Sunday, February 1, 2015

Possessions: A Sunday Rumination

It isn’t often, these days, that a militant atheist thinks to cross swords with me. Most of them know better by now. However, it does still happen on occasion, and it can result in some interesting exchanges:

MA: (sneering) So you believe in demonic possession?
FWP: (smiling brightly) Of course! How else could I explain you?

That having been said, the Church has been greatly pained by questions about demonic possession in recent years – not because the actual doctrine on the subject has changed, but because aggressive secularists of every stripe use it to heap ridicule upon Christianity. Just this morning, after the Gospel reading for the day:

Then they went to Capernaum. When the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people there were amazed by his teaching, because he taught them like one who had authority, not like the experts in the law. Just then there was a man in their synagogue with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “Leave us alone, Jesus the Nazarene! Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” But Jesus rebuked him, “Silence! Come out of him!” After throwing him into convulsions, the unclean spirit cried out with a loud voice and came out of him. They were all amazed so that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He even commands the unclean spirits and they obey him.” So the news about him spread quickly throughout all the region around Galilee. [The Gospel According To Mark, 1:21-28]

...our normally reliable pastor, Father Charles Papa, felt compelled to qualify whether Jesus Himself actually exorcised demons from possessed persons with all sorts of uncertainties. It should serve as a measure of how sensitive the subject has become among the Catholic clergy.

Yet here are the facts:

  • The Church still teaches that demonic possession can and sometimes does occur.
  • The Church maintains a special curriculum for priests who are called to become exorcists.
  • There have been events, including some in the recent past, that cannot be explained by secular means, but which are consistent with Church teaching on demonic possession and its ability to warp the behavior of human beings.

Historian Brian Levack, author of the recent book The Devil Within, is frank in stating that though fraud and psychosis serve to explain many incidents claimed to be demonic possessions, neither those nor any alternates suffice to explain all such incidents in a satisfactory manner. Indeed, in some cases the “secular” explanation proffered has been without objective substantiation, as demonic possession has often been said to be. A good example of such an explanation is “mass hallucination,” a phenomenon that has never been established as real.

The great challenge for a Christian who accepts demonic possession as a possibility is to reconcile it with human free will.


The essence of demonic possession is the surrender, whether complete or partial, of the behavior of the possessed person to the control of the possessing demon. If Man has free will, as is absolutely necessary for our deeds to have moral weight, it would follow that a possession must be in some way acceptable to the victim when it occurs. No other premise is compatible with Christian conceptions of free will and Divine justice.

But if the victim’s surrender to the invading demon is at first voluntary, the will of the possessed cannot have been completely extinguished, for that would contradict another Christian premise: that no man is condemned irrevocably while he yet lives. Therefore, the victim can rebel against the possession: a prerequisite for a successful expulsion of the invading demon, whether by the victim’s independent efforts or with the assistance of an exorcist.

A human exorcist would be unable to expel a demon from a victim happy with his condition. Jesus, of course, is another matter entirely. His power, innate in His Divine nature, cannot be compared with that of a priest. When I wrote the relevant preparatory segments in Shadow Of A Sword, I had that in mind: the possessed had to have retained at least enough will and reason to approve of the exorcism and to cooperate with it to the extent required for success.

Why a man would surrender his body to a demon in the first place is beyond my power to explain. (I mean, I wouldn’t.) But then, neither do I have an explanation for why, having acceded to demonic possession, the victim would not later change his mind and seek release from his plight. It’s got to be pretty nasty.


The Gospels define Christianity. A Christian is expected to accept the Gospels as essentially accurate narrations of the life, ministry, Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God and Redeemer of Mankind. Therefore, we’re expected to accept the several accounts of Jesus’ casting-out of demons from afflicted Galileans. But your average Christian, confronted with the scorn of a militant atheist determined to heap ridicule upon the Christian faith, tends to hedge, qualify, or back away from the subject rather than defend the Gospel accounts and stand by them.

