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A Tale of Two Exorcisms

Tom Nash

Chris MacNeil oughta know better, having seen how her daughter suffered previously under the devil’s diabolical dominion.

“I may not have witnessed the exorcism,” she recalls, “but I sure as all hell witnessed the possession.”

Pun intended.

And though she didn’t see the emancipation of young Regan back in the original day of The Exorcist, Chris knew darn well it was Jesus Christ working through two Catholic priests that freed her daughter from the demonic, as so well depicted in the 1973 cinematic classic, a film for which Ellen Burstyn (Chris) should’ve won the Oscar for Best Actress.

So why, in the interim between the events of that movie and those of 2023’s The Exorcist: Believer, would Chris need ten years to study all kinds of religious rituals when God had blessed her in knowing that Jesus is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), that “the power of Christ [successfully] compels” demons to leave a possessed person, and that the Lord has specially commissioned the Catholic hierarchy to perform this ministry? Heck, even the late, great movie critic Roger Ebert understood “this preeminence” of the Catholic clergy.

So Chris oughta know, especially when facing down the devil by herself, that nebulous invocations of the divine are the spiritual equivalent of bringing a butter knife to a gun fight. “In the name of all holy beings, in the name of my beloved daughter Regan,” she commands in the sequel, “release this child!” Not surprisingly, Chris gets savagely beaten and nearly blinded in her ill-fated attempt as an itinerant exorcist (see Acts 19:11–17).

Funny how a movie that stakes out a religiously egalitarian, strength-in-numbers approach to exorcism, complete with a noted anti-Catholic bias, ends up affirming real religious truth in spite of itself.

That affirmation of truth includes the portrayal of Fr. Maddox, a pious Hispanic priest who unsuccessfully seeks diocesan approval to exorcise the two adolescent girls who’ve become possessed while dabbling in divination (see CCC 2115–2117). Alas, a hierarchy apparently wearied from the clerical sexual abuse scandal again tries to do institutional damage control, instead of protecting the welfare of the most vulnerable.

“This is a very dangerous situation,” one priest says.

“Dangerous for you, Father,” says another.

“Dangerous for the Catholic Church,” adds a third.

And yet, like it or not, that “damn patriarchy”—as Chris describes the Catholic clergy, because they wouldn’t let her witness her daughter’s exorcism—has a divinely ordained ministry to do battle with the powers of evil. So when a disappointed Fr. Maddox goes rogue, deputing a never-professed-nun-turned-nurse (Ann Dowd) to perform the Roman Rite of Exorcism in his stead, it’s not surprising that the devil gets the best of her.

“The spiritual world is legalistic,” says Catholic lay demonologist Adam Blai. “There are rules just like there are laws in our world. God wrote the laws and God enforces them.” That means major exorcisms, ones involving demonic possession, “can be performed only by a priest and with the permission of the bishop” (CCC 1673, emphasis added).

Similarly, even though Father Maddox is an ordained priest, and even though he invokes the name of Jesus, his subsequent decision to confront Satan on his own—apart from the prescribed safeguards of Christ and his Church—results in his head-turning demise, in case any kids had thoughts of trying this at home.

“Having ‘power’ or ‘authority’ are dangerous ideas because they inflate the ego and lead people to pride about their imagined greatness,” says Blai. “This is exactly what the devil wants because then they are likely to overstep their bounds.”

Though the new movie does some things well, including strong performances from Leslie Odom, Jr. and Dowd, its aversion to the Catholic themes that made the original film great have affirmed “the preeminence” of the Church in other ways detrimental to the sequel. People know the real thing when they see it, and so The Exorcist: Believer has had only modest success at the box office and lacked critical and audience acclaim.

In contrast, The Exorcist remains one of the highest-grossing films of all time (adjusted for inflation), and a favorite of critics and viewers alike.

For more on both movies, especially the original and including Tom’s constructive disclaimers on the film, listen to his Catholic Answers Focus interview with Cy Kellett.

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