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Return of the Devil: Exorcism's Comeback in the Catholic Church 

Wednesday, Mar 9 2016
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Following an official decree from Pope John Paul II in 2004, every diocese (the term for an area of ecclesiastical control, like a state or a county) in the church has appointed an official exorcist. It's not clear how many exorcists there are in America — not every diocese is public about it — but there are 185 dioceses in the country. And in California, every diocese but one has an official exorcist.

Lauriola sees as many as eight people a month seeking healing for afflictions modern medicine cannot cure; a counterpart of his in San Jose, Father Gary Thomas, is just as busy.

While some Catholic theologians disagree — and the Archdiocese of San Francisco does not provide official figures, if it has any — a fair number of priests, religious scholars, and faithful agree: Exorcism is back. This seemingly medieval practice — which fell by the wayside as the Church attempted to modernize in the last 50 years, and which took a further hit in 1973, when a young German woman, Anneliese Michel, died after undergoing repeated exorcisms — is creeping into the Catholic mainstream once again. This assertion is repeated in headlines in the Telegraph, U.K. Guardian and other news publications that talk of an "exorcism boom."

"Almost all exorcists are unanimous in their belief that more people are becoming possessed today than in the recent past," writes journalist Matt Baglio in The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, a tome inspired by (and centered on) Thomas's training in exorcism, undertaken in Rome in 2005.

Skeptics would point out that such a statement is akin to umbrella salesmen agreeing that it's about to rain. And there are many skeptics. Michael Cueno, a professor at the Catholic Church-affiliated Fordham University in New York City, attended 50 exorcisms while researching his book American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty. And "never once did I walk away convinced that the person being exorcised was really demonized," he said in an interview with Evangelical Today.

And not every Catholic theologian agrees with the anecdotes from exorcism practitioners. "There's no empirical evidence to support that statement," says Father Jim Bretzke, a former professor at the University of San Francisco who now teaches theology at Boston College. Interest in exorcism "tends to ebb and flow whenever there's something in the news cycle to provoke it — a book or a movie — but I cannot say that the demonic is on the rise."

But given the papal decree, it is true that there are more exorcists in the U.S. than before. (Thomas says he has a "confidential list" of at least 90 American exorcists, and occasionally learns of others he did not know practiced the rite.) And anecdotes suggest that there is growing number of people — possibly including the Catholics occupying positions of power in Congress and in City Hall — for whom Satan is not a metaphor or a bogeyman. He's real — and thanks to a populace less interested in the church and more occupied with New Age philosophy, he's busier than ever.

"Satan" is a relatively new arrival to the world. While the name is a Hebrew word meaning "adversary," Biblical scholars note that the word and the concept are nearly absent from the Old Testament, the part of the Bible Christians share in common with Jews.

As for demons — the word comes from the Greek daimon — the ancient Greeks, upon whose scholarship the intellectual foundation for many of our institutions is based, believed daimons were akin to spiritual forces which could be beneficial. (During his trial, before his fellow Athenians put him to death, Socrates claimed his inspiration came from a daimon he supposedly praised as a "favor of the gods" and "a marvelous gift.")

But Satan and his minions are alive, well, and kicking evil in the New Testament. One of Jesus' first miracles was casting out an evil spirit from a man and into a herd of swine. In three of the four Gospels, the Biblical chapters that deal with the life and works of Christ, Jesus goes into the desert for 40 days, where Satan offers a series of temptations, all of which Christ resists. (A final temptation, when Satan offers to take Jesus off of the cross instead of dying there to save the world, inspired a Martin Scorcese film).

The concept caught hold with the early Christians, all of whom — unless they were Jewish converts — were former pagans, worshipping gods Socrates would have recognized from the Hellenic Pantheon or following a Celtic tradition. When winning converts from among their former fellow true believers, early Christian priests denounced the spirits worshipped or feared by pagans as "demons... hostile spirits contending against the One True God," as Elaine Pagels writes in The Origin of Satan.

Whether through Satan or a lesser demon, the Catholic Church holds that evil works on the individual in one of two ways. The devil will offer temptation, enticing a person to give into pleasures of the flesh rather than of the spirit. He will whisper in your ear some misdirection, seeking to drive you to loneliness, isolation or despair. (Not every temptation comes from the devil, it should be noted; people are plenty wont to give in to "corruption of the flesh" all by themselves.)

That's "ordinary" demonic activity. "Extraordinary" demonic activity is closer to what most Americans know from Hollywood horror movies. There's "infestation," when your house or something you own is cursed, causing you any number of ills. There's "oppression," when you discover scratches on your body, signs of a physical attack. There's "obsession," when your mind is plagued with intrusive thoughts meant to drive you to suicide or despair. In the rarest of cases, he entirely takes you over — "possession," possibly as a result of a curse put on you by a friend or a family member, or from the participation of you, a family member, or even an ancestor of yours in a "satanic ritual." (Among Catholic authorities, the "satanic panic" that gripped mainstream America in the early 1990s lives on.)


About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.

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