Why Did a Swiss Diocese Abolish Its Exorcism Ministry?
Bishop Joseph Bonnemain of the Diocese of Chur has concluded that ‘it is not necessary to try to find mysterious causes’ for alleged cases of demonic possession.
The Diocese of Chur in German-speaking Switzerland has decided to do without an exorcist from now on, after having left the position vacant for almost three years.
This decision — announced Nov. 24 by Bishop Joseph Bonnemain on the regional radio station SRF Ostschweiz — marks a turning point in the history of the diocese, which has long been known as a central place in Europe for exorcisms.
In his radio interview, the bishop of Chur claimed that “it is not necessary to try to find mysterious causes” for alleged cases of demonic possession, which he described as a psychological and social distress. According to Bishop Bonnemain, who is a former doctor and hospital chaplain, “classic solutions” of a “medical, psychological and psychotherapeutic” nature are to be favored for these people facing “difficult social, professional or health situations.”
“We are all human beings with strengths and weaknesses who have a hard time in life from time to time,” he said.
The Swiss bishop’s stance conflicts with the Church’s teaching that demonic possession is a concrete reality, which can require recourse to an exorcism to expel the influence of demonic spirits.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines an exorcism as the public and authoritative request of the Church, “in the name of Jesus Christ, that a person or object be protected against the power of the Evil One and withdrawn from his dominion” (1673).
While in its minor form exorcism is performed during baptism, “major exorcism” — during which evil spirits are dealt with directly — is only performed by a priest appointed by his bishop for this purpose, with the bishop’s express consent after previous medical and psychological examination of the alleged affected person.
The decision not to appoint a new exorcist in Chur was announced almost three years after the death of its previous exorcist, Father Christoph Casetti, a well-known priest who contributed to making the diocese an “exorcism Mecca,” as religion expert Georg Schmid described it in a 2017 TV interview.
“You could say the diocese of Chur is the Eldorado of exorcism in the German-speaking world, a hotspot of exorcistic activity, virtually a place of pilgrimage for people seeking exorcisms,” Schmid said, referring to those who could not receive exorcisms in their own dioceses — especially in Germany, which has few exorcists.
Basel is now the only Catholic diocese in German-speaking Switzerland that will continue to perform exorcisms.
It is not the first time that the Diocese of Chur has made headlines in Europe. Indeed, the trilingual diocese, which extends over seven Swiss cantons, including that of Zurich, Switzerland’s largest city, has been plagued for many years by serious internal divisions. It remained without a bishop for more than two years between 2019 and 2021, because of the cathedral’s canons having rejected all three candidates proposed by the Vatican, judging them too progressive.
Pope Francis eventually imposed then-canon Father Joseph Maria Bonnemain, who was among the three initial candidates, and gave him the mission for at least five years, “to promote, above all, the communion and unity of the local Church.” It is with that goal in mind that Bishop Bonnemain, as he highlighted in his interview with the Swiss radio station, took the decision to abolish the exorcist ministry, considering it to be “a step on the way to normalization.”
Bishop Bonnemain was challenged a few months ago by a group of priests from his diocese who raised concerns over a new code of conduct for the prevention of sexual assault that he had just signed, claiming that it “undermined the Church’s doctrine of faith.” Notably the group criticized the code’s requirement that employees “refrain from sweeping negative assessments of allegedly unbiblical behavior based on sexual orientation,” which in their view represents “an attempt to implant LGBT ideology in the Church.”
It appears the abolition of the ministry of exorcism is linked to this ongoing battle between the progressive and conservative wings within the diocese, with the insistence on the power of the devil over the lives of sinners now often associated with the more orthodox communities in the Church.
Bishop Bonnemain is not the only Catholic leader to have recently questioned the existence of the devil or his actual influence on people’s life. Most notably, in a 2017 interview with the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, the superior general of the Society of Jesus, Father Arturo Sosa, considered the devil to be a “symbol” designed to “express” the concept of evil, more than a concrete reality.
The Limits of Modern Psychology
Yet, Pope Francis himself has in many occasions reaffirmed the reality of the devil and the necessity to resort to exorcists in case of serious spiritual disorders. In fact, he is considered to be the pope in modern history who has mentioned the devil most often in his homilies and speeches.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church references the devil dozens of times, while the New Testament presents him as a real being endowed with will and knowledge, able to manifest himself in a powerful way.
“The Bible, the Tradition, and Magisterial teachings, including many teachings of Pope Francis, have all spoken of the reality of Satan and his activity in this world,” Msgr. Stephen Rossetti, an exorcist for the Archdiocese of Washington for 15 years, told the Register. A licensed psychologist with 30 years of experience in the field, he considers it important to “discern the difference between a demonic presence and a mental illness,” and acknowledge there is a “real difference” between the two phenomena.
“Modern psychology has indeed helped us to discern the difference between a true psychosis and someone who is possessed, but modern psychology has its limits and when it comes to the supernatural, it must defer to theological realities,” he said, adding that if skeptics of the demon’s existence spent a week with an exorcist and saw what he sees, they would believe in the reality of the demonic.
Msgr. Rossetti concluded, “The Church fails in its ministry when it does not provide its spiritual healing ministry to those afflicted by the Evil One, including by providing an exorcist when needed.”