The Devil and the Details

Facts and fantasies about exorcism

In terms of the probability of a person being possessed, exorcism expert, Richard Woods O.P.

cited Pere de Tonquedec, a Catholic priest who was the official exorcist for the Archdiocese of Paris for over twenty years. A trained psychologist, Tonquedec doubted that he had ever encountered a case of true possession and cautioned that during an exorcism, priests should not call for the ‘demon’ to manifest itself, as it might simply put a suggestion into the mind of a mentally ill person.

“Call the devil and you will see him; or rather not him, but a portrait made of the sick person’s idea of him. It is for this reason that certain priests, due to their inconsiderate and imprudent practice of exorcising, create, confirm and encourage the very disorders that they wanted to suppress,” said Tonquedec in an interview for Human Behavior magazine.

The Church seems to be aware of these issues and in 1999 published a revised copy of the rite of exorcism. It included a paragraph that said, “Especially, he should not believe too readily that a person is possessed by an evil spirit; but he ought to ascertain the signs by which a person possessed can be distinguished from one who is suffering from some illness, especially one of a psychological nature.”

Woods himself also believes that he has never seen an authentic case of demonic possession in all his years. When asked if he had ever performed an exorcism, Woods said, “Only very informally. I have, in effect, prayed over people who asked me to.”

Recently, the Catholic Church has also started an official school for exorcists in Rome, a move that Woods supports. “I think it’s great,” he says, “Exorcists will be trained by experts who know what they’re doing and there will be less of this amateur hour stuff anymore.”

Although Woods believes that most cases of exorcisms are actually misdiagnosed disorders, he does not believe that exorcism is antiqued or no longer has a place in Catholic faith.

“The church has recognized that harm can be caused by forces other than human sin,” said Woods. “There will always be things out there that we do not understand.”

Proper knowledge of possession and the rite of exorcism are especially useful for missionaries said Woods. “It’s important to train missionaries to be able to discern psychopathology from true spiritual torment that could be caused by non-human agents,” he says. “It is similarly important to train psychiatrists in regard to discerning true spiritual disorders and unusual religious experiences from psychopathology.”

After extensive research, no accurate information about the number of exorcisms performed by Catholic priests in a given year could be obtained. One spokesperson of a large American archdiocese simply said that he was not at liberty to disclose such information.

The question remains, why is America interested in demonic possession? Woods believes the answer lies in the current state of the nation. “Since 9/11 the number of horror and invasion movies has gone through the roof,” he says. “Our fears and paranoia feed TV and films.”

Revisions – Rite or Wrong?
The recent revision and more scientific approach to the rite of exorcism were not met with universal enthusiasm in the church. In an interview with the Italian magazine 30 Days, Fr. Gabriele Amorth, chief exorcist of Rome, complained that the revisions were enfeebling exorcists. “Point 16 [of the revised ritual] solemnly declares that one should not carry out exorcisms if one is not certain of the presence of the devil,” Amorth complained in the interview. “This is a masterstroke of incompetence: the certainty that the devil is present in someone can only be obtained by carrying out an exorcism.”

Amorth also lamented a revision that requires exorcists to seek permission from their bishop before using the old rite. (It is interesting to note that Benedict XVI, when he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, attempted to place a clause into the revision that would allow exorcists to use the old ritual if they wished.)

The actual ritual is based upon the compilation of hundreds of years of prayers used by exorcists. Unsurprisingly it looks very little like the Hollywood version–asking the demon its name, having it possess the exorcist, or destroying the demon are not part of the ritual. Biblically, all a person had to do to cast out a demon was have a strong faith and order them out of the possessed person in the name of God or Jesus.

Possession or Obsession?
The question remains, why is America interested in demonic possession? Woods believes the answer lies in the current state of the nation.

“Since 9/11 the number of horror and invasion movies has gone through the roof,” he says. “Our fears and paranoia feed TV and films.”

There is often a proportional increase in perception of demonic influences and upheaval in government. In Nigeria during the 1950’s there was an explosion of “demonic activity.” This also coincided with the country’s attempt to establish and settle itself after gaining independence. Societies sometimes project their fear onto things as a safety valve says Wood.
“We’ve become alarmingly aware of the environmental crisis, we’re fighting a war, families are disintegrating,” he says. “People handle that fear and sometimes run from it by putting it on to demons or outside forces”

“Look at the language of the war against terrorism. It’s a lot of ‘We’re going to go find these people who are causing this evil and destroy them,” said Woods.

Present in most of these movies is a lack of hope. Exorcisms fail and the possessed are left to die or others are killed. If demons are exorcised, they return and possess their victims again. Often, the religious figures in the movies have lost their faith.

A key element to The Exorcism of Emily Rose is the idea that God allows people to be possessed because belief in the Devil leads people to believe in God. Woods patently disagrees and thinks that rather than leading them to belief, it discourages them. “It’s a horrible concept and not scriptural at all. The whole idea that is the Devil is real – God must be real doesn’t follow,” he says. “In these movies the evil spirits are the focus of our spiritual energy, not God and there’s an untrue message that some how not even God can save us from these things.”

Woods also pointed out that if an exorcism fails it seems to point to the possibility that God is not powerful, or worse, that God doesn’t exist.

“Exorcisms don’t produce faith. Extraordinary faith is what makes exorcism possible,” says Woods. “It’s natural to be scared of things that go bump in the night, But Christ has conquered evil, sin, and death and we have nothing to be afraid of.”