A Kinder, Gentler Satan
by D. Trull
Greedy corporations and corrupt politicians disguise themselves behind concocted images with such regularity that the facades have almost become de rigueur. Public relations wizards and media consultants use their sorcery to make the vilest evils seem virtuous and noble. So maybe it makes sense that the Prince of Darkness himself would be due for a complete image makeover. The Roman Catholic Church has revised its official views on the nature of Satan, and this particular overhaul of foul wickedness is far from being your average P.R. con job.
The Vatican announced the need for a "more subtle and sophisticated" understanding of the nature of evil that will be better suited to the world of the 21st century. Evil should be thought of as a threatening force that dwells within every individual, the Church now advises, rather than simply an external malevolence, personified as Satan, which tempts people into sin. This new distinction comes as part of the Catholic Church's reevaluation of its official rites of exorcism, which are being substantially revised for the first time since Pope Paul V decreed them in 1614.
Why the sudden change in outlook after all those centuries of contentedly fearing the guy with red horns and a pointy tail? The answer, to put it plainly, is insanity. The Vatican has finally acknowledged the existence of mental illnesses and medical disorders whose effects have previously been mistaken for signs of Satanic possession. And to some extent, you could say that this new and improved perspective on evil also serves as atonement for some of the Church's own past craziness.
Exorcism is still a modern practice of the Catholic Church, as well as the Episcopal Church and certain Lutheran sects, although the rite is infrequently performed by any of them these days. Every Roman Catholic diocese is officially mandated to have at least one qualified exorcist among its priests. Pope John Paul II has reportedly performed an exorcism at least once during his papacy, when he cast the Devil out of a woman brought before him in 1982. There are no reports of real-life possessed individuals spinning their heads 360 degrees or vomiting gallons of split pea soup, but there are frightening true cases of innocent sick people being subjected to exorcisms.
Monsignor Corrado Balducci, chief exorcist at the Vatican, admitted that the Church must "be more careful in distinguishing between possession by evil spirits and what are more commonly called psychiatric disturbances." Schizophrenia and epilepsy are among the psychological and neurological conditions whose symptoms have been interpreted as the workings of the Devil. The revised rites of exorcism take these disorders into account, and recommend seeking consultation from psychiatrists before proceeding with an exorcism.
From his own experience, Monsignor Balducci estimated that out of every thousand cases in which an exorcist is called for help, there are only about 30 instances of what he calls "demonic obsession, infestation or disturbance," and of those, in only about five or six cases is someone "genuinely possessed." Balducci said the hundreds of others were "in need of psychiatric help." Of course, some people might say the same thing about anyone who believes there are genuine demonic possessions, regardless of how uncommon they are, but that's beside the point for now. You've got to give the Vatican credit for making some small progress.
The traditional exorcism ceremony calls for the exorcist to lay hands on the victim and repeat the words exorcitio te, or "I exorcise you," and also to sprinkle holy water and wave a crucifix. The newly revised guidelines are essentially the same, except that priests are advised to avoid specific references to the Prince of Darkness, the Accursed Dragon, the Foul Spirit, the Satanic Power, the Master of Deceit, King Naughty, Bad-Ass Number One, or the Golden-Fiddle Gambling Son of a Bitch. (All right, so the Vatican didn't specifically rule out those last three, but they too would probably be disallowed.) Instead, exorcists are to direct their exhortations more impersonally towards "the cause of evil."
It's almost enough to make you wonder if the Catholic Church is turning away from belief in the existence of Satan -- or, even more inconceivably, if it may be turning politically correct. Is this a first step toward reinventing the Great Adversary as the Non-Gender-Specific Negativity Enabler of the Ethically Challenged? Is Satan taking a second fall from grace?
No way, say Vatican officials. They have been quick to point out that Satan remains a very real entity as far as they're concerned. "The existence of the Devil isn't an opinion, something to take or leave as you wish," said Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Esteves, Prefect of the Congregation for the Divine Cult and the Discipline of the Sacraments, who presented the new exorcism rites. "Catholic doctrine teaches us that demons are fallen angels as a result of their sin, and that they are spiritual beings with great intelligence and power. The whole world moves around the Devil."
So Satan's still Satan, only the Vatican has updated its views on how he interacts with human beings. In addition to bringing enlightenment on the topic of psychiatric disorders, the new rules of exorcism also recognize that Satan most often uses the tools of "deception, falsehoods, lies and confusion" to wreak havoc on humanity, only rarely attacking via demonic possessions. Priests are encouraged to think of the potential for evil as being present in all of us, as a force which can destroy us by own own choosing, if we give in to the dark side.
Sounds awfully familiar, doesn't it? How wonderfully ironic it is that the Catholic Church should revise its traditional view of Satan and embrace a Star Wars style cosmology, right when that epic saga's new episode has brought us the red-faced, horn-headed menace of Darth Maul, who would look right at home on a medieval fresco or an Ozzy Osbourne album cover. Francis Ford Coppola once jokingly told George Lucas he should turn the Force into a religion, but now it's looking more like the reverse might come true.
But seriously, Catholicism's powers-that-be deserve a round of applause for taking another step forward into the modern world. By recognizing the scientific basis of psychological dysfunction and the subtle shades of evil in human nature, the Church has thrown out centuries of harmful misconceptions and irrationality. It's a healthy activity for a religion to exorcise itself every now and then.
Sources: The Times (London); Electronic Telegraph; Associated Press; The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
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