The Exorcist Hotline and the Increase in Possession Cases

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Inside of the Roman Catholic Church in Újkér

Inside of the Roman Catholic Church in Újkér (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At is an article on the Roman Catholic Church setting up an exorcist hotline because of high demand. I am old enough to remember the uproar about the movie, The Exorcist, when it was released in 1973. It was only a few years ago when it was re-released that I watched the entire movie, which was quite good, but I enjoyed William Peter Blatty’s book even more. The Exorcism of Emily Rose was also a fine movie that explored the tension between belief and unbelief. More recently, M. Night Shayamalin’s movie, Devil, offered a twist similar to that found in Blatty’s writings—that if demons exist, this means a spiritual world exists, and thus God is more likely to exist than not. The argument as such is weak, but if demons exist and their existence could be verified, it would remove a major obstacle in this materialistic world to belief in God.

The Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Anglican Church, and several Protestant (especially Pentecostal) bodies practice exorcism. Sometimes safeguards are ignored, especially with the small Protestant groups who do not have centuries of tradition that set up careful guidelines on when and to whom an exorcism is given. Organic causes of a person’s symptoms must be ruled out as well as mental illness. Such judgments must not be made quickly and without adequate empirical evidence from competent sources such as neurologists, psychiatrists, and psychologists.

Now I believe that while humans are quite capable of the worst evils without demons existing, I do take the unified tradition of both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy (as well as most traditional Anglicanism) and accept their existence. Given the assumption that demons exist, why has the incidence of demon possession that passes the rigorous tests of the Catholic Church increased rapidly in the last twenty years?

Rebellion against authority due to pride is the primal sin, as St. Augustine (354-430) recognized. Beginning with Descartes “I think, therefore I am,” modern man has turned increasingly to the self and away from tradition and external authority. Despite its anti-authoritarian and radically individualistic nature, American society was an anomaly in the Western world due to the influence of the Second Great Awakening. Religion grew in the United States until 1965, and after that there has been a continual decline of religious participation and in weekly church attendance. After the 1962 Port Huron meeting with Tom Hayden and the leaders of the “New Left,” American society began to rapidly change in 1964 (reflecting a change that had occurred by the 1920s in Europe). Sexual freedom, the acceptance of abortion, and later, equal rights for homosexuals, became mantras of the New Left. Mr. Hayden wanted to take over college and university campuses—and he succeeded. Today, much of the academy is staffed by “tenured radicals.” Crime rose rapidly, families began to fall apart, and the divorce rate increased. Abortion was legalized in 1973, another byproduct of the 1960s generation, and by 1969, American society had fundamentally changed from the way it was in 1963. There were enough traditionalist around to pull society from the brink of disintegration in the 1980s, but they only slowed the inevitable moral decline. Now the world is upside down, with good being called evil and evil labeled as good. I often wonder if the radicals of the 1960s generation, the New Left, the New Marxists—were influenced by demonic activity, not in the sense of demonic possession, but in the sense of falling into the demonic view that all tradition is evil, that Christianity is evil, and that murdering the unborn, legalizing physician-assisted suicide, and homosexual marriage are good. The sheer malignant hatred of some of the “gay rights advocates” may indicate demonic influence or even something close to possession in some cases. In a world in which “the center cannot hold” (Yeats), people lose a sense of identity, having been stripped of traditional identity through a radically individualistic, pleasure-oriented society that leaves them stripped bare of belief in the transcendent. They are empty inside, filled with anomie, and something will come in to fill that gap. Sometimes what comes in may be a demon. Thus the higher rate of demonic possession, both in the United States and in Europe, may be due to empty people, shells of personality who only wish to “shop until they drop.” As Jesus said, an empty house is a prime target for demonic attack. Empty, lonely people seeking their next pleasure-burst, having abortions when the birth control does not work, engaging in a perversion of the natural order by same sex marriage, trying to alter nature itself by their prideful acts, may be the perfect opportunity for an evil being to not only tempt, but also to possess. The rising rate of demonic possession is due to a systematic rejection of God in both European and in American society. Unless there is a fundamental change in world view, the number and severity of attacks may rise so high that the situation will become unmanageable—then more than an “exorcist hotline” will be needed to help those who are possessed.

Mixed Feelings about “The Exorcist Files”

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A woodcut from 1598 shows an exorcism performe...

