||Back to Archive 2000
The face of evil: Demons and death
I guess I should write about exorcism, given the play its received
this past week. The discovery that the Archdiocese has an official
exorcist (not the first such appointment, as was erroneously reported)
was conveniently made just as the film, The Exorcist, is being
touched up and re-released. I was a young priest when I saw the
movie. I was curious about how they were going to portray the
character who was supposed to be modeled on Jesuit Father Pierre
Teilhard de Chardin, the famous paleontologist. I had written
a Masters thesis on Teilhards eschatology a few years earlier
and remained interested in him, more as a spiritual master than
a scientist, but especially as a priest who saw his vocation as
a call to unite the worlds of spirit and matter.
In recent years, angels have become a hot topic. People now easily
admit to belief in spirits who are immaterial but are not divine.
In the Mass, the Church unites her own song of praise at the end
of the Preface to the Eucharistic prayer with the praise of God
that the angels sing in heaven. Angels are our companions, here
and in eternity. But if there are good spirits, why not evil spirits?
The Church teaches that demons are fallen angels (see The Catechism
of the Catholic Church, 391-395). Scripture calls one of them
Satan or the devil (Jn. 8:44; Rev. 12:9). It is he who, in tempting
our first parents to sin, introduced death, sins consequence,
into the world. Jesus expelled demons during his earthly ministry
and went freely to his death in order to conquer sin and death.
Satan has been conquered by Christs death and resurrection, but
he can still exploit our human sin and weakness until Christ returns
Most of the evil in the world can be examined without calling
on the devil to explain it; human beings are quite capable of
acting demonically. Sometimes, however, special prayer and fasting
are necessary to counteract the work of demons. In those cases,
the Church uses the prayer of exorcism. In a psychologically sophisticated
and skeptical culture such as ours, priests rarely have recourse
to exorcism. In some parts of the world, however, the use of exorcism
is part of normal pastoral practice.
Demon is one name for evil, a name that fascinates because it
seems exotic and rare. Death is another name for evil, a name
that mesmerizes because we know it is our common fate. Deaths
inevitability brings into question the meaning of life. In faith,
the meaning of life is love; and death is the enemy of God, who
is love. In Christ, dead and risen for love of us, we find a love
that is stronger than death, a love that opens for us the hope
of eternal life. In the meantime, our way of life is a contest
with the effects of sin, a struggle against death and those who
bring death on others and on themselves.
Concern for life and the transmission of life, concern about death
and the killing of others, have marked the moral discourse of
the Church since her beginning. Much of Christian moral teaching
about life and death is identical with the teaching of the rabbis
at the time of Jesus. The earliest catechism we have, the Didache,
or the teaching of the Twelve Apostles, written at the end of
the first century, tells Christians not to abort their children
in a pagan empire which accepted both abortion and infanticide.
The contrast between the demands of discipleship and the laws
of the state is as stark today as it was 2,000 years ago. The
sin is the same; the name of the empire has changed. The faith
is also the same: every human life, even a life barely conceived,
has an inalienable relationship with God, for God is a God not
of the dead but of the living (Mt. 22:32) and the Lord is a lover
of life (Wisdom 11:26). This belief about life in the womb is
celebrated also in the liturgical calendar. The feast of the Annunciation,
when the Word became flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary, is
celebrated on March 25, nine months before Christmas, the birth
of the Lord.
Since about the time the movie The Exorcist was first made,
political campaigns have featured arguments about abortion, because
the Supreme Court discovered a right to abortion in the Constitution
almost 30 years ago. Its hard to be against a Constitutional
right, and many people wish the issue would disappear as a subject
of public discussion. It cant disappear for believing Catholics
and many others because it is a matter of life and death, a defining
issue not only personally but also socially. Poverty can be addressed
incrementally, but the death of a child is quite final. Capital
punishment should be abolished because, among other reasons, we
cannot be absolutely certain that an innocent man or woman will
not be executed. In an abortion, one victim is always innocent.
Because abortion is a defining issue, Catholics sometimes write
and ask me and other bishops to excommunicate Catholic politicians
who support abortion rights. Excommunication is a rare penalty,
explicitly invoked even less often than the prayer of exorcism.
Like exorcism, excommunication is to be used for pastoral purposes.
It is automatic only for those actually physically involved in
the abortion itself. The bishops have, however, explained that
Catholic politicians, while they must swear to uphold civil laws
as they are, must also work to change unjust laws and not defend
them. Finally, politicians, legislators and judges, who will die
like the rest of us, must stand before the Lord and explain how
they have cooperated in the deaths of unborn children. Those who
justify our present situation place their own salvation in jeopardy,
for they cooperate in grave evil. My party, right or wrong is
an excuse as morally inane as My country, right or wrong. Politicians
and their parties have to be judged, it seems to me, case by case,
issue by issue.
In this campaign, the place of religion in public life has become
an issue, and the care of the elderly and of children is an important
question. Aid to education is being argued differently by the
two candidates, while foreign policy, other than the search for
peace in the Middle East, seems not to be much discussed by either
candidate. The closest we get to considering international solidarity
is the argument about immigration policy. All in all, this is
not a very encouraging campaign for those of us trying to make
political judgments in the light of the Catholic faith. In the
light of our faith, however, abortion remains a defining issue
morally. It has become a defining issue politically not because
of the Church but because of its use as a litmus test to screen
candidates acceptability for party approval.
At the end of the civil war, President Abraham Lincoln, who seemed
to grow in his sense of Gods guiding hand in human events as
the carnage of the war continued, wondered aloud if the bloodshed
had to persist until the evil of racial slavery and forced bondage
of Africans for almost three centuries had finally been expiated.
Was the civil war a punishment God had brought upon this nation
because of the evil of slavery? Lincoln left his own question
unanswered, for only God can answer it. But any nation as bathed
in the blood of infants as is ours should live uneasily with the
consideration of divine judgment. Death is the enemy of God; and,
in the end, God will judge us, individually and as a people, by
how we have used death for our purposes.
Expelling demons and destroying death are works of Christ and
of his Church in every age. How to do both of them effectively
is a question for every age, including ours. God bless you.
God bless you.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Francis Cardinal George, OMI
Archbishop of Chicago
Back to Archive 2000