In defense of exorcism

Catholic exorcism has recently been in the news this week, and some people are scared. Perhaps the people who are … Continued

Catholic exorcism has recently been in the news this week, and some people are scared. Perhaps the people who are most scared are Catholics in my line of work–teaching and scholarship. The fear is not about unleashing demons and evil spirits, but about unleashing critics who will bedevil Catholicism.

In Baltimore, fifty Catholic Bishops and sixty priests attended a seminar on the Rite of Exoricism. Citing a strong increase in demand for exorcisms, the assembled priests and bishops were instructed how to discern authentic possession. For some commentators, notably Susan Jacoby, On Faith‘s own “Spirited Atheist,” this is nothing more than bizarre hocus-pocus. Many intellectually inclined Catholics would share the same concerns since exorcism evokes the image of Catholicism as superstitious, and painfully behind the intellectual curve. In a time in which aggressive forms of atheism are challenging the very foundations of religious belief, talking about exorcism seems like a flight from reality into an exotic Catholic world filled with supernatural entities but devoid of reason.

I’d like to take issue with critics of exorcism both as a scholar and as a Catholic–even though that dual role might strike some as being rather strange in and of itself. I would defend exorcism not only as something therapeutically valuable, but rational–or at least no less rational than other beliefs that often pass for conventional wisdom.

I have observed and written about numerous Catholic exorcism rituals. These rituals were different from the official Catholic Rite of Exorcism that was recently discussed by Catholic bishops. Instead, these were exorcism rituals performed by Indian Catholics belonging to the charismatic movement that claims gifts of prophecy, tongues, and healing. I witnessed the “possessed” rolling around on the ground, heard the profanity laced speech of the “demon,” and watched as Catholic charismatic healers sprinkled holy water, laid-on hands, and repeated the name of Jesus.

I approached these rituals as an ethnographer. I was not concerned with probing the existential issue of demonic or human causation, but was instead interested in the inter-personal and inter-cultural aspects of possession and exorcism. In searching for analytic frameworks that would help me make sense of what I observed during my fieldwork, I encountered a wealth of academic resources that considered the ability of exorcism to remake the human self. Thomas Csordas, in his monumental studies of the Catholic charismatic movement in the United States, discusses the empowering quality of religious healing rituals. Sudhir Kakar, writing about exorcism in the Hindu tradition, calls attention to how demonic possession can be “healed” by rituals that reconnect the possessed with sources of strength in the community. Neither of these authors accepts the metaphysical assumptions that inform the work of Catholic and Hindu exorcists. Instead, both authors understand exorcism as having a therapeutic value within specific cultural contexts in part because exorcism represents an effective way of “externalizing,” and thus dealing with, particular psychic conflicts. In this sense, exorcism is analogous to various forms of talk therapy, leaving aside the question as to whether theories of possession are intellectually “closed” and “cunning” as psychoanalysis and other therapeutic methods are thought to be in the view of philosophically and scientifically minded critics.

The bishops and priests meeting in Baltimore, however, were most probably not thinking of exorcism as a therapeutic form of dramatizing, and working through, various personality disorders –although I do believe that the revival of the official Catholic Rite of Exorcism comes in response to the world-wide prevalence of irregular Catholic rituals of exorcism such as those I observed in India. Instead, the assembled bishops and priests were focused on how to determine the appropriate context for performing the Catholic Rite of Exorcism. Presumably, the Rite of Exorcism would only be performed in cases of “evil” as opposed to those in which a psychiatric disorder can be identified and treated by other means. As dismaying as it may be for some, there is an internal consistency in the Catholic belief in exorcism, proceeding as it does from belief in the objective reality of evil and the special authority granted to the priest to combat it. The reign of John Paul II brought a renewed emphasis upon the supernatural and this complemented a desire among large segments of Catholics for a return to Catholic distinctiveness. Although this background makes the Rite of Exorcism uncomfortable for some Catholics, it most certainly makes it quite welcome for others.

