Controversy arose recently, when Fr. Arturo Sosa Abascal, S.J., the Superior General of the Society of Jesus, declared that the devil is only a symbol of evil, not an actual personal entity. This reading of Fr. Sosa’s comments isn’t a matter of interpretation. He was explicit: “He [that is, the devil,] exists as the personification of evil in different structures, but not in persons, because he is not a person; he is a manner of actualizing evil. He is not a person like a human person. He is a manner of evil being present in human life. . . . Symbols are a part of reality, and the devil exists as a symbolic reality, not a personal reality.”
In this statement, Fr. Sosa explicitly contradicts the constant Tradition of the Church and her formal teaching that, “Behind the disobedient choice of our first parents lurks a seductive voice. . . . 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. . .” (CCC § 391). Lest there be any doubt that this image is intended to communicate an actual, personal presence, the Catechism goes on to state that, “angels have intelligence and will: they are personal and immortal creatures” (CCC § 330).
I’m not remotely the first person to comment on Sosa’s disturbing and glaring departure from orthodoxy on this point. It led to an immediate firestorm of commentary from that Catholic subgroup, of which I count myself a member, concerned about fidelity to the Church’s formal teaching.
I’d like to look at the problem from a point of view I haven’t personally seen represented in what’s been written so far. What’s at stake here? What difference does it make if the devil is a real person or just a collective personification of a “structure of sin”?
You see, when the Church teaches something formally and by it, binds the faithful to belief, it’s because there’s something at stake in that teaching. If we get the question wrong, we get other things wrong too. For example, in the Church’s teaching that Mary is Theotokos (θεοτόκος) or “Birth-giver of God,” there’s more at issue than just another title of exultation we can heap on the Virgin Mary. To say that Mary’s the “Birth-giver of God” is to say that Jesus of Nazareth, her biological offspring, is, in his personal identity, none other than the Incarnate Logos (λόγος), who’s God.
What’s at stake in Sosa’s departure from orthodoxy?
So, what’s at stake in the Church’s teaching that angels and demons, including the devil, are real, personal beings?
To start with, if they’re not, then Jesus’ multiple exorcisms in the New Testament, as well as those attributed to the apostles, are just signs of the psychological power of Jesus’ message or, more likely, of the personal charisma of the messengers. Why? Because if the demons aren’t actual, personal beings but only, as Sosa says, “a manner of evil being present in human life,” then it would seem that the experience of demonic possession would have to be some kind of psychological, maladjustive condition in response to the “evil in different structures” within society.
This view of the demonic reduces the Gospel to a social movement originating in “consciousness-raising” and thus, essentially, to a form of Neo-Marxist liberation theology. You might think that I’m making too far a leap from Sosa’s original assertion to this conclusion, but let’s think about it.
In Sosa’s view, the great Enemy isn’t an actual, personal individual from beyond time and space as we know it, but a social structure harmful to harmonious human interactions. It appears as something personal and spiritual only because, so entrenched has it become—e.g. the “Deep State”—that it’s taken on a quasi “life of its own.” What is it, really, but a form of social organization and social processes and expectations? But it’s been here for so long and it’s become intertwined with so much, and it’s so much bigger than any one person, that it seems like it has an identity and power and mind all its own. “The Man,” as they used to say, is just another name for “the devil.”
Sosa contra Scriptura
To give Sosa some credit here, I think there’s no question that John, in the book of Revelation, envisions the Roman Empire as an “offspring of the dragon.” But before we concede that Sosa’s view is the biblical one, let’s remember that the dragon itself, which he identifies clearly as the devil, is something else, according to John. It’s not the Roman Empire. In fact, it’s what’s led the Roman Empire into debauchery and made Rome into a kind of “son” to itself.
Think I’m making that up? I’m not. When the dragon’s introduced in chapter 12 of the book of Revelation, John describes it as, “that ancient serpent, the one called ‘devil,’ or the ‘Satan,’ the one who leads the whole inhabited world astray” (Revelation 12:9).
This is my own translation. I’m giving it here because it draws attention to an important point. The phrase, “the whole inhabited world,” is a translation of the Greek, tën oikoumenën holën (τὴν οἰκουμένην ὅλην). It was a phrase used specifically by the Roman Empire to identify itself.
The dragon, however, is a false god—not in the sense of a social convention but in the sense of a spiritual being who puts himself in the place of God and makes a false claim to human worship and to our allegiance. John even describes a very specific claimant here. While he associates the figure with a range of identities already present in the Judeo-Christian tradition, who come up elsewhere in the Bible—“the ancient serpent, the one called ‘devil,’ or the ‘Satan’”—the description of a seven-headed red dragon is the description of the ancient Canaanite god, Lotan.
So, John’s telling us that the Canaanites worshipped the devil, and that the Roman Empire—a strange mixture of countless pagan polytheistic cults and secular materialism—was governed on an invisible supra-human plane by forces under the control of that same demonic entity, which they, in their hubris, thought they could control through an administrative process of senatorial approval.
The power of this claim, moreover, couldn’t have been lost on John’s contemporary audience. The great Roman Empire was, on the plane of reality that mattered most, just a more accomplished little brother to the Canaanites. Not only was Rome not invincible. It had been enslaved from the day of its birth, pressed into service by an Enemy it didn’t even know, who convinced it that the prison of the soul in which it lived was the heart of civilization and the height of sophistication.
So, what’s really at stake in Sosa’s position is that we end up like Rome. In our self-satisfied erudition, we think we’ve transcended the power of the devil by disbelieving in him. We think we can then defeat him by organizing society against the social structures that perpetuate oppression, and that, person-by-person, we can exorcize ourselves through psychotherapy and mindfulness, and by adopting a more enlightened—today we would say, “woke”—perspective on our world.
It’s been tried before.