Split Opens In Church Between Believers In Psychology And Those Who See Demon
An open conflict has erupted in the Church between exorcists who believe that demons can cause many maladies, including mental ones, and psychologists who all but dismiss exorcism as a product of the Middle Ages, according to a new book by Los Angeles Times reporter Tracy Wilkinson.
The volume, entitled The Vatican's Exorcists, marshals a highly secular and often skeptical view of exorcisms at the same time that it presents fascinating facts on priests who administer the rite in places like Rome and those who have suffered from demonic oppression.
The conflict -- psychology versus demonology -- has penetrated the Vatican itself, with the Pope openly endorsing a recent meeting of exorcists while a congregation devoted to the liturgy has declined to officially recognize a group of exorcists.
At the center of the debate is Rome's "chief" exorcist, Father Gabriele Amorth, who has faced off against organizations such as the Italian Society of Psychopathology. The society scoffs at spiritual explanations for emotional and other disturbances, believing that medication can do more than deliverance. Indeed, at a recent conference, the world's largest pharmaceutical firms had booths to hawk their pills for depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia, notes Wilkinson.
One of the lectures: "Exorcism versus Therapy."
The question: has psychology covered over evil afflictions with contrived clinical names, or are some exorcists mislabeling psychological abnormalities as demonic infestations?
While conservatives tend to believe that the influence of demons has been underestimated, liberals or those of a psychological bent decry those who see evil spirits "under every rock" (in the common cliche).
"I would get scared if I had seminary students who aspired to be exorcists," said one Jesuit, Father Gerald O'Collins, at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. "[The priesthood] should be about helping old and young, administering the sacraments, teaching the Word of God, and not going about exorcising demons."
Counters Monsignor Andrea Gemma of Isernia, a bishop who is also an exorcist: "The sarcastic skepticism among the world's pseudo-thinkers, and even among some Christians and religious teachers, is the fruit of disinformation and, therefore, superficiality, which becomes the very basis for the victory that the Evil One wishes to obtain, covered in silence. Some laugh at it. They mock it and think it's been blown out of proportion."
"A snapshot of the ambivalence of the Church toward demonic possession and exorcism can be seen in the foreward Father Benedict J. Groeschel wrote to the English language translation of [exorcist] Father Amorth's first book," writes Wilkinson. "As one reviewer put it, it was one of the most [lukewarm] endorsements known to the publishing world. A foreword normally tells people to read the book; Groeschel, a Franciscan priest with a doctorate in psychology from Columbia University, opens by admitting that he initially declined the request to write the foreward."
Most in the Church acknowledge both demonism and psychological illness as factors in oppression, depression, and anxiety. Indeed, the very definition of the word "demon" comes from the classical Greek daimon or daimnion, which means "mad."
But it is the degree to which a spiritual influence is involved that has caused the split. Father Amorth is criticized by intellectuals for seeing demonic influence in everything from horoscopes and the Ouija board to yoga and Harry Potter at the same time that the skeptics are castigated for ignoring a growing danger to the flock. In fact, a Ouija board figured into the famous case of possession portrayed in The Exorcist.
While Jesus taught that many afflictions, including brain disorders such as epilepsy, could be the result of a possessing entity, by the eighteenth century the exorcism rite began to fall out of favor. That came in the wake of the "Enlightenment" and "Age of Rationalism," which were accented by scientific and medical advances and eventually the field of psychology -- which many argue is not a science at all, but a philosophy.
At the same time that psychology is under increasing question, the number of exorcists -- at least in Italy -- is growing. Where there were only twenty exorcists in Italy in 1986, notes the book, today there are approximately 350.
In countries such as the U.S. and Canada, however, shortages of exorcists are dire -- largely because those nations are steeped in psychology, which has pinned clinical names on manifestations that for centuries were seen as having a spiritual component.
But a resurgence in exorcisms began during the pontificate of John Paul II -- who not only believed in the reality of possession but personally conducted at least several exorcisms. Although the current Pope, Benedict XVI, is widely viewed as more academic, rationalistic, and far less mystical than his predecessor, he chose a public audience during the first months of his papacy to praise a group of exorcists meeting in the Umbria region under the guidance of Father Amorth, notes the book.
