Quote the Devil’s advocate?

exorcistOne of the big questions that religion writers discuss when they are in private and speak freely is this one: Are we supposed to challenge people when they claim that they have had some kind of unique, supernatural spiritual experience? Do we, somehow, try to dig into the details and challenge this kind of account?

I thought of that the other day when I was reading a Washington Post story — dateline, Poland — about the revival in parts of Europe of formal rites of exorcism.

Now stop and think about this from the point of view of a celebrity atheist. To accept an exorcism rite as, well, non-crazy, one has to embrace all kinds of beliefs about reality and life as we know it. For starters, you have to believe in supernatural evil and that implies supernatural good. That’s why it was such a major story when the Vatican released a revised exorcism rite a decade or so ago. Modernist Catholics were embarrassed, to say the least.

So Craig Whitlock’s story in the Post was interesting, in part, because it never — ever — challenged the whole idea of the rite. There are no skeptics, no modernist Catholic intellectuals who wave their hands in disgust at the whole discussion. This is a case when I really think the voice on the theological left is urgently needed. There should be debate on this issue, debate that defines and underlines key beliefs on both sides.

Here is a key chunk of the story:

The Rev. Andrzej Trojanowski, a soft-spoken Pole, plans to build a “spiritual oasis” that will serve as Europe’s only center dedicated to performing exorcisms. With the blessing of the local Catholic archbishop and theological support from the Vatican, the center will aid a growing number of Poles possessed by evil forces or the devil himself, he said. …

Exorcism — the church rite of expelling evil spirits from tortured souls — is making a comeback in Catholic regions of Europe. Last July, more than 300 practitioners gathered in the Polish city of Czestochowa for the fourth International Congress of Exorcists.

About 70 priests serve as trained exorcists in Poland, about double the number of five years ago. An estimated 300 exorcists are active in Italy. Foremost among them: the Rev. Gabriele Amorth, 82, who performs exorcisms daily in Rome and is dean of Europe’s corps of demon-battling priests.

“People don’t pray anymore, they don’t go to church, they don’t go to confession. The devil has an easy time of it,” Amorth said in an interview. “There’s a lot more devil worship, people interested in satanic things and seances, and less in Jesus.”

So, journalists out there, raise your hands if you think that Satan is real and personal. Ditto for demons, in general. How many of you agree with authoritative voices featured in this story that say Satan can work through yoga, New Age rituals and addiction to the Internet?

How many of you think the Post should have allowed skeptics to challenge the following information? Is this real?

Exorcists said the people they help can be in the grip of evil to varying degrees. Only a small fraction, they said, are completely possessed by demons — which can cause them to display inhuman strength, speak in exotic tongues, recoil in the presence of sacred objects or overpower others with a stench. In those cases, the exorcists must confront the devil directly, using the power of the church to order it to abandon its host.

Thumbs up or thumbs down. Click “comment.”

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • astorian

    Even William Peter Blatty included passages in his book alluding to the Council of Trent, where the Church decreed that every and all conventional medical diagnosis should be pursued before an exorcism is considered.

    So, while I appreciate the absence of sneers, a raised eyebrow would have been nice.

  • Jerry

    How many of you agree with authoritative voices featured in this story that say Satan can work through yoga, New Age rituals and addiction to the Internet?

    This is a classic example of a certain kind of story that basically just uncritically reports one point of view with scant or any attention to other perspectives. Even beyond the question of whether or not evil is a “person” or a “force”, there is an unchallenged assumption that evil cannot work through religious institutions. Given recent revelations of child abuse, that assumption can be challenged.

  • http://augustinepoodle.blogspot.com Colm

    So is the question whether a journalist should always include a critical/dissenting voice when reporting on religion? If so, I have to disagree. What would it have accomplished? The only assumption present is that non-Catholics (and unserious Catholics) don’t believe in the Church’s power to exorcise, nor share the Church’s definition of evil. The article as is gives the reader, regardless of creed, a good insight into the Catholic Church’s use of exorcism – which is exactly what it should do.

    Thumbs down.

  • Stoo

    “There’s a lot more devil worship”

    I don’t buy that a lot of people are setting out to worship an actual personal supernatural evil antigod being. I don’t even think most satanists do that themselves.

    Also what’s a “theological left” and what does leftright have to do with exorcism?

  • Stoo

    Oh as for the skeptical, it’s almost so obvious that it doesn’t need to be voiced. Like if reports came out of Elvis found working in a kebab shop in Preston, I’m not sure we’d really need historians producing reams of evidence against.

  • http://www.thegoodcity.com Jon Swerens

    I think Stoo is right. Does the tone of the story make sense if we imagine that the reporter knows his audience would never believe in such a thing as devils, let alone exorcism?

  • http://groups.yahoo.com/group/NonDualBibleVerses/ Eric Chaffee

    Terry says “For starters, you have to believe in supernatural evil and that implies supernatural good.” Scripture tells us, early on, to ‘beware of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good AND evil’ [emphasis added], so there is basis for questioning this practice on scriptural grounds. Yet it seems clear that some people need help deeply.

