Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Continued Interest in the Spike in Exorcisms: What's Behind This Development?

Andrew Sullivan linked a few days ago to a thought-provoking article this past May by Daniel Burke about the precipitous rise in exorcists (and exorcisms) in the Catholic church these days.  Burke notes that "[e]xorcism is experiencing a renaissance in American Catholicism," and there are more exorcists now than at any time in the history of the Catholic church in the U.S.

We actually had an instructive (well, instructive for me, at least) discussion of this topic here on Bilgrimage several months before Burke's article appeared, when Brian Gallagher commented on the story of Thomas Euteneuer, noting that he'd like to know what's behind the spike in exorcisms these days.  Exorcism Catholic-style (other religious groups also claim to drive demons out of people said to be possessed) was in the news in March this year, too, when Vatican exorcist Father Amorth announced that Satan was stalking the halls of the Holy See. 

The Vatican has been amping up talk about the exorcism thing for some time now, with suggestions that there's a greater need for trained exorcists, and that there aren't enough qualified exorcists to meet the need.  And so a course specially devoted to exorcism began several years ago at the pontifical university Regina Angelorum.

Andrew Sullivan's posting about Daniel Burke makes me wonder all over again, with Brian and other Bilgrimage readers: what's this all about?  Why now, this resurgence of interest in exorcism--and this resurgence of actual exorcisms?  As I think I've shared on this blog, this is a real-life question Steve and I have asked in the past few years, as one of his young family members has suffered from serious depression, and some other arch-conservative Catholic family members decided that she absolutely needed an exorcist.  And taken to an exorcist she was, though we remain very concerned about the mental health needs that may well go undiagnosed and untreated when people resort to magical-mystical solutions to problems like depression . . . .

So why now?   Is the Old Dickens really having a field day in the church and world right now, as many right-wing Catholics are wont to claim?  Or is something else behind the renewed interest in diabolical possession and exorcism in the Catholic church at present?  Historians of the witch craze in early modern Europe and America, including Hugh Trevor-Roper, note that at times of massive social dislocation and considerable social, economic, or political stress, people often craft narratives designed to reassure them that some higher power is in control of the chaos.

And, unfortunately, these narratives also frequently involve the targeting of some group or groups who are thought to be infecting the body politic through their dissidence, immorality, or general difference.  As were the "witches" of early modern Europe and America, these stigmatized others are frequently said to be in league with or possessed by the devil.  And so, in excluding or even killing them, we purify the body politic (a bow here to the social anthropology of Mary Douglas in Purity and Danger), and give ourselves the illusion that we've set our troubled society (and churches) back on course.

This is my own suspicion about why people want to revive the meme of diabolical possession and Catholic clerical control of the devil now, as one revelation after another breaks about priests abusing minors and bishops covering up the abuse, as women get more and more out of patriarchal control, as gay folks demand respect for their human rights, etc.  Yours?

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