Gustavo Antônio Solimeo and Luiz Sérgio Solimeo
Notions about the holy angels among the Catholic faithful, even the most enthusiastic Catholics, are often vague and superficial. For the most part, they are mere memories and images of childhood, not much different from fictitious and somewhat mythological beings such as fairies and elves.
Unfortunately, today’s iconography does not help to make known the true face of the angels. It either depicts winged beings with rather feminine garments and traits or chubby-cheeked babies with infantile and silly looks playing casually on clouds that resemble cotton candy.
These angels do not exist, nor will we deal with them.
Based on Sacred Scripture and Tradition, the writings of the Holy Fathers, the teaching of the ecclesiastical Magisterium and Church doctors and theologians, we will strive to present the true nature of the holy angels. We will portray them as pure spiritual beings endowed with a most penetrating intelligence and a powerful free will, who, under God, dominate all other creatures, rational and irrational, including forces of nature such as the weather and the elements, and keep the evil spirits forever under their yoke.
Such are the holy angels, princes of the Lord’s hosts and our friends and protectors.
The Angels’ Admirable World
And I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne… and the number of them was thousands of thousands.—Apoc. 5:11
In addition to the visible and material world, God also created the invisible and spiritual world, the wonderful angelic world.
In antiquity, the existence of angels was denied among the Jews by the sect of the Sadducees.1 Later, some Protestant sects like the Anabaptists denied the notion of angels. In our days, atheists, materialists and positivists reject the idea of angels because they believe only what their eyes can see and their hands touch. Seeking a seemingly rational excuse for their unbelief, rationalists argue that the angels were invented by the Jews at the time of the Babylonian captivity, imitating entities worshiped there. They also claim the angels are merely a poetic and symbolic way of referring to divine virtues and human vices.
Nevertheless, human reason, the common belief of peoples and divine revelation affirm the existence of the angels.
Angels Do Exist
Through reason, independently of revelation, man can somehow deduce the existence of angels. Indeed, the existence of purely spiritual beings is not repugnant to reason. Examining Creation in light of the intellect, we can conclude that purely spiritual creatures would be appropriate for the harmony of the universe. The three possible kinds of beings would then be represented: purely spiritual beings, above man; purely material beings, under man; and finally, composite beings made up of spirit and matter, that is, men.
Furthermore, peoples in all times and places commonly believed in, and affirmed the existence of, beings with a nature superior to man’s and inferior to God’s.
One thing, however, is the mere possibility of the existence of purely spiritual beings, and another is objective reality. Without divine revelation through Scripture and Tradition, which assure us that the angels exist, we would be unable to solve the problem of their existence (and that of demons, or fallen angels).2
Our first parents received this revelation and its memory was transmitted over time through oral transmission by the Patriarchs. In time (and undoubtedly also through the work of the devil) that primitive revelation was corrupted; only traces of it remained in ancient paganism and today. In the mists of paganism, we find incorporeal beings, maleficent and benign, often revered as deities or near-deities.
For a long time, sacred writers avoided mentioning the spirits of darkness by name in order to preserve the Jewish people from contamination by pagan polytheism. For the same reason, the Old Testament does not have many details about the nature of angels and demons, though they are mentioned at every step. The definitive revelation only comes from Our Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, the Bible does not present a full revelation of the angelic world, making it necessary to resort to Tradition. The latter, as we know, is found in the documents of the Holy Fathers3 and ecclesiastical writers of the early times, as well as in the documents of the Magisterium—from popes and councils—in the liturgy and in Christian monuments of antiquity (catacombs, cemeteries, etc.).
The existence of angels is a truth of the Faith4 proven by Scripture and Tradition. Sacred Scripture repeatedly refers to rational beings, inferior to God and superior to men; therefore these beings, which we call angels, do exist.
Satan and the Rebellious Angels
Two extreme positions must be avoided regarding the devil. The first position denies his existence or influence in the history and lives of men (which, in practical terms, is the same as denying his existence). Agnostics, rationalists and materialists hold this position. Some try to dress up their disbelief with “scientific” trappings by claiming that the devil is merely the personification of our own defects.
