A guided tour through the burgeoning business of exorcism and the darker side of American life.There is no other religious ritual more fascinating, or more disturbing, than exorcism. This is particularly true in America today, where the ancient rite has a surprisingly strong hold on our imagination, and on our popular entertainment industry. We've all heard of exorcism, seen the movies and read the books, but few of us have ever experienced it firsthand.Conducted by exorcists officially appointed by Catholic archdioceses and by maverick priests sidestepping Church sanctions, by evangelical ministers and Episcopal charismatics, exorcism is alive and well in the new millennium. Oprah, Diane Sawyer, and Barbara Walters have featured exorcists on their shows. The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Time, and other publications have charted the proliferation of exorcisms across the United States.
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December 31, 2000
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Excerpt from American Exorcism by Michael W. Cuneo
The Blatty Factor
The past three decades haven't been particularly kind to the Catholic priesthood in America. One would be hard-pressed to find another profession that has fallen harder or further from grace in so short a period of time. To begin with, there was the mad rush for the exits that took place during the late 1960s and early 1970s, as thousands of priests decided that being married, or sexually eligible, or almost anything else, was preferable to sticking it out in religious life. And then, for many of those who did try to stick it out, there was the frantic scramble for relevance. No longer confident in the legitimacy of a strictly priestly vocation, they became priest-social workers or priest-psychologists or priest-politicians -- hyphenated men with sometimes conflicting allegiances to two separate worlds. And before long there was also the scandal. Endless scandal. Reports of priests engaging in secret (or not so secret) sexual affairs with female parishioners. Of priests cruising gay bars and adopting gay lifestyles. Priests sexually assaulting altar boys and then trying, sometimes with the connivance of their local bishops, to cover up their crimes. All things considered, the story hasn't been a happy one, and there's little indication matters stand to improve much in the near future.
It isn't easy, in all of this, to spell out what precisely has gone wrong. For starters, one could point to the Second Vatican Council, that great transformative event in the life of the modern Catholic Church that ran from 1962 to 1965. In calling for a detente between Catholicism and the modern world, and in bestowing full ecclesiastical blessing upon such straightforwardly secular pursuits as science and politics, the council made the priestly vocation seem somehow less prestigious and its benefits less clear-cut. What was the point, after all, of enduring the burdens of priestly celibacy and obedience when the secular world was now also acknowledged to be bristling with grace and redemptive possibility? The sexual revolution, which was in full bloom in the years following the council, and the more general cultural volatility of the late 1960s and early 1970s should also be counted as significant factors. In a cultural climate relentlessly hostile to traditional authority and to restraint of virtually any kind, the strictures of the priestly role increasingly came to be seen as not only unreasonable but also as downright bizarre.
As time went on, moreover, the growing volume of negative publicity concerning the priesthood became a significant factor in its own right. Endless talk of the priestly crisis -- of defections and despair and dereliction -- lowered priestly morale even further and made the ordained ministry seem increasingly less desirable, increasingly less feasible. And throughout all of this, of course, the Vatican steadfastly refused to renew (or to redefine) the priesthood by permitting the ordination of women and married men.
Throughout these tough times, needless to say, there have always been individual priests who have comported themselves with dignity and quietly heroic faith, administering the sacraments, tending the sick, consoling the grief-stricken, and sometimes challenging the pathology-inducing structures of the broader society. For the most part, however, their labors have been overshadowed by the distressed public image of the priestly profession as a whole. The priest as hero? Perhaps in another place and another time the image may have worked, but over the past thirty years in America it has more often been the priest as pious fraud, the priest as philanderer, the priest as yesterday's man -- equivocating, beleaguered, and thoroughly redundant.