Vatican OKs Exorcist Group: Can It Reconcile Spiritual Warfare and Social Justice?

Since their founding in 1990, the Catholic priests at the International Association of Exorcists (IAE) have operated outside of the Roman Curia, lobbying the Vatican to take exorcism more seriously and to train more exorcists. They’ve finally come in out of the cold.

The IAE’s statutes have been approved by the Congregation of Clergy, which oversees matters relating to priests and deacons not belonging to religious orders. The move represents an ongoing balancing act in the Church’s stance on exorcism. Continuing to ignore the IAE fuels conservative critiques that the Church has turned its back on its duty to fight the devil. On the other hand, even qualified endorsements of the IAE spur accusations that the Church is a superstitious institution, hostile to medical science. This balancing act has been going on at least since The Exorcist (in many ways a response to Church reforms conducted “in the spirit” of Vatican II which often downplayed the idea of direct encounters with the supernatural) hit theaters back in 1973.

The protagonist, Father Karras, is a Jesuit psychiatrist who requires overwhelming evidence before he will accept a case of demonic possession as genuine. Karras’ conflicting desires to be rational and to experience the supernatural reflected the experience of many modern Catholics. When the film inspired an international sensation (including feinting and vomiting in theaters), the Church’s response was mixed.

Jesuit reviewers in America magazine dubbed the film “sordid and sensationalistic.” However, the conservative Catholic journal Triumph and the official journal of the Vatican, Civilita Cattolica, praised the film’s spiritual message. For outsiders, the film revived critiques of Catholicism as a medieval religion peddling fear. New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael asked, “Are American Catholics willing to see their faith turned into a horror show? Are they willing to accept anything just as long as their Church comes out in a good light?”

Michael Cuneo describes how The Exorcist inspired a revival of Catholic exorcism, which were suddenly in high demand whether the Church provided any or not. This set the stage for a number of priests to receive media fame as charismatic exorcists, including IAE founder and president-for-life, Gabrielle Amorth. In 2011 Amorth, who describes The Exorcist as his favorite film, appeared at a film festival to introduce the horror film The Rite. He claims to have performed tens of thousands of exorcisms and is also a member of the Society of Saint Paul, a Catholic group known for its heavy involvement with media.

Amorth is culturally conservative and links changing social mores to an epidemic of demonic possession. In addition to homosexuality, Amorth has indicted Harry Potter novels, Ouija boards, and yoga as doorways to possession. While the media loved Amorth’s willingness to tell sensational stories of demoniacs vomiting glass, Rome kept his organization at arm’s length.

Amorth has expressed profound frustration with this and accused the Church of turning its back on its duty to perform exorcisms. In a 2006 interview he spoke bitterly about how the IAE was denied admittance to a public papal audience with John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square. In 2010 he stated vaguely that, “The devil resides in the Vatican.”

Since 1973, the Church has become increasingly friendly toward exorcism. The global spread of Pentecostal and Charismatic churches has made exorcism far more common, while the New Atheist movement has expanded the idea of “superstition” to include all supernatural beliefs. These developments have created a political climate in which the Church has little to lose and much to gain by offering exorcisms to those who seek them.

By working with groups like the IAE instead of sweeping them under the rug, the Vatican will be able to ensure that exorcisms are performed in a safe and ethical manner. It may even be possible to mitigate the dissonance between IAE’s spiritual warfare and Pope Francis’ message of social justice. Exorcist Francesco Bamonte explained, “Exorcism is a form of charity that benefits those who suffer.” Perhaps a more serious discussion of exorcism as charity could reveal that the causes of evil are both more ubiquitous and more profound than Harry Potter and Ouija boards.

Joseph Laycock is an assistant professor of religious studies at Texas State University. His forthcoming books include The Seer of Bayside: Veronica Lueken and the Struggle for Catholic Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2014) and Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic Over Role-Playing Games Says About Religion, Play, and Imagined Worlds (University of California Press, 2015).

  • Jim Reed

    The causes of spiritual evil are not Harry Potter and Ouija boards. They are more conservative than that.

