When Spanish bishop Xavier Novell confessed to the Catholic Church hierarchy in Rome that he was “madly” in love with a divorced woman, officials told him he was possessed by Satan — and ordered him to undergo an immediate exorcism “to calm his troubled soul.”
Novell, 52 and a noted exorcist at his parish of Solsana in Spain’s Catalonia region, flatly refused. After all, he had the devil in common with his younger paramour: an erotic novelist and psychologist he’d met at a demonology workshop.
Novell formally left the Catholic Church last month for “strictly personal reasons.” Those reasons were not disclosed until his scandalous relationship with Silvia Caballol, 38, was revealed this week by Religion Digital.
The two met in 2015 at a workshop where they were both studying demonology, which probes the existence of “fallen angels” and evil spirits. The BBC this week referred to her work as “Satanic-tinged.”
Caballol, who has a degree in psychology and has dabbled in the study of yoga, sexology, Catholicism and Islam, was conducting research for her racy novels — which have been described as “a journey into obsession, madness and lust, pitting God against Satan.” Her publisher calls Caballol a “dynamic and transgressive author [who] turns upside down our ideas of morality and ethics.”
Her most recent book, “The Hell of Gabriel’s Lust: The First Cardinal Sin Against Being” tells the story of a psychopathic prisoner who falls for the female prison psychologist treating him. The book jacket copy compares the characters’ relationship to “the battle between God and the Devil.”
“As if possessed by the demon of lust, I begin to suck and kiss her neck, her lips, her breasts and her shoulders,” Caballol writes in the 2017 novel. She goes on to describe various sex scenes in bodice-ripping detail: “Our bodies were incandescent and excited and our sex was inflamed and palpitating.”
Now she is living with a man who once said in an interview: “Why are people so obsessed by sex that if they don’t have it every day they can’t breathe?”
Indeed, Caballol’s heavy-breathing erotica is a long way from Novell’s pious life as one of Spain’s most hardline clerics. But then again, his fundamentalism may have been created as a backlash against his own lust.
“I have fallen in love with a woman for the first time in my life, and I want to do things right,” Novell told Religion Digital this week.
That statement wasn’t entirely accurate, however. When Novell was appointed bishop of the rural archdiocese in Catalonia, overseeing 51 priests, in 2010, the handsome prelate confessed that he’d been in love before. Rumors quickly circulated that he had seduced some of the young women who had worked for him in the past.
In 2011, Novell told a Spanish newspaper that, at 22, he had fallen in love with a girl and wanted to marry her shortly after entering a seminary. He immediately proposed marriage, adding that the sexual tension he felt was so fraught that “the girl left me nervous.” At the time, he even campaigned to end celibacy for Catholic priests.
“I told everyone I wanted to marry this beautiful girl and have many children,” he told El Pais. But religion overruled love. “The idea wouldn’t leave my head, until I said, ‘Lord, allow me to see clearly.’ And I saw it.” God “strongly embraced” him, he said, and he was soon on the “right path.”
The episode strengthened his devotion to Christ — and turned him into a fundamentalist and self-confessed autocrat.
“Here, I’m in charge,” he told the newspaper about how he governed his parish of 139,000 after he became Spain’s youngest bishop at 41.
At a time when the Church was becoming more progressive after Pope Francis took over the Vatican leadership in 2013, Novell continued to uphold its most hardline teachings.
In an interview, he said that contraception was ruining the family in Spain and needed to be stopped. He railed against abortion, likening it to “one of the worst genocides in history.”
Novell claimed that the way to end AIDS in Africa was abstinence. He believed in “conversion therapy” to “treat” homosexuality, and had conducted several workshops at his own parish, according to press reports.
Also controversially, he supported Catalonian nationalism, becoming the only prelate in Spain to back a bold move for independence in 2017.
“I am Catalan,” he told the El Pais reporter. “But I am not a Catalan bishop or a Spanish bishop. I am simply a bishop. If there are Catalan faithful, I will congratulate them and if there are pro-Spain supporters, who want to do away with Catalan autonomy, and they succeed, so be it. At the end of the day, Christ has made us all brothers.”
Novell’s separatist politics didn’t sit well with Church elders. In Spain, Cardinal Ricardo Blazquez called the declaration of independence approved by Catalonia’s regional parliament in 2017, “serious and disturbing.”
For years, the Church hierarchy has had issues with the outspoken bishop, which is why many claimed that he had been possessed by the devil when he confessed his relationship with Caballol last month.
‘The issue is not a problem of celibacy, but of infestation,” quipped a colleague, who echoed the Vatican’s belief that Novell needed an immediate exorcism to treat his obsession to Caballol.
Another claimed that Novell was subjected to “a Satanic action by the psychologist.”
Novell might have predicted his own obsession. “My God, how lucky you’ve been Xavier, that no woman has been able to have a hold on you,” he told a Spanish reporter several years ago. “If I ever become attracted to a woman whose form of thinking and doing elicits a sentiment of love from me, I know what I would need to do — never see her again.”
It’s not clear how long Caballol and Novell have been living together in Manresa, an industrial city at the center of Catalonia where homes were built around Santa Maria de la Seu, an ancient basilica.
The author, who has not spoken publicly about her relationship with the former bishop, grew up in Barcelona, where she also attended university. Her father ran a mechanic’s shop and her mother was a homemaker and a devoted Catholic, according to Spanish news reports.
She lived for a time in Morocco with her first husband and has two children.
Novell, who graduated with a degree in agriculture before entering the priesthood, is reportedly looking for work in Manresa
Few in the church have sympathy for Novell. Dominican nun Lucia Caram called him “unbalanced” and a “broken toy.”
A recent column headlined “Less Tinder and More Satan” in El Pais blasted the Catholic Church for not cracking down on Novell’s “hateful” orthodoxy, and welcoming the departure of a hardliner from a position of leadership.
“The reaction of the Church — without having read any of [Caballol’s] books — has been that he has been possessed by demons … but it has never occurred to them that the real demonic possession occurred when Novell pronounced his hateful views,” wrote columnist Manuel Jabois this week. “Novell’s love story is not so sensational. What’s sensational is that Novell and others in the Church have been allowed to promote a hateful and violent society.”
In the past, Novell has criticized many of his generation, calling them “fragile” and without morality. It’s only through a relationship with God that promotes strength of character, he said.
But some in the Spanish Catholic Church view his love affair with Caballol as the ultimate weakness. Bishop Ramon Casanova Casanova, who was temporarily assigned Novell’s parish at Solsana, said the church would “continue to pray” for Novell.