Some objections to the concept of prayer to the saints betray restricted notions of heaven.
At Texas State University, I teach an honors course called “Demonology, Possession, and Exorcism.” It’s not a gut course. My students produce research papers on topics that range from the role of sleep paralysis in reports of demonic attacks to contemporary murder cases in which defendants have claimed supernatural forces compelled them to commit crimes.
In fact, talk of demons isn’t unusual in Texas. The first day of class, when we watched a clip of an alleged exorcism at an Austin Starbucks, many of my students said that they’d seen similar scenes in the towns where they’d grown up.
A few students even admitted their parents were nervous that they’d signed up for the class. Maybe these parents worried their kids would become possessed, or that studying possession in the classroom might make demons seem less plausible. (Perhaps it was a mix of both.)
Either way, these parents aren’t a superstitious minority: a poll conducted in 2012 found that 57% of Americans believe in demonic possession. Nonetheless, demons (invisible, malevolent spirits) and exorcism (the techniques used to cast these spirits out of people, objects or places) are often thought of as relics of the past, beliefs and practices that are incompatible with modernity. It’s an assumption based in a sociological theory that dates back to the 19th century called the secularization narrative. Scholars such as Max Weber predicted that over time, science would inevitably supersede belief in “mysterious forces.”
But while the influence of institutionalized churches has waned, few sociologists today would claim that science is eliminating belief in the supernatural. In fact, in the 40 years since the blockbuster film The Exorcist premiered, belief in the demonic remains as popular as ever, with many churches scrambling to adapt.
Exorcism’s golden age
So why has exorcism made a comeback? It may be that belief in the demonic is cyclical.
Historian of religion David Frankfurter notes that conspiracy theories involving evil entities like demons and witches tend to flare up when local religious communities are confronted with outside forces such as globalization and modernity.
Attributing misfortune and social change to hidden evil forces, Frankfurter suggests, is a natural human reaction; the demonic provides a context that can make sense of unfamiliar or complex problems.
While Europeans practiced exorcism during the Middle Ages, the “golden age” of demonic paranoia took place in the early modern period. In the 16th and 17th centuries, thousands were killed in witch hunts and there were spectacular cases of possession, including entire convents of nuns.
The Protestant Reformation was a key contributor to these events. The resulting wars of religion devastated Europe’s population, creating a sense of apocalyptic anxiety. At the same time, exorcism became a way for the Catholic Church, and even some Protestant denominations, to demonstrate that their clergy wielded supernatural power over demons – something that their rivals lacked. In some cases, possessed people would even testify that rival churches were aligned with Satan.
But by the 19th century, medical experts such as Jean-Martin Charcot and his student Sigmund Freud had popularized the idea that the symptoms of demonic possession were actually caused by hysteria and neurosis. Exorcists came to be seen as unsophisticated people who lacked the education to understand mental illness – a view that made exorcism a liability for churches instead of an asset. This was especially true for American Catholics, who had long been disparaged by the Protestant majority as superstitious immigrants.
The Exorcist effect
By the time William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist was published in 1971, the secularization narrative had gone mainstream. In 1966, Time magazine had run its famous cover asking “Is God Dead?” In 1970, Gallup found that 75% of Americans claimed religion was losing influence – the highest percentage in the history of the poll, which was first conducted in 1957.
Blatty’s protagonist, Damien Karras, is a Jesuit psychiatrist-priest who has lost his faith. At the end of novel, Karras lies dying from his battle with the demon Pazuzu. He cannot speak, but his eyes are “filled with elation” – presumably because he now has positive proof that demons and, by extension, God, actually exist. Through the character of Father Karras, Blatty captured a widespread feeling of longing for the supernatural in a disenchanted age.
While the Jesuit-run magazine America panned The Exorcist as “sordid and sensationalistic,” Blatty proved that Americans were not dismissive of the idea of exorcism. In 1971 and 1972, the novel spent 55 weeks on The New York Times bestseller lists. The film adaptation grossed over US$66 million in its first year. In 1990, as part of homily given in New York City’s St Patrick’s Cathedral, Cardinal John O’Connor even read from The Exorcist in order “to dramatize the reality of demonic power.”
A demonic renaissance
Today a significant segment of the population reports belief in demons.
According to a 2007 Baylor Religion Survey, 48% of Americans agreed or strongly agreed in the possibility of demonic possession. And in a Pew Research Survey conducted that same year, 68% of Americans said they believe in the presence of angels and demons.
While the surveys can’t reveal what exactly people mean when they say they “believe in demons,” it’s clear that these people don’t constitute a superstitious minority. Rather, they’re a normal part of today’s religious landscape.
