by Peter W. Miller
Perhaps the most disturbing detail to come out of the recent airing of Church scandals has been the strangely disproportionate reliance of bishops upon modern psychological therapy for treating outrageously immoral behavior. That is not to say such a development is particularly surprising, as an infatuation with to the supposed "progress" marked in certain scientific fields, along with a willingness to abandon even the most established Church teaching on various matters, are and have always been among the hallmarks of modernism.
Fortunately, some in positions of authority within the Church are starting to realize the futility of turning to the field of psychology to address certain moral and spiritual deficiencies. Given the unwillingness of American bishops to seriously address both their own culpability in these scandals and the problem of an active homosexual subculture within the priesthood, perhaps the one tangible sliver of hope remaining is that the plague of naturalism running through the Church is beginning to show its errors. Unfortunately, the current voiced dissatisfaction with modern psychology seems to have more to do with its miserable track record ("we thought pederasts could be treated but we were wrong") than the underlying philosophical foundations of a system overreaching its inherent limitations.
As it is utilized in attempts to analyze questions of human behavior and motivation, the field of psychology primarily suffers from a lack of supernatural (or even basic moral) perspective. To a modern psychologist, all actions, thoughts, behaviors and tendencies are the result of genetic and environmental factors expressed through a complex interaction of animate matter. Missing is any meaningful concept of natural law, free will or morality. Realities such as "right" and "wrong," "sin" and "evil" are relegated to expressions of societal mores or personally acquired beliefs.
The recent failure of psychological treatment was not a premature belief that sexual offenders could be "cured", but a failure to understand the existence of and role played by evil and sin. In addition to failing to significantly curb the behavior of homosexual child molesters, psychological counseling often made matters worse. Rather than call the sinner to remorse and sincere repentance, the scientific explanations provided by psychologists served to further excuse and rationalize aberrant behavior.
In the case of Seattle's Fr. David Jaeger (who now considers himself an "abstinent homosexual"), he was led to believe by therapists that his "sexual immaturity", which resulted from a "repressive" pre-Vatican II Catholic upbringing and seminary education, was responsible for his inability to see the harm of giving genital/rectal massages to underage male campers. As has occurred in certain high-profile criminal trials, accountability is shifted from the perpetrator due to supposed "contributing factors"; the role of evil and the necessity to combat temptation are dismissed as, at best, "unscientific" at worst, superstitious.
The harm in such a shortcoming was emphatically exposed as priests guilty of serial child molestation were sent to therapists for unsuccessful treatment. Regardless of the existence or extent of a given disorder (e.g. homosexualism), the simple fact of the matter is that each perpetrator of these heinous crimes committed a sin highly offensive to God. Each was a man born with the stain of Original Sin on his soul. Each was subject to and gave into the temptations of the devil. The first step in overcoming any affliction is to recognize its source, and treatments which ignore or even deny that source are doomed to failure.
Evil is real; as is the devil. And nowhere is this more evident than through the work of an exorcist.
Demonic entities and possession
Although Satan is much more dangerous and effective when he is able to convince men that temptations are the result of natural, morally-neutral tendencies, the continuing phenomena of demonic possession and exorcism stand as witness to the power and reality of supernatural evil.
Conventional (i.e. modern naturalist) wisdom holds demonic possession to be a barbaric superstition of the past, and that individuals supposedly possessed by evil spirits had actually suffered from psychological disorders not fully understood at the time. While it stands to reason that there were indeed past cases of misdiagnosis, the notion of clerics uncritically presuming everyone exhibiting strange behavior to be possessed without reasoned analysis or evaluation is highly inaccurate. Techniques for investigating and countering demonic possession have been highly developed for centuries. For instance, in 1614, the codification of the Rite of Exorcism in the Rituale Romanum included steps to take for discerning whether a given person was truly the victim of demonic possession or simply suffering from "melancholia" an early term for mental illness.