    Jesus seems to cause evil spirits to be self seen, and thus depart hastily, into a herd of swine, for example. The demoniac in Mark 4 and Luke 8 appears to awaken to the fact that those thoughts had never been the man’s own; and he is so thoroughly healed that Jesus tells him he needs no apprenticeship with Jesus, but is ready to go home and show the neighbors ‘the power of a changed life.’ Yes, Jesus had deep faith in the man’s true nature. Awesome!

    But was this exorcism? Is it possible to evict darkness from light if they never truly mingle? I appreciate the reporter’s recognition that there is a story here, but would have appreciated a deeper inquiry regarding the theological underpinnings. That takes deep research and time — not always an option — but possible in a follow up (by the same reporter, or by others).


  • Chuck

    I disagree. Must there be balance in a religious article about the devil in modern society? Should there then be balance in every religious article regarding God, i.e. the local agnostic who chimes in that God is dead at the end of each story on the Southern Baptist Convention? If there are followers of Christianity, Christ leads us to God. If we believe that the Bible is the truth about God, it would follow that the Bible is also the truth about the devil. A story regarding exorcism is a story about that segment of Christianity. To accept or reject those parts of the Bible discussing satan is the subject of another story entirely. Would an article regarding Tridentine Latin Mass have to have an alternate opinion from one who feels Liturgy in worship is old fashioned and unneccessary? This story stands on it’s own. Whether or not it is important in our modern world is up to each reader to decide.

  • http://groups.yahoo.com/group/NonDualBibleVerses/ Eric Chaffee

    Chuck, you say ‘If there are followers of Christianity, Christ leads us to God.’ What then are we to extract from the lesson afforded us by the ‘Sons of Sceva’ who attempted exorcism but failed miserably? (see Acts 19:14ff.) They had attempted to cast out Satan in the name of Jesus.

    Yes, the story stands on its own. But Terry asks about the propriety of allowing skeptical reporters to engage in deeper questioning. That’s the question posed to us. I say thumbs up.


  • Fuinseoig

    Well, I was wincing from the first sentence: “This wind-swept village is bracing for an invasion of demons, thanks to a priest who believes he can defeat Satan.”

    I agree to an extent with Terry, but I don’t think you need a voice saying “Must we be burdened forever with these mediaeval practices? Is there to be no progress?”

    An unsensational account of the theology and practice of exorcism would have been nice.

    I think this was just going for the ‘exotic quaint beliefs of the natives’ angle; it would have been a perfect Hallowe’en story. But it’s written along the lines of ‘reviewing the latest horror movie’: no reviewer ever starts off “Well, we all know there are no such things as ghosts/werewolves/zombies” but that’s the assumption. Same here.

  • Julia

    This story stands on it’s own. Whether or not it is important in our modern world is up to each reader to decide.

    I agree. And I’d add that the continued existence of exorcism in the Catholic Church is more regional and cultural than theological.

    I have a psychiatrist brother who told me about a native American who was admitted to the hospital with unspecified diagnosis whose horrible medical condition defied explanation, but he was incoherent and could not provide any useful information. As his worsening test results confirmed his rapid physical deterioration, nobody could figure out what to do.

    Then in the middle of the night, a contingent of Native Americans from his tribe and in full tribal dress came into to the hospital and took over his room. They performed some kind of ritual over him and by the next morning he was completely well and could be discharged. Turns out that the tribal council had pronounced some kind of anathema on him for some infraction of the tribe’s mores. The ceremony absolved him and restored his standing in the tribe.

    Some (maybe many) people still perceive evil as a personified being. If exorcism helps them, why not? There’s a mind/body connection that most physicians recognize. It isn’t just malingerers and hypochondriacs who have illnesses that can’t be dealt with in the approved modern fashion.

    I know intelligent, professionals who buy statues of St Joseph and bury them upside down in their yards to facilitate the sale of their homes – and they are not all Catholics. Go figure.

  • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog.html Jason Pitzl-Waters

    I think it is very interesting that so many comments here are pro leaving out critical voices. I hope that commitment doesn’t waver when the next article concerning modern Paganism appears. I know that tmatt is a pro-critical voices kinda guy, but I wonder how many journalists let the “mainstream” faiths slide when it comes to things like this, but crave to “report the controversy” when it is a faith outside the mainstream.

    How many of you agree with authoritative voices featured in this story that say Satan can work through yoga, New Age rituals and addiction to the Internet?

    If I believed any of those things, I’d have converted to Catholicism a long time ago.

  • Dennis Colby

    I think this is typical of feature stories that report on any kind of unfamiliar religious practice or tradition. I don’t know that I need to be told that not everyone believes in the validity of these practices or traditions. The fact that it’s assumed the readers will be unfamiliar with the practice seems to eliminate the need for Christopher Hitchens or someone to say, “It’s all nonsense.” It’s good reporting: you’re describing something most people won’t know about, and you’re allowing the people who believe it to explain themselves.

  • Craig

    Thanks for a good blog. I came here by accident and at first winched “oh no, not another Religions are Right, the rest of the world is going to Hell site”, but plesantly found a reasonable discussion about interesting things. Very rare on the internet and specifically with respect to religion.

