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Phenomenon of Satanism in Contemporary Society
SECTS AND SATANIC CULTS
With this essay "L'Osservatore Romano" begins a series of six articles dealing with various aspects (phenomenological, anthropological, psychological, legal, doctrinal and pastoral) of the growing and disturbing phenomenon of practices connected with the cult of satanic sects. The essays have been prepared in collaboration with the Bologna-based Organization for Research and Information on Sects, while the doctrinal reflection has been written by Bishop Angelo Scola through the good offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Membership in satanic sects, the participation in the rites introduced by them, the evocation of demonic entities, the personal and sole cult of the devil, and the affirmation of ideas deriving from the area of satanism, have assumed an unexpected dimension in today's society.
Before attempting to illustrate the composite phenomenon of contemporary satanism in its broad outlines, it is fitting to try to define it. This can be done in a general or in a particular way, making specific and exclusive reference to individual aspects: theological, anthropological, psychological, juridical, or sociological. Focusing our attention on a general type of definition, we can say that we speak of satanism when we refer to people, groups or movements which, whether they are isolated or more or less structured and organized, practice in some form the cult (e.g.: adoration, veneration, evocation) of that entity indicated in the Bible by the name of demon, devil, or Satan. Such an entity is generally understood by the satanists as a being or metaphysical force, or a mysterious, innate element of a human being, or an unknown natural energy that is evoked by diverse proper names (e.g., Lucifer) through the use of certain ritual practices.
The satanic sects
The satanic groups and movements are undoubtedly diverse. Some of them are connected to one another, while others are not; certain groups are unknown even to those same people who frequent the satanic environment. Some of these sects have an ephemeral or perhaps even virtual existence; others cease activity with time or in some cases continue while hidden; some act publicly, others secretly; but almost ail of them undergo chains of schisms, one group dividing into trunks, which in their turn divide into other branches, and so on.
The USA undoubtedly manifests the greatest concentration of satanic sects which we could define as well-known, that is, which act more or less in the open, and it is always in this country that we can find the most bibliographical references to contemporary satanism. Among the well-known groups which have arisen in the USA and which are still active we find: Church of Satan, Temple of Set, Order of the Black Ram, Werewolf Order, Worldwide Church of Satanic Liberation, Church of War. Among those which seem to have ceased their activity after a few years we find: Church of Satanic Brotherhood, Brotherhood of the Ram, Our Lady of Endor Coven, The Satanic Orthodox Church of Nethilum Rite, The Satanic Church. In addition, there are other organizations for which it is difficult to determine whether they have ceased their activity or not, for example the so-called Order Templi Satanis, whose writings are distributed on the Internet.
Another satanic group that has received a certain notoriety, deriving also from the participating observation of the American sociologist, William Sims Bainbridge, is The Process Church of the Final Judgement. It originated in England in 1965 and spread to several other countries, especially to the USA, before it split into two other groups. The Process now seems to be extinct. Also present in England are two other well-known satanic organizations: Order of the Nine Angels and Dark Lily. Operating in New Zealand is the group Ordo Sinistra Vivendi, previously called Order of the Left Hand Path. In Italy, among the satanic sects of which something is known, because in one way or another they have reached notoriety in the press, we can cite: Bambini di Satana Chiesa di Satana di Filippo Scerba Chiesa Luciferiana di Efrem Del Gatto Impero Satanico della Luce degli Inferi or Seguaci del Maestro Loitan.
There are also groups that do not intend to present themselves as satanic and which claim, for example, to practise pagan rites for the purpose of entering into harmony with the occult forces of nature, but which in fact show aspects which permit their being included within the variegated world of satanism.
Satanic rites, symbols and practices
The rites introduced by the individual sects are frequently based on modifications made to pre-existent rites. However, in general it can be said that the satanic rites serve the purposes of the celebrant, and comprise a collection of gestures and words aiming at provoking a change in situations and events which are thought to be impossible to achieve by ordinary means and instruments. When one intends to send a curse or realize a certain enchantment with regard to a particular person through such rites, it is thought that the best moment is found in the night within a certain period of time in which the person is asleep (for example, two hours before awakening). This is one of the reasons why the satanic rites normally begin in the nocturnal hours. The selection of particular locations in which to perform the rites, in or outside cities, probably depends on the possibility of performing the whole with a certain reserve, and in some cases on the presence in the area of cemeteries and churches no longer consecrated. It is not to be excluded that during the satanic rites some groups even reach the point of perpetrating acts of outrage or profanation of corpses, physical violence on minors, and even of ritual homicide.
