The Catholic bishops’ exorcism workshop: Distinguishing demonic possession from mental illness

Next week, Catholic bishops from around the US will meet in Baltimore for their general assembly. As happens before many large conferences, this weekend attendees can take a workshop in order to improve their professional skills: the Conference on the Liturgical and Pastoral Practice of Exorcism. Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois has organized the workshop in response to a rising number of requests for exorcisms nationally. The Catholic News Service reports that 56 bishops and 66 priests have signed up.

The Catholic News Service report explains that not everyone in the Catholic clergy can do exorcisms:

Under canon law — Canon 1172 specifically — only those priests who get permission from their bishops can perform an exorcism after proper training.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that an exorcism occurs when the church, in the person of an exorcist, asks “publicly and authoritatively” in Christ’s name “that a person or object be protected against the power of the evil one and withdrawn from his dominion.”

Exorcism is rooted in the acts of Jesus Christ:

Scripture contains several examples of Jesus casting out evil spirits from people.

“We don’t think that’s poetic metaphor,” Bishop Paprocki said.

Not surprisingly, there is a fair amount of tongue-in-cheek coverage of the conference in the US press. However, for mental health professionals like myself, the Catholic Church’s response to this increased demand is nothing to laugh at. Reports of spirit possession are commonplace in many parts of the world, and certainly not limited to Catholics — my own experience with people “tormented by demons” comes from work with Muslim refugees from Darfur, Sudan. Although many of us have psychiatric interpretations of these phenomena when we encounter them, we are in minority; there are many more people who are convinced of their supernatural etiology. In other words, for most of humanity, the reasons for odd thoughts and behavior are spiritual, not scientific. The US is one of only a handful of countries in which spiritual explanatory models do not hold sway. In a global perspective, it is the exorcism conference’s media attention and tongue-in-cheek coverage that is notable, and not the topic of exorcism itself.

“Explanatory models” are sets of reasons for why things happen the way they do. Mental health practitioners are often interested in their patients’ explanatory models of their psychological problems in order to treat them more effectively. Reading through media coverage you get the sense that although rooted in a predominantly supernatural explanatory model, the perspective of the US bishops organizing the conference is actually somewhat of a hybrid, combining a concern for spiritual hygiene with a concern for psychological well-being. Although the US may be globally out-of-step in terms the majority’s emphasis on scientific explanations, hybrid spiritual-scientific explanatory models are the norm in our globalized world. In other words, in the US most people tend to emphasize scientific parts of explanations for odd behavior whereas in most other parts of the world most people emphasize spiritual parts, but in reality many people hold both types of explanations for such behavior simultaneously. The New York Times report devotes a fair number of column inches to the difference between “real” possession by the Devil and other possession-like states, and this seems to be the point of the conference:

“Not everyone who thinks they need an exorcism actually does need one,” said Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., who organized the conference. “It’s only used in those cases where the Devil is involved in an extraordinary sort of way in terms of actually being in possession of the person.

So just what are the symptoms of demonic possession?

Some of the classic signs of possession by a demon, Bishop Paprocki said, include speaking in a language the person has never learned; extraordinary shows of strength; a sudden aversion to spiritual things like holy water or the name of God; and severe sleeplessness, lack of appetite and cutting, scratching and biting the skin.

A person who claims to be possessed must be evaluated by doctors to rule out a mental or physical illness, according to Vatican guidelines issued in 1999, which superseded the previous guidelines, issued in 1614.

(That’s 385 years between guidelines, for those of you who were wondering. The next set of guidelines is presumably due in 2384.)

I think it’s safe to say that most Catholics in the US do not believe that training priests in the proper procedure for exorcisms is a priority in 2010. Some posit that other factors are in play behind the pre-meeting exorcism institute. Notre Dame Professor of Catholic history R. Scott Appleby says that the conference is best explained as a way to bring back those among the flock who have strayed because the church is no longer seen as distinct from other, more secular institutions.

“What they’re trying to do in restoring exorcisms,” said Dr. Appleby, a longtime observer of the bishops, “is to strengthen and enhance what seems to be lost in the church, which is the sense that the church is not like any other institution. It is supernatural, and the key players in that are the hierarchy and the priests who can be given the faculties of exorcism.

“It’s a strategy for saying: ‘We are not the Federal Reserve, and we are not the World Council of Churches. We deal with angels and demons.’ ”


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