What is the Church's position on exorcism?

I’d like Father Serpa to tackle this one, if at all possible.

A recent viewing of the classic horror film The Exorcist got me thinking seriously about the subject of exorcism, specifically within the Catholic Church (*The Exorcist *is very Catholic). After a little online digging I discovered that the film’s main character, Father Merrin (played by Max Von Sydow), was actually based on a couple of real guys: one being the Jesuit scientist and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the other a St. Louis priest by the name of William S. Bowdern. Now, it’s easy to see the Teilhard de Chardin inspiration – Father Merrin is an archaeologist – but I’d never heard of this Father Bowdern. After a little more digging, I found out that in the late 1940’s, Bowdern and some fellow St. Louis Jesuits apparently performed an actual exorcism on a young boy believed to be possessed by evil spirits. Wild!

I’m curious; was this practice at one time a common occurrence? Even in, say, the early 20th century? Do exorcisms by Catholic clergy still happen today? Is it true that the Catholic Church has an official “Rite of Exorcism”?

Basically, what’s the Church’s position on this spooky issue?


Dear Sgt,

Basically, there is nothing spooking about this. But it is sobering. All too often we see evil masked by good. So evil usually presents itself as some good. It has become easier and easier to rationalize away our serious (mortal) sins. People receive the Eucharist in the state of moral sin and think nothing of it. Going to Confession once or twice a year is not nearly enough for most of us.

We would never be tempted to sin if we saw evil as it truly is. But in cases of possession or even partial possession, we see evil more directly. In the case you cite, the priests did not have authority from their bishop to perform an exorcism. They were eventually successful, but it is the bishop who has authority over this ministry. Such things still happen. To the degree that the person is the unwilling victim of such possession, he is not responsible for the involuntary behavior that ensues. But usually, the person has flirted with evil (like dabbling in the occult) without realizing the danger.

For more on this subject, check out the Original Catholic Encyclopedia on Exorcism:
Fr. Vincent Serpa, O.P.

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