Monday, November 15, 2010

Science, Religion, and Demons

Posted by Darin Hayton on 11/15 at 10:53 PM

Two announcements last Friday seem oddly linked. First, the NY Times reported on a conference held by Catholic bishops to prepare more priests and bishops to respond to a growing demand for exorcisms: “For Catholics, Interest in Exorcism is Revived.” One of the key issues was teaching the clergy how to distinguish between real cases of possession and the person who “really needs a psychiatrist, or perhaps some pastoral care.” Although cases of possession are “extraordinary,” the Church has to be prepared.

Some of the classic signs of possession by a demon, Bishop [Thomas] Paprocki said, include speaking in a language the person has never learned; extraordinary shows of strength; a sudden aversion to spiritual things like holy water or the name of God; and sever sleeplessness, lack of appetite and cutting, scratching and biting the skin.

These signs are, indeed, classic. All of them can be found in various medieval and early modern texts on demonic possession, in both the Latin and the Greek tradition. The 10th-century Byzantine polymath Michael Psellos emphasized some of these signs in his Περὶ ἐνέργεια διαμονῶν.1 When Psellos’s text was translated into Latin in 1497 by Marsilio Ficino, it immediately became a standard reference work on demons for more than a century. By the end of the 16th century, authors were publishing new translations of Psellos’s work or printing commentaries precisely because they thought it offered a useful guide for distinguishing between the phantasies, illusions, and enthusiasms that some people suffered—e.g., Lutherans, followers of Bucer or Zwingli, or Manicheans—from actual demonic possession. This was the approach taken by Pierre Moreau in his Paientiss. Michaelis Pselli poetae, et philosopohi graeci Dialogus de enerrgia, seu operatione Dæmonum è Græco translatus (Paris:  Guillelmum Chaudiere, 1577). Moreau’s interest in rooting our heresies was prompted by his dislike (probably hatred) for French Huguenots.

The Catholic Church has never given up on exorcism. According to the Vatican’s chief exorcist, Gabriele Amorth, he has dealt with 70,000 cases of demonic possession over the past 25 years.2 And exorcism has always distinguished the Catholic Church, in the 16th and 17th centuries from reformed theologies and today from the materialist picture of the world that underlies much science. Having made some sort of peace with the reformed theologies, the Catholic Church is now trying to distinguish itself from science. As Professor R. Scott Appleby at the University of Notre Dame points out in the NY Times article: By restoring exorcisms, the Church is trying

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.’

Professor Appleby introduces the second announcement: Notre Dame Offers New Graduate Track in Theology and Science. The HPS program at Notre Dame has just added a theology track to its existing philosophy and history tracks. The goal is to train “highly competent theologians with added and increasingly sought after expertise.” Responding to Pope John Paul II’s call for greater dialogue between “Christian thought and the modern sciences,” Notre Dame hopes to “promote serious, objective, scholarly engagement with theology and science.” They have set for themselves a difficult task, as people on both sides of the issue have deep-seated prejudices. It remains to be seen how well they can realize their goal.

1A bad pdf file of Psellos’s dialogue is available here. This text survives in two forms, a descriptive text and a dialogue. There is some debate about the text’s authenticity. See the relevant arguments against it in Paul Gautier, “Le De daemonibus du pseudo-Psellos” Revue des études Byzantines 38(1980):  105–94 and Paul Gautier, “Pseudo-Psellos: Graecorum opiniones de daemonibus” Revue des études Byzantine 46(1988):  85–107.  More recently, Cortesi and Maltese have argued against Gautier:  Mariarosa Cortesi and Enrico V. Maltese, “Per la fortuna della demonologia pselliana in ambiente umanistico” in Dotti bizantini e libri greci nell’Italia del secolo xv, ed. Mariarosa Cortesi and Enrico V. Maltese (Naples:  M. D’Auria Editore, 1992), 129–92 and Enrico V. Maltese, “«Natura daemonum … habet corpus et versatur circa corpora»: una lezione di demonologia dal medioevo greco” in Il demonio e I suoi comlici.  Dottrine e credenze demologiche nella Tarda Antichità, ed. Salvatore Pricoco (Messina:  Rubbettino, 1995), 265–84..
2Father Gabriele Amorth has recently stirred up some controversy within the Vatican by claiming that Satan has infiltrated the Vatican. See, for example, Chief Exorcist Father Gabriele Amorth Says Devil is in the Vatican.

Tags: catholic church, demons, exorcism