Don't look at me like that, I'm not joking.
Okay, maybe a little.
Seriously, the Catholic Church is running low on exorcists. If you've been near a Catholic Church lately in America, then you may have heard the daily intentions going out for “vocations,” hopefully to the priesthood … there are some parishes who would like at least ONE priest who was born within the boundaries of the United States. Me, I prefer the ones from Ireland and Vietnam, but that's just me.
There are also similar calls within the priesthood itself for vocations ... to become exorcists. Why would they be running low?
Remember that funny look that you gave me at the start of the blog entry? That's pretty much how a lot of priests look at exorcists, especially in America, where we suffer from visions of Linda Blair every time we think of exorcism.
One thing that no one remembers is that The Exorcist was based on true story. There was case of an actual possession in Georgetown. The possessed in that case was a boy, not a girl, and he stills needs therapy to this day, and no priest was harmed during the performance of that exorcism. If you look at the credits of the film, there are several real-life priests involved in the movie; several of them were involved in the original incident.
But, at this point, you're probably wondering what sort of barbaric, medieval lunatic tries an exorcism nowadays.
If you're asking that, I would actually recommend that you read the book The Exorcist. You see, with the Catholic Church, unlike some other Christian groups, you have the largest collection of skeptics ever when it comes to supernatural events. During the European witch hunts of the early Protestant Revolutions / Reformation period, the Spanish Inquisition would listen to tales of people who confessed to being witches who went flying with Satan. The Inquisition politely told them all to get lost, a variation on CW Fields' “Go away kid, ya bother me.”
More recently, trying to get miracles verified requires a small army of scientists who can confirm or deny that something is a scientific impossibility. For example, Father Stanley Jaki, PhD, physicist and Catholic priest, once wrote about the miracle of the sun dancing in the sky over Fatima (early 20th century). Jaki concluded that the effect was produced by a rare, naturally occuring phenomenon of frozen ice particles in the sky that turn into a giant convex lens; this giant lens appears to make the sun jiggle around the sky, like looking at it through a a magnifying glass. Did Jaki conclude that it was no longer a miracle? No; because it is scientifically impossible for anyone to predict such a meteorological event, to heck with three small children in the middle of Portugal.
In the case of exorcism, the book The Exorcist catalogs what the subject has to go through in order to get a Cardinal to sign off on an exorcism. The movie covers it a little, but not as much as the book does. Blisters appear on the skin? The stigmata appears on their hands? Sorry, those can be psychosomatic. Do you smell strange odors around the “possessed,” even if they've bathed, and you've lined the room with car fresheners? That could be caused by mental suggestion. Can the symptoms be caused by schizophrenia? Tourette's? Multiple personality? Thank you very much, come back when you have a problem that can't be found in the PDR, theDSM-IV, and might look more akin to something out of Ghostbusters (“...[S]he sleeps above her covers... *four feet* above her covers.”).
The Catholic Church gets about 9,000 applications for exorcism per year. If they do two, that's a lot.
Just so we can all be clear on the terms, when I say possession, I mean a case that defies all scientific explanation. I don't mean “possessions” that are “cured” by every other storefront preacher in a backwoods somewhere.
If you're an atheist, you could have an argument for saying that what appears to be possession is just a form of advanced psychosomatic disease that we haven't figured out yet. It could be a variation of Clarke's law, only this time, any sufficiently advanced biology is indistinguishable from magic. Maybe it's some variety of alien head-cold out of Doctor Who that creates mood swings and personality changes and enables the cold victim to speak in tongues, cause visions, and other things that appear to be supernatural.
However, no matter the cause of possession (or “possession” if you like), they still happen, even under the strict Catholic guidelines. And exorcisms still work— Pope John Paul II performed a few of them himself. If you're an atheist, and think that cases of possession are some extremely bizarre disease that no one has discovered the cause of yet, just look at an exorcism as a case where one human being, through sheer force of will, can help another be cured of their affliction.
And if you're a believer, I promise you, the Vatican is not going crazy … well, not anymore than usual. I'm a member, so someone has to have a screw loose somewhere.