“What they’re trying to do in restoring exorcisms,” said Dr. Appleby, a longtime observer of the bishops, “is to strengthen and enhance what seems to be lost in the church, which is the sense that the church is not like any other institution. It is supernatural, and the key players in that are the hierarchy and the priests who can be given the faculties of exorcism. “It’s a strategy for saying: ‘We are not the Federal Reserve, and we are not the World Council of Churches. We deal with angels and demons.’ ”
So one issue, of course, is whether we are dealing here with the Devil, or just Demons. While some might say, “once possessed, what’s the difference?”, the difference is crucial. For one thing, there is just one Devil, but as Jesus demonstrated, you can infect a whole hillside of pigs with the Demons from just one man. Matthew 8:28-34. Another issue is the lack of rigor in the reports of successful exorcisms. There is no evidence that any of these used randomized controlled trials, the usual way of establishing whether a drug, diet, pastoral care, or other intervention is really safe or effective. Worse, almost all of these studies have been small, averaging just a single subject. The smaller the sample, of course, the greater the risk of error, including false positives and false negatives. And of course, the risk of bias on the part of the observer, which is why these must be done by priests, and not lay researchers.
On the other hand, the before and after shots can be pretty convincing. Some of the classic signs of possession by a demon, Bishop Paprocki said, include speaking in a language the person has never learned; extraordinary shows of strength; a sudden aversion to spiritual things like holy water or the name of God; and severe sleeplessness, lack of appetite and cutting, scratching and biting the skin. The more definitive would be the language or the holy water tests, as long as you are dealing with someone, despirited or not, is not adverse to getting all wet. In any event, Bishop Paprocki noted that while the Devil is a real and constant force who can intervene in people’s lives — though few of them will require an exorcism to handle it. “The ordinary work of the Devil is temptation,” he said, “and the ordinary response is a good spiritual life, observing the sacraments and praying. The Devil doesn’t normally possess someone who is leading a good spiritual life.”