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A Sociological Analysis of the Practice of a Catholic Exorcist
GIUSEPPE GIORDAN & ADAM POSSAMAI
This study takes the documented growth in the ministry of exorcism within the Catholic Church as
a significant challenge to some accounts of secularization. After clarifying how, according to
Catholic doctrine, the devil can operate in people's lives, this study offers a sociological
interpretation of exorcism. This interpretation is illustrated and tested by a sociological analysis of
data collected, during a period of ten years, by a well-established Catholic priest in Italy who
himself was well-trained and well-grounded in philosophical analysis. This sociological case study,
as the very first undertaken on exorcism, offers fresh insights into the contemporary social
significance of exorcism and provides challenges for future research. In the analysis of the data, we
discover that only 5% of the initial consultations lead to a ritual of exorcism and that a
rapprochement with rituals of deliverance is found for the large majority of the cases.
KEYWORDS exorcism, secularisation, devil, Catholic teaching, sociology, deliverance
Satan, Lucifer, Baal, Moloch, Leviathan, Belfagor, Chernobog, Mammon, Vitra, Azazel, Loki, Iblis,
Mara, and Angra Mainyu are only a few of the names that followers of various religions and holders
of differing religious beliefs have given to the devil historically, and that appear in their sacred texts
(Van der Toorn, Becking and Van der Horst, 1999). To protect themselves from the devil, people
have used the most varied practices. Although the ritual of exorcism is a practice found in many
religions, social scientists have, so far, given it little attention to this ritual in the contemporary
western world (some exceptions being Amiotte-Suchet, L (2016), Cuneo (2001), Goodman (1988;
2005), Talamonti (2008) and Hunt (1982)). Sociologists of religion, considering the figure of the
demon to be a legacy of the superstitious and obscurantist past, have probably forgotten this issue,
believing it to be outdated.
Actually, in recent years, interest in the occult world and in the rituals that release individuals
from demonic possession has increased, becoming more and more widespread among broad
segments of the population (Baker, 2008; McCloud, 2015; Authors (2016)) and thus justifying a
renewed interest on the part of certain religious institutions. For example, in the US, Gallup polls
have shown that the percentage of the population that believes in the devil increased from 55% in
1990 to 70% in 2004. Close to 59% of the sample of 1200 people surveyed in the 1998 Southern
Focus Poll answered in the affirmative to this question: ‘Do you believe that people on this Earth
are sometimes possessed by the Devil?’ (Rice, 2003). In the second wave of the Baylor Religion
Survey (2007), 53.3% of people surveyed answered in the affirmative, or strongly in the
affirmative, the question: ‘Is it possible to be possessed?’ At the same time, in Italy, according to the
Association of Catholic Psychiatrists and Psychologists, half a million people per year undergo a
ritual of exorcism (Baglio, 2009: 7).
In the Catholic ambit, belief in the devil, like many other traditional religious beliefs, has been
rationalized during the last decades to the point where it has nearly disappeared from the scope of
theological deliberation. At the same time, however, in people’s everyday lives, this belief has
spread considerably, so as to force religious authorities to restore the profession of exorcism that
had virtually disappeared. In this context, the figure of the exorcist has undergone a true
professionalization process, through the foundation of an international organization of exorcists and
the provision of training courses (Authors, 2016).
The aim of this article is to offer a sociological account of this phenomenon in the western
world in late modernity. This article focuses specifically on exorcism, as defined and practiced
within Catholicism, and not on broader cases of witchcraft or possession (e.g. Cohen 2007, Favret-
Saada 1991 and Hirst 1982). After clarifying what we mean by the ‘devil’ and after noting how,
according to Catholic doctrine, the devil can operate in people’s lives, we will give a sociological
analysis of data collected, during a period of nearly 10 years, from a well-established Catholic priest
in Italy. This sociological case study will be the very first undertaken the practice of an exorcist
over a ten-year period who has kept note of his activities in a more than 200,000 words Word
document. Its analysis will provide a grounding to expand our sociological understanding of this
phenomenon. It will discover an increase of a ministry of deliverance among this Catholic priest,
and to explore the reason behind this, a discussion in light of other current Christian practices will
be presented. In another research, Amiotte-Suchet, L (2016) makes reference to the journal of an
exorcist he has been in contact with but did not explore this at length. Further comparison with this
research will be presented at the end of this article.