People have historically used evil spirits to explain any number of misfortunes, whether its a physical illness or routine bad luck. But today, demons are frequently used to interpret contemporary political issues, such as abortion and gay rights. Since the 1970s, Protestant deliverance ministries have offered to “cure” gay teenagers by casting out demons. This practice now has corollaries in Islam – and even in Chinese holistic healing methods. When the state of Illinois legalized gay marriage in 2013, Bishop Thomas Paprocki held a public exorcism in protest. Politically, the bishop’s ritual served to frame changing social mores as a manifestation of demonic evil.
Similarly, Catholic exorcists in Mexico held a “magno exorcisto” in May 2015 aimed at purging the entire nation of demons. The mass exorcism was partly motivated by the drug wars that have devastated the country since 2006. But it was also in response to the legalization of abortion in Mexico City in 2007.
During one Mexican exorcism, a demon (speaking through a possessed person) confessed that Mexico had once been a haven for demons. According to the four demons identified in the exorcism, hundreds of years ago, Aztecs had offered them human sacrifices; now, with the legalization of abortion, the sacrifices had resumed.
Divided over demons
In the Baylor Religion Survey, 53% of Catholics said they either agree or strongly agree in the possibility of demonic possession. Twenty-six percent disagreed or strongly disagreed, and the rest were undecided. Progressive Catholics still regard exorcism as an embarrassment, and there are also increasingly vocal atheists and skeptics eager to cite the practice of exorcism as an example of the absurdity of religion. But in countries like Italy and the Philippines, there is active demand for more Catholic exorcists.
Church authorities are keenly aware that if they do not provide the spiritual services these people need, Pentecostal deliverance ministries will. In the past, the Church had much more ability to tailor its message to its audience. But in an age of Twitter and cellphone cameras, an exorcism performed in one country will be witnessed by the entire world.
Pope Francis seems especially skillful at navigating the question of demons. While he has inspired progressive Catholics with his stances on climate change and social justice, he has also emphasized the reality of the devil. In 2014, the Congregation of Clergy formally recognized the International Association of Exorcists. This is a group of conservative priests that has existed outside the Curia since 1990, and has lobbied for recognizing and normalizing the practice of exorcism. Founding IAE member Gabriele Amorth has even attributed the group’s sudden success to Pope Francis.
Perhaps the greatest example of Francis’s demonological savvy occurred on May 13 2013, when he placed his hands on a young man in a wheelchair after celebrating mass in St Peter’s Square. (This young man was, in fact, the same Mexican parishioner believed to be possessed by four demons.) Video shows the boy heaving and slumping forward under Francis’s unusually long embrace.
To those who feel the Catholic Church ought to take exorcism seriously, this was a clear example of Francis performing a public exorcism. But to those who regard exorcism as a relic of the Dark Ages, Church authorities can plausibly claim that this was only a blessing, perhaps lasting just a little longer, due to the pontiff’s sincere compassion for the young man.
For a church with over a billion followers, it’s a tough – but necessary – balancing act.
I converted to Catholicism in 2001. I did so for spiritual not political or social reasons. I felt tremendous power and graces within the church, like I’d never felt before. Maybe once or twice I experienced something similar in Protestant churches but never had I encountered anything as powerful and complete as within the Catholic setting. There’s more to the story than that but it’s not really worth going into.
What I would like to talk about it is Pope Francis’ most recent statement that married people who do not have children are selfish. I think that is a ludicrous statement. I also think it will turn off my married friends – without children – who might have otherwise considered going to Mass to see what it’s like. When non-Catholics read statements like that, it’s not going to attract them to the Catholic faith.
Not that my raison d’être is to bring people to the Catholic faith. It’s not. Anyone who knows me knows that I accept and respect people where they’re at. I don’t think Catholicism is appropriate for everyone. And I only encourage people to come with me or check out Mass for themselves if I think they might gain some benefit from it.
Now, to return to the Popes’s latest statement… Several objections came to mind, actually so many that I felt almost overwhelmed. I realized I could spend hours critiquing the Pope’s statement. Luckily, however, I found this blog.
I think the above post (and its comments) provide an excellent discussion on the issue. But there is one facet of the conversation that is not really included. And that is the element of money. Of making a living. Something, by the way, that functional priests and popes don’t really have to worry about.
As discussed at the above link, I agree that a couple could join in a holy relationship primarily for spiritual support, for companionship, to do good works, and to spread spirituality throughout the globe or in their neighborhoods. It is also far easier for two people to make a living and pay the bills than it is for a single person. The Catholic Church, the priests, the clergy—they only have a vicarious grasp of this. Sure, they must perform within a busy schedule (some might say a partially self-legitimizing one). But they also get what could be called “free money.” If the roof starts to leak, the furnace blows, the pipes burst or the walls start to crumble, they don’t really have to fret. The “free money” always seems to magically appear from somewhere. And the very best tradespersons always arrive, pronto.
