St. John Paul II

The Atlantic dares to ask if exorcisms (and thus the supernatural) may be real after all

The Atlantic dares to ask if exorcisms (and thus the supernatural) may be real after all

Five years ago, I had a chance to eat lunch with the late William Peter Blatty, an articulate Catholic apologist who won an Academy Award for turning his novel, "The Exorcist," into a stunning Hollywood screenplay.

Yes, I called Blatty a Catholic apologist.

Why? In part because he viewed his masterwork as a vehicle for criticizing this materialistic age. Here is a chunk of that column, in which Blatty explains his motives. In “The Exorcist”:

The fictional Father Damien Karras experiences paralyzing doubts after his mother's death. Blatty was typing the second page of his earliest take on the story when he received the call that his mother had died.

"I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to make a statement that the grave is not the end, that there is more to life than death," said Blatty, in a Bethesda, Md., diner near his home, not far from the Georgetown neighborhood described in "The Exorcist."

After studying the explicit details in the journals of exorcists, he decided that a story about "what happens in these cases could really be a boost to the faith. It could show people that the spiritual world is real."

The bottom line: "The Exorcist" scared the hell out of millions of people. 

This brings me to the feature story in The Atlantic that stirred up lots of online conversation over the weekend, the one with this haunting double-decker headline:

American Exorcism

Priests are fielding more requests than ever for help with demonic possession, and a centuries-old practice is finding new footing in the modern world.

A serious piece of journalism on this topic faces a big question: How much space should be dedicated to the views of people who, well, think demon possession is real? As Blatty noted, it is impossible to talk about this topic — exorcisms — without debating evidence that the material world is not all that there is. (Click here for a Rod Dreher discussion of this angle.)

Toward the end of this long feature, reporter Mike Mariani offers this summary of what he was seeing, hearing and feeling:

Pore over these spiritual and psychiatric frameworks long enough, and the lines begin to blur. If someone lapses into an alternate identity that announces itself as a demon bent on wresting away that person’s soul, how can anyone prove otherwise? Psychiatry has only given us models through which to understand these symptoms, new cultural contexts to replace the old ones. No lab test can pinpoint the medical source of these types of mental fractures.

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Religion, morality and terrorism: How do IRA Catholics compare with ISIS Muslims?

Religion, morality and terrorism: How do IRA Catholics compare with ISIS Muslims?


I remember being shocked years ago that some Irish terrorist acts were carried out in the name of Catholicism. What were the reactions to that, compared with the support or denial of Muslims toward violent jihad today? (Paraphrased)


The Guy can only sketch a few aspects of the religio-ethnic strife that has so roiled Ireland for centuries, or of the terror syndrome currently plaguing world Islam. Another preliminary point: Believers should realize that such bloodthirsty conflictrs are a strong argument skeptics use to brand all religious faith as evil.

Neither Islam nor Catholicism is pacifist in principle. So for both religions the questions become under what circumstances the use of force is moral, and how it should be applied. Ranking authorities in both faiths have denounced terrorism, whether by the Irish Republican Army and related groups made up of Catholics, or by extremist minority Muslims in factions like the Islamic State or ISIS.

There’s similarity between the two situations in that religious identity has been fused with, and often submerged by, power politics and ethnic solidarity. There are also major differences, as follows:

Though sporadic killings still occur, fortunately the IRA’s death campaign ended through democratic negotiations with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement’s power-sharing between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. By contrast, terrorism by ISIS and similar Muslim factions in an ongoing, large, well-organized and seemingly ineradicable movement, especially where democracy is limited.

While the IRA campaign occurred in several northern Irish counties with occasional attacks elsewhere, Muslim-inspired terror is raging worldwide, and the scope of the bloodshed is far greater.

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More married priests? This was the rare papal sound bite that received some calm, informed coverage

More married priests? This was the rare papal sound bite that received some calm, informed coverage

Of all the Catholic debates I have watched through the decades, I think stories about the ordination of married men have been the hardest for mainstream journalists to fit into the old left vs. right format.

Yes, it's easy to find priests and scholars on the left for whom changes of any kind are good. Thus, they say hurrah for married priests. Many of the priests who hit church exit doors to get married soon after Vatican II fit this model. Shake up the church is their mantra.

Obviously, you can always find conservative Catholics who will oppose just about any change in church life, just by reflex. Their dogma is to leave everything the way it is.

However, you will also find plenty of Catholic experts -- left and right -- who know that this issue is a matter of church order and tradition, not carved-in-stone doctrine. They know that married men now serve as priests, under certain circumstances, and they know that the celibate priesthood evolved over the centuries. I have interviewed many Catholics -- especially Latinos -- who for a variety of reasons believe the church needs married priests. I have long argued that Rome will ordained more men when conservatives seek the change.