For this article, rather than theological definition of exorcism, we will follow the social
definition used by Sluhovsky (35–6), that ‘exorcism is defined as a curing technique against evil
spirits that have taken over a possessed person, an animal, or an object’. This definition is in line
with the work of sociologists of religion who tend to use a methodological agnostic approach when
conducting research. This means, for example, that we do not analyse the veracity of these claims of
possession from a theological perspective. We are studying what people do with or against this
belief, and how this belief affects people.
More specifically, our research method follows what Garret (1974) has called a
Phenomenological Noumenalist approach. The approach followed within this research admits
subjective reality as an independent variable in social analysis and focuses its research on the
consequences of belief and behaviour generated by religious experiences. This school has its roots
in the work by Rudolf Otto (1936), who has focussed his research on the non-rational aspect of the
religious dimension. Being both theologian and scientist, his purpose was to embrace the scientific
paradigm and the religious interpretation of the world. He sought to determine the kind of
rationality that is relevant to religious study and found in Kant the pertinent pair of noumenon and
phenomenon. The noumenon is in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, the thing-in-itself (das ding an
sich) as opposed to what Kant has called the phenomenon, the thing as it appears to an observer.
Though the noumenal holds the contents of the intelligible world, Kant has claimed that human's
speculative reason can only know phenomena and can never penetrate to the noumenon. The
phenomenological noumenalist school accepts the noumenal as irreducible experience and as
producing effects at the individual and social levels. It is also worth noting from the work of the
anthropologist Goodman (1988: 107) that demonic possession is not just about scary stories but can
some time involve some actual and disastrous physical and psychological changes.
The fluidity of the belief of the devil: the Catholic tradition
The reappearance, within the religious field (e.g. Amorth, 1999) of the practice of exorcism forces
the religious authorities themselves to implement a careful and delicate balance between not
considering it simply a superstitious belief of the past and not overemphasizing the effectiveness of
the action of the devil in people’s lives; considering the devil as the god of evil would be a heresy,
but denying the devil’s existence would seem to go against the traditional doctrine. A rationalization
process therefore begins, with the theologians trying to negotiate between the dictates of the most
advanced theological research, which is more and more reluctant to attribute a prominent role to the
devil, and the so called ‘popular religiosity’ (Nardella, 2010; Balducci, 1991), which records the
daily workings of Satan. This is a negotiation process involving not only the theological domain
(Caspani, 2008), but also the medical domain, since the boundaries between psychic disease and
demonic action are not at all clear; they are very unstable and porous, and often the two aspects
overlap and become confused (Caretta and Petrini, 1999; Sodi, 2003). The relationship between
health and salvation is an issue very well known to sociologists of religion, but it takes on an even
more challenging relevance in the context of the rite of exorcism.
In the process of social construction of the notion of the devil, and in defining the margins of
credibility of his actions, as well as in defining the practice of exorcism, the role played by religious
authorities is obviously strategic: within Catholicism such a process (which has lasted for
centuries) shows how the outlines of these concepts are fluid and flexible, capable of adapting to the
needs of different historic periods (Cini Tassinaro, 1984).
It is interesting to note that the existence of the devil has never been explicitly defined in the
official documents of the Church – as though such a belief was taken for granted and it was
unnecessary to define dogmatically the harmful effects of devilish action. The absence of a precise
doctrinal definition concerning the existence of the devil has then left it open to the people
themselves to question the devil existence, and, consequently, to believe or not to believe. This
omission has left believers free also to build their own imagery surrounding the devil, thus filling in
the ‘institutional’ void.
Which features, then, are attributed to the devil in the Catholic tradition, either popular or
institutional? According to the Catholic doctrine the devil is a being created by God – the first of the
angels, who, however, refuted dependency on God and, jealously, wanted to take the place of God
(Pagels, 1995). To believers in the devil’s existence, this figure is essential to the history of
salvation, because the whole mission of Jesus Christ would be incomprehensible if the very
existence of Satan were denied. In the Gospels, in fact, several episodes are narrated in which Jesus
casts out demons from people possessed by the devil, who shows up at different times in the forms
of demonic obsession, of madness or hysteria, and at times as a physical illness. Jesus himself, as
recounted in the Gospel of Matthew (chapter 4 verse 10), was tempted by the devil while he was in
the Judean desert, and responded to his offers, warning him, “’Go away, Satan!’ For it is written:
‘The Lord your God you will worship, Him alone you will worship’. And then the devil left Him”.
In this case Satan tempts man with power, with the desire to become as God, as the serpent did in
the Garden of Eden (Burani, 2009; Laurentin, 1995).
