THE ADDRESS ABOUT THE EVIL ONE
Augusto Del Noce
During the General Audience on 15 November 1972 Paul VI delivered an address on the invocation of our principal prayer "Our Father... deliver us from evil!". In this he confirmed the traditional doctrine on the Devil, and stressed the necessity of studying again and examining closely this chapter of Catholic doctrine.
It was a subject that evidently could not appeal to the lay controllers of public opinion, nor even to certain vanguard theologians. In fact, it is unquestionable according to their thesis, that the Council marked a "revolution" with regard to old Catholicism, and practically put aside the "cruel dogmas"; it is "reactionary" to speak of original sin, and consequently of the Devil; they are medieval vestiges that will be forgotten and disappear. And now, surprisingly, here we have the Pope returning to then.
There were press reactions. But in general, silence was preferred; it was better to let it be thought that the Pope had delivered a "tranquillizing" address, for old members of the faithful, which would not be followed up. It must be recognized that the manoeuvre was successful: because the explicit call to study the action of the Evil One had few sequels.
I think it is time to take up again the central point of that address: "Evil is no longer just a deficiency, but an efficiency, a living, spiritual, perverted and perverting being". I think that in this sentence there is drawn the demarcation line between religious thought and secularism; that comparison with the thought of the last few decades, in its most varied manifestations, confers on it the sense of the most rigorous formula in which it can be expressed.
Let us consider, in fact. If we seek a definition of our time, which will embrace the totality of its aspects, drawing attention to their novelty, I think that the most suitable one is: "the age of secularization". If we wish then to go deeper into the meaning of this expression, we will have to say: the exclusion of the thought of the Devil as an obscure and hostile agent, perverted and perverting, leads necessarily to seeing evil as a mere deficiency.
In this way is broken that unity characteristic of' Christian thought, as a result of which the maximum of optimism—creation as the exterior mirror of God's wisdom and power—coincides with the maximum recognition of the presence of evil in the world. There result the moral attitudes most widespread today: Utopianism, as the illusory belief in a full rationalization of the world reached by means of purely human means; nihilism, that is, despair as "the last word" as is said in the address. These views and practical dispositions are disappointing, and it is attempted to go beyond them in the disposition of thought and of action that, according to an often repeated sentence, is defined "by the pessimism of intelligence and by the optimism of will". If one looks at what has already been done, at the past, reality always appears inadequate and negative, as a prison for man's spirit of initiative. If one looks, on the contrary, at man's capacity of transforming it, of making present reality the material for a higher form, then pessimistic intellectualism is defeated. Bad will, according to this view, is precisely the will that mortifies the aspiration to go further; the will that defends the past, conferring a sacred character on it. The primacy of the dimension of the future, of what does not yet exist, is, in this view, one of the most important breakthroughs of the spiritual revolution of our time; and it is known how this judgment has exercised an influence on theological trends.
Essential in the three positions described is the reduction of evil to deficiency, and in this perspective the devil cannot but be a myth. We do not know the causes of our misfortunes, and we are inclined to personify them. We give the beings we have constructed the name of demons, and then we establish a hierarchy among them up to Satan "principle of this world". The human sciences, in particular psychoanalysis (to which the Pope's address refers), are called to confirm the thesis, and they are wrongfully elevated to philosophy. But it would be a matter of great interest to show how this appeal and this elevation are conditioned by a previous, and unjustified, answer to the problem of evil, of the type described. Present atheism has substituted the indirect way for the direct way of the negation of God. It was said in the nineteenth century: man projects his own unsatisfied desires into the beyond. Today, people prefer to say: man personifies in the devil the still unknown causes of his ills. The space of mythicization will shrink more and more in proportion as those causes are discovered. The theory of projection serves in both cases as the exclusion of the idea of the beyond, but the pedagogy of atheism shows how the indirect way is the more efficacious one.
Yet does not the present human situation lead to thought of the presence of diabolic action, in spite of the efforts that the culture still prevalent makes to prevent this? It is the question that Paul VI proposes, indicating a series of signs, though calling for great caution in the answer: "We could suppose his sinister action where the negation of God becomes radical, subtle and absurd; where lying asserts itself, hypocritical and powerful, against evident truth; where love is extinguished by cold, cruel egoism, where the name of Christ is challenged with conscious and rebellious hatred; where despair is affirmed as the last word, etc.". They are the titles of the chapters of an ideal book; some of them, without reference to the Pontiff's address and independently of his suggestion, have already been partially developed in the years that followed.
It is clear that this cannot be the opportunity to try to draw the outlines of a treatment which demands the greatest caution, because, as Paul VI opportunely recalls, "It is not the case that every sin is directly due to diabolic action". However, to begin from the beginning, does not the spirit of desecration that has overrun current mentality give us a glimpse of demoniacal characteristics? It is no longer a question, in fact, of "video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor" ["I see what is better and I approve of it, but then I follow the worse," Ovid, Met. 7, 19], but of a desire forprofanation, blasphemy, mockery. This attacks values consecrated for thousands of years—now considered as deceptions whether conscious or not, as "prohibitions" which always hide, it is claimed, a desire for dominion—without new values being affirmed beyond this liberation from prohibitions and what can serve the process of demolition. But is not delight in destruction the first and essential sign of diabolic action? Because the action of the Demon—turned against God who is the principle of creation—cannot but be guided by the spirit of de-creation, to adopt a term that is little used, but which has already been proposed by some authors, and, what is more important, is precise. There is a demoniacal element in the very vision of which a large part of youthful minds are prisoners. According to this it is only after the end of the second world war that real history begins; what precedes having to be considered as prehistory dominated by evil. But does not the very fact of this compulsory satanization, obtained through what has rightly been called the destruction of historical memory, show, to paraphrase freely a famous sentence ("the greatest cunning of the devil lies in getting people to believe that he does not exist"), that it is not possible to deny the existence of Satan except by obeying him?
Weekly Edition in English
9 February 1978, page 4
L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:
The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069