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from issue no. 08 - 2004

The devil amongst us

We republish the interview which the Theologian of the Pontifical House, Cardinal Georges Cottier, granted to Luciano Moia, the journalist from Avvenire, which was published by the daily of the Italian Episcopal Conference on 28 July 2004

by Luciano Moia

The demon, probably. The great deceiver stands perhaps behind the murderous hand that last Sunday in the Cathedral of Santiago, Chile, killed an Italian missionary, Father Faustino Gazziero De Stefani. After inflicting the death blow on the priest, the young killer is said to have invoked Satan.
The devil, probably, also lies behind the chain of devastating crimes that are emerging in the Varese area of Italy. But in this case the investigators are still trying to understand whether, apart from upside-down crosses and a passion for heavy metal music, there is an explicitly satanic project. Perhaps in these as in the other dozens of cases in which the media have associated the demonic presence with the wickedness of man, the greatest success of Satan is that of insinuating an unsettling doubt.
“It’s true - confirms Cardinal Georges Cottier, theologian of the Papal Household - the devil acts in the shadows and leaves people in uncertainty. A French writer had Satan say: “I am what doesn’t exist.” The prince of evil acts covertly. If he were to manifest himself openly he would be terrifying, but at least his presence would be clear”.
Sermon of the Antichrist (detail), Luca Signorelli, chapel of San Brizio,  Orvieto Cathedral

Sermon of the Antichrist (detail), Luca Signorelli, chapel of San Brizio, Orvieto Cathedral

But in the great mystery of evil how much does the action of the devil count and what part is played by human responsibility instead?
The devil is certainly the great seducer because he tries to lead people into sin by presenting evil as good. But the fall bears our responsibility because conscience is able to distinguish what is good from what is bad.
Why does the devil want to lead people into sin?
Out of envy and jealousy. The devil wants to drag people with him because he is himself a fallen angel. The fall of the first man was preceded by the fall of the angels.
Is it a heresy to claim that the devil is also a part of God’s design?
Satan was created by God as a good angel because God doesn’t create evil. Everything that comes out of the creating hand of God is good. If the demon became evil it was through his own fault. It was he who became evil by using his freedom evilly.
Will there ever be redemption for the devil, as some theologians claim?
Let’s make a premise: man fell into sin because the first sinner, that is the devil, dragged him into his abyss of evil. What is the essential issue? The rejection of God and, above all, opposition to the Kingdom of God as design of providence for the world. That rejection that came out of the freedom of a totally spiritual creature like the devil is a total, irremediable and radical rejection, as we are also told in the catechism of the Catholic Church.
There’s no hope then that in the end the mercy of God can win over the hatred of the devil?
The perfect nature of the freedom of the fallen angel entails that his choice is definitive. That doesn’t mean setting a limit to the mercy of God, which is infinite. The limit consists if anything in the use the devil makes of freedom. It is he who prevents God from wiping out his sin.
Why does the devil, who is a most intelligent spirit, make such a use of freedom that is in any case a gift of God?
There we are faced with a mystery. The mystery of evil is first and foremost the mystery of sin. We are stricken, rightly, by physical evils, but there is a very much more profound and bleaker evil that is the evil of sin. The devil is fixed in his rejection. Above all the sin of the angel is always more grievous than that of mankind. Mankind has so much weakness in itself that in some way its responsibility can turn out to be hazy; the angel, being pure spirit, doesn’t have excuses when he chooses evil. The angel’s sin is a dreadful choice.
It seems impossible that an angel created in the light of God could then choose evil...
When we speak of an angel fallen because of sin we are facing a very serious matter and we must therefore deal with it with great seriousness. In the temptation of man we have all but a reflection of what the angel’s sin was. There lies the supreme seduction: setting oneself in the place of God. Satan, too, did not acknowledge his condition as creature.
Why is the devil called prince of this world?
It is an expression from John’s Gospel. It means that the world, when it forgets God, is dominated by sin. The action of the demon is guided by hatred toward God and can do grievous harm when we follow his temptations. The principal evil of the devil is spiritual evil, that of sin. This action involves both the individual and society.
Could God not have prevented all this?
Yes, but he allowed both the devil and man to have freedom to act and, sometimes, to sin. It is a tremendous mystery. Saint Paul says: “Everything conspires to the good of those who love God.” That is, when we are with God, even evil conspires to our good.
Difficult to accept...
Think of the martyrs. Of the extraordinary spiritual good that, in the light of the faith, derives from such a tragedy as martyrdom. Saint Augustine commenting on Paul says: “God would not have allowed evil if he had not meant to make a greater good out of this evil”. There is good that mankind would not have known if there had not been the presence of sin and evil. It is difficult to say this, but it is the truth.
How does the devil act in everyday reality?
We can understand that from some expressions in John’s Gospel, where it is said that the devil is a killer from the beginning. That is, he is the destroyer and brings about death, both in the strict sense and spiritually. That is why he is called the great tempter.
Are we referring to the devil when we say in the Our Father “Lead us not into temptation”?
Yes, we are asking God to enable us to resist temptation. It’s a mistake to think that every temptation comes from the devil, but the stronger and more subtle ones, the more spiritual ones, certainly bear his mark. And they are both individual temptations and collective ones. The devil acts on human history. His influence is negative. Death, sin and lying are signs of his presence in the world.
Father Cottier, you say that not all temptations come from the devil. From what else must we therefore guard ourselves?
Christian tradition tells us that the sources of temptations are threefold. The most appalling, certainly, is that of the devil. Then there is the world, society, the “others” in John’s meaning. And finally there is the “flesh,” that is ourselves. Saint John of the Cross says that of the three temptations the most dangerous is the last, that is ourselves. For each of us the most perfidious enemy is ourself. Before attributing temptations to the devil and to the world, let us think to ourselves. There we shall also come upon the importance of humility and discernment. The Holy Spirit gives us the gift of the discernment and saves us from the pride of too much trust in ourselves.
What is the proper attitude that the Christian should observe in facing the mystery of the Evil One?
Never to forget that the passion and the death of Jesus have triumphed over the devil for ever. That is a certainty. Saint Paul tells us so. The faith is the victory over the father of sin and lies. That means that the devil, being a creature, does not have endless power. Despite all his efforts the devil will never be able to prevent the building of the Kingdom of God that grows despite all persecution. The Christian, thanks to fidelity in the faith, conquers evil.
In conclusion...
We must take the devil very seriously but we must not think that he is almighty, there are people who have an irrational fear of the devil. The Christian faith, that is nourished by prayer, humility and penitence, must above all be faith in the love of the Father. And that love is stronger than everything. We must have the awareness that the mercy of God is so great that it overcomes every obstacle.

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