Spirit Daily


Problem In a Nutshell: Number of Canon Lawyers Is Way More Than the Number Of Exorcists

By Michael H. Brown

The other night I was visiting with a bishop who told me how, as a younger priest, he had once encountered a man who appeared possessed of the devil, or at least demonically infested. The man's eyes rolled back and bile frothed at the corners of his mouth when the future bishop began to pray. He had to jump on the man to hold him down, and the fellow, though very thin, had preternatural strength. On a second occasion there was an even stronger, more frightening confrontation when the priest -- pinning the man down from the back -- took a pyx that contained the Blessed Sacrament from his shirt pocket. The man (or the guttural voice coming from the man's chest) knew it was the Blessed Sacrament, even though, from the facedown position he was in, the man himself could not have seen it.

It was an interesting account not only because such stories are always interesting but because of the time in which we live.

First off, it is no longer commonplace for a bishop to discuss the existence of actual demonic manifestations. In many cases, it seems like bishops prefer a psychological explanation. Such is one reason the Church has fallen into crisis: when we don't recognize evil, we can't do much about it (even when it invades our own ranks and our own seminaries).

Recently an Irish priest named Pat Collins issued a plea for every diocese to have an expert, and the Vatican convened a course to address satanism.

"Every Catholic diocese across the island of Ireland should have a specialist who can assess possible supernatural occurrences such as 'poltergeists, hauntings and demonic infestations,'" said Father Collins -- a plea that likewise applies to other Western countries.

But as it currently stands, the Church has very little capability of handling such cases, which is confusing in that deliverance was a chief component of Christ's ministry. Fully a third of the Gospels pertain to the miracles of Jesus -- and many of those involved the casting out evil spirits, which were not very rare in those days and may have been even less rare in our own time (despite the mood of denial that has permeated the secular and religious worlds alike).

In the U.S., according to a spokesman for the Conference of Catholic Bishops, there are less than 190 priests who are officially designated as exorcists. He told me that the conference has no real figure on how many exorcists there are, but when asked if there was one per diocese, he replied: "If that."

From there, the arithmetic is simple: Since there are 196 Catholic dioceses in the U.S. (counting Eastern Rite), the figure for exorcists is almost certainly below 190 and for all we know -- since many dioceses don't have one -- perhaps even below 100.

Many dioceses share a single exorcist with neighboring dioceses.

That creates a huge dilemma, for while full-scale, levitating, head-spinning possession may be uncommon, lesser manifestations are rampant -- far too many for one exorcist, never mind less than one, to handle. 

We are well-heeled, however, when it comes to canon lawyers. Specialists in the field inform us that there are between 1,000 and 2,500 of those. Thus, we have about one fifth to one-tenth as many exorcists as we do canon lawyers! Right there is a snapshot of the crisis in our Church...

And as a result, while we have our legalities in order, evil runs rampant. Sadly, those afflicted by demons are often ignored by the official Church -- sometimes they don't even receive a response from the local chancery -- or are shuffled off to psychologists who don't acknowledge existence of the devil to begin with.

Worse, notes author Robert Abel of Denver, who specializes in deliverance, "there are a growing number of priests who don't believe in the devil."

Abel recalls a woman whose mother-in-law and two sisters-in-law were practicing the occult and when the relationship with them broke up, felt herself cursed by them -- suffering horrible night-time experiences. Often she woke in sheer terror, claims Abel, and this went on for eight years -- with a psychologist telling her that what she needed was Prozac.

No priest had come to her aid and all it took was a deliverance to cure her.

This is a shame because as Abel further points out, the Church, with its sacraments, is the most empowered agency to fight evil -- and the only one authorized to fight full-scale possession. Yet even on those days when Mass readings involve demons, priests rarely address them. "We just had to pray with her and get that stuff off of her," says Abel (and let us note here that full-scale exorcisms can only be handled by the Church; Abel was involved with deliverance prayers).

The point is that laymen increasingly have to fill in when priests don't respond, the same way we have to throw water on a fire if there are no firemen around.

Why and how did the Church stray from belief in evil?

Over time, the evil one confused our intellects, filling us with so much philosophy (much rooted in Aristotle) that we can no longer see the forest for the trees.

As Scripture says, there are those who "learn" so much that they are never able to see the truth (2 Timothy 3:7).

From Aristotle arose a new god called Reason. And to a "reasonable" person, of course, the devil is a myth.

[Bookstore resources: Abel's book is The Catholic Warrior ; see also and Prayer of the Warrior]

Feb 23, 2005

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