Warning labels for Vatican stories, especially on exorcism

by John L. Allen Jr.

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The big news of the day has already been posted to the NCR Web site. See the story I filed earlier this morning: Vatican announces May 1 beatification for John Paul II

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We live in a world of warning labels, on cigarette packages, slippery floors, rear-view mirrors, and on and on. Whatever one makes of that, if labeling is to be the rule of the day, I hereby propose that any news item with the word "Vatican" in the headline carry the following proviso: "Warning: The following story may be bunk."

The suggestion is prompted by the latest bogus Vatican news cycle, in this case a flurry of stories last weekend reporting that the Vatican is collaborating with the U.S.-based Discovery Channel on a documentary series called "The Exorcist Files." Wire services and blogs quoted Discovery Channel President Clark Bunting to the effect that the network had secured exclusive insider access to the Vatican for the series, set to debut this spring, which allegedly would include "ride-alongs" with exorcists as they set out to combat demons.

It turns out, unsurprisingly, that the story is basically false. Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesperson, said that no Vatican office has received any request for access from the Discovery Channel, and hence "the Vatican" is not involved. (My favorite headline on the denial came in the Los Angeles Times, which said the Vatican "steps back" from the project. When exactly, one wonders, did they step into it?)

Pressed to comment, spokespersons at Discovery backpedaled. Here's the statement they released on Monday: "Discovery Channel's 'Exorcist Files' centers on the first person accounts of individual Catholic priests who have performed exorcisms and their experiences in doing so. Many of these stories are being told for the first time. We didn't intend to imply that we had an 'officially' sanctioned partnership. We have met in an unofficial capacity with members of the Vatican staff to ensure the accuracy and integrity of content we are creating for this show."

Earlier this week, a Discovery spokesperson declined my request to identify those "members of the Vatican staff."

Bottom line: There's no Vatican story here, just a conversation with unnamed persons which was over-hyped. (As a rule of thumb, any alleged Vatican scoop first reported in Entertainment Weekly probably deserves a second look.)

Though in itself it's a minor blip, the Discovery episode illustrates a chronic problem with what we might call "Vatican literacy." In a media environment in which the inner dynamics of the Vatican are a black hole, virtually anybody can claim a connection and be taken seriously. It's like playing six degrees of Kevin Bacon -- as long as the person or group can be linked to the Vatican in six moves or less, their opinions or activity become a Vatican story. Example: Fr. Insider studied at the Gregorian University in Rome, which grants pontifical degrees, which are approved by the Congregation for Catholic Education, which is a Vatican office -- hence if Father says his views on Britney Spears represent a Vatican position, it must be so.

While we wait for a higher degree of Vatican literacy to take hold -- and I wouldn't recommend holding your breath -- here are two cautions about the Vatican and exorcism you might want to remember when the "Exorcist Files" rolls out.

First, Italian Fr. Gabriele Amorth is not "the Vatican's exorcist" or "the pope's exorcist," despite countless instances in which he's been identified that way in print stories and radio and TV broadcasts over the years. (I don't know this for a fact, but I'd bet good money he'll be in the Discovery program.)

The 85-year-old Amorth is the most famous living exorcist in the Catholic Church. His 1994 memoirs, published in English under the title An Exorcist Tells His Story, became an instant classic, and Amorth is always great copy. Example: I interviewed him in 2000 for a cover story on a global revival in exorcism, and among other things, Amorth said he would refuse absolution to the vast majority of Catholic bishops because, in his view, they have not been faithful to Jesus' mandate to cast out demons.

Amorth is uniquely adept at recounting possession stories that make your toes curl, so he has become the obligatory reference in any story about the Catholic Church and exorcism. Fair enough, as he is a priest in good standing, honorary president for life of the International Association of Exorcists, and since 1986 has been authorized as an exorcist by the Diocese of Rome. A member of the Pauline order, he works out of a small office in the order's headquarters in Rome, receiving people who seek his help 365 days a year.

(By the way, even skeptics who strain at the idea of demonic combat ought to appreciate Amorth's more terrestrial heroism. At the age of 18, he enlisted in the anti-Nazi Italian partisan brigades under the code name "Alberto," and later received the Italian Medal of Military Valor.)

For the record, however, Amorth is not a Vatican official and does not carry out any Vatican-licensed activity. In fact, I doubt there's anyone on the planet more critical of the Vatican's approach to exorcism in recent years than Amorth.

When the Vatican issued a revised version of the ritual for exorcism in 1999, Amorth loudly objected that its rules prevent exorcisms to counteract "evil spells," such an curses or the evil eye, which he said account for 90 percent of the cases an exorcist faces. The rules also stipulate that exorcisms should only be conducted when there is "certainty" of demonic possession -- when in fact, Amorth insisted, you can only acquire that certainty by performing an exorcism.

