Several mainstream news outlets have reported on a two-day conference of American Catholic bishops and priests regarding the rite of exorcism (more than 50 bishops and 60 priests signed up to attend). Taking place in Baltimore, Maryland, and organized by Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, the meeting is designed to “respond to demand”, but not, allegedly, to “revive the practice.”
…to R. Scott Appleby, a professor of American Catholic history at the University of Notre Dame, the bishops’ timing makes perfect sense. “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.’ ”
To paraphrase Dr. Appleby, Catholic bishops and priests want to be seen as players in an ongoing supernatural battle. Conference organizer Bishop Paprocki told CNN that discussions about the devil and exorcisms were a small but “regular part of our faith.” Of course, he also said that the force behind sexual abuse lawsuits against the Catholic Church were “none other than the devil.” Further, Paprocki has at least one theory as to why there’s been an increase in demand for exorcists.
No one knows why more people seem to be seeking the rite. Paprocki said one reason could be the growing interest among Americans in exploring general spirituality, as opposed to participating in organized religion, which has led more people to dabble in the occult. “They don’t know exactly what they’re getting into and when they have questions, they’re turning to the church, to priests,” said Paprocki, chairman of the bishops’ committee on canonical affairs and church governance. “They wonder if some untoward activity is taking place in their life and want some help discerning that.”
What Paprocki dances around, others, like Father Thomas Euteneuer, state more baldly.
“Father Euteneuer does not speak as a theorist. Since 2003 he’s had extensive experience ministering to those possessed by demons … Father Euteneuer told me possession is almost always a result of someone getting involved in some sort of occult practices, such as witchcraft, Wicca, tarot cards, and Ouiji boards. ”Harry Potter and these Twilight vampires glamorize the power of evil,” Father Eutenener explained, “and this has lead to many, many cases of possession among young people.” It may begin with a child or teenager simply “playing around” with the occult, but that seemingly harmless act is “opening a window” to possession.”
So what does this matter? Why should Pagans even care what sort of rites Catholics perform? When European bishops warn against “esoteric religiosity”, or the Pope warns of “subjugation to occult powers” in his encyclical on love, does it have an effect on our lives? There’s been a marked rise in the popularity of exorcism and spiritual warfare of late, not just with Catholics, but with Pentecostal and evangelical Christian groups as well. While still a small percentage, some of these fringe groups have powerful allies in political circles. Further, professor Ebony Utley says we should take “all the silly devil talk” seriously.
Conspiracy theories ebb and flow in waves associated with how confident people feel about their social environments. When times are hard and unemployment rates are high, individuals get creative in where they look for explanations. Joshua Gunn, author of Modern Occult Rhetoric explains, “Whenever there’s a sense of social anomie and crisis these things do tend to flair up.” He also noted that “white guys who feel disempowered in some way” are most likely to be conspiracy theorists.
Another clue that many of these claims are catch-all conspiracy theories is the conflation of disparate vocabularies. Occult — a word which simply means secret, or hidden — is not a term necessarily linked to evil. The negative connotation has been added over time. The claimants also conflate masonry, Egyptian mythology, Satanism, and the Illuminati, as if they were all the same.
Right now we have a simmering pot of assumptions, prejudices, conspiracy theories, and demonization that only occasionally bubbles up into something truly worrisome; but as economic hard times continue to drag on, and fringe ideas about spiritual warfare and exorcism start to become mainstreamed, we increase the likelihood of a new moral panic breaking out. Right now some folks (and media outlets) are torn on whether Pagans are harmless eccentrics or dangerous cultists, but that calculus can always change. Few could have thought that a pulpy book on a secret Satanic underground could help spark a panic that imprisoned dozens and ruined the lives of many more. By essentially facilitating the mainstreaming of exorcisms these bishops and priests are playing with fire, but perhaps not the sort of spiritual fire they imagine.