The second erroneous position attributes to him an exaggerated role in events, giving him an inflated power, almost as if he were a god with a minus sign. This is the position of Satanists and occultists, as well as those who, without going that far, plunge into magical and superstitious practices as happens in many religions of primitive peoples so fashionable today even in learned circles.
The devil is neither one thing nor the other. He is not a mere personification of evil or a kind of evil deity. He is a fallen angel, who retains the powers (and limitations) of angelic nature, but can use them only in so far as God permits. And God only allows his action when it results in divine glory, contributes to the salvation of men or serves to punish them when deserving.
The balanced position taught by Catholic doctrine sees the devil as he is, according to the data of revelation, the teaching of the popes and councils and the doctrine developed by the doctors.
This is the doctrine we will now expound.
The Devil’s Psychology
He was a murderer from the beginning, and he stood not in the truth… he is a liar, and the father thereof. —John 8:44
Based in the Holy Scriptures and other sources, we will highlight some aspects of the psychology of Satan and his evil angels.
While different among themselves, the devils are similar in their fallen nature and in their desire to do evil; thus, what is said about Satan, their leader, can be said of the other demons as well.
A Perverted Will: Being angels and thus pure spirits, the devils do not have man’s weaknesses; hence their revolt against God is permanent, immutable and eternal. Their will, by turning away from the Supreme Good as its final object, became perverted and fixed in evil. Thus, in all their voluntary acts the devils seek only evil; and even when they do some good (for example, restoring someone to health, making him rich or teaching him something), they do it just to draw an evil by leading him to eternal damnation, the only thing they crave for men.
Murderer, Liar: The Divine Redeemer summarized the devil’s psychology in a nutshell: “He was a murderer from the beginning, and he stood not in the truth; because truth is not in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father thereof” (John 8:44).
The devil is a murderer and the father of lies, the liar par excellence who hates the truth because it leads us to God: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6); he hates the Creator; and by separating himself from God, he broke away forever from truth and life. And through the lie he metes out spiritual death.
When he tempts man, he tries to drive him away from God by presenting a false picture of reality, hiding his true goals and enmeshing his victim in deception, sophistry and falsehood.
Astute; False; Deceiving: Msgr. Cristiani writes: “Satan is distinguished by his cunning. What does this word mean? A ruse is a deceitful trick. A being that acts with cunning has bad intentions. If he speaks, it is not to tell the truth but to deceive, to lead to error and untruth. Satan is false. You cannot trust him. What he is missing above all is equity, fairness and frankness. He is ambiguous, deliberately obscure and dissimulated.”5
Demented Pride: The pride of Satan and his evil angels knows no bounds. “What a demented pride Satan displays,” Msgr. Cristiani comments, “when he shows to Christ in spirit all the kingdoms of the earth, saying, ‘All this I will give you if you fall to the ground and adore me!’ The ultimate satanic ambition is this: To take God’s worshipers from Him and redirect all worshipping to himself!”
“In short, behold what Satan is about: ‘pride, craving to make himself god, astuteness, envy and hatred of men, all this ending up in lies, homicide and deicide.’”6
Vulgarity: Vulgarity is another aspect of the devil’s cursed psychology. By hating God, he hates everything that is true, good and beautiful. He hates composure, dignity, seriousness and serenity.
Already in the fifth century, Saint John Cassian observed: “Undoubtedly among the unclean spirits, there are some colloquially called roving vagabonds, who are above all seducers and buffoons. They dwell in certain places and have much more fun by cheating than by harassing those along their path. They take satisfaction in tiring them out with taunts and illusions without seeking to do them more harm.”7
These are the famous buffoon devils that turn butter rancid, dry out the milk in cows, release schools of yellow jackets or bees and do everything to make men lose patience and thus curse and blaspheme.