In an interview with 30 Giorni magazine, Amorth bitterly complained that he had run into a "wall of refusal and disrespect" when he attempted to change the minds of Vatican officials, and said it was clear to him that the so-called experts who prepared the new ritual "don't have the least idea of what an exorcism really is."

To present Amorth as a "Vatican exorcist," therefore, is not only inaccurate, but in some ways Amorth himself might take offense.

Second, the Vatican does not have a "school" for exorcists, despite occasional news stories that tout an annual course at Rome's Regina Apostolorum University in precisely that fashion.

Regina Apostolorum, which is sponsored by the Legionaries of Christ and their lay branch Regnum Christi, has hosted a brief course each year since 2005 on "Exorcism and Prayer of Liberation." The sixth installment is set to take place from March 28 to April 2, 2011, co-sponsored by a private Bologna-based foundation called the "Group of Socio-Religious Research and Information" which tracks New Age religious movements and the occult.

Billed as an aid to bishops in the preparation of priests called to the ministry of exorcism, the course is also open to others interested in the subject, such as catechists, doctors and mental health workers, legal professionals, and so on. In addition to the exorcism ritual, the course examines Satanism and other expressions of the occult, especially among the young.

To be clear, the Vatican has no problem with the course. This year, for example, presenters are scheduled to include two Italian cardinals who hold important Vatican positions: Velasio de Paolis, President of the Prefecture of Economic Affairs for the Holy See (as well as Pope Benedict's delegate for reform of the Legionaries of Christ) and Angelo Comastri, Archpriest of St. Peter's Basilica.

Nevertheless, this is not a "Vatican" program, but rather a course offered by one of the numerous pontifical universities in Rome. Nobody is required by the Vatican to attend, it doesn't produce "hit squads" of Vatican exorcists, and one cannot automatically assume that every word uttered during the course represents the Vatican's take on things.

Those realities can be obscured by breathless news copy hyping the course as organized by a "Vatican-linked" or "Vatican-affiliated" institution.

Both cautions illustrate one core point: Not everything said or done in the Catholic church is tantamount to a Vatican initiative. To think otherwise is to succumb to an excessively "purple" ecclesiology, in which everything about the church begins and ends with its hierarchy, especially the Vatican.

For sure, the Catholic Church believes in the Devil and demonic possession, though most priests are cautious in evaluating any given claim. In today's post-modern spiritual supermarket, there is a rising interest in the supernatural, including the demonic -- one reason that the U.S. bishops recently conducted a training session on exorcism on the margins of their fall conference in Baltimore. Especially as Catholicism expands across the Southern hemisphere, where the spirit world is taken quite seriously indeed, the practice of exorcism is likely poised for expansion.

All of the above is fair game for reporting and commentary. Forewarned, however, is forearmed: not every story about "the Vatican" that comes down the pike is the real deal -- and that's hardly a caution that applies only when exorcism is at issue.

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Five other brief notes this week.

In the wake of Pope Benedict XVI's recent comments on condoms, I wrote a piece sketching the debate among some fairly conservative moral theologians over whether the use of a condom always adds an element of sin to any sexual act. On the side that would answer "yes" to that question, I listed Luke Gormally, former executive director of the Linacre Center in the U.K.; Steven Long of Ave Maria University; and Janet Smith of Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit. I contrasted their position with that of Opus Dei Fr. Martin Rhonheimer at Santa Croce University in Rome.

However, readers have called to my attention that Smith, in her response to Rhonheimer, did not commit to any position on the question of the morality of the use of condoms in cases involving sex outside of marriage. I regret giving the impression that she had.

It's also worth noting that Rhonheimer has a new book coming out next month from the Catholic University of America Press titled The Perspective of Morality: Philosophical Foundations of Thomistic Virtue Ethics. Under other circumstances the release might be of interest only to a narrow circle of theological initiates, but given the recent condoms flap, the book may well draw a wider audience.

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By now it's been widely reported that Egypt recalled its ambassador to the Holy See in protest over Pope Benedict XVI's address to diplomats on Monday, which is always his major foreign policy speech of the year. In it, Benedict condemned recent attacks on Christians in Egypt and insisted that governments do more to protect religious minorities. The Egyptian government complained that the pope had interfered in its internal affairs.

