Satanic Rites in the Church's Judgement

Author: Bishop Angelo Scola


Bishop Angelo Scola
Bishop emeritus of Grosseto, Italy 
Rector of the Pontifical Lateran University, Rome


The legacy of the modern age, which has seen, if not the defeat, at least a drastic reduction in the claims of rationalism, presents us with an unexpected explosion of the sacred. Secularization had been proclaimed as the reduction of Christian thought to "worldly", "nonreligious" terms. Today, however, the most varied forms of the sacred are springing up, which could be defined as naturalistic, inasmuch as they find answers to the religious sense in an understanding of nature (of the universe and of man) which, almost in the manner of the pre-Christian era, is once again regarded as something divine in itself (theia physic). Gods and demons populate the universe of this new irrational polytheism, paradoxically cultivated by the extraordinary tools offered by science and technology.

No longer to believe in God does not mean to believe in nothing, but instead to believe in everything. This well-known insight of Chesterton well describes the condition of many people today. Having abandoned the Christian faith, and disappointed by the claims of Enlightenment reason, they find themselves defenceless before reality. They are unable to free themselves from the anguish of a radical loneliness when confronted with the world and with time. To overcome this anguish they resort to magic, which would allow them to gain the protection of occult powers, and they do not refrain from seeking an alliance with these same powers of evil.

For this reason magical practices proliferate, and even some Christian faithful participate in satanic groups that promote worship openly contrary to the Catholic religion. Regarding this state of affairs the Church, particularly her Pastors, is called to make a clear judgement, made possible by a renewed proclamation of the victory of Christ over Satan, sin and death.

To explain the Church's position and magisterial teaching regarding the problem of satanic cults, without neglecting to underscore their danger and their incompatibility with the nature of Christians faith and morals, this topic will be developed as follows: 1. the newness of Christian worship; 2. the reality of Satan and of his snares against men; 3. satanic rites in the judgement of the Church; 4. possible consequences of participating in satanic rites.

1. The newness of Christian worship

"I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship" (Rom 12:1). Christian worship, the work of Christ the Priest, with which man becomes associated, displays a very special character which radically distinguishes it from every other form of worship. It can never be reduced to pure ritual or pious practice. Adoration of God, in fact, which culminates in the celebration of the sacraments, is realized in its fullness only in the offering of one's own life as a sacrifice pleasing to the Father.

What is the basis of the originality of Christian worship? It is the Christ event: "This Jesus "God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this which you see and hear. Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified" (Acts 2:32-33, 36). In a free and gratuitous way, before all ages, the Father decided to let men participate in his divine life, conforming them to Jesus Christ by the work of the Holy Spirit. Through this plan of salvation, he has given being to all things, visible and invisible, and among them to man, created in his image and likeness, and called to a supernatural life. With the sin of Adam this "original order" has not changed, but its redemptive character has been revealed. The eternal Son of God has become incarnate, and, in the paschal mystery (death, resurrection, ascension and gift of the Holy Spirit), he has completed the work of justification. It reaches men of all times through the Church, with her seven sacraments. Justification, according to well-known New Testament terminology, gives birth to sons in the Son: "For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, 'Abbe! Father!', it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs" (Rom 8:14ff.). The sacrament of Baptism, intrinsically oriented to the Eucharist, effects this supernatural rebirth in the believer and brings him to new life in Christ, making him capable of meritorious acts.

In fact, the power and beauty of Christ's work is manifested, in a certain sense visibly, in the new life of the baptized, which is characterized above all by the three theological virtues: faith, hope and charity. Adherence to Jesus Christ in the obedience of faith, the practice of a fruitful charity towards God and neighbour, and the hope that the mercy of God will grant us the fullness of eternal life, which is already an object of present experience as a pledge, are the characteristics of the lives of the saints, those privileged representatives of the existential newness which Christ brought to the world. The existence of the Christian (en Christoi), being in itself the new worship, reaches its culmination in acts of worship in the specific sense. The Second Vatican Council, speaking of the liturgical celebration, recalls the teaching of Scripture and Tradition in this regard: "Every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the Priest and of his Body, which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others. No other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 7). In fact the act of worship, which for the Christian can be directed only to God, fundamentally has the form of a "response" to the gratuitous initiative of the Father in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. In it all three theological virtues are at work, and they in turn involve all the constitutive dimensions of the person.