A congregation which has inspired a significant number of the more recent satanic sects is the Church of Satan, founded in the USA in 1966 by Anton Szandor La Vey. The symbol of this sect is the so-called sign of Baphomet, which is the head of a goat inside an inverted pentacle (an upside-down star with five points), inscribed in a circle. La Vey is the author of three books which are a point of reference in the contemporary satanic world: The Satanic Bible, Complete Witch, and The Satanic Rituals. This last book contains rites performed in Latin, English, French and German.
The black mass, which can be said to be the principal rite of every satanic group, is described by La Vey both in The Satanic Bible and in The Satanic Rituals. The diverse satanic groups introduce some modifications with respect to the rite applied by La Vey, which is structured on the model of older European black masses and makes use, among others, of the writings of the French poet Charles Baudelaire (18211867) and of the writer Charles Georges Huysmans (1848-1907).
The rite is officiated by a celebrant, a deacon and a subdeacon. The instruments used include some candles, an inverted pentacle, a chalice full of wine or of liquor, a bell, a sword, an aspergillum or phallus, and an inverted crucifix. An authentically consecrated Host is also used. The altar of the black mass is a nude woman, and the participants wear black clothes with a hood. The rite follows more or less that of the Catholic mass with the prayers recited in Latin, English, and French. Instead of the name of God the name of Satan is invoked, together with the names of various demons, the "Our Father" is pronounced in the contrary or negative sense (our father who art in hell), invectives are hurled against Jesus Christ and the Host is profaned in various ways (utilizing it in sexual practices, trampling it repeatedly with hate).
Satanic beliefs differ from one group to another. For example, there are those who see in Satan a more or less symbolic entity, an expression at the same time of transgression and of rationalism, and in its rites they see a sort of brutal psychological drama which has the goal of liberating the believer from his religious, moral, and cultural conditioning, which derives from his heritage. Some satanists who identify with this vision state that "Satanism is a religion of the flesh. Happiness for the Satanist must be found here and now. There exists no heaven to go to after death, nor fiery hell as a punishment for the sinner". On the other hand, there are those who see in Satan a real being, prince of darkness, to whom it is possible to direct oneself by way of magical rituals in order to obtain different kinds of favours. Finally, there are those who see in Satan, in particular in Lucifer, a positive figure opposed to the action of the God of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, who is seen in a negative light.
In general it is difficult to give a univocal definition of the beliefs of an individual satanic sect. For example, the satanism introduced by La Vey at times sees evil as a vital and impersonal force which is made the object of cult through precise rituals, by means of which one can call on the destructive faculties inherent in this force. But at other times it is clear that in some rites, at least in a metaphorical way, La Vey turns to the devil as to a personal being, thus creating the fundamental ambiguity typical of satanic circles. A further contradiction can be seen in those who practice the absurd rituals of the Church of Satan, in which there can be recognized a specific and virulent antithesis to the Gospel, the Church and its liturgy. If someone believes neither in Satan, nor in God, nor in the Church, nor in the Eucharistic sacrifice, it is incomprehensible why they would involve themselves so fanatically in black masses.
Entrance into satanic circles
Some of the ways by which it is possible to come more easily into contact with a satanist group include the following: frequenting esoteric, magical or occult circles to the point of feeling satiated with their ideas and practices and the desire of pushing beyond to try new roads of knowledge; the participation in spiritualist seances in order to evoke particular entities, during which it is easy to reach the point of evoking demonic spirits and meeting those who participate also in satanic rites; having recourse to magicians in order to deal with problems of various types, which, often dragging on in time, are sought to be resolved even with the aid of so-called black magic, which almost inevitably introduces them into the world of satanic rites carried out by individuals or more or less organized groups; the idolatrous attraction shown to some singers and rock groups, who are allowed, through the messages of their songs, to curse, to invite to suicide, homicide, violence, sexual perversion, the use of drugs, necrophilia and involvement with satanism.