As that diplomatic fracas was unfolding, another attack occurred this week, this time on a train heading for Cairo from a predominantly Christian area of the country, in which an off-duty policeman shot and killed one Christian and injured five others. Though it was unclear if anti-Christian animus was the motive, many local Christians drew that conclusion, especially since the women injured in the attack were easily identifiable as non-Muslims because they weren't wearing head scarves. In response to the recent outbreak of violence, the BBC has reported that some Coptic Christians living in diaspora have floated the idea of an independent Coptic state in Egypt, similar to the anticipated autonomous state of southern Sudan.

All this suggests that for anyone seeking the next front line in the global debate over religious freedom and "Christianophobia," Egypt may well be it.

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Speaking of religious freedom issues in the Middle East, when Benedict XVI visited the Holy Land in 2009, he called, among other things, for greater freedom of movement for clergy between Israel and the Palestinian Territories. This week the annual "Holy Land Coordination," made up of European and North American bishops who visit the region once a year to express solidarity, completed its annual check-in, and the report is disappointing: To date, they say, the pope's words have fallen on deaf ears.

"We have once again been made painfully aware of the frustration felt by Catholic clergy and religious whose daily tasks are made increasingly difficult by restrictions on their movement," the bishops said in a statement. "Our brother bishops have told us with sadness that the pope's words during his visit in 2009 to allow ease of movement for Catholic clergy and religious seem to have gone unheard."

That, the bishops indicated, is hardly the only problem.

"We strongly urge a conclusion to the lengthy negotiations between the Holy See and the State of Israel," the statement said. "We have also been made aware of the suffering of those people whose marriages are put under enormous strain by the demands of 'security' and religious differences, by individuals and communities whose land and property has been damaged or taken from them, including by the route and construction of the wall, and by the people whose lives are made so difficult by the situation where they live in Gaza."

Aside from the usual calls for the international community and local leaders to get their act together, the bishops also urged Christians in the West to offer a concrete gesture of support by coming on pilgrimage: "We believe that every visit to the Holy Land brings benefits both to pilgrims and the people who live here, especially the Christian community," they said.

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As if representing Barack Obama to the Vatican at a time of ferocious debates in America over health care reform and abortion policy weren't complicated enough, U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Miguel Diaz has also recently been forced to navigate around embarrassments related to WikiLeaks disclosures about U.S./Vatican relations.

Diaz has insisted to anyone who will listen that the relationship will endure, and this week gave him another chance to make the case. Tuesday marked the 27th anniversary of formal diplomatic relations between the United States and the Holy See, launched in 1984 under President Ronald Reagan.

On the occasion, Diaz issued the following statement:

"During the 1980s, the United States and the Holy See worked together to tear down the Berlin Wall. Today, we work together to tear down new walls -- walls that threaten to separate us as a human family -- such as religious intolerance, terrorism, modern-day slavery, human rights violations, and other evils. On this 27th anniversary, we raise our voices in solidarity with those who continue to suffer oppression, such as victims of religious persecution and extremism worldwide. As we begin the twenty-eighth year of our relations, the United States looks forward to continuing engagement with the Holy See to promote human dignity and human rights worldwide."

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Soon enough, the genre of book-length interviews with major ecclesiastic figures will not belong exclusively to German journalist Peter Seewald and his chats with Pope Benedict XVI. This fall, Doubleday will publish my own book-length interview with Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, titled Faith, Hope and Credibility: Archbishop Timothy Dolan in Conversation with John L. Allen Jr.

I spent part of this week in New York with Dolan, completing the final set of interviews for the project, just before Dolan leaves for Ireland to help lead a Vatican-sponsored Apostolic Visitation prompted by the sexual abuse crisis.

As if additional proof were needed that Dolan is a rising star in the Catholic firmament, consider that Pope Benedict XVI named him on Jan. 5 as a member of the recently created Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization.

Quite apart from the still-unsettled question of what exactly that office will do, Benedict obviously thinks it's a big deal. Look at who else he named as members: Cardinals Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Angelo Scola of Venice, George Pell of Sydney, Mark Ouellet of the Congregation for Bishops, William Levada of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and Gianfranco Ravasi of the Council for Culture, as well as Archbishops Robert Zollitsch of Germany and Bruno Forte of Italy.

With at least three consensus papabili, or strong papal candidates, in that set (Scola, Ravasi and Ouellet) and a number of other heavy-hitters, Dolan's inclusion is the clearest possible signal that it's not just the U.S. bishops, who recently elected Dolan their president, who think highly of the New York prelate; in Rome, too, Dolan is clearly now on the "A list."

Finally, I wasn't the only journalist sniffing around the Dolan story this week. Morley Safer of "60 Minutes" also filmed an interview with Dolan for a segment scheduled to air in February. In the interests of full disclosure, I was also interviewed for the segment to offer a journalistic take on Dolan's significance in the church, both in the States and universally.

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