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Rev. Sosa’s remarks on the devil warrant official response

August 22, 2019

The existence of the devil as a personal reality, and not merely as a symbol of evil, is an article of faith (Ott, Fundamentals 126-131; CCC 395, 2851). Denial of an article of faith is an element of the canonical crime of heresy (1983 CIC 751), an act punishable by measures up to and including excommunication, dismissal from the clerical state, and/or loss of ecclesiastical office (1983 CIC 1364, 194).

Rev. Arturo Sosa, sj, superior general of the Society of Jesus, denies the personal reality of the devil, describes him instead as a symbol of evil, and has expressed such views before (CNA article here, Catholic Herald article here). Protestations of Sosa’s orthodoxy by Jesuit spokesmen notwithstanding, Sosa speaks for himself, and clearly. I think his remarks warrant response, not just from bloggers and scholars, but from those placed in authority over such matters.

There are, I grant, some practical problems: the term “heresy” has been thrown around too loosely for some decades (perhaps for some centuries), the sanctions of excommunication and removal from office are themselves very weighty, and the latae sententiae (automatic) procedures by which such consequences are supposedly visited upon offenders are controversial in theory and practice, such that few in ecclesiastical leadership (including most orthodox members thereof!) wish to “pull the trigger” in such cases and, as a result, utterances such as Sosa’s provoke little, usually no, response from Church leaders with inevitable harm to the faithful.

What to do?

The Pio-Benedictine Code, perhaps alert to the dilemma that all-or-nothing penal canons posed for authority, had an interesting provision that allowed bishops and superiors to take action in likely heresy cases without invoking the full rigors of an excommunication process: 1917 CIC 2315 (see below) established the distinct criminal category of “suspicion of heresy” (my emphasis) that allowed Church authorities to demand formal clarifications and/or retractions from those whose utterances smacked of heresy without immediately requiring them to move to a full prosecution for heresy. If these formal requests for amendment were not heeded, of course, a full heresy case could then be undertaken. There are good discussions of “suspicion of heresy” in the standard commentators. Unfortunately, Canon 2315 of the 1917 Code did not survive into the 1983 Code. Pity, it would have been useful, I think, in a case like Sosa’s.

Even so, the elimination of “suspicion of heresy” as a penal category does not absolve today’s bishops of their duty “to propose and explain to the faithful the truths of the faith which are to be believed” and “to protect the integrity and unity of the faith to be believed” (1983 CIC 386). Indeed bishops are “to exercise vigilance so that abuses do not creep into ecclesiastical discipline, especially regarding the ministry of the word” (1983 CIC 392). It is commonly recognized that the phrase “ministry of the word” is code, if you will, for Church teaching, including her teaching of the personal existence of angels good and bad. An authoritative, direct contradiction of Sosa’s personal, direct errors is warranted, nay, I think required, from those principally responsible for the ministry of the word in their jurisdictions. They are two.

The bishop of the Diocese of Rimini (where Sosa’s made his latest remarks) should by now have “knowledge, which at least seems true, of a delict” namely, heresy, whereupon “he is carefully to inquire personally or though another suitable person about the facts” (1983 CIC 1412, 1717). Failure to act on such information as is available in the public forum would constitute, in my view, a dereliction of governing duty (see 1983 CIC 392, 1389). In addition, the bishop of Sosa’s place of residence is also competent to inquire into the Jesuit’s remarks denying the personal existence of the devil and, for that matter, on some other other topics (1983 CIC 1408). My understanding is that Sosa’s place of residence is Rome.

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1917 CIC 2315. One suspected of heresy, who, having been warned, does not remove the cause of suspicion, is prohibited from legitimate acts, if he is a cleric, moreover, the warning having been repeated without effect, he is suspended from things divine; but if within six months from contracting the penalty, the one suspected of heresy does not completely amend himself, let him be considered as a heretic, and liable to the penalties for heretics. (My trans.)

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