Pope Francis’ ‘obsession’ with the devil

Pope Francis’ ‘obsession’ with the devil May 23, 2013

It’s kind of charming that all popes have to deal with bad media coverage and global press frenzies. This week we’ve seen some awful media coverage of Pope Francis, including coverage of his blessing of a man after Mass on Sunday. Part of the blame must go to the Italian press, which really went crazy with the story in a way that might not be prudent. But I’ll restrict myself to the English-language media. Let’s begin with the Telegraph (U.K.):

Pope Francis appears to have been captured on video performing an exorcism in St Peter’s Square.

The astonishing footage, taken immediately after Pentecostal mass on Sunday 19th May, shows the Pontiff approach the second of two wheelchair bound people, whose face is pixelled out.

After a priest leans across the boy or young man to tell Francis something, the Pope’s expression becomes more serious, the voice-over notes. He then grips the top of the subject’s head firmly and is seen pushing him down into his wheel chair. As this is happening the Pontiff recites an intense prayer, and the boy’s mouth drops wide open and he exhales sharply, Italian press reports added this morning.

Where to begin? Let’s begin by pointing out that Sunday was Pentecost. Not Pentecostal, which suggests something else entirely.

OK, as for this exorcism, it would be a curious exorcism indeed since it was relatively quick and spontaneous, compared to the rites and protocols used by Roman Catholics and other traditional Christians. How to analyze these claims, which seem to be fueled largely by the claims of one Fr. Gabriele Amorth? Usually the media are really good at being skeptical of the claims of any Catholic and it would be wise to reach deep for just a tad of that skepticism when covering this one, as Mark Shea explains here. I’m not saying his claims shouldn’t be covered, but they should be placed in context of previous claims he’s made and how he’s viewed by, say, traditionalist Catholics.

I’m perhaps most disappointed by various reports I saw under the Associated Press. Take, for instance, how WHPTV headlined its AP story on the matter:

Pope Francis accidentally performs exorcism

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis’ obsession with the devil has taken on remarkable new twists, with a well-known exorcist insisting Francis helped “liberate” a Mexican man from four different demons, despite the Vatican’s insistence that no such papal exorcism took place.

This isn’t journalism. It’s very embarrassing. That word “accidentally” is scandalously untrue as is every other word in the headline. And how about that lede? Obsession? Obsession? Excuse me? What the h-e-double-hockey-sticks is this?

A longer version of the story is headlined, at Newser.com,

 The pope and the devil: Francis’ obsession with Satan leads to suspicion he performed exorcism

The story is written, according to that link, by the AP’s Vatican reporter, which is somewhat difficult for me to believe. I mean, all reporters should know this, but religion reporters should definitely know that Satan figures prominently in Christian thought. You want to write about someone completely over-the-bend obsessed about Satan? How about this guy?

I mean, is the Pope being Catholic really something we want to have straight news writers present as “obsession?” And, what’s the substantiation for this sick compulsion that Pope Francis has? Let’s see what’s in the story:

Fueling the speculation that Francis did indeed perform an exorcism is his frequent reference to Satan in his homilies — as well as an apparent surge in demand for exorcisms among the faithful despite the irreverent treatment the rite often receives from Hollywood.

Who can forget the green vomit and the spinning head of the possessed girl in the 1973 cult classic “The Exorcist”?

Um, what? I literally have no idea in the world why the second half of that excerpt is anywhere near this story. But, perhaps more importantly, mentioning Satan in homilies is standard in Christianity and always has been! To be told, suddenly, that occasional mention of Satan makes one obsessed requires much more of a case to be made. That there is a “demand” for exorcisms — which, of course, is completely unsubstantiated in the article — has really nothing to do with this particular prayer, does it?

Then we’re told that not only — gasp! Shut the front door, Mabel! — did the pope mention the devil in his very first homily but he’s done it “a handful of times” since then! It’s almost as if he’s an ordained priest in a Christian church, isn’t it? Is the pope Catholic, indeed!

Then there’s a section of the story that explains that exorcism has an actual rite that involves various blessings, particular demands placed on the demon, etc.

This is my absolute favorite line:

While belief in the devil is consistent with church teaching, the Holy See does urge prudence, particularly to ensure that the victim isn’t merely psychologically ill.

Sigh. Yes, it turns out that belief in the devil is consistent with church teaching. The things you learn! (Kirsten Powers tweeted that AP should simply change the headline to the piece to “BREAKING: Pope Francis believes the Bible”.) And I’m not sure I like this “while” in there — as if prudence is at odds with belief in the devil.

Anyway, the article ends by noting that Francis didn’t just start this obsession with “the devil” recently. Why, he even talked about it when he was just archbishop of Buenos Aires. Fascinating, isn’t it?

It was getting too long to include here, but be sure to note that the story says that “Francis’ frequent invocation of the devil” is a “reflection of a Catholic Church weakened by secularization.” Invocation really isn’t the right word to use there, since it means to call upon for help or support or to call upon for authority or justification.

You know, coming from a confession of faith that emphasizes Satan’s work, I have definitely noticed that Francis speaks about him in ways Lutheran theologians do. I find that fascinating and I had hoped we’d see some journalism about his direct way of talking about the Evil One. But if this is what we’re going to get, I think I’ll pass.

I note, upon completing this, that the AP has updated the story so that the pope is no longer obsessed so much as “fascinated.” OK. This USA Today version of the AP story has a mixture of fascination and obsession.

