What attitude do we take as faithful Catholics when the headlines periodically swell with tales of credulity and incredulity over such matters as demons and exorcists?
The first thing to remember is St. Paul’s counsel that we “may no longer be infants, tossed by waves and swept along by every wind of teaching arising from human trickery, from their cunning in the interests of deceitful scheming” (Ephesians 4:14). Paul has in mind the various fashions and fads that whip people up with excitement about the Latest Thing.
Sometimes such fads are conscious deceptions by people out for power or a buck. But more often we are faced with people who think they are telling the truth. So, for instance, while Dan Brown was clearly lying when he told us that The Da Vinci Code was based on fact and careful research, it is not at all clear that the millions of suckers who bought the hype were lying when they repeated it around millions of water coolers. (“Joe thinks that there Da Vinci thing is a pretty good read. Says he learned a lot about the Catholic Church. I think I’ll read it.”)
Much the same goes on in the periodic enthusiasms over other spiritual matters. Your friend Bob reads a book about exorcism by an enthusiastic priest. Bob’s a good guy, you figure, and smart, so it must be worth a look. Because Bob’s your pal, you’re already predisposed to trust and defend the book, even when the priest claims to have performed 30,000 exorcisms in a nine-year period. In case you are counting, that’s nine exorcisms per day for nine years. Later, he ups the count to 50,000 exorcisms. This seems rather a stretch, and your atheist co-worker snorts at the book and at your friend. So you get defensive for Bob and for the priest, as though some sacred part of Holy Church is under threat if you don’t buy that 30,000-to-50,000 exorcisms claim, sight unseen.
In fact, it’s okay to listen when your skepticism bells go off, just so long as you are clear about what’s in doubt. The 30,000 exorcisms claim, if shown to be false, doesn’t mean the Church’s teaching is wrong. It doesn’t mean the priest knows nothing about exorcism. It doesn’t even mean Bob is a liar or a fool. There’s only one thing it certainly does mean, if shown to be false. It means that that claim is false, and it suggests that the priest making the claim is human and may not be altogether reliable. Further evidence may come to light showing the priest to be completely unreliable, but until you have the facts, you are getting ahead of yourself. It does not in the slightest mean that demons do not exist and the power of Christ cannot expel them.
In all this, my point is to stress the need for prudence and sound judgment in discussing the demonic. The trouble is: Prudence and sound judgment are in short supply in modern media — which is why I think it inadvisable for Catholics to spend too much time discussing the demonic in the public square. Such discussions tend to generate far more heat than light.
In this, I think I have the backing of Tradition, which tends to give short shrift to Satan, not parade him in lurid tales. Jesus’ exorcisms more or less consist of advising possessors to buzz off. The Lord’s Prayer shunts Old Scratch to the final line and addresses not him, but God the Father (“Deliver us from the evil one.”). Paul scarcely mentions him at all, and only in passing as a hindrance and as a thing Jesus is about to tread underfoot.
In short: If you want to drive Satan nuts, keep your eyes on Jesus.
Mark Shea, content editor at CatholicExchange.com,
blogs at NCRegister.com.