Such was the case last month when I came across an article, in The New York Times, whose headline read, “For Catholics, Interest in Exorcism Is Revived”. In it, reporter Laurie Goodstein described a recent conference of Catholic Bishops whose purpose was to train Catholic clergy “to distinguish who really needs an exorcism from who really needs a psychiatrist, or perhaps some pastoral care.” It was attended by 66 priests and 56 bishops. The reporter quoted Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, who organized the conference: “[Exorcism] is only used in those cases where the Devil is involved in an extraordinary sort of way in terms of actually being in possession of a person. But it’s rare, it’s extraordinary, so the use of exorcism is also rare and extraordinary. But we have to be prepared.”
One Catholic scholar, R. Scott Appleby, a professor of American Catholic history at the University of Notre Dame, thinks that the timing of this conference makes perfect sense.
“What they’re trying to do in restoring exorcisms,” he says, “is to strengthen and enhance what seems to be lost in the church, which is the sense that the church is not like any other institution. It is supernatural, and the key players in that are the hierarchy and the priests who can be given the faculties of exorcism. It is a strategy for saying: ‘We are not the Federal Reserve, and we are not the World Council of Churches. We deal with angels and demons.’”
Setting aside images of Linda Blair’s head-spinning, bile-spewing, Devil-possessed character in William Friedkin’s 1973 film, The Exorcist, and, in the interest of full-disclosure, acknowledging that rituals of exorcism are also known to have been part of Jewish practice in centuries past [though they focused on possession of the living by the souls of the dead, not the Devil], I find the news of a conference on practical exorcism in the Catholic Church both amusing and disturbing on a number of levels.
That, in 2011, the same institution that mercilessly hounded Galileo should still affirm the existence of an extrinsic and irrational source of evil–The Devil–is simply disheartening. Our world needs more, not less, rational thinking. I shudder for the “possessed” Catholic whose priest decides that exorcism is to be preferred to psychiatric evaluation and intervention. I also lament the growing trend within the Catholic Church toward conservative views and practices, a seemingly conscious rejection of Nostre Aetate, the document that enshrined significant Church reforms initiated by Pope John XXIII in 1965.
The Judaism that I embrace and cherish coexists easily with the world of ration and reason. While it affirms the reality of the spiritual and the sacred, it does not posit a source of evil that stand in opposition to God or that is a free agent, seeking to sow seeds of evil in the world by taking possession of hapless souls. “The Devil made me do it!” has never been, in Judaism, a defense for transgressions.
One of the daily blessings that we encounter in our siddur (prayer book) praises the God “sh’asani Yisrael….who has made me a Jew.” Sometimes all it takes is a newspaper article to remind me how much I value that blessing!