What does the Church teach about exorcism and other demonic activity?

Response: In its most basic sense, an exorcism is an ecclesial rite authorized by a bishop and limited to the ministry of priests for expelling demons from possessed persons. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “When the Church asks publicly and authoritatively in the name of Jesus Christ that a person or object be protected against the power of the Evil One and withdrawn from his dominion; it is called exorcism (CCC 1673).” In the Bible, the term “exorcism” is derived from the Greek word exorkizo, which can mean cause to swear (Gn 24:3) or adjure (1Kg 22:16; Mt 26:63). The noun exorkistes (exorcist) is applied to wandering Jews who made the claim to cast out demons (Acts 19:13). During an exorcism, a demon is commanded to cease all diabolical activity in the name of Christ within a particular person or place. Exorcism is part of the Church’s pastoral ministry that deals with the extraordinary activity of Satan and his demons. Its primary effect is the liberation of possessed persons whose bodies and faculties are judged by the Church to be fully or near fully taken over by demonic forces.

Discussion: Any consideration of exorcism must take into account the mystery of salvation beginning with the creation of the angels. Angels are spiritual, non-corporal beings created by God to glorify Him and administer His plan of salvation (CCC 350-351). As beings capable of love, they possessed the radical ability to choose good or evil. Angels exercised this freedom in a primordial test in which, Scripture tells us, a third of them fell (Rev 12:4). Among those that fell, the first and most powerful is Satan who, along with his minions (known as demons), radically rejected the authority of God (CCC 392).

And war broke out in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown out with him. (Rev 12: 7-9)

The angelic “original sin” possessed an irrevocable character not in the sense that it is unforgivable and thus a defect in divine mercy, but in as much as demons will never seek mercy. Created as good by God, they became evil by their own permanent choice and, having been eternally expelled from the divine presence, they maliciously seek the ruin of souls until the end of time. The effects of this primordial battle, in which God and His good angels were definitively victorious, spilled over into humanity in the form of diabolical temptation (Gn 3:1-6). Thus, as the Catechism points out, “behind the disobedient choice of our first parents lurks a seductive voice, opposed to God, which makes them fall into death out of envy (CCC 391).”

Despite man’s fall through Adam’s sin, God in His infinite goodness saw fit to redeem man through a series of covenants and definitively through the Passion, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus established the reign of God in opposition to Satan’s diabolical reign. It is important to note that these two reigns are not co-equal. Satan and his demons are creatures and consequently subject to the power of God. Because of this, they possess a limited power. God’s power, on the other hand, is infinite and therefore unlimited. As part of the mystery of salvation, God permits Satan’s influence so that the true power of His saving love can be manifest. Though Christ established His reign, it awaits its completion until He comes again. Consequently, while Satan still exercises a diabolical influence over humanity until the end of time, man now possess the grace through the Church and her sacraments to keep demonic influence in check.

In this spiritual battle Jesus is the Chief Exorcist. It is He who casts out the power of Satan and his demons in anticipation of the final exorcism at the end of time. Thus, the exorcisms conducted by the Church are a foreshadowing of that which is to come. This final and definitive exorcism will take place when the “new heavens and new earth” are given to those whose names are written in the Book of the Lamb (Rev 21:1). According to the Gospel of John, the Devil and his minions have already been judged at the foot of the Cross (Jn 12:31) and will experience the consequence of their rebellion when, at the end of time, they will be thrown into the pool of fire for all eternity (Rev 20:10).

Demonic Activity in the Bible

Within the Sacred Scriptures, Jesus’ teaching on the Devil and his influence is always related to his defeat and expulsion. For instance, after the return from their first mission in Palestine, Jesus told His disciples that He saw, “the Devil fall like lightening from heaven (Lk 10:18).” At Caesarea Philippi after Peter’s confession, Jesus said to His Apostles that, “the gates of hell shall not prevail (Mt 16:18).” This means that the domain of the Devil will not withstand the onslaught of Christ’s saving love as exercised by His Church under the power of His Holy Spirit. Beyond this, Our Lord gave Peter and the Apostles the power to bind and loose, giving them spiritual and moral authority over humans and demons (Mt 16:19). During the Last Supper, in anticipation of His Passion, death and Resurrection, Jesus indicated that, “the prince of this world is cast out (Jn 12:31).”

