The new Pope believes in demon possession. This is a problem.
I touched on this briefly in a Slate post, but I want to dig in and talk about it some more. Anthony Faiola has an alarming piece up at the Washington Post about how the small but devout exorcist community within the Catholic church is getting a huge boost from Pope Francis. The claim that demons possess people and need to be exorcised hasn’t ever really been renounced by any popes that I know of, but it’s such embarrassingly obvious bullshit that recent decades have seen exorcists getting marginalized. (Arguably, they could have been wiped out completely if not for the book and movie The Exorcist, which painted exorcists like child-saving heroes instead of the dangerously delusional idiots they are.) Pope Francis is apparently reversing that trend and instead blowing kisses at the nutters who think demon possession is a thing that happens and that exorcism is a way to deal with it.
Largely under the radar, theologians and Vatican insiders say, Francis has not only dwelled far more on Satan in sermons and speeches than his recent predecessors have, but also sought to rekindle the Devil’s image as a supernatural entity with the forces of evil at his beck and call.
Last year, for instance, Francis laid handson a man in a wheelchair who claimed to be possessed by demons, in what many saw as an impromptu act of cleansing. A few months later, he praised a group long viewed by some as the crazy uncles of the Roman Catholic Church — the International Association of Exorcists — for “helping people who suffer and are in need of liberation.”
The piece has an amazing bit of color, when Faiola actually talks to some exorcists. They have a conference! (Of course they do.) And the conference of around 200 people met last week to share their cockamamie theories about how “Satanic cults are spreading like wildfire in the age of the Internet” and how everyone is so mean to them because they dumb enough to believe that Supernatural is a documentary. Plus, to share stories of being out in the field, as it were.
During the conference, the Rev. Cesar Truqui, an exorcist based in Switzerland, recounted one experience he had aboard a Swissair flight. “Two lesbians,” he said, had sat behind him on the plane. Soon afterward, he said, he felt Satan’s presence. As he silently sought to repel the evil spirit through prayer, one of the women, he said, began growling demonically and threw chocolates at his head.
Asked how he knew the woman was possessed, he said that “once you hear a Satanic growl, you never forget it. It’s like smelling Margherita pizza for the first time. It’s something you never forget.”
Okay, I have to admit that I would have paid a lot of money to see that interaction. I am fans of these lesbians that he encountered. If some asshole determines that you’re a sinner and starts praying pointedly at you, growling and throwing chocolates is an excellent way to respond. Well done, ladies. (Though I doubt honestly that they growled at him. They probably were just telling him to cut it out in plane-appropriate stage whispers.)
I want to be very, very clear—because this always comes up when I write about stuff like this—that I am not interested in the theological debates over this. (The classic breakdown about why debating theology is dumb.) Yes, technically the argument that demons possess people and need to be exorcised is no more or less ridiculous, based on evidence, than the more abstract theory that Satan sits underground and sends temptation vibes aboveground. But on the political, real world front, there are substantial differences between the two ideas. One kind of bullshit definitely does more damage than the other kind of bullshit. It’s one thing to pray for deliverance from Satan tempting you to cheat on your spouse or whatever. But pretty much all people subject to exorcisms are either mentally ill people who need actual help or people whose personal choices offend their families and who are being subject to an exorcism in order to punish and control them. Either way, the potential for damage is really high.
Indeed, just generally it’s irresponsible to push the narrative that demons are a thing that exist in the world. Take this story from Brazil, where a woman was accused of witchcraft on a local new outlet’s Facebook page, and the result is that some people took it upon themselves to beat her to death. Not that Americans should feel superior on this, as any perusal of the miserable history of Satanic panic in the 80s and 90s should demonstrate. The pope should be ashamed of himself for encouraging this nonsense.