The National Review Board of lay Catholics released a report last week that detected “the smoke of Satan” in the Catholic Church. The board, of course, was referring to pedophile priests and morally bankrupt bishops.

But where the hell did the term come from, and what does it mean? Students of the church in better times want to know.

The words tumbled out of the mouth of Pope Paul VI in 1972, according to Fordham University sociology professor Michael Cuneo, who wrote a book titled The Smoke of Satan. The pope was echoing conservative Catholics who feared that the Second Vatican Council — Vatican II — was eroding mainstream Catholicism. Fine. But isn’t evoking the Prince of Darkness a tad dramatic, especially for a doctrinal debate?

Exorcists have been inspired by the term. And naturally they have their own take. Catholic Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, author of the book Face to Face With the Devil, spoke of “Satanists at work in the Vatican” during the Fatima 2000 International Congress of World Peace in Rome in 1996. Pointing to “the smoke of Satan” quote, Milingo said, “The devil in the Catholic Church is like an animal infected by the government, put on a game preserve that outlaws anyone from trying to kill it.”

Washington, D.C., power lawyer Robert Bennett, the principle draftsman of the review board’s report, is not letting much light into the debate. Reached for comment, Bennett declined to attribute a source for his adopted turn of phrase. “Hopefully it will find its way out,” he said.

Ex-Jesuit and author Malachi Martin, in 1990, also relied on “the smoke of Satan” to write about “Satanic pedophilia — rites and practices — documented among certain bishops and priests [from] Turin, Italy, to South Carolina.” Martin died in 1999, but not before he reportedly said of Milingo, “He was like [Peter Finch] in the movie Network, who got fed up and said, ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.’”

Most likely, according to Nicholas Lund-Molfese, executive secretary of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, is that “the smoke of Satan” is a simple metaphor, regardless of how Cuneo and others interpret it. “They’re human,” Lund-Molfese says of the Catholic bishops who embody Lucifer’s haze. “They commit sins like everyone else.”

Not everyone is so carried away with the immortal words — or the Catholic lay review board’s use of them. Father Richard McBrien, a professor of theology at Notre Dame University, writes in an e-mail, “It’s reminiscent of the old Flip Wilson gag line: ‘The devil made me do it!’ The devil is not the explanation for this crisis, unless we want to demonize the pope and those in the Vatican who appointed bishops who were utterly inept — and worse.”

LA Weekly