Although presuming possession to be an outdated superstition makes perfect sense for an atheist or Mason who discounts the supernatural anyhow, it should raise serious concerns for Catholics. The first being the existence of scriptural accounts of Christ driving out demons from possessed individuals (as the "Gerasene Demoniac" in Mark, chapter 5) and His speaking of evil demons and the devil by name. Even if one is a fully-developed modernist who discounts the historical accuracy of the Evangelists, there remains to this day an ever-increasing number of exorcists and exorcisms officially sanctioned by the Catholic Church. Accounts of events surrounding possessions and exorcisms are given not only by priests and Catholics, but doctors, reporters, family members and other bystanders, most of which highly skeptical of (if not completely opposed to) any notion of a supernatural evil entity.
Based on a true story
Due to various documentation in diaries, journals and news accounts, several cases of possession have become well-known through the years. But easily the most renowned exorcism to date was that which served as the basis for William Peter Blatty's 1972 novel The Exorcist.
In 1949, a thirteen year-old boy (whose name has never been officially revealed) started a horrific journey in the town of Cottage City, Maryland. It was in that year the young boy's aunt, with whom he had been very close, passed away. Before her death, she instructed the boy to use an Ouija Board to contact her departed spirit. After his attempt to do so, strange things started to happen.
The family reported hearing unexplained noises and voices in the walls whenever the boy was in the house. But when he'd leave, the strange sounds would stop. The boy also became emotionally disturbed, his bed started moving on its own and objects were observed flying across the room, including a picture of Christ which was thrown from a wall. Seeking first the help of a physician, then a psychiatrist, the boy's parents were left disappointed. Neither professional was able to offer any assistance or explanation for the events occurring to the boy. The parents then turned to their Lutheran minister for spiritual guidance, but he also told them there was nothing he could do. Evidently recognizing the presence of something supernatural, he recommended the family locate a Catholic priest who would be more capable of combating spiritual evil. Ironically enough, the elimination of exorcisms was one of the steps Martin Luther took in his decimation of the priesthood under the guise of "returning to the simplicity of the early Church."
Taking the wise advice, the boy's parents checked him into Georgetown Hospital under the care of Fr. Edward Albert Hughes. In a hospital room, Fr. Hughes started to perform an exorcism but was forced to stop after five minutes when he was stabbed in the arm with a spring the boy managed to dislodge from the bed. The resulting wound required over 100 stitches and the exorcism attempt at Georgetown was abandoned.
A couple days later, the boy's family was horrified to find the words "St. Louis" written in blood on the boy's chest. St. Louis is where the boy's aunt had lived at the time of her death. Suspecting that city to be where the solution to the problems would be found, the family moved to St. Louis where they were able to stay with relatives. It is there they contacted Fr. Raymond J. Bishop, S.J. at St. Louis University, who would turn to Fr. William S. Bowdern, S.J. for assistance. Fr. Bowdern asked the local bishop for permission to conduct an exorcism on the boy and (to the surprise of other local priests at the time) that permission was granted. Needing both spiritual and physical assistance with the exorcism, as well as a ride to the boy's residence, Fr. Bowdern enlisted the help of a young seminarian named Walter Halloran.
Because of the longer than usual process, the boy was transferred to a hospital run by the Alexian Brothers religious order. Most exorcisms take one to two days but in this case, the process would last over six weeks. During the many exorcism attempts, the bed would violently shake and objects would fly across the room. The now Father Halloran recalls a bottle of holy water flying right by his head, crashing into the wall behind him. Various marks on the boy's body appeared as if he had been physically tortured. At some points, the usually indistinct markings formed words on the boy's body, including the unmistakable text "EVIL".
In May of 1949, after nearly thirty attempts and six weeks of strenuous prayer and efforts, the exorcism succeeded. The boy was able to voice the words "Christus Domini" and the possession was overcome. At the time when these words were uttered, a thunderclap was heard by other staff and patients in the hospital. All strange occurrences had come to an end and the boy was able to return to Maryland and lead a normal life. He would have very little recollection of the events that took place in St. Louis.
