I read in a recent Herald report that that most soulful of actors, Sir Anthony Hopkins, is going to play the part of Fr Gary Thomas, a well-known American exorcist, in a forthcoming film called The Rite. The choice of Hopkins seems appropriate, for Satan, according to the famous prayer to St Michael composed by Pope Leo XIII, spends his time “wandering the world for the ruin of souls”.
If this sounds melodramatic, I make no apologies; Christians must believe in the reality of hell as well as heaven, evil spirits as well as good angels. Evangelical Christians, I notice, have no difficulty with this concept and talk about the Evil One quite unselfconsciously. We Catholics, I fear, are often rather muted in our attitude and try to play down talk of the Devil in case we sound, well, a little Evangelical. Indeed, I once heard a very post-Vatican II priest, with whom I had raised the question of Jesus’s temptations in the wilderness, dismiss the whole idea as “psychological disturbance”. I later heard that he had left the priesthood.
C S Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters remains, for me, the best book on the subject. However, for Christian parents concerned with what their children are reading or looking at on their computer screens, I would recommend Michael O’Brien’s Harry Potter and the Paganisation of Culture. Before readers raise their hands in horror over this, and tell me that the books are just good fun and have got their children reading, I urge them to attend to O’Brien’s chief criticism: that J K Rowling muddies the battle between good and evil and that she uses “the symbol world of the occult as her primary metaphor, and occult activities as the dramatic engine of the plots”.
What’s wrong with good, old-fashioned magic, you will say. Nothing at all – if it is indeed of the “old-fashioned” variety, where, according to J R R Tolkien in his essay “On Fairy Stories”, “the baptised imagination will be faithful to the moral order of the universe”; in other words, where good is clearly good and evil is clearly evil. Rowling’s is a brilliant but unbaptised imagination, working on the minds of children who have grown up without the old moral and spiritual parameters and certainties to guide them.
According to O’Brien: “The spiritual war in which we are all immersed is very much connected to the signs and symbols in material creation and in men’s conscious minds… We must never lose sight of the truth that symbols are among the most potent of human languages… Only in the secular age has this awareness faded, or disappeared altogether, reducing the world of symbol to the logos of advertising marketers.” He emphasises that contemporary Western man “has lost the sacramental sense of the sacredness of creation and can hardly comprehend the sacredness or diabolical character of various iconographic ‘words’.” His whole book, which discusses Philip Pullman’s books and the Vampire series also, is well worth reading.
Exorcist Fr Gary Thomas, who believes that the absence of God in the lives of many people has led to an increase in idolatrous and pagan practices in the US, would agree with Michael O’Brien’s view that “the ferocity of the Devil, his cunning and subtlety, have been neutralised as legend or superstition”. Fr Gabriele Amorth, former chief exorcist of Rome, has warned about a similar rise in witchcraft in Italy. As I write this (Sunday evening) I note that the film, The Exorcist, is being shown right now on TV. When it was first shown in cinemas in 1973 it created a sensation, as “a horror film like no other”. In the law of unintended consequences, I understand that the number of people in the US going to Confession significantly rose that same year; the film had given ordinary Americans a glimpse of the terrifying world of Satan when he openly shows his hand and a good instinct made them run to the only possible supernatural remedy: the Sacraments.
Thomas Molnar, in The Pagan Temptation, tells us that “today the occult penetrates the lowered defences of the Christian tradition”. That is why Fr Thomas rightly warns people, especially the vulnerable young, to avoid anything – such as pornography – which can be a “doorway” to satanic influence.