The question however remains whether there is any rational place for discussing exorcism in a non-Catholic context beyond pointing to its potential therapeutic value or as a sociological marker of changes within global Catholicism. On this score, I would offer two observations. The first has to do with how much our way of talking about the world relies upon a process of personification and objectification. For example, we are often quite comfortable talking about entities like “the heart,” “the market,” or “the unconscious,” as if they had a will and intent of their own. From one perspective, however, these ideas or constructs are really place-holders, a short hand for talking about amalgams of processes that interact and intersect. If we are comfortable, intellectually and emotionally, with respectively objectifying or personifying human or economic dynamics, it does not seem to be far-fetched to understand concepts like “evil” or the “demonic” as being extensions of the same tendency. But with specific regard to Catholic beliefs in exorcism and in the supernatural, one way of appreciating them is to understand them as commentary upon the limits of human knowing and power. Ministering within those limitations is precisely where exorcism has its meaning. It is also where I would stand to mount my defense of the continuing relevance of the Catholic Rite of Exorcism.

Mathew N. Schmalz
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  • WmarkW

    For example, we are often quite comfortable talking about entities like “the heart,” “the market,” or “the unconscious,” as if they had a will and intent of their own. From one perspective, however, these ideas or constructs are really place-holders, a short hand for talking about amalgams of processes that interact and intersect. If we are comfortable, intellectually and emotionally, with respectively objectifying or personifying human or economic dynamics, it does not seem to be far-fetched to understand concepts like “evil” or the “demonic” as being extensions of the same tendency.So exorcism is like seeing a cardiologist for a “broken heart,” or starting a love affair instead of getting an angioplasty?I’m an atheist (regular on Susan Jacoby’s board), and don’t mind metaphorical language like someone calling their psychological problems their “devils” as long as it’s understood symbolically.It might have psychological value to someone who doesn’t believe they have the strength to solve their own problems. Like the way AA encourages members to enlist the help of god when their don’t think they can do it themselves. But metaphors are not science or medicine.

  • cornbread_r2

    If we are comfortable, intellectually and emotionally, with respectively objectifying or personifying human or economic dynamics, it does not seem to be far-fetched to understand concepts like “evil” or the “demonic” as being extensions of the same tendency. But with specific regard to Catholic beliefs in exorcism and in the supernatural, one way of appreciating them is to understand them as commentary upon the limits of human knowing and power. Mathew N. Schmalz The Devil in Catholic theology isn’t just a metaphor for evil though; the Devil is a Pity you didn’t attend any

  • FarnazMansouri2

    If we are comfortable, intellectually and emotionally, with respectively objectifying or personifying human or economic dynamics, it does not seem to be far-fetched to understand concepts like “evil” or the “demonic” as being extensions of the same tendency. But with specific regard to Catholic beliefs in exorcism and in the supernatural, one way of appreciating them is to understand them as commentary upon the limits of human knowing and power. Ministering within those limitations is precisely where exorcism has its meaning.However, this phenomenon is irrelevant to the current discussion. Catholicism always personified the devil frequently conflating “him” with “the Jew.” Numerous illustrations by clever Catholics throughout the ages attest to the foregoing. Further, there has been no “revival” of exorcism discourse in the RCC although it has expanded somewhat. The Vatican has always had an exorcist and in fact he observed at the height of the priest sex abuse crisis that “the devil [was] loose in the Vatican.”As for acknowledging the limits of human knowledge, I look forward to the day when the RCC questions some of its doctrines, or even entertains the notion that they merit scrutiny. LImits of human power? Does the Vatican wish to place limits on its power?

  • abrahamhab1

    For people to believe in exorcism as driving out an evil spirit they must first believe in spirits (ghosts). Most people are too skeptical to believe in ghosts unless they have a personal experience with one. Documentations by paranormal researchers are not convincing enough for them. If we have to experience a thing to learn about it then we are not going to know much. Accordingly I would not believe there is such a place called Alaska because I have never been there.

  • cornbread_r2

    abrahamhab1:I need someone to help me round up the invisible pixies in my crab-apple tree — can I put you down as one of my wranglers?

  • joe_allen_doty

    Exorcism was not practiced by the disciples of Jesus. In order to cast out demonic spirits in Jesus’ name, one has to be baptized with the dynamic power of the Holy Spirit as the 120 Disciples were on the Day of Pentecost in 30 AD. The Holy Spirit filled disciples merely had the authority to tell the demons, “Leave, in Jesus’ Name!”

  • mbeck1

    “As dismaying as it may be for some, there is an internal consistency in the Catholic belief in exorcism, proceeding as it does from belief in the objective reality of evil and the special authority granted to the priest to combat it.”There may be internal consistency, but if the general framework of Catholicism is inconsistent with reality, then exorcism along with Catholicism is still hocus pocus.

