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steve tomkins
crows nest
By Stephen Tomkins
More Crow's Nests here
 
Talk of the Devil
March 2001

We turn our telescope Romeward this month, where a leading cardinal has been causing a stir with an outspoken attack on one of the most famous figures in the religious landscape.

The cardinal is Dionigi Tettamanzi, the Archbishop of Genoa; and the victim of his outburst is none other than Satan.

"He is the enemy," insisted Tettamanzi, "and the cause of every affliction on humanity." Admittedly he is "very intelligent, astute and charming," but he is, as the title of the cardinal's Lenten letter proclaims, "The Great Tempter".

It is not the anti-diabolism of this assault that has ruffled ecclesiastical feathers, so much as the great man's insistence that the Devil is alive, well and entirely real.

This is not a terribly popular doctrine these days. The sceptic in the street finds it as hard to swallow as a wafer full of flesh and blood, and the church has been happy to let sleeping dogmas lie, allowing individuals to decide whether Old Nick is a personification of human evil or a red fellow with a big fork.

But not Tettamanzi. He has devised a 10-point plan to combat the wiles of the evil one, and in at number one is: "Do not forget that the Devil exists."

It has been suggested that Tettamanzi is drawing attention to himself as a frontrunner in the race for the papacy (such publicity might compensate for the fact that he is terminally boring and that his name is Italian for "Bull's tits".)

But such self-glorifying motives can be safely discounted when you consider that point 10 of his plan is "Be humble and love mortification."

This month's assignment is therefore a bit of armchair investigative journalism. Are these allegations correct? Is the world bristling with demonic forces that cause disease, moral decline and the unexplained breakdown of church OHPs in the middle of "Shine Jesus Shine"? Or is this (as Tettamanzi's theological opponents claim) an outbreak of medieval paranoia calculated to let the real baddies – humanity – off the hook?

There's no shortage of evidence. Father Jader Pereira made the news recently with claims that demons had reached record levels in Brazil. He should know – he exorcises them himself by the legion at his Renewed Apostolic Church in Sao Paulo, and business is booming.

Victims are led in convulsions to the altar, where he delivers them to the theme tune of "The Omen", and afterwards sells them anti-satanic candles.

But one reason why demonism is so prevalent in Brazil might be found in Pereira's warning that "Possession can manifest itself in all kinds of ways – from a persistent headache to a bad day at work."

He adds: "The number of evil spirits can only mean only one thing: Judgment Day is coming." Photocopier broken down? Sign of the times, mate.

Other churches in Latin America, while less wacky in their approach, are equally keen to give the Devil his due. Pentecostal pastor Hugo Alvarez has cast him out of 5,000 people in Mexico City, wrestling them to the floor if need be, and employs assistants to chase the expelled demons out of the church.

The same city has eight exorcists offering the Roman Catholic rite – "beautiful ceremony," says one, "very solemn" – but theirs is a more restrained approach. Each exorcist sees 12 applicants per week, and they send the majority away unexorcised, telling them to pull themselves together.

In case it seems the Enemy is restricting his activities to the Third World, we turn our sights to Europe, where the Vatican has seen fit to issue a new exorcism liturgy.

This breaks new ground in two ways: for the first time the priest has power to exorcise inanimate objects as well as people; and it is in Italian instead of Latin – which caused the translators protracted debate over whether tu (familiar) or lei (formal) is the correct form of address for the Prince of Darkness.

Meanwhile in Britain, that most reliable of newspapers The Sun recently alerted the public to the plight of Dave Underhill, a university student who suffered from the unpredictable behaviour of a possessed coat he bought from Oxfam. A clairvoyant diagnosed the problem but could only advise him to throw it away. It was the local Penties who successfully ministered to the coat.

What can we conclude from all this? I can't say that any compelling evidence for the work of Beelzebub has emerged from this exhaustive research, and it's tempting to dismiss the case. But that's the problem – temptation is from the Devil. You can't deny the work of the Devil without doing it.

As Tettamanzi reminds us, "He is a liar, and his greatest lie is that he does not exist." So if you don't believe in his perfidious machinations, that only proves how effective they are.

They're very cunning these lords of evil.
 
also see
hubris 2
Mark Howe's regular rant about Internet culture
strangely warmed
Andrew Rumsey's regular column about the religious life
loose canons
Stephen Tomkins' regular round-up of the saints of yore who were one wafer short of a full communion
   
 
 
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