The Vatican’s Exorcists

You may have thought exorcisms were things of the past. But Tracy Wilkinson’s The Vatican’s Exorcists (2007) shows they are not. In fact, they are one of the Catholic Church’s major areas of growth. Wilkinson reports that in Italy, the focus of her research, the number of certified exorcists grew from 20 to 350 in just twenty years. Furthermore, this failed to meet demand, causing a booming market in unauthorized exorcisms.

Exorcisms are not just the province of a lunatic fringe. The sainted Pope John Paul II not only performed exorcisms, he authorized a new Church manual for exorcism. Pope Benedict reinforced his views, and Pope Francis hosted a large convention of exorcists and officially sanctioned the International Association of Exorcists. While you may not hear much about it, the Church strongly supports exorcism.

But as Wilkinson makes clear, these are not the exorcisms you’ve read about in the gospels. She describes many ways that modern exorcisms differ from those of Jesus and the apostles. But she makes almost no attempt to investigate the reasons for these differences.

Wilkinson’s primary informant was Father Gabriele Amorth, known as Rome’s exorcist. He founded the International Association of Exorcists, recently blessed by Pope Francis. He has also developed new techniques for exorcism, such as beginning the exorcism by having the possessed confess their sins.

The two most striking changes in modern exorcisms are that first, physical ailments are excluded. Jesus made his mark by healing the blind and the lame, but modern exorcists basically limit themselves to what appears to be psychological problems. In fact, the revised exorcism manual states that exorcists should first rule out medical problems. But even popes occasionally try their hand at physical problems, though there are no reports of success.

The second striking difference is the length of the “treatment” period. Jesus and the apostles simply commanded the demons to leave, and they left immediately, thus curing the victim. Even on the few occasions when Jesus used his spittle or some other technique, the cure was essentially immediate. But modern exorcisms take a good deal of time. One case was going on for 16 years. I’m sure some exorcisms are one-shot, but Wilkinson doesn’t mention them.

Exorcism is one of the very few areas in which the Catholic Church has invested time and money in research and development. It has done so for many centuries. Yet the upshot of all these efforts is an incredible loss of effectiveness and productivity. They are no longer capable of dealing with the physical problems that Jesus and the apostles dealt with routinely. And their impact on “psychological” problems is quite limited. Yet they seem oblivious to these failures, and in fact boast of their success.

Has the Holy Spirit become impotent? No. The hundreds of new saints created by John Paul II created thousands of miracles, nearly all of which were physical healings. For example, Mother Teresa was supposedly responsible for chasing a case of cancer into remission. Obviously the Holy Spirit is still capable of performing such healings. While medical science has made great advances in treating cancer, it still could use help. It would be great if the Church could get the Holy Spirit to pitch in. I have little doubt that if the Jesus depicted in the gospels were alive today, he’d be curing cancer.

But somehow today’s exorcists no longer seem capable of recruiting the aid of the Holy Spirit, at least not in a very significant way. What happened? Even the sainted John Paul II was unable to summons the Spirit. Father Amorth reported a case where John Paul spent a half hour trying to cure one of his cases. He failed: “the next day, the woman said to [Amorth] in a deep, booming voice, ‘Not even the pope was able to defeat me.’”

Furthermore, Satan seems far more cooperative than he used to be. The victims of possession described by Wilkinson voluntarily seek out the help of an exorcist. In the gospels, while those with physical ailments often approached Jesus and the apostles, people suffering from psychological problems did not. In one case, Matthew said these possessed were “so violent that no one dared pass that way” (8:28ff). Of another, Mark 5:15 said, “Nobody could control him any longer: even chains were useless.” Yet we are told that today’s possessed not only seek out exorcists, they voluntarily confess their sins. Most non-possessed Catholics refuse to confess. Given that these patients believe in the efficacy of exorcism, you would expect better results. I suspect that a sugar pill, perhaps with a chaser of holy water, would be at least as effective.

The real miracle of today’s exorcisms is that the results are so poor, yet the faithful are oblivious. In fact, they are dazzled by these so-called miracles. They have a wondrous appetite and capacity for bullshit.