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.