John answered, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” But Jesus said to him, “Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you.” Luke 9:49-50
Casting Call for Demons
In recent years, there has been a steady stream of movies that have focused on demon possession and exorcisms. In fact, some of the most successful ‘scary’ movies in the last decade have had the topic of demonic possession as their theme. This was all inaugurated with the 1973 film, ‘The Exorcist, which is generally considered a horror classic and the first popular portrayal of both demonic possession and the rite of exorcism. In addition to the movies appearing in our cinemas, a recent commercial even used the growing interest in Exorcism to sell vacuum cleaners. The commercial can be seen here:
This growing interest in the topic of demonic possession here in the West is not the focus of this article, but on the action of casting out demons that is typically portrayed in these movies.
Casting Out Fallacies
Growing up as a protestant evangelical Christian, I was often told that the Catholic Church was not the true Church that Jesus started with his Apostles. Others suggested the while the Catholic Church may have at one point been a part of the ‘true Church’, that they became so corrupt during the middle ages that they became invalid and it was reformers such as Luther and Calvin who picked up the torch and the broken pieces of Christianity to restore it to the simple, living faith of the early Christians.
There were a few things that always bothered me about these claims and bold assertions. (Since many of you know that I became Catholic four years ago, those claims obviously did not hold up to the scrutiny I applied to them) One of the bothersome issues was the ongoing reality of exorcisms that were being successfully performed by Catholic priests. Now, I learned rightly as a protestant to regard Scripture as God’s revealed Word to the human race. And here is the big rub: it is in the very Scriptures that we are confronted with a simple and important choice. This choice is concerning the authority, authenticity and validity of the Catholic Church.
In the Scripture passage I referenced at the open of this post, the Apostle John confronts the Lord Jesus on a matter that is of great concern to him. He observes a person that has not been a part of the group following Jesus casting out demons in the name of Jesus. (see Luke 9:49) Based on the response of Jesus in the next verse, John raises this concern to express the following implications: 1. Those who are not part of Jesus’ inner circle of disciples do not have the authority to cast out demons. 2. Those who are not a part of Jesus’ inner circle of followers are working against Jesus and are opposed to Him. Jesus actually responds with a rebuke. He commands John not to stop the person casting out demons in Jesus’ name and then he goes on further to say that, “whoever is not against you, is for you.” (9:50)
I believe these words of Christ have profound implications on what protestants assume about the Catholic Church and its ministers. In our day, I realize that many protestants have moved away from assuming Catholics are not Christians. In fact, there are many that have sought to form bridges and seek a path of restored unity. At the same time, there are many who still reject the Catholic priesthood and the authority of the Catholic Church. In order to disregard the Catholic Church the issue of exorcisms is typically dismissed or ignored. Many question whether they actually occur, going so far to reject the accounts given by witnesses who have been present at these incidents. For those who persist that far in skepticism, I would only say that these exorcisms are connected to objective events that you can verify in a more conclusive way than you can for the faith we have in Christ’s resurrection. For in the resurrection of Jesus, we rely on the testimony passed on to us in the witness of Scripture of those who have passed away. For exorcisms you can read the accounts and sometimes meet the people who are living today who have been a direct witness to an exorcism. One recent such example of this is written about by fellow Catholic blog writer, Joe Heschmeyer, who provides a reflection about a recent well-documented exorcism: ‘The Fascinating Exorcism Case in USA Today.’ If you think this recent case of exorcisms is an abberation, then here are some other news articles highlighting the growing need for Exorcists in different parts of the world: Rise in the Need For Exorcists, Catholic Church Training More Exorcists
So if we allow that exorcisms are being performed by Catholic priests, then the question comes as to what authority these priests have to do this? If they are not true followers of Christ and are part of some invalid or counterfeit Christian group, then when Catholic priests attempted to perform exorcisms, shouldn’t the results of these attempts look something like this:
Acts 19:11-16: God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that when the handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were brought to the sick, their diseases left them, and the evil spirits came out of them. Then some itinerant Jewish exorcists tried to use the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. But the evil spirit said to them in reply, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?” Then the man with the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered them all, and so overpowered them that they fled out of the house naked and wounded.
