A breezy investigation of the Roman Catholic Church’s approach to demonic possession.
Reporter Wilkinson takes readers to Italy, where a small army of Catholic priests specialize in diagnosing possession and exorcising demons. These priests aren’t preying on helpless people. Their clients, mostly women, are “the picture of normalcy”—professionals, even physicians, who insist that exorcism has saved their lives, and brought about healing that no medical doctor or shrink could. The priest who has done the most to “push exorcism into the mainstream” is Father Gabriele Amorth, who believes that exorcism is a means through which God works miracles. Indeed, in recent years, Italy has experienced something of an exorcism revival. Why has the ritual become so popular? Exorcism appeals to people, the author suggests, because it seems like a time-tested, deeply religious response to the chaos of a society that increasingly rejects morality and traditional religious teaching. The Catholic Church officially sanctions exorcism, but the Church hierarchy is cautious and ambivalent about the trend. The Church requires exorcists to follow strict guidelines—public healing ceremonies that smack of “hysteria” or “sensationalism,” for example, are forbidden. Wilkinson concludes with some speculation about what is really underneath supposed possessions. “Many symptoms and behaviors” of possession “fit the pattern of a litany of known psychological disorders.” Aversion to sacred symbols, which has traditionally been understood as a mark of possession, is also consistent with obsessive-compulsive behavior. Readers may wish Wilkinson had read more scholarship on demon possession—the questions posed by anthropologists of religion and cultural historians could have given this account the gravity and insight it lacks.
Ultimately doesn’t deliver the substance its subject deserves.