Last week Catholic apologist Matt Fradd kindly sent me the following Catholic Answers interview, “What You Need to Know About Exorcism: The Devil, Evil Spirits, and Spiritual Warfare” in which Patrick Coffin interviews well known exorcist Father Gary Thomas. You can read the transcript of the interview here.
Demonic Possession and Veridical Evidence for Supernaturalism and Christianity
What most intrigued me about this interview (and what most intrigues me about demons and possession generally) is the prospect of identifying phenomena which would provide veridical evidence for supernaturalism (e.g. evidence for the existence of non-physical agency) and Christianity (i.e. evidence that malevolent non-physical agencies are subject to the authority of Jesus Christ as mediated through the priestly class of a Christian church).
As a result, I was particularly intrigued when Coffin turned in the interview to the putative phenomena that one would look for to justify the conclusion of demon possession. As Coffin put it, the question concerns “the classic signs of possession and how they’re distinguishable from mental illness”.
What about Mental Illness?
Needless to say, distinguishing demonic possession from mental illness is a hugely important question for reasons completely separate from the evidence for supernaturalism or Christianity. One cannot begin to fathom how much misery has been perpetuated in the world over the centuries by misbegotten diagnoses of demonic activity. For example, how many cases of epilepsy, dissociative personality disorder, Tourette’s Syndrome, or schizophrenia have been incorrectly attributed to malevolent spirit agencies?
I suspect that virtually every would-be exorcist today is aware of the need to begin with the simpler, brain-based diagnosis before turning to exorcism for a solution. Nonetheless, how many are really able to discern with confidence what is, and is not, a “natural” disorder? To the untrained eye, the Tourette’s patient who helplessly begins jerking and spouting obscenities and blasphemies in awkward social situations could certainly look possessed.
Mental health victims of exorcism
A decade ago a Romanian nun, Maricica Cornici, began hearing the voice of the devil telling her she was sinful. Initially she was treated for schizophrenia, but eventually a monk and some nuns decided the better course of action was an exorcism. Cornici died in the process. (See “Nun Dies After Convent Exorcism.”)
Sadly, there have been many mental health victims of exorcism over the years. In the 1970s German Catholic Anneliese Michel died as a result of exorcism. Her story was the basis for the Hollywood film The Exorcism of Emily Rose as well as the vastly superior and truly biographical German film Requiem (which I review here).
The protocol for a possession diagnosis
In 1999 the Catholic Church updated their 1614 directives for exorcism, a 90 page manual titled De Exorcismis. A 1999 article published in The Guardian describes how the update attempts to incorporate the advances in mental health care over the last four hundred years by ensuring that clinical diagnoses are exhaustively explored before the demonic is invoked:
Unlike its predecessor, De Exorcismis warns against confusing possession with mental illness. Among the signs of demonic possession are “speaking in unknown languages, discerning distant or hidden things, and displaying a physical strength that is at odds with the possessed person’s age or state of health”.
But the guide warns that these signs can all denote sickness rather than evil. It adds that exorcism should only be tried “after diligent inquiry and after having consulted experts in spiritual matters and, if felt appropriate, experts in medical and psychiatric science who have a sense of spiritual reality”. (source)
Are the criteria the Vatican offers in De Exorcismis adequate to ensure there are no false positives? And by implication, are they adequate to secure evidence supportive of supernaturalism and Christianity? I will be turning to those questions in a follow up article as I return to the Coffin-Thomas interview.