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Fr Sosa, the Devil, and the strange new orthodoxy in Rome

Jesuit leader Fr Arturo Sosa said this month that Satan is a ‘symbolic reality’ (Getty)

The superior general of the Jesuits, Fr Arturo Sosa, holds positions that appear incompatible with the Catholic faith. He has denied the historicity of the Gospels – that they faithfully reflect what Jesus actually said – saying that “no one had a tape recorder to record his words”. He has also questioned the personal existence of the Devil, suggesting: “We have formed symbolic figures such as the Devil to express evil.”

The latter, which he repeated earlier this month, caused something of a stir. That the head of the Jesuits does not hold completely what the Church teaches is distressing, but no longer surprising.

What is more interesting is that the general response to Fr Sosa’s remarks – great equanimity in Rome and no correction from his fellow Jesuit, Pope Francis – illustrates that a strange orthodoxy now prevails. Items of the gravest importance can be questioned; items of less importance are held dogmatically.

Consider a hypothetical. On Sunday, Pope Francis confessed that “we are all worried” about the Amazon forest fires, stating that “this forest lung is vital for our planet”.

Imagine if Fr Sosa said that the Amazon is “not vital” for our planet. What would have been the reaction in Rome – on a matter of science not faith, policy not dogma?

It is hard to imagine, because the likelihood of Fr Sosa dissenting on environmental policy is less than zero. If he had, he would probably have been corrected, at least informally, by some Vatican figure.

That’s the importance of Fr Sosa’s denial of the personal existence of the Devil. Senior figures in Rome don’t think it very important that the superior general of the Jesuits dissents from the faith, and on a matter which Pope Francis has spoken clearly.

“He is evil, he’s not like mist,” said Pope Francis about the Devil, about whom he speaks frequently. “He’s not a diffuse thing, he is a person. I’m convinced that one must never converse with Satan – if you do that, you’ll be lost. He’s more intelligent than us, and he’ll turn you upside down. He’ll make your head spin.”

Why does Pope Francis so often speak about the personal reality of the Devil? His biographer, Austen Ivereigh, explains:

“It’s a Jesuit thing. He’s a Jesuit who is deeply imbued with the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola, which allow people to discern the movements of the good and bad spirit. For him, this is real. These are not metaphors. It may not be the way that people speak nowadays and some Catholics may be taken aback by it. A lot of people are uncomfortable with the idea of evil being real, but anyone who knows the spirituality of the Jesuits will not be surprised.”

One Catholic likely taken aback is Fr Sosa. And it is objectively odd that the superior general of the Jesuits does not share what, as Ivereigh accurately notes, is – or used to be – a Jesuit thing.

Even more odd is that, knowing how strongly Pope Francis speaks on this topic, the Jesuit superior feels at ease openly contradicting the Holy Father. Apparently Fr Sosa judges that dissent from orthodox teaching on this matter is no big deal.

Still more odd is that the first Jesuit pope has apparently so little impact upon the superior general elected during his pontificate. One might think that, in a pontificate that began with Francis – in his very first homily – speaking about the Devil, it would simply be good manners not to imply that the Holy Father is wrong about the Devil.

I have not examined the opera omnia, such as it may be, of Fr Sosa, but it would not shock me to learn that he may have other difficulties with the Catholic faith. Once you hold that the words of the Gospels are not the ipsissima verba of the Lord Jesus, anything becomes possible. That being said, does not simple common courtesy demand that he not make things awkward for Pope Francis by public defiance of papal teaching and dissent from settled Catholic doctrine?

Apparently though, it does not make things awkward at all. That is the significance of Fr Sosa’s remarks, that in the current Roman scene they are found to be rather unremarkable.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca