Glad You Asked: What is an exorcism?

On this episode of the podcast, Andrew Chesnut discusses the Catholic practice of exorcism and what the church teaches about demonic possession.

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Thanks to horror movies, many people are aware that the Catholic church has rituals, called exorcisms, which are practiced by Catholic priests. In the horror genre, exorcisms are intended to cast evil spirits out of possessed people. They are dramatic events, potentially traumatizing to witness, often attended by screaming, violence, bodily contortions, and supernatural occurrences. But are these portrayals of exorcisms accurate? What is an exorcism, really? Do Catholics believe in demonic possession anymore? And is this an exclusively Catholic ritual? 

On this episode of the podcast, guest Andrew Chesnut discusses the Catholic practice of exorcism and what the institutional church teaches about demonic possession. He also talks about the practice of exorcism as a feature of Pentecostal churches in Latin America, and how this ritual overlaps with other religious traditions in post-colonial cultures.  

Chesnut is the Bishop Walter Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies and a professor of religious studies in the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University. He has researched and published extensively on Latin American folk religions, especially the cult of Santa Muerte, as well as on the practice of exorcism in both the Catholic and the Pentecostal traditions. 

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The following is a transcript of this week’s episode of Glad You Asked:

Emily: Welcome to Glad You Asked, the podcast where we answer the questions about Catholicism that are easy to ask but not so easy to answer. 

Cassidy: Answering these questions can sometimes mean taking a deeper dive into church history, Catholic teaching, and even various folk traditions.

Emily: Today’s topic takes us out of the everyday Catholic experience into a realm that some might find sensational, or even superstitious: What is an exorcism?  

Cassidy: Thanks to horror movies, lots of people are aware of exorcisms as rituals practiced by Catholic priests. But are movie portrayals of exorcisms really accurate? What is an exorcism, really? Is it something any priest can do, at any time?

Emily: People may assume from pop culture references that exorcisms are exclusively a Catholic ritual, but is this correct? Are there exorcism rituals that exist outside the Catholic tradition? I’m Emily Sanna, managing editor of U.S. Catholic.

Cassidy: And I’m Cassidy Klein, editorial assistant at U.S. Catholic. Our guest on today’s episode is Andrew Chesnut. Chesnut is the Bishop Walter Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies and a professor of religious studies in the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Emily: He has researched and published extensively on Latin American folk religions, especially the cult of Santa Muerte, as well as on the practice of exorcism in both the Catholic and the Pentecostal traditions. 

Cassidy: Andrew, thank you so much for joining us on the Glad You Asked podcast.

Andrew Chesnut: My pleasure. Thanks for inviting me.

Emily: So let’s start with: What does the Catholic Church teach about the influence of evil spirits in human lives? Do Catholics believe that people can literally be possessed by demons?

Andrew: Yeah, sometimes it’s hard to generalize about the Catholic Church, because we’re talking about a church of 1.4 billion people across the globe. So, as you well know, there’s diversity in Catholic beliefs. But yeah, in general, the Catholic Church does teach that evil is real and that there are real demonic spirits.

Catholic theology teaches that [demons are] fallen angels expelled by God, and demonic entities are led by Satan or the devil and are capable of possessing humans–actually, not only humans but places and objects as well. 

Interestingly, as you well know we have our first Latin American pontiff in Pope Francis. And pretty much not a week goes by in which Pope Francis doesn’t mention the devil. And that is quite a contrast to his two predecessors, who really didn’t talk about a literal devil much in their discourse. So it’s really interesting to see this kind of combination of a more progressive, liberal pope, but at the same time much discourse about a literal real devil, which is very much in accord with Latin American Catholics. I think there’s probably a higher percentage of Latin American Catholics who do believe in a literal Satan and literal demons than perhaps Catholics in the United States and Western Europe.

Cassidy: So are all Catholic exorcisms only performed when someone is believed to be possessed? Or are there other kinds of exorcisms or other purposes of exorcisms in the Catholic tradition?

Andrew: Yeah, that’s an excellent question. The majority of Catholic exorcisms are performed when it’s believed that a person is possessed by demonic spirits. However, as I just alluded to previously, there are other exorcisms. There are exorcisms of places, for example. 

