An interview with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia recently published in New York magazine covers a wide range of issues, from homosexuality to the ‘90s TV show Seinfeld (he says he owns “CDs” of Seinfeld episodes and quotes the famous line “No soup for you!”), but the most fascinating and perhaps most talked about section is when Scalia volunteers his realism regarding man’s oldest foe: the Devil.
Scalia, who is Catholic, alludes to the afterlife in his response to a question about gay marriage, so Jennifer Senior asks him if he believes in heaven and hell. “Oh, of course I do,” Scalia replies. After a short back and forth in which Senior says she doesn’t believe in heaven and hell and Scalia says believing in those places doesn’t prevent one from going to one of them, Senior tries to change the subject, “Can we talk about your drafting process…” – but Scalia interrupts her: “[Leans in, stage-whispers.] I even believe in the Devil.”
Surprised, Senior asks Scalia a few (slightly condescending) follow-up questions, but Scalia defends himself,
Senior explains her surprise: “I hope you weren’t sensing contempt from me. It wasn’t your belief that surprised me so much as how boldly you expressed it,” to which Scalia responds, “I was offended by that. I really was.”
Scalia’s right that the interviewer is out of touch with most Americans if she's surprised someone would believe in the Devil. A YouGov survey last month found that 57% of Americans believe the Devil is real. A small group, 15%, said they weren’t sure. Only 28% said they think the Devil is not real.
More importantly, Scalia’s also right that “Jesus believed in the Devil” – and that’s actually an understatement of the full reality. More than just believing they exist, the Gospels record Jesus engaging in direct spiritual battle with the Devil (e.g., Matthew 4.1-11) and his fellow angelic defectors, demons (Matthew 8.16, Matthew 9.32-33, Matthew 12.22, et al.). In one of his most memorable encounters, the demons possessing two men start begging for the lives when they encounter Jesus and try to make a deal: “What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time? …If you cast us out, send us into the herd of swine.” Jesus grants their request: “So they came out and entered the swine; and suddenly, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and perished in the water.” (Matthew 8.28-34)
Jesus also made talking about demons a regular part of his teaching with his disciples in the Gospels: “[Satan] was a murderer from the beginning… When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8.44); “[T]his kind [of demon] never comes out except by prayer and fasting.” (Matthew 17.21); and “[Satan] comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” (John 10.10)
So he has support from a strong authority, to say the least.
But Scalia isn’t the only public figure who’s been talking about the Devil recently. Before he was pegged as a “flaming liberal” from his ‘bombshell’ interview, Pope Francis had actually been labeled “obsessed” with the Devil by several media outlets – and not completely without merit.
“[I]t is enough to open a newspaper and we see that around us there is the presence of evil, the Devil is at work,” Pope Francis said at a June 12th general audience. In a homily on March 14th, the day after he was elected Pope, he preached, “He who doesn't pray to God prays to the Devil.” And just today, he preached in a homily, "Please, let us not do business with the devil! He seeks to return home, to take possession of us… Do not relativize; be vigilant! And always with Jesus!" Compared to how often the Devil is discussed in normal conversation in the West, Pope Francis has been talking about the Devil practically non-stop. The Vatican journalist Sandro Magister summed it up last May: “One thing… is certain. For pope Bergoglio, the devil is not a myth, but a real person.”
This “obsession” is of course no surprise, since he’s simply following Christ, of whom he is the Vicar. Indeed, following the example of Christ, the Church has always taught the Devil is a real person and that he has been actively working to turn souls away from God since Adam and Eve. The Catechism teaches,
And, in fact, we find that the lives of the saints are full of encounters with Satan or other demons, from St. Anthony persevering against both spiritual and physical attacks from demons in the desert in the 3rd century to St. Padre Pio in the 20th century reporting he was repeatedly dragged out of his room by demons at night.
But are demons really still active today? In the interview, Senior asks if he’s personally seen evidence of the Devil, and Scalia replies,
While there may be some truth to what Scalia is saying, he seems to be unaware that there’s actually been a surge in reports of demonic harassment and people contacting exorcists for help recently. That’s right: particularly in Europe, where secularism is far more advanced than it is in the U.S., more and more people are claiming to have problems with the demonic and are seeking out Catholic priests for aid.
And the Church has taken notice: a six day conference was held on exorcism at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome in 2011, and just last fall the largest diocese in Europe, the Diocese of Milan, doubled the number of their trained exorcists from six to twelve, and even established a dedicated hotline to make it easier for people to reach them for help. So perhaps Satan hides himself while people are losing faith, but ramps up his attacks again once they have lost it and are left vulnerable.
The malevolent influence of Satan in the world is significant and must be taken seriously, but the Catechism also reminds us that it’s finite: “The power of Satan is, nonetheless, not infinite. He is only a creature, powerful from the fact that he is pure spirit, but still a creature. He cannot prevent the building up of God's reign.” (395)
With the infinite power of Christ, we can overcome the influence of Satan. In baptism, we are set free from our captivity to Satan’s “empire of death” and grafted into Christ, in Confirmation we receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit we need to most effectively witness to the Gospel and fight for souls, and in the Eucharist we receive the “bread of life” to spiritually nourish us as the battle wages on. Indeed, all the Sacraments give us the grace of Christ to resist the temptations of the Devil and live more perfectly for God.
But just acknowledging the reality of the Devil is a necessary first step. So, blessed are we that at least one of our Supreme Court justices knows who our enemy is.