In the scriptural references to the Devil, Our Lord encouraged His disciples to make use of His spiritual authority to engage diabolical forces. He indicated that, if they do so with the confidence and fidelity, they would prevail. Jesus also gave them specific instructions to cast out demons (Mt 10:8). Upon their return from their mission, the disciples were so taken by their authority over Satan that Jesus had to remind them not to revel in their power to exorcise demons, but instead rejoice in their election to the kingdom of heaven (Lk 10:20).

Exorcism within the Tradition

The early Fathers of the Church gave ample testimony to the biblical witness of diabolical activity in their own time. Though it is beyond our scope to cite the many fathers, a quote by Tertullian provides a fitting example. He writes:

Let a person be brought before your tribunals who is plainly under demoniacal possession. The wicked spirit, bidden to speak by the followers of Christ, will as readily make the truthful confession that he is a demon as elsewhere is falsely asserted that he is a god. (The Apology, Chapter XXIII)

A number of the early Church councils taught on the subject of exorcism. They promulgated regulations on the proper manner in which possessed persons should be pastorally treated. Many called for public penance for catechumens and those Catholics in a state of mortal sin who were believed to be under the demonic influence. Throughout the Middle Ages the Church instituted legislation and laid down penalties against those who openly invited diabolical influence or used it to injure others. Solemn documents were issued on the subject of exorcism by Pope Innocent VIII (1484 A.D.), Pope Julius II (1504 A.D.) and Pope Adrian VI (1523 A.D.).

By the time of the Protestant Reformation, the situation became so serious that every Catholic priest was given the power of exorcism. Although exorcisms had been performed in the Church from her beginning, and while the Fourth Council of Carthage (398 A.D.) prescribed the rite of ordination for exorcists; there existed no formal ritual per se until the seventeenth century. In 1614, Pope Paul V published the first edition of the official Ritual of Exorcism known as De exorcisandis obsessis a daemonio (“On Exorcising Those Obsessed by a Demon”). The rite consisted of instructions to the exorcist, prayers, psalms, litanies, Scripture readings and three strong prayers of exorcism. In accordance with the requirements of the Second Vatican Council, this rite was revised in 1999 by Pope John Paul II. The revised rite known as De exorcismis et supplicationibus quibusdam (“On the Exorcisms and Other Supplications”) is generally held by many exorcists to be weaker than the earlier 1614 rite by virtue of its often vague language and what many believe to be the unnecessary addition of cumbersome liturgical ceremonies. Moreover, the three commands of exorcism found in the 1614 ritual had been reduced to one “major exorcism” followed by two optional exorcisms. It is for these reasons that Pope Benedict XVI allowed the use of the earlier rite. This is not in any way to impugn the revised rite, as these are liturgical texts and liturgical texts are the texts of the Church. Consequently, as limiting as they might seem, they still possess the spiritual power they invoke and are still effective against the Devil and his minions.

Satan and His Demons

According to tradition, Satan was the most powerful of the fallen angels and, as such, was the brightest and most perfect of all God’s creations. He is described as detesting mankind, opposing God, disseminating lies, and seeking the ruin of souls. Satan exercises authority over the demonic world (Mt 25:41; Lk 11:15; Rev 12:7-9) and can direct their malicious activities. The term “devil” is derived from the Greek word diábolos, which means slanderer or accuser. It is used 37 times in the New Testament to describe Satan. By the time of the early Church Fathers, the names Satan and Lucifer (Lt.: lucifer = light bearer) were synonymous. Lucifer was used metaphorically by Isaiah to describe the king of Babylon (Is 14:12-13). That said, some exorcists, such as Fr. Gabriele Amorth, former chief exorcist of Rome, have argued against this association suggesting instead that Satan and Lucifer are two distinct but very powerful devils. Nonetheless, the tradition maintains that while Satan (Hb.: adversary, accuser, tempter) is what the chief demon is called in the Sacred Scriptures, the term “Lucifer” denotes only the state from which he has fallen.

