Over in the Catholic section of Patheos, Fr. Dwight Longenecker explores the idea that James Holmes, responsible for 12 deaths in the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting that happened last week, may have been demonically possessed. According to Longenecker, “demonic infestation is a rare, strange and terrible psycho-spiritual affliction” that “maybe” afflicted Holmes.
“What makes a mild mannered, promising young scientist decide to arm himself to the teeth, walk into a suburban movie theater and start killing innocent people at random?”
What a tempting idea, that an external evil took control of Holmes and instigated his actions. That it was an embodiment of Evil itself that guided the hand of the shooter, gunning down innocent people. However, this idea is pernicious, particularly within a Christian context, and only serves to prop up a system of abuse that targets anyone who steps out of line with a narrow idea of Christian morality and behavior.
The idea of spirit possession is not unique to Catholicism, or Christianity in general, most religious cultures have a version of it, and many also have rituals of exorcism or appeasement when a possession happens. In some religious cultures, like Haitian Vodou, possession is part of a larger religious structure (and generally seen as a positive force). Yet, the Christian conception of demonic possession is unique in how exorcism is used as a form of boundary maintenance, a social-political tool to hammer those who stray from proper behavior. This is hinted at in Longenecker’s essay.
“The second level of demonic influence is obsession. At this level, there is still no sign of anything paranormal happening. The person starts to give in to the temptation. He may become reclusive and secretive as he becomes obsessed with the evil that he is entertaining. This evil may be in the form of occult activity, violent video games or movies, pornography, drug abuse, sexual perversion, sexual promiscuity, or obsession with power and violence.“
In other words, if someone you love is gay, into kinky sex, likes to play video games, or is Pagan, they might already be influenced by demons (and, by inference, that can lead to terrible tragedies). This isn’t simply my interpretation, it’s an assertion that has been flatly stated by Catholic exorcists.
“Father Euteneuer does not speak as a theorist. Since 2003 he’s had extensive experience ministering to those possessed by demons … Father Euteneuer told mepossession 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.”
“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. …”
That’s Catholic exorcist Father Gary Thomas, a Catholic exorcist who was featured in the book “The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist” (adapted into a feature film starring Anthony Hopkins). So he’s probably the most famous Catholic exorcist currently making the rounds. Thomas is also believer in Ritual Satanic Abuse, despite the fact that the moral panic that held sway during the 1980s and 90s produced no credible proof of a underground network of Satanic abusers. This is because exorcisms are tied to upheaval and crisis within a religious body, not to any definable war in the spiritual realm.
“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,” [historian Nancy 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.”
The reality is that when these exercises in centralizing power, and casting out heretics, is imported to other cultures the results can be catastrophic. When missionaries inserted Christian triumphalism and a spiritual warfare dynamics into traditional African beliefs about malefic magic, they created deadly consequences the missionaries could not (or would not) understand.
Missionaries have commonly responded [to witchcraft accusations] in two ways, said [Robert] Priest [professor of missions and intercultural studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School]. The power of witches to harm others is dismissed as superstition, but this seldom persuades local Christians to abandon the concept; or the reality of witchcraft is endorsed by missionaries not wanting to be “post-Enlightenment rationalists” with a non-biblical skepticism of spiritual warfare.
The result is that traditional witch ideas are fused with Christian theology, which obscures the social consequences: Accused witches are often destitute or outcast, and thus socially defenseless. Instead of seeing old women or children as scapegoats, said Priest, Christian leaders suggest that witchcraft participates in genuine spiritual evil and that the accusations are reasonable. “The church is providing the cognitive underpinnings for the past system in the contemporary world.”
Again and again, we are shown that Christian exorcism and spiritual warfare, when applied to pluralistic or non-Christian cultures, spread a madness that can result in false imprisonments and death. If Catholics want to exorcise other willing Catholics, fine. Likewise, every religious tradition is free to negotiate with the numinous in whatever fashion works best for them, but when you start using these technologies as an external weapon, a dangerous line is crossed. No matter how reassuring it might be to think that a minion of Satan used a mortal form to slaughter those movie-goers, that this is why Holmes snapped suddenly and without warning, it does nothing but muddy the waters and push us further from what may have actually been going on in this man’s mind leading up to that fateful day.
Fr. Dwight Longenecker‘s essay is irresponsible and does more harm than good in an already tragic circumstance. He peddles the beliefs that fuel ex-witch narratives, passing it off as a possible explanation for those asking how this could have happened. The truth has always been that humanity needs no external spiritual help to do gross and inhumane things to one another, for reasons that can seem as opaque as this current case. We should collective reject any attempt to place a demonic possession narrative, especially a Catholic possession narrative, on these killings and instead focus on practical prevention and using our faith(s) to comfort those affected. Anything else is cynical, self-serving, and unneeded.