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Demoniacal Possession

Man is in various ways subject to the influence of evil spirits

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Possession, DEMONIACAL.—Man is in various ways subject to the influence of evil spirits. By original sin he brought himself into “captivity under the power of him who thence [from the time of Adam‘s transgression] had the empire of death, that is to say, the Devil” (Council of Trent, Sess. V, de pecc. orig., 1), and was through the fear of death all his lifetime subject to servitude (Heb., ii, 15) . Even though redeemed by Christ, he is subject to violent temptation: “for our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places” (Eph., vi, 12). But the influence of the demon, as we know from Scripture and the history of the Church, goes further still. He may attack man’s body from without (obsession), or assume control of it from within (possession). As we gather from the Fathers and the theologians, the soul itself can never be “possessed” nor deprived of liberty, though its ordinary control over the members of the body may be hindered by the obsessing spirit (cf. St. August, “De sp. et an.”, 27; St. Thomas, “In II Sent.”, d. VIII, Q. i; Ribet, “La mystique divine”, Paris, 1883, pp. 190 sqq.).

CASES OF POSSESION.—Among the ancient pagan nations diabolical possession was frequent (Maspero, “Hist. anc. des peuples de I’Orient”, 41; Lenormant, “La magie chez les Chaldeens”), as it is still among their successors (Ward, “History of the Hindoos”, v., I, 2; Roberts, “Oriental Illustrations of the Scriptures”; Doolittle, “Social Life of the Chinese”). In the Old Testament we have only one instance, and even that is not very certain. We are told that “an evil spirit from the Lord troubled” Saul (I Kings, xvi, 14). The Hebrew word ràah need not imply a personal influence, though, if we may judge from Josephus (Ant. Jud., VI, viii, 2; ii, 2), the Jews were inclined to give the word that meaning in this very case. In New-Testament times, however, the phenomenon had become very common. The victims were sometimes deprived of sight and speech (Matt., xii, 22), sometimes of speech alone (Matt., ix, 32; Luke, xi, 14), sometimes afflicted in ways not clearly specified (Luke, viii, 2), while, in the greater number of cases, there is no mention of any bodily affliction beyond the possession itself (Matt., iv, 24; viii, 16; 22; Mark, i, 32, 34, 39; iii, 11; vii, 25; Luke, iv, 41; vi, 18; vii, 21; viii, 2). The effects are described in various passages. A young man is possessed of a spirit “who, wheresoever he taketh him, dasheth him, and he foameth, and gnasheth with his teeth, and pineth away, . and oftentimes hath he [the spirit] cast him into the fire and into waters to destroy him” (Mark, ix, 17, 21). The possessed are sometimes gifted with superhuman powers: “a man with an unclean spirit, who had his dwelling in the tombs, and no man now could bind him, not even with chains. For having been often bound with fetters and chains, he had burst the chains, and broken the fetters in pieces, and no one could tame him” (Mark, v, 2-4). Some of the unfortunate victims were controlled by several demons (Matt., xii, 43, 45; Mark, xv, xvi, 9; Luke, xi, 24-26) in one case by so many that their name was Legion (Mark, v, 9; Luke, viii, 30). Yet, evil as the possessing spirits were, they could not help testifying to Christ’s Divine mission (Matt., viii, 29; Mark, i, 24, 34; iii, 12; v, 7; Luke, iv, 34, 41; viii, 28). And they continued to do so after His Ascension (Acts, xvi, 16-18).

The history of the early Church is filled with instances of similar diabolical agency. A quotation from Tertullian will suffice to bring before us the prevalent conviction. Treating of true and false divinity, he addresses the pagans of his time: “Let a person be brought before your tribunals who is plainly under demoniacal possession. The wicked spirit, bidden speak by the followers of Christ, will as readily make the truthful confession that he is a demon as elsewhere he has falsely asserted that he is a god” (Apolog., tr. Edinburgh, p. 23). The facts associated with possession prove, he says, beyond question the diabolical source of the influence—”What clearer proof than a work like that? What more trustworthy than such a proof? The simplicity of truth is thus set forth: its own worth sustains it; no ground remains for the least suspicion. Do you say that it is done by magic or by some trick of the sort? You will not say anything of the sort if you have been allowed the use of your ears and eyes. For what argument can you bring against a thing that is exhibited to the eye in its naked reality?” And the Christians expel by a word: “All the authority and power we have over them is from our naming of the name of Christ and recalling to their memories the woes with which God threatens them at the hands of Christ as Judge and which they expect one day to overtake them. Fearing Christ in God and God in Christ, they become subject to the servants of God and Christ. So at our touch and breathing, overwhelmed by the thought and realization of those judgment fires, they leave at our command the bodies they have entered.” Statements of this kind embody the views of the Church as a whole, as is evident from the facts, that various councils legislated on the proper treatment of the possessed, that parallel with the public penance for catechumens and fallen Christians there was a course of discipline for the energumens also, and, finally, that the Church established a special order of exorcists (cf. Martigny, “Dict. des antiq. chret.”, Paris, 1877, p. 312).