It is important to recognize that demons retained their natural powers after their fall. They are intelligent beings who possess the power to influence material objects and forces toward their own malicious ends. This power is, by its very nature, limited. Though they may wish humans to believe otherwise, demons are not omnipresent (all present), omnipotent (all powerful), nor omniscient (all knowing). They can only exert their influence within the permissive will of God who, as in the case of Christ’s passion, allows evil so that good may come of it. Because of this, persons, places and things are subject to diabolical influence. Moreover, because of the tendency to sin, humanity is open to cooperate with demonic forces to bring greater evil in the world. In this regard, exorcism is essentially a prayer to God, in the name of Christ and His Church, to restrain the demons by liberating the possessed person from their diabolical influence.

Forms of Diabolical Activity

Diabolical influence can take many forms, and various authors group these in various categories. Typically they fall into two broad groups known as ordinary and extraordinary diabolical activities. Ordinary diabolical activities are the typical ways in which Satan and his minions exercise their demonic reign, and this takes the form of temptation. Temptation can be understood as a kind of dialogue with the demonic. It is the incitement to sin whether by persuasion or by the offer of some good or pleasure. As in the case with the seduction of Eve, the person’s freedom remains intact and in this regard it is the most serious kind of diabolical activity. It is the most serious because, with freedom intact, human beings retain the ability, through grace, to resist the temptation. Therefore, when they yield to the temptation, to the extent that they are free to resis doing so, they are responsible for the evil they commit. This is because mortal sin requires not simply a grave evil, but with it free will and full knowledge. Consequently temptation, though the least invasive demonic activity, represents a significant diabolical event. Moreover, because demons act in a subtle and almost imperceptible ways, humans are often unaware of their presence. Because of this, they work like an undetected cancer insidiously doing damage before we become aware of their effects. That said, not all temptation comes from the devil. In the first part of his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas was quick to point out that, “the devil is not the cause of every sin: for all sins are not committed at the devil’s instigation, but some are due to the free-will and the corruption of the flesh.”

In living out the Christian life, temptations can be confronted in a number of ways. One way is to avoid the very things that lead us into temptation; what the tradition calls the “near occasion of sin.” Recourse to prayer is always and everywhere helpful along with cultivating a spirit of humility and confidence in God. Temptations are not the work of God, but are permitted by Him to enable us to exercise the virtues and progress in the spiritual life.

Where temptation reflects ordinary diabolical activity, extraordinary activity includes: infestation, oppression, obsession and possession. This activity represents an ever-increasing progression of demonic influence. As this progression advances, the will of the victim decreases, reducing or, as in the case of possession, eliminating his or her culpability during the manifestations. That said, this progression is not of necessity. In other words, demonic activity need not pass from a lower level to a higher level and can begin anywhere.

Infestation, which is the least invasive, is the influence of diabolical activity in a particular object, place, or home. This type of activity is non-personal in nature, inasmuch as it is directed to things. It may manifest itself in unexplained phenomenon such as laughter, screams, footsteps, scratching sounds, shadowy figures, unusual temperature shifts, windows and doors that open and close, and objects that disappear and reappear in other parts of the house. Other unexplained signs are offensive odors, the strong feeling of an evil presence, electrical disruption, the spread of mold, blood like spots on the wall, and levitating objects. Infestation has also been known to take place in animals that exhibit strange and unusual behavior often linked with the above phenomenon. These disturbances can be caused by curses, occult activity, or a particularly heinous murder or suicide at or near the place where these manifestations occur. The remedy for infestation is typically a house blessing or a Mass said on the premises.

Unlike infestation, oppression is personal in nature insofar as the demonic activity focuses on the vexed person. It particularly manifests itself through physical attacks which can take the form of blows, scratches to the skin that materialize, words or symbols, and being pushed or thrown. Typically, oppression is directed to those closest to God, such as St. Catherine of Siena, St. John Vianney, and St. Pio of Pietrelcina in an attempt to undermine their witness to Christ. Those experiencing oppression can also experience diabolical activity in their relationships, work, and health. The remedy for oppression is prayers of deliverance.

