Some years ago, an R.C.I.A. candidate from my parish, who was aghast at the discovery of how rich Catholic doctrine actually is, informed me: “You never know what you don’t know until you know that you didn’t know it!” This fresh Catholic’s verve for the faith reveals something paramount and far-reaching for every Christian as well; namely, there exist realities in the universe of which we are rarely cognizant on a day-to-day basis, but which exist nonetheless.
For the better part of forty years St. Augustine of Hippo struggled with the metaphysical question of the problem of evil. The question both tormented and invigorated him, and has since served as the basis of much of the rhetoric of atheist apologists against “organized religion” and, in particular. Catholicism. Atheists such as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins would assert: “If God exists and he is ‘all-loving’ why would he permit such evil in the world?” The question, while theologically reductionist in thought, is indeed worthy of an answer. The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) went to great lengths to address the arguments of atheism, encouraging atheists to probe the deeper questions of God, human existence, and spiritual anthropology (Gaudium et Spes, 19, 20). In the first chapter of the book of Job the audience hears of a dialogue between God and Satan, wherein God permits Satan to accost the faithful Job in order that a greater good may be drawn out of the evil permitted (Job 1:6-12). Ultimately, Job is given substantially more than what he initially lost. With this in mind, the Church has long differentiated between God as the agent cause of evil, which he is not, and the tolerating of evil for a greater good, which he can do. Nonetheless, in times of trauma and trial, as our country witnessed in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012, this answer not infrequently tends to fall flat in approaching the vexing question as to why God would permit such diabolical activity, especially when perpetuated on the innocent. As a result, we are often left with two primary emotions: confusion and anger. Simply put, there are mysteries to life we simply do not know and cannot adequately explain.
In November of 2010, I attended a conference on Exorcism and the reality of the diabolic, sponsored by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore, MD. The forum was well attended by bishops and Diocesan exorcists from around the world. While the conference was critiqued by some dissenting theologians such as Fr. Richard McBrien as “embarrassingly dumb,” for most clergy who work in active ministry with those suffering from spiritual ills it was a much needed breath of fresh air (“Theologian Mocks Upcoming USCCB Conference on Exorcism.” Women of Grace. July 15, 2010. Susan Brinkmann). During one of the coffee breaks I spoke at length with an exorcist from a northern Archdiocese. He informed me that he had served in this position, largely anonymously, for almost thirty years and during the course of his ministry one thing had become abundantly clear to him. “Satan always prefers subtlety,” he said, “Rarely however, he will arise from beneath the surface of the water and we see his head in a more direct way.” The point this priest was making is that the elusive influences of evil are often rationalized and progressively embraced by a culture, whereas outwardly diabolical ones are frequently appalling and rejected by man. Both, however, remain equally dangerous and call to mind the words of St. Peter: “Be sober and vigilant. Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1Pt 5:8). Thus, whether spiritual poison is swallowed in gulps or slowly ingested in the coffee of complacency it remains nonetheless, lethal. Martin Luther King Jr. often referred to this cultural phenomenon as taking the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism” (I Have a Dream. August 28, 1963).
There does exist a spiritual reality around us to which we are rarely aware of as human beings, and some of these entities include the demonic. While the Church encourages Catholics to avoid a fantastic fixation on Satanic entities, it likewise forbids the denial of them. Among the nine choirs of angels (Col. 1:16), Tradition holds that in a one-time and irreversible decision roughly one third of the angels, created by God also in his image and likeness with intellect and free will though without a body (CCC #391-395), chose to reject his love out of pride and thereafter followed Satan. These “apostate angels,” as Pope Benedict XVI refers to them, influence our fallen nature by appealing to our deprived, though not “depraved” (as Protestantism asserts), nature in an effort to lead us into evil (#405). This tendency towards sin is often referred to simply as concupiscence. Demonic influence is observed in a number of ways: temptation, infestation, oppression, obsession, and bodily possession. However, as Catholics we should recall that not all sin can be attributed simply to demonic coercion in a “devil made me do it” mentality. In John’s Gospel we clearly see demonic influence and free will acceptance of it within the person of Judas Iscariot. We hear the ominous words as Judas initiated the betrayal of Christ: “After he took the morsel, Satan entered him” (Jn 13:27). Satan was thus a spiritual entity outside of Judas which thereafter entered into him by Judas’ own willing of evil. The Iscariot was clearly not an innocent in this scenario, as he freely chose to conform his will with that of evil, and which he regularly weakened by stealing from the apostles and Jesus (Jn 12:6). While evil cannot force us to yield to its influence, it can assert itself in both direct attacks on man, as history clearly shows, and more subtle attacks as well, such as the rationalizing of institutional killing of the unborn and elderly; often under done under premise of “freedom,” “mercy,” “choice,” and “reproductive health.”
When I was ordained I had printed on my ordination card a passage from the prologue of John’s Gospel that I have found especially poignant in reminding me to never lose hope: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:5). Most parents who have lost a child understand acutely the reality of anger (perhaps at God) and the need for hope. Why would God have permitted the face of evil to manifest itself on a Friday morning in this elementary school in Connecticut? I have absolutely no idea, nor would I arrogantly claim to understand such a reality; regardless of whether people expect such answers from their clergy or not. What we do know however, is that evil does not have the last word, as the Gospels inform us. Also, while such evil may appear to have won the battle in Connecticut, in reality it has lost the war by the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the message of the great Exsultet sung every Holy Saturday during Holy Week: “The power of this holy night dispels all evil, washes guilt away, restores lost innocence, brings mourners joy; it casts out hatred, brings us peace, and humbles earthly pride.” This gives us hope. Spe salvi.
It is said that the greatest asset for an attacking army in battle is not the element of surprise but rather the denial of the opposing General to realize that he is actually in battle to begin with. It is by this logic that French poet Charles P. Baudelaire (d. 1867) famously posed the easily forgotten dictum that the greatest deception of Satan is to make us believe that he does not exist, which for a Catholic is a flagrant denial of revealed doctrine and the Gospels themselves (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. On Christian Faith and Demonology. 1975. CCC #391). If culture in the West is to adequately combat the reality of evil, manifest gruesomely in both its subtle and outwardly aggressive species, we must first awaken to a reality that up until now we have largely refused to admit; namely, we are at war. Ironically, many of our Evangelical brothers and sisters seem to grasp this truth more so than some lay Catholics and clergy. In Ephesians 6, St. Paul could not be clearer on this point: “For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens. Therefore, put on the armor of God, that you may be able to resist on the evil day and, having done everything, to hold your ground. So stand fast with your loins girded in truth, clothed with righteousness as a breastplate, and your feet shod in readiness for the gospel of peace” (Eph 6:12-15). Paul here is not simply using a battle metaphor in order to underscore a point, he is urgent in his message to the Church in Ephesus that a Christian, or at least an authentic one, lives his/her life perpetually with the discomfort and urgency of spiritual warfare. Similarly, the Catholic girds himself in the “armor” of the sacraments that Paul speaks of. In addressing the reality of the demonic, we are called then to be prudent without being paranoid and confident without being naive. Such prudence cannot be actualized if we refuse to acknowledge the reality of the battle we fight each day. To refuse to do so is to assume the position of a spiritual ostrich whose head is nestled safely in the sand, all the while failing to realize his death is eminent.