Throughout human history there has been the idea that outside forces such as evil spirits and demons are pushing up against our reality, looking to enter our world and indeed to invade our minds and bodies. The idea of spititual possession is nothing new at all, but the notion of it that is perhaps most lodged in the public consciousness is tied to the Roman Catholic Church, and the various movies and TV shows bult on this have informed the views of the public on what a demonic possession and exorcism is, but how many really know what is going on in this area within the Vatican? How much of our public peception of exorcisms is true and how much of it is fantasy? Demonic possession and exorcisms within the Catholic Church have long been one of the most misunderstood phenomena there are, and here we will take a closer look at the history and reality of how it works.
Since so much of the common perception of the nature and application of exorcism is shaped by the exaggerations of movie scripts and television programs and there is much misunderstanding, it is perhaps best to first look at just how the Catholic church defines demonic possession and exorcisms, and some of the history behind the practice. In Roman Catholicism, exorcism is a sacramental, that is,one of a number of sacred signs instituted by the Church "to sanctify different circumstances of life," but not a sacrament, which are the seven sacraments of the Church which were instituted by Christ himself, used in baptism or confession. As a sacramental, exorcism prepares one for the grace of the Sacrament, and there are two main forms of exorcism, which are explained by the United States Conference of Catholic BIshops as follows:
Exorcisms are divided into two kinds or forms. Simple or minor forms of exorcism are found in two places: first, for those preparing for Baptism, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) and the Rite of Baptism for Children both call for minor exorcisms; secondly, the appendix of Exorcisms and Related Supplications includes a series of prayers which may be used by the faithful. The second kind is the solemn or "major exorcism," which is a rite that can only be performed by a bishop or a by priest, with the special and express permission of the local ordinary (cf. Code of Canon Law, can. 1172). This form is directed at the expulsion of demons or to the liberation [of a person] from demonic possession.
In the 15th century, Catholic exorcists were both priestly and lay, since every Christian was considered as having the power to command demons and drive them out in the name of Christ. In those days there were no real formal rules for how to go about such things, and it was mostly just a hodgepodge of various prayers, blessings, and invocations, passages from grimoires, or whatever else the exorcist thought would possibly work. Most of it was just throwing stuff against the wall to see what would stick. It was not until 1614 that the first official guidelines for exorcism were established, but it was still open to both priests and laypeople, and it would not be until 1917 that the Code of Canon Law would become the first official comprehensive codification of church law, and it mandated that each bishop appoint an official exorcist, who had to be a trained priest and had to follow strict guidelines on which prayers and scriptures to use.
For most of the 20th century, exorcism was incredibly rare in Western nations and often regarded with embarrassment by Catholic authorities. It was seen as being occult and pervaded with magic and mysticism, which not condoned by the Catholic church, and of which The Catholic Encyclopedia (1908) says: "Superstition ought not to be confounded with religion, however much their history may be interwoven, nor magic, however white it may be, with a legitimate religious rite." For these reasons, a worldwide meeting of Catholic bishops was held between 1962 and 1965 with the aim of downplaying the more supernatural elements of the Catholic tradition. The idea was to modernize the concept of exorcism for new generations, which was seen as especially important in the face of a growing counterculture movement that embraced the supernatural books and films that paved the way for The Exorcist, which thrust demonic possession and exorcisms into the limelight and brought with them many misunderstandings on how it all works due to their depiction in popular media. William O'Malley, a Jesuit priest who had a role in advising on the film The Exorcist, would say of the cultural phenomenon that would be spawned in the movie’s wake:
I was teaching at a Jesuit high school in Rochester at the time, and for a while the phone wouldn’t stop ringing. … They called looking for an instant fix – pleading with me to expel their own demons, their kids’ demons, even their cats’ demons. It’s not that I rule out the possibility of demonic possession. As the saying goes, ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ But this movie seems to have set off some really strange vibrations.
Considering all of the popular ideas and misunderstandings on exorcisms in the wake of the film and others like it, it was more than ever seen as some sort of spooky supernatural ritual and that the church actively embraced demons without giving any of it a second thought. People had it in their heads the image of a priest doing battle with a head-spinning, pea-soup hurling possessed person, and on top of this thousands were claiming demonic possession. The Catholic Church desperately wanted the practice to be taken seriously again, and to this end, The International Association of Exorcists was formed in 1990, and in 1996 the Vatican overhauled its rules on exorcisms.