Prayers of deliverance are aimed at freeing a person, place or thing from the influence of demons of lesser strength. This ministry can be exercised by clergy and laity without the authorization of the local bishop. Its authority arises out of Baptism and the call of the Church militant to resist and even battle the forces of evil as priests, prophets, and kings (Mk 16:17-18). That said, deliverance ministry should not be entered into lightly, and the ministers must be deeply spiritual, well trained, and obedient to ecclesial authority. Deliverance prayers use the deprecatory form and, because of this, are never prayed in the form of a direct command to the demons. Instead, these prayers call upon God, the angels and the saints to free the victim from demonic influence. For example, one might pray, “Heavenly Father, through the Passion, death and Resurrection of Your Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and through the power of Your Holy Spirit, I beseech You to free (name of person) from every power of Satan and his evil companions.” This prayer is expressed in a form of a supplication, for it is Christ who does the work. He is the Chief Exorcist. Should, in the event of deliverance prayer, the person being prayed over begin to manifest signs such as twitching, cursing, spitting, the eyes rolling back into the head, aversion to sacred objects, foreign languages unknown to the person, and excessive physical strength, the deliverance minister should cease the prayer session at once and immediately contact the local pastor. These are signs of diabolical possession and in the face of such evil, it would be highly imprudent to proceed as it exposes the entire team to forces they are ill suited to handle.

Obsession, like infestation and oppression, is another form of extraordinary diabolical activity. In some of the literature it has been called “demonic temptation” as it attacks the mind in an intense and persistent manner. These are more violent and prolonged than ordinary temptations assaulting the victim in order to trouble the soul. This may manifest in the form of seductive visions to lure victims into a deeper relationship with the demonic or horrific apparitions that terrorize them. These are not corporeal occurrences, but take place in the imagination, much like hallucinations. Nonetheless, they really result in the inability of the victim to form lasting relationships and instill a sense of helplessness. As in the case of oppression, obsession requires for its remedy prayers of deliverance.

The last and most invasive extraordinary diabolical activity is possession. As noted earlier, possession occurs when Satan or some demon(s) takes over a person’s body without their knowledge or consent. Because there is no freedom without knowledge or consent, the victim is not culpable for his or her actions during the manifestations. Possession typically occurs when the victim leaves themselves open to demonic forces either through a life of vice where they are in the grip of evil, or through occult activity. This activity arises as a result of divinations, witchcraft and black magic and may include the use of the Ouija board, tarot cards, fortune telling, voodoo, satanic rituals and particularly violent video games. All of these provide an invitation for demonic influence. Beyond this, possession can also occur through curses, spells, or when someone is consecrated to Satan by a family member or friend.

The possessed person may appear at times quite normal, though often they are aware that there is a heavy demonic force within and, because of this, often withdraw and suffer from depression. When the demon or demons within feel threated by some sacred object, or through prayer, they begin to manifest. This, as noted earlier, can take the form of spasmodic movements, bodily contortions outside the normal range of movement, physiognomic changes to the face, voice changes, unusual feats of strength and agility. They may speak unknown languages fluently, such as Latin, Greek or Aramaic, and have knowledge of hidden things. Particularly strong demons can move objects, throw people and even levitate. These manifestations represent a kind of diabolical temper tantrum in which the demon is resisting any attempt to dislodge it from the victim.

In 2004 when he was head of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Pope Benedict asked bishops throughout the world to appoint exorcists in their dioceses. Unfortunately, many throughout the world have not complied, despite the fact that exorcisms are on the rise. Nonetheless, some dioceses have responded and provided pastors with the necessary support they need should a suspicious case arise. These dioceses employ sophisticated intake forms, along with examinations by physicians and psychologists, long before permission is given for an exorcism. It is critical at the outset to determine whether the things being manifest are of a psychotic nature, a diabolic nature, or some combination of both. Only when it is clear that the manifestations are diabolical, and only with the consent of the victim, is the case taken to the local bishop. Should the bishop determine that this is a case of possession, he will assign a priest along with a support team. The support team, like the priest must be called to this ministry, steeped in the spiritual life, and fully practicing the faith. They will not only pray with the priest, but are also there to restrain the victim should he or she become violent.

Exorcism is not an event, but a process. It is not so much about the presence of evil, but conquering that evil. Depending on the number and strength of the demon(s), it may take months and even, in some difficult cases, years. In the end, however, Christ is always victorious and this is really the most profound message of the Church’s teaching on exorcism; namely that Christ’s love liberates us from the bondage of sin and death, and offers in their place eternal life.

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