Like many features of exorcism, the idea of nomenclature as power dates to Jesus. In Mark 5:1–20, Jesus asks for demons’ names (“Legion,” comes the answer), then sends them into a herd of swine. Each of the synoptic gospels tells of exorcisms performed by Jesus, who directed his disciples to cast out demons in his name. He neglected to provide detailed instructions.
For centuries, the Catholic Church steadily filled that void, elaborating its rite of exorcism and proscribing who could perform it. At one time, anyone—even women—could exorcize demons. Now, only duly appointed priests with express permission from their bishop are allowed to perform exorcisms.
Father Jeffrey Grob, the official exorcist for the Archdiocese of Chicago, says the church has issued the expanded directives to curb abuses by charlatans who used exorcism to make money or attack enemies.
During widespread witch hunts in Europe during the late Middle Ages, demons were thought to be hiding beneath each rock (or within each bosom), argues Grob, whose 2006 doctoral dissertation detailed the rite’s history. Women felt the brunt of the suspicion, and covens of alleged witches were persecuted, tortured, and murdered by zealous exorcists.
“The best the church could do was to regulate more closely the use of exorcism and keep a closer watch over those who practiced it,” Grob writes. “Eventually only exorcistic formulas that had long been in use were allowed, and more complex requirements and conditions were placed on the exorcist himself.”
the Vatican has trained its sights on exorcism rites in charismatic Catholicism, a movement that emerged in the 1970s and has flourished in African and Latin American countries where belief in spirits—evil and otherwise—is widespread.
In some ways charismatic Catholics’ Pentecostal-style “deliverance ministries” hew closer to first-century exorcism than the church’s modern-day rite does. They use simple verbal formulas and blame a host of afflictions on diabolical forces. They believe the power to banish demons is imparted not by bishops but through the Holy Spirit. The Vatican noticed the increase of deliverance ministries, particularly in Africa and Italy, and instructed bishops to crack down.
“Bishops are asked to guard lest those who lack the required power attempt to lead assemblies in which prayers are employed to obtain liberation from demons,” the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, whose head at the time was the future Pope Benedict, wrote in 1985. The Vatican repeated the warning in 2000.
The risks posed by charismatic Catholics pale in comparison to the challenges presented by medical science. Not since the witch hunts has the legitimacy of exorcism been so under attack, according to Grob.
“From the positive viewpoint, psychologists and psychiatrists informed and helped to integrate exorcism in a modern world, but from a negative one, they called into question the credibility of exorcism as a means of restoring health,” he writes.
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