  • elizdelphi

    I am Catholic and certainly believe in the reality of evil and of the devil, and believe that Catholic priests can exorcise demons. I have only the vaguest idea though of what the columnist means that exorcism points to the limits of knowledge. Perhaps he means the limits of knowledge of the causes of specific instances of evil? I think I would agree with that.A commenter wrote “The biggest problem with exorcists is that they need to find ‘devils’ to be employed.”Exorcists are normally priests, though in the past “exorcist” was one of several “minor orders” of “Holy Orders” which seminaries were instituted in prior to being ordained a deacon and then a priest… though this did not normally involve active ministry of exorcism. It was a step along the journey to becoming a priest. So, ALL priests are in a sense exorcists though some have specialized training, it seems to be regarded in practice as a specialty. The “employment” of a priest who is an exorcist is to be a priest of Jesus Christ, offering pleasing sacrifice to God in the Holy Mass (in the person of Jesus, they offer to the Father the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Himself), administering the Sacraments. If there’s nobody posessed by a demon and in need of an exorcism ritual, then great. But, we still urgently need priests anyway!

  • Sajanas

    I’m sorry, but I can’t see Exorcism as anything other than child abuse or the abuse of the mentally ill. Perhaps you’ve seen only nice exorcisms, but children have died from them fairly recently. It seems more like revenge abuse against a difficult mentally ill person by people angry at them for not getting better. Practicing it in an age with SSRIs, Prozac, and anti-psychotics seems no less evil than the JWs refusing blood transfusions, or the Christian Scientists refusing medical care.And more to the point, why would an almighty God, with hosts of angels with flaming swords decide to send feeble, aging humans with rosaries out to fight immortal demons from the pits of Hell itself. Seriously, why would he allow demons to possess children when he has hosts of spiritual warriors? Its one thing to allow humans to choose their own path, but to tell humans to handle the problems caused by timeless powerful demons that God himself created? It seems either lazy, stupid, or evil. And continuing to do pretend like these exorcism are anything other than abuse is likewise.

  • joe_allen_doty

    To cast out demons in Jesus’ Name, one does not have to do any stupid Roman Catholic Church created rituals of exorcism. A Holy Spirit Believer only has to say, “I cast you out in Jesus’ name!” I did tell the devil one time, “Take your hands off of God’s property in Jesus’ Name!” when he was attempting to use another person to control me. Then I heard him say in a deep booming voice, “You insulted me!” and immediately after that, the person talked on his own in his normal voice. The person’s natural voice range wasn’t even that low nor could he lower his voice range down to there either. The RCC has a lot of rituals which were NEVER used in the New Testament portion of the Bible by Jesus’ Disciples. Besides, if you live by Jesus’ teachings and you have been saved by him, you are one of His disciples.

  • ender3

    whether the ritual is Catholic, evangelical, voodun or african animist shamanism, or just the blathering of a crazy person, driving out demons are parlor tricks for the gullible and the hubris of the practitioner. I suspect your friend had quite a laugh at your deranged little show after telling you how insulted he was.

  • PSolus

    joe_allen_doty,”To cast out demons in Jesus’ Name, one does not have to do any stupid Roman Catholic Church created rituals of exorcism.”What does a holy-spirit-believer have to do?”A Holy Spirit Believer only has to say, “I cast you out in Jesus’ name!””Well, that seems simple enough.Have you ever done that?”I did tell the devil one time, “Take your hands off of God’s property in Jesus’ Name!” when he was attempting to use another person to control me.”Dude, you’re like Batman!Then what happened?”Then I heard him say in a deep booming voice, “You insulted me!” and immediately after that, the person talked on his own in his normal voice. The person’s natural voice range wasn’t even that low nor could he lower his voice range down to there either.”That is so cool!I wish I had been there!”The RCC has a lot of rituals which were NEVER used in the New Testament portion of the Bible by Jesus’ Disciples.”Are you talking about that whole “spectacles, testicles, wallet, and watch” thing?”Besides, if you live by Jesus’ teachings and you have been saved by him, you are one of His disciples.”Do you get an ID card?