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25 responses to “Pope Francis’ ‘obsession’ with the devil”

  1. So… does this mean that every time Mother Theresa or Padre Pio suddenly got serious and prayed intensely over somebody, that they were exorcising somebody? Heck no. It means that prayer is done in many different moods and tones. It means that probably this guy or his family said something sobering, or that the Pope thought of something sobering, and just prayed harder in reaction. Because he’s an expressive person, his concentration went on his face.

    Italian journalism is not known for being infallible in such matters.

  2. There is a news story here which the media utterly missed. The wikipedia article discusses the Catholic practice of laying on of hands in terms of the sacrament of Holy Orders. But more generally in Christianity, laying on of hands has a wider use. So a real news story written by real reporters would have delved into the question of Pope Francis acting in the wider Christian context:

    Christian laying on of hands is used in Christianity as both a symbolic and formal method of invoking the Holy Spirit primarily during baptisms and confirmations, healing services, blessings, and ordination of priests, ministers, elders, deacons, and other church officers, along with a variety of other church sacraments and holy ceremonies..


    • Catholic Encyclopedia of 1917, entry on “The Imposition of Hands”:

      “(4) Apart from the sacraments the rite is also employed in almost all the various blessings of persons and things.”

      Okay, I know all the papers just lifted this story straight from the original Italian report, but surely to goodness somebody somewhere in one of their offices has seen “The Exorcist” and knows that there’s just a bit more to an exorcism than that? I mean, for crying out loud, that sensationalised Anthony Hopkins film got it more correct than that!

      Once again, the lack of fact-checking which is painfully obvious when you know something about the subject in question just makes the media look even more ignorant and less trustworthy. If it’s so blatant that they can’t be bothered to get the story right and instead prefer an attention-grabbing headline in the likes of this, why should any of us trust them to get it right when they’re reporting on politics, economics, or science?

  3. That Telegraph lede is abysmal. Versions of “appear” and “seem” in stories are often the hallmarks of speculation. Their usage should prompt people to ask “To whom does this appear or seem this way?” — flush out the editorializing.

  4. Another day, another stupid headline.

    I’m sorry if that’s rude, but I’m fast approaching the end of my tether with this kind of “unable to ask someone who actually knows about this stuff what it means” attitude. I swear, one more of these kinds of stories, and I will immanetize the eschaton!

  5. My impression from comments I have read and heard for a long time is that in reversecorrect infospeak, ANY belief in the devil is ipso facto “obsessive”.

  6. “You know, coming from a confession of faith that emphasizes Satan’s work, I have definitely noticed that Francis speaks about him in ways Lutheran theologians do.”

    Mollie, perhaps the newspapers share the same view of alleged demonic or diabolic activity as evinced in this sermon by the Presiding Bishop of The Anglican Church, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, whereby when in Acts 16, St. Paul cast out a demon from the possessed slave girl, it was because “But Paul is annoyed, perhaps for being put in his place, and he responds by depriving her of her gift of spiritual awareness. Paul can’t abide something he won’t see as beautiful or holy, so he tries to destroy it. …This time Paul acts with compassion rather than annoyance, and as a result the company of Jesus’ friends expands to include a whole new household. It makes me wonder what would have happened to that slave girl if Paul had seen the spirit of God in her.”
    Naturally, if demonic possession is a beautiful, holy gift of awareness, it’s very bad manners at the least to exorcise the demon.

    • THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH. There are churches in this country that self identify as Anglican. TEC is part of the Anglican Communion, and the Anglican churches are not, so I guess it is all confusing.

  7. (1) Excuse me, but how is Mark Shea qualified to speak on this subject? Yeah yeah, First Amendment and all, which means he can get in line with 300 million other people with opinions — but does he have any special training or experience to let him cut to the front of the line, or are you just going by the fact that he has a blog? (2) Please clarify: Are you embarrassed that the Catholic Church still practices exorcism? Would you be horrified if the Pope *had* performed an exorcism?

    • He’s as qualified as any other Catholic who knows the difference between someone getting a blessing and a priest performing a ritual of exorcism. You don’t have to be a trained theological expert, you just need to have attended Mass, confirmations, healing services, etc. and seen blessings being given.

      • OK, so’s not one of 300 million, he’s more like one of 25 million.

        Frankly, his “qualification” really means that he’s better known than you are, and that you agree with him. You invoke him to make an appeal to authority, but your response just indicated that you know he is no authority on these matters. That’s not just a fallacious argument, it’s a lazy one.

  8. Im not into the public hysteria looking for an exorcism under every blessing, however, the video clearly shows the man collapsing in his chair, a strange sound coming from his mouth and a confused alarmed look on the lady next to him’s face…whatever it was it wasn’t run of the mill stuff IMHO

  9. If you are going to nitpick do so correctly. Pentecostal is the adjective meaning “relating to Pentecost”. Thus, the phrase “Pentecostal Mass” is perfectly fine.

  10. Did you seriously expect the media to get Catholic theology correct on matters of exorcisms or redemption/justification? Frankly I am very pleased that they covered these topics at all since look at all of the attention that has been given to these topics with many well-qualified Catholics being able to educate a multitude of others about these Church teachings! I’d rather have people discussing and debating them than ignoring them!

  11. Most enjoyable post yet!!! 😀 Thank you so much for doing what you do. Somebody has to call these messes out.

  12. I’ve been waiting for mention of deliverance since the formalities of exorcism were not involved. Also, this reminds me of C. S. Lewis’ preface to “THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS.”

  13. Doesn’t the press know about prayers for healing? Jesus did it, and He told us to do so also.

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