All through the Middle Ages councils continued to discuss the matter: laws were passed, and penalties decreed, against all who invited the influence of the Devil or utilized it to inflict injury on their fellowmen (cf. the Bulls of Innocent VIII, 1484; Julius II, 1504; and Adrian VI, 1523); and powers of exorcism were conferred on every priest of the Church. The phenomenon was accepted as real by all Christians. The records of criminal investigations alone in which charges of witchcraft or diabolical possession formed a prominent part would fill volumes. The curious may consult such works as Des Mousseaux, “Pratiques des demons” (Paris, 1854), or Thiers, “Superstitions”, I, or, from the Rationalistic point of view, Lecky, “Rise and Influence of Rationalism in Europe“, I, 1-138, and, for later instances, Constans, “Relation sur une epidemie d’hystero-demonopathie” (Paris, 1863). And though at the present day among civilized races the cases of diabolical possession are few, the phenomena of Spiritism, which offer many striking points of resemblance, have come to take their place (cf. Pauvert, “La vie de N. S. Jesus-Christ”, I, p. 226; Raupert, “The Dangers of Spiritualism“, London, 1906; Lepicier, “The Unseen World”, London, 1906; Miller, “Sermons on Modern Spiritualism“, London, 1908). And if we may judge from the accounts furnished by the pioneers of the Faith in missionary countries, the evidences of diabolical agency there are almost as clear and defined as they were in Galilee in the time of Christ (cf. Wilson, “Western Africa“, 217; Waffelaert in the “Dict. apol. de la foi cath.”, Paris, 1889, s.v. Possession diabol.).

II. REALITY OF THE PHENOMENON.—The infidel policy on the question is to deny the possibility of possession in any circumstances, either on the supposition, that there are no evil spirits in existence, or that they are powerless to influence the human body in the manner described. It was on this principle that, according to Lecky, the world came to disbelieve in witchcraft: men did not trouble to analyse the evidence that could be produced in its favor; they simply decided that the testimony must be mistaken because “they came gradually to look upon it as absurd” (op. cit., p. 12). And it is by this same a priori principle, we believe, that Christians who try to explain away the facts of possession are unconsciously influenced. Though put forward once as a commonplace by leaders of materialistic thought, there is a noticeable tendency of late years not to insist upon it so strongly in view of the admission made by competent scientific inquirers that many of the manifestations of Spiritism cannot be explained by human agency (cf. Miller, op. cit., 7-9). But whatever view Rationalists may ultimately adopt, for a sincere believer in the Scriptures there can be no doubt that there is such a thing as possession possible. And if he is optimistic enough to hold that in the present order of things God would not allow the evil spirits to exercise the powers they naturally possess, he might open his eyes to the presence of sin and sorrow in the world, and recognize that God causes the sun to shine on the just and the unjust and uses the powers of evil to promote His own wise and mysterious purposes (cf. Job, passim; Mark v, 19).

That mistakes were often made in the diagnosis of cases, and results attributed to diabolical agency that were really due to natural causes, we need have no hesitation in admitting. But it would be illogical to conclude that the whole theory of possession rests on imposture or ignorance. The abuse of a system gives us no warrant to denounce the system itself. Strange phenomena of nature have been wrongly regarded as miraculous, but the detection of the error has left our belief in real miracles intact. Men have been wrongly convicted of murder, but that does not prove that our reliance on evidence is essentially unreasonable or that no murder has ever been committed. A Catholic is not asked to accept all the cases of diabolical possession recorded in the history of the Church, nor even to form any definite opinion on the historical evidence in favor of any particular case. That is primarily a matter for historical and medical science (cf. Delrio, “Disq. msg. libri sex”, 1747; Alexander, “Demon. Possession in the N. T.”, Edinburgh, 1902). As far as theory goes, the real question is whether possession has ever occurred in the past, and whether it is not, therefore, possible that it may occur again. And while the cumulative force of centuries of experience is not to be lightly disregarded, the main evidence will be found in the action and teaching of Christ Himself as revealed in the inspired pages of the New Testament, from which it is clear that any attempt to identify possession with natural disease is doomed to failure.

In classical Greek daimonan, it is true, means “to be mad” (cf. Eurip., “Pheen.”, 888; Xenophon, “Memor.”, I, i, ix; Plutarch, “Marc.”, xxiii), and a similar meaning is conveyed by the Gospel phrase daimonion echein, when the Pharisees use it of Christ (Matt., xi, 18; John, vii, 20; viii, 48), especially in John, x, 20, where they say “He hath a devil, and is mad” (daimonion echei, kai mainetai); daimonan, however, is not the word used by the sacred writers. Their word is daimonizesthai, and the meanings given to it previously by profane writers (“to be subject to an appointed fate”; Philemon, “Incert.”, 981; “to be deified”; Sophocles, “Fr.”, 180) are manifestly excluded by the context and the facts. The demoniacs were often afflicted with other maladies as well, but there is surely nothing improbable in the view of Catholic theologians that the demons often afflicted those who were already diseased, or that the very fact of obsession or possession produced these diseases as a natural consequence (cf. Job, ii, 7; Gorres, “Die christ. mystik”, iv; Lesetre in “Dict. de la Bible“, s.v. Demoniaques). Natural disease and possession are in fact clearly distinguished by the Evangelists: “He cast out the spirits with his word: and all that were sick he healed” (Matt., viii, 16). “They brought to him all that were ill and that were possessed with devils … and he healed many that were troubled with divers diseases; and he cast out many devils” (Mark i, 32, 34); and the distinction is shown more clearly in the Greek: pantas tous kakos echontas kai tous daimonizomenous.

