The Atlantic dares to ask if exorcisms (and thus the supernatural) may be real after all

Five years ago, I had a chance to eat lunch with the late William Peter Blatty, an articulate Catholic apologist who won an Academy Award for turning his novel, "The Exorcist," into a stunning Hollywood screenplay.

Yes, I called Blatty a Catholic apologist.

Why? In part because he viewed his masterwork as a vehicle for criticizing this materialistic age. Here is a chunk of that column, in which Blatty explains his motives. In “The Exorcist”:

The fictional Father Damien Karras experiences paralyzing doubts after his mother's death. Blatty was typing the second page of his earliest take on the story when he received the call that his mother had died.

"I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to make a statement that the grave is not the end, that there is more to life than death," said Blatty, in a Bethesda, Md., diner near his home, not far from the Georgetown neighborhood described in "The Exorcist."

After studying the explicit details in the journals of exorcists, he decided that a story about "what happens in these cases could really be a boost to the faith. It could show people that the spiritual world is real."

The bottom line: "The Exorcist" scared the hell out of millions of people. 

This brings me to the feature story in The Atlantic that stirred up lots of online conversation over the weekend, the one with this haunting double-decker headline:

American Exorcism

Priests are fielding more requests than ever for help with demonic possession, and a centuries-old practice is finding new footing in the modern world.

A serious piece of journalism on this topic faces a big question: How much space should be dedicated to the views of people who, well, think demon possession is real? As Blatty noted, it is impossible to talk about this topic — exorcisms — without debating evidence that the material world is not all that there is. (Click here for a Rod Dreher discussion of this angle.)

Toward the end of this long feature, reporter Mike Mariani offers this summary of what he was seeing, hearing and feeling:

Pore over these spiritual and psychiatric frameworks long enough, and the lines begin to blur. If someone lapses into an alternate identity that announces itself as a demon bent on wresting away that person’s soul, how can anyone prove otherwise? Psychiatry has only given us models through which to understand these symptoms, new cultural contexts to replace the old ones. No lab test can pinpoint the medical source of these types of mental fractures. In one sense, the blurry shadow-selves that surface in what we call dissociative states and the demons that Catholic exorcists believe they are casting out are not so different: Both are incorporeal forces of ambiguous agency and intent, rupturing a continuous personality and forever eluding proof.

Uh, OK. I read that as one of saying that it’s hard to dismiss the mysteries that emerge when researchers record and then transcribe what happens in exorcism rites.

Researchers — secular and religious — have been wrestling with this puzzle for decades. For many, the debates kicked into high gear with “Hostage to the Devil” in 1976, in which the late Father Malachi Martin published notes and partial transcripts from several exorcism rites.

At the heart of “The Exorcist” was material linked to materials describing a famous 1949 exorcism case, which Blatty encountered while studying at Georgetown University. In the Atlantic piece, Mariani noted:

Several researchers have since cast doubt on whether anything supernatural took place during the exorcisms, but none has been able to definitively contradict the priests’ accounts.

Part of The Exorcist’s appeal may have been the faint but unmistakable sense that it was drawn from real events.

Are we talking about reality or illusion? Isn’t this another way of asking if religious faith is or isn’t fake? So a journalism story about exorcisms is wrestling with important demons, when viewed from a strictly secular point of view.

But why is this a hot topic right now? Why is the demand for trained exorcists on the rise? Here is another piece of summary material, hear the end of the feature, quoting historian Adam Jortner of Auburn University:

“When the influence of the major institutional Churches is curbed,” he said, people “begin to look for their own answers.” And at the same time that there has been a rebirth in magical thinking, Jortner added, American culture has become steeped in movies, TV shows, and other media about demons and demonic possession.

At this point, many readers will start thinking about G.K. Chesterton and the rising tide of superstition that often swamps life in highly secular cultures. See this column that I wrote after a visit to Prague in the Czech Republic.

Back to the piece in The Atlantic: Frankly, it’s hard to summarize or criticize Mariani’s work with a few selected quotations. That’s a compliment, as far as I am concerned.

However, this long, deep feature does contain one important hole, one crucial topic that was left unexplored.

