Of all the Church’s beliefs and practices, exorcism might be the most dismissed in today’s society. While a lot of people still consult psychics and mediums and dabble in the occult, belief in exorcism has suffered a very different fate. I think it’s fair to say that the majority today think the whole idea of demonic possession is just a medieval superstition that intelligent people did away with once we learned about mental illness, so even talking about it can make you seem like a bit of a nutjob.
Nevertheless, the Church still recognizes the reality of demonic possession and the power of exorcism, and nothing the surrounding culture can do or say is going to change that. As the Catechism tells us, the Church practices exorcism because it was an important part of the ministry of Jesus and the Apostles (CCC 1673). Jesus himself was known during his life as a particularly effective exorcist (Mark 1:34, 39; Luke 4:33-37), he told his Apostles to cast out demons as part of their ministry (Matthew 10:8), and Acts tells us that they did in fact do this (Acts 5:16, 8:7). So when the Church performs exorcisms today, she’s just being faithful to Jesus’ example and his command to his disciples. We’re supposed to continue his work now that he’s gone back to heaven, and helping those who are possessed by demons is an important part of that work.
There is, however, one question that people often ask about the New Testament’s teaching on this matter: by calling these healings exorcisms, was Jesus simply adopting his audience’s way of speaking even though he knew it was inaccurate? In other words, some people suggest that maybe demonic possession isn’t real, but Jesus simply spoke and acted as if it were because he knew that his contemporaries all believed it. Maybe he simply “spoke their language” so they would understand and accept his message, but since we today know better, we don’t need to keep pretending.
The Sadducee Problem
That line of thinking may sound convincing at first, but it actually has some fatal problems. For one, not all of Jesus’ contemporaries believed in demons and demonic possession. In particular, the Sadducees, some of Jesus’ chief opponents in the Gospels, didn’t believe in any spiritual beings except God (Acts 23:8), so Jesus could’ve very easily just sided with them on this issue if he knew that demons don’t really possess people.
But he didn’t do that, which tells us that he wasn’t just pretending. He wasn’t just adapting his message to suit his audience. No, Jesus spoke and acted as if he were an exorcist because he really was. He really did cast out demons, and he really did want his Church to continue that work.
Secondly, the Gospels are careful to differentiate Jesus’ healings of natural diseases from his exorcisms (Mark 1:32-34). In fact, the Gospel of Matthew even distinguishes Jesus’ exorcisms from his healings of epilepsy (Matthew 4:24), a disease that could’ve very easily been confused with demonic possession back then.
So when the Gospels say Jesus performed exorcisms, they don’t just mean that he cured diseases that were thought to be signs of demonic possession. No, the Gospels mean that he cast out demons from people who truly were under their oppression.
Mental Illness vs. Exorcism
That being said, the Church does recognize that mental illness can often look a lot like demonic possession, so exorcists have to be extremely careful not to confuse the two. As the Catechism warns us, they must “ascertain that one is dealing with the presence of the Evil One, and not an illness” before they actually perform an exorcism (CCC 1673).
So even though the Church accepts the possibility of demonic possession, she also knows that we need balance in this regard. We shouldn’t discount the possibility of possession, but we also shouldn’t see demons around every corner. Mental illness is way more common than possession, so we should only accept a demonic explanation if we’ve completely ruled out natural causes.
The Reality of Possession and Exorcism
The next time someone tries to tell you that exorcism is a relic of a superstitious past that nobody takes seriously anymore, know that they’re wrong. Sure, there are some in the Church (even priests and bishops, unfortunately) who think that way, but that’s not what Scripture and the magisterium teach. The reality of demonic possession and exorcism is a genuine part of the deposit of faith, so the Church still has a grave obligation to help people afflicted in this way, no matter what the surrounding culture may think.