By Michael Miner
The on-line Catholic Encyclopedia tells us that the Christian rite of exorcism must be held distinct from the "magical and superstitious means" long employed by "ethnic religions, savage and civilized," to drive off "evil spirits"--no matter the many superficial similarities.
It tells us that the Catholic exorcist should avoid "everything that savours of superstition, and should leave the medical aspects of the case to qualified physicians." He should be "vested in surplice, and violet stole." He should perform his work in the presence of witnesses, especially, "as a matter of precaution, in case the subject is a woman."
And unfortunately for the ambitious reporter in search of a career-making interview, "All idle and curious questioning of the demon should be avoided."
Despite this discouragement, exorcism is a topic with which the press occasionally becomes obsessed. Consider these headlines: "Exercises in Exorcism," Christianity Today. "Exorcism Frenzy," Newsweek. "Exorcism: Is It for Real?" Christianity Today. "Exorcist: the Roman Catholic Rite," Newsweek. "Who Believes in Exorcism?" Christianity Today. "Devil and the Priest," Saturday Evening Post. "Sexorcist," New York Times Magazine.
These articles were all published back in 1974, in an era when the line between pop culture and hard news was still faintly legible. They appeared on the heels of the first release of the Paramount thriller The Exorcist.
The movie has just been rereleased. Journalism hasn't changed much.
I asked onetime Reader staff writer Robert McClory to describe the status of exorcism in today's Catholic Church. (A former priest, McClory is instructed in the rite, which in his youth was studied by every seminarian--it is no longer.) "At one time the church was fraught with this kind of stuff--the burning of heretics, the belief in possession and evil spirits and witches flying through the air," said McClory. "A lot of Catholics--and the church itself--have said, 'We don't believe in this kind of possession by the devil. Even if you think it's possible--and you're really not obliged to--it's very, very rare.' Officially, the church has said that. So to make such a big deal out of it on George's part strikes many Catholics as moving backwards, into a mind-set that's largely superstition and folk religion."
McClory was speaking of Cardinal George's appointment of a priest to act as archdiocesan exorcist. To be fair to the cardinal, the appointment was made quietly. Nevertheless, the other day it exploded into a headline.
The front page of the Sun-Times of September 19 screamed "Archdiocese Gets Exorcist" in type suitable for "World at War!" (If Rupert Murdoch still owned the Sun-Times the paper wouldn't have pussyfooted around. The front page would have said it straight out: "Chicago Declares War on Devil.")
There was a curious dissonance between the banner headline and the stories that purportedly justified it. Religion writer Ernest Tucker's reporting was sober and nuanced. "The church retains a skepticism about this," said the Reverend Robert Barron, an archdiocesan theologian. The Reverend Eugene Lauer of the Catholic Theological Union allowed that American Catholics are split down the middle as to whether the devil exists. Even celebrity exorcist James LeBar emphasized that exorcism is a rite of last resort, to be considered only if conventional therapies fail.
A smartly conceived sidebar by Brenda Warner Rotzoll brought in Martin Marty to discuss exorcism's pagan antecedents. Rotzoll drew an analogy with the Chinese practice of lighting strings of firecrackers at New Year's "to drive away demons and ensure happiness and prosperity."
And we learned from Tucker that the archdiocesan exorcist hadn't performed a single exorcism, though he'd been on the job for almost a year.
In short, the Sun-Times broke a story that, on the basis of its own reporting, arguably had no hard news value whatsoever. But when reporting falls short, a sprightly headline can always make up the difference. One Sun-Times reader gagged at the front page and then called me wondering how much Paramount Pictures had paid the newspaper for the publicity.
Unfortunately for the freewheeling captains of journalism, readers do know when their chains are being jerked. Surely Catholics aware of the profound skepticism within their own ranks assumed upon spotting the extravagant banner that notoriously skeptical journalists were laughing up their sleeve. Sun-Times staffers were laughing--but less at the church than at their own paper's cheesy opportunism.
Believe it or not, when Tucker set to work on the exorcism story he had no idea that Paramount was about to rerelease The Exorcist. Last June he'd spotted a piece in the weekly National Catholic Register about a boom in exorcisms. Might make a story, he mused. Inevitably the piece quoted the Reverend James LeBar of New York, who'd performed an exorcism for 20/20 back in 1991 and has emerged as the popularizer who never says no to an interview. Tucker talked to LeBar to get up to speed on the subject, then went to work looking for the mandatory local angle. Archdiocesan sources told him that Cardinal George now had his own man. But the cardinal's exorcist, unlike LeBar, had no interest in being interviewed or even identified.
And there the story rested, on Tucker's back burner, until he heard "vague drumbeats" that the movie was coming. This news gave Tucker what every reporter needs--a motive to get something done. Since Chicago's exorcist wouldn't make himself available, Tucker proposed, and the archdiocese accepted, an expedient: he'd submit written questions to the exorcist through an intermediary.