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The Discovery Channel will be premiering a series, The Exorcist Files, which will consist of dramatizations of actual exorcisms conducted by the Roman Catholic Church as well as commentaries from both exorcists and theologians. Depending on how the program is presented, such a series can have both good and bad aspects. On the good side, the series may convince some people that a spiritual world exists. Open-minded agnostics may read further about the phenomenon of exorcism and come to believe in God, a necessary preamble to the Christian faith. This is probably the motivation the Vatican had in cooperating with the series producers. In a radically secular society, it is sometimes necessary to convince people that the world is more than a space time matter-energy framework.  Also, if the exorcists are shown to be successful, this will reveal the Roman Catholic Church’s ability through those in Holy Orders to expel demons in the name of Jesus Christ.  People curious about the ancient churches’ (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican) use of exorcism may be converted to those bodies–and others may find conservative Protestant groups more amenable. Another positive effect could be that people believe in the reality of evil and will take its threat more seriously.

Overall I believe that the positives outweigh the negatives, but there are negatives. Some people who watch the series may falsely believe that Satan‘s influence or demonic influence in temptation lessens one’s responsibility for sin. This is false; even if one source of temptation is demonic influence, an individual always has free will to resist the temptation and is responsible for the sin if he doesn’t resist. Another danger is that individuals will become so fascinated by demonology that they will make it an idol that dominates their lives and interferes with their relationship with God. Others may be so attracted to demonology that they are drawn into the darker aspects of the occult. However, these dangers pale in light of the massive secularization, first of Europe from the 1789 French Revolution onward, and the United States today, where regular church attendance has dropped into the high 30% range and where there is a growing movement toward agnosticism and toward outright atheism. If The Exorcist Files can do anything to reverse such secularization, then more power to it.

A Shortage of Exorcists

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Painting of Father General Saint Francis Borgi...

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At is an article concerning the shortage of exorcists in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. Apparently a number of dioceses have reported a need for more bishops and priests trained in exorcism. Why is there such a demand?

A skeptic might answer that superstition is spreading throughout the U. S. and a greater number of exorcisms is evidence of increased credulity. Such a skeptic might also claim that exorcisms are risky because they are a form of malpractice in treating those who are really mentally ill.

Another option is that demons (fallen angels) not only exist in reality, but that they can also possess a person who is spiritually vulnerable or who invites the demon in either by corruption of character or by intentional or unintentional invitation. Those who saw the original version of the movie The Exorcist may remember that Regan, the possessed child, became possessed after playing with an Ouija Board, in which the demon pretended to be a playmate and called himself “Captain Howdy.” Some individuals believe that using an Ouija Board, or even using other forms of automatic writing, invite entities in, and that not all of those entities are friendly.

There is also the possibility that, with God’s permission, a demon could possess the body of a good person, as was the case in the movie, The Exorcism of Emily Rose. The idea was that if Emily Rose manifested the demon in such a way that people could not deny its existence, materialists would be open to the possibility of a spiritual world that is beyond the material. And that opens the possibility not only to the existence of demons, but to the existence of God. I do not know if the priests involved in the “real Emily Rose case,” the exorcism of Anneliese Michel, had such an end in mind. It seems to me that they sincerely tried to help her, but unfortunately she died of dehydration and starvation during the exorcism.

Why does there seem to be an increase of apparent demonic activity in the U. S.? I believe it is because the United States is becoming more and more a “Me! Me! Me!” society. Selfishness and pride are the primal sins, and they are always destructive. Humans are naturally social animals, and attitudes that harm family and other social relationships can be one causal factor in mental illness. Another possibility, which is a live option for me, is that the self-centered attitude of many Americans is a way of inviting demons into their lives in a more direct way. If that is the case, and I believe that it is, then more Americans are becoming possessed by demons–literally. Does that mean that all exorcism cases are of the demonically possessed rather than of the mentally ill? Of course not–in my judgment, Anneliese Michel, for example, suffered from mental illness and was not truly possessed. But having talked to priests who have extensive experience with exorcisms (and could not mention specific cases but referred in general to the things they had witnessed), priest whom I trust, I believe that some exorcisms succeed in expelling a real demon (for you philosophers, I do mean “ontologically real,” literally) from a possessed person.

Christians should not dwell on fears of being possessed, but should focus their lives on becoming Christlike with the help of God’s grace. As for unbelievers, it may be that God is allowing demonic activity to show, as William Peter Blatty tried to show through his novel The Exorcist, that there is a spiritual realm. In an ironic way, then, demon possession can result in bringing a nonbeliever or a doubter closer to Christian faith.