Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Reinvigorating That Ole Time Religion By Restoring The Emphasis On That Ole Time Adversary

This image of the Roman Catholic priesthood still sells, and that most likely has a great deal to do with the upcoming conference on exorcism for the USCCB.

Fr. Richard McBrien's latest post for the National Catholic Reporter will surely generate a fascinating debate between progressives and traditionalists. The USCCB is sponsoring a conference on exorcism for bishops or others they have assigned to this field. Fr. McBrien is a bit of a sceptic as the following excerpt show:

In a letter dated May 18 of this year and addressed to "Eminences" and "Excellencies" of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Thomas Paprocki, self-described as "Bishop Designate of Springfield in Illinois," announced that the bishops' Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance, of which Paprocki is chairman, is sponsoring a special Conference on the Liturgical and Pastoral Practice of Exorcism, to be held in Baltimore in early November, just before the bishops' semiannual meeting.

Those with a deep interest in Catholic issues will recognize immediately how pertinent and even urgent this conference will be, given the present state of the church and the world, what with the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the tragic oil spill and loss of 11 lives in the Gulf of Mexico. (Actually it is very important, but more on that after the break.)

For those less engaged in religious matters, an exorcism is an act by which an evil spirit is expelled from a person who is demonically possessed. The act also has a less dramatic function in the baptism of adults: when candidates are enrolled in the order of catechumens, during the period of the catechumenate itself, and during the three "scrutinies" that take place on the third, fourth and fifth Sundays of Lent, prior to the catechumens' baptism at the Easter Vigil.

The letter from Paprocki advises, "The conference is open to bishops and those priests or officials whom a bishop wishes to designate to attend," including those whom bishops have authorized to perform exorcisms, evidently apart from the sacrament of baptism.
However, there is one session open only to bishops. One can only speculate what sort of topics will be addressed in this closed session.

"The conference will address not only the theological and scriptural foundations of the rite of exorcism," the letter continues, "but it will also provide the necessary, practical insights into the many liturgical, canonical and pastoral issues associated with exorcisms and the church's battle against the demonic presence in the world and the lives of the Christian faithful."


What I find to be of note is this:

The session designated for bishops only (in italics), on the second afternoon of the two-day conference, will present and discuss "matters of special interest to bishops related to the phenomenon of evil and the use of the rite of exorcism."

I wonder if one of those special matters might be that one indicator of the relevance of traditional religious belief in a given culture is the level of belief in hell and external agents of evil. When folks stop believing in hell and the influence of Satan, they lose a great deal of their motivation for engaging in religious practice. One could make a serious case for the notion that the historic glue which held Catholicism's place in Western culture was not the Good News of Jesus, but the bad news about hell and it's legions of demons. Fear sells and you can buy or barter your way out of hell, but love is free and heaven can't be bought.

I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if the closed door session doesn't revolve around ways to make the devil 'real' again, and not necessarily how to exorcise demons. I imagine Paprocki's first job will be to convince a lot of his brother bishops that the devil is real, and he will probably do that by enlisting both the aid of mental health professionals, and exorcists who have experienced cases in which strange stuff happened and exorcism worked to stop the strange stuff. Paprocki will have to convince as many bishops as he can that there really is something going on and the traditional Church approach is both therapeutically effective and part of the truth of human history. Exorcism still sells and it's really scary stuff to boot. He might also feel it important to mention that the exorcist/priest is the last most powerful selling card for the priesthood, and one which still transcends the abuse scandal.

I would love to be a fly on the wall for this special session. I bet it would be like attending a GM sales conference in which dealers were evangelized to push traditional GM products like Cadillac and Corvette because it reconnects people to the dreams of their youth. In the case of exorcism it's attempting to sell people on reconnecting to the fears of their youth. But done correctly, it could still be really effective. There's enough video and other visual aids out there to help the process and besides, this world view is still prevalent in many cultures. It really is a pastoral issue. (Besides it's not unheard of for GM dealers to sell GM products and drive a BMW.)

