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Why exorcism went out of fashion – and why it’s back

Fr Elias Rahal, a Lebanese priest, performs an exorcism in Tripoli

In 1969, the Swiss Jesuit Herbert Haag published Goodbye to the Devil, an argument that Satan was merely a metaphor. Along with two American Jesuits, Henry Ansgar Kelly and Juan B. Cortes, he opposed the practice of exorcism. They reasoned that modern man had outgrown the medieval belief in demons.

Fifty years on, it is fair to say that they misread the signs of the times. According to a recent article in The Atlantic, the US now has well over a hundred known Catholic exorcists – up from 15 in 2011. This surge is a response to increased demand. Interest in exorcism has fueled the success of bestsellers, blockbusters, and the global rise of charismatic

In 1973, William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist debuted on only 30 screens. Its unexpected popularity led to a quick and radical increase in distribution. In 1974, Francis MacNutt, a Dominican priest, published a book on healing that popularised Catholic charismatic “deliverance” ministries. In 1990, the Italian priest Gabriele Amorth published An Exorcist Tells His Story, which became an international sensation. In 2008, the Spanish priest José Antonio Fortea published an exorcism manual, Summa Demonica, thereby reviving a literary genre that for centuries had seemed extinct.

By 1998, Godfried Danneels, archbishop of the proudly secular city of Brussels, was receiving no fewer than 900 requests for exorcism in a single year. In 2013, Pope Francis performed an informal exorcism in St Peter’s Square. There are now regular exorcist training conferences in Rome. Goodbye to the Devil? More like hello.

Modernising theologians who thought that exorcism would disappear forever also believed that the Church no longer needed to oppose the world. In Gaudium et Spes, the Second Vatican Council declared: “Those values which are most highly prized today … insofar as they stem from endowments conferred by God on man … are exceedingly good. Yet they are often wrenched from their rightful function by the taint in man’s heart, and hence stand in need of purification.” Progressives acted as though the Council had simply said: “Those values most highly prized today are exceedingly good.” They dreamed of an open Church that embraced the world.

This required rejecting the apocalyptic view of Pope Leo XIII, which pitted the Devil against the Church in a grand battle. Leo wrote the St Michael Prayer (which has had a recent revival, encouraged by Pope Francis, in response to the abuse crisis). Leo also added an “Exorcism Against Satan and the Apostate Angels” to the Rituale Romanum. This exorcistic formula placed a novel stress on the freedom of the Church. “May you not dare further, most clever serpent, to … persecute the Church of God,” it said. “Accursed dragon and every diabolical legion, we adjure you by the living God … stop harming the Church and casting her freedom into snares.”

For those who sought to reconcile Christianity with liberal society, Leo’s confrontational language seemed altogether out of place. But Leo’s view turned out to be the one more aligned with today’s reality. The Church is at odds with an increasingly pagan culture. It is also wracked by internal divisions, which many Catholics see as the work of the Devil – the divider. The historian Francis Young has observed that there are “just two ingredients essential for a flourishing of exorcism: division within the Church and fear of an external spiritual enemy.” Neither is likely to go away soon.

Whether the context be the Church’s initial confrontation with pagan society, its effort to combat the Cathars, or its contests against Protestantism and secular modernity, exorcism is one of the means by which the Church has sought to proclaim the kingdom of Christ, bringing freedom to a nature groaning in bondage of corruption.

Exorcism restores creation. This is why the exorcisms of salt and water speak of these elements as “creatures” made by God (“O salt, creature of God, I exorcise you”). It is also why the oldest liturgy for the exorcism of a demoniac, found in the 8th-century Gellone Sacramentary, insists that each man bears the divine image. “Let the body of man be a terror to you,” the demon is told, “let the image of God be an object of dread to you, and do not resist or delay in departing from this man, since it pleased Christ to dwell in man.”

The rite of exorcism is based on the Church’s startling assertion that every man is made in the image of God, and that God himself took on humanity. Possession twists man’s features and distorts his voice. It makes the human seem hateful. It attacks the image of God. Exorcism is the Church’s refusal to accept this disfigurement. What Satan would have us despise, God continues to love. In exorcism, Catholics reject this world ruled by principalities and powers, but they embrace creation.

Matthew Schmitz is senior editor at First Things