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

Wednesday, Mar 9 2016
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While alive and well in the Church, modern medicine isn't quite sure what to do about exorcism, whose subjects almost always seem to suffer from an affliction in the Diagnostical and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (in which there's also an entry for "treatment-resistant psychosis," the medical diagnosis most in line with "demonic possession.")

The American Psychiatry Association "has no official position" on the rite, according to a spokeswoman, who declined to speak further. Representatives from two respected California schools of professional psychology declined to speak on the record with SF Weekly, and no expert at either school would agree to an interview. Some clinicians have training in this area, "but believe speaking about publicly could jeopardize their reputation," said one representative from an accredited institution, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The mix of religious belief with scientific training causes a conflict for some."

And Angela Alioto is a rarity among prominent local Catholics willing to speak about their beliefs in exorcism.

Through a spokesman, the most prominent Catholic in San Francisco city government, District 2 Supervisor Mark Farrell — who has publicly declared himself a "proud" and "practicing Catholic" — declined to comment for this story.

Representatives for Nancy Pelosi — the Democratic Minority leader and a staunch Catholic who appears in Congress on Ash Wednesday with the black markings still on her forehead — did not respond to a request for comment.

(Gov. Jerry Brown is nominally Catholic — as a young man, he studied to become a Catholic priest before dropping out of the seminary — but has recently angered the Church for signing legislation allowing doctor-assisted suicide.)

Whether they believe in him or not, Americans are certainly fascinated with the devil and the occult. In Wisconsin, a pair of pre-teen girls were arrested in 2014 for the attempted murder of their friend, who they tried to sacrifice, they told police, to win favor from The Slender Man, a bogeyman created on the Internet in 2009. (One of the girls has been declared incompetent to stand trial following a diagnosis of schizophrenia, a common affliction suffered by exorcism-seekers.) Satanic possession is the subject of an upcoming documentary produced by Zak Bagans, the muscular, bro-like host of the Travel Channel's Ghost Adventures. "The devil looks bad in this," said Father Michael Maginot, the Catholic priest who participated in the documentary and served as exorcist, in an interview earlier this year with the National Catholic Register. "He loses a lot of mystique." (Bagans, himself a Catholic, says that he came down with a "mysterious illness" following filming, according to Register writer Patti Armstrong.)

Americans in general are becoming less rational in their views. Seventy-eight percent of Americans believe in angels, and 70 percent believe in the devil, according to Gallup polls conducted a decade ago, up from 56 and 54 percent, respectively, in previous decades. If the devil is real, why wouldn't he be active?

This credulity also helps the church, which, despite a constant numer of Americans who say they are Catholic, has suffered through the twin crises of declining church attendance — 41 percent of "Catholics" no longer adhere to the faith, a Pew poll released last shows — and the lingering effects of the Church's sex abuse scandal.

For the church, which first saw attendance begin to drop following the "modernizing" reforms (allowing lay people greater roles in the church, saying Mass in English rather than Latin) instituted after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, exorcism is a self-supporting feedback loop.

The more people who exit the church and pursue New Age philosophies — what hard-core priests like Father Amorth would call the occult — means more demonic activity. That requires exorcists — and the best way for someone who has recovered from demonic activity, and to ensure Satan does not return, is to pray, attend Church, and receive Communion. In other words, to be a faithful and devout Catholic — which could mean that those Catholics who are left are becoming more extreme in their views.

When Pope Francis talks about the devil working in the world, he is speaking literally. And when Amorth, the 90-year old "dean of the exorcists," says that yoga and Harry Potter are satanic, he is not speaking metaphorically. When church leaders speak, people still listen. If the church says exorcism is real, for now, people will seek it out.

Not every Thursday night healing Mass at Immaculate Conception goes smoothly. A few weeks ago, one of the Mass's attendees, upon receiving Father Lauriola's blessing, fell to the floor and went comatose. She was possessed — possibly. After a few minutes went by and she could not be revived, an ambulance had to be called. She was taken to UCSF Medical Center, where she awoke and started talking normally. She denied medical treatment, and walked away. (She still attends Mass from time to time.)

"Some people come here for different reasons," Lauriola says in an interview, his voice soft, a live-and-let-live smile on his round, friendly face. These days, Lauriola no longer drives, so if someone can't visit him, he'll hear them out or pray with them via Skype.

"People's faith is disappearing."

When asked where he sees the devil most at work in the world, he does not blame pop culture or pornography. Instead, he gives an answer most San Francisco progressive activists would agree with: money. "It creates so many divisions — it splits apart families," he says, his smile fading.

Believing in exorcism requires faith on multiple levels: belief in God and in the devil, belief that a priest can help you. For doubters, there's ample external reinforcement in the power of suggestion, which is strongest when felt in a group setting like the church.

The night before I met with Lauriola in his office, I attended my third healing Mass in a row. (I was raised Catholic but haven't been to Mass with any regularity for 15 years.) During the prayer circle at the end of the ceremony, Lauriola noticed me hovering at the outskirts. "Did you receive the blessing?" he asked. I tried to remind him of our meeting the next day, but he seemed not to notice. He beckoned me forward — and, urged on by the 20 or so people around me, I couldn't refuse.


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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