Can a Catholic Deacon Perform an Exorcism?

When we hear the word exorcism, it would be fair to say, that most people would immediately recall images
from garish horror films: images of some poor possessed victim, tied down on a bed or a chair, as priests
hold crucifixes in their faces and sprinkling holy water upon them as they shout out prayers of ritual. But one
has to remember that all of the high-profile horror movies of recent times (The Rite, The Exorcism of Emily
Rose and The Exorcist) were all based on real-life events – Catholic priests conducting exorcisms to remove
demons from possessed souls. So the question is: who can perform this ritual?

Can a Catholic Deacon
perform an exorcism? The short answer would be yes though in reality probably not – let’s examine this in
more depth.

The role of a Deacon in the Catholic Church is to be the servant/attendant to the priest and will assist them
during the Mass, Baptism and other Church services. The Deacon would be ordained, similar to the priest or
other clergy and this would normally be conducted as part of their ongoing ordination to the priesthood
though some might decide to stay permanently as a Deacon. Up until a few decades ago, this would have
given them “authority” to be exorcists as this was automatically decreed upon them as part of the four minor
orders given to them (the others being: porter; lector & acolyte). However, there were fundamental changes
made to the Rite of Exorcism in 1999 which made the role of the exorcist a more specialized function that
required a high level of training which would probably preclude Deacons from having any further
involvement – if they had any in the first place? But why would all ordained clergy be given the “power” to
be exorcists? And why now is it only a select few who weald this “power”? To find the answer of the first
question, we must look to the very source of Christianity itself and its relationship with ‘evil spirits’ – Jesus
Christ.

When reading through the Bible, the Old Testament makes hardly any reference to possession; King Saul is
tormented by ‘evil spirits’ in the Book of Samuel, while in the Book of Tobias (from the extra-canonical
Jewish literature) there is mentioned the methods of exorcism. But when we read the New Testament it is
awash with accounts of encounters with ‘demons & evil spirits’ which Jesus and then his Disciples are
exorcising from the possessed individuals. As a sign of his Messiahship, Jesus could expel these entities
simply by uttering his own name and he empowered his Disciples to do the same which they would do, as
accounted within the Gospels. It would be from this premise, that anyone uttering the Lord’s Name, had the
power to cleanse souls and expel ‘evil spirits’, that gave rise to the belief that all Christians had the power to
drive ‘demons’ out simply by the command of uttering the Lord’s Name whether they be Clerical or Lay. The
earliest accounts of the Church conducting these rituals would be from the Second Century but it would not
be until 1614 when the Catholic Church would write down official guidelines.

The exorcists, at that time, would use the Order of Saint Benedict’s formula “Vade retro satana” (translated
to “Step back, Satan’ from the original Latin) and still be used for centuries to come. But as the aeons passed
so this ritual would slip into obscurity and, by as late as the 1960’s, would seldom be used. But a publication
of a novel and its subsequent release as a movie, would change all that: The Exorcist would become a smash
hit blockbuster for Hollywood but it would become a major headache for the Vatican to the point that,
within a generation, they would be forced to completely rewrite those guidelines.

As the lines to get into the cinemas snaked around the block, in 1973, so the issue of possession (and the
release by exorcism) came to the fore once more. This would lead to a rapid rise in reported cases of
“demonic possession” around the United States which would lead to a mad scramble to counteract this,
especially, by maverick priests who were not fully sanctioned to do this in the first place. These rituals
would usually be conducted as clandestine, underground affairs and against the approval of the Catholic
Church and especially without any of the rigorous psychological screening that the Church now insisted
upon.

This would be the crux of the reason why the Catholic Church would use the exorcism ritual as a last resort;
as the science of psychology and mental illness would develop in the late nineteenth and twentieth century
this would allow the Church to perform a proper medical check on the “possessed” individual to gauge
whether the person actually needs medical attention instead. And in the vast majority of cases they would be
deemed of a psychological nature and making the endorsement of exorcism a rarity. It would be the
increased understanding of mental health coupled with the fact of so many exorcisms being conducted
without the consent of the Catholic Church that lead to the changes of the Vatican’s guidelines to exorcisms
in 1999. There would be several unfortunate cases where a “priest” would rush into a protracted and violent
ritual that would end in tragedy. Therefore, a full psychological evaluation of the “patient” by medical
experts must be completed before any approval for exorcism can be given while each Diocese must have a
properly trained exorcist available when required to diagnose a true case.

So does that mean that, with the advent of medical psychology available, are all cases simply misdiagnosed
cases of mental illness? From the time of Jesus into the present day, we have been mystifying and
demonising people’s wellbeing? No. There have been many well documented cases where a person’s very
soul has been at the mercy of demonic forces where only the faith and the strength of the priest stands
between salvation and eternal damnation. Let’s review a few of the most famous cases.

The 1971 novel and 1973 movie, The Exorcist, were based on a historical account from 1949 where an
unnamed 14 year old boy going by the pseudonym, Roland Doe or Robbie Mannheim, underwent an
exorcism in St Louis, Missouri. Though there is no official account of what transpired, it was alleged that the
boy was exposed to more than one exorcism and the events were witnessed by 48 people and nine of them
were Jesuits. During this time objects would move or levitate when Roland was nearby and, during the
exorcisms, the bed would visibly shake. The boy would speak in a guttural voice while the words “evil” and
“hell” would appear on his body. The exorcism would prove to be successful and it was reported that the boy
would go on to lead “a rather ordinary life”.

Hollywood great, Anthony Hopkins, would star in The Rite (2011) which would be based on the true life
accounts of an american priest being trained as an exorcist whilst at the Vatican. A far more contemporary
setting as the events being reported were only a couple of years old. The author, Matt Baglio, would publish
his book, The Making of a Modern Exorcist, in 2009 after he had accompanied Father Gary Thomas as he
was being trained to become an exorcist. During this time they would both attend exorcisms, though the
author would not be permitted inside the room itself but could hear what was transpiring inside. This would
lead to a movie being made very shortly afterwards and Father Thomas would act as the film’s consultant
and he stated that the events in the movie followed very closely to the exorcisms he had experienced himself.

In 1976, a young German woman, by the name of Anneliese Michel would experience her 67th exorcism
and then pass away due to malnutrition – she was only 23. This would later become the basis for the movies:
2005’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose, 2006’s Requiem and a third, Anneliese: The Exorcist Tapes in 2011.
This would be a tragic case, lasting seven years, that began with medical help and ended with a ten month
exorcism that would eventually kill her as she would refuse both food and water in the latter stages of the
exorcism. It began when she was 16 years old and suffered a seizure which would later cause her to be
diagnosed with psychosis due to temporal lobe epilepsy. Following on from this she would lapse into
depression and would be treated at a psychiatric hospital but her condition worsened by the age of 20 when
she began to hear “voices” and grew an aversion to religious items. But, in the year before her death, after
her family were convinced of demonic possession, two priests were approved to begin the rituals that would
end so tragically.

A case of clinical psychosis or real demonic possession? You can decide.

Gene Botkin

Gene is the director of the Theosis Christian Project. He studied physics and military science before founding the Project. Gene is currently pursuing his doctorate in systems engineering at an engineering college in the Ozarks. The Theosis Christian Project is his attempt to expand Holy Orthodoxy in America.

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