The Power of Devils Over Matter
The presence of angels in a place does not occur physically (through physical contact), since they are incorporeal beings, but through their actions (operative contact). In other words, angels are where they act. By their spiritual nature, they can carry out their activity both outside or inside bodies, as Saint Bonaventure says: “Because of their subtlety and spirituality, the devils can penetrate any body and remain in it without the least obstacle or hindrance.”8 When it comes to matter, the devils can produce only local or extrinsic movements in a direct and immediate fashion by moving something from one place to another without changing the nature or substance of that thing.
However, as angels, the devils can indirectly act on material substances through local movements by changing an object’s position, influencing its quantity, and other things.
If God were to allow it, with their angelic nature the devils could cause all kinds of physical disturbances. Cardinal Lépicier says that hardly any phenomenon in the world could not be carried out by angels; therefore, that is true of demons as well.9 And indeed the latter often do it by causing storms, cataclysms, fires and other disasters, as well as phantasmagorical apparitions, hellish noises and disturbances of all kinds.
The Power of Devils Over Man
As far as man is concerned, devils can act directly and immediately only on his material substance or on what necessarily depends on it; they can act on functions of his vegetative life, linked to matter, and on his sensible life, which depends on bodily organs. As for the specific tasks of intellectual life, devils can act only indirectly on it, that is, on a person’s body and sensible life on which his soul depends to develop his spiritual activities. In other words, devils can act directly on the corporeal part of man, but only indirectly on his intelligence and will.
According to Saint Thomas,10 a man’s intellect moves on its own inclination only when something enlightens it toward the knowledge of the truth. Thus, demons do not want to lead to knowledge of the truth but on the contrary to cloud man’s mind to lead him to sin. Hence, they are unable to move his intelligence directly. They try to influence it indirectly by acting on his imagination and sensibility.
Demons cannot directly move man’s will, which only man himself or God can do. Even when the Evil One, by divine permission, takes over a person’s body and clouds his mind—as happens in cases of possession—he cannot compel him to sin, as his will would not participate in the bad actions thus committed, which would only constitute material sins.
In order to move man’s will, the devils need to convince or somehow persuade him to commit a bad action, even if under the appearance of good.
The Devil’s Persuasive Action
“The devil does not compel: he proposes, suggests, persuades, seduces.”
The devil has no power to oblige men to do something or refrain from doing it; thus he tries to persuade them to allow themselves to be seduced by his kingdom.
“He does not compel them; he proposes, suggests, persuades, seduces,” writes Fr. J. de Tonquédec S.J., a French exorcist and demonologist. And he adds: “In Eden, he gave Eve reasons to disobey the divine order (Gen. 3:4-5:3); in the desert, he tempted Our Lord with the allurement of world domination (Matt. 4:26-27).”11
Saint Thomas also refers to the devil’s work of persuasion by explaining that man’s will, internally, can be moved only through the action of God or man himself; externally, it can be solicited by an object which, nevertheless, does not force man to choose something he does not want.12
Fr. Candido Lumbreras, O.P., thus comments on this passage of the Angelic Doctor: “What influence can the devil have on men’s sins? The devil can peddle his object to one’s senses and speak to one’s reason internally or externally; he can change one’s moods and produce dangerous images, thus exciting passions that can finally move the will and take over the understanding.”13
Commenting on another passage from Saint Thomas, Fr. Jesus Valbuena, O.P., explains:
“That the angels can illuminate and enlighten human understanding is a fact attested to in many places in the Holy Scriptures. . . Evil angels are also able to produce, with their natural power, false illuminations in the minds of men; Saint Paul admonishes us to be on the alert ‘for Satan turns himself into an angel of light’ (2 Cor. 11:14).
