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Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.

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I Know Who Needs an Exorcism

According to an article in this past Saturday’s New York Times (Laurie Goodstein, November 13, 2010), 66  Roman Catholic priests and 56 bishops gathered in Washington for a two day conference aimed at preparing the Church to respond to a growing number of people fearing that they are possessed by the Devil and wanting exorcism.  I was tempted to wonder how an institution that has been so slow and so inept in exorcising the evil of clergy sexual abuse from its own life could presume to claim expertise in this arcane tradition.  But I suppose this is entirely in line with restoring the Latin Mass or with papal dreams of reinstituting a form of Catholic triumphalism in secularized Europe.  Exorcism?  Why not.

R. Scott Appleby, professor of American Catholic Church History at the University of Notre Dame, offers a more generous and (okay, I’ll admit it) less cynical view:

What they’re trying to do in restoring exorcisms is to strengthen and enhance what seems to be lost in the church, which is the sense that the church is not like any other institution.  It is supernatural, and the key players in that are the hierarchy and the priests who can be given the faculties of exorcism.  It’s a strategy for saying, “We are not the Federal Reserve and we are not the World Council of Churches.  We deal with angels and demons.”

There are many churches in the membership of the World Council of Churches who would be surprised to hear that they don’t deal with the demonic in the world (not to mention how surprised Ben Bernanke must have been to have woken up in bed on Saturday morning with this ecclesiastical crowd!).  The United Church of Christ Statement of Faith commits us to “resisting the powers of evil,” and most denominations include in their baptismal service questions like the one asked in The Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer: “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?”  We don’t deal with angels and demons?  But I digress.

If the Catholic Church in the United States is really interested in dealing with evil, not the Hollywood evil that captures the popular imagination, but real gut-wrenching, violence inducing, humanity degrading evil, then let me suggest that they start with America’s most recent experience of demon-possession.  Here I speak of our embrace of torture in the alleged “War on Terror.”  This came to the fore again because of President Bush’s revelation in his new memoir about his role in this grim chapter in our history.  When asked whether he gave permission to the CIA to waterboard Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, his response was, “Damn right.”  He also freely and without remorse acknowledged authorizing waterboarding on other senior al-Qaida leaders.

Michael Kinnamon, General Secretary of the National Council of the Churches of Christ, USA – probably another body Appleby assumes is akin to the Federal Reserve – called the President’s defense “incomprehensible. . . [and] unrecognizable to the fundamental values of this country, and of Bush’s own professed Christian faith.”  And this in the face of the fact that most military experts agree that torture produced limited intelligence at best, often produced fabricated testimony, and in fact made American soldiers and civilians a target.

Illegal.  Ineffective.  Immoral.  And yet the former President continues to embrace his decisions without remorse.  It is, as Kinnamon states, “a sad and shameful moment.”  How is one to account for this “incomprehensible” state of affairs?  Well, if it defies reason, if it defies logic, if it defies even national and personal self-interest, and if it is clearly evil, than perhaps the only answer is that it is something supernatural, a real instance of demon possession.  The Congress, the current Administration, and the Courts seem to have no interest in calling President Bush or anyone else to account for the use of torture.  So maybe it is now left to the new exorcists in the Catholic hierarchy.  I know that I, both as an American, and as a proud participant in the life of the World Council of Churches over the years, would be grateful.

John H. Thomas

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