Q: I thought every Catholic priest could act as an exorcist if he has to, by virtue of his ordination to the priesthood. But our assistant pastor told me recently that that’s not true, because he is not able to conduct an exorcism. Who exactly has the right and the power to exorcise evil spirits? –Andrea
A: When we think of exorcists and exorcisms, we’re likely to remember dramatic scenes from horror-movies, in which a priest tries to convince an evil spirit to depart from a writhing, shrieking, possessed person. It’s an image that, while not entirely false, can lead us to make a few mistaken assumptions about what the term “exorcism” means, and who an “exorcist” is. To make matters more confusing, the 20th century saw the Catholic Church make some changes in practice, although the theology that underlies these concepts remains the same. Before looking at what canon law says about exorcists today, let’s first take a look at the historical developments that brought us here.
Nowadays, Catholics are generally familiar with the notion that a seminarian, who is studying to become a priest, will be ordained a deacon a year or so before his ordination to the priesthood. Most Catholics are probably not aware, however, that until relatively recently, all seminarians were also ordained to the order of “exorcist.” Until just a few decades ago, the Church conferred four additional “minor orders” on all seminarians: porter, exorcist, lector, and acolyte. Originally, the names of these four minor orders described ministerial roles to be carried out at liturgical functions—the acolytes lit the candles and carried them in processions, for example. It appears that at least at one point in early church history, those men who were not priests, but had been given the role of exorcists, had the authority to exorcise demons from catechumens, those members of the church community who had not yet been baptized.
Eventually, the power of casting out evil spirits was reserved only to those men who had already been ordained priests, but the minor order of “exorcist” still remained as one step along a seminarian’s path to the priesthood. It was a vestige of ancient church usage that was still mentioned by name in the Church’s list of orders, but it no longer retained any real, substantive meaning.
In 1972, Pope Paul VI vastly simplified the road to ordination and eliminated some of these vestiges of ancient practice, by suppressing the minor orders entirely. In his motu proprio document Ministeria quaedam, the Pope declared that henceforth, the term “minor orders” would be replaced by “ministries.” And of the four former minor orders, only two would now continue in use as “ministries”—lector and acolyte.
This effectively ended Catholic seminarians’ ordination to the minor order of exorcist. It explains why older priests, who were ordained before Ministeria quaedam’s reordering of the Church’s system of ordination, received the order of exorcist while they were seminarians on the road to the priesthood—but those priests who were ordained more recently did not.
Those priests alive today who once received the order of “exorcist,” therefore, were not actually being commissioned to work as exorcists in the Church today! They were ordained as exorcists, simply because at the time, all seminarians received this order. It was a title without a real function, and that’s why Pope Paul VI understandably moved to simplify the process and end this ambiguity by eliminating it.
While the term “exorcism” refers to the driving out of evil spirits, it doesn’t apply solely to persons (or places or things) which are obviously possessed. If you’ve ever been to an infant baptism, you may recall that before the actual baptism takes place, a prayer of exorcism is said over the child, after which the priest or deacon anoints him with holy oil:
Almighty and ever-living God, You sent Your only Son into the world to cast out the power of Satan, spirit of evil, to rescue man from the kingdom of darkness, and bring him into the splendor of your kingdom of light. We pray for this child: set him (her) free from original sin, make him (her) a temple of your glory, and send Your Holy Spirit to dwell with him (her). We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Church is not suggesting that every infant is actually suffering from demonic possession—rather, the prayer of exorcism references the fact that until he is actually baptized, the child is still in a state of original sin.
Note that this exorcism prayer is said over the child by the cleric who performs the baptism. As most Catholics already know, baptism is, as a rule, performed by a cleric: canon 861.1 states clearly that the ordinary minister of this sacrament is either a bishop, a priest, or a deacon. This in turn implies that any cleric may say this prayer of exorcism. (We can see in this another vestige of the ancient practice, in which exorcists were able to cast demons out of those who were not yet baptized.)
But the other sort of exorcism, which involves a person/place/thing that is diabolically possessed, is a different matter, and is subject to different canons. Andrea is on the right track, as an exorcist must be a priest (c. 1172.2); but it is not true that every priest, simply by virtue of his priesthood, is automatically allowed to conduct an exorcism.
Conducting a “solemn exorcism” to drive out evil spirits is a public act done by the Church. As such, it cannot be undertaken by an individual priest without the express permission of the diocesan bishop in whose territory the exorcism is to take place (c. 1172.1). As we’ve seen happen so many times before in these posts, the Catechism of the Catholic Church dovetails perfectly with the Code of Canon Law on this issue:
When the Church asks publicly and authoritatively in the name of Jesus Christ that a person or object be protected against the power of the Evil One and withdrawn from his dominion, it is called exorcism. Jesus performed exorcisms and from him the Church has received the power and office of exorcizing…. the solemn exorcism, called “a major exorcism,” can be performed only by a priest and with the permission of the bishop. The priest must proceed with prudence, strictly observing the rules established by the Church. Exorcism is directed at the expulsion of demons or to the liberation from demonic possession through the spiritual authority which Jesus entrusted to his Church. Illness, especially psychological illness, is a very different matter; treating this is the concern of medical science. Therefore, before an exorcism is performed, it is important to ascertain that one is dealing with the presence of the Evil One, and not an illness (CCC 1673).
In the process of describing what a solemn exorcism is and is not, the Catechism also explains why it must not proceed without the permission of the bishop. First of all, the actual rite of exorcism is conducted in an authoritative manner, which means it proceeds with the approval of the Catholic Church’s leader of that region of the world where the possessed person physically is—the diocesan bishop. (Canons 369 and 381 provide a very basic explanation of the diocesan bishop’s role and authority.)
Secondly, before an exorcism is begun, it is important to be sure that the Church is in fact dealing with a genuine case of possession. Persons who are suffering from certain medical conditions, including some mental illnesses, may develop external symptoms that resemble those of diabolical possession. Before conducting an exorcism, therefore, a determination has to be made that a person who seems to be possessed isn’t really suffering instead from an illness that should be treated not by an exorcist, but by medical professionals! Tragically, we can read in the news from time to time of instances where non-experts decided on their own that somebody was possessed by a demon, with horrific results. Often the alleged “possessed” person has been a child (see here and here for some sad examples). The Catholic Church naturally wishes to avoid this sort of scenario at all costs, and therefore entrusts her bishops with the responsibility for ensuring that an exorcism is only conducted in an actual case of demonic possession.
If the bishop has ascertained that a person who appears to be suffering from possession is really not “merely” suffering from psychological or other medical problems, what does he do next? Canon 1172.2 explains that the bishop may give the function of exorcist only to a priest who is endowed with piety, knowledge, prudence and integrity of life. In other words, an exorcist must be not only a priest, but a priest who is known for his personal holiness and wisdom. Battling with the devil will require him to be armed with both!
The Code of Canon Law does not specify that a bishop must appoint an official diocesan exorcist, who is to be called on in all cases of possession, but in some dioceses, like Chicago, bishops have done just that. It is also possible for a bishop to choose a priest to act as exorcist only when a case arises—which means that there are many dioceses where no priest has the permanent title of “diocesan exorcist.” Given the wording of the canon, this too is completely in accord with canon law.
Exorcisms may make for great horror-movies, but in real life there is nothing entertaining about them. Such a grave issue requires tremendous discernment on the part of the diocesan bishop, and the prayerful determination of a wise and holy priest. This combination of sanctity, and obedience to lawful church authority, is a powerful start to overcoming forces of genuine evil.