In other words, this isn't really a Sexual Revolution issue. Thus, if you have been seeing generic left vs. right press coverage of the latest Pope Francis statement on this issue, then move on. Find a better story.

In this case, you can start with The New York Times, with the calm headline stating: "Pope Francis Signals Openness to Ordaining Married Men in Some Cases." This story sounds all the crucial notes right up top, in the overture or soon thereafter:

Pope Francis this week signaled receptiveness to appeals from bishops in the remote and overwhelmed corners of the Roman Catholic Church to combat a deepening shortage of priests by ordaining married men who are already committed to the church.

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Exorcism growing among Catholics? San Francisco Weekly offers flawed investigation

Exorcism growing among Catholics? San Francisco Weekly offers flawed investigation

There are some publications that treat religion-news coverage like a trip to some mysterious planet where the inhabitants are incomprehensible. Such was the San Francisco Weekly’s recent take on a local exorcist. It was so crammed with mistakes, one wonders if anyone bothered editing or fact checking the piece.

The Weekly has had some decent religion stories in the past, but this was not one of them.

Which is a shame, because the issue of exorcism is wildly interesting, the stuff of movies and best-selling books. The reporter identifies himself as a lapsed Catholic non-believer, which makes it odd that the research would be so sloppy.

We begin:

Every Thursday evening, a few dozen people file into Immaculate Conception Chapel, a small Catholic church on the steep slope of Folsom Street on Bernal Hill's north face, carrying bottles of water, tubs of protein powder, small bottles of booze, watches, rosaries, and cell phones...
The people stir a few minutes past 7 p.m. when a tiny man wearing white robes -- a long rectangle of cloth with Vegas-worthy golden sparkles hanging around his neck -- appears from a door to the left of the altar. A few weeks shy of his 89th birthday, Father Guglielmo Lauriola walks slowly across the raised altar area to a waiting chair. Here he sits, facing away from his congregation in the style of the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass, to read from laminated card prayers and songs devoted to the Virgin Mary. Aside from Jesus on the cross, she is the principal figure of veneration here at the 104-year-old church.

So the scene is set. This priest conducts a Mass, after which, we're told "the show really starts."

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To be or not to be: What will become of Crux after that Boston Globe tie is cut?

To be or not to be: What will become of Crux after that Boston Globe tie is cut?

That unsettling disturbance that you felt yesterday in the religion-beat force was some very bad news.

As you may have heard, or have seen in secondary coverage via Twitter, that The Boston Globe has decided to pull the plug on its support of Crux, its must-read online Catholic news publication that has been built around the work of the omnipresent (I will keep using that word since it is accurate) John L. Allen, Jr. The funds dry up at the end of March.

Globe Editor Brian McGrory admitted the obvious, in a letter speaking for every newsroom manager who has tried to pay the bills with digital advertising forms that readers tend to ignore, or actually hate:

"The problem is the business," McGrory wrote. "We simply haven't been able to develop the financial model of big-ticket, Catholic-based advertisers that was envisioned when we launched Crux back in 2014. ...
"We also need to be able to cut our losses when we've reached the conclusion that specific projects won't pay off," his letter reads.

Now, a letter to readers from Crux Editor Teresa Hanafin (read it all) answers the crucial questions that religion-news readers and professionals will want to know. Here is a crucial chunk of that:

... The good news is that John Allen plans to continue the site, with assistance from Inés San Martín, our Vatican correspondent. National reporter Michael O’Loughlin, columnist Margery Eagan, and our stable of freelancers will find other places for their work. I’ll move over to ...
We’re thrilled that John is taking on the challenge of keeping Crux alive.

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Kenneth Woodward on l'affaire Douthat and who is qualified to write about religion news

Kenneth Woodward on l'affaire Douthat and who is qualified to write about religion news

I admit that I have been biting my tongue during the post-Synod 2015 firestorm about New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and the large army of liberal Catholic academics who have expressed their displeasure that such a theological lightweight has been allowed to comment on the Catholic faith in the world's most influential op-ed space.

Surely readers will join me in being shocked, shocked that a Times columnist has published controversial commentary about the Catholic Church. Can I get an "Amen"?

I mean, this is the same editorial setting in which a columnist named Bill Keller -- a few months after 9/11 -- compared the Catholic leadership, in the era of Pope St. John Paul II, with al-Qaeda. Readers may, or may not, recall the outcry from Catholic progressives in the wake of these words from Keller's May 4, 2002, column entitled "Is the Pope Catholic?"