  • ender3

    “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” Stephen Weinberg.Since religion is it’s own form of insanity and mental illness, and creates the belief in demons that help lead the mentally ill into the pit of fearful anguish, does that make excorsism a legitmate cure for those ills?FRIGGIN OF COURSE NOT! The fear of an evil concept of god and eternal punishment helped cause the illness. It has no place in the cure.

  • Rongoklunk

    It’s this kind of thing that makes me an atheist. The more we learn about the real world – the more we see religion as superstitious rubbish. Where the church should be down-playing the supernatural, and focusing on the real world where religion COULD make a difference – instead we have exorcism – scaring the devil out of people.This kind of thing makes the church look ridiculous and totally out of step with reality. Reading this article many atheists shake their heads and guffaw at such idiocy.

  • DanielintheLionsDen

    So Excorcism only benefits people who believe in demon posession, even though there is no such thing. By some sort of mysterious placebo effect, the Excorcism helps them to feel better, because they believe it will. It amounts to humoring people’s superstitious beliefs, without trying to help them understand what may really be going on with them, and with their lives.That is all fine and good for naive people, who don’t know any better. But it can hardly be considered a universal principle, since it has no effect or benefit to people who know better; and the people who know better may mistake the whole process as a scam, or a deception.When people attach sentiment and a feeling of love or hate to the workings of their heart, I think they are not actually thinking of the organ pumping blood in their chests, but that they are aware of the cultural metaphor associated with the human heart.But when the Catholic Church talks about demons and demon posessison, there is no metaphorical intention; it believes, literally in these things.And because of that, its credibility on all other subjects is devalued.

  • Carstonio

    we are often quite comfortable talking about entities like “the heart,” “the market,” or “the unconscious,” as if they had a will and intent of their own. From one perspective, however, these ideas or constructs are really place-holders, a short hand for talking about amalgams of processes that interact and intersect.Schmalz seems to be describing anthromorphization. I would be curious to know how many of those place-holders are holdovers from a time when most people really did believe that such objects had wills and intents of their own. Often our tendency to anthropomorphize objects (such as talking in anger to a malfunctioning piece of equipment) seems like a defect, the equivalent of an adult who never outgrew a fear of monsters under the bed. I’m not suggesting that such place-holders are inherently bad. Instead, I agree with WmarkW that such metaphors are not substitutes for science and medicines.

  • PSolus

    abrahamhab1,”For those who have never experienced a paranormal incident such as a ghost I hope they would encounter one, preferably of the mean disposition in order to leave an impression, to simply widen the scope of their life’s experiences.”I don’t know, that sounds scary.”Realizing that there is a dimension beyond the physical world will broaden outlook on life.”I want to go to that dimension.Few years ago if someone suggested that pictures could be transmitted thousands of miles by invisible waves he would be considered insane.”What, is that possible?Are you insane?”Yet now no one questions that fact.”Oops.”Ghosts have been reported since there was man and if you had not met one surely you know someone you trust who had.”Yeah, my crazy aunt, that crazy guy down the street who collects junk, that crazy woman with all the cats… I think I’m beginning to see a pattern here.”Being skeptical is healthy up to a point beyond which it becomes close-mindedness.”Do you know where that point lies?

  • ender3

    Shmalzies post reminds me that a Professor of Religious Studies at Holy Cross has about the same intellectual importance as a Professor of Magical Arts at Hogwarts.

  • abrahamhab1

    For those who have never experienced a paranormal incident such as a ghost I hope they would encounter one, preferably of the mean disposition in order to leave an impression, to simply widen the scope of their life’s experiences. Realizing that there is a dimension beyond the physical world will broaden outlook on life. Few years ago if someone suggested that pictures could be transmitted thousands of miles by invisible waves he would be considered insane. Yet now no one questions that fact. Ghosts have been reported since there was man and if you had not met one surely you know someone you trust who had. Being skeptical is healthy up to a point beyond which it becomes close-mindedness.

  • Sajanas

    @abrahamhab1 I wouldn’t try to use the advance of science as a way to advocate the reality of beliefs that are thousands of years old. I think people need to realize that their ‘paranormal’ experiences are derived from the evolution of our senses and brain. If we had ‘souls’ or if there were ‘demons’ it would have a wider impact in the world than just a few confused people seeing something that frightened them. They’ve never been able to bring more to the table than their anecdotes, while science (or simple observation) has been able to show, time and time again that the capacity for the brain to trick itself is far more impressive than any ‘paranormal’ stuff.