  • Brian Holle

    Yes, conservatives are evil. So are liberals. So are libertarians, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Constitutionalists, smart people, and even soft-hearted grandmas. Some one once said, “Only God is good.”

  • Jim Reed

    There seems to be a lot of question about that.

  • Andrew Dowling

    “describes how The Exorcist inspired a revival of Catholic exorcism, which were suddenly in high demand whether the Church provided any or not.”

    Funny how that works out, huh. The devil must be an avid movie-goer.

  • Villabolo

    Non Compos Mentis.

  • cranefly

    Catholicism actually makes a lot more sense with “free will.” Or does it make less sense? Suddenly I’m full of existential doubt.

  • Brian Holle

    Yes, naturally. Unless you believe the one who said it.

  • Jeffrey Samuels

    Exorcism? Seriously? Hopefully it is being done by a licensed psychiatrist who understands that the ‘possessed’ individual has internal demons only, and is not actually possessed by some outside entity whose sole purpose is promote discord and ‘evil’.

  • Jim Reed

    Unless you believe the people who said it.

  • Jim Reed

    Societies that believe in demon possession will have more people who look and act demon possessed, and will have more perceived need for exorcism. On the plus side, societies that believe in divine hallucinations and reward the hallucinaters encourage a lot more of these hallucinations. When it comes to mystical experiences, non-believer socities are backward.

  • Jim ‘Prup’ Benton

    Not so fast, Jim. Non-believers tend to have their own explanation for whatever is the ‘mental misfiring’ that causes ‘visions’ and the like. Flying saucers and alien abductions are little different than demonic possession and the like, so we are not so ‘backward.’ (And if you want to include the various Right Wing delusions — not all of which are tied to religion — you could include things like the Sovereign Citizen madness, Satanic child abuse panic and the like — some of which has fooled even atheists. Then add it the various ‘spiritual but non-religious’ types and the same mystical delusions pop up — but then too many people think ‘rejecting their parents’ form of Christianity’ makes them atheists and still accept the same type of mystical thinking only ‘better disguised.’.)

  • Whiskyjack

    I’m always curious about the different teachings of the Church on evil. One line involves evil being defined as the absence of God’s goodness. This represents the other side: the personification of evil in a supernatural entity. To me, the two are incompatible.

  • Jim Reed

    Can it reconcile spiritual warfare?

    That is a good question. Before trying to answer it, we should make sure we understand what this war is against. Is it a war against people, or things, and if things then what? If it is warfare against Satan, that is a problem. War against Satan always seems like a great idea at first, but it can only lead to bigger and bigger disaster until the warriors are depleted and give up. Think about it. When did a war against Satan ever lead to anything positive?

  • Jeffrey Samuels

    excuse the snark, but has anyone ever interviewed Satan to see what the casualties were on his side? Lord knows the side of good had plenty, all of which were friendly fire.

  • Jim Reed

    I don’t think Satan was ever actually in any of these wars. By staying uninvolved Satan avoided any casualties.

  • Collin237

    A psychiatrist who understands this would realize that the so-called “exorcisms” are implanting demons, not removing them.

  • Collin237

    That’s not what they said. They said everybody is wrong about something. There are many good people. Goodness doesn’t come from any answer you have; it comes from an insistence on questioning things until you find an answer that makes sense to you — and if it stops making sense, going back to the drawing board with new questions.

    When good people see evidence that they’re wrong, they change their mind and reason anew from the evidence. When evil people see evidence that they’re wrong, they refuse to think about it and punish whoever found the evidence.

  • Jeffrey Samuels

    smart thinking on his part eh?

  • Jim Reed

    It might be those who believe in him just outsmarted themselves.

  • Brian Holle

    Yes. This is a totally open-minded crowd here that’s for sure. Totally convinced of their own 100% rightness of their own opinion.

  • joeyj1220

    Exorcisms? REALLY??? (sigh!) Let me get back to the garden to speak with the fairies and leprechauns. We’re all then flying on our winged unicorn to a party with the talking forest creatures.