‘Satan is no principle’

When we experience good and bad things in our lives, they are invariably things that are incarnated in the world—meaning they’re a physical part of our world; they touch us as human beings.

When we experience the love of friendship and courtship and marriage, that is a love that comes from a person—it’s not simply an emotional feeling or a chemical response, because true love (agape) requires the commitment of choosing to love even when it becomes difficult or when the way seems uncertain. There is always a concrete being, a concrete person, at the heart of the good we experience. The same holds for the experience of the bad things in life—their source isn’t simply in ideas, or abstractions, or chemical responses which produce subjectively attractive outcomes.

All that is either good or bad might be thought of as whispers or echoes of their ultimate authors. We’re ultimately talking about God, the author of life, and the Devil, the being who rejects the good and gives rises to despair, dysfunction, and all the things we experience as hellish and which point to the permanent loss of life.

That’s my layman’s preface for Archbishop Chaput’s reflection on the recent comments from Fr. Arturo Sosa, SJ:

Earlier this month the leader of a major Catholic religious order was reported as saying that Satan “exists as a symbolic reality, not as a personal reality.”  True, his words may have been misinterpreted or taken out of context.  But if so, it’s not the first time; he said much the same in 2017.

Jesus, of course, was rather explicit about the devil as a personal reality, having dealt with him firsthand, as the Gospels note.  So is the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  So is Pope Francis.  And so was Romano Guardini, who wrote in The Lord:

“Satan is no principle, no elementary power, but a rebellious, fallen creature who frantically attempts to set up a kingdom of appearances and disorder.”

And again, Guardini, in The Faith and Modern Man:

“In reading the New Testament attentively, we come across a number of passages where Jesus refers to the Adversary of God and man — Satan. He speaks of him as the enemy of light and goodness, or the author of physical and mental disease, or He challenges him to open conflict. This fact has greatly embarrassed contemporary men, and they have tried — in so far as they have sought to hold on to Jesus at all — to eliminate from their mental picture all idea of Satan. They have evaded the troublesome words and acts, and have concentrated attention on the ‘purely spiritual-ethical’ aspects of the person and Gospel of Jesus, or they have stated plainly that belief in Satan belongs to a primitive mode of thought, or to a decadent time. What of this appears in Jesus is merely a survival from a past not wholly shaken off.

“But let us be perfectly clear on this point, for knowledge of the existence of spiritual beings, rebellious toward God and hostile to men, among them their ruler, Satan, belongs ineradicably to the picture of Jesus and to His consciousness of His mission. Without this consciousness, indeed, there is no Jesus.”

In a time of internal and external difficulties for the Church, it would be helpful — to put it kindly — for the leader of a major, global Catholic religious community to avoid creating havoc on matters of fundamental belief.  It’s a simple request.  It shouldn’t be too much to ask.

I forget where I read this, but someone put it this way: Christ wasn’t tempted in the desert by a symbol.

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