I wrote a Huffington Post article five or six years ago about a well-known Spanish exorcist who actually performed an exorcism on the entire country of Mexico. This was when there was a raging debate about whether to legalize abortion in Mexico and, he specifically was trying to exorcize Mexico of the demons of abortion, as he saw them.

A couple years ago, the bishop of Portland, Oregon–perhaps the most liberal city in the United States–actually exorcized the city of Portland of demonic influence. This was either while the Black Lives Matter protests were going on or shortly after that–Portland had some of the longest protests in the country.

Also, after the desecration of the statue of recently canonized St. Junipero Serra outside of San Francisco, the bishop or archbishop of San Francisco also performed an exorcism of that site to remove the demonic influences from those who had vandalized this statue.

Sometimes objects themselves that have been believed to have been utilized in occult practices will be exorcized of the influences they are believed to absorb. So yeah, it’s not only people. Places and objects can also be the targets of exorcism as well.

Emily: So what are the Catholic Church’s official rules about when and how and by whom exorcisms can be performed?

Andrew: The Catholic Church has pretty strict guidelines. First of all, a priest has to have training as an exorcist, and a priest can only perform an exorcism with the authorization of his local bishop. And the priest is supposed to first make sure that they are not medical or psychological afflictions or ailments tormenting the person that might appear as possession. Those typically would be ruled out before they would move on to determine that, yes, this is a real demonic possession. 

I will say, however, because I’m not one to be legalistic, that there are a lot of unofficial Catholic exorcisms that take place, particularly in the global South, more specifically in Latin America and Africa, actually performed by laywomen who are usually members of the Catholic charismatic renewal, which is the largest Catholic lay movement on the planet, and is really the driving force for exorcism across the globe. So in a lot of these charismatic prayer meetings, you will have unauthorized, female lay leaders performing impromptu exorcisms, obviously, you know, without any kind of authorization, since only priests can perform them. So there are a lot of extra-legal exorcisms that do take place in Catholic contexts, and you just don’t hear about those much. 

Emily: So I think it was in Huffington Post that I read an article by you where you talked about Pope Francis doing kind of an informal exorcism on someone. Could you kind of talk about that and how kind of the informal exorcism or belief about kind of the presence of evil shows up in Pope Francis’ ministry?

Andrew: I’m glad you mentioned that, because there are different levels of exorcism. That was a very kind of quick impromptu exorcism on a Mexican parishioner. This was just a few months after he became pope in St. Peter’s Square. And interestingly, it was believed that the Mexican parishioner had been possessed by a legion of spirits of abortion, going back to the raging abortion debate in Mexico. And yeah, that really surprised and shocked a lot of Vatican observers because, again, his two predecessors barely spoke about the devil and much less about public exorcisms. So just a few months after his appointment to actually see him do that was very interesting and even shocking to some. 

This is really fascinating, because during his decade tenure as Pope, Francis has definitely gravitated toward liberation theology. And historically, in Latin America, liberation theologians–this is a liberal theology that emerges in Latin America in the 1970s–have a preferential option for the poor and oppressed. Those liberation theologians usually aren’t believers in literal demons and aren’t fans of exorcisms. 

So this is this curious paradox of this very progressive pope who’s associated with liberation theology, yet at the same time sees the devil and Satan and demons as real entities and is a proponent of exorcism as a way to deal with demonic oppression and possession.

Cassidy: Can you kind of say more about why this is? You’ve written about how exorcism has become common in Latin America. How did that come about?

Andrew: Yeah, excellent question. A lot of observers and pundits on exorcism always like to point to the landmark 1973 movie, The Exorcist, and of course we’re gonna see the remake coming out soon, right? Exorcist: The Believer. And no doubt that’s contributed to a renewed interest in exorcism. 

But more importantly, my early research is on Pentecostalism in Latin America, more specifically Pentecostalism in Brazil. Today Brazil has the largest Pentecostal population on Earth, so my book Born Again in Brazil, which was penned 25 years ago, is still relevant. And so it really was the Pentecostals back in the 1970s who thrust the practice of exorcism front and center.

