For Pope Francis, “the devil is not a myth, but a real person.” In one of his morning homilies, reports Sandro Magister, Francis said:
“With his death and resurrection, Jesus has ransomed us from the power of the world, from the power of the devil, from the power of the prince of this world. The origin of the hatred is this: we are saved and that prince of the world, who does not want us to be saved, hates us and gives rise to the persecution that from the earliest times of Jesus continues until today.
“One must react to the devil — the pope says — as did Jesus, who “replied with the word of God. With the prince of this world one cannot dialogue. Dialogue is necessary among us, it is necessary for peace, it is an attitude that we must have among ourselves in order to hear each other, to understand each other. And it must always be maintained. Dialogue is born from charity, from love. But with that prince one cannot dialogue; one can only respond with the word of God that defends us.”
This is not something theologians and pastors, at least those in the developed world, tend to say, outside very conservative Protestant circles. Many readers will, I suspect, share with me the instinctive wish that Francis wouldn’t talk like that. Everything we’ve learned outside church has trained us to feel that talk of a personal devil is the point at which religion crosses into fruitloopery, like snake-handling. We believe in the supernatural, but do not feel entirely comfortable with talk of certain elements of the invisible world traditionally believed.
But belief in the devil and his legions is part of the Christian revelation, and an important part at that. As C. S. Lewis noted in his sermon Learning in War-Time:
I spoke just now of fiddling while Rome burns. But to a Christian the true tragedy of Nero must be not that he fiddles while the city was on fire but that he fiddles on the brink of hell. You must forgive me for the crude monosyllable. I know that many wiser and better Christians than I in these days do not like to mention heaven and hell even in a pulpit. I know, too, that nearly all the references to this subject in the New Testament come from a single source. But then that source is Our Lord Himself. People will tell you it is St. Paul, but that is untrue. These overwhelming doctrines are dominical. They are not really removable from the teaching of Christ or of His Church. If we do not believe them, our presence in this church is great tomfoolery. If we do, we must sometime overcome our spiritual prudery and mention them.
And as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:
391 Behind the disobedient choice of our first parents lurks a seductive voice, opposed to God, which makes them fall into death out of envy. Scripture and the Church’s Tradition see in this being a fallen angel, called “Satan” or the “devil”. The Church teaches that Satan was at first a good angel, made by God: “The devil and the other demons were indeed created naturally good by God, but they became evil by their own doing.”
392 Scripture speaks of a sin of these angels. This “fall” consists in the free choice of these created spirits, who radically and irrevocably rejected God and his reign. We find a reflection of that rebellion in the tempter’s words to our first parents: “You will be like God.” The devil “has sinned from the beginning”; he is “a liar and the father of lies.”
If this is true, it is something we should know not just for our eternal destinations but for happiness in this world. Something you can’t see, like the HIV virus, wants the worst for you, and as would one exposed to the virus, you should take prophylactic measures. What you don’t know can hurt you.
Update: Lewis was talking specifically about Hell, a friend points out. I was thinking of his insistence that “crude monosyllable” — like “Hell” but also “Devil” or “Satan” — are biblical and not something we can avoid if we want to speak the same language as Scripture (and the Church), and that the gospels speaks rather clearly of Satan and the devils in a way equally impossible to blow off as a kind of optional extra not relevant to the whole message. I should have made this clear.