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In Theory: Can people be possessed?

November 24, 2010

In Theory Question: A group of Catholic bishops gathered in Baltimore last week to examine what scripture and canon law have to say about exorcism. According to CNN's Belief Blog, bishops will look at what the Bible says, "paying careful attention to how Jesus responded to evil spirits or demons in the New Testament," and clarify the rules to provide "a pastoral response with people who may or may not be having demonic activity," said Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Illinois, adding that priests and bishops need to use a great deal of pastoral discernment when dealing with someone requesting exorcism. "Is it a mental disease that can be diagnosed, or is it demonic activity, or even is the event both?" Paprocki asked.

What do you think? Does possession have a basis in reality? Do you think people can really be possessed, or is it all just hogwash, made up by those not taking their medication? What are your faith's formal teachings on the subject of exorcism and possession? And have you ever been witness to an exorcism or participated in one?

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Here's an atheist with something to confess: Fun and stimulating though it is, I worry about how long I can get away with writing for "In Theory" when, week after week, more fresh stuff that I don't believe in is revealed. Add to the list this week, demons, exorcisable or not.

Plus, once again, our task is to report on my faith's formal teaching on a given issue. Atheism does have a vast literature, leaders, and institutions, but even if we had churches, I would be singing in the congregation, and in the church basement helping with the good food and fellowship. I would not be in the pulpit.

So buckle up for an ex-Lutheran opining on exorcism without a license.

I am not so naïve as to deny the existence in us of bad thoughts leading to evil deeds, along with the good and loving. (I believe that this human psychology projected into the external world is religion, Sigmund Freud's words.) And I think we must be extremely careful not to toss around the word "hogwash" lightly, not with W's memoirs on the bestseller list and Sarah Palin's latest book due out tomorrow as I write this.

The Conference of Catholic Bishops seems to be approaching the matter of exorcism with care and reason. CNN's Belief Blog reports that the devils and evil spirits (which Bishop Thomas Paprocki describes as "supernatural") are to be first treated by a physician or psychologist.

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