Just in time for Halloween, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has published an English translation of the hitherto only-in-Latin rite of exorcism—the expulsion of demons from someone believed to be possessed. The full rite will be available only to bishops (who can turn it over to specially trained priests whom they commission as exorcists), but an appendix, titled “Prayers Against the Powers of Darkness,” will be available for purchase to all Catholics.
The new translation demonstrates a fast-growing interest in exorcism and in the menacing power of Satan, at a time of rapid secularization in which, paradoxically, occult phenomena are often credited and regarded as benign. Take, for instance, the monthly “hex” that thousands of candle-bearing “resistance” witches have attempted to place this year on President Trump.
Among Catholics, especially liberal Catholics, since the Second Vatican Council, exorcism has been generally regarded as one of the “Olds,” so to speak, a relic of a medieval church that viewed devils as actual beings (rather than as fanciful personifications of an abstract concept of evil). William Friedkin’s Best Picture–nominated The Exorcist (1973), its plot involving two Catholic priests who labor to expel a demon from a little girl, may be one of the best-grossing—and best—horror movies of all time. But belief in actual demons was at that time declassé.
Nonetheless, during this past decade, the number of practicing exorcists in the U.S. has more than quadrupled, according to the U.K. Telegraph, rising from twelve to fifty. Some prominent Church-sanctioned exorcists receive thousands of requests to perform the rite every year. (There seem to be no data on the number of exorcisms actually carried out.) Fr. Vincent Lampert of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, whose first exorcism was featured on the 2013 season of the reality show Paranormal Witness, told the Telegraph that he had intended his appearance on the show to demonstrate that “evil is a reality and there are consequences when people open up a doorway to evil into their lives.”
But there’s another paradox observable in this renewed Catholic interest in exorcism: the paradox of Pope Francis, under whose aegis the new English translation of De exorcismis et supplicationibus quibusdam (the official Latin name of the Vatican’s 1999 codification of centuries-old exorcism rites, long used unofficially and often in secrecy) was approved. Francis is generally regarded as a Church liberal, by other Church liberals and by his numerous conservative Church critics. The best-publicized of his alleged acts of progressive virtue (if you’re a liberal) or mortal sin (if you’re a conservative) is Amoris laetitia, his 2016 apostolic exhortation, which appears to anticipate some vaguely defined circumstances under which divorced and civilly remarried Catholics may receive communion. Though it’s hard to pin down what Amoris laetitia actually says, some bishops have apparently interpreted it as a blanket welcome to the communion rail of the civilly remarried, in contrast to earlier Church teaching; while other bishops, notably the four tradition-minded cardinals who submitted five dubia to Francis, argue that the loosey-goosey language of the exhortation seems to transmute objectively defined illicit marital unions into subjectively defined licit ones.
Francis is in hot water with some Church conservatives for other controversial positions he seems to have staked out: his July 2013 question “Who am I to judge?,” concerning the morality of gay people who might be searching for God; his 2015 embrace of a transgender man who asked whether there was a place for him in the Church; his streamlining of the marriage-annulment process for divorced Catholics; and his easing of the absolution process for women who have had abortions. And where secular political issues are concerned, Francis skews cookie-cutter-liberal on climate change, capitalism, the European Union, and the death penalty.
And yet—when it comes to the devil and his minions, Francis is on a literal level with the Venerable Bede, who wrote during the seventh century A.D. of the “dark sprits with their flaming eyes . . . breathing a stinking fire out of their mouths and nostrils.” As early as 2014, one year into his pontificate, Francis told a gathering in Rome that the “devil wants to destroy” the traditional family. A homily later that year warned that “the devil always returns,” and urged Catholics to “watch, so that the demons don’t enter in.” On May 12 of this year, Francis declared that priests hearing confessions should “should not hesitate” to refer penitents to exorcists if they are suffering from “genuine spiritual disturbances.” He is even said to have personally performed an exorcism, in 2013, on a disturbed young man in a wheelchair in St. Peter’s Square, on whose head he laid his hands. Journalists have written—often dubiously—about “Francis’s obsession with Satan.”
The increasing prominence granted exorcism by the Catholic hierarchy reminds contemporary Catholics that the traditional beliefs they are tempted to dismiss as primitive—the reality of Satan, for example—may not be so primitive after all. And the increasing popularity of exorcism among Catholics suggests they are aware that something has gone hideously wrong in our supposedly enlightened society—which is actually scarred almost irremediably by drugs, family breakdowns, and every sort of sexual violation imaginable. Conservative Catholics may fault Pope Francis for some allegedly liberal stances, but they cannot fault him for his awareness that palpable evil stalks the world, seeking the ruin of souls.
Charlotte Allen is a writer living in Washington, D.C.