In spite of such scriptural authority, the existence of the devil and the influence of the devil in
people’s daily lives, has been called into question in recent decades by the theologians themselves
who, even if they do not actually affirm his nonexistence, prefer to speak about him in terms of
popular religiosity, suggesting that a belief in such a phenomenon is often included in magic and
superstitious thinking that sooner or later will be outdated.
Significantly, in the late sixties and early seventies of the 20th century, in a secularized
context of general disenchantment with religion, Pope Paul VI felt the need to warn the faithful and
society at large about the diminishing belief in the devil. In a Church that was being confronted by
the modern era, through the implementation of the Council Vatican II, Paul VI felt it necessary to
reiterate the least modern aspect of religious belief, the presence of the devil. In a speech delivered
in 1972, addressing the faithful gathered in St Peter’s Square, the Pope compared the devil’s
activity in people’s lives to that of a ‘hidden enemy who spreads errors and misfortunes in human
history’. Adding (quoting St Paul) that men are fighting ‘against the rulers of the cosmic dark
world, against the evil spirits wandering in space’ (Paul VI, 1972).
While affirming his existence, the actions of the Catholic Church have always been careful
not to over emphasize the power of the devil, in order to avoid giving space and legitimacy to the
many Satanic sects who worship Satan as if he were a god (Introvigne, 1994, 2010; Cantelmi and
Cacace, 2007): he is not the ‘god of evil’, the counterpart of the ‘god of good’, but rather a creature
of God, that therefore cannot be worshipped as a god. For example, in 1215, the Fourth Lateran
Council declared that only God is the true origin of all things, and that the devil is only a divine
creature who has become evil (Lavatori, 2007).
In 2015, while conducting an interview with an exorcist, we were informed that this Catholic priest
had been performing activities associated with exorcism for close to 10 years. When the time came
to retire after 40 years of teaching philosophy at a well-known Catholic university, he had been
requested by his bishop to become the exorcist of his diocese, one of the most important and
populated dioceses in Italy. His case is of particular interest because his rational approach led him to
look with some suspicion and disenchantment at many phenomena associated with Satanism and
possession, and subsequently to practice his role as exorcist with an attitude that we could define as
more ‘scientific’ than ‘fideistic’ (see below). He showed us a Word document in which he kept
information on everyone who made contact with him, what his assessments were, and the outcomes
of their visits. His detailed document dealt not only with a theological assessment but with some
socio-demographic data as well. The document was not created to be analysed sociologically, but,
nevertheless, it did provide some significant insights in this practice. In the field of sociology and
religious studies, this is the first time that we have obtained such a large amount of data on this
phenomenon. The research in this field usually involves theological analysis and court case analysis
(in cases where the exorcism has gone wrong) but never the exorcist’s own data file. The large file
is close to 200,000 words in length. We asked for all names to be removed. The data was then coded
and analysed quantitatively. This exorcist tends to receive people on a Saturday morning in a room
adjacent to a church. If he thinks that the case warrants an exorcism, he will then schedule them
usually on a Wednesday or Friday. The ritual is performed in the same room. He uses a heavy metal
chair, one that needs two people to carry or one person to drag, which is placed in the middle of the
room. For the ritual, he uses the Latin version rather than the vernacular one as he claims that the
former version is harsher (and more vulgar) towards to demon. The translation is too tamed for his
own taste. The ritual tends to last for just under an hour and he gets the help of people, usually 5 or
6 per session. We were able to witness on these rituals. These people join the priest in some liturgies
and mainly help to maintain the ‘possessed’ in case he or she starts to convulse on the chair. They
will apply their hands to stabilise the person on the chair.
In his position as exorcist, our interviewee provided consultations in 1075 different cases.
These cases involved both people who came on their own for consultation concerning their own
problems or on behalf of others (n=802; 74.6% of cases), and people accompanied by one person or
more (n=272; 25.4% of cases). These consultations do not include other possible sessions
conducted, such as visits by the exorcist to the home of the clients for blessings, or communication
over the phone or by e-mail, or the various rituals performed. These are thus meetings/consultations
with clients to hear their problems, to discuss possible steps to take, and to provide
Of the total number of clients, 648 (60%) came for only one visit, 215 (20%) came twice, and
97 (9%) came three times, and the remaining 11% came more than three times. As shown in Table
1, one person had 26 consultations.
Table 1. Number of consultations.
Number of Times
From these 1075 cases, only 55 rituals of exorcism were performed, that is, in only 5.1% of the
cases recorded. Focusing on these 55 cases of exorcised people, we can see that they are mostly
men (60% of cases). Two patients are less than 20 years old; 5 patients are young people aged from
20 to 29 years and as many are adults/seniors (60 and older); 56% are aged between 40 and 49
years; the young adults (30-39 years) are 12% and 11% are between 50 and 59 years old.
