By Anthony Faiola
The Washington Post
VATICAN CITY — A darling of liberal Catholics and an advocate of inclusion and forgiveness, Pope Francis is hardly known for fire and brimstone.
Yet, in his words and deeds, the new pope is locked in an epic battle with the oldest enemy of God and creation:
After little more than a year atop the Throne of St. Peter, Francis’s teachings on Satan are already regarded as the most old school of any pope since at least Paul VI, whose papacy in the 1960s and 1970s fully embraced the notion of hellish forces plotting to deliver mankind unto damnation.
Largely under the radar, theologians and Vatican insiders say, Francis has not only dwelled far more on Satan in sermons and speeches than his recent predecessors have, but has also sought to rekindle the Devil’s image as a supernatural entity with the forces of evil at his beck and call.
Last year, for instance, Francis laid hands on a man in a wheelchair who claimed to be possessed by demons in what many saw as an impromptu act of cleansing. A few months later, he praised a group long viewed by some as the crazy uncles of the Roman Catholic church — the International Association of Exorcists — for “helping people who suffer and are in need of liberation.”
“But Father, how old-fashioned you are to speak about the Devil in the 21st century,” Francis, quoting those who have noted his frequent mentions of the Devil, said last month while presiding over Mass at the Vatican’s chapel in St. Martha’s House. He warned those gathered on that chilly morning to be vigilant and not be fooled by the hidden face of Satan in the modern world: “Look out, because the Devil is present.”
Since its foundation, the church has taught the existence of the Devil. But in recent decades, progressive priests and bishops, particularly in the United States and Western Europe, have tended to couch Satan in more allegorical terms. Evil became less the wicked plan of the master of hell than the nasty byproduct of humanity’s free will. Even Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, a lofty German theologian, often painted evil with a broad brush.
Enter the plain-talking first pope from Latin America, where mystical views of Satan still hold sway in broad areas of the region. During his time as cardinal of Buenos Aires before rising to the papacy, Francis was known for stark warnings against “the tempter” and “the father of lies.” Now, his focus on the Devil is raising eyebrows even within the normally unquestioning walls of Vatican City.
“Pope Francis never stops talking about the Devil; it’s constant,” said one senior bishop in Vatican City who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely. “Had Pope Benedict done this, the media would have clobbered him.”
Yet, as with so many of his actions, Francis may simply be correctly reading the winds of the Catholic church.
Although difficult to measure, Vatican officials talk about a resurgence of mystical rites in the church, including exorcisms — or the alleged act of evicting demons from a living host. Cardinals in Milan, Turin and Madrid, for instance, recently moved to expand the number of exorcists in their dioceses to cope with what they have categorized as surging demand.
But by focusing on old-school interpretations of the Devil, some progressive theologians complain that the pope is undermining his reputation as a leader who in so many other ways appears to be more in step with modern society than his predecessor.
“He is opening the door to superstition,” said Vito Mancuso, a Catholic theologian and writer.
Among the things lurking behind that door is the alleged gateway to hell guarded by the small cluster of officially anointed exorcists of the Roman Catholic church.