November 14, 2010


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An Associated Press release about Roman Catholic Bishops holding a two-day training session in Baltimore on how to conduct exorcisms (Springfield News-Leader Nov 13, 2010: p. 8A) is astonishing! According to the news story, major exorcisms can only be performed by a priest (not a layperson) with permission from a Bishop, although every baptism in the Catholic Church involves a “minor exorcism.” In this case an exorcism involves casting out the devil or demons by the intervention of the Roman Catholic Church.

     What are the signs of demon possession accepted by the Church? The article cites several: when a person is “writhing and screaming,” or is reacting violently “to holy water or anything holy,” or is speaking in a language the possessed person doesn’t know,” or is performing “abnormal displays of strength.” It requires “discernment” by the exorcist to know when to attempt the rite, and the exorcist consults physicians and psychiatrists to ensure that the person does not suffer some physical or mental illness. The Roman Catholic Church even has an official handbook for the rite to guide the exorcist: De exorcismis et supplicationibus quibusdam (Concerning Exorcisms and certain Supplications).

     This practice on the part of Catholics and others raises serious questions about what is responsible behavior for religion in the 21st century, and represents a frightening relapse to pre-Enlightenment thinking about the human psyche. No wonder (to quote the article) “skepticism about the rite persists in the American [Catholic] church.” Those among us who are heirs of the Enlightenment share the American Catholic skepticism and therefore seriously question the competence of physicians and psychiatrists (not to mention church officials) who are a party to such a practice. Such a consultancy that results in the approval of the rite surely is not endorsed by the American Medical Association.

     It is impossible to escape the roots of superstition and magic that undergirds and empowers the rite of exorcism. Thinking that the world is inhabited by devils and demons belongs to our pre-critical and superstitious past, and has no place in the spiritual care of souls in the 21st century.

     Let’s take just one example. Holy water is water believed to be sanctified by a priest. Actually, nothing happens to the water; holy water is not a molecule different from unsanctified water. What has changed is how the water is viewed by those who believe a priest has the (spiritual/magical) power to do such a thing. Put the same amount of plain tap water and sanctified tap water in two different glasses and show them later to the priest; and not even the priest will be able to tell the difference. So how would a demon know which is which?

     Demons survive today only in the minds of those who have been unable to escape their naïve past, and groups that practice rites of exorcism are reinforcing the worst aspects of a medieval mentality by pandering to human superstition.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 2:33pm

Hi, Dr. Hedrick,

While the role of exorcism is fading away, due to advances in modern psychiatry, excorcisms have still been performed. Perhaps the most famous in America was in St. Louis in the 1940s that insipired the novel, and eventual movie, The Exorcist. Plus, psychology--although maybe as a last resort--might approve of an exorcism, because of how psychologists believe exorcisms work. Psychologist do not actually believe that the person is really possessed--he or she just thinks that they are. Therefore, by performing the exorcism, the person "possessed," isn't supposed to be "possessed" anymore, so they "return to normal." I guess in closing, I might as well say what holy water is--just for those who might be unfamiliar with it. Basically it is what is called a "sacramental" that reminds believers of their baptism. In other words, it's "Baptismal Water." There are references to it being used to keep demons away in either the Didache or the Apostolic Constitutions, I can't remember which now.

Anyway, that's my long response, take care,

Cody Hayes
Posted by Cody Hayes on 11/16/2010 at 11:31am

Presumably the efficacy of the holy water depends on the demon's *belief* that the water is sanctified?

Charles Hedrick
Cowell College, UCSC
Santa Cruz, CA
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 11/14/2010 at 10:53pm

That would be my guess. But what is a demon to think when it sees a guy in a black suit and a collar tossing water at him or her (yes there are male and female demons—at least folks in antiquity thought so)? Of course if the demon is inside a person then the demon only knows what the possessed person knows—unless one wishes to ascribe to it mind reading abilities that work at a distance. Hence if the priest tossed unsanctified tap water on the demon the demon would likely react anyway (perhaps the handbook will give instructions on how the demon is supposed to react).

Chas, the elder
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 11/15/2010 at 9:05am