Although most of those involved with the exorcism were utterly convinced that they were facing a supernatural evil, others weren't so sure. After the event, independent secular and religious investigations into the incidents offered two possible scientific explanations: that natural yet "paranormal" events (such as telekinesis) had taken place, and/or that the boy had been the victim of his aunt's sexual abuse which led to a dissociative disorder or temporary psychosis. Cases were known at the time of patients who had been placed under hypnosis and prompted to recall being tied with ropes, inexplicably developing deep impressions on their arms; or when convinced they had been scalded with hot metal, developing very real burn marks on their body. However, this did not fully account for the appearance on the boy's body of actual words. For this explanation, the memories of the witnesses are called into question. In a recent interview, Fr. Halloran responded to such suggestions:
"These were marks that were very definitive. I mean you couldn't mix them up with anything else. It wasn't anything you could make a mistake over. It wasn't like looking at a cloud formation and saying, 'Oh, that looks like a bluff,' or something like that. It was very definite." 1
It also doesn't explain the shaking bed or objects flying across the room. A total of 48 people (including priests, doctors, other hospital staff and family members) swore to witnessing such occurrences. For this explanation, skeptics unable to dismiss the eye-witness accounts turn to "telekinesis" an element of the generally disregarded pseudo-scientific realm of the "paranormal" which describes the potential for an individual to move objects (intentionally or otherwise) with his mind.
Attributing such events as witnessed in St. Louis to be of "paranormal" rather than supernatural origin effectively saying that there is no scientific explanation but there may be someday is the ultimate naturalist cop-out and a disturbing one to be maintained by a Catholic priest. But such a view is even held by current Professor of Theology at St. Louis University, Rev. Francis X. Cleary, S.J.:
"Don't jump to the conclusion that this is a religious context. Don't draw the conclusion that this is the devil. Rather it's, well, paranormal phenomena and psychological instability." 2
Such a view seems contrary to the findings of the physician and psychiatrist who deemed the boy physically and mentally healthy while he was experiencing these troubles in Maryland.
Additionally, until his death in 1983, the exorcist (Fr. Bowdern) ardently and unquestioningly maintained the evil reality of what took place in that St. Louis hospital room. Described by his peers as a "modern man" who was "very down to earth and reasonable," Fr. Bowdern never backed away from or qualified his conviction that he was engaged in a very real battle with the devil. Although in certain interviews, Fr. Halloran has chosen to avoid speculation on the explanations behind the events, he has always maintained the reality of what he witnessed while assisting with the St. Louis exorcism. Commenting upon the popular film which eventually resulted from the whole ordeal, Fr. Halloran claimed The Exorcist was:
"a most accurate representation of the Rite of Exorcism, the condition of possession and what happens during an exorcism." 3
An "incredulous skeptic" becomes a believer
Turning to a more contemporary incident, this past September 22nd, reporter Josť Manuel Vidal, who serves as religious affairs correspondent for the Spanish periodical El Mundo, had the opportunity to attend an exorcism of a petite 20-year-old woman. By his own admission, he approached the event an "incredulous skeptic" but walked away a firm believer that what he had witnessed was not of this world.
The rite took place with the Vatican's permission at a Madrid chapel and was performed by a 33-year-old parish priest by the name of Fr. Josť Antonio Fortea. Vidal gave the following account of the events which transpired:
"I sense the rite is about to begin. I sit down with anticipation on the bench. The exorcist stretches out his right hand and holds it over her face, without touching her. Then, he closes his eyes, lowers his head, and whispers an unintelligible prayer several times. A frightening shriek, the first, breaks the chapel's silence, it penetrates my soul and gives me goose bumps."
