Crisis and the Rise of Exorcisms

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  May 16, 2011 — 54 Comments

I’ve spent quite a bit of time at The Wild Hunt looking at the revival of interest in exorcisms within the Catholic Church. The reason for this interest is the fact that many of these exorcists list modern Pagan religions, and interest in the occult, as symptoms of demonic possession.

“A lot of folks dabble in the occult, or they will be involved in practices that … classical Christianity at least would consider to be idolatrous.  People can get themselves involved in Wicca, or people will go see some sort of fortune-teller, or people will go to a séance, or they can go and they can learn how to channel spirits. …” Father Gary Thomas

“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.” – Father Thomas Euteneuer

“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.”Bishop Thomas Paprocki

Religion News Service correspondent Daniel Burke, writing for U.S. Catholic Magazine, explores the reasons for this spike in interest and practice of exorcisms within contemporary Catholicism. Burke quotes historian Nancy Caciola, who says that increases in exorcism usually happen during times of crisis and upheaval.

“Portable manuals detailing ever more elaborate and standardized rituals of exorcism proliferated during the papal schism of the 15th century, when two men claimed to be the rightful pope. The manuals surfaced again during the Protestant Reformation. “In general, exorcisms are associated with these turning-point moments when the church [feels] challenged in some way and tries to centralize power and clarify the delegation of authority from God down through the hierarchy,” Caciola says. The challenges now confronting the Catholic Church in the United States are legion: the sex abuse scandal, a secularizing society, and a restive flock that, studies show, loses one out of three adult Catholics, to name just a few.”

One of the ramifications of a “secularizing society” is increasing competition, no matter how small in stature. Paganism and “the occult” being ready made culprits and opponents for a reviving body of exorcists. Even still, this would only be a minor annoyance were it not for the fact that the “training” received by exorcists seems to point in ominous directions. Earlier this year media critic (and practicing Witch) Peg Aloi interviewed Father Gary Thomas, the brightest star among American Catholic exorcists, also interviewed in this U.S. Catholic Magazine piece, and found that he held some rather troubling ideas concerning who exactly he was battling.

Peg Aloi: Do you believe there are a lot of satanic cults out there?

Father Gary Thomas: There are probably more than we think. In fact, I pray over a woman right now who is a satanic cult survivor.

PA: I need to ask this. Speaking as someone who has done extensive research on the Satanic Ritual Abuse scare in the 1990s: Do you think it’s possible your parishioner’s experiences are false, or that she may be lying, or delusional? Because despite many, many horrific accusations of abuse and murder and various other atrocities by satanic cults over the years, most of them by alleged “survivors” who claim to be former cult members, the FBI, after years of investigation, never found a single shred of evidence to suggest there is or ever has been an underground network of satanic cults in the United States.

FGT: I don’t believe that she’s lying. She had been seeing a priest in our diocese for a while and her memories stated to surface, and that’s how we learned of her involvement in the cult. But if even half of what she’s saying is true, and I have not found any reason to doubt it, in her system, if anyone exposes the group, they’ll be killed. There is a whole culture in terms of what these people tell their members.

What you are reading there are the seeds for a new Satanic Panic, the same sort of moral panic that imprisoned, terrorized, and ruined the lives of hundreds of people. Some spent nearly twenty years in prison on false charges, as documented in the chilling 2008 film “Witch Hunt”. Others, like the West Memphis Three, are still fighting for justice. The deeper you dig into these exorcists, the more problematic material you find. That they are enjoying a certain level of mainstreaming now may point to tensions and problems faced by modern Catholicism, but it also has the potential to do considerable damage to any group unlucky enough to become spiritually scapegoated.

Religion journalists, both secular and denominational, seem to completely gloss over the problems in modern exorcism rhetoric. If “occult,” “Wicca,” or “Paganism” were replaced with signifiers for any other mainstream religion or spiritual practice there would be international outcry and mountains of bad publicity. That there isn’t seems to either be a failure of journalists to understand that these priests are saying that some religions are fair game for what is, in essence, spiritual warfare, or they simply can’t believe that anything serious could result from the rise of exorcism. That this is simply a interesting trend piece. But for those who are named in the fear-mongering and half-truths, who have lived through one “panic” already, this rise in spiritual warfare, whether Protestant or Catholic, carries with it the threat of future panic and hysteria.

Jason Pitzl-Waters