Spinello Aretino Exorcism of St BenedictFor most of the 20th century, the Roman Catholic Church downplayed the practice of exorcism. As an institution, it tended to shy away from the idea that people’s problems — particularly mental or neurological illnesses — were caused by demonic possession, and instead left it up to the practice of medicine. This was a positive development, and lent credence to the idea that these illnesses are not of metaphysical origin, but physiological in nature.

But the Church wants desperately to divert the attention of both Catholics and non-Catholics from the clerical child-abuse scandal which has plagued it around the world, for the last several years. Many of their tactics have been rhetorical and in direct response to the scandal, such as the claim that the scandal is merely a demonic attack upon God’s holy Church, in which the true victims are the abusive clergy, not the children they abused. Other, more indirect responses have been the Pope’s claims that “secularism” is the greatest evil in the world, the equivalent of Nazism … and worse, that the Nazis themselves had been wicked secularists.

Still other responses have been less rhetorical and more active, and even more indirect. The latest is a reversal of the Church’s former de-emphasis on exorcism, and a renewed embrace of that medieval practice, as reported by the UPI (WebCite cached article):

More than 100 Roman Catholic priests and bishops have gathered in Baltimore for a conference on exorcism.

The two-day conference, which is not open to the public or news media, was organized by Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., The New York Times reported Friday. Paprocki said the main goal of the conference is to help priests and bishops decide when exorcism is appropriate. …

R. Scott Appleby, a professor of church history at the University of Notre Dame, said reviving exorcism restores a sense of the church as an institution dealing with the supernatural: “It’s a strategy for saying: ‘We are not the Federal Reserve, and we are not the World Council of Churches. We deal with angels and demons.'”

That this is being done in the increasingly-religionistic United States cannot be a coincidence. It will inevitably appeal to a nation which tends toward metaphysical solutions to problems.

However, it’s not the only old Catholic practice which the Church is reviving. A couple of years ago, the Pope himself proposed that issuance of indulgences — in the form of paper documents — ought to be resumed, and bishops began following this suggestion, beginning early last year (cached article). Reforms begun early in the 20th century, culminating at the Second Vatican Council, had rendered indulgences-on-paper moot, since Catholicism now holds that, once someone has done something to earn an indulgence*, s/he has earned it; the document itself is unnecessary and superfluous (although there is no reason a Catholic could not still ask for one). This remains the case even now, however, the Church is pushing indulgences-on-paper, as a way of “connecting” Catholics back to the Church … or something.

My guess is that the Catholic Church might ingratiate itself to its laity more efficiently, by confessing its crimes and its sins directly and without excuse or caveat, and by handing over for prosecution all abusive clergy and the hierarchs who aided them. Of course, they will never do that, at least not voluntarily … so they keep looking for other ways to “connect” with the laity.

At any rate, the Church is rolling back the clock, as it were, to an older time when exorcisms were more frequent, in an effort to appear to be actively involved in the supernatural again. And they’re doing it in order to divert attention from the criminality of abusive clergy within its ranks and of the hierarchy that aided and protected them for decades. Nice.

While the sale of indulgences has been outlawed by the Church since the Council of Trent in the 6th century, their issuance never ended; Catholic doctrine holds that they can still be earned by certain activities, such as devotional prayers, saying of the Rosary, fasting, etc.

Photo credit: Spinello Aretino [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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