And that's where I run into problems. Exorcism is a pastoral and at times psychological issue. There are behaviors and abilities some people exhibit which seem to be beyond their control and do respond to various forms of exorcism. They can also respond very well to modern psychotropic drugs, at least in terms of symptom reduction. Traditional religions say the operative paradigm is external supernatural influences. Modern psychiatric medicine says it's screwed up brain chemistry or pathological neurophysiology. Some therapeutic modalities postulate it's a product of a disconnect in spirit/mind/body integration and exclusively focusing on any of these areas will not lead to permanent successful outcomes. In other words, it may be a combination of both with symptomology manifesting in all areas of the mind body construct.

That these kinds cases exist is usually not disputed--just the number of cases. What's also not disputed is the higher the fear factor, the more intense the manifestation of symptoms. There does seem to be a sort of feedback loop. The stories in the New Testament in which Jesus casts out demons all have the same thing in common. Jesus acts as if this phenomenon is about as fear filling as dealing with bunions and the possessing demon about as powerful as a mosquito.

He seems to know what these spirits are and what they are about and it doesn't particularly intimidate him any more than we are necessarily intimidated by other predators who share our world with us. Jesus even tells the Apostles that some of these predators are more difficult to deal with than others and take more effort. Kind of like dealing with a predatory tiger is more difficult than dealing with a scavenging hyena. The only difference is these predators feed on emotional energy like fear, and not actual flesh. They can kill because they exhaust the body by maintaining a ramped up energy cycle of fear. A non fear filled state neutralizes their effect every bit as effectively as a well placed bullet neutralizes a predatory tiger. Trouble is in the modern world we no longer have an effective intellectual paradigm to control the fear when faced with non ordinary manifestations of reality. Way out on the fringes of scientific theory, we may just be getting there.

Bishop Paprocki will most likely emphasize the traditional Catholic approach because in my opinion fear of hell and Satan has been the singular belief structure that has kept Catholicism flourishing for a long long time. Fear so sells so much better than love and whether a bishop actually believes in Satan and hell will be irrelevant to the fact the Vatican is 'hell' bent on reinforcing this traditional fear paradigm. The Vatican would be saying: "We don't care if you drive a BMW, but we will insist you sell GM."

Without this atavistic fear of hell many aspects of doctrinal Catholicism become irrelevant. Exorcise a personal fear of hell and you also exorcise a lot of the motivation to maintain belief in a whole host of other Catholic doctrine. It does however, also free one to begin to understand just what Jesus actually was on about with all His talk of love and peace and joy. A world full of love and peace and joy is also a world which can't support the energy predators of either the human or the supernatural kind. I'm all for that kind of 'global warming'.


  1. You know, I always was suspicious of anyone who began any religious talk with talk of the devil,(various denomination's missionaries et al.)I also always found it curious that the baptismal formula they ask us to recite at mass begins with, "Do you reject Satan?"

  2. Great post Colleen and I loved the last line about "global warming."

    This is a fascinating subject as the fear of the devil was very much prevalent in my traditional Catholic background and it truly left me lame and crippled in many respects. I struggled with tremendous fear of the unseen ugly devils for many years, beginning in my childhood. There were many nights I went to bed full of fear. The only antidote I have found to such fear was in focusing on the good and not the evil. It took me a very long time though to confront the fear and get over it.

    Children enculturated and indoctrinated to a belief in devils, of the kind that one has no control over at all, even prayer to God, is an evil teaching in itself, in my opinion, because it overrides the importance of God, the existence of love, in whom our religion says we are to love with our entire mind, body and spirit.

    This is scary stuff for the Bishops to be dabbling in and it will puff up the "powers" of the clerical priesthood, but it is truly a lame attempt at care for people who may be mentally ill, not demonically possessed. This is very old energy that they are resurrecting, attempting to anyway. My instinct tells me to run away from these Bishops and as far away as possible as that "Ole Time Religion" really puts a damper on focusing on the good and being grateful to God for so many blessings. One cannot see the blessings if one is focusing on what one decides is a curse of the devil of which just leads one to a stagnant and fear-driven faith, as well as fear-driven life of the living dead.