It’s perfectly understandable, if not commendable. We live in a time which claims that everything can be explained by scientific means. Helmut Schoeck has called this scientism, a term appropriate to a religion that dare not admit its religious nature. The devotees of scientism routinely deride those of us who believe in a plane other than this one, inhabited by creatures capable of influencing human will.

Yet incidents occur, even today, for which secular explanations are insufficient.

For my part, I’m grateful, both for the pseudo-scientists who scoff and for the incidents that confound them. The former remind me how faith -- both my faith and theirs -- differs from science. The latter remind me of the need to remain on guard: that temptation is perpetual and of infinite variety, that there is no moment in a man’s life in which he is proof against a deadly failure of will, and that one’s journey from such a failure to spiritual disaster might well have a willing helper or two that one cannot see.

May God bless and keep you all.

7 comments:

  1. I'm the personal-atheist/outward-agnostic. I've been thinking lately about the existence of evil. I guess my question would be, what would you suggest the differences are between possession, and inherent evil? What is one possessed likely to do, or what are the hallmarks, versus, say, a legion of ISIS adherents, or a guy who walks into a store and shoots numerous people over a few dollars? Or even someone who approaches a pregnant woman to play the knock-out game? I'm not arguing, but it seems to me that evil, of the garden-variety, is so widespread today, and so...garden-variety, that possession seems to be somewhat of an unnecessary and exotic condition (to explain evil). Just my thoughts.

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  2. Anon: I agree that you don’t need possession to explain evil. My sole contention is that possession – a hypothesized event that’s neither provable nor disprovable by any means available to us in spatiotemporal reality – is an explanation for certain events that lack (so far, anyway) an adequate secular explanation.

    Knowledge is still advancing, of course. It might well be that at some future time, we’ll discover diseases or injuries to the central nervous system that would adequately explain the behavior of those labeled possessed. The confirmation would be the successful treatment of those maladies, after which the “possessed” person’s behavior normalizes once more. But we’re not there yet, there are still unexplained incidents that suggest demonic possession, and there are still practicing exorcists with a striking record for relieving the sufferers thereof. The training of a real-world exorcist, Father Gary Thomas of California, was described in the recent book The Rite.

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  3. It's me again, and your answer makes sense. Frankly, I believe (have faith?) that there are explanations for pretty much everything that is currently unknown, we just haven't figured them out yet. Interestingly, many of these explanations would disprove, by their very existence, certain mysteries of faith, but would also disprove the position of many atheists that there are no "mysterious mechanisms"...as these mysterious mechanisms will, upon discovery, become science. Which then I suppose would PROVE the atheists view that there is fact behind everything, no matter how strange or hard-to-fathom pre-discovery... Which leaves us with, there are still mysteries of faith, and without closing the door to potential scientific explanation, why is it so hard for disbelievers (e.g. the scientific faithful) to leave the spiritual faithful to their peaceful faith? This is the biggest mystery to me.

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  4. If explanations for mysteries do not describe mechanics, but personalities, then science cannot grasp what is by invitation only. Macroquantum effects, temporal mechanics, mythical geometries are for saints and mystics. That way is guarded, for it is not safe for humanity to become those kinds of things.
    Not that there are not those who attempt to breed for that, or control those who emerge. Reference the last post.
    Questionable parentage, murky birth and young life records. Not Manchurian, more Mengele meets Rosemary's baby. Anti something, indeed.

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  5. Neal, this is anomymous, are you calling MY parentage questionable, and comparing something about ME to "Mengele meets Rosemary's Baby"? Please clarify who your ad hominem attack was against.

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  6. No, Anon, he was referring to Obama. Don't let Neal bother you; he's a card or two short of a full deck and often expresses himself with confusing statements like that. I usually discard his comments. To be candid, I'm not sure why I approved that one.

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  7. Fair enough Fran, thank you. I picked up on what you're getting at, but with those two points in particular, I wanted to make sure I understood where they were pointing.

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