At the other end of the spectrum is the Congregation for Divine Worship, which "disapproves of Amorth, according to a senior official there," writes Wilkinson -- indicating a serious divergence in Church thinking.
The basic rite of exorcism was penned in 1614 and remained unchanged for nearly four centuries. Only in 1999 was a new version -- missing some of the original verbiage -- issued under the title of "De Exorcismus et Supplication-ibus Quibusdam." Father Amorth argues that it watered the rite down. The new document formalized the requirement that specific exorcisms be authorized only by a bishop. Its delayed publication so long after the Council indicates, says the author, how unimportant exorcism is to many in the Church.
While the devil fell out of fashion after the Age of Reason, the author notes, and again after Vatican II, the Church under John Paul II taught that the devil is a "real and dangerous presence."
The late Pope's beliefs were buttressed by his own run-ins with possession. As Wilkinson recounts, a bishop brought a woman named Francesca before the Pope and upon seeing him, she screamed and convulsed, returning to normal only when the Pope said, "Tomorrow I will say Mass for you."
A year later, the woman was calm, happy, and expecting a child.
In another case, a 19-year-old from the Italian town of Monza arrived for the Pope's public audience in Saint Peter's Square and "burst into shouts, spewed vulgarities, and writhed violently" when John Paul II appeared. Violent reactions in the face of holiness are commonly reported.
Difficult for the psychologists to explain have been the myriad of cases in which strange objects (especially pins) have been vomited; furniture has levitated; holy objects have been thrown or broken; a foreign tongue unknown to the victim is spoken (sometimes an ancient one); there is superhuman strength; and there is a radical aversion to the liturgy.
Results are seen with use of stoles, blessed salt, Holy Water, the Crucifix, and Scripture. Places too have to be exorcised. Many develop demonic problems after exposure to such occult practices as fortunetelling and seances, warn exorcists.
Despite such evidence, psychologists have sought to label demonic infestations with such terms as "dissociation," "neurosis," and "schizophrenia." More recently, cases have been cloaked with the idea of "bipolar" disorder, and also "multiple personality syndrome" -- in which several and even dozens of different personalities exist in a person and which sound more like what the Bible described as demons that were "legion."
Some assert that exorcism itself is simply a form of hypnotism that suggests to the "possessed" to act demonized.
Those who have suffered complain, however, that psychology's alternate method left them suffering and showing no progress in fighting what plagued them.
"I tell them to go to their own bishop, but they often tell me that those who have been appointed exorcists are the first ones who don't believe it," complains Bishop Gemma of Isernia.
In reality, indicate exorcists, infestations have intensified.
"Liberation these days is taking much longer, and there are more cases," says an exorcist named Father Gabriele Nanni. "We don't understand why. Is it a lack of faith in ourselves? In the Church? In the priests? We have been lowering our guard."
"A good hypnotist can make a patient bark like a dog," argue some researchers. Unintentionally, an exorcist makes the subject talk like the devil.
"Most -- but not all -- psychiatrists, psychologists, and other scientists dismiss demonic possession as a case of suggestible people acting on subconscious impulses or following the cues of a priest," writes the author.
Conferences at which psychologists denounce exorcism have increased along with the rise in European exorcists.
Bark like a dog?
"They always said it depends on you, on your mentality, the traumas you've had," complained one woman who was afflicted by an evil spirit and had tried a number of psychologists before getting relief from exorcism. "They always look at the material, not the spiritual. They always wanted to give me materialistic explanations, and it stopped there. The more we talked about it, the worse I got. They could not give me an explanation for what was happening."
Along with the mental distress, notes Wilkinson, the woman was accident prone; her home burned down and she wrecked a car -- "incidents she later came to understand were the work of the devil."
Devil Especially Hates Prayers In Latin, Says A Priest Known As 'Rome's Exorcist
A secular book about exorcism says that one thing rankles demons.
"The devil doesn't like Latin," writes Tracy Wilkinson in The Vatican's Exorcists. "That is one of the first things I learned from Father Gabriele Amorth, long known as Rome's chief exorcist, even though that has never been his formal title.
"Now past the age of eighty, Father Amorth has dedicated the last decades of his life to regaining a measure of respectability for exorcism. Despite his advancing age, he continues to perform the rite several times a week at his office in Rome.