Most of us don’t have that kind of luxurious financial backup. And anyone who gets “free money” like that and harshly judges others who don’t, well I really think they should ask themselves if they’re in touch with the reality of living, and of making a living, in the 21st century.
Philosophy is an ancient pursuit that has branched out in different, sometimes conflicting directions. So it’s difficult to write just a few lines about why people dislike Catholicism from a philosophical perspective.
Having said that, a broad distinction can be made between two types of philosophers:
- those who rely solely on conceptual thinking, or believe they do
- those who believe that reason should follow divine revelation or that reason, itself, may be inspired by God
For convenience I’ll call the first type A philosophers. These thinkers often seem entangled in a web of concepts, perhaps never learning anything beyond the range of their own abstract thought processes. They take great pains to define certain concepts – e.g. love, meaning, being, knowing, caring, commitment – and then say why their definitions and elaborations are best.
Type A philosophers may address the importance of experience, but their experience is mostly gained from the five senses. Type A individuals may or may not believe in God. Any kind of unconventional experience informing their ideas tends to fall within a limited form of the numinous (say, through drug use).
The latter group, type B, believe that thought may be informed not just by the senses but also by religious or numinous experience. Type B believe in some notion of God, a higher power or a divinity within. Their beliefs may be pantheistic or theistic. Even so, their ideas and convictions are often colored by their interpretation of a particular numinous experience (or series of experiences).¹
Concerning the dislike of Catholicism, if neither A nor B had experienced the numinous within a Catholic setting, they’d have no direct way of understanding Catholic spirituality. On the other hand, many Catholics do consciously sense the Holy Spirit upon entering a Church and through the sacraments (such as the Eucharist), so they have reason to believe in Catholic spirituality.
Catholics may not agree with all aspects of Catholic teachings at this point in history, but they do believe in the core elements. After all, the true elements of Catholicism, if they really are true, must be holy and everlasting. And any spiritually sensitive person should pick up on that, provided they meet with the opportunity.
Finally, there are historical factors contributing to the dislike of Catholicism.
Sometimes when I mention words like Mass, Church or Eucharist, those disliking Catholicism instantly point out the dark aspects of Catholic history. To outline a few:
- the Crusades and the murders, robberies and rapes committed during them, crimes that had nothing to do with any supposed holy war
- the Inquisitions and the cruel torture and murder of so-called witches, which some say had more to do with the Church seizing property for economic gain
- greedy, reprobate Popes
- the silly trial, condemnation and house arrest of Galileo when he saw four moons around Jupiter with his telescope and advocated a heliocentric cosmology
Clearly the Catholic Church has made more than a few dark blunders throughout history. While it’s important to acknowledge past atrocities of any social or religious institution, it’s also important to recognize how things have changed for the better.
History deals mostly with recorded events. Another side of the coin is psychohistory. Psychohistory is an odd sounding discipline. Rest assured it has nothing to do with Norman Bates or disturbed individuals and their violent rampages. Instead, psychohistory combines psychology and history in suggesting that past generations influence contemporary individuals through a mix of genetic and socio-historical factors. In other words, psychohistory does not assume we are born into this world with a blank slate.
From the perspective of psychohistory, it’s noteworthy that many individuals come from non-Catholic families. And these families might go back for centuries. When family roots are deeply entrenched in a given tradition, it’s more difficult to adopt a new set of beliefs. Not impossible, of course. But difficult. So for psychohistorians, some individuals dislike Catholicism because they’re biased by their non-Catholic genealogy. They may see themselves as open-minded, but longstanding biases, stemming back generations, close them off from exploring Catholicism in the 21st century.
Some self-perceived freethinkers maybe aren’t quite as hip, liberated and progressive as they seem to be. Many shut down when it comes to talking about Catholicism in a mature, adult way. They’ve got it all figured out. At least, they think so.
But to be truly open-minded, we have to consider things we don’t like. For me, converting to Catholicism was about coming full-circle and getting past my preconceived beliefs about intellectual and spiritual freedom.
I realize these articles only scratch the surface. People dislike Catholicism for many reasons. And this series only covers a handful of those reasons. I had little interest in covering many of the known objections to Catholicism. A quick web search will reveal several non-Catholic sites opposing Catholicism. Instead of regurgitating all the known objections, I wanted a fresh approach. One that came from my own personal involvement within this, at times, irritating but also magnificent spiritual tradition.
¹ For instance, some Christians in the first century believed that Jesus would return in their lifetimes. For them, the end of the world was near.
