According to a recent press release, 'The Rite' Earns Respect:
NEW YORK, Feb. 2, 2011 /Standard Newswire/ -- Catholic League president Bill Donohue comments on movie reviews of "The Rite":
Unfailingly, whenever there is a TV show or movie that touches on subjects like Transubstantiation -- the transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus -- the Virgin birth, apparitions, the stigmata, even confession, it is the subject of ridicule and insulting commentary. But when it comes to the phenomenon of exorcism, it’s hard to find anyone who mocks it.
Catholic League staffers reviewed over 600 movie reviews of "The Rite" that appeared in mainline media outlets. Aside from a few snotty remarks, the subject of exorcism was given a respectful hearing: none was derisive. The cast of "The Rite" was also respectful: none lambasted the idea that demons could be purged by a trained Roman Catholic priest.
This is good news. Evil exits, and everyone save for a fringe minority, admits it. Mo re important, the belief that the devil can be conquered also exists.That the Catholic Church has a mechanism to deal with it is hardly surprising. After all, it was founded by Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Actually, there has been some mainstream mass media criticism of the recent Catholic exorcism trend -- although, admittedly, not very much so far.
For example, according to David Edelstein in New York Magazine, Movie Review: Anthony Hopkins Serves Up Supernatural Swill in The Rite, January 28, 2010:
I like a frothy exorcism picture as much as the next fellow, but anyone who peddles the line that we’re watching a true story — that demons possess people and can only be expelled by recitations of Catholic (or any other) liturgy — stinks to heaven and ought to be jeered out of whatever house of worship he or she has the audacity to represent. That would apply to the makers of The Rite, which substitutes sham piety for thrills and chills. The film was “suggested by” a book by Matt Baglio on the life of Father Gary Thomas, who recently told an interviewer: “The book was sent to every bishop in the United States by my request with a letter from me … encouraging them, a) to train an exorcist, which is what John Paul II asked us before he died, and b) to help the seminary rectors begin to take this on in formation because there’s very, very few priests who have any exposure to this.” Talk about a Hail Mary pass. As the Catholic Church loses members over revelations of rampant pedophilia and Vatican cover-ups, the best recruitment strategy might well be to remind wavering souls that their only hope for keeping the Devil at bay is to stick with the program.
Outside the mass media, there's been some sharp criticism of the Catholic exorcism trend on the popular website Salon.com. Laura Miller wrote, in Eat your saints, purge your demons, back on March 27, 2009:
Baglio and others have made much of the church's restraint in the face of the recent "explosion" in complaints of demonic possession. "The exorcist must be the ultimate skeptic," Father Gary was told during his training. That "skepticism," however, takes the form not of questioning the reality of possession itself, but rather the close examination of individual cases to eliminate malingerers, nuts and attention-seekers. Like the church's painstaking vetting of purported "miracles," this inquiry somehow always proceeds in a way that reinforces the church's power. Too much possession hysteria, like the popular local cults that form around miraculous manifestations of the Virgin Mary on obscure hillsides or tortillas, can all too easily divert influence away from the church. By insisting that cases of demonic possession can only be diagnosed and treated by trained priests, the panic and its remedies remain firmly under Vatican control.
The deftest church officials have used the furor to extend the battle for spiritual dominance on other fronts. According to the dutiful Baglio, "occult ties" are listed as one of the primary causes of demonic possession, with "occult" defined as everything from performing satanic rituals to participating in séances, tarot card readings or other forms of divination, the use of "an amulet or talisman," transcendental meditation, engaging in Wicca ceremonies, using crystals and other New Age paraphernalia, frequenting psychics and even reading the Harry Potter books, which were condemned by the Vatican's official exorcist. Anything, in short, likely to compete with the church for your spiritual interest and dollars can lead to an infestation by Beelzebub or Asmodeus (names that originally belonged to Middle Eastern gods who were rivals of the famously jealous God of the Old Testament).
Related observations have been made by Alex Mar in The right-wing agenda of the exorcism movie, Salon.com, Saturday, Jan 29, 2011, and Annalee Newitz in 10 Movies About Possession Featuring Creepily Sexualized Girl-Women, io9, January 25, 2011.
The exorcist-as-hero meme might eventually wear thin if there are enough sex scandals involving Catholic exorcists. There has already been at least one such sex scandal, though it hasn't yet been very widely publicized yet.
That sex scandal involved Father Thomas Euteneuer, disgraced former exorcist and anti-abortion activist. (See Anti-abortion group says multiple women have complained about disgraced priest by Lona O'Connor, Palm Beach Post, Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2011. For a history of his anti-abortion activism, see The Shame of an Exorcist Admitting Violation of Chastity by Michelle Goldberg, The Daily Beast, February 2, 2011.
(Update, February 18, 2011: Exorcist Priest and Abortion Scold Falls From Grace, Rocks the Catholic Right by David Gibson, Politics Daily, February 16, 2011. Thanks to Jason Pitzi-Waters, Updates: Bryan Fischer, James Arthur Ray, and Father Thomas Euteneuer, February 16, 2011. See also Exorcist sex scandal raises questions on the Rite, and the Right by David Gibson, dotCommonweal, February 17, 2011. However, this scandal has NOT yet been widely reported in the mainstream mass media beyond one local news story, the Palm Beach Post story I mentioned earlier. For this and other reasons, I doubt it will put any significant dent in the overall exorcism trend.)
Is "demon possession" real? I certainly don't claim to know the whole story, but, in my opinion, it's important to listen to what the skeptics have to say, even though they've gotten hardly any mass media coverage lately:
- The Haunted Boy of Cottage City: The Cold Hard Facts Behind the Story That Inspired "The Exorcist" by Mark Obsasnick, Strange Magazine, 1999, 2000
- Exorcism! Driving Out the Nonsense by Joe Nickellm, Skeptical Inquirer, Volume 25.1, January / February 2001
- A Sociologist’s Journey into the American Heart of Darkness by Kevin Christopher, Skeptical Inquirer, Volume 27.1, January / February 2003, a review of American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty by Michael Cuneo
- The Real Story Behind The Exorcist by Ben Radford, Skeptical Inquirer, September 2, 2004
- “The Rite” Stuff by Joe Nickell, Center for Inquiry, February 10, 2011
- exorcism article in the Skeptic's Dictionary
For my own concerns, see the following blog posts of mine: Exorcism and religious intolerance, Talk To Action, February 1, 2011; Catholic exorcism and NYPD “experts on occult crimes”???, here on LiveJournal, February 6, 2011; and The Catholic exorcism trend and Italy’s Satanic panic, Wordpress, February 9, 2011.