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What The Rite got wrong Print
Guest column
Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011 -- 1:00 AM

Second in a three-part series on the new movie The Rite from a theological and canonical standpoint.

This article is the second of three dedicated to the movie The Rite starring Anthony Hopkins and Colin O’Donoghue in a fast-paced supernatural thriller centered on the Church’s practice of exorcism in the modern world.

In last week’s article, I discussed the rite of exorcism itself, placing it in the context of the Church’s liturgical life, in particular, her use of blessings and sacramentals.

I also distinguished between a minor exorcism, as can be found in the rite of baptism, and a major exorcism whose purpose is to expel a demon from one who is possessed. This solemn rite of exorcism is a liturgical action carried out by a priest, acting in the name of the Church and appointed by his bishop.

The rite is similar to the other rites in the Church’s liturgy and includes a sprinkling of holy water, a litany of the saints, readings from Scripture, the recitation of the Creed, and finally, the actual prayer of exorcism commanding the demon to depart in the name of Jesus Christ.

In this week’s article, I turn to the film itself to discuss some of its theological and canonical deficiencies.

Film based on book

Matt Baglio’s book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, on which the film is loosely based, is about the real-life Fr. Gary Thomas, a parish priest in Los Altos, Calif., who is requested by his bishop to train as an exorcist.

At the time, Father Gary had been a priest of 22 years, a man of faith who had served the Lord and his parish well. While he had no experience of demonic possession and was reluctant to believe claims of it, he did believe that the demonic realm was real and active in the world.

Change in film adaptation

In the film adaptation, however, Hollywood replaces the faithful 52-year-old priest with a skeptical 32-year-old seminarian who lacks faith even in the existence of God.

While this change may make the events of the silver screen more dramatic, I am afraid it makes them less realistic.

Recall that the praenotanda of the rite of exorcism, the instructions that appear in red at the beginning of the liturgical book, state that only priests possessing devotion, knowledge, prudence, and integrity are to be appointed to perform the rite. Therefore, it would be highly unlikely that one would send a faithless seminarian to study and train for such a role.

While the skepticism shown by the seminarian in the film might be a valuable tool in discerning possession from psychological malady, the very efficacy of exorcism depends in part on the faith of the priest performing it.

Exorcism, remember, is not a sacrament which confers grace by the very action itself, but rather is a sacramental which requires the fervent prayer of the minister and the whole Church.

For an exorcist, faith in Jesus Christ in whose name demons are cast out, is the virtue of greatest value. A priest who enters an exorcism without a strong and ardent faith risks serious spiritual danger not only for himself but also for the one possessed.

Omission of discernment process

An even greater deficiency in the film is its omission of the discernment process prior to exorcism. As noted in last week’s article, the praenotanda of the rite state that the exorcist, before proceeding, must be morally certain that the one who claims possession is actually possessed.

Unlike the other liturgical rites of the Church, this rite actually requires the minister to be skeptical. Compare, for example, the praenotanda for the sacrament of the anointing of the sick, which state that if there is any doubt about whether the infirm person is dangerously ill, or even if they are still alive, the sacrament is to be administered nonetheless.

The rite of exorcism, in contrast, requires that the one claiming possession be evaluated both by a medical physician and a psychologist/psychiatrist before an exorcism can be performed.

In many cases, since the human person is a complex composition of both body and soul, there will be a psychological illness in conjunction with a spiritual one. When this happens, the priest performing the exorcism is to be in close contact with the victim’s doctor, even employing them as one member of the exorcist’s team if appropriate.

The delicate nature of these situations requires equally delicate consultation and cooperation. The priest untrained in medicine must be diligent in his collaboration with trained medical and psychological professionals in order to properly diagnose and treat one who is afflicted.

Unfortunately, the film makes little mention of this fact, which could easily lead one to believe that the priest should indiscriminately run for his crucifix and holy water when the doorbell rings.

Emphasis on extreme cases

Similarly, the film places an over-emphasis on the more extreme cases of possession. Here again, the film risks losing its credibility, especially when both the book on which it is based and the common experience of exorcists indicate that the majority of exorcisms are more like routine dentist appointments than theatrical displays of cosmic struggle. The kinds of cases depicted by Hollywood are rare, though they have been known to happen.

Yet, it must be understood that there are various degrees of possession, in the same way that there are various degrees of relationship with the demonic. Contrary to what many films indicate, demonic possession is not a disease that spreads like the common cold, which can be contracted simply through close proximity to one who is possessed.

Rather, demonic possession is typically an advanced stage in a relationship that was willfully entered into when the victim began to dabble in the occult and grows as the demon leads its new prey into a greater fascination with and dependence on occult practices and in the end, on the demon itself.

Thus, as this parasitic relationship grows, the victim gives more and more of himself over to the demonic realm and the more intense the possession becomes. In many cases, the friends and family of the victim are able to sense that something is “not right” before the possession has reached a state requiring the intense exorcisms depicted in the film.

More frequently the victim will receive a series of exorcisms over the course of weeks or even months that gradually, with personal prayer and reception of the sacraments, dissolve the bonds between the demon and its host.

Ordinary ways Satan works

Finally, in its focus on the extreme and extraordinary cases of demonic activity, the film fails to mention the ordinary way in which Satan’s minions go about their business. Many of us may think that since we have never been possessed, we need not worry about the demonic world. No doubt this is what our enemy would like us to think.

The ordinary and usual way in which we encounter demonic activity is through the universal experience of temptation. It must be stated, though, that not all temptation to sin comes from supernatural forces; rather, temptation can also originate in ourselves and the world.

While temptations whose origins lie in the demonic sphere are difficult to distinguish from the other two, the ability to make this distinction is not all that necessary. More important is knowing that no matter the precise origin of temptation, it can be resisted by the grace of God.

The sinister plot of the evil one is to distance us from God and to gradually pull us into its own diabolic fate. The ordinary way in which the fallen angels seek to accomplish this is by tempting us to sin.

We have help to resist attacks

Are we then left alone and unaided against these attacks? By no means! On the contrary, all the Christian faithful already have an indelible relationship with Jesus Christ, Lord of the cosmos, through the sacrament of Baptism.

Every time we bless ourselves with holy water upon entering a church or genuflect to the Most Holy Eucharist, we renew and strengthen our relationship with Christ, rejecting Satan and all his works.

As long as we make frequent use of the many weapons we have — such as the sacraments, sacramentals, prayer, fasting, and works of charity — we need not fear hell’s wrath. Since these many graces in the Church act as a kind of preventative medicine maintaining our relationship with Christ, we have more to fear from one venial sin than all the demonic possession in the world.

The entire purpose of exorcism is to restore the victim’s wounded relationship with Christ and return them to the frequent reception of the sacraments and regular life of prayer. Therefore, our best defense against the demonic realm is to make use of these weapons with a fervent faith, unfailing zeal, and Christian fortitude.

Next week’s article: What The Rite got right.

Paul Matenaer holds a M.T.S. from Ave Maria University, teaches for the Seat of Wisdom Diocesan Institute in the Diocese of Madison, and is currently studying canon law at St. Paul University in Ottawa, Ontario.