Exorcism’s growth in U.S. fed by occult interest?

The practice of exorcism in the Catholic Church has been growing worldwide, with the U.S. being no exception, according to a report in The Atlantic (December). Both belief in demonic possession and the use of exorcism by the Catholic Church has been growing in the U.S, as it has in Italy and other Catholic countries [see October 2016 RW]. Although no official figures are kept by the Church on the number of requests and actual rituals of exorcism performed, Mike Mariani writes that the exorcists he interviewed were reportedly “fielding more pleas for help every year.” The Church has been training new exorcists in Chicago, as well as Rome and Manila. Gary Thomas, an exorcist whose ministry was featured in the 2011 movie, The Rite, said that while in 2011 the U.S. had fewer than 15 known Catholic exorcists, today there were well over 100. Other priests Mariani interviewed put that number at between 70 and 100. In October of 2017, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had the handbook containing the rite of exorcism translated into English—the first time since it was standardized in 1614. One exorcist from a Midwestern diocese said that there has been a “whole reclaiming of a ministry that the Church had set aside.”

The reasons for the upsurge have ranged from internal policy and teaching changes within the Church itself—such as a reemphasis of exorcism by Pope Francis—to a corresponding growth of interest in the occult and people’s experiences of sexual abuse, a factor that Mariani stresses. On the latter point, psychologists claim that abusive experiences lead to dissociative mental states that could appear similar to the experience of being possessed. Even the exorcists interviewed said that abuse could serve as a doorway to demons, with Thomas adding that as many as 80 percent of the people who come to him are sexual abuse survivors. But it is the interest in the occult, especially as found in the Millennial generation, that may be driving the most demand for the rite, according to Mariani. The growth of interest and involvement in magic, astrology, and witchcraft has grown at the same time that institutional Christianity has declined. “Today’s increased willingness to believe in the paranormal, then, seems to have begun as a response to secularization before spreading through the culture and landing back on the Church’s doorstep—in the form of people seeking salvation from demons through the Catholic faith’s most mystical ritual.”