Is the devil a being?

By Jenna Marie Cooper 

OSV Question Corner

Q: Is the devil an actual being, or is he a metaphor for "people doing bad," and for just general evil in the world? I’ve sometimes heard this last called "the demonic," which I understood to mean just a sort of negative spirit that people put out, or create, by being mean to each other. (Indiana)

A: While there might be contexts in which we might speak of the devil or the demonic in a purely metaphorical or rhetorical sense — such as when we describe some evil but obviously human action as "demonic" or "diabolical" — we as Catholics do believe that the devil or Satan is a real, personal being.

Paragraph 414 of the catechism speaks of the devil in literal terms when it tells us that: "Satan or the devil and the other demons are fallen angels who have freely refused to serve God and his plan." There are also several places in the Gospels where the devil and demons are described as playing an actual, historical role in the earthly life of Jesus, such as when Satan tempted Jesus in the desert (see Mt 4:1-11 and Lk 4:1-13), or when Jesus cast out demons who called out to him by name (e.g., Lk 4:34). Even unclean spirits recognized Jesus as God as the Gospel of St. Mark (Mk 1:24) describes, “What have you to with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are — the Holy One of God!”

There is a Catholic Latin maxim that goes: "lex orandi, lex credendi," which can be roughly translated as: "what we pray is what we believe." Our Catholic belief in the existence of literal demons is made very clear in our liturgy and other prayers. The most obvious example is the ritual of major exorcism, which a properly mandated priest-exorcist uses to free those who are really possessed by actual demons. But there are also several "minor exorcisms" used in the sacraments of initiation, where the church prays for the spiritual protection of those soon to be baptized. The devil is indeed real, and people should never participate in dabbling in the occult with tarot cards, Ouija boards, séances, palm reading and the like. The prayer to St. Michael the Archangel is a powerful weapon against the devil.

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Jenna Marie Cooper, who holds a licentiate in canon law, is a consecrated virgin and a canonist whose column appears weekly at OSV News. Send your questions to [email protected].