Booting the Devil: A Brief History of Exorcism

Exorcism went out of fashion after the Enlightenment, but is now back in style.

BY: John L. Allen Jr.

The first mention of “exorcist” as an office in the church comes in a letter of Pope Cornelius in 253. In early medieval liturgies, according to historian Jeffrey Burton Russell, three kinds of exorcisms were common: exorcism of objects (such as houses), of candidates for baptism, and of people believed possessed by demons. In many parts of Europe, medieval rites of exorcism included not only a renunciation of the devil but also of pre-Christian deities such as Thor and Wotan.

The office of exorcist continued as a “minor order,” a step on the road to priesthood, until 1972, when Paul VI suppressed this order. Canon law once specified that each diocesan bishop must designate an exorcist, but with the revision of the code in 1983 that requirement was dropped. As a practical matter, most observers say, the use of exorcism declined sharply under the impact of the Enlightenment, Western rationalism, and advances in the science of mental health.

With the Catholic charismatic renewal in the late 1960s, however, belief in spirits, miracles, healings, and exorcism began to make a comeback in mainstream Christian churches, including Roman Catholicism. The charismatic renewal seeks to invigorate the “charisms” or “gifts of the Spirit” mentioned in the New Testament, such as healing, prophecy, and speaking in tongues. Some charismatic groups also stress deliverance from evil spirits.

Evil spirits and possession remain firmly entrenched in official Catholic doctrine. In January 1999, the Vatican issued a new ritual for exorcism, the first update since 1614. Pope John Paul II himself has performed at least one exorcism,…. Click Here to read the rest of the story on


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