The exorcised people mostly belong to the working class and lower middle class; there are
only six cases of professionals/graduates (Authors 2016). While for 14 cases a single ritual was
sufficient, others required more – in the most extreme case the ritual was conducted 354 times (see
Table 2). This reflects the argument from Amorth (1992) that only a few cases have to be treated
through a ritual of exorcism. Indeed, Muchembled (2000) quotes Amorth, who claimed to have
dealt with 50,000 cases, of which only 84 were, according to his assessment, authentic.
Actually the liberation does not always occur. In 40% of the 55 cases of exorcism (22 people)
the patient appears to have recovered, freed from possession, and does not need any more
exorcisms, even if this does not mean that diseases, depression, misfortune or the need for
psychiatric drugs is over, and it is possible to have relapses. 25% (14 people) continue to be
subjected to exorcisms, either because liberation has not occurred or because relapses have
occurred. In 22% of cases (12 people) the patient withdraws never to be seen by the exorcist or, in
most situations, it is the exorcist himself who withdraws, considering his own efforts useless either
because of the family context, or because he does not find in the patient himself the true will of
setting himself free, or because he finds the patient's situation too ambiguous and intricate. For the
remaining cases it is not possible to determine from the document what the outcome of the exorcism
Analyzing in depth the notes that the exorcist writes on the four patients who have received
over the last 10 years the highest number of rituals of exorcism (A: a 50-year-old male, 108
exorcisms; B: a 48 year old male, 112 exorcisms; C: a woman of 51 years, 144 exorcisms; D: a 41
year old male, 354 exorcisms), we note that there are some characteristics shared by all possessed.
A first common element is, in the words written by the exorcist, having attended "suspected
experiences": these can be séances, or have played to perform other esoteric rituals following the
instructions of books "do it yourself"; among these suspected experiences the exorcist also includes
a visit to magicians, clairvoyants, fortune tellers, the practice of yoga or oriental meditation
Another common element is the "abhorrence of the sacred": all these people, when they pray
or come into contact with the holy water, they feel sick, vomit, faint. As noted by the exorcist,
moreover, all four clients are also treated by a psychiatrist, and in the notebook that we have
analyzed, doses and drugs that patients take are described in precise details: they are almost always
anxiolytics and antidepressants.
None of these four cases has been solved, and they all continue to receive the rituals of
The reason that leads A to consult an exorcist is that he believes to be the victim of a curse,
and this ruins both the work (he has a firm that is now in crisis), as well as his health (strong
headaches and skin problems). Three years before beginning to attend the exorcist, A claims to have
converted through participation in a pilgrimage to Medjugorje; the strange thing is that just from
that pilgrimage seem to be the problems started. The Exorcist is in possession of some videos
recorded by surveillance cameras at the factory, where a very bright light approaches the building at
night. For this reason, the exorcist, in addition to exorcise A, made a ritual of exorcism even in his
home and in the workplace.
B, employed at a bank, is sent to our exorcist by another exorcist of a neighboring diocese,
who followed him for years but was not able to solve the case. As written by our exorcist, B "is a
patient not simple: it is a mixed case, he lives everything with an ambivalent attitude and it is
difficult to understand what depends from the devil and what depends from depression. Many
disorders that he experiences may depend on the withdrawal symptoms from drugs. "
C, women and well-known lawyer, consults for the first time the exorcist at age 42 because
she suspected to be the victim of evil by a sister-in-law who participates in an esoteric sect. During
a rite of exorcism, she said she has been in the past a member of a secret society. As noted by the
exorcist, after a ritual of exorcism, C "is hit by a very high fever attack and vomits animal skin with
hair, sticks, bones, dust." The next day, during mass, she can’t open her mouth to receive the
The most complex case is D, a 41-year old man who in almost 10 years has been exorcised by
354 times, and in one of the last rituals, according to what is written in the notebook, claims to
"have exceeded the limit of endurance”. The physical ailments that afflict him since he was 18 years
old, a result both of a car accident as well as, as he himself says, some séances which had
participated for fun, do not allow him to have a steady job. Among the "suspected experiences" that
the exorcist lists, in addition to the attendance of pranotherapists, there is the practice of yoga; the
latter is considered so dangerous by the exorcist that at the end of one of the rituals, he gives D a
booklet titled "Beware of yoga." During the rites of exorcism, D alternates moments of aggression
towards the exorcist, to moments of "mystical experience" in which he feels "a sense of love and
openness to others, the ability to read the minds, and he sees a child surmounted by a black bat with
white eyes." D recognizes himself in this child.