2. The reality of Satan and his snares against men

Within this framework we can speak, seriously and without falling into exaggeration, of satanic rites: a poisonous tree that grows in soil polluted by magic. Above all we must not forget that the Church, on the one hand, has always reproved an excessive credulity in this matter, energetically denouncing all forms of superstition, such as the obsession with Satan and demons, and the various rites and forms of evil involvement with these spirits. On the other hand, with wisdom, she has been wary of a purely rationalistic approach to these phenomena, which in the end identifies them only and always as mental imbalances. The ecclesial attitude down the centuries has been characterized by a serene stance of faith.

As St John Chrysostom reminds us: "It certainly gives us no pleasure to speak with you about the devil, but the doctrine which this enables me to speak of will be quite useful for you" (De diabolo tentatore, Hom. II, 1).

Twenty years ago it was not rare to encounter theological works denying the existence of the devil and of his real work of entrapping men. It reached the point that Pope Paul VI felt the need to present again the Church's faith in this regard at the General Audience of 15 November 1972: "Evil is not merely a lack of something, but an effective agent, a living spiritual being, perverted and perverting. A terrible reality. Mysterious and frightening. It is contrary to the teaching of the Bible and the Church to refuse to recognize the existence of such a reality, or to regard it as a principle in itself which does not draw its origin from God like every other creature: or to explain it as a pseudo-reality, a conceptual and fanciful personification of the unknown causes of our misfortunes". These words summarized the constant teaching of the Magisterium of the Church (5th-6th cent.: DS 286, 291, 325, 457 463; 13th cent.: DS 797; 15th-16th cent, DS 1349, 1511; 17th cent.: DS 2192, 2241, 2243-2245, 2251; 20th cent.: DS 3511), especially that of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, whose content has been analyzed carefully by the document The Multiple Forms of Superstition, published under the auspices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (26 June 1975). The pronouncement of Lateran IV, against the Albigenses and the Cathars, states: "The devil in fact, and the other demons were created naturally good by God, but they have made themselves evil. Man then sinned at the suggestion of the devil" (DS 800). John Paul II, in the cycle of catecheses on creation (9 and 30 July, and 13 August 1986), affirmed the same doctrine, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church expresses it with clarity: "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’" (CCC, n. 391). It is therefore unthinkable to deny real existence to a being created by God. We have to note, however, that the Catechism, following the whole Tradition of the Church, speaks of the devil in a subordinate role in salvation history, in the context of creation and original sin. This choice undercuts any possibility of a dualism that would put Satan at the same level with God. Salvation history is not the struggle of equal forces between the God of mercy and the father of lies. It is entirely defined by the omnipotence of the Father who sent his Son "to destroy the works of the devil" (1 Jn 3:8). There is only one principle of being and, therefore, there is but one possibility of victory: the whole work of Satan is overshadowed, from the beginning, by defeat. "The power of Satan is, nonetheless, not infinite. He is only a creature, powerful from the fact that he is pure spirit, but still a creature. He cannot prevent the building up of God's reign. Although Satan may act in the world out of hatred for God and his kingdom in Christ Jesus, and although his action may cause grave injuriesof a spiritual nature and, indirectly, even of a physical natureto each man and to society, the action is permitted by divine providence which with strength and gentleness guides human and cosmic history. It is a great mystery that providence should permit diabolical activity, but 'we know that in everything God works for good with those who love him' (Rom 8:28)" (CCC, n. 395).

Although he is defeated, Satan does not stop putting the sons of God in difficulty, so that the victory of Christ awaits its incontrovertible manifestation in his Parousia. He who has been called the murderer from the beginning (cf. Jn 8:44) continually ensnares the faithful so that they will separate themselves from their Redeemer. "It would be a fatal error to act as if history could already be considered to be resolved, as if the Redemption had already obtained all its effects, without it being necessary any more to commit oneself to the struggle which the New Testament and the masters of the spiritual life speak of" (The Multiple Forms of Superstition, op. cit.). The Christian life possesses an intrinsic dimension of struggle from which no one can be spared. St. Augustine speaks of two cities in opposition to one another, and St. Ignatius of Loyola, a great master of the spiritual life, has left us in his book of Exercises the famous meditation on the two standards, which vividly expresses the Christian's struggle. In fact, the salvation of man cannot be automatic because it takes his freedom into account. If it were not so, it would inevitably be considered by us an extrinsic factor, not "suited" to our person, whose trademark is precisely freedom. But the experience of finite liberty introduces, in this pilgrim state (status viatoris), the possibility of error which can reach, because of sin, the point of rebellion against the Supreme Good. Man, in the exercise of his freedom, can choose a finite good, treating it as if it were the Absolute Good. It is in this context of limited and wounded human nature that the discussion of the action of the Evil One and his temptations and seductions must be situated.

