French poet Charles Baudelaire once observed, “The finest trick of the devil is to persuade you that he does not exist.”
That trick was not working from May 5-10 in Rome at the Pontifical Athenaeum “Regina Apostolorum,” an educational institution of the Catholic Church, during the annual “Course on Exorcism and Prayers of Liberation,” described as seeking “to explore the theoretical and practical implications of the ministry of exorcism. It is designed particularly to help bishops in the preparation of priests they assign to this ministry.”
It covered, in order, the anthropological, phenomenological, and social aspects; the theological, liturgical, canonical, pastoral, and spiritual aspects; the medical, neuroscientific, pharmacological, and physical aspects; and the symbolic, criminological, legal, and juridical aspects.
Studying exorcism presupposes that there’s something to exorcise, which is hardly a given for many in the modern world. Yet belief is subjective, and that may or may not be a component of objective reality.
If, indeed, there is incarnate evil in a form similar to the one envisioned in Christianity, then all the wishing and nonbelieving in the world won’t make it vanish. If there isn’t, all the believing in the world won’t bring it into existence.
As described in Christian theology, Satan – sometimes referred to as Lucifer – is a fallen angel. He’s not a philosophy, an ideology, or a psychological phenomenon. He has an existence outside of human thought – if humans all agreed as one to stop consciously thinking about him, he would still be there.
Some versions of Christianity obsess about the influence of Satan almost to the exclusion of trust in the salvation offered by Christ’s sacrifice; others reduce Satan to merely a personification of bad impulses from within the human psyche.
As a faith much more about the both/and than the either/or, the Catholic Church has evolved to a middle ground. That which appears evil may indeed be, and probably is in most cases, a manifestation of human weakness or mental illness, which is much better understood than in past centuries. However, the Church reserves the right to say that sometimes incarnate evil – Satan or a lesser demon – is at work.
Paragraph 1673 of the Catechism states:
When the Church asks publicly and authoritatively in the name of Jesus Christ that a person or object be protected against the power of the Evil One and withdrawn from his dominion, it is called exorcism. Jesus performed exorcisms and from him the Church has received the power and office of exorcising. In a simple form, exorcism is performed at the celebration of Baptism. The solemn exorcism, called a “major exorcism,” can be performed only by a priest and with the permission of the bishop. The priest must proceed with prudence, strictly observing the rules established by the Church. Exorcism is directed at the expulsion of the demons or to the liberation from demonic possession through the spiritual authority which Jesus entrusted to His Church. Illness, especially psychological illness, is a very different matter, treating this is the concern of medical science. Therefore, before an exorcism is performed, it is important to ascertain that one is dealing with the presence of the Evil One, and not an illness.
Exorcism isn’t unique to Catholicism or Christianity or even monotheism; the notion of driving out evil spirits is almost as old as human culture. Indeed, one advantage of a worldview which takes the existence of incarnate evil for granted is a healthy respect for, and fear of, its power. If people aren’t sure, or just think it’s a bit of a lark – like the black mass scheduled to be celebrated by some self-described Satanists on May 12 on the Harvard campus – then, if incarnate evil does indeed exist, they may be opening themselves up to it.
That’s the notion debated in a May 8 piece by Rome correspondent Nick Squires in the U.K. Telegraph, dealing with the “Exorcism and Prayers of Liberation” conference.
Giuseppe Ferrari, from GRIS, a Catholic research group that organised the conference, said there was an ever growing need for priests to be trained to perform exorcisms because of the increasing number of lay people tempted to dabble in black magic.
We live in a disenchanted society, a secularised world that thought it was being emancipated, but where religion is thrown out, the window is being opened to superstition and irrationality.
Squires also writes, “The Church insists that the majority of people who claim to be possessed by the Devil are suffering from a variety of mental-health issues, from paranoia to depression. Priests generally advise them to seek medical help.”
However, that help may not always be there.
In another U.K. Telegraph piece that came out a day later called “My mother, the exorcist,” self-described atheist Stephen Bush takes a non-religious look at the phenomenon of exorcism.
He also references Ferrari and writes:
Unsurprisingly for an atheist, I don’t believe that secularism has left the path open to the Devil, but I think there’s a decent chance that these 200-odd priests [being trained] may end up doing a lot of good.
Why, well, my mother is an Anglican vicar, and although she more closely resembles Adam Smallbone in [the British comedy series] Rev than Damien Karras in The Exorcist, she’s been called up to cast out more than her fair share of unclean spirits.
He points out that, most of the time, she discovers a more earthly reason for disturbances in the home and more mental illness than demon possession.
“Most exorcist work,” he writes, “ends up being social work; and I’m sure that this will also be true of this new cadre of exorcists.”
Decrying the lack of care that many with mental-health issues receive from the government, Bush writes:
Most of what we regard as the safety net in society – adoption agencies and food banks, not just the impromptu social work under the heading of exorcism – is still run by religious people.
There is, at present, very little evidence that the secular world will fill in the gap. We may end up missing religion more than we think.
One of the most interesting reports of exorcism remains the 1949 case of a fourteen-year-old boy in St. Louis, baptized and raised as an Evangelical Lutheran. At the behest of his distraught parents, he underwent an exorcism that took two months at the hands of a Jesuit priest. One of the other priests involved kept a diary of the events, which was made public a few year ago by the St. Louis University library.
The events later inspired then-Georgetown University scholarship student and faithful Catholic William Peter Blatty. He eventually fictionalized the account in his 1971 novel The Exorcist and the screenplay based on it, moving the story from St. Louis to Washington, D.C., which is home to Georgetown.
In a side note, last October, Blatty filed a formal suit under Catholic canon law in an attempt to prevent the forces of secularism from irretrievably overwhelming the Jesuit-founded Georgetown. He seeks to compel Georgetown to either live up to its Catholic charter and be true to the Faith or to cease describing itself as a Catholic or Jesuit institution.
When the National Catholic Register asked why he’s doing this, Blatty said, “Today’s Georgetown isn’t Georgetown but more like a living Picture of Dorian Gray. Remember that wonderful line in the film The Princess Bride, when Mandy Patinkin says, ‘I want my father back?”‘
“Well, I want my beloved university back, not just alive, but totally beautiful – and healthy.”