“Saint Thomas asserts that angels can influence man’s senses, internally or externally, by acting from inside and from outside, i.e., intrinsically and extrinsically; but as far as the human will and understanding are concerned he can only influence and move them indirectly from the outside by proposing to these spiritual powers, in a manner adapted to them, their objects, which are the true and the good and by influencing them indirectly through the senses, passions, sensitive body changes, etc., though they can never effectively or completely bend man’s will if he is in a normal state.”14
When tempting Eve and Our Lord, the devil “made his case” by taking bodily form, producing sounds and orally articulating words; however, to persuade man to sin the devil usually carries out a combined action on his sensibility, memory and imagination.
Man Facing Temptation: Temptation Is Not Sin
As such, temptation is obviously not a sin; for the very Savior allowed Himself to be tempted by the devil. —Matt. 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13
As we said, the devil cannot act directly upon human intelligence or will and thus seeks to influence them through indirect means in order to make us sin. Although able to resist the tempter, man often allows himself to be seduced.
To tempt us, the devil can excite our imagination to form lewd or disturbing images and representations, interfere in bodily movements that favor sinful thoughts or acts, intensify passions, or try to deceive us with sophistry, errors and so on.
However, man is not guilty of the temptations he suffers except when they are a consequence of imprudence which he has permitted or voluntarily sought such as immoral looks, frequenting dangerous places, bad company and so on. If imprudence was not the cause, he will be guilty only if he gives full and deliberate consent to the solicitations of temptation.15
However intense a temptation may be, if man fights against it the whole time he does not commit the least fault; on the contrary, he gains merits for his sanctification, as Saint James the Apostle writes: “Blessed is the man that endureth temptation; for when he hath been proved, he shall receive a crown of life, which God hath promised to them that love him” (James 1:12).
Need for Vigilance and Prayer
We must be always alert to face temptation, as Our Lord recommended at the time of His Passion: “Watch ye, and pray that ye enter not into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh weak” (Matt. 26:41). Saint Peter warns: “Be sober and watch: because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, goeth about seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pet. 5:8).
Watching, however, is not enough. We need to resist the devil: “Resist the devil, and he will fly from you,” Saint James assures us (4:7). Saint Peter commands: “Resist ye [against the devil] strong in faith” (1 Pet. 5:9).
Saint Paul exhorts: “Put you on the armor of God that you may be able to stand against the deceits of the devil. . . . In all things taking the shield of faith, wherewith you may be able to extinguish all the fiery darts of the most wicked one. And take unto you the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit (which is the word of God)” (Eph. 6:11-17).
God Does Not Allow Us to Be Tempted Beyond Our Strength
However, we must always keep in mind this consoling truth: it is certain that God will not allow us to be tempted beyond our strength. This is the teaching of Saint Paul: “Let no temptation take hold on you, but such as is human. And God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that which you are able: but will make also with temptation issue, that you may be able to bear it” (1 Cor. 10:13).
Mary, the Most Terrible Enemy That God Raised Against the Devil
In his celebrated Treatise on True Devotion to Mary, the great apostle of Marian devotion, Saint Louis Marie Grignion de Montfort summarizes in an admirable way Mary’s unique role in the struggle against Satan:
Mary must become as terrible as an army in battle array to the devil and his followers, especially in these latter times. For Satan, knowing that he has little time—even less now than ever—to destroy souls, intensifies his efforts and his onslaughts every day. He will not hesitate to stir up savage persecutions and set treacherous snares for Mary’s faithful servants and children whom he finds more difficult to overcome than others.
It is chiefly in reference to these last wicked persecutions of the devil, daily increasing until the advent of the reign of anti-Christ, that we should understand that first and well-known prophecy and curse of God uttered against the serpent in the garden of Paradise. It is opportune to explain it here for the glory of the Blessed Virgin, the salvation of her children and the confusion of the devil. I will place enmities between you and the woman, between your race and her race; she will crush your head and you will lie in wait for her heel (Gen. 3:15).
God has established only one enmity—but it is an irreconcilable one—which will last and even go on increasing to the end of time. That enmity is between Mary, His worthy Mother, and the devil, between the children and the servants of the Blessed Virgin and the children and followers of Lucifer. Thus the most fearful enemy that God has set up against the devil is Mary, His holy Mother.