"There was no top-down pressure on me to get that story at all," says Tucker. "I can say that unequivocally. There was no deadline other than the one I created for myself."
Once his superiors had his copy in hand, they knew what to do with it. You could say the packaging subverted Tucker's sober reporting, but you could just as easily say the reverse. Or you could simply say the Sun-Times will do whatever it takes to capture readers. At any rate, no one was more keenly aware of the nonsense the paper had committed than its own staffers.
New page-two columnist Mark Brown jumped on the subject and came up with a terrific angle. Beneath the impudent headline "Getting to the crux of exorcism," Brown alluded to the "interesting story under a rather large headline" that had just appeared in his own paper and covered his backside by noting that "this is a touchy subject for a columnist" and he meant no offense to Catholics "who may see the rite of exorcism as an important part of their faith." Then he had his fun. He told us that one of his editors, a former seminarian, had just revealed that he was technically an exorcist himself, having (like McClory) received the minor order of exorcist during his studies for the priesthood. "They never really told us how to do it," said the editor.
Which got Brown to thinking of local Democratic Party luminaries who'd also put in time in a seminary. He was able to reach one of them, county assessor James Houlihan. "I am a truly ordained exorcist," Houlihan acknowledged. But he resisted Brown's invitation to provide entertainment by speculating on the political advantages of this unusual skill.
The editorial page met its obligation to weigh in--a tricky exercise. The editorial--headlined "He doesn't always wear number 666"--needed to take the matter seriously without sounding hopelessly credulous. "It may seem odd to some," it said, speaking of George's appointment. "But is it really?" Without ever quite answering the question, the editorial woolgathered, reminding us that we remain "unable to grasp the nature of unspeakable evil" and that "the conflict between the forces of darkness and the light of hope is chronicled each day in this newspaper and is even the plot of our daily lives."
After more of this blather, the editorial page put a sock in it. "In the battle between Good and Evil, it doesn't hurt to have a designated hitter," it concluded, giving up the pretense of serious thought. "After all, the way some people act, even atheists must be tempted to believe they have the devil in them."
Jack Higgins tossed off an editorial cartoon. "In the name of God--get out!" commanded the expunger of evil. But Higgins's exorcist was standing beside the Bears huddle, and he was talking to Cade McNown.
Across the land, envious editors read the Sun-Times story. A spokesman for the Chicago archdiocese tells me that dioceses all over the country began fielding calls from local reporters: If Chicago has an exorcist and New York has an exorcist--well, what about us? Of course The Exorcist wasn't about to open only in Chicago.
In an eerie display of synchronicity, a few days before Tucker's story broke, Pope John Paul II had attempted an impromptu exorcism of a hysterical young woman who'd been screaming insults at him in Rome. The return of the movie guaranteed the incident headlines everywhere.
"Odd as the story may sound," said Time magazine last week, "it is the third reported instance of John Paul's attempting to cast out a demon....At a time when official exorcists are being added by several American dioceses, it suggests a remarkable comeback for an all-but-abandoned church rite." The way Time saw it, The Exorcist was returning to theaters "as if to illustrate the trend."
"The devil is real," Father LeBar told Time.
Newsweek also interviewed LeBar and posted the conversation on its Web site. What will happen to that girl who tormented the pope? asked the magazine. "I imagine she'll have her exorcisms until the demon is driven out," said LeBar. "Some cases take a very long time. Demons are very stubborn."
LeBar claims to have performed about 40 exorcisms. Newsweek asked him if The Exorcist was phenomenologically on the money. "Much of what's in there I've seen," LeBar replied. "I've never seen any high levitation though. I've never seen any spitting up of material." What LeBar had encountered was "the great strength...the talking in different languages...the hatred in the Devil's voice."
The press appreciates experts who refuse to sensationalize. As far as levitation goes, LeBar also told Time, he'd witnessed nothing more extreme than a woman who "rose up above pew level and stayed there a little bit and went back down."
"What magician?" I'd asked a Sun-Times reporter for a reaction to the day's front page, the one with the picture at the top of a guy in a tux pulling a number seven card out of a hat and the headlines "This Guy Can Make the Indians Vanish" and "The Sun-Times official baseball magician tracks magic number. Sports"--tomfoolery that was seriously encroaching on the masthead.
Certainly no one had missed the big exorcism story two days earlier. But somehow this reporter didn't notice the magician. The explanation I was given was that Sun-Times reporters have acquired the ability to look without seeing, the knack of flipping blindly past the front page to pages two and three, where nine times out of ten there's some serious news.
But I'm not sure I believe this. If everyone's in such a state of denial about the high jinks on page one, what explains the call I got last Friday? Its purpose was to alert me to the Sun-Times's latest front page, which had the newsroom hooting.
This was the edition whose masthead was not just infringed on but partially obscured by Homer Simpson and Jerry Springer. Below the masthead were two conspicuous headlines. "Americans Get Abortion Pill," said one of them. Below it the other announced, "Marion Takes Two."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Werner.