3. Satanic rites in the judgement of the Church

The ordinary action of Satan consists in leading us into sin, which is a culpable loss of freedom. The teaching of the Second Vatican Council sheds light on this situation: "For when man looks into his own heart he finds that he is drawn towards what is wrong and sunk in many evils which cannot come from his good Creator. Often refusing to acknowledge God as his source, man has also upset the relationship which should link him to his last end; and at the same time he has broken the right order that should reign within himself as well as between himself and other men and all creatures. Man therefore is divided in himself. As a result, the whole life of men, both individual and social, shows itself to be a struggle, and a dramatic one, between good and evil, between light and darkness" (Gaudium et spes, n. 13).

Concentrating now on the phenomenon of satanic rites, it is good to remember how varied are the circumstances which can lead a person to engage in these practices, as; well as what varied forms and names they assume according to the trends and means to which they refer. Literature providing the most complete description possible of the phenomenon is not lacking today even among Catholics. Our goal is limited simply to presenting the judgment of the Church's faith and morals on satanic cults.

The repeated statements of Sacred Scripture, both in the Old and New Testaments, are constant as to the illicit character of Satanic worship. At the heart of the Bible's condemnation is the awareness that it entails a denial of the one true God. In fact, it is the lordship of God over his people that is at stake: "I, I am the Lord, and besides me there is no saviour" (Is 43:11). In establishing his covenant with the people, the Lord had warned: "You shall fear the Lord your God; you shall serve him, and swear by his name. You shall not go after other gods, of the gods of the people who are round about you; for the Lord your God in the midst of you is a jealous God; lest the anger of the Lord your God be kindled against you and he destroy you from off the face of the earth. You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah" (Dt 6:13-16). Salvation history puts Israel in a very special relationship with the Lord, who has revealed himself as the true God, the only God capable of freeing and saving man.

The Old Testament condemnation remains intact in the New Testament. In fact, at the very beginning of Jesus Christ's mission it is taken up with vigour: "Then Jesus said to him, 'Begone, Satan! for it is written, "You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve"' " (Mt 4:10). Jesus' contest with Satan and sin, his cures and miracles, his death and resurrection liberate man from the demonic powers, from evil and death. The apostolic writings forcefully take up the condemnation of sorcery: "Now the works of the flesh are plain: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God" (Gal 5:19-21).

The teaching of the Fathers of the Church, especially in the first centuries of Christianity when magical and satanic rites were rife, is unanimous in this regard. The words of Tertullian may be cited here: "One must not even speak of astrologers, witches and charlatans of every sort. And yet, recently, an astrologer who declared himself a Christian had the nerve to make a defence of his profession! Astrology and magic are base inventions of the devil" (De idolatria, IX, 1). Or there is the testimony of St. Cyril of Jerusalem: "Some have had the impudence to scorn the Creator of paradise, adoring instead the serpent and the dragon, images of him who caused man to be expelled from there" (Sixth Baptismal Catechesis, n. 10).

In no period in the history of Christianity has the Church's judgement been different. Satanic cults belong in the category of idolatry, because they attribute powers and divine qualities to one who is not God and is the "enemy of the human race". These are acts, therefore which separate one radically from communion with God, because they imply man's free choice of Satan instead of the one God. We are faced with a sin against the first commandment of God's law (cf. CCC, nn. 2110ff.). The proclamation of the redeeming power of the risen Christ, the essential content of the apostolic kerygma, is replaced with "techniques" and "rites" by which one seeks to gain, for oneself or for others, the protection of the evil one. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks in this way: "All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to 'unveil' the future. Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time history and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honour, respect and loving fear that we owe to God alone" (CCC, n. 2116).

There is another aspect of satanic cults which we cannot overlook. It would not be difficult to identify a certain Manichean vision of reality, perhaps unconscious, in the conceptual world of those who practice these rites. In fact, to attribute to Satan what belongs to God alone implies, at least in practice, the positing of two principles at the foundation of the world and of time, at war between themselves and seeking worshipers. Nothing could be more foreign to the Catholic faith than this kind of Manicheism. The repeated declarations of the Church's Magisterium (as in the controversy with gnosticism, or that with the Cathars and the Albigenses in the medieval period), have always stressed that the devil is a creature, and that the origin of evil lies in his will and in the free will of men.

