In a futile attempt to broaden its appeal, the Church of England in 2015 removed any mention of Satan from its baptismal ritual. Claiming to have “test-marketed” a simplified service throughout the United Kingdom, clergy concluded that asking parents and godparents to reject the devil and all rebellion against God, “put people off who are offended to be addressed as sinners.” Driven by powerful clergy within the Church of England, and approved by the General Synod in Kent, the new baptismal rite was an attempt to demonstrate their church was sufficiently progressive to longer need to renounce Satan in order to “live in the freedom of the children of God.”
Today, there are increasing numbers of Catholics who seem to agree with that same sentiment. New research data published by the Center for Research on the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University reveals that Catholics are among the least likely to agree that Satan is a “living being.” A recent survey of 1,495 U.S. adults who believe in God reveals that Evangelical Christians are nearly three times more likely than Catholics to believe that Satan is a “living being.” Fifty-five percent of Evangelical Christians interviewed view Satan as an active and “cunning adversary” as described in the New Testament. Yet, counter to Catholic teachings within the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which describes Satan as a real being, specifically a fallen angel who rebelled against God (CCC, 391-395), only 17% of all Catholics polled indicated that they viewed Satan as a living presence in the world. Rather, Catholics are more likely to view Satan as a symbol of evil rather than a “real” living being.
The study notes that sixty years ago, a Gallup poll found that 62% of U.S. adults believed in the existence of “a devil”; that number rose to 70% in 2007. What has changed, overall, is what is meant by the devil or Satan, as more and more Americans, especially Catholics, view him as a symbol of some sort. In fact, Catholics are less likely than any other Christian or non-Christian affiliated group to believe that Satan is a living being. While 21% of “other Christian affiliated” individuals believe that Satan is a living being, and 38% of those with “non-Christian religious affiliation” believe the same, Catholics are closer to the 16% of those with “no religious affiliation” who believe that Satan is a real presence in the world.
This decline in belief that Satan is a cunning adversary (2 Cor 11:3; 1 Pet 5:8) continues despite persistent reminders from Pope Francis about the reality of what the pontiff has often called, “The Prince of this World, ” and the “Father of Lies.” In his first papal homily on March 14, 2013, Pope Francis warned: “When we do not profess Jesus Christ, we profess the worldliness of the devil, a demonic worldliness.” In his 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.” And, since that first homily, Pope Francis has made dozens of references to the cunning of the creature of Satan. In tweets and homilies, the Pope has warned against the Accuser, the Evil One, the Ancient Serpent, the Tempter, the Seducer, the Great Dragon, the Enemy, and the Demon.
For Pope Francis, Satan is real—not a myth or a symbol, or a story to keep us in line. Satan is a real creature who lurks among us in the world even today. In 2014, Pope Francis reminded Catholics that the life of every Christian is a constant battle against Satan—“just as Jesus, during his life, had to struggle against the devil and his many temptations… We too are tempted, we too are the target of attacks by the devil.” Drawing upon Scripture, Pope Francis recalled how Jesus’s first temptation by Satan was ‘almost like a seduction.” And earlier this year the Holy Father stated that “the serpent, the devil is shrewd: one cannot dialogue with the devil…”
Why, then, do so many Catholics refuse to believe what Pope Francis and the Church teaches on the presence of Satan in the world? Some of the blame, it seems, can be placed on progressive Catholic theologians and clergy who prefer to present Satan as a literary construct and metaphor rather than an actual fallen angel. Earlier this year, the recently elected superior of the Jesuits, Fr. Arturo Marcelino Sosa, told an interviewer for the Spanish newspaper, El Mundo, that “We have formed symbolic figures such as the devil to express evil.” Fr. Sosa suggests that humans have constructed Satan as a form of social control.
In a CNN article titled “Why is Pope Francis so Obsessed with the Devil?” Fr. Thomas Rosica dismisses criticisms of Pope Francis’s warnings about Satan and points out that the Pope himself has stated that “The devil is intelligent, he knows more theology than all the theologians together.”
Perhaps it is time to remind Catholics that Satan is real—and that hell is real also. Barnard College scholar Alan F. Segal wrote in 2009 that “The decline of hell may be related to a certain American Pollyannaism.” Segal believes that we may have a general tendency to emphasize the “sunnier side of the divine.” In many churches, for example, portraits of Jesus as the good shepherd are now favored over depictions of him dying on the cross—an emphasis on salvation, rather than suffering, although both are part of the Christian story. But, it is difficult to maintain that kind of optimism in a world that is challenged constantly by evidence of evil. Having experienced the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 and the many recent horrific attacks throughout Europe, it is difficult not to acknowledge evil in the world.
The refusal by most Catholics to acknowledge the reality of Satan—and hell itself—has certainly affected the Church. In a 2012 research report on the declines in sacramental participation by Catholics, CARA researchers revealed that the erosion in belief in hell among Catholics is strongly related to declines in their participation in the sacraments. They conclude: “It feels a bit uncomfortable saying that more “fire and brimstone” may make Catholics more active in sacramental life, but the data are no deception.” Perhaps it is time for parish priests, and theologians, and Catholic writers to begin to emulate Pope Francis by reminding us all that the devil exists even today. They may need to remind us that it is time to learn from the Gospel how to battle against him. As St. James wrote in his epistle: “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (Jms 4:7).