In this sense, it seemed that sola fide, faith alone, was not enough. With proper distinctions, both Catholics and Lutherans hold that both are necessary. Our faith should result in some positive action in the world, But if we have no faith, our deeds will appear to mean that we can gain heaven by just working for it on our own with no need for grace to attain our highest purpose.

Pope Francis tells us that St. James wants to explain what the faith is. In the Pope’s words, “Faith that does not bear fruit in works is not faith.” The question, of course, becomes: “What is a ‘work’?” The Pope is annoyed by people who say they believe the Creed or have great “faith,” but in fact “lead a lukewarm, weak” life. Such a passage continues what seems to be a characteristic theme of Francis, namely, that the problems of the world are centered, not so much on unbelievers, but on the quality of faith of believers themselves manifest.

When St. James speaks of faith, Pope Bergoglio continues, “He speaks precisely about doctrine, about the content of the faith.” If we do know all the doctrines and their intricacies of belief, but this belief leaves us inert, what good is it? He adds that “even demons” can recite the Creed, a most interesting thought. What follows is the Pope’s reflection on the knowledge and faith of demons. The demons know the truth of the faith. As someone remarked, the one thing Lucifer is certain about is that he is not God.

This certainty is why, if Lucifer too, or any fallen angel, is to be “active,” he has to act in such a way as to thwart God’s plan for us. The demons know they cannot replace God. The Devil cannot do anything about God and knows it. The Pope puts it in this rather amusing way:

The demons know very well what the Creed says, and they know it is the truth. The Apostle says that “they tremble,” because they know it is the truth” even though they do not have faith. The demons know the whole of theology, they have Denziger memorized, but they do not have faith. Having faith is not a matter of having knowledge; having faith means receiving God’s message brought to us by Jesus Christ, living it out and carrying it forward.

The “Denziger” in the previous passage refers to the Enchiridion Symbolorum, a compendium that contains in an orderly manner the exact statement of all the things that the Church has defined to be held with their degree of certainty. It is of some interest to reflect that while demons know the elements of faith, the modern mind proposes itself to be a creator so that nothing is to be known in nature or revelation. The demons know everything; modernity knows nothing but itself.

The demons, assuming that St. James and the Pope are talking about fallen angels, do not have “faith” because they “know.” They have made their final choice and can only seek to interfere with our destinies. Faith is a virtue of the intellect, as St. Thomas says—that is, it explains the intelligibility of revelation once we accept it. The difference between what we know by faith and what we know by reason is not concerned with whether one is true and the other is false. Both are, or can be, true; just as there can be a false faith or erroneous reason In the case of a truth we know by reason; we rely on evidence and argument from first principles. In the case of a truth of faith, we rely on the credibility of the witnesses like St James and the Pope who attest to the truth of the tradition.

The notion that faith and reason are opposed as “myth” to truth completely misses the point of their relation. Both contain truths. In our daily lives, most of what we rely on—that the food we eat or the automobile we drive are safe—is the result of faith in someone else’s testimony. The testimony that grounds the truths of faith descends from Christ to the Apostles, and to the Church. Its integrity is that it does not claim for itself to be anything but a witness to hand on what the Church has received from Christ who was the Word, the Son of God. With truths or doctrines now in existence as known by faith, we think further about then; compare them with what we else know. We see that the intelligibility of faith is addressed to the intelligibility of reason.

Two contrasting realities confront us, Pope Francis concludes, “There are those who have doctrine and know things”, and there are those who “have faith”. Between them stands a certainty. Faith always leads to witness. “Faith is an encounter with Jesus Christ, with God…Faith that does not really involve you and that does not lead you to bear witness, is not faith. It is words and nothing more than words.” But we do not forget that Christ was revealed to us as Logos, as the Word made flesh. The virtue of faith is in the intellect, where the truths that we use to understand this revelation are needed to deal with “those who have doctrine and know things,” but who lack faith.

On the following day, in his sermon, the Pope cited a passage from Pope Paul VI which was “particularly dear to me.” Paul VI said: “It is absurd to love Christ without the Church, to listen to Christ but not to the Church, to follow Christ on the margins of the Church.” It is interesting that survey after survey of Catholics and Christians today say precisely this that Christ is loved outside the Church and that real faith is on the margins” (See S. Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples).

It is worthwhile to take a look at demons who can recite the Creed and have memorized Denziger when we have no clue about the coherence of the faith. And it is always good to encounter the Apostle James, who tells us that the faith was given to us to change our lives and do something about what needs to be done. The conclusion I would draw from these papal comments at an early morning Mass in February is not that we need not know the truth of the Creed, but that knowing it through belief in the Person of Christ, faith and reason begin to cohere for us.

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).