Devil in the details: WPost on Francis teaching about Satan

The current head of the Catholic Church has often shocked liberals by showing he actually believes Catholic dogma. In the newest chapter of this saga, Pope Francis spooks 'em by preaching traditional doctrines about Satan. An account of this situation by the Washington Post isn’t half bad. Written by Anthony Faiola, the Post's London bureau chief, it skims the pope's pronouncements on the devil and quotes a couple of worriers. But Faiola also quotes a couple of believers, including attendees at a conference on exorcism that's the clear time peg for this article.

The article doesn’t start out promising: "A darling of liberal Catholics and an advocate of inclusion and forgiveness, Pope Francis is hardly known for fire and brimstone." But it gains depth and shows savvy.

Faiola alertly notes how Francis shows an awareness of how un-trendy is the belief about Satan. He has the pope paraphrasing critics: "But Father, how old-fashioned you are to speak about the Devil in the 21st century."

And he provides good background of Church teachings on Satan:

Since its foundation, the church has taught the existence of the Devil. But in recent decades, progressive priests and bishops, particularly in the United States and Western Europe, have tended to couch Satan in more allegorical terms. Evil became less the wicked plan of the master of hell than the nasty byproduct of humanity’s free will. Even Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, a lofty German theologian, often painted evil with a broad brush.

Enter the plain-talking first pope from Latin America, where mystical views of Satan still hold sway in broad areas of the region. During his time as cardinal of Buenos Aires before rising to the papacy, Francis was known for stark warnings against “the tempter” and “the father of lies.”

Faiola shows a way with clever phrases. He says Francis wants to "rekindle" the old image of Satan. He says some people view exorcists as "crazy uncles" of the Church. And he mentions "hellish forces plotting to deliver mankind unto damnation."

The reporter shows an old hand's touch in a quick two paragraphs on the drift of opinions about evil, from personification in a devil toward a "nasty byproduct of humanity's free will." He also shows that Francis hasn't changed his tune over time -- it's just that more journalists are paying attention:

Since its foundation, the church has taught the existence of the Devil. But in recent decades, progressive priests and bishops, particularly in the United States and Western Europe, have tended to couch Satan in more allegorical terms. Evil became less the wicked plan of the master of hell than the nasty byproduct of humanity’s free will. Even Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, a lofty German theologian, often painted evil with a broad brush.

Enter the plain-talking first pope from Latin America, where mystical views of Satan still hold sway in broad areas of the region. During his time as cardinal of Buenos Aires before rising to the papacy, Francis was known for stark warnings against “the tempter” and “the father of lies.”

Some of Faiola's remarks take risks, but he proves most of them. He says Francis is fighting the devil in words and deeds. He then quotes the pope warning the faithful, even laying hands on a man and praying for him after the man claims to be possessed.

Faiola talks of two undercurrents. One is what he sees as criticism around Vatican City about Francis' emphasis on Satan. The other is talk about a broad renewal of Catholic interest in "mystical rites," including exorcism. Both undercurrents, he admits, are hard to quantify. But he uses the latter to suggest that in warning about the devil, Francis "may simply be correctly reading the winds of the Catholic Church."

In the negative column, the Post article tosses off clichés like "fire and brimstone." It says Francis' doubters include "progressive" priests and theologians, without defining the term. And it says the pope has spent a year "atop the Throne of St. Peter." The throne is a big chair set high on the wall of the apse at St. Peter's Basilica. To sit there, Francis would need a ladder and a seatbelt.

Although it runs well over 1,200 words, the Post piece leaves some questions unanswered. It relates three encounters with demons -- one supposedly involving lesbians on a plane -- yet it gives little on the actual process, the Rite, of exorcism.

The article also has a cryptic passage about satanic superstitions, including "the alleged gateway to hell guarded by the small cluster of officially anointed exorcists of the Roman Catholic Church." A real place? A mere metaphor for all things diabolical? No explanation.

Finally, Faiola has exorcists complaining that bishops often reject their offers to help, but he doesn’t say why. In an article that tells of the boss promoting belief in Satan, this, too, should have been explained.

Weighed against the strengths, though, the drawbacks are comparatively slight. The article is generally fair to all sides and delivers decent info. And in the mouth of a senior Vatican bishop, it makes a sharp observation:

“Had Pope Benedict done this, the media would have clobbered him.”

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