However, it is not only faith that is violated in these practices. Christian hope is also radically offended, in that whoever does such actions entrusts his present and eternal salvation to demonic powers rather than to God. We must not forget that those who worship Satan act against charity, because they put themselves at the disposition of his work of destruction. It is sufficient to think of the moral degradations that normally accompany satanic rites. The whole man, and his Christian character based on the theological virtues, is at stake in this worship. In this case, we are not confronted with the simple weakness of human nature, but with a free and radical decision against God, which must, objectively speaking, be considered a mortal sin.

Furthermore, while leaving to canon lawyers their proper task, it is appropriate here to recall that satanic rites frequently contain sacrilege (particularly against the Eucharist) as an integral part of their ritual. For this reason it is necessary to point out that "a person who throws away the consecrated species or who takes them or retains them for a sacrilegious purpose, incurs an automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See" (Code of Canon Law, can. 1367). This shows the gravity of such practices. It does not mean, however, that there is no possibility of pardon, under specified conditions.

4. Possible consequences of participating in satanic rites

Participation in satanic sects and cults leaves man ever more defenceless before Satan. Although remaining firm in the conviction of our faith that Satan has no power over the eternal salvation of man if man does not permit it, nevertheless we cannot consider that the freedom of man (especially freedom in a state of sin) is omnipotent before the snares of the devil. The more a person participates in these practices, the weaker and more defenceless he finds himself.

In this sense it can be supposed that those who belong to satanic sects risk becoming more easily the prey of realities such as "witchcraft", the "evil eye", "diabolical disturbances" and "demonic possession". In the case of both witchcraft and the evil eye, in fact, we cannot exclude a certain participation of the evil deed in the world of the demonic, and vice versa (cf. Tuscan Episcopal Conference, A proposito di magia e demonologia. Nota pastorale, 1 June 1994, n. 13).

The extraordinary actions of Satan against man are of a different nature, permitted by God for reasons known to .him alone., Among these we can cite: physical or external disturbances (instances of which are given in the lives of many saints), or local infestations of houses, objects or animals; personal obsession, which throws the subject into a state of despair; diabolical vexations which correspond to disturbances and illnesses that can reach the point of making one lose consciousness and induce one to perform actions or speak words of hatred towards God, Jesus and his Gospel, the Blessed Virgin and the saints; and, finally, diabolical possession, which is the gravest situation. In this case, the devil takes possession of an individual's body and uses it for his own purposes, without the victim being able to resist (cf. Tuscan Episcopal Conference, op. cit., n. 14). All these forms, however mysterious, cannot be treated only as situations with a pathological cause, as if they all were always forms of mental dissociation or hysteria. The Church's experience shows us the real possibility of these phenomena.

In these cases, Holy Church has recourse to exorcism, whenever the presence of Satan is certain. The Catechism reminds us of this ecclesial practice: "Exorcism is directed at the expulsion of demons or to the liberation from demonic possession through the spiritual authority which Jesus entrusted to his Church. Illness, especially psychological illness, is a very different matter; treating this is the concern of medical science. Therefore, before an exorcism is: performed, it is important to ascertain that one is dealing with the presence of the Evil One, and not an illness" (CCC, n. 1673). The celebration of this sacramental, reserved to the Bishop or to ministers specifically chosen by him, consists in the reaffirmation of the victory of the risen Christ over Satan and his dominion (CIC, 1172).

Together with exorcisms, the Church's new Book of Blessings also provides blessings which show the splendour of the salvation won by the risen Christ, already present in history as a new principle of transfiguration for the life of man and of the cosmos. They are appropriate for the comfort and aid of the faithful, especially when it is not certain that they are subject to satanic influence. They are included, therefore in the Christian community's normal practice of prayer.

We cannot forget, however, that the fundamental resource against Satan's wiles is the Christian life in its "everydayness": faithful membership in the ecclesial community, the frequent celebration of the sacraments (particularly Penance and the Eucharist), prayer, active charity and joyful witness to others. These are the principal ways for the Christian to open his heart in fullness to the risen Christ so as to become conformed to him. They are the tangible signs of God's mercy towards his people, and they have the power to redeem repentant man, whatever his sin.

Against the action of the Evil One which leads one to despair of salvation the Father never denies his pardon to those who seek it with a sincere heart. The more the Christian community is faithful to its evangelizing mission, the less the Christian will have to fear the devil. His freedom can be entirely entrusted to the One who conquered Satan. The person who has discovered Jesus Christ has no need to seek elsewhere for salvation. He is the one, true Redeemer of man and the world.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
26 February 1997, page 6

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