During the interview, the exorcist stated that he refused to perform the ritual of exorcism
without being certain that the possession was genuine. He told us about practices in which other
Catholic exorcists would perform the ritual without being certain that the people involved were
actually possessed. He even described a scene in which some rituals were performed in public in a
small town centre, accompanied by an orchestra and singing. While it is not the point here to
analyse the different professional practices of exorcism, we can claim in this article that the
information provided by this particular exorcist reflects a more legal-rational form of authority and
practice, rather than charismatic. We are making reference here to Weber’s (1996) classic ideal
types of authority, and, of course, both the legal-rational and charismatic types include traditional
authority. We are thus claiming that the exorcist presented in this case study is more in line with an
institutional interpretation of his religion than a popular one. The data collected from another type
of exorcist could have provided a different type of insight.
Table 2. Exorcism rituals performed
Number of Times
Table 3 lists all the many problems that the clients made reference to. Evil influences,
Occultism and Satanism, and paranormal phenomena were given as the reason for the visit in 604
cases; that is, 56% of all the cases were religious or magical in nature. The rest of the consultations
tended to be for family, health or other personal problems.
Table 3. Reason for the visit
Suspicion or knowledge of being
affected by evil influences, the evil
eye, evil spells or curses.
Occultism and Satanism
Involvement with occult arts,
alternative spiritualities, Satanic sects
and rituals, folk/alternative healing
practices, and also Masonry.
Paranormal phenomena and activities
including: haunted houses; possession;
sensing the presence of the devil or of
a demonic force, usually accompanied
by a variety of unexplained and
unpleasant ‘physical’ occurences, like
doors slamming shut, water flooding,
hordes of insects invading, noises, the
disappearance and reappearance of
things, being touched, strange smells,
and so on). This category also
included medium and psychical
powers (possessed by a client or by
someone connected with the case), and
mystical experiences, visions, lucid
dreams, and hearing voices.
Problems concerning crime, the justice
system, tax evasion, and other forms
of corruption and dishonesty.
Addiction to drugs, medication and/or
Problems and hardship concerning
Problems with family relations;
tensions and conflict among relatives
and very close friends; and over
inheritance and family property.
Crises in a couple’s relationship, such
as: adultery, lack of sexual intercourse,
loss of romance, …
Serious illnesses, diet/eating problems,
Socializing difficulties, sense of
emptiness, stress, …
Aberrant sexuality and sexual
practices or problems having sex.
An array of hardships that seriously
Anything that cannot be slotted above,
including loss of faith, wanting to
receive a blessing, asking for an
The analysis of this data shows that for this particular exorcist, a large number of people would
attend a consultation but only a small proportion of consultations would lead to a ‘classical’ ritual of
exorcism. Thus, although belief in the devil is on the increase and the number of professionals in
the field of exorcism is growing (Authors, forthcoming), this does not mean that Catholic exorcism
rituals are being conducted on a large scale.
Table 4. Outcome of spiritual/physical assessment.
Outcome of visits
Ritual of Exorcism
Ritual of Blessing
Blessings of various types,
including the use of holy water,
salts and oil.
Ritual of Confession
Homework given to the clients and
other people who are involved in
the case, along the lines of some
exercises in catechism.
Prayers for the clients to follow
(including the Rosary and prayers
with a religious icon), or prayers
offered by the clergyman, or both.
Ritual of Liberation
Rite of Liberation
Recommendation to a
Recommendation not just to a
psychologist or psychiatrist, but
also to a marriage counsellor, when
Any recommendation for medical
intervention other than
psychological or psychiatric help.
Some kind of recommendation
other than those listed above—
often not clearly indicated in the
notes; perhaps simply
encouragement to go on with life,
to be strong and patient.
Sometimes, the client does not
come back, and the case is
In 140 cases (13%) (see Table 4), the exorcist recommended that the client seek a
psychologist, and in 5 cases (0.5%) some sort of medical service. In the rest of the cases, the
exorcist recommended the practice of other rituals, such as blessings (n=206; 19.2% of cases),
confession (n=16; 1.5%), some religious homework (n=500, 46.5%), prayer (n=188, 17.5%), and
rituals of liberation (n=142, 13.2%).