    Many of the comments and lessons here could and SHOULD be applied beyond the topics you cover.

    Very nicely done.

    I think this exorcicm piece reflects a conflict in our culture. The current and popular reading of the bible versus what it actually says. And unfortunately, it actually says some pretty wierd stuff.

    I’m no journalist, and I’m not religious either, but I believe experiences in my life point to things that cannot be measured using scientific instruments. Things like precognition, spirits attached to houses, feeling anothers very specific pain… stuff like that. I think of myself as a scientist, and yet I am untroubled, as 130 years ago, that would describe most electricity, etc.

    As Genesis could be taken to accurately describe the Big Bang to a bunch of illiterate sheep herders, perhaps other aspects of religious texts point to undiscovered scientific truths. Maybe not, but maybe so.

    Re: the piece, I believe an accurate description of the events, perhaps told in an interesting way, is a wonderful thing. If an event is simply observed and reported, balance is not needed. How is this different than a piece on indiginous tribes in south america not wearing shirts, or scientists that wear lead blankets near xray machines?

    If this were part of a longer story that had a more pervasive presence, telling another side would be useful and informative.

  • Craig

    Also, I would be curious to know if y’all would support a similar piace on American Indian spirituality (probably) or Pagan rituals involving cutting of their own skin to help heal an emotional loss (probably not). Or, a nice fella like Richard Dawkins and his reasonable discussion on the human mind anthropomorphisizing natural events, assigning motive and emotion, and calling it God’s Will.

    (btw: I personally see ‘god’ as a sort of quantum mechanics super-Observer, and a very real force in our Reality.)

    Related link: lyrics to a song called The Christians and the Pagans. Has a nice sentiment. http://www.guntheranderson.com/v/data/thechris.htm

  • Dave

    I follow Jason’s logic in this one. Sometime this month (because it happens every month) a Wiccan coven will “call down the Moon” on its high priestess, inviting the Goddess to, basically, possess her and speak through her. (The rest of the ritual as scripted is essentially a default in case the Goddess declines to show, which is what usually happens.) It’s hard to imagine why this should be newsworthy but, if it should, there is no need for anyone either from the theological right to weigh in calling it demonolatry or from the theological left to be invited to call it New Age self-indulgence. Thumbs down.

  • http://kingslynn.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    It is a not at all well-kept secret that exorcisms are performed in that bastion of enlightened liberalism, the Episcopal Church. I know of a case in which it was done, and one can look in the Book of Occasional Services and see the provisions for doing it.

  • http://blog.kevinbasil.com/ Basil

    The question is not, “Should dissenting voices be heard in every religion piece,” but, rather, “Should dissenting voices be heard from within a large, diverse tradition when practices within that tradition are highlighted in a piece.” I for one would have liked to have heard some of the variety of Catholic views on this subject. I would not be looking for a simple, “Hans Kung pontificated thus…” (In other words, I would be dissatisfied with a quotation from the furthest extreme, as if that diversified the piece.) Rather, I would be interested in hearing from the actual diversity of Catholic thought on the issue. This is especially true since many Catholic (and otherwise quite traditional) thinkers believe that many of the descriptions of demonic possession in Scripture are actually describing mental illness. Thus, the crucial question becomes, “Will practicing more exorcisms do more harm than good to the mentally ill?” This question is barely even mentioned.

    Thumbs up for critical voices.

  • FW Ken

    I’m intelligent enough to work a computer, and, with a master’s degree, I consider myself a professional. I did, in fact, bury St. Joseph in my front yards twice. The first house sold in 9 days. The second didn’t sell at all, thank God, as the move would have been a disaster. Today, the rose over St. Joseph is huge and my best bloomer. What can I say? :-)

    As to the topic:

    Theologically, I’ll stick with the old formulation of “the world, the flesh, and the devil”. A discussion of evil in the world needs to consider and relate all three.

    Journalistically: You are probably correct that the story needed a voice from the Catholic left, but for me, I am so sick and tired of that bunch of left-over hippies, self-refereriential narcissists chanting their same old cultural platitudes that I’m glad to see them left out here.

    Jason, if you really believe the Catholic Church gets a pass in the media on critical voices (more often than not from self-described Catholics), then you are really out there. Or, perhaps you don’t consider the Catholic Church a mainline religion; on that, we would agree.

  • Fr. Francis C. Zanger

    As an (Episcopal/Anglican) priest and former journalist, I find this a curious argument. If the article was about the NASA discovery of planets around a sun in a distant constellation, would we expect a dissenting opinion from a member of the Flat Earth Society? If the article was about a modern poet publishing a new critical edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets, would we insist on having an ‘expert’ say that they were really written by Marlowe? Is it good journalism to insist that every newspaper story not merely cover the event, but also contain every possible dissenting opinion?

    In this story, it is clear that the center was opened with support from the Vatican– that is, from the leadership of a hierarchical Church. The fact that there are members of the Roman Catholic Church who do not believe what their own Church teaches is a story, certainly… but it’s a different story, an already oft-told story, and one which needs hardly be included in every article written about the Church.