That there is a thread of hostility and distortion against modern Pagan faiths within Catholicism is well documented. My own journey in exploring this murky territory started in 2006 when Catholic pilgrims attacked and threatened Pagans in Glastonbury, leading me to wonder what exactly is being taught to Catholic youth about our faiths.
“Maya Pinder, the owner of the shop, said: “We’ve had to hear comments such as ‘burn the witches’, we’ve had salt thrown in our faces and at our shop, people were openly saying they were ‘cleansing Glastonbury of paganism’.”
I truly thought this was just an isolated, ugly, incident. A few bad apples who took the whole “crusader” bit a tad too seriously and thought that cursing and throwing salt on innocent people was a laugh. However, over time I realized that this incident didn’t happen in a vacuum, and that the Catholic Church was becoming radicalized around the notion of “occult” practices through the process of reviving exorcisms. The idea of demonic possession, and that it can be caused by involvement with modern Pagan religions, has been re-mainstreamed within Catholic thought.
“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.“
That’s Fr. Dwight Longenecker, and he wrote that for Patheos. Which, I am assured, is a rather mainstream and prominent site for religion coverage.
But perhaps I’m overstating my case? I don’t want to be accused of sensationalism, or raising a question over phantoms and rumor, so let’s turn to an article in today’s National Catholic Register, the oldest national Catholic newspaper in the United States, owned by a popular Catholic television network.
“Evil has not fallen out of fashion. Exorcism is a rite developed — and promulgated — to meet a need that still exists, due to more people delving into New Age and occult practices. And, yes, satanic worshippers are a reality.”
That, folks, is the opening paragraph. This is a Catholic reporter writing for a Catholic audience, and we start with how “New Age and occult practices” are tied to evil, and by extension Satanic worship. Then, after a completely unsubstantiated aside about how Satanists are routinely stealing the host (blessed wafer) from churches to use in their diabolic rites, they trot out their expert witness.
“The Rite was one of a handful of movies about exorcism released in the last two years, and a short-lived television series on the subject also launched. But that’s far from the point, says Father Thomas. “There is a greater need for exorcism because there is a greater frequency of the practices of the occult, New Age and Satanism, both on the part of Catholics and other people alike,” he said. Conference speakers explained that people begin experimenting with other traditions and rituals, often simply out of curiosity. They don’t realize that they are, at the same time, losing their spiritual center and turning away from God.”
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). 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.
So what is the problem if some Catholics think we’re demon-haunted dupes who need a good old “power of Christ compels you” moment? Isn’t this just Catholics talking to other Catholics, using exorcism as a form of boundary maintenance of their own traditions? The problem is that rhetoric has consequences, and we don’t live in a world populated only by Catholics. When we are framed as evil and demonic, tensions can arise in the real world.
“Two very different cultures met on one large open field and it led to some tense moments Saturday afternoon. For the fourteenth year in a row, Broad Ripple Park was home to the annual Pagan Pride Day, an all-day event that started early this morning to commemorate the autumnal equinox. Saturday was also a cross country meet for the Catholic Youth Organization which involved hundreds of kids and parents. It turns out the festival rented the field for the day and the CYO participants had to run around the festival. “They can do it someplace else. It is inappropriate here. It is embarrassing. I was outraged by it,” said one parent.”
This was in Indiana, after a Catholic event ran long, overlapping with a scheduled Pagan Pride event. According to one source, it was the Catholics, not the Pagans, who called the local news to complain about the incident. The Pagans, on the other hand, went through all proper channels to hold their event, and worked with organizers of the Catholic youth event to accommodate their event running long. The about-to-be-launched Pagan Newswire Collective Indiana bureau is currently writing up the story (their first) and I’ll feature it here once it’s up. It’s hard to read about this story and not think about the National Catholic Register piece posted today. It seems increasingly improbable that these two events exist in universes entirely unconnected. You can’t have an ongoing stream of rhetoric and anti-Pagan propaganda emerging from the clergy, and not expect it influence the laity.
If people who hold spiritual and religious power say something is bad often enough, people will listen. It saddens me that no prominent Catholics (that I know of) will step forward and say “enough” to this propaganda masquerading as a spiritual technology. I can only hope that cooler heads will prevail as Pagans and Catholics increasingly cross paths in our secular world. Otherwise, the risk of families being torn apart, and tensions rising to the levels of Glastonbury in 2006, will continue to increase to the detriment of all involved. This demonic possession narrative has got to stop.
ADDENDUM: Here’s the full report from PNC-Indiana.