What reform might mean in the church is something I leave to Catholics who care more than I do. ... But the struggle within the church is interesting as part of a larger struggle within the human race, between the forces of tolerance and absolutism. That is a struggle that has given rise to great migrations (including the one that created this country) and great wars (including one we are fighting this moment against a most virulent strain of intolerance).
The Catholic Church has not, over the centuries, been a stronghold of small-c catholic values, which my dictionary defines as "broad in sympathies, tastes, or understanding; liberal." This is, after all, the church that gave us the Crusades and the Inquisition.

So what happened to Keller after that theological outburst? A year later he was named executive editor of the Times.

Back to Douthat and his theological commentary about Pope Francis and the 2015 Synod of Bishops. You see, there is a journalistic issue here that affects reporters covering hard news events and trends, as well as commentary writers who are free to write their own opinions.

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Crux of the synod: Are many doctrines of the Catholic faith too tough for modern Catholics?

Crux of the synod: Are many doctrines of the Catholic faith too tough for modern Catholics?

Another day, another must-mention John L. Allen, Jr., Crux think piece about the 2015 synod in Rome.

Which reminds me that, since I've been on the road for several days, I never got around to discussing his essay on how the format of these meetings, with the crucial content being shaped behind all-but closed doors, is pushing reporters into territory that makes it hard to do basic reporting. As Allen put it:

The dirty little secret is that we’re not really covering the synod at all. For the most part, we’re covering people telling us about the synod, which is an entirely different enterprise.
To actually cover the synod would mean being inside the hall during the discussions, being able to develop our own impressions of what’s being said, to gauge the reaction, to watch body language and intonation and atmosphere, and to get an overall sense of emerging themes for ourselves.
That’s how one would cover a session of Congress, for instance, or a UN summit, or any other important gathering, but that’s decidedly not how things work at a Synod of Bishops.

At the synod you have the public documents, but little direct information about how the documents came into being. At that point, reporters have to interview people who claim to know the inside stuff, but cannot talk openly. At which point readers should hear warning sirens, since sources who work like that have agendas about 99.9 percent of the time.

As a rule, your GetReligionistas try to dig into hard-news products, although we do point readers toward "think pieces" that point readers toward essays that directly focus on issues linked to mainstream religion-news coverage. Allen writes a ton of those.

So this brings me to his analysis about the winds that are swirling around the "letter-gate" controversy (coverage here), in which a circle of bishops -- precise size uncertain -- signed some version of a letter to Pope Francis in which they criticized the way this synod on family issues is being run, or directed, or steered, or undermined, or all of the above. 

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Label this! Pope tells Congress everything starts with defense of human life -- period

Label this! Pope tells Congress everything starts with defense of human life -- period

There's no question that, for those reading the Pope Francis address to Congress through the lens of politics, the most newsworthy passages were his explicit references to immigration and climate change. Why? These words pointed to wedge issues between Democrats and Republicans that will almost certainly play a major role in the 2016 elections.

Also, there were powerful passages about the death penalty and the blood money earned through the international arms trade.

It was a remarkable scene, all the way around. What are the other nominations for a list of the deepest and most philosophical speeches ever delivered to Congress?

However, if you look at the pope's remarks through the lens of doctrine -- as Francis urged reporters to do days earlier -- then the crucial passage, the thesis statement, was this one:

We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome. Let us remember the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Mt 7:12).

This Rule points us in a clear direction. Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us. The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.

This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity ...

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European 'shadow council' calls for Catholic doctrinal evolution on sex and marriage?

European 'shadow council' calls for Catholic doctrinal evolution on sex and marriage?

One would think that a major gathering of progressive Catholic leaders, a choir of voices seeking major changes in ancient church doctrines on marriage and sexuality, would draw lots of coverage from the mainstream press.

Yes, readers will obviously need to keep their eyes on the work of some of the official journalistic voices of the Catholic left. And it might pay to set a Google News alert for the following terms -- "Pontifical Gregorian University," "German," "French," "Swiss," "family" and "divorce." Including the loaded search term "shadow council" is optional.

So, what's up? Flash back to the news about the strangely under-covered May 25  gathering of progressive European Catholic bishops and insiders (including journalists) to discuss proposed changes in doctrines linked to marriage, family and sexuality. What happened? It's hard to say, since many of the journalists did not report about the event that they attended.

Now, Andrea Gagliarducci of the conservative Catholic News Agency, has a report online based on the texts of some of the "interventions" presented behind those closed doors.

This sounds like news to me. Yes, it's one take on these materials and the lede is pushy. However, this is why it's important for the mainstream press to dive in and -- trigger warning -- do some basic journalism, talking to articulate, qualified voices on both sides of the current doctrinal warfare over sexuality in the Roman Catholic Church.

Read on.

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