To show some context, please consider this passage:

The conviction that demons exist — and that they exist to harass, derange, and smite human beings — stretches back as far as religion itself. … But far from being confined to a past of Demiurges and evil eyes, belief in demonic possession is widespread in the United States today. Polls conducted in recent decades by Gallup and the data firm YouGov suggest that roughly half of Americans believe demonic possession is real. The percentage who believe in the devil is even higher, and in fact has been growing: Gallup polls show that the number rose from 55 percent in 1990 to 70 percent in 2007.

Perhaps as a result, demand for exorcisms — the Catholic Church’s antidote to demonic possession — seems to be growing as well. Though the Church does not keep official statistics, the exorcists I interviewed for this article attest to fielding more pleas for help every year.

Father Vincent Lampert, the official exorcist for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, told me in early October that he’d received 1,700 phone or email requests for exorcisms in 2018, by far the most he’s ever gotten in one year. Father Gary Thomas — a priest whose training as an exorcist in Rome was documented in The Rite, a book published in 2009 and made into a movie in 2011 — said that he gets at least a dozen requests a week. Several other priests reported that without support from church staff and volunteers, their exorcism ministries would quickly swallow up their entire weekly schedules.

The Church has been training new exorcists in Chicago, Rome, and Manila. Thomas told me that in 2011 the U.S. had fewer than 15 known Catholic exorcists. Today, he said, there are well over 100.

Ah, why was there such a shortage of exorcists in the first place?

Apparently, quite a few Catholic bishops didn’t think it was necessary to teach priests how to perform the rites contained in “Of Exorcisms and Certain Supplications (Latin: De Exorcismis et Supplicationibus Quibusdam).”

Why was this the case? In 2009, I had a chance to talk with Father Gary Thomas about that. He was rather blunt, when describing the ancient realities described in the modern version of this work.

While the new rite warned exorcists not to confuse diabolic possession with mental illness, it also affirmed ancient teachings about the reality of spiritual warfare, as illustrated by biblical accounts of Jesus performing exorcisms. 

Truth is, stressed Thomas, the events of Holy Week — especially Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter — make no sense without real demons, real temptations and a real hell. But many Catholics disagree. 

"There are plenty of bishops and priests who simply do not believe in Satan and demons and they have told me so," he said. "That makes a difference. What most people do not realize is that bishops are like independent contractors and they can do whatever they damn well want to do. ... That's why we don't have many exorcists in America."

Ah, there’s the rub.

Apparently this clash between a materialistic and supernatural worldview can be found in many Catholic seminaries and bureaucracies, even in an era in which recent popes (St. John Paul II, for example) have made their views clear on this topic (yes, including Pope Francis).

So, yes, the power of Catholic modernists and materialists is an important hole in the Atlantic report. That’s another important debate to cover.

With that in mind, let’s end with this material from Mariani, describing how exorcism may be connected to other trends in the age in which we live:

Nearly every Catholic exorcist I spoke with cited a history of abuse — in particular, sexual abuse — as a major doorway for demons. Thomas said that as many as 80 percent of the people who come to him seeking an exorcism are sexual-abuse survivors. According to these priests, sexual abuse is so traumatic that it creates a kind of “soul wound,” as Thomas put it, that makes a person more vulnerable to demons.

The exorcists — to be clear — aren’t saying sexual abuse torments people to such an extent that they come to believe they’re possessed; the exorcists contend that abuse fosters the conditions for actual demonic possession to take hold. But from a secular standpoint, the link to sexual abuse helps explain why someone might become convinced that he or she is being menaced by something sinister and overpowering.

The correlation with abuse struck me as eerie, given the scandals that have rocked the Church. But it doesn’t seem to answer the “why now?” question behind exorcism’s comeback; no evidence exists to suggest that child abuse has increased. The second doorway — an interest in the occult — might offer at least a partial explanation.

Most of the exorcists I interviewed said they believed that demonic possession was becoming more common — and they cited a resurgence in magic, divination, witchcraft, and attempts to communicate with the dead as a primary cause. According to Catholic teaching, engaging with the occult involves accessing parts of the spiritual realm that may be inhabited by demonic forces. “Those practices become the engine that allows the demon to come in,” Thomas said.

In recent years, journalists and academics have documented a renewed interest in magic, astrology, and witchcraft, primarily among Millennials. “The occult is a substitution for God,” Thomas said. “People want to take shortcuts, and the occult is all about power and knowledge.”

Yes, there is much more to be said about that.

Read it all.

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