The Heel That Crushes the Head of the Serpent
Saint Louis de Montfort continues:
From the time of the earthly paradise, although she existed then only in His mind, He gave her such a hatred for His accursed enemy, such ingenuity in exposing the wickedness of the ancient serpent and such power to defeat, overthrow and crush this proud rebel, that Satan fears her not only more than angels and men but in a certain sense more than God Himself. This does not mean that the anger, hatred and power of God are not infinitely greater than the Blessed Virgin’s, since her attributes are limited. It simply means that Satan, being so proud, suffers infinitely more in being vanquished and punished by a lowly and humble servant of God, for her humility humiliates him more than the power of God. Moreover, God has given Mary such great power over the evil spirits that, as they have often been forced unwillingly to admit through the lips of possessed persons, they fear one of her pleadings for a soul more than the prayers of all the saints, and one of her threats more than all their other torments.
What Lucifer lost by pride Mary won by humility. What Eve ruined and lost by disobedience Mary saved by obedience.16
Let us therefore invoke Mary Most Holy, Queen of Angels and Terror of Demons. May she assist us in a special way so that, vested in the armor of God, we can resist the snares of the devil (Eph. 6:11-17).
“And He shall send His angels with a trumpet, and a great voice: and they shall gather together His elect from the four winds, from the farthest parts of the heavens to the utmost bounds of them” (Matt. 24:31).
Photo Credit: Statue of Our Lady of the Rosary, Granada, Spain, Fernando Daniel Fernández
- “For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, neither angel, nor spirit: but the Pharisees confess both” (cf. Acts 23:8).
- Tradition, in its broadest sense, is the set of ideas, feelings and customs, as well as facts transmitted in a living way from generation to generation in society. In strictly theological language, Tradition is the set of revealed truths which the apostles received from Christ or from the Holy Spirit and transmitted, independently from the Holy Scriptures, to the Church, which preserves and transmits them unaltered.
- Holy Fathers or Fathers of the Church are certain ancient ecclesiastical writers who distinguished themselves by their orthodox doctrine and holiness of life and are recognized by the Church as witnesses of divine tradition.
- A truth of the Faith is one found in Revelation and proposed by the Church to the faithful as a truth that must be believed. Heresy is a pertinacious denial of a truth of the Faith.
- Msgr. L. Cristiani, Présence de Satan dans le monde moderne (France-Empire, 1960), p. 306.
- Ibid., p. 308.
- Ibid., p. 311.
- Dom Corrado Balducci, Gli Indemoniati, (Rome: Coletti Editore, 1959), p. 12.
- Cardinal A. Lépicier, The Unseen World (Forgotten Books, August 25, 2012), pp. 74-75. https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Unseen_World/BVRGAAAAYAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&printsec=frontcover.
- Summa Theologica, 1-2: q. 80, a. 1-3.
- J. de Tonquédec S.J., Quelques aspects de l’action de Satan en ce monde, p. 495. http://sosparanormal.free.fr/s_etudes_carmelitaines.php.
- Summa Theologica, 1-2: q. 80, a. 1.
- C. Lumbreras O.P., Tratado de los vicios y los pecados Introducción (Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Christianos, 1954), p. 766.
- J. Valbuena O.P., Tratado del Gobierno del Mundo – Introducciones (Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, 2010), p. 898.
- “We should distinguish three things in temptation: suggestion, delectation and consent. Suggestion is not a sin because it does not depend on our will. Nor is simple delectation, when involuntary. Consent alone is always criminal, because it depends exclusively on us to accept or reject the suggestion to sin” (Can. Duarte Leopoldo e Silva, Concordancia dos Sanctos Evangelhos, First Edition (São Paulo, Brazil: Escola Typographica Salesiana, 1903), p. 34, n. 5).
- Saint Louis Marie Grignion de Montfort, True Devotion to the Most Holy Virgin (Tan Books, 2010), nos. 50-54.