This passage gives us a scenario where a group of Jewish religious people are attempting to duplicate the actions of the apostles but these people are not Christians and not part of the Church. These people are revealed to first of all have no authority over the demons but second of all they are themselves overtaken by them. If you investigate the accounts of exorcisms performed by Catholic priests, the opposite is occurring. The demons are under the command of the priest and the priest effectively casts them out.
That is one major way that the movie, ‘The Exorcist’, does not accurately portray typical exorcisms. The main priest trained in exorcism dies of a heart attack (though he does initially show that he has authority over the powerful demon when performing the rite and we do not know if the heart attack was a result of a natural death or the actions of the demon). The younger priest though is shown to have had to take the demon upon himself in order for the demon to leave the young girl. The film’s creators have often answered these concerns by suggesting that it was actually Satan who entered the girl and since he is the most powerful of demons, that is why the priests were outmatched. But, again, this has more to do with movie fiction than what we actually have on record with most exorcisms.
On the other hand, a better representation of what occurs in Acts 19 is found in the movie,’The Last Exorcism’. In that film, someone who is a non-practicing Christian goes around the country claiming to do exorcisms to make money off of people. He eventually encounters someone possessed by a real demon and the movie shows how ineffective he is in trying to ‘duplicate’ an exorcism that is to only be performed by a Catholic priest.
Casting Out Pharisees
Sadly, for protestants who dismiss the Catholic Church as false or as a Church that is not carrying out the mission of Christ, this sounds more akin to the pharisees who claimed that Jesus was ‘casting out demons by the power of demons.’ This is an important interaction that needs to be read in order to see how many protestants view Catholics the same way the pharisees viewed Jesus.
Luke 11:14-23: 14 Now he was casting out a demon that was mute; when the demon had gone out, the one who had been mute spoke, and the crowds were amazed. 15 But some of them said, “He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons.” 16 Others, to test him, kept demanding from him a sign from heaven. 17 But he knew what they were thinking and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself becomes a desert, and house falls on house. 18 If Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? —for you say that I cast out the demons by Beelzebul. 19 Now if I cast out the demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your exorcists[g] cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges.20 But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you. 21 When a strong man, fully armed, guards his castle, his property is safe. 22 But when one stronger than he attacks him and overpowers him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his plunder. 23 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.
The pharisees accuse Jesus as not casting demons out by the power of God, but by the power of Satan. Jesus responds by asking them why would demons be casting out demons when they are aligned and a part of the same kingdom. Jesus says that on the contrary, the authority of casting out demons is the revelation that the Kingdom of God is present among them. Then, we have a reverse of the admonition that Jesus earlier gave to his disciple John. When John mentioned that someone was casting out demons in Jesus’ name, Jesus says that ‘whoever is not against you is for you.’ To the pharisees, he gives nearly the opposite warning. Since they are aligning themselves publicly against Jesus and also, as we later see in Acts, against his disciples, he warns ‘whoever does not gather with me, scatters.’ This is not only a admonition but on another level, a prophetic warning. For if you connect this passage with what later occurs in Acts 19, we see that the Jewish people who rejected Jesus and the apostles but still tried to perform exorcisms in their name were scattered by the very demons they were trying to cast out.
This should be taken as a sober warning to my evangelical Christian friends that continue to persist in dismissing the Catholic Church and rejecting its authority. For, do we not clearly see since the development of Protestantism, a true ‘scattering’ among them is occurring? Again and again we see further divisions among these Christians with little attempt being made to seek unity. Here we find one of the greatest contrasts with the pattern of settling doctrinal differences. For Catholics, when disputes arise over a teaching, councils are called and Bishops are brought together to resolve a dispute. In this pattern, the Church remains together while reform and clarification is sought. For protestants, this pattern does not persist. When a dispute arises, splits occur, new denominations are created, with each new group accusing the other of being less faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That is a protestant tradition and not a Catholic one.