"Scores of people seek him out. He prefers to use Latin when he conducts exorcisms, he says, because it is most effective in challenging the devil."
That tidbit comes to us at a time when Benedict XVI is ready to loosen restrictions on Latin Mass. It's in the new book -- a secular and sometimes skeptical but fascinating glimpse into the world of Italian priests who see their job as casting out demons.
While the numbers dwindle in countries like the Canada, France, and the U.S., exorcists are on the rise on the Vatican's home turf -- thanks largely to priests such as Father Amorth.
In Italy the number of exorcists has grown tenfold in the past decade, according to the priest (who is himself author of two bestsellers, An Exorcist Tells His Story and An Exorcist: More Stories). Credit is also due to the legacy of John Paul II -- who made the notion of exorcism, which was founded by Jesus Himself, respectable again.
Father Amorth was born in Modena in northern Italy and has been a priest since 1954. In 1986 he began performing exorcisms under the tutelage of the vicar for Rome.
According to Wilkinson, Father Amorth accepted the task "after praying to the Virgin Mary for her steadfast guidance and protection."
"On the walls of Amorth's exorcism chamber, eight Crucifixes and pictures of the Madonna are hanging, plus a picture of Saint Michael the Archangel," says the book. "A two-foot-high statue of the Virgin Mary, the Madonna of Fatima, sits on a corner table.
"There are also pictures of the late Pope John Paul II; the popular saint Padre Pio; Amorth's mentor, Father Candido; and Father Giacomo Alberione, the founder of the Society of Saint Paul Congregation."
Father Amorth them "my protectors," adding that "the more recent addition of John Paul's has been especially effective and helpful."
"The demons become very agitated at his presence," Father Amorth says of the late Pope -- who himself performed several exorcisms during his pontificate and warned of the rise of dark forces both in 1977 and then in 2005 just days before he lapsed in his final bout with illness.
How is exorcism done? There is the Crucifix. There is the Holy Water. There are the ritual prayers. Many times, those afflicted have to come back on a regular basis -- the process a gradual one.
In Father Amorth's appointment book, women outnumber men by three to one. That is perhaps because they are more in tune with the spiritual, says the exorcist, or because they are special targets as the descendants of Eve.
The very word "hysteria" -- so often seen in the possessed -- comes from the Greek word hyster for womb. Greeks believed it was caused by abnormalities in the uterus.
"I maintain that in part, the reason is because women are the ones who do the most praying," says the priest. "Another reason is women are more inclined to approach a priest than are men, in case of need."
In some cases, say other exorcists, the devil attempts to mask possession as insanity. This sets up conflict with the far newer practice of psychology -- which looks down on exorcism as the psychiatrist's couch has replaced the confessional.
"An exorcism is the residue of a medieval practice completely devoid of any foundation in reason," the book quotes Sergio Moravia, a philosopher at the University of Florence, as saying. "I don't think it's crazy. It's worse."
Exorcists counter that psychological diagnoses such as "multiple personality" and "schizophrenia" are clinical covers for an infestation.
That opinion is shared by the many who have sought the services of Father Amorth -- finding relief when the devil was cast away after years of frustration at the hands of psychiatrists who saw their problems so differently.
Blessed salt and Holy Water are often used not just by the exorcists themselves, but by those who have been exorcised -- to stave off further disturbances.
Extraordinary strength, preternatural knowledge, speaking in foreign tongues unknown to the victim, vomiting of strange objects, and violent aversion to holy objects make pure psychological explanations suspect in strong cases.
Prayer, of course, also chases the devil and his manifestations away -- apparently, Latin in particular.
Bishop Andrea Gemma of Isernia -- who himself performs exorcisms -- ascribes the Church's move from Latin as part of a global plot to undermine Christianity.
"The devil is happy with the near-disappearance of Latin," said the bishop.
Does exorcism mask psychological illness with the supernatural, or is psychology itself a ruse, at least in certain instances, to prevent deliverance?
We have only to study the ministry of Jesus to know the answer.
[resources: The Vatican's Exorcists, An Exorcist Tells His Story, and An Exorcist: More Stories]
[see previous story]
originally published as vaticanexorcist 2
[see also: Love God and transcend demons]
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