In my experience, one of the most polarizing parts of the Catholic faith among young people is the existence and nature of demons, hell, and especially Satan. On one side of the issue are people who have a hard time believing in the power or even the existence of the devil. They have a hard time believing that a good and loving God would allow the existence of a place of eternal torture or a legion of spiritual beings bent on our destruction. So, they either walk away from the Church or simply ignore the bits of doctrine with which they’re uncomfortable.
On the other side, are people who not only fervently believe in demons, Satan, and hell, but spend a lot of time actively defying the powers of hell in their prayer, speech, and deed. A lot of people with this mindset completely toe the line of traditional Catholic doctrine, including the Church’s teachings about Satan, and they rightly see Satan as an enemy who needs to be defeated. As a result, they spend a great deal of time framing their prayers and actions in a way that will upset the evil one.
Both of these mindsets are pretty understandable, as each stems from a truth taught by the Church: the first from the truth that God’s love and mercy are infinite, and the second from the truth that Satan exists and has the power to lead us away from God. Both of these mindsets have some problems, though, and I think they need addressing.
The problem with the first mindset should be obvious in light of official Church doctrine. Satan exists. There’s no way around that. Though he is known by many different names, Satan is a prominent figure in the Bible, whether he shows up in Genesis, the book of Job, or the Gospels.
Satan is also mentioned in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which describes him as “the one who ‘throws himself across’ God’s plan and his work of salvation accomplished in Christ” (2851). There’s no doubt that being Catholic includes belief in Satan, so choosing not to believe in him is contrary to Catholic teaching. This belief isn’t just heretical, though; it’s dangerous. Not believing in the devil is like pretending terrorism doesn’t exist—pretending that a threat’s not there only gives it more devious methods of attacking us. As C.S. Lewis famously said, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn’t exist.”
The problem with the second mindset isn’t as easy to spot, and it may not even be present in a lot of people with this mindset. The issue is that when people focus too hard on trying to combat Satan, they can lose sight of what made them want to fight him off in the first place. There are times when I’ve heard people with this mindset speak almost exclusively in terms of fighting against the devil instead of fighting for God.
If people get to that point, then praying against the power of Satan becomes an end in itself rather than a means to a deeper, more sin-free relationship with God. Jesus himself warned against this in the Gospel of Luke. There’s a point where 72 of Jesus’ disciples return from a mission rejoicing that they were able to drive out demons in his name. Jesus’ response is joyful, but it comes with a caveat:
“Behold, I have given you the power to 'tread upon serpents' and scorpions and upon the full force of the enemy and nothing will harm you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice because your names are written in heaven” (10:19-20).
Here, Jesus reminds his followers that while it is wonderful they can drive out demons, they need to remember the true reason for them to rejoice: driving out demons has given them the chance to join the Lord in heaven. Likewise, we should remember that our ultimate goal is to be one with God, not just to conquer demons and Satan.
It’s important to recognize the devil for the threat that he is, but we also need to keep our focus on God. So let’s stay vigilant and pray for help against the evil one when we need it, but, while we do so, let’s fight Satan with the strongest weapon we have: pure devotion to the Lord.