Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, is worried that the Catholic Church is ill-equipped to deal with questions about how and when to attempt to cast out evil spirits. So he organized a conference on the topic for the nation's bishops. The holy men are meeting this weekend to discuss exorcism. Here's to hoping they find something to discuss.
The world would be a much more interesting place if there were, in fact, principalities and powers contending for our immortal souls. Ordinary acts of evil could have some reference beyond brutish sorrow and the sort of terror that drives us mute. We could appeal to the heavens for relief. Instead, I suspect, we gnaw on our metaphorical chains without recourse. It is far harder to sit silently in sorrow than to cry to the heavens for salvation, or, among the illusions by which we comfort ourselves, to call upon the state for justice.
The conflict between religion and science, a slugfest that has roared in episodic bouts since the dawn of the Italian Renaissance, is reawakened in this preoccupation with the Devil and evil. The bishops are aware that modern psychiatry has much to offer the suffering souls among us. But the bishops say that we are more than the sum of our conflicting instincts and drives. We are some times the playthings of demons. When Thorazine fails, consider Holy Water?
Try introducing evidence of that in courtroom sometime and see how far you get.
Yet bishops say there is an invisible world and there is objective proof of possession. Classic signs include a person's suddenly speaking a language they have never learned, and other symptoms such as cutting oneself that, frankly, mirror classic mental illnesses.
I am a sceptic about things supernatural, much to my sorrow, I might add. Those signals of possession that are shared with mental illnesses do not convince me. I am, as the Christian writer C.S.Lewis would say, safely in the Devil's camp: He has tricked me into spiritual silence by convincing me he does not exist.
But I would find inexplicable a case in which a person suddenly spoke a recognized language to which they had not previously been exposed. How can a person who has never spoken Urdu or been exposed to the language suddenly speak it? Could the Devil make someone do it? Frankly, why would he bother? Does the Devil really need a translator? I thought we all spoke his language, stained as we are by Adam's and Eve's sin.
Theologians recognize two forms of a person's speaking in a tongue not their own. The practice of glossolalia involves utterances the sound like syllables of an unrecognized language. No one understands this form of speaking in tongues, a practice engaged in by many and said to be inspired by none other than the Holy Spirit in many Pentacostal churches. To those of us lacking what believers call spirital discernment, these speech acts sound like gibberish. Don't offer glossolalia as proof of possession.
The troubling case would be an out and out case of sophisticated xenoglossy, a person's speaking or writing an actual language to which they had never previously been exposed. According to Ian Stevenson, a researcher at the University of Virginia, there are but a few recorded cases of this phenomenon.
A few cases? Is this proof of unseen spiritual powers contesting for the soul of mankind? I wish that it were so. An enchanted world would be more satisfying than a world of impenetrable forces, chance and random sorrow. I want to say I believe, help thou my unbelief, to the bishops assembled this weekend.
But sadly, the bishops have chosen to meet behind closed doors to discuss exorcism. This penchant for secrecy looks a lot like a convention of restaurateurs convening to discuss the secret formula for Kentucky Fried Chicken. The New York Times reports that one critic likens this secret meeting about secret principalities and powers to a public relations stunt: The Church wants to distinguish itself from other large and wealthy institutions. "We are not the Federal Reserve, and we are not the World Council of Churches. We deal with angels and demons," said R. Scott Appleby, a church historian at the University of Notre Dame.
If the Devil had a sense of humor he'd drop in on this secret conclave and take possession of one of the bishops, perhaps invading the bosom of the most chaste and conservative of its members. Imagine the uproar if some senior cleric suddenly rent his garments, hobbled atop a table with a litheness inconsistent with his age, and began to belt out a tune by Madonna, perhaps "Like A Virgin." That would make heads spin, and it might prove that there is more to the world than we know. Don't tell me that an otherwise good man cannot be made the plaything of the Devil; why not a modern Job of sorts?
This effort to revisit ancient rites and rituals looks stillborn, and sadly so.