The motivations which draw people to practice satanic rites are quite diverse, among which can be found: the idea of obtaining material advantages of various types even to the detriment of other persons; the desire of confronting society in an eccentric and belligerent way; a morbid attraction for what is fearful and horrid, dictated perhaps by the unconscious desire of exorcizing personal phobias; the violent response to traumas suffered, sometimes even in childhood; the desire for the acquisition of particular powers thought to be obtained by means of occult knowledge and the participation in certain rites; the satisfaction of sexual deviations through unusual experiences based on something obscure and ritual.
Various problems of contemporary society certainly contribute to making the ground more fertile for satanic influence. Among these we find the loneliness of the individual in the midst of impersonal and amorphic masses, the impact of circles which denigrate Christianity and seek to dissolve it into their own vision, the disintegration of the family caused by the weakening, if not loss, of faith in God which alone is capable of bringing love, harmony and unity to the family.
Certain attitudes play into the hands of satanism by, more or less consciously, providing impetus to its diffusion in today's society. The first of these can be identified with the underestimation of this phenomenon, by holding that it is a marginal fact of no importance or relevance, a kind of parlour game or role-playing whose possible perversity can nevertheless be socially tolerated.
Another attitude, which can be said to be the contrary of the first, is the overestimation of the phenomenon considered to be excessively widespread, and which sees satanic groups as organizations always and everywhere dedicated to criminal activities (even without having well-founded elements enabling one to speak of crimes committed by them), capable of affecting the society in an extremely dangerous and destabilizing way. Consequences of this could be reactions of satanic phobia and witch hunts of the satanist. A third attitude is that which could be defined as phobia of the anti-satanic deriving from the spread, almost deliberately, of an excessive and systematic, sometimes also unfounded, criticism of organizations opposed to satanism, viewed as particularly influential institutions capable of inducing socially damaging attitudes, even if or when these organizations react to the phenomenon in a correct way from the scientific, cultural and religious point of view.
Some final considerations
Among the various questions posed with regard to the phenomenon of satanism is that of the possibility of seeing it as an explicit action of the devil, by means, for example, of the diabolical possession of those who participate in satanic rites. I believe that this action of the devil is carried out not so much through the manifestation of preternatural phenomena, as with the fomenting of an extreme aversion with regard to God, Jesus Christ, Our Lady, the Church and all holy things. The possible cases of diabolical possession, found in those who participate deliberately in satanic activities, are to be classified as cases of an active rather than passive type, since it is the persons themselves who offer themselves voluntarily to the devil.
In any case, the principal social, ethical and cultural problem of the acceptance of the thought and of the practices of the satanists is that in this way one arrives at approving a complete reversal of values. That which is objectively mistaken, evil and morally disordered is assumed as a just model to be proposed in liberation of others. Furthermore, the assumption, typical of satanic circles, of the motto of Crowley, "Doing what you will shall be the entire law", leads man inevitably to hold that one's own freedom does not end at that point where the freedom of another begins. We can conclude with the observation that he who divinizes matter and holds himself to be god, putting himself in the place of the Creator, is inevitably led to encounter the bitter and ineluctable reality of his own finiteness and human impotence, and to undergo contrary blows capable of leading to serious psycho-physical consequences with lapses of a depressive type.
Satanism undoubtedly manifests a strong emotional charge and an effort of escape into the irrational, which in some respects is draped with a paradoxical pseudo-rational covering as a justification. The profound evil which emanates from it assumes appearances and attitudes which are personal and obscure, and it expresses itself and becomes incarnate in personal sins. Its various rites, symbols, practices and beliefs have as a common denominator the demise of right reason and a deep wound in the integrity of the human person, which is manifested in sexual aberrations, in the thirst for power, in excessive seeking for money and success, in an exaggerated narcissism, all of which are elements in contrast with love for God and neighbor and with a seeking of the true personal and communal good.
In this world in which it appears almost as if evil, however it be conceived, has an edge over the good, I believe that it is ever more urgent to direct to all the exhortation of the Holy Father: "Have no fear!". This tranquillity can spring only from the awareness that liberation from evil and salvation comes through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, the only Savior of man.