Exorcism growing among Catholics? San Francisco Weekly offers flawed investigation

There are some publications that treat religion-news coverage like a trip to some mysterious planet where the inhabitants are incomprehensible. Such was the San Francisco Weekly’s recent take on a local exorcist. It was so crammed with mistakes, one wonders if anyone bothered editing or fact checking the piece.

The Weekly has had some decent religion stories in the past, but this was not one of them.

Which is a shame, because the issue of exorcism is wildly interesting, the stuff of movies and best-selling books. The reporter identifies himself as a lapsed Catholic non-believer, which makes it odd that the research would be so sloppy.

We begin:

Every Thursday evening, a few dozen people file into Immaculate Conception Chapel, a small Catholic church on the steep slope of Folsom Street on Bernal Hill's north face, carrying bottles of water, tubs of protein powder, small bottles of booze, watches, rosaries, and cell phones...
The people stir a few minutes past 7 p.m. when a tiny man wearing white robes -- a long rectangle of cloth with Vegas-worthy golden sparkles hanging around his neck -- appears from a door to the left of the altar. A few weeks shy of his 89th birthday, Father Guglielmo Lauriola walks slowly across the raised altar area to a waiting chair. Here he sits, facing away from his congregation in the style of the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass, to read from laminated card prayers and songs devoted to the Virgin Mary. Aside from Jesus on the cross, she is the principal figure of veneration here at the 104-year-old church.

So the scene is set. This priest celebrates a Mass, after which, we're told "the show really starts."

The people line up in the same way they did when receiving Communion, but instead of a piece of consecrated bread, this time they're waiting their turn to hold Lauriola's hands for about 20 to 30 seconds as he offers each of them a special prayer. As Lauriola murmurs his blessing, the two men hold their hands up behind the person receiving it, their palms held out and a few inches away from the person's back, as if preparing for a trust fall at a work retreat.
It's a necessary move. After Lauriola releases his grip, some of the people stagger away as if stricken, caught by the waiting hands. Some need to be helped to the altar, where they kneel to pray. Every once in awhile, the blessed person will fall to the floor as if they fainted. Sometimes they may remain there for as long as 10 or 15 minutes while the rest of the congregation files around them to receive their own blessings, with their own reactions...
This is not an ordinary Catholic Mass — it's a healing Mass. The prayers here are for sick people, for deliverance. Some of the prayers are to be rid of evil, of the influence of the devil in their lives — to be free of the hold Satan has on their bodies and souls.
This is exactly the right place for that kind of prayer. This is the house of an exorcist. Lauriola is one of two Catholic exorcists — priests whose official duty it is to perform the Solemn Rite of Exorcism, the formal casting-out of the devil or a demon from a Catholic's body and soul — living and working in the Archdiocese of San Francisco…

At the very end of the article, the author explains that he was not allowed to attend a real exorcism, so he had to settle for a healing service, which he morphs into a quasi casting-out-of-devils time. 

Which this service definitely is not.

The reader is thrown off by a mixture of the two. As the article progresses, it gets odder. Exorcism is making a comeback in the Catholic Church, we’re informed, although it’s unclear whether it really left. Remember the headlines about Pope John Paul II performing exorcisms?

The author quotes Michael Cueno, a Fordham University professor who wrote a book on exorcism in America, as saying he’s not sure he actually saw demons at any of the 50 exorcisms he witnessed. However, Cueno’s book came out in 2001, which means he did his research during the 1990s, supposedly when exorcism was on the wane.

Other mistakes or inconsistencies pile on. A few paragraphs later, the author asserts that the concept of Satan is nearly absent from the Old Testament. I take it that he has not read Genesis 3, the first part of the book of Job, Ezekiel 28 and Isaiah 14 for starters. Then the author says:

Church doctrine teaches that the devil is a creation of God, who put Satan on earth to tempt mankind — not to torture us, but to show us the difference between good and evil.

The writer’s sudden jump into the second person is a bit strange, but even odder are his thoughts on the Satan/God duality, which contradicts what the New Testament says about God never tempting anyone (James 1:13). Maybe if he had said “test” instead of “tempt,” the writer would have been on better theological ground but still, Satan was a fallen angel who fell from heaven to Earth. He wasn’t planted here like a tree.

Elsewhere, he insinuates that Catholic politicians are interested in the exorcism trend, but he only finds one who will say so on the record. None of the others will return his calls and if I had been Nancy Pelosi, I wouldn’t have, either. The writer's efforts to force a political angle to this story seem contrived.

The article also reads like the reporter got a couple of reference books -- or church history links -- and ran through them all. His assertion that all witches in 17th century Europe were women is just wrong. In Iceland, for instance, most were men. There’s even a book out about male witches in early modern Europe, so there’s no excuse for that mistake.

The article continues through a pastiche of statements with no attribution, such as one maintaining that 15 percent of the Earth’s population has had at least one exorcism. He backs that by saying each baptized Catholic has had a mini-exorcism when they’ve been baptized. Having your parents say in your baptismal vows that you, as an infant, reject Satan, does not constitute the kind of exorcism proclaimed in the headline.

Another paragraph says that Europe “is the modern home of the occult,” then quotes one German scholar as saying New Age practices are rife there. One’s head spins trying to equate the two. More sources, please?

There were some good points to this piece, which at least pointed out the growing interest in the topic. I liked how, at the end, the reporter himself went up for prayer with the priest/exorcist and felt some odd sensations afterwards.

But there were enormous gaps, such as no mention of Protestant or Eastern Orthodox traditions on exorcism. The problem here is not just with the reporter as it is with whomever edited and oversaw this piece. Did no one spot the many inconsistencies or mistakes? If one of your reporters is going to muck about in heavy-duty topics like exorcism, wouldn’t it make sense to have some kind of Catholic expert proofread the piece?

What’s frustrating is there are a lot of good freelancers around who know a lot about the Catholic Church and its traditions, including exorcism. The piece we see here was not at all convincing that exorcism is a growing practice among Catholics. If a publication is going to assign a research-heavy piece like this to a reporter who has little to no experience on the Godbeat, the San Francisco Weekly might want to invest in a better editor.

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