Copyright © Michael Clark, 2014
CNN has mentioned St. Francis of Assisi and St. Francis Xavier, but there’s another one: St. Francis de Sales.
You heard it first at Earthpages.org!
- St. Francis de Sales (catholicjournaling.wordpress.com)
- How reading St. Francis de Sales has made me a better priest (newtheologicalmovement.blogspot.com)
A lot of people entirely dismiss the Catholic Church. But that’s not really fair. True, there are problems. And many of them will take a long time to repair. But there are about 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide. And it seems unlikely that all of these people would attend Mass merely for aesthetic or sociological reasons.
If Catholicism were just a crazed cult like some folks say, it would have died out after its founder (Jesus Christ) died. Sociologists note that cults always dwindle away and die after their charismatic leader passes.
So what’s going on? Could it be that, as the Church claims, the Holy Spirit lives and breathes within the ancient liturgy? I, myself, believe that it does. But that doesn’t mean that there’s still not a whole host of very human problems in need of repair. – MC
Read more news clips at Pinterest – News, Today, Digital Age
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- Julie Byrne: Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation rightly drew enormous world attention – CNN International (edition.cnn.com)
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- Pope’s decision ‘in the best interest of the Church’ – Gonzi (timesofmalta.com)
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In the Spring of 1994, the four of us from Holy Family Mission had just arrived in Rome for an audience with Blessed Pope John Paul II.
We had previously been traveling throughout Poland gathering information and taping the lives of the Polish Saints and Martyrs. Saints like Faustina Kowalska and Martyrs like Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko and the Nuns of Nowogrodek were part of the schedule. In addition we had traveled throughout Poland and Lithuania gathering information on Shrines like Our Lady of Czestochowa and Saint Maximilian Kolbe.
We even had the fortunate experience to go to Mass with President Lech Walesa in his private chapel during the trip.
While we were there we had an audience with Cardinal Glemp, the Primate of Poland and he told us a lot about the Polish people and his friend Pope John Paul II. We went to Wadowice the hometown of Pope John Paul II and gathered information and tape on his early years and childhood in Wadowice. Subsequently, we made a documentary on his life.
Cardinal Glemp explained how Blessed Pope John Paul understood the soul of the Polish people and also understood the workings and minds of the Soviet enforcers.
One particular account comes to mind to clearly point out the situation at that time. John Paul as the Cardinal of Kradow was kept up to date about the plans of the authorities in regards to his flock. On one occasion, he was informed that the authorities wanted to reduce the number of Catholic Churches in Poland by 50%. So John Paul devised a plan. He immediately asked for a meeting with the top level authorities to talk about the Catholic Churches in Poland. The authorities were jubilant – those in charge believed this would be their chance to accomplish the goal. At the start of the meeting John Paul immediately asked for an additional 1000 Catholic Churches to be built right away. The authorities were upset and proceeded to do what they always did compromise – compromise! They negotiated John Paul down to 500 additional Catholic Churches to be built! Blessed John Paul was a genius and the authorities thought they won that battle!
Let us now share one more account before returning to the account of the audience: This account will give you great incites into the Polish mindset. The Catholics in Czestochowa wanted to have a procession with the image of Our Lady of Czestochowa. The authorities did not want to permit the procession, but also knew they had to obey the laws. Next the Catholics petitioned the authorities for a permit to process the Image in the back of a truck. The authorities were jubilant again, and this time they issued the permit, then refused to permit a driver for the truck. The Catholics simply placed two large wooden poles under the truck and carried the truck with the Image of Our Lady of Czestochowa processing through the streets as planned.
Now back to the audience. We had arranged to be in the Polish group for the audience and were very excited with the Archbishop asked us to step out of the crowd and go to a special place where Pope John Paul II would greet each one of us individually.
Our most memorable moment is when he spoke to each one of us individually. He told the four of us to continue to make television programs for Mother Angelica and EWTN Eternal Word Global Television Network. He stated that television and media was very important.
He stated over and over how important television and media was and we responded that we would heed his advice. Since then we have produced over 200 television ready programs and to this day we continue with that commitment.
The meeting was literally out of this world! Wow!!
We have never lost the determination to produce more media for evangelization.
Copyright (c) 2011 Bob and Penny Lord’s Site
About The Author
Bob and Penny Lord are renowned Catholic authors and television hosts on EWTN, Global Catholic television. They are prolific writers about the Catholic faith, especially the Saints for which they have been dubbed “experts on the Saints.” For more information about Saints in the Catholic Church like Blessed John Paul II go here http://www.bobandpennylord.com
The author invites you to visit: http://www.bobandpennylord.com
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