The 90-page leather-bound Latin manual is called De Exorcismis et supplicationibus quibusdam, (Exorcisms and Related Supplications), and was meant to be a new guide and primer on exorcisms and to break from the past to drive the ritual forward into the future. For instance, the new manual goes to great lengths to point out the difference between demonic possession and mental illness, reinforces the idea that classic signs of demonic possession such as changing voices, speaking foreign or ancient languages of which the possessed has no prior knowledge; supernatural abilities and strength; knowledge of hidden or remote things which the possessed has no way of knowing; an aversion to anything holy; profuse blasphemy and/or sacrilege, antipathy towards entering a church, speaking Jesus's name, or hearing scripture, and unnatural bodily postures and change in the person's face and body can all possibly denote sickness rather than evil and further enforces strict regulations for diagnosing a possession and who may conduct an exorcism and how, namely a priest specially appointed to the post by his bishop using sanctioned prayers that should not diverge from what is written.
Contrary to popular belief, the Vatican does not take exorcism lightly, and does not go about carrying out exorcisms willy nilly. The church goes through a stringent process of diligent inquiry consulting not only experts in spiritual matters, but also experts in medical and psychiatric science. There is great effort made to declare “moral certitude" that the one to be exorcized is truly possessed by demonic forces, and not merely suffering from physical ailments or psychological issues, and the United States Conference of Catholic BIshops explains:
It is advisable that every diocese establish a protocol to respond to inquiries made by the faithful who claim to be demonically afflicted. As part of the protocol, an assessment should occur to determine the true state of the person. Only after a thorough examination including medical, psychological, and psychiatric testing might the person be referred to the exorcist for a final determination regarding demonic possession. To be clear, the actual determination of whether a member of the faithful is genuinely possessed by the devil is made by the Church, even if individuals claim to be possessed through their own self-diagnosis or psychosis.
Moral certainty is classically understood as falling between the two poles of absolute certainty and probability. Bearing that in mind, moral certitude is achieved through the examination of proofs which are weighed in accordance with the conscience of the one passing judgment. Therefore, the exorcist must utilize whatever resources are available to him when investigating a claim of demonic possession along with input from medical and mental health professionals. The exorcist is instructed to employ the "utmost circumspection and prudence" before proceeding to the rite. Throughout his ministry, an exorcist must establish a balance within his own mind between not believing too easily that the devil is responsible for what is manifesting, and attributing all possible manifestations solely to a natural, organic source.
As part of the evaluation process (which can be established in a diocesan protocol), the afflicted member of the faithful should avail himself/herself of a thorough medical and psychological/psychiatric evaluation. Frequently, individuals present themselves claiming to be afflicted in any number of ways. Historically, however, the Church has exercised caution when evaluating such individuals for fear of unnecessarily drawing attention to the machinations of the devil or giving credit where no credit is due.
In short, there is perhaps no one more skeptical and careful about the idea of demonic possession and exorcism that the Catholic Church itself, and the ritual and next steps may only be taken when any suspicion of mental illness has been eliminated. It is for this reason that Vatican approved exorcisms are in fact extremely rare, although there are often clandestine, non-officially sanctioned exorcisms carried out by renegade exorcists. If an exorcism is actually deemed necessary, the method for carrying one out are to be strictly followed as outlined in the “De Exorcismis et supplicationibus quibusdam” by an officially sanctioned priest who has been specifically trained for this duty. The procedures listed in the manual say that priests must use only certain prayers – the Lord's Prayer, Hail Mary, and the Athanasian Creed- as well as a cross and holy water. The possessed is allowed to be bound if they are considered a danger to themselves or those around them, and although it could take days, weeks, or even months and years of constant prayer and exorcisms, the manual expressly requires that the ritual be finished, les the demon pursue the priest or another host. The gist of all of this is that exorcisms are a last resort and its procedures strictly codified rather than just some priest who has no idea what he is doing going in and flailing around spitting out whatever prayer pops into their head.
Interestingly, the Vatican offers a course called "Exorcism and Prayer of Liberation” to teach these principles, which in 2019 for the first time was opened to members of other Christian denominations. It is all rather curious how the popular image of exorcisms and the Vatican's more somber outlook diverge. This is not a chaotic area full of freaks and weirdos that are immediately embraced as being possessed, but rather a strictly regulated, codified corner of the Church. It in no way means that demonic posessions are real, but it certainly serves to present the phenomenon and how it is approached by the Church in a new light.