    As Jesus would say "Get behind me Satan." It is as simple as saying that to ward off what one might be fearful of.

  3. "Children enculturated and indoctrinated to a belief in devils, of the kind that one has no control over at all, even prayer to God, is an evil teaching in itself, in my opinion, because it overrides the importance of God, the existence of love, in whom our religion says we are to love with our entire mind, body and spirit."

    Too true butterfly. Fear of the satanic also stops people from engaging in deeper levels of mysticism because we're told that that kind of thing provokes the devil into attacking us.

    If I ever get around to writing a book, one of the points it will make is the fear of satan has been the most useful tool the Church pushed to stop most of it's adherents from ever pushing the mystical envelope and really threatening the predators it tells us to fear.

    There are a lot of self perptuating reasons it has been a useful tool for both sides of the energy equation, but in reality it's more or less put both of them on the same side.

  4. "Fear of the satanic also stops people from engaging in deeper levels of mysticism because we're told that that kind of thing provokes the devil into attacking us."

    Colleen, this very fear definitely "stops people" dead in their tracks in their faith in God. The fear itself negates God's love. It stops people from maturing and growing in their faith in God. That is exactly what happened to me. It keeps people stupid and ignorant and then they do stupid & ignorant things that were based on that very fear.

    I hope you write a book about this subject.

  5. The official leaders of our Church often remind me of this saying, from Cato the Elder: "Those who are serious in ridiculous matters will be ridiculous in serious matters."

    I love the title of McBrien's article: "Conference on exorcism will make your head spin." Pretty funny.

  6. I laughed too Prickliest. I also wondered how many of the JPII generation would get it, in as much as the Exorcist isn't exactly one their generations big movies.

    The German priest I wrote about a couple of weeks ago could have been Max Von Sydow's double. Guess what his nickname became? Actually, now that I think about it, he was rumored to have been the diocese's exorcist.

  7. Colleen -

    Well, I must assert that the Devil is very real, as are demons. However, he/they have been very useful constructs to instill fear & induce obedience uber alles in the Faithful:p

    It has been used - skillfully - to interfere with the individual developing personal spirituality. And a personal relationship with God, without THE CHURCH as an intermediary. Those who DARE to question much less oppose any element of the authority of the Church.....'are of the Devil'.

    Very useful indeed.

    What they are REALLY doing is gearing up for a new Inquisition.


    Anon Y. Mouse

  8. May I take a slightly different approach here?

    I was in first year university at St. Mike's College in Toronto when "The Exorcist" opened in a huge theatre downtown. We saw it opening day, but knew little about the actual film. Before we went to see the movie we had a long conversation with a seminarian and a Basilian priest who was an expert on exorcism. The truly frightening parts of the movie have nothing to do with the special effects. To this day it was one of the most truly frightening experiences I have ever had. I was not alone. It is hard to believe today that there were theatres with capacity of 2,000 or 3,000 seats, but there were. Several thousand of us stood in line for the late show and witnessed the ambulances take away several people who had fainted during the early show. Upon entering the theatre one could smell urine, apparently more than a few people had peed their pants. On opening night "The Exorcist" was quite a visceral experience.

    Later "The Exorcist" became somewhat cliched and laughable. (Even Austin Powers' Dr. Evil calls for "a young priest and an old priest" when his chair malfunctions.) Beware Bishops, this may be your fate too.

    However emotional the crowd's reaction to "The Exorcist" may have been I think that "Witches of Eastwick", with Jack Nicholson, more realistically portrays the Devil. He's attractive and is able to open people up to their innermost worst. Evil is more insipid, more like a match lighting a child's first cigarette. It contains only the faintest whiff of sulphur.

