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Pope Francis's Populist War on the Devil

Franco Origlia / Stringer

At the conclusion of last year, Pope Francis helped broker a watershed deal between the United States and Cuba, which led to the much-celebrated thawing of diplomatic relations between the two nations. It was a hard act to follow. But Francis has still been hard at work in the world of politics, speaking truth (and love) to power. Since the Cuban deal made headlines in December, Francis has spoken out against genocide (rankling Turkish officials by referring to the Armenian Genocide as such) and has made nuclear disarmament one of his top diplomatic priorities. Sometime later this year, the Pope will release his encyclical on the environment, bringing his brand of papal politics into a collision course with the position of less enthusiastic environmentalists in Congress.

Thanks to his populist rhetoric—speaking out against the evils of trickle-down economics that never seem to trickle all the way down, and financial systems that serve the rich at the expense of the poor—Francis has earned a reputation, including in these pages, as a “radical Pope.” His willingness to weigh in on contemporary political debates has made him something of a hero to progressive Christians and a sometimes-villain to those on the right.

But Pope Francis isn't engaged only in earthly battles. He's also waging a cosmic war against the power of evil, a crusade that has garnered considerably less press than his comments on, say, climate change or homosexuality. For Francis, as for scores of faithful Christians, this struggle isn’t abstract. It has genuine agents, real people—in this case, God and all the forces of heaven versus the fallen angel Satan and his league of demons. “The devil exists,” Francis stated last fall in an October homily, “and we must fight against him.” Francis’s openness about the role Satan plays in human havoc has reportedly brought about an increase in requests for exorcisms, as faithful people afflicted by ominous symptoms increasingly identify their troubles as demonic in origin.

“For Francis, the Devil is not a myth, but a real person,” explained Father Thomas Rosica last October in a video collaboration between America magazine and the American Bible Society. But Americans, to a large degree, see it differently. A 2009 Barna Group survey found that roughly 40 percent of self-identified American Christians believe that “Satan is not a living being but is a symbol of evil,” with 19 percent more agreeing somewhat with that assessment. A more recent 2013 YouGov poll found that a majority of Americans and strong majorities of various Christian denominations do believe in the Devil, though the poll did not specify what was meant by Devil: real person, or useful symbol.

Few comparable surveys bother to make the distinction, but it matters. For one, belief in the Devil as an extant person carries, at least in the Anglophone world, a whiff of backwater superstition: There’s a reason Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia knew to stage-whisper “I even believe in the Devil” in his 2013 interview with New York magazine. Among educated people, it’s something one often has to be a little defiant about. And Francis has not been spared the suspicion of backwardness. His preaching on Satan is often cited in contrast to his more “modern” or “cool” sensibilities, a medieval smudge on an otherwise fresh public image. Francis himself seems to sense that his view of Satan is received with a little less gusto than his statements on social and economic justice. In a homily spoken last year in Rome, the Pope remarked, “Maybe some of you might say: ‘But Father, how old-fashioned you are to speak about the devil in the twenty-first century!’ But look out because the devil is present! The devil is here … even in the twenty-first century!”

In this era, Francis’s adherence to the mystical side of the Christian tradition demonstrates a faith that is so traditional it’s truly radical, as radical as his politics, and indeed the two are deeply linked. In fact, Francis’s spirituality suggests that the most traditional forms of Christian worship and belief may in fact promote the most radical politics. In an excellent essay on Francis in the new spring issue of the American Prospect, E.J. Dionne writes:

[Francis’s] profound spirituality, of an old-fashioned sort rooted more in popular devotion than in high theology, is central to everything about him. When he takes on “the individualism of our postmodern and globalized era,” he is speaking about more than just economics. And when he describes “a vacuum left by secularist rationalism,” he is reminding us of the Catholic dialectic with modernity.

Francis’s politics, from peace-keeping to reversing decades of economic oppression, are of a piece with his spiritual practice, not apart from it. His warning about the pernicious influence of Satan are part of what Dionne describes as “popular devotion,” proof that the bone-deep Christianity that grows up in homes and ordinary parishes is a better match for liberation politics than the arch theology of the Ivory Tower.

Moreover, the drama at the center of Pope Francis’s reading of good and evil underpins his populism. In 2010, before Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis, he published a dialogue between himself and Rabbi Abraham Skorka entitled On Heaven and Earth. For an entire chapter, the two consider the Devil. “The Devil is, theologically, a being that opted not to accept the plan of God,” Bergoglio writes, arguing that the Devil is the one “that brings us to self-sufficiency, to pride,” and that “His fruits are always destruction: division, hate, and slander.” The Devil, in other words, tears asunder human community by injecting pride and delusions of self-sufficiency into the minds of ordinary people.

Elsewhere, Francis has suggested that community-wide pathologies such as mistrust and divisiveness arise from individual Satanic temptations that spread and self-justify, then sink into the fabric of a society. Other pathologies, like greed and apathy, could just as easily apply. Francis’s analysis of Devilry, then, indicts not only particular actions, but entire systems of evil: precisely the kind of diagnosis needed to build faith-based support for combating a host of societal issues, whether it be climate change, poverty, or inequality. At a meeting last month to promote workers’ cooperatives, Francis remarked, “Money is the devil’s dung!... An authentic cooperative is that in which capital does not rule over man, but man rules over capital.” That is, when money works against the interests of humankind, it is the Devil’s doing, and everyone suffers. So much for a free market unencumbered by human intervention: If we don’t make capital work for us, the Pope suggests, it is already working for someone else.

But perhaps the most promising aspect of Pope Francis’s wholehearted belief in the Prince of Lies is the way it unites all of humankind in a single struggle. “The Devil,” Bergoglio writes in On Heaven and Earth, “is one thing. It is quite another matter to demonize things or people. Man is tempted, but there is no need to demonize him.” Lucifer’s works may warp and disfigure human intentions and human communities, but because the Devil is ultimately his own person, those evil acts are always separate from us, the whole of humankind. In that sense we’re all caught in the same drama, fending off a creature with malicious intentions and tireless energy. But we are as responsible for defending our fellow people and entire communities from his influence as we are for resisting it ourselves. It is only a special kind of cosmic solidarity that can say we’re all in this together, all of us, forever—and in his crusade against Satan, Pope Francis has hit upon it.