Part of that is because it’s much easier for Pentecostals to perform exorcisms. Most of the denominations don’t have bishops, so you don’t have to go to a higher authority. And sometimes it’s not even pastors themselves performing the exorcism. Any believer who believes that they’ve been endowed with the gift of expelling spirits can perform one. 

So on any given day, there are far more Pentecostal exorcisms across the globe because of their informal nature and their unstructured nature than there are Catholic ones. And so as I’ve written in many different venues, the real impetus for increasing rising Catholic exorcism is competition with Pentecostalism, particularly in Latin America and Africa.

The Catholic charismatic renewal has become so important in African and Latin American countries that in places like Brazil, which still has the largest Catholic population on the planet, the majority of Brazilian Catholics specifically identify as Catholic charismatics. And again, they have been at the vanguard of the exorcism boom with the Catholic Church because they are on the front lines of competing with the Pentecostals, in Latin America and Africa in particular. So it’s really the Pentecostals and competition with Pentecostalism that have led to this Catholic boom in exorcism as well.

Emily: So how do the Catholic charismatic revival and the belief in exorcisms and literal demons all tie into liberation theology, which is also so important in Latin America? 

Andrew: It doesn’t really, and that’s why I said the “paradox of Pope Francis,” because Pope John Paul II, you know, really didn’t believe in a literal hell. He talked about hell as a metaphysical place, not a real place. Liberation theologians really don’t subscribe to a literal hell and literal demons. So again, in believing in a literal devil, literal demons, Pope Francis is kind of at odds with fellow liberation theologians. 

I should add though to that, as interesting as it is that Pope Francis has gravitated towards this Latin American liberation theology, it really has been in decline since the 1980s and has been far eclipsed by the Catholic charismatic renewal. In fact, I was kind of a pioneer in saying, “Colleagues, stop focusing on liberation theology, because it’s in decline. The real booming movement here in the Catholic church from Mexico down to Argentina is the charismatic renewal.”

Emily: So what are exorcisms actually like? Are they anything like we see in The Exorcist or other movies?

Andrew: Yeah, I mean, some are that intense, particularly in the Pentecostal realm. Sometimes they look like wrestling matches where the demon-possessed will actually have their head squeezed by pastors and might be rolling around on the floor and everything. But some of them are much more subtle. There’s just a whole range depending on the level of demonic possession.

Sometimes the priests and pastors will first try to determine the specific demon that they’re dealing with. Because often in the Latin American context, the demons are determined to be the spirits of, for example, African diaspora religion, such as these liminal spirits of Brazilian Candomblé or Cuban Santeria. And so in the Caribbean and Brazilian context, usually the Catholic priest or the Pentecostal preachers will identify the demons. So they often feel like it’s important to know the specific demonic entity with which they’re dealing. And so that makes deliverance easier if you know who you’re dealing with.

The Catholic Church has a whole prescribed liturgy of exorcism. I don’t think we need to go through all this, but it involves preparation on the part of the priest leading it, fasting, and prayer. During the ritual of exorcism itself, many relevant biblical passages are read and cited. And what I love is, as bizarre as this might seem to some, one looks at the gospels and–you know, I’m no theologian, but I’m a preacher’s son: My father’s a retired Presbyterian pastor. So anyway, there was a lot of exorcism of evil spirits done by Jesus and his ministry. Unfortunately, they’d often be sent out into the pigs, right? And then the pigs are possessed. But I mean, that’s a major part of how Jesus’ ministry is presented in the gospels: expelling evil spirits and healing the sick, which are two interrelated things. So this is very much in line with how Jesus is portrayed as an exorcist and a thaumaturge and a healer of the sick in the gospels as well.

Emily: Yeah, I think the story I think of when I hear exorcism is that exact one of Jesus sending Legion to go into the pigs and the pigs jump off the cliff, right? 

Andrew: The unfortunate result is during the medieval witch trials in Europe, they would actually put animals on trial sometimes for being possessed or being part of witchcraft rituals. And the number one animals that were tried and executed? Pigs. All going back to that.