Casting Out Into The Deeper Waters: An invitation and challenge to evangelicals
When Jesus first called his disciples, he challenged Peter to go back out to sea and cast his nets into the deep waters. He was a trained fisherman and it is likely in his eyes he found Jesus’ request rather ridiculous. Yet, against all our expectations, Peter does what this mysterious Jesus asks of Him and from then on Peter’s life is never the same. As a former protestant, I was faced with the claims that the Catholic Church made about itself and I was careful to examine those claims with what we find consistently and coherently throughout the history of Christianity. Yes, history is a mess and different people tell it from their own slant. But, again and again, I found the Catholic claims aligning more closely to reality than what protestants claimed. I firmly believe that many protestants have the same problems with the Catholic Church that the pharisees and scribes had with Jesus. This issue of Exorcisms was just one of many. I accept the accounts of exorcisms as I have read the testimonies of those involved in a similar way I accept the accounts of the resurrection we are given in Scripture. Both of these events fall outside of my own experience and on both I am placing my faith in the veracity of the testimony of others. I just came to a point where I realized that to dismiss all these testimonies concerning exorcisms as some scheme or conspiracy of the Catholic Church could easily be said in a similar way concerning the Resurrection of Jesus. The accounts begin to pile up and I would have to close my eyes, ears and mind to too much. We have a reasonable faith, but it is a faith that often surpasses reason. There are things I can objectively examine and then there are things that I run out of natural or scientific answers to. So, I was left with a choice. If the exorcisms done by Catholic priests are valid, then they are not only followers of Christ and carrying out His mission in this world, but also “if they are not against us they are for us.” This inevitably means that the Catholic Church is here for us and it is working in this world for Jesus Christ and not against Him.
Casting Out Bad Assumptions
You may be surprised to know that the Catholic Church has a much more positive view of protestants than typically protestants have of Catholics. For instance, the Catholic Church takes the attitude of Jesus toward protestant Christians that are doing much good in Jesus’ name even though ‘they are not among us.’ Catholics are well aware that evangelicals have in certain circumstances been given the grace to cast out demons, especially on the mission fields of the world. While this is not the normative way that exorcisms occur, Catholics still rejoice that the Holy Spirit works through Christians when they see someone possessed or harassed by a demon. Catholics know that God is not limited to the ways He normally works. He often works in spite of us, even when we are stubborn and unwilling.
Still, there is something to be said in seeking to not only do something good, but to do it the right way. God often overlooks our faults and can work in spite of them. But we all will have to account for not only what we did, but whether we did it with the love and wisdom of Christ. There are important reasons why Catholics have a careful rite and procedure for exorcisms. A lot of it is in place because it developed from learning from the faults of some and the mistakes of the past. So, for evangelicals to attempt exorcisms while ignoring and bypassing the authority and directives of the Catholic Church can sometimes do more harm than good. Part of that ignoring includes ignoring the history of what the Church has learned over the centuries. In this, evangelicals can often resemble the attitude of a child who questions and complains about the ‘dumb rules’ that their parents have in place. Like a child, they question the rules because they feel they are being limited in what they believe they have a right to do. When, in fact, those rules are there because parents have the wisdom of years and often know that what a child may think is for them would actually bring them great harm.
When you watch a film that addresses demon possession, you expect a Catholic priest to show up and respond to this issue. Some recent films, such as ‘The Last Exorcism’ and ‘The Conjuring’, portray people who are not ministerial priests attempting to perform exorcisms. And even if you are not Catholic, you sense deep down that this just does not ring true. It’s the same sense you get when someone attempts to do something else that they do not have rightful authority to do. When there is a conflict in a community, you call the police and if someone is to be detained, it is the officer that gives the person their miranda rights and takes them away in handcuffs. It would be odd if anyone else attempted to carry out the role of the police officer, such as your grandmother or the teenage son of your neighbor.
In the same way, when a conflict arises inside a person with a demonic presence, you want someone that has the proper authority to respond in a way Jesus has guided the Church in responding for the last couple thousand years. When the house is on fire, you call a firefighter. When a person is possessed, you call a Catholic priest who has been trained by the Catholic Church to be an exorcist. It just seems right.
For those who want to look carefully at some of the directives that the Catholic Church has in place for the rite of Exorcism, you can keep on reading:
Here is what the Catholic Church has in place regarding Exorcisms:
Canon 1172 of the Code of Canon Law states that no one can legitimately perform exorcisms over the possessed unless he has obtained special and express permission from the local Ordinary (§ 1), and states that this permission should be granted by the local Ordinary only to priests who are endowed with piety, knowledge, prudence and integrity of life (§ 2). Bishops are therefore strongly advised to stipulate that these norms be observed.
You can read the rest here: Letter to Ordinaries regarding norms on Exorcism
You may also read a detailed overview on Exorcism here: Catholic Encyclopedia
For those who would like to see what comprises the Rite of Exorcism, you may see what the priest says and does here: Rite of Exorcism