The title of this blog post itself speaks to a certain cultural bias that I am trying to counter: the notion that well educated people cannot believe in something like demonic possession and exorcisms. This is one of the great tragedies of modern society and even of — I regret to say — many circles of contemporary Catholic culture: there has been such a lost sense of the spiritual realm — of the supernatural and paranormal — that many do not believe in the devil or his actions anymore—this, alongside skepticism about miracles and healings—works of God which I, and many, have had the privilege of encountering in various ministries and life events.
I was so glad to see, therefore, that the Washington Post published a great article by Richard Gallagher, a psychiatrist and professor of clinical psychiatry at New York Medical College. The article is titled “As a Psychiatrist I Diagnose Mental Illness. And, Sometimes, Demonic Possession.” Dr. Gallagher has had the opportunity to assist Catholic exorcists in discerning the difference between mental illness and possession. He acknowledges that most cases are, in fact, connected to mental illness but that some present evidence that speaks to something more, something that medical science cannot fully explain.
Here is a section from the Washington Post article:
I’m a man of science and a lover of history; after studying the classics at Princeton, I trained in psychiatry at Yale and in psychoanalysis at Columbia. That background is why a Catholic priest had asked my professional opinion, which I offered pro bono, about whether this woman was suffering from a mental disorder. This was at the height of the national panic about Satanism. (In a case that helped induce the hysteria, Virginia McMartin and others had recently been charged with alleged Satanic ritual abuse at a Los Angeles preschool; the charges were later dropped.) So I was inclined to skepticism.
But my subject’s behavior exceeded what I could explain with my training. She could tell some people their secret weaknesses, such as undue pride. She knew how individuals she’d never known had died, including my mother and her fatal case of ovarian cancer. Six people later vouched to me that, during her exorcisms, they heard her speaking multiple languages, including Latin, completely unfamiliar to her outside of her trances. This was not psychosis; it was what I can only describe as paranormal ability. I concluded that she was possessed. Much later, she permitted me to tell her story.
Reading Dr. Gallagher’s article it becomes clear that he is not a man looking to prove possession. He acknowledges two extremes – those who, through a rationalistic ideology, cannot acknowledge any form of possession and those who attribute possession to any case. Most Catholic exorcists are the biggest skeptics: they seek psychiatric expertise, and thus the work of people like Dr. Gallagher, to make sure that mental illness is not involved before even going through an exorcism.
This is an incredibly insightful article — a very rare topic to be published by a major secular paper like the Washington Post — that I recommend highly. The devil is real, demonic possession is real, as is the supernatural power of Christ through the rite of exorcism that defeats the enemy.