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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.