THE BLOG
05/13/2014 12:07 pm ET Updated Jul 13, 2014

Catholic Demon-Making

Duncan Walker via Getty Images

There's been a lot of talk about the devil and the Catholic church recently. The Vatican recently concluded its annual conference on exorcism. The Catholic arch-diocese of Boston protested a reenactment of a Satanic black mass at Harvard University, apparently successfully enough so that it was moved to an undisclosed location. Pope Francis, for his part, has a long public history of talking explicitly about the devil, including his well-known comments during his tenure in Buenos Aires that gay marriage was a "machination of the Father of Lies."

As a Catholic myself, I do think that something potentially very dangerous is going on.

And the devil is in the details.

Professionally and personally, I do know something about exorcism. I even performed an exorcism myself -- albeit under duress. Twenty years ago, I was doing my Ph.D. research among Catholic faith healers in India. I was recording an exchange between a Catholic exorcist and a possessed woman when the exorcist left the room and pointed to me saying, "He'll finish the job." Not knowing what else to do, I laid hands on the woman, who subsequently barked like a dog and then gave me a smile before she left the room.

I wrote about this incident for an academic journal -- not to hang out my shingle as the professor who deals with devils, but to explore a dilemma common to anthropologists who become entangled with their research in unexpected and sometimes disturbing ways. But as much as I took an academic perspective on the incident, I did feel at once empowered and embarrassed; empowered because I felt connected -- embarrassed because it all seemed so crazy.

Of course, I wasn't performing the Roman Rite of Exorcism -- the proper way to exorcise demons that the Vatican is teaching and promoting. And that's part of the reason why the Rome has become more concerned with how exorcism is done. There's been too much freelancing going on, particularly in South Asia and Africa where lay-Catholic exorcists have been at least as prominent as their priestly counter-parts and where Catholic varieties of casting out demons mesh quite nicely with well-established cultural expectations and practices.

As much as exorcism might be about casting out demons, it's really about bringing back the priest.

That's certainly part of what's going on with the upsurge in the interest in exorcism among many American Catholics.

A couple of years ago, I attended a conference during which a Catholic priest fielded all sorts of questions about supernatural occurrences occurring at people's homes -- things like furniture being rearranged and strange voices calling out at odd hours of the night.

The priest had a consistent message to the concerned Catholics who had assembled: Call the diocese; let the professionals handle it.

It all reminded me of Ghostbusters, and I found it rather comforting that my fellow Catholics could call their local diocese for help. In my experience, Catholic dioceses rarely return phone calls unless you owe them money for a marriage or burial. The battle against evil thus brings with it the return of a particular kind of Catholic community, with the priest as the intrepid warrior.

But during the conference, there was another question -- one that moved beyond the concern about noises in the dark.

"Is the Buddha a demon?" asked one woman.

The priest seemed flummoxed -- evidently he couldn't recall documents of Vatican II that spoke highly of Buddhism and Buddhists. The anxiety in the room was palpable -- anxiety about the different, the unknown, the new.

That kind of anxiety is at the root of the most recent kerfuffle concerning the reenactment of a Satanic ritual at Harvard University.

It's easy enough to say that Satanists might seem rather threatening to Catholics, especially because a black mass mocks that which Catholics hold most precious. But it's also the case that many Catholic -- myself include -- are struggling with their own inner demons. Buffeted by the sexual abuse scandal and an increasing secular culture, Catholics are ever anxious about whether and where they can fit in.

Seeing the devil's hand behind human machinations can be a paradoxically comforting thought.

As a Catholic, I do believe that Satan exists and that there is something both intellectually and psychologically valuable in understanding evil as an objective force or entity. But I was also always taught that Lucifer was the most beautiful of the angels -- and that evil can come under the most beguiling and attractive forms. For this reason, we have to be very careful where we see the Devil. When you try to cast out demons, it's all too easy to conjure more in the process.