It is clear from this specific case that rituals of exorcism are the least likely outcome of these
visits. Although the exorcist recommends for some patient to visit a medical doctor and/or a
psychologist, we have just discovered above some suggestions about other type of religious
practices. The next section explores this finding
Exorcism and Deliverance
In 1993 Gabriel Amorth co-founded the International Association of Exorcists for Roman
Catholic priest exorcists. By the year 2000, the association claimed to have 200 members (Collins,
2009). In the 1999 translation of his best-selling book, Amorth (1999: 15) admits to wanting to
bring back an interest in exorcism ‘which was found in times past among Catholics but is now
found only among Protestants’. He confirms his claim later in his book by stating that ‘as in the
study and dissemination of the Bible, Catholics are lagging behind some Protestant denominations.
I will never tire of repeating this: rationalism and materialism have polluted a segment of
theologians …’ (Amorth, 1999: 173). His aim is thus to contribute to re-establishing the pastoral
practice of exorcism in the Catholic church (Amorth, 1999: 174). However, as claimed by an
insider, exorcism is usually used for cases of full possession (Blai, 2014) and it is rare. Amorth
(1999: 34) even claims that ‘while possessions are still relatively rare today, we exorcists run into a
great number of people who have been struck by the devil in health, jobs, or relationships’.
As we have seen in the case study above, Amorth (1999: 184) believes that exorcists should
take care of every type of Satanic intervention: ‘demonic oppression (much more numerous than
full possession), obsession, infestation of houses, and other activity that appears to benefit from our
prayers’. TAmorth also makes reference to his Church’s inability to provide a ministry of
deliverance. The significance, we read, of the increase in the number of professionals of exorcism is
not necessarily that it provides the Roman Ritual, but that it keeps step with Protestantism in
addressing a gap in the ministry that some Protestant groups appear also to have filled.
According to Hunt (1998), for neo-Pentecostals, ‘low level’ rituals to expel devil spirits are a
rather common and mundane activity. According to this group, Christians cannot be possessed, and
thus do not need the Roman Ritual, but can nevertheless be oppressed by a demon. While exorcism
involves a ritual to expel a demon from a person, the deliverance ministry is more ‘charismatic’,
involving less formal rituals aimed at alleviating some form of ‘demonisation’ (Collins, 2009).
Those who require these rituals are seen as ‘demonised’ and not ‘possessed’. The growth and appeal
of the deliverance ministry developed from the beginning of the 20th century, underwent a further
expansion in the early 1960s through the work of the Charismatic Renewal (Hunt, 1998: 216). It
should be noted that the theology and practice of the ministry of deliverance is very diverse, and we
refer to the work of Theron (1996) and Collins (2009) for more information and analysis. Further,
although the Anglican and Catholic Churches did not embrace this ministry straight away, some
individuals took an interest in these informal rituals (Hunt, 1998: 217). However, before we proceed
with the argument that, as a group, the Anglican and Catholic Churches have started integrating a
deliverance ministry to follow this Pentecostal Charismatic Renewal, history reminds us that some
apostate Catholic priests did practise these forms of deliverance and exorcism, a case in point being
that of Abbot Julio and his thick book of rituals of exorcism (or deliverance) pertaining to anything
the demon can affect. This former priest was well known in the esoteric milieu and claimed in 1908
(l’Abbé Julio (2014 : 22 and 25) that Roman Catholics no longer had faith in the virtue of
benedictions and the power of exorcism; they no longer knew ‘these magnificent prayers from the
In Milner’s (2002) work, we discover how the Church of England, later, only renewed its
interest in exorcism and deliverance because of the renewed interest of the Pentecostals and
Charismatics. The Church of England has put some mechanisms in place to feed into this renewed
interest, while at the same time bureaucratizing exorcism and encouraging self-restraint, especially
with regard to the touching of the body during the ritual.
Pentecostal and Charismatic encounters with the devil are more frequent and are more
spontaneously dealt with. The emphasis is on ‘signs and wonders’ and on untrained
people with ‘healing gifts’ as well as on clergy being able to remove the devil. The
spontaneous and joyous noise of these activities contrast with the step by step, very
careful, highly collaborative, and seldom needed exorcism procedures advocated by the
Church of England. In dealing with demons, the Church of England moves away from
charisma toward rationality. (Milner, 2002: 265)
Around the time that Paul VI got rid of the order of exorcists within the Catholic Church
(Muchembled, 2000: 303), the Catholic Charismatic Renewal was developing—in the USA in 1967,
and internationally in the 1970s (Csordas, 2007). This is a movement that synthesizes elements of
Catholicism and Pentecostalism. One of its leaders was Cardinal Leon Joseph Suenens, who wrote a
book published by Pauline Editions in 1982, with a foreword by Cardinal Ratzinger. Amorth (1999:
173) quotes a useful passage:
At the beginning, many Catholics tied to the renewal movement discovered the practice
of deliverance among Christians of other traditions, belonging mainly to the Free
Churches or Pentecostals. The books that they read, and still read, for the most part
come from these denominations. Among their literature there is an enormous wealth of
information on the devil and his acolytes, on withcraft and its methodology, and so
forth. In the Catholic Church, this field has been left almost fallow. Our directives for
specific pastoral response are inadequate for our times.
