Hmmm. First I see that new books on exorcism are coming out here and there. Then, just yesterday, I spoke with a woman who told me how she and her brother used to regularly see a silent apparition of a soldier in dress blues at the foot of their beds. They grew up in military-family housing, and she seemed quite sane and sober.
Finally, today, I get a note from the Discovery Channel. It seems they are doing some series on demons and exorcists, and they plan to follow around some fellow who works for a Catholic diocese as a psychological diagnostician for cases of suspected demonic oppression and/or possession. I looked the guy up on the Web, and he appears to be on the level: a pious, theologically informed Catholic with a respect for the Church’s teaching on the demonic who firmly defers to the fact that it is priests — not laypeople with a strong sense of righteousness, sensationalism and paranoia — who need to do the heavy lifting when it comes to performing exorcisms.
This whole side of our faith is difficult to discuss without attracting People of Emphatic Opinion. On the one hand, there are folks who seem to see evidence of the demonic lurking everywhere. They love lurid tales of alleged possessions, with all the pea-soup vomit and weird screechy voices and all the rest of it. Not to put too fine a point on it, such people like being creeped out. It’s almost as though they believe such spectacles are a necessary proof of Jesus’ divinity with the Powers of Hell providing a sort of testimonial on his behalf. That’s somewhat problematic since, as Jesus himself warns, the devil is a liar. Jesus’ customary reply to demons who shouted that he was the Messiah was “Be silent!” — not “Tell everybody more about me!”
Equally problematic is the cultivation of the spirit of fear. Very simply, we are not to be a people who jump at things that go bump in the night. God has not given us a spirit of fear, but the Spirit of his son (2 Timothy 1:7). Jesus and the apostles, even in cases of genuine demonic possession, do not react with terror or delectation over the thrilling creepiness of it all. Rather, they take a bold and even businesslike attitude to devils: Get out!
On the other hand, there is the whole secular and materialist view of our age, which tends to automatically reject all claims of the demonic (and angelic, for that matter) as bogus. To be sure, the Church herself urges caution. That’s because not all weird human behavior is prompted by demons. Sometimes it owes to brain chemistry, drugs, mental illness or fraud. But still and all, the Church knows that the devil is real.
Why? Because Jesus does, in fact, take the reality of the demonic for granted and is recorded as performing numerous exorcisms. Some dismiss this fact by patronizingly saying that Jesus was both the Son of God and a “man of his (superstitious) times.” There is, however, nothing about the time of day that alters the fact that God can (and, according to the Church, has) created superhuman spiritual beings called “angels” and that some of these angels have abused their free will, becoming enemies of God and man. The Church stands by her ancient claim that, on occasion, these beings have so intruded into the right working of nature that they can oppress and possess a human being — necessitating exorcism by the power of Jesus Christ.
So then: What attitude do we take as the headlines periodically swell with tales of credulity and incredulity over such matters as demons and exorcists? On that, more next issue.
Mark Shea is senior content editor of CatholicExchange.com.