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Jesuit Leader: The Devil Is Not Real, Just a ‘Symbolic Figure’ We Invented

New general of the Society of Jesus, Father Arturo Sosa, gives a press conference at the General Curia of the Society of Jesus, on October 18, 2016 in Rome. / AFP / ANDREAS SOLARO (Photo credit should read ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images)
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THOMAS D. WILLIAMS, PH.D.

The head of the Jesuit order, Father Arturo Sosa, has denied the existence of the devil as a real being, suggesting rather that humans invented Satan as a “symbolic” figure to represent evil.

In an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, Father Sosa was asked whether he believes that evil is a process of the human psychology or comes from a superior being.

“We have created symbolic figures such as the devil to express evil,” Father Sosa said. “Social conditioning can also represent this figure, since there are people who act like this because they are in an environment where it is difficult to act to the contrary.”

Father Sosa’s view of the devil seems to contradict that of Pope Francis, who more than any other recent pontiff makes frequent references to Satan and his action in the world.

Early in his pontificate, Pope Francis took issue with those who speak of the devil as if he were unreal.

This generation “was led to believe that the devil was a myth, a picture, an idea, the idea of evil,” the Pope said. “But the devil exists, and we have to fight him.”

“The devil,” the Pope went on, “is a liar, the father of lies.”

When Francis visited the United States in the fall of 2015, he quizzed Harlem schoolchildren on the tactics of Satan in their lives.

“Who is the one who sows sadness, who sows distrust, who sows envy, who sows evil desires? What is his name?” he asked the children.

When some of the children answered quietly, the Pope nodded in agreement.

“The devil, the devil!” he exclaimed. “The devil always sows sadness because he doesn’t want us happy. He doesn’t want us to dream.”

Pope Francis has often praised the work of exorcists, priests dedicated to the work of deliverance and casting out demons. In this regard, the Pope’s words mirror traditional Christian teaching on the reality of the devil.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, for instance, declares that the devil is a real being, a “fallen angel” who rebelled against God:

“The Church teaches that Satan was at first a good angel, made by God: ‘The devil and the other demons were indeed created naturally good by God, but they became evil by their own doing,’” it reads.

“The devil ‘has sinned from the beginning’; he is ‘a liar and the father of lies,’” it continues.

The Catechism further states that although Satan works “out of hatred for God,” he has no power over God.

“The power of Satan is, nonetheless, not infinite,” the Catechism declares. “He is only a creature, powerful from the fact that he is pure spirit, but still a creature.”

Father Sosa’s comments on the devil this week are not the first time the Venezuelan priest has made the headlines since his election as head of the Jesuit order last October.

No stranger to controversy, Father Sosa surprised many when he said earlier this year that Christians don’t know what Jesus really said because there were no tape recorders two thousand years ago.

In an interview in February, the Jesuit priest suggested that different interpretations of the Bible can all be valid since no one really knows what Jesus said anyway.

“It would be necessary to start a nice reflection on what Jesus really said,” Father Arturo Sosa said in his interview with Swiss Vatican journalist Giuseppe Rusconi, since “at that time no one had a tape recorder to record his words.”

“What we do know is that Jesus’ words need to be contextualized. They were expressed with a language, in a specific setting and were directed to someone in particular,” he said.

Asked whether Jesus’ words have an “absolute value,” Father Sosa said that scholars have been struggling “to understand exactly what Jesus meant to say.”

“The word is relative, the Gospel is written by human beings, it is accepted by the Church which is made up of human persons,” he said.

“It is true,” he said, “that no one can change the word of Jesus, but we need to know what it was!”

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