The Devil Makes Them Do It

CAS prof on why Catholic exorcisms are spiking


Pope Francis’s recognition of an exorcists’ group is part of a renewed Catholic interest in demonic possession. Photo Courtesy of Flickr Contributor Britpendleton

January 22, 2015
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“A modern pope gets old school on the Devil.” Those words headlined a Washington Post story last spring probing Pope Francis’ belief that Satan is active in the world. As much as he’s been hailed as a modernizing force in the church, Francis, the paper reported, “has not only dwelled far more on Satan in sermons and speeches than his recent predecessors have, but also sought to rekindle the Devil’s image as a supernatural entity with the forces of evil at his beck and call.”

And while other religions speak of demonic possession—The Dybbuck is a classic drama based on the doctrine in Judaism—the Post reported that the Vatican detects a recent resurgence of Catholic exorcisms. In June, Francis officially recognized the International Association of Exorcists (IAE), a group of priests with members in 30 countries.

But the uptick in exorcisms has proven controversial. The Post quoted a Catholic theologian who criticized Francis for trucking in superstition. More troubling, Europe has seen an increase in reported cases of exorcists who are not sanctioned by the Catholic Church abusing children believed to be possessed by witchcraft.

Is battling demons, once the topic of Hollywood movies, appropriate for the church? BU Today asked David Frankfurter, professor and chairman of the religion department at the College of Arts & Sciences. Frankfurter is a scholar of ancient Mediterranean religions whose expertise includes magical texts and popular religion.

BU Today: Were you surprised that a pope lauded for a modern outlook formally recognized an exorcists’ association?

Frankfurter: I find it fascinating and instructive. It demonstrates that, for many people in the world, exorcism is not an archaic practice but a ritual that captures modern experience quite well. This has been true for Pentecostal Christianity for decades and has led to this denomination’s surge through African, Asian, and Latin American cultures. Francis probably sees exorcism as a way to respond to anxieties about evil spirits in these cultures, too.

The IAE claims that exorcisms are surging. Why might that be the case?

Many of us in America, and probably Western Europe, might think of exorcism as a holdover from medieval times, described in the Gospels and saints’ lives, and something that the Roman Church properly abandoned in the Second Vatican Council to make itself modern. But the idea of an evil force, of Satan and his demons invading bodies and things and thereby afflicting our lives, has a very modern aspect, too. It captures anxieties about a more extreme evil in the world, anxieties that get encouraged through the global news cycle and exposure to stories of terrorism, crime, corruption, and catastrophe. Why did that guy murder his children, or that woman murder all those men? What inspires those drug cartels to behead people?

When people experience the world as not prone to ambiguous events, but really and consistently bad events, then Satan and demonology become that much more useful explanations. Of course, for many traditional cultures long familiar with local spirits (jinn, fairies, trolls, ghosts, and such), any religion’s capacity to talk seriously about spirits, even as demons, will make that religion more recognizable and familiar than one that rejects the idea of spiritual powers. That’s why Pentecostalism, for example, has become so popular.

Is the church’s interest in exorcism an insignificant issue, or do you share the concern of the Guardian newspaper report that it won’t prevent fanatics who abuse supposedly possessed people?

It is a very real concern that official and unofficial and home exorcists will employ abusive and homicidal techniques to expel demons from children and adults. Of course, church-based exorcisms, such as the Catholic rite, do carry such restraints on what can be done to the victim, but the popularization of exorcism as a means of healing inspires home-based exorcisms of unruly or whiny children. And there have been independent pastors who have gone beyond all restraints to abuse and kill victims out of the intent to expel the demon. Even in the 1991 Roman Catholic attempt to exorcise a schizophrenic teenager in Miami, televised on the show 20/20, you can see the priest jamming his metal cross into the girl’s forehead in a quite violent way.

Are the mystical or supernatural aspects of Catholicism part of its enduring appeal for many people?

In the United States and parts of Western Europe, the legacy of Protestant Christianity has made Roman Catholic rituals a source of mystery, suspicion, danger, and exotic appeal. It is this mystery and exotic appeal that inspires all the movies about exorcisms that have been made in the United States since The Exorcist in 1973. For some people in the West, it is precisely this mystical or supernatural aspect that will make Catholic exorcism an appealing “go-to” healing ritual if one feels that evil forces are invading one’s life. But in most parts of the world, the Catholic promotion of exorcism will simply give it a competitive edge with Pentecostalism in answering the needs of local cultures anxious about the modern world.

Many people, likely including some Catholics, have difficulty believing in demonic possession. While accepting it, the Vatican historically has been behind major scientific research. How do you explain that paradox?

The desire to quantify—or confirm miracles scientifically—is a phenomenon of modernity. You don’t find this kind of effort to do “scientific research” on the possessed, or on healing techniques, or on relics or icons in early Christian or medieval miracle stories. People debated which worked and which had other causes; that’s all. But today, “science” has become a discourse, a way of talking about things that seem to work. And it is a discourse that matters a lot to many people, so many people try to draw in science to “prove” religious experiences.

Scholars of religion, however, are less interested in what the Catholic Church actually comes up with in “scientifically verifying” an exorcism, or the Shroud of Turin, or a demon’s presence, than in the fact that the Church is trying to invoke science for things that really don’t lend themselves to scientific validation. That’s not to say that miracles aren’t “true,” for certainly they do have enormous truth to many people. It’s just that their truth is a religious truth, a subjective truth, compared to the scientific verification of whether an ancient bone belongs to this dinosaur or that dinosaur.

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The Devil Makes Them Do It

  • Rich Barlow

    Senior Writer

    Rich Barlow

    Rich Barlow is a senior writer at BU Today and Bostonia magazine. Perhaps the only native of Trenton, N.J., who will volunteer his birthplace without police interrogation, he graduated from Dartmouth College, spent 20 years as a small-town newspaper reporter, and is a former Boston Globe religion columnist, book reviewer, and occasional op-ed contributor. Profile

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There are 4 comments on The Devil Makes Them Do It

  1. Odd that a Catholic theologian would equate the Church’s rite of exorcism to “superstition”. I mean, why does he stop there? Some believe that “transubstantiation” and the veneration of relics are “superstitions” too. Must be fun being a Roman Catholic theologian. So many things to “poo poo” as you float by on your metaphysical cloud.

  2. It is by faith that we are saved. May God increase our faith and grant us insight into the realities of the spiritual realm. Phenomena, such as demon-possession, afflicted mankind in ancient days, as they do now, regardless of whether we witness, understand, or acknowledge them. Though the battles in the heavenlies may occur out of the sight of many, it continues to rage on. It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of Kings is to search things out.

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