    The neighbors of the mass murder always say about him that he was quiet, or he loved animals. The truly scary thing is that we are all capable of real evil whether sinning by commission or omission.


    and the devil in your machine suggests the word verification: worstir (like kids today would read "worst I are"

  9. p2p, the approach that best works for me is not an emphasis on what evil we can do, but in what good we can do. The focus has to shift to our abilities to become Christ-like. That is what I have learned from my experience.

  10. Actually p2p your definition of the real action of evil, it's preference if you will, is worstir because it is subtle and it is insidious.

    I too remember very vividly the opening weeks of the Exorcist. My initial reaction to the movie was very different from my friends. The scene that really upset my apple cart was when Fr. Karras goes to Bellevue to see his mother.
    To me that portrayed real evil.

    I've actually participated in healing sessions which brought out the head spinning kind of thing, but that's never effected me the way that one Bellevue scene in the Exorcist did.

    I think the difference is I've always known we can do things about the 'head spinning kind of evil manifestation', but the institutional kind, that's way more difficult kind of evil to exorcise--so to speak.

  11. Ok so the word verification is now: exess

    Maybe it is excessive but I forgot to mention what I had in mind when mentioning Nicholson's devil. It is the interview with a kindly looking elderly priest who re-enacts the lines he used to groom and seduce little girls, telling them they are special. Chilling.

    That's more frightening than this picture of convicted priest, Brendan Smyth.



  12. @ Butterfly,

    I agree completely. It doesn't matter whether you're looking for good or evil, you'll find what you seek. Let's focus on the good.


    Yes, subtle, insidious...

    I'd forgotten that scene with his mother. I've only seen the movie once. It has been almost 40 years and you brought back that memory as though it was yesterday.

    In my earlier comment I forgot to say I can't find the link to the chilling video of the priest re-enacting his "grooming" of the child.

    One more thing, thank you for sharing your insight on the psychology of exorcism.


  13. i've been reading this blog for a few months now and really enjoying it, but i want to point out how especially good the discussion in the comments to this entry is.

  14. I always thought fear of Satan didn't make much sense. Especially after The Exorcist, it was clear to me that that evil force, outside myself, was stronger than I was. My only hope was that my God was stronger still, and He said He would protect me.

    Are exorcisms real? Heck, I don't know. It somewhat irks me that McBrien is so sure -- he doesn't really know either, and the haters pounce on that when they attack. I think our only conquerable evil is that which comes from inside, the prejudices and unhealed sorrows that need not only love, but the acceptance of love.

    I think that's what keeps gnawing at me about the hierarchy in this theme as well as many others. I think the church does need to guide the little ones. However, our focus seems to be on keeping everyone little, not allowing growth. We promote fear, demand obedience... and definitely place ourselves above the rest, not able to accept healing love. The hierarchy needs a dose of Christian humility, so that they can be healed to lead. And those who try to help them are smacked away, presumptuous to be on the same plane, putting forth outside-the-boundaries theories rather than waiting for the right people to deliver the truth.

    So, before I submit this, I was listening to EWTN radio today. I think that's where this anger comes from, as I listened to two of their big-name guys spew some lies about the "real" church, leading more people to eschew growth because it somehow interrupts holy faith. It's that hubris that let's the devil in, whether we think it is from without or within.

    And Colleen, I never thought about how nonchalant Jesus is about sending away demons. He does seem to think it is little league baseball, doesn't he?

  15. mjc this is a good comment. On so many levels it's all about healing.

    Here's something else to think about. When an exorcist calls on the power of Christ to expell a demon what is he really doing but invoking the power of Love. The more a person understands this the more effective they are and the less they escalate the situation.

    Love is the great neutralizer.

  16. I think the devil is real and has been very active lately.

    He's on Wall Street, on K Street, and financial institutions, ( greed is easy pickins').

    He's elsewhere too but the Church doesn't like being reminded of Wall Street etc; bad for the money coffers.

  17. "He's on Wall Street, on K Street, and financial institutions..."

    Are we referring to Fr. C. John McCloskey III in particular, or Opus Dei in general?


    Anon Y.Mouse