In an unintentionally funny comment, progressive Catholic theologian Vito Mancuso said about Pope Francis’ old-school interpretation of the devil and the need for exorcists: “He is opening the door to superstition.” Where to begin when describing a Catholic door that for centuries has been more open than the mythical Pandora’s box? In fact (really, in fiction), the Pandora myth deserves credit for a foundational myth in Catholic theology.
As the story goes, Pandora, the first woman, was given a box (actually a jar) and told never to open it. Of course, the curious Pandora did open it, whereupon evil escaped and spread throughout the world. So it seems that Pandora committed the original “original sin.”
Eve, the first woman according to the Genesis myth, was also led by curiosity to bring evil into the world. While both myths are unbelievable, people in pre-scientific times used “just so” stories to explain unknown origins. The Greek word “theodicy” is an attempt to reconcile traditionally divine characteristics of omnibenevolence, omnipotence, and omniscience with the occurrence of evil or suffering. I don’t think such reconciliation is possible, but that’s not a problem for atheists like me.
This brings me to Pope Francis’ belief in Satan as the cause for evil, which I don’t find any more superstitious than many other Catholic beliefs. Here are seven that I find at least as unbelievable:
An all-loving God wants everyone to go to a good place called heaven when they die but can’t seem to prevent most people from going to a bad place called hell. There is no evidence for any supernatural entities, good or bad, yet I find it especially odd to make up an all-powerful God who creates an evil Satan and then can’t or won’t smite him.
2. Original Sin
A talking snake persuades a naïve and inexperienced first couple to eat from a forbidden fruit, and as a result they stain all humanity with collective guilt forever. Aside from the injustice of suffering for an ancestor’s behavior, God punishes the couple for doing evil even though they have no knowledge of good and evil before taking a bite. And why is knowledge evil?
3. Physical Resurrection
Many centuries after the original sin, God figures out a way to “save” some humans. He sends his son, Jesus (who is also himself), to earth in order to be tortured, killed, and then raised from the dead. People who espouse evidence-free faith in this myth are saved from the fires of hell.
4. Immaculate Conception
Mary (Jesus’ mother) was conceived without original sin. I believe that I was also conceived without the taint of original sin, as were you! My problem with this doctrine is that such a privilege was uniquely given to Mary’s mom. The immaculate conception became an “infallible” pronouncement of Pope Pius IX in 1854.
5. Virgin Birth
Mary was impregnated, sort of, by the Holy Ghost (who is also God, who is also her soon-to-be-son Jesus). Nevertheless, Mary remained a virgin the rest of her life, even though she somehow, according to Matthew 13:55-56, had at least four other named sons and multiple unnamed daughters. Perhaps Jesus’ stepfather, Joseph, should be known as the saint of restraint.
6. Assumption of Mary
Another “infallible” pronouncement, this time by Pope Pius XII in 1854, is that Mary was taken bodily into heaven. No need for an empty tomb here.
A priest can mumble a few words at a Catholic Mass and magically transform a glass of wine into the blood of Jesus and a wafer into his body — literally! (Please don’t ask for DNA evidence.) Catholic communicants then cannibalize these body parts.
Now, back to Satan, and why I think some progressive theologians are disappointed with Pope Francis’ inordinate interest in the devil. Many people, myself included, hoped that Pope Francis might be a cafeteria Catholic who would focus selectively on “truths” like loving one’s neighbor, caring for the least among us, and working for world peace. Or perhaps what I call a metaphorical Catholic, someone who views nonsensical doctrines as metaphors. Of course, it might be difficult for Christians to believe that Jesus died for a metaphor and that an afterlife is independent of what you believe about Jesus.
I have previously admired Pope Francis for reaching out to atheists, for his emphasis on behavior rather than belief, and for the importance he placed on following one’s conscience (rather than religious authorities). I suppose it was wishful thinking that Francis might just pretend to believe all seven items above in order to placate church conservatives. After all, those beliefs need not affect a person’s treatment of others.
Satan, though, is another matter. Pope Francis does not think the devil is a metaphor, and he even praised the International Association of Exorcists. So I guess Francis is more of a literalist than I had hoped. Also, unlike beliefs about Mary’s sex life (or lack thereof), gullible and deranged people are encouraged by Pope Francis’ belief about the devil to think they live in a Demon-Haunted World, one that Carl Sagan so eloquently and scientifically debunked.
I may not be a trained exorcist, but I have a four-word solution to combat demonic possession that is more effective than anything an exorcist has in his arsenal: “Stop believing in demons.”
It’s more productive to develop a personal relationship with reality. Instead of thanking God for accomplishments and blaming Satan for failures, take responsibility for your actions — good and bad. Comedian Flip Wilson’s character, Geraldine, always excused her bad behavior with “The Devil made me do it.” Flip got it right — attributing bad behavior to the Devil is just something to joke about. And we’d live in a happier and more peaceful world if we’d all embrace Flip Wilson’s devilish humor.