Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Cracking Down on "Irregular Exorcisms"

The practice of exorcism is on the rise. In May, the Roman Catholic Church held a conference to train 250 new exorcists. According to organizers, more exorcists are needed because of the rise of atheism and secular humanism, which by some poorly articulated and utterly implausible mechanism leads to more people dabbling with the occult. But more exorcists means more exorcisms, and that brings its own set of problems.

Cardinal Giuseppe Betori, the Archbishop of Florence, recently delivered a missive to the priests of Tuscany reminding them of the strict procedures that exorcists are required to follow. According to church policy, before an exorcism can be performed the subject must pass a complex series of tests designed to exclude mental illness or any other mundane explanation for their symptoms. Apparently, some priests in the region have been disregarding this rule.

Around 15 official exorcisms have been conducted in Tuscany in recent years, according to the local press. However, dozens more have been performed without the say-so of church authorities, and the number of cases is increasing, prompting Cardinal Betori and the regional Bishops Conference to write to priests reminding them of their obligations.

The missive included the 20-year-old pastoral guidelines on dealing with demons and black magic, entitled “Regarding magic and demonology”, and called on priests to pay heed to the section headed “Exorcisms and healing prayers… pastoral rules and recommendations”.

A diocesan source quoted by La Nazione newspaper said: “Some priests, with the best intentions, are making themselves available to listen to these people and sometimes perform exorcisms on them in a way that is not permitted, not regular and not co-ordinated.”

Italy’s brutal and lingering recession has been blamed for a rise in mental health problems, which, the report says, might be confused with possession by some people.

Adherence to these protocols should be very important to representatives of the church, since they constitute the main difference between Roman Catholic exorcists and fly-by-night "demon busters" like the Teen Exorcist Squad who will, for example, happily conduct exorcisms over Skype at the drop of a hat - and, of course, for a "suggested donation."

I personally work with spirits and don't consider exorcism nonsense - it's one of the last remnants of real ceremonial magick left in the Christian tradition, and the practice of exorcism has a history that predates the Christian religion. However, genuine unwanted spiritual possession is rare, and mental illness is far more common. Hopefully exorcists will heed this missive and save their methods for those who really require them.

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Nerd said...

I don't see why there necessarily has to be a differentiation between "mental illness" and "possession" cases.

First of all, it could be the case that someone who is mentally ill could also be possessed by some sort of spirit or entity. Is there any research demonstrating that the two are mutually exclusive?

Second, might not "mental illness" be a possible manifestation of possession phenomena? Maybe the thorazine is just "treating the symptom." After all, it's not an actual "cure." One has to "stay on the meds," as the say.

That said, the idea of exorcism has been unduly promoted in popular culture do to horror movies and whatnot. If there was a case of genuine possession, I would not want to trust it into the hands of some teenage cult christian whack jobs.

Scott Stenwick said...

The short answer here is that no, there isn't any reason the two have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, the Roman Catholic protocols don't suggest that either - they are specifically looking for signs of possession that are distinct from mental illness, but a person could certainly manifest both.

The reason that the church exercises such diligence is that whenever the line between mental illness and possession has gotten blurred, the practice of exorcism is widely abused. For example, the witch hunter I wrote about recently who says when children cry at night they are harboring "vampiric spirits" performs exorcisms on kids who exhibit normal childhood behavior. Then, if it "doesn't work" said kids are sometimes set upon by angry mobs. And so forth.

The main problem is that 1 in 4 people suffer from mental illness. Possession is far rarer than that, though I imagine there's probably some overlap.