In September 2021, a 3-year-old was killed during an exorcism in a small Pentecostal church in San Jose, California. The child’s throat was allegedly squeezed and her head held down during the ceremony, which likely asphyxiated her. In May 2022, three members of the victim’s family were charged with felony child abuse.
Several famous deaths have occurred during exorcism rituals in the past. In 1976, Anneliese Michel of Germany died of dehydration and malnutrition after nearly 10 months of Catholic exorcisms. In 2005, Maricica Irina Cornici, a Romanian Orthodox nun, died in an ambulance following an exorcism in which she was chained to a cross.
While exorcism is practiced in the majority of the world’s cultures, in the Western imagination it is most associated with Catholicism. That association has been either an asset or a liability to the church at various periods throughout history.
For most of the 20th century, exorcism was incredibly rare in Western nations and often regarded with embarrassment by Catholic authorities. After William Friedkin’s film “The Exorcist” came out in 1973, Juan Cortez, a Jesuit priest and psychology professor at Georgetown University, told Newsweek that he did not believe demons exist.
Today, the Catholic Church has reversed its attitude about discussing exorcism almost completely. In 1991, church authorities allowed an exorcism to be televised for the ABC show “20/20.” Father Richard P. McBrien, who appeared on “Nightline” to question the wisdom of this decision, told The Catholic Courier that exorcism was being presented this way to advance a political agenda, not to save souls. He stated:
“The real objective of that project, I submit, was to help bring back that old-time religion, when everyone, women especially, knew their place, when Catholics obeyed without question every directive from on high, and when there was never any question that the Catholic Church was the one true church with all the answers to all the important questions we have about life, both here and hereafter.”
As a religious studies scholar who writes about exorcism from a historical perspective, I believe the church’s changing stance on exorcism has little to do with our culture’s understanding of mental illness or other scientific advances and more to do with competing visions of the church as described by McBrien.
Superstition and stigma
Historically, America’s Protestant majority stigmatized Catholics as “superstitious immigrants.” After Vatican II, a worldwide meeting of Catholic bishops held between 1962 and 1965, there was an effort to downplay the more supernatural elements of the Catholic tradition. Especially controversial were traditions dealing with what historian Robert Orsi calls “presence,” or the belief that supernatural forces operate among us rather than in some transcendent realm.
Many church authorities believed if they did not “modernize” they would lose the younger generation. As Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor described the prevailing attitude in 1962, “the supernatural is an embarrassment.”
Ironically, as the church tried to modernize, the counterculture had a growing interest in the occult, popularizing books and films that paved the way for “The Exorcist.” The film became a social phenomenon, and suddenly priests were being inundated with people demanding exorcisms. William O'Malley, a Jesuit priest who had a role in the film, described this surge to sociologist Michael Cuneo in the following way:
“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.”
Many conservative Catholics loved “The Exorcist.” Traditionalists – conservative Catholics who object to the reforms of Vatican II – capitalized on this new demand for exorcism, claiming that modernization had left Catholics vulnerable to demonic attack.
The Catholic Church also had competition: People who could not get an exorcism from the Catholics now had a variety of other options. Pentecostals had been casting out demons for decades. There was also a milieu of New Age healers offering exorcisms.
The return of the exorcists
The 1917 Code of Canon Law was the first official comprehensive codification of church law, and it mandated each bishop appoint an official exorcist. But most dioceses did not actually do this, and this requirement was removed when the code was updated in 1983.
The International Association of Exorcists was formed in 1990 to lobby the Vatican to take exorcism more seriously. In 2004, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith asked dioceses around the world to once again appoint an exorcist.
These new exorcists had to be trained, so in 2005 a special course was offered at the Vatican seminary, the Regina Apostolorum. One priest who undertook that training was Father Gary Thomas, whose experiences were described by journalist Matt Baglio and became the basis for the 2011 film “The Rite.” In the film, a priest with little faith is sent to Rome to learn exorcism, culminating in a dramatic battle against the demon Baal. In 2014, the International Association of Exorcists finally received a degree of formal recognition from the Vatican.
Francis, who assumed the papacy in 2013, has been viewed as friendly toward exorcism. In 2017, he encouraged priests to refer parishioners to an exorcist if their process of discernment determined it was truly needed. Paradoxically, Francis’ openness toward exorcism may be related to his progressive agenda.
Francis is the first Jesuit pope. The Jesuit order – the same order Father Karras belongs to in “The Exorcist” – emphasizes education, and Jesuits have long had a reputation for being free thinkers. Right-wing conspiracy theories have accused the Jesuits of supporting communism or trying to corrupt the church from within. As pope, Francis has made relatively tolerant statements about homosexuality and criticized capitalism – moves that could alienate the church’s conservative wing. But traditionalists can at least take solace in Francis being open to exorcism and the reality of the demonic.
Historically, exorcism has also been a way to attract new converts. Some of the people who thought they were possessed after watching “The Exorcist” became interested in Catholicism and started attending mass. The year the film came out, the media described a Catholic exorcist in San Francisco who helped a family that believed they were under demonic attack. As a result, one family member converted from Orthodox Judaism to Catholicism. Any chance for new converts must hold appeal to a church with declining numbers and still under the cloud of clerical abuse scandals.
Exorcism and politics
Exorcism has become more mainstream in Catholic culture as well as evangelical and Pentecostal culture. A 2013 YouGov poll found that 51% of Americans believe in demonic possession. But at the same time, Catholic church attendance continues to fall. This trend reflects a larger pattern of cultural polarization in America between growing secularism and an increasingly conservative religious culture.
In fact, exorcism has played an increasingly prominent role in the culture war. In 2018, a Chicago priest was removed from his position by his bishop for saying a prayer of exorcism while setting fire to a rainbow flag.
And in 2020, an archbishop in San Francisco held an exorcism at a site where protesters had toppled a church’s statue of Junipero Serra, a Spanish missionary. Serra was canonized as a saint in 2015, but Native Americans have accused him of aiding and abetting the Spanish genocide of Indigenous people.
As these trends continue, time will tell how long figures like Pope Francis can hold the center. Meanwhile, it is likely that exorcism will find an increasing appeal among Catholics as well as other denominations.