Writing in Newsweek International, Barbie Nadeau scoffs at the Vatican’s preservation of its exorcism rite. But judging by the rise of demonic cults cited in the article — “Interest in satanic worship has risen sharply across Europe recently; there are 5,000 Italians involved in 650 active satanic cults in the country, more than double the number a decade ago” — the Church’s exorcism rite is needed more than ever. If enlightened Europe scoffs at Vatican exorcisms, it is not because Europeans deny the existence of Satan; it is because they don’t want to fight him.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose, released in Europe in early October, occasioned Nadeau’s article. The movie is based on a European legal case from the 1970s involving Anneliese Michel, a twentyish German woman, now something of a folk hero, who died after months of exorcisms.
The wholly secularized German legal authorities blamed her death on benighted exorcists and her reactionary Catholic parents, who considered post-Vatican II liberalism to be scandalous and stupid. (According to media accounts, Anneliese agreed with them. Before her possession began, she was doing penance for the progressive creeps rapidly filling up the Church in Germany.) If she had only been left to the ministrations of science and medicine, her death would never have happened, went the German court’s reasoning, and the exorcists and parents were convicted of criminal negligence. The court declared Anneliese, who had requested the exorcists after medicine failed to help her, the victim of “Doctrinaire Induction.”
The verdict illustrated secular Europe’s morbid hostility to religious freedom and Germany’s fanatical attempts to uphold a secularist culture that blocks out any acknowledgement of the spiritual realm. Most Germans now, including most Protestants and a third of Catholics, don’t believe in life after death. And it is an open question how many Catholic bishops in Germany believe in life after death. The faithless cowards who populate much of the German episcopate offered zero help during Anneliese Michel’s trial; worried that they would appear insufficiently progressive, they made sure to distance themselves from the Church’s teaching on Satan and exorcism.
In Hollywood’s very loose but effective adaptation of the Michel trial (the movie transfers the setting to the American Midwest and restricts the criminal prosecution to the exorcist), this theme of Church cowardice is commendably taken up. The movie makes it clear that the typical modern bishop would rather maintain the good opinion of the secular world than defend the Church’s doctrine on Satan. In the movie, consequently, that Emily Rose’s edifying story gets told at all is not because of the local bishop but in spite of him. The archdiocese is content to let the honorable exorcist rot in jail because he refuses to agree to the pinched, cowardly defense its lawyers prescribed for him, a defense which would forbid him from talking about the reality of Satan and the Church’s powers of exorcism.
In the Michel trial, the German bishops actually used its outcome to call on the Vatican to rewrite the exorcism ritual so that it would incorporate all the proper secularist assumptions. The number of exorcists in Germany can be counted on one hand, thanks to a Catholic episcopate there that is now far, far to the left of Germany’s historic liberal Protestant reformers. The Vatican has rightly refused all these calls, which upsets the glib jackasses at Newsweek who consider satanic possession to be a punchline to a joke.
But while Newsweek mocks the ancient practice of exorcism, at least a few people in Hollywood realize that the only successful movies about Catholicism are the ones that take ancient traditions like it seriously. While modern church “reforms” are good fodder for comedy, they can’t command the attention of an audience for a drama. In The Godfather and The Exorcist, and now in The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Hollywood recognizes that in order to rivet audiences it has to draw upon ancient traditions of the Church, which contain cultural power because they derive from a comprehension of the reality of evil rather than the liberal fatuousness upon which modern “reform” is based.
Europe, according to Newsweek, is too enlightened for the Vatican’s exorcisms. But it is not too enlightened to host a growing number of demonic cults. The Devil’s greatest triumph, it is said, was to convince man that he doesn’t exist. But this saying needs revision. Europe displays an even greater triumph for the Devil — not ignorance of his designs but respect for them.