The Exorcist and The Church

It’s hard to believe that it’s been four decades since William Peter Blatty’s best-selling horror classic, The Exorcist hit the bookshelves. Having just re-read it for the first time since I was in middle school I was able to discern a theme from the magnum opus that escaped a younger mind more interested in the frightening aspect of demonic possession than the image it presented regarding the Catholic Church. For those who either have never read the book, or may have seen the film a long time ago, both are worthwhile investments of your time. What you may find refreshing is that Blatty’s story is far more than a good scare. It is an intelligent work, and one that presents that rarest of memes in Hollywood: a positive take on the Catholic Church.

The Exorcist is a frightening story. A twelve-year-old girl, Regan McNeil, suddenly shows signs of demonic possession, whose violence and vulgarity increase over time. Meanwhile her mother, movie star Chris McNeil, follows one medical dead end after another in an exasperating effort to find a cure. In utter desperation, Chris (an atheist) turns to a local priest and clinical psychiatrist, Father Damien Karras, to perform an exorcism. Karras is suffering a loss of faith from the death of his mother and is at first adamant that Regan’s condition must be psychological. But after examining the deteriorating Regan and recording eerie conversations with the demonic persona in an intellectual boxing match replete with animal sounds and Biblical references, he agrees to perform the ritual. The Bishops, however, bring in an expert: Father Lankester Merrin. He and the demon are old enemies destined for a final showdown. But Merrin’s frail heart gives out early in the physically exhausting ceremony. Then an enraged Karras, his belief in God firmly restored, challenges the demon to enter into him and leave the innocent Regan. When it does, Karras, now at peace with his renewed faith, wins the ultimate victory by throwing himself out a window to his death, forever freeing Regan and saving her life.

For some reason there are those who view The Exorcist as anti-Catholic but I think they couldn’t be more wrong. Consider: there are four main characters in Blatty’s tale that seem to encompass the spectrum of religious commitment and all meet to produce one of the most refreshingly pro-Catholic final chapters of any entertainment product before or since. On one end is the demon who is evil incarnate. On the other end is the grandfatherly priest, Father Merrin, who is the epitome of the God’s humble champion. Caught somewhere in the middle of this struggle between good and evil are Father Karras, the despairing priest who no longer believes, and the secular actress who nevertheless firmly believes that a malevolent being is tormenting her daughter.

And that is the key here. The Exorcist represents a classic struggle between good and evil. Evil represented by the minions of Satan, and good represented by, for once, the Catholic Church. The Church is revealed through both Merrin and Karras to be a religion for the mind as well as the soul. All of the clergy in the story, in fact, are shown in a positive light. They are bright, humorous, devoted, kind, highly educated, and quite human. And in this world in which, despite a statistically tiny minority, priests are almost invariably associated with pedophilia and the Church as a whole with corruption and scandal, it is two lowly men of God who literally sacrifice their lives for the sake of a child in what Christ would have viewed as the ultimate good. In the end, Regan cannot remember the horrible events that overtook her. But, in the last scene of the film, she is introduced to another priest and when she spies his telltale collar, she reaches up and kisses him on the cheek in gratitude. Priests doing good for a child rather than preying on one? There’s a novel thought.

Sadly, such a non-provocative concept is the exception in Hollywood and certainly flies against the anti-Christian bias that pervades the secular elites who call the shots. Indeed, as but the latest series to bash the Church, Showtime’s “The Borgias,” shows, it is still very much open season on believers…except, of course, if you believe in Allah. (The brave free-speech warriors know that when you slander Islam, you end up on the receiving end of a carving knife.) The Borgias tells the story of the ascension of Pope Alexander VI, Rodrigo Borgia, and his murderous children. Ah yes, another corrupt Pope. Put it up there with the litany of other works of entertainment excoriating Catholicism from The Da Vinci Code to The Magdalene Sisters. And naturally, it was aired during Lent, the holiest of seasons in Christianity. So brave. So very “edgy.”

Whatever. We’re used to it. That Catholic charities perform incredibly compassionate works throughout the world, that wherever you find the poorest of God’s creatures you will find a Catholic mission giving aid and comfort, that brave priests are to this day being tortured and martyred for their beliefs in dangerous lands matters little when there’s a secular worldview to reinforce by assaulting those who believe in a higher power than themselves. I will admit that some of my brethren are a tad thin-skinned, but overall, their concerns about the media’s ingrained disdain for Roman Catholicism are well founded.

Still, there are parts of the entertainment world that are realizing it’s not always good business to piss off–by pissing on–the largest Christian sect in the world…and as Mel Gibson’s Passion of The Christ showed, the opposite is often true. But while Hollywood sorts out its unseemly obsession over a Church it clearly knows little about, I recommend you go pick up The Exorcist (book first, then film). There are many more good priests than bad in the world. Two of my favorites sprung to life from the mind of William Peter Blatty forty years ago.


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