A favorite assertion of the Rationalists is that lunacy and paralysis were often mistaken for possession. St. Matthew did not think so, for he tells us that “they presented to him all sick people that were taken with divers diseases [poikilais nosois] and torments [basanois], and such as were possessed by devils [daimonizomenous], and lunatics [seleniazomenous], and those who had the palsy [paralutikous], and he cured them” (iv, 24). And the circumstances that attended the cures point in the same direction. In the case of ordinary diseases they were effected quietly and without violence. Not so always with the possessed. The evil spirits passed into lower animals with dire results (Matt., viii, 32), or cast their victim on the ground (Luke, iv, 35) or, “crying out, and greatly tearing him, went out of him, and he became as dead, so that many said: He is dead” (Mark, ix, 25; cf. Vigouroux, “Les livres saints et la crit. rationaliste”, Paris, 1891).

Abstracting altogether from the fact that these passages are themselves inspired, they prove that the Jews of the time regarded these particular manifestations as due to a diabolical source. This was surely a matter too closely connected with Christ’s own Divine mission to be lightly passed over as one on which men might, without much inconvenience from the religious point of view, be allowed to hold erroneous opinions. If, therefore, possession were merely a natural disease and the general opinion of the time based on a delusion, we might expect that Christ would have proclaimed the correct doctrine as He did when His followers spoke of the sin of the man born blind (John, ix, 2, 3), or when Nicodemus misunderstood His teaching on the necessity of being born again in Baptism (ibid., iii, 3, 4). So far from correcting the prevalent conviction, He approved and encouraged it by word and action. He addressed the evil spirits, not their victims; told His disciples how the evil spirit acted when cast out (Matt., xii, 44, 45; Luke, xi, 24-26), taught them why they had failed to exorcize (Matt., xvii, 19); warned the seventy-two disciples against glorying in the fact that the demons were subject to them (Luke, x, 17-20). He even conferred express powers on the Apostles “over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all manner of diseases, and all manner of infirmities” (Matt., x, 1; Mark, vi, 7; Luke, ix, 1), and, immediately before His Ascension, enumerated the signs that would proclaim the truth of the revelation His followers were to preach to the world: “In my name they shall cast out devils: they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they shall drink any deadly thing it shall not hurt them: they shall lay hands on the sick and they shall recover” (Mark, xvi, 17-18). Thus does the expulsion of demons become so closely bound up with other miracles of the Christian dispensation as to hardly permit of separation.

The problem, therefore, that confronts us is this: If a belief so intimately connected in Christ’s own mind with the mission He came to accomplish was based on a delusion, why did He not correct it? Why rather encourage it? Only two answers appear possible. Either He was ignorant of a religious truth, or He deliberately gave instructions that He knew to be false—instructions that misled His followers, and that were eminently calculated, as indeed the issue proved, to have very serious consequences, often of a most painful and deplorable kind, in the whole subsequent history of the Church He founded. No Catholic can dream of admitting either of the explanations. The theory of accommodation formulated by Winer (“Biblisches Realworterbuch”, Leipzig, 1833) may at once be dismissed (see Demoniacs). Accommodation understood as the toleration of harmless illusions having little or no connection with religion might perhaps be allowed; in the sense of deliberate inculcation of religious error, we find it very hard to associate it with high moral principle, and entirely impossible to reconcile it with the sanctity of Christ. Why possession should manifest itself in one country rather than another, why it should have been so common in the time of Christ and so comparatively rare in our own, why even in Palestine it should have been confined almost entirely to the province of Galilee are questions on which theologians have speculated but on which no sure conclusion can ever be reached (cf. Delitzch, “Sys. der biblis. Psychol.”, Leipzig, 1861; Lesetre, op. cit.; Jeiler in “Kirchenlexikon”, II, s.v. “Besessene”; St. August, X, xxii, De civ. Dei, 10, 22). The phenomenon itself is preternatural; a humanly scientific explanation is, therefore, impossible. But it might fairly be expected, we think, that since Christ came to overthrow the empire of Satan, the efforts of the powers of darkness should have been concentrated at the period of His earthly life, and should have been felt especially in the province where, with the exception of a few brief visits to neighboring lands, His private and public life was passed. (See .)


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