What attitude do we take as faithful Catholics when the headlines periodically swell with tales of credulity and incredulity over such matters as demons and exorcists?
The first thing to remember is Paul’s counsel “that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles.” (Ephesians 4:14). Paul has in mind the various fashions and fads that whip people up with excitement about the Latest Thing.
Sometimes, such fads are conscious deceptions by people out for power or a buck. But more often we are faced with people who think they are telling are the truth. So, for instance, while Dan Brown was clearly lying when he told us that The Da Vinci Code was based on fact and careful research, it is not at all clear that the millions of suckers who bought the hype were lying when they repeated it around millions of water coolers. They were just trusting what the Well Modulated Voice of the Talking Hairdo on TV told them. And by the time the talk got home from the water cooler, lots of people were simply navigating by the ordinary sorts of tribal and friendship ties everybody uses. “Joe at works that there Da Vinci thing is a pretty good read and that he learned a lot about the Church he never knew. I think I’ll read it.” Tom Hanks is a nice guy! He wouldn’t lie to me!
Much the same goes on in the periodic enthusiasms about other spiritual matters. Your friend Bob reads a book about exorcism by an enthusiastic priest. Bob’s a good guy you figure, so it must be worth a look. Because Bob’s your pal, you’re already predisposed to trust and defend the book, even when the priest claims to have performed thirty thousand exorcisms in a nine year period. In case you are counting, that’s nine exorcisms per day for nine years—Sundays included. Later, he ups the count to 50,000 exorcisms.
This seems rather a stretch and your atheist co-worker snorts at the book and at your friend. So you get defensive for Bob and for the priest, as though some sacred part of Holy Church is under threat if you don’t buy that 30,000 to 50,000 exorcisms claim sight unseen.
In fact, however, it’s okay to have your skepticism bells go off too. Just so long as you are clear about what’s in doubt. The 30,000 exorcisms claim, if shown to be false, doesn’t mean the Church’s teaching is wrong. It doesn’t even mean the priest knows nothing about exorcism. It doesn’t mean Bob is a liar or a fool. There are all sorts of things it doesn’t mean and only one thing it does mean (if shown to be false). It means that that claim is false and it suggests that the priest making the claim may not be altogether reliable. In short, it means the priest is human. It may lead to further evidence that the priest completely unreliable, but until you have the facts, you are getting ahead of yourself. It does not, in the slightest, mean that demons do not exist and the power of Christ cannot expel them.
In all this, my point is to stress the need for prudence and sound judgment in discussing the demonic. The trouble is, prudence and sound judgment are in short supply in modern media, which is why I think it inadvisable for Catholics to spend too much time discussing the demonic in the public square, since it tends to generate heat, not light.
In this, I think I have the backing of the Tradition, which tends to give short shrift to Satan, not parade him in lurid tales. Jesus’ exorcisms more or less consist of “Buzz off”. The Lord’s Prayer shunts Old Scratch to the final line and addresses not him, but God the Father (“Deliver us from the evil one.”) Paul scarcely mentions him at all and only in passing as a hindrance and as a thing Jesus is about to tread underfoot. In short, if you want to drive Satan nuts, keep your eyes on Jesus.