Amorth (1999: 186–7) then criticizes this cardinal for not regarding exorcism as a sacrament—
however this is not the point of this article. In the quoted statement we can see a strong link between
renewed interest in exorcism and the importation of a deliverance ministry into the Catholic Church
through the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. This is also indirectly observed in Csordas’s (2007)
Collins (2009: 184–5) concludes his book with the following passage:
[T]he renewed popularity of sacramental exorcism during the latter decades of the 20th
century is an established fact. In the UK the main developments took place during the
1970s following the publication in 1972 of an ecumenical report commissioned by the
Bishop of Exeter. This report seems to have galvanised and lent profile to a gentle
Anglican form of sacramental exorcism roughly in parallel to the much more significant
growth of Charismatic deliverance…the picture among Roman Catholics is somewhat
different. Prior to the 1990s it seems that exorcism was largely confined to clandestine,
unauthorised rituals hidden away from the church hierarchy, or to anti-establishment
figures who had long since stopped caring about the official legitimacy of their actions.
It was only during the 1990s that Roman Catholic enthusiastic sacramental exorcism
became confident to emerge from the shadows. Books were published and priest-
exorcists were appointed.
Collins (2009: 185) then argues that the reason that the Catholic Church took 20 years longer than
the Anglican Church to sanction exorcism was its rigid bureaucracy.
The Neocatechumenal Way and Renewal in the Spirit, the two movements to which we
referred above, for example, have their own rituals that can be connected with the rituals of
deliverance. As already mentioned, their aim is to bring together Catholicism and new instances of
Pentecostalism. For this reason, the Catholic hierarchy has always regarded their rituals with
suspicion, especially because these groups initially seemed to be too critical of the Church
institution, and because their ritual systems, following the spread of the ritual forms characteristic of
Pentecostalism, was too fervent, too active and engaging compared with the more classical and
ordinary (and in a way, more orderly) ones to which the average Catholic is accustomed (D’Amato,
The points of contact between the charismatic Catholics’ rites of liberation and prayers of
deliverance are many and varied, but the aspect that we are most interested in is the centrality of the
power of the Holy Spirit, especially in the Renewal in the Spirit prayers of liberation. In this rite,
the presence of the Holy Spirit, which is invoked with songs, prayers and the laying on of hands, is
manifested through extraordinary events to those assembled and to the person being initiated. This
person is often overwhelmed by the force and falls down, as if fainting after fighting against the
forces of evil (Contiero, 2012).
The process of negotiation and transformation between Protestant Pentecostalism and
Renewal in the Spirit concerning the Catholic ritual of deliverance centres around the distinction
between ‘effusion of the Holy Spirit’ and ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’. The latter expression is
generally used by Protestants to describe the transformation generated in them by divine
intervention. However, this expression is too ambiguous for the Catholic Church, because it may be
suggestive of a sort of super-baptism, or of a baptism perfecting or completing the one consecrated
with water, which would then end up being only a preparatory rite. It is for this reason that the
original expression has been replaced by Catholics with the term ‘effusion of the Holy Spirit’. The
expression is meant to describe a new and special intervention by the Holy Spirit: ‘new’ in
comparison to the previous interventions and ‘special’ for the way it occurs and for the fruits it
bears for the individual receiving it (Favale, 1982).
The exorcist we interviewed justifies the distinction between the ritual of exorcism on one
side and the blessing rituals and rituals of liberation on the other side by explaining the difference
between "minor exorcism" and "solemn exorcism". The former is what is used in the ritual of
baptism of children, or in adult baptism, and could be defined as a form of milder and less drastic
exorcism. The solemn exorcism, however, corresponds to the traditional formula of exorcism, of
which the Catholic Church, according to the interviewed exorcist words, would hold the monopoly.
