Pastoral discernment is required in order to ascertain that one is dealing with the presence of the Evil One, and not an illness.
Is everything attributed to “evil spirits” truly demonic? I don’t think so, and here’s why:
From time to time I will have someone come to see me who thinks they are demon-possessed.
They may be hearing voices telling them to do bad things, or they might be having hallucinations which they interpret as devils.
They might have frightful compulsions to do things they know are evil. They might suffer from obsessions of all kinds or be drawn to dark and loathsome things.
This does not mean they are demon-possessed, or even that they are being harassed by demons.
If they do not display the symptoms of demonic possession, then they are more often troubled by what I describe to them as “evil spirits”. I go on to explain that the feel like it is an external evil force, but it is usually caused by something else.
The human personality is extremely complex and is made up of a tangle of physical, emotional, mental, spiritual and relational dynamics.
While we categorize problems as physical, emotional, relational, mental or spiritual, in fact all five factors are mixed together in the whole person. Relational problems are inevitably emotional and involve mental, physical and spiritual components. Likewise, spiritual and mental problems will have emotional and often physical and relational factors.
In ministering to the person’s soul all these factors come into play. The “soul” doctor priest needs to be aware that there may be mental health issues, physical problems, relational and emotional difficulties which all have a bearing on the spiritual matters in hand.
Here’s a fictional example: let’s say a woman has been very sexually promiscuous. She may be driven to these behaviors partially because of bad relationships with parents, boyfriends etc. Her spiritual life has suffered as a result and she feels very guilty.
This heavy load of guilt may eventually cause stress which produces physical symptoms or symptoms of stress related mental illness. As a result she may experience negative phenomena — like bad dreams of devils accusing her, or the idea that she is demon-possessed because she is starting to hear voices.
What she is experiencing might be termed “evil spirits”, and so they are, but they are usually the result of human problems with a spiritual dimension — not immediate, external demonic activity.
Such a person needs radical healing and help, but exorcism will not cure her because the problem wasn’t demonic possession to start with.
To complicate matters further, it is possible that diabolical forces could take advantage of her vulnerability and spiritual weakness to tempt her further, darken her life and attempt to torture her — but this is a complicating factor, not the main problem.
What to do about it?
The person needs spiritual counsel. He or she might need the deliverance ministry, but they will also need to learn how to use the sacraments and sacramentals to assist in healing in order to build a strong and positive spiritual life.
To facilitate healing, such persons need professional care from their physician, psychiatrist and counselor working together with the priest.
Unfortunately these sorts of partnerships for healing are rare in our society. Very few priests understand the healing ministry and not enough physicians and psychiatrists trust and respect the clergy and the spiritual role in the healing ministry.
Persons who are afflicted in this way need to seek out professional care in addition to developing a devoted, balanced and strong spiritual life so that the Lord can gently, over a period of time bring them to a point of complete healing and reconciliation.