Emily: Well, I was going to ask if there’s anything similar in today’s exorcisms where there are animals involved or there’s the idea of sending these evil spirits from a human into something else. What happens to the spirits after an exorcism?

Andrew: I haven’t come across that kind of transference of spirits to animals, as you see described in the gospels. So often we see the language of spiritual warfare used, and there’s sometimes a belief that spirits actually can plague families for generations and that certain spirits can be inherited as well. 

Increasingly we’ve heard that spiritual warfare language here in the United States, and it also has political overtones as well. I recently mentioned the Bishop of Portland who exercised Portland, and there’s obviously political implications to that. There was another priest who during the last election cycle performed an exorcism in favor of President Trump when Trump was claiming fraud on the election. It is interesting to see these public exorcisms with political implications, usually toward the right. But we also had a case recently of hospital workers in Massachusetts on strike and they were expelling the demons of corporate greed, which they saw the hospital owners as possessed by.

Emily: There’s this interesting idea that you can personify sin, whether abortion or corporate greed or generational trauma, and could cast that out.

Andrew: Well, yeah, the interesting thing is that historically, the concept of sin was always personal and individual. The idea of corporate sin is new. And if we want to go back to your question about liberation theology, that’s a big part of liberation theology, that corporations and governments themselves are sinful, not only human beings, and need to be dealt with accordingly.

Cassidy: So do you think there are components of colonialism and even white supremacy in Christian distrust of Latin American folk religions and the tendency to view these figures from these religions and traditions as demonic?

Andrew: Yeah, I think it’s easier to speak in general to colonialist attitudes. I would say in Latin America, it’s less the problem of white supremacy, although white Latin Americans historically have been disproportionately part of the elite from Mexico down to Argentina. But yeah, I think it’s more, going back to the conquest by the Catholic Spanish and Portuguese. And when they figure out that the Indigenous people have their own religious systems, they automatically see them as satanic. 

And so I think that kind of colonialist vision of everything that’s not Christian predominates in many sectors. If we’re talking specifically about the United States, yeah, I think we could also bring in some sense of white supremacy, although I would say that the white supremacy in terms of non-Christian religions is a greater problem among white evangelicals probably than it is among white Catholics. And a lot of the demonization and the most virulent spiritual warfare in the United States against non-Christian religions is really more among white evangelicals than it is among white Catholics.

Emily: Those are all the questions that we have for you today. Is there anything else that you want to add or share with our listeners?

Andrew: Something interesting for me personally is that over the last 15 years, I’ve been doing a lot of research on this Mexican folk saint known as Santa Muerte, which translates as St. Death or Holy Death. She’s this skeletal female figure who’s actually the object of the fastest growing new religious movement on the planet right now. I’ve been covering exorcism since my early research on Pentecostalism, and now both Catholic exorcists and Pentecostal pastors have been exercising people who are seen to be tormented by the spirit of Santa Muerte, primarily in Mexico, but I’ve even seen a few exorcisms conducted in Texas as well. 

So that kind of brings my career full circle. I go from Pentecostal exorcism, to Catholic exorcism, to the charismatics. And now I see that folk saying Santa Muerte is being exorcized by both Catholics and Pentecostals. So that’s very interesting to see as well.

We mentioned Pentecostals, but I should also say that Muslims perform exorcisms as well. And they’re usually of these spirits they call the jinn. Our English term genie comes from jinn. And sometimes you’ll see like in the London tabloids, exorcisms go wrong and people get hurt and they’re often Muslim exorcisms. So it’s not only a Christian thing. It occurs in some sectors of Judaism as well. So it’s kind of a larger Abrahamic thing. Although since Christians are the largest religious group, 2.2 billion, there’s much more news about that.

Emily: So is there something in Jewish and Muslim and Christian scripture–are there commonalities that have led to this shared practice?

Andrew: Because they all believe in demons. 

Emily: Well, Andrew, thank you so much for joining us on today’s episode. This has been a really great conversation.

Andrew: It was my pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.

Glad You Asked is sponsored by the Claretian Missionaries.