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March 12, 2010

What the Devil is Going On At the Vatican?

As the chief exorcist claims the Devil is lurking at the heart of the Catholic Church, Peter Stanford examines the uses of Satan.

Peter Stanford
12 Mar 2010

Talk of the Devil came cheap in medieval Christianity. No mystery play was complete without an appearance by God's great adversary, all horns, cloven hoof and sulphur breath, while every church would boast a depiction of the 'Harrowing of Hell', a graphic warning to worshippers of the everlasting torment in the bowels of the earth that awaited unrepentant sinners.

But modern mainstream Christianity has apparently pensioned off Old Nick as an embarrassing reminder of a past when it used too much stick and not enough carrot in spreading the Good News. You have to go back to 1972 to find a Pope offering any detailed reflection on Satan. Paul VI described him as 'not merely a lack of something, but an effective agent, a living spiritual being, perverted and perverting'.

So the remarks by 85-year-old Father Gabriele Amorth, for decades the chief exorcist in Rome, have taken many by surprise. Far from being superstitious medieval nonsense, Amorth has said in promoting his new book, Memoirs of An Exorcist, the Devil is 'lodging in the Vatican' and can be seen in the activities of paedophile priests, over-ambitious clerics and 'cardinals who don't believe in Jesus'.

Even Amorth's title sounds as if it belongs more to Hollywood blockbusters than the contemporary life of the Catholic Church which makes only the most fleeting of references in its encyclopaedic Catechism, published in 1993, to the Devil as the 'seductive voice' who tempted Adam and Eve (article 391). But despite its official silence about Lucifer, the fallen angel who was ejected from heaven and will, according to the Book of Revelation, roam the earth until the final day of Judgement spreading evil and lies, the Vatican has never dismantled its medieval network of exorcists in every diocese. It just prefers not to mention them – until Father Amorth blew their cover.

When I was researching a biography of the Devil in the 1990s, I contacted each Catholic diocese in England and asked to speak to their official exorcist. Most denied such a figure even existed – though the Vatican plainly requires that one does – and those that did own up said they couldn't give me his name. 'It's not something we do anymore,' I was told more than once. '99 per cent of people who claim to be possessed need referring to psychiatrist.'

In Rome, of course, they are less coy about such matters, and that is where I finally got to meet Father Amorth. He's a giant of a man with a deeply lined bulldog face who was working out of a subterranean office in an anonymous church building on the outskirts of Rome. 'Our language may be more discreet today,' he told me, referring back to the Devil's medieval heyday, 'but the idea remains the same.' He had, he said, carried out more than 50,000 exorcisms, but added that the centre of Catholicism was unusual because it was special focus for Satan's schemes. Only 84 of the 50,000, he added, had been genuine cases of possession, but then he described, in that very room the day before, exorcising 'the demon of the media' from a young man who had, as a result, vomited fragments of radio equipment. At a distance, it sounds almost comical. At the time, I was so disturbed I brought the interview to a rapid conclusion.

Amorth, of course, is a deeply traditional figure, out of step with many in the church – though not, apparently, either Pope Benedict who, the chief exorcist says, believes in the reality of the Devil, or John Paul II who, it has been reported by Cardinal Jacques Martin, who headed his household, in March 1982, carried out an exorcism himself on a young woman.

What echoes back down the centuries, though, in what Amorth is now claiming, is not only the longstanding belief in demonic possession, but the logic behind it. For the Devil has always been a useful way of the Church doing two things. First the Devil puts a face to the otherwise intangible reality of evil. This proved so successful that even in our secular times we still demonise particular criminals and hold them up as the face of evil – Myra Hindley being a good example, especially the picture taken of her at the time of her trial.

The second is that belief in Satan allows us to externalise and therefore disown things we don't like. They are not a part of us – as Freud and Jung pointed out – but rather something that temporarily takes possession of us and can, with the help of an exorcist, be banished. So paedophile priests and faithless cardinals are not, in Amorth's analysis, a sign of corruption and moral decay at the very heart of the Church, but the result of the wiles of an external evil spirit trying to destroy it.

The lure and the emptiness of that logic was best summed up during my research by a young woman at a prayer group I observed in London. She had had a bad week, she told her fellow believers, because 'the Devil made me spend all my money'. She thereby conveniently absolved herself of all responsibility or any need to address or even own her own compulsions.

Perhaps it is that possibility that the Devil offers to shuffle the blame off onto an external demon that makes the Church so reluctant finally to bury this medieval ghoul. It has long pretended to have pensioned Satan off, but its exorcist network shows it hasn't. The dilemma, though, goes deeper. For the Devil is at the very heart of the New Testament narrative, tempting Jesus during his 40 days in the wilderness.

If the Church is now to start trying to explain away that key character by saying that Satan was only really a face of evil, then it throws the whole emphasis on the truth of the gospels into question. If you start dwelling on the fact that you only have to add a 'd' to evil to get devil, you soon notice that by taking an 'o' away from good, you end up with God.

Peter Stanford is a former editor of the Catholic Herald. His book, The Devil: A Biography, is published in paperback by Arrow.