"It isn't human. A startling shrill and deep sound comes out of Martha's throat. But it cannot be her; it isn't her tone of voice. It is hoarse and masculine. Father Fortea continues praying and the roars well up, one after the other. Little by little the girl's body shakes intensely. Her head turns from one side to the other, first slowly and then with unheard-of speed."
"As the exorcist recites the psalmody, the girl groans and twists nonstop. All of a sudden, the groaning becomes a frightening roar, high-pitched and furious. The exorcist has just placed the crucifix on her abdomen and chest, while sprinkling her with holy water. She kicks with such fury that the crucifix falls down and her mother picks it up again and again, placing it on her and handing her a rosary that Martha hurls away furiously." 4
Vidal, who considers himself a reasonable and modern Catholic, was shocked at the sight he beheld and had trouble coming to grips with something he had long since dismissed as an outdated superstition held by simpletons:
"My mind is spinning. We are at the climax of a ritual that, up to now, did not fit my scheme ... After the Second Vatican Council, the dogma of the devil's existence became an 'embarrassing part of doctrine' and, as so many other Catholics, I also dispensed with it." 5
How many other Catholics so eager to demonstrate the so-called "respectability" of their beliefs have dispensed with such "embarrassing" doctrines as the existence of the devil?
"Whoever says the devil does not exist is no longer a believer"
On July 13th, 1917, near the beginning of a century in which supernatural evil would all but be abandoned, Our Lady of Fatima deemed it necessary to show three children that hell exists and is not empty. What they saw horrified them to such a degree that they all dramatically changed their lives to avoid such a fate, becoming completely preoccupied with prayer, sacrifice, mortification and penance.
Our Lady did not tell them this vision was one possible representation of an afterlife without God, or suggest it was an educational illustration of why they should tend towards that which is good. She said, quite simply:
"You have seen Hell where the souls of sinners go." 6 (emphasis mine)
In January of 1999, Cardinal Jorge Medina, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, presented a new (and somewhat controversial) Rite for Exorcisms. When asked by a reporter to comment upon the doubts held by many Christians with regards to the devil, he responded:
"We know there are Catholics who have not received good formation and doubt the existence of the devil, but this is an article of faith and part of the doctrine of the Catholic Church. Whoever says the devil does not exist is no longer a believer." 7
During the last decade, it seems that the need for and availability of exorcists has actually increased. In 1993, there was only one exorcist in the United States officially sanctioned by the Vatican. By 1999, there were ten. The exorcist of the Archdiocese of New York, Fr. James Labar, conducts between 20 and 25 approved exorcisms each year.
Given the preponderance of evidence related to possession and exorcism, and the repeated accounts of credible and even highly-skeptical witnesses, those who choose to undergo the mental gymnastics necessary to explain such a phenomena while denying the realm of the supernatural are left in an unenviable position.
It's time for Catholics especially who have been perhaps too eager to buy into too many of the promises and doctrines of modern science, to become reacquainted with the reality of evil. Just as morality is not a flexible system based on the Masonic conception of "tolerance"; evil, temptation and the devil are not merely convenient mechanisms used to illustrate the concepts of right and wrong to children. While it's increasingly fashionable to have a hearty laugh at the simplistic and outdated beliefs of those forefathers in the Faith removed from us by less than a century, all Catholics must be very careful to faithfully retain those doctrinal elements central to the Faith; most especially Original Sin, evil, and the temptations of a very real, very powerful devil.
1 "History's Mysteries: Exorcizing the Devil" History Channel - Weller/Grossman (1999)
4 "Exorcism Makes a Believer of a Journalist" ZENIT News Agency (Oct 6, 2002)
6 "Fatima in Lucia's Own Words", Postulation Centre, Fatima, Portugal (May 1976 English Edition), p.162 - Text applies to the message received during the apparition of July, 13 1917
7 "Prefect for Divine Worship on the New Rite of Exorcism" ZENIT News Agency (Jan 26, 1999)