Vatican Formally Recognizes Professional Exorcists

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The Catholic Church recently formally recognized The International Association of Exorcists, a group of 250 priests worldwide who claim to drive demons and devils out of possessed individuals.

An ABC News report notes that "The International Association of Exorcists was originally founded in 1990 and one of their leaders has been housed in the Vatican for years, but this is the first time that they have been given formal approval by the highest order of the Roman Catholic Church. According to The Vatican's official newspaper 'L'Osservatore Romano', the Congregation for Clergy announced Tuesday that the Church's canon law now formally recognizes the group."

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The recognition is seen as another sign that Catholic Church formally approves of exorcisms. Pope Francis has been more vocal than many of his predecessors about the reality of demons and devils, and was seen last year praying over a man said to be possessed.

Because demonic possession has never been scientifically proven, the Vatican's move lends legitimacy to a controversial practice whose victims may be better served by psychologists and other mental health professionals. Exorcisms can be dangerous, and indeed many people have died while others tried to drive real or imagined demons from their bodies.

On Aug. 22, 2003, an autistic 8-year-old boy in Milwaukee was bound in sheets and held down by church members during a prayer service held to exorcize the evil spirits they blamed for his condition. An autopsy found extensive bruising on the back of the child's neck and concluded that he died of asphyxiation.

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An exorcism in 2005 at a Romanian convent resulted in the death of Maricica Irina Cornici, a 23-year-old nun who said she heard the devil telling her she was sinful. With assistance from four nuns, priest Daniel Corogeanu bound Cornici to a cross, gagged her mouth with a towel, and left her for three days without food or water. Cornici, who had a history of schizophrenia, died of suffocation and dehydration.

The Vatican accepts only a small percentage of demonic possessions as "authentic," which of course suggests that there are many unauthentic cases of possession. The Vatican issued official guidelines on exorcism in 1614 and revised them in 1999.

The Devil: Alive and Well?

In addition to Catholic Church-sanctioned exorcists such as those in The International Association of Exorcists, there are countless exorcists with little or no official church affiliation.

For example, an Arizona man named Bob Larson, who claims to have conducted over 10,000 exorcisms (or about one a day) since 1982, trained his teenage daughter and her friends to conduct the ritual. Thousands of other self-styled exorcists, from Pentecostal preachers to voodoo priests, do the same thing around the world.

Author Michael Cuneo, who participated in more than 50 exorcisms while researching his book, "American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty" (2002, Broadway Books) found no reason to think that anything supernatural occurs during exorcisms. Instead, most of those deemed possessed suffered from treatable mental illness.

Why Do People Believe in the Devil?

Nonetheless, belief in a literal devil which causes harm and can take possession of the human body is a central tenet of Catholicism, and not going away any time soon; according to the Bible Jesus himself performs a half-dozen exorcisms, and no less an influential figure than Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia acknowledged his belief in a literal Satan.