As is clear from the data that we have analyzed in the previou section, that the solemn ritual
of exorcism is a minimal part of his activities compared to the blessing rituals and those of
liberation. This is explained by the exorcist as greater flexibility is offered by the “minor exorcism”
and by the rituals of blessing. As we have already seen, many people turn out to be not really
reported possessed by the devil in the exorcist’s notes, but only disturbed by it. They therefore do
not require a “solemn exorcism”. For them the ritual of exorcism may be even harmful, because it
could lead them to believe they are actually possessed by the devil. This could even complicate
further their well-being.
These rituals of blessing and liberation, the exorcist underlines, cannot be compared to the
rituals of deliverance of the Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal movements, although he admits that
they have some similarities. According to him, the biggest difference lies in who leads the ritual,
which can often look like a "devout wizard”. This refers more to the feelings, emotions and the
credulity of the people rather than to their faith in God's power.
In the eyes of the same exorcist, however, the difference between the Catholic ritual of the
“minor exorcism” and the Pentecostal ritual of deliverance is not clear and well defined, and
according to his words "there may well be some overlap”, because the two rituals fulfil the same
needs for people. However, the way in which he describes the risks that are both on the Catholic
and on the Pentecostal side, be it liberation or deliverance rituals, are surprisingly clear: "certain
answers to the suffering because of the devil more closely resemble theater performances to real
moments of conversion, and everything seems to be included in the consumer perspective, where
everything is calibrated on the demand of the people, and the will of God is no longer taken into
Discussion and Conclusion
This article has provided a sociological look at the specific case study of a catholic exorcist in
a western country in late modernity. Using the data provided by this priest, we discovered that more
than 1000 patients visited this religious expert over a ten year period, but only 5% of them qualify
for a ritual of exorcism. Amiotte-Suchet (2016) recently published the account of an exorcist in
France. He drew the difference between the exorcist who is more of a psychotherapist and those
who are more inclined in engaging with the devil. The priest in his case study only performed one
ritual of exorcism and he regretted it. Overall, he refers his patients to medical experts or performs
rituals that tend to be more of a deliverance nature. Our case is quite different in the sense that there
is a strong screening with regards to performing rituals of exorcism (the psychotherapist approach)
but they do happen for what are seen as legitimate cases (in this sense there is a specific
engagement with the devil that go beyond giving counselling and pastoral care).
Rituals of exorcism have already been theorised as, for example, a ritual of transformation
bringing the patient back to a Christian life (Talamonti 2008) or a way to control a patient’s non-
ordinary experiences (Goodman 2005). What this case discovers that has not been described in the
literature yet, is that beyond the theological discussions and cultural differences, the rituals of
blessing and rituals of liberation were found to be practised much more often than rituals of
exorcism. Whereas Talamonti (2008) studied rituals of exorcism and Amiotte-Suchet, L (2016)
rituals of what could be broadly described as therapeutic, this is the first case in which we find both.
While being careful about using terms specific to a religious group, we discovered that these
catholic rituals had some links with rituals of deliverance. Through these rituals, it is not clear if the
Catholic Church is countering the recent ‘religious products’ offered by charismatic Protestant
groups, or offering a product in need in this religious market.
Brunkhorst (2011) claims that in our current capitalist world, many religions are following on
the tract of protestant sects. This observation is furthered by Roy (2008), who writes about the
Protestantization of religion to explain this phenomenon. As the French sociologist argues, while
Islam and Buddhism have been ‘Protestantized’, Christianity has also been ‘Buddhinized’ (e.g.,
through engagement with the practice of meditation, or Christian yoga in which ‘Yahwey’ is used
instead of Eastern mantras (Einstein 2008)). This homogenization process is called in this
perspective the Protestantization of religion as religions, through being standardized more and
more, are becoming closer to the traits of this religion heavily carried by US culture. Protestant
groups are of course very diversified and this concept makes reference to a growing trend, rather
than to the end of a process.
François Gauthier, Linda Woodhead and Tuomas Martikainen (2013: 16) have recently
summarized this point well:
If the contents of belief appear to be diverse and heterogeneous, the modes of religious
belief and practice have perhaps never been so homogeneous. There is no longer a deep
cultural difference between a Christian and a Jew, let alone a Protestant and a Catholic,
but rather something like a difference in lifestyle and life ethics—and networks of
association. The turnaround is complete since the times analysed by Max Weber: it is no
longer the different Christian cultures that shape capitalism—it is consumer culture that
shapes Christianity (and religion in general).
As we have noticed a rapprochement between these different Christian groups with regards
to practices of exorcism and deliverance, it is tempted to speak about the protestantization of
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