Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Whatever Possesses Some People To Believe What They Believe?

I don't believe in ghosts, even though I am not, strictly speaking, ontologically committed to the impossibility of the existence of ghosts. It's funny, isn't it, how we pick and choose our beliefs? Christians believe that God became man and performed miracles among us, and yet, in my opinion, the more intelligent Christians do not take seriously even for a second reports of the paranormal of the sort that one sees on, say, the Discovery Channel. I suppose that, in my case at least, it's a matter of residual skepticism left over from when I was basically an abject atheist materialist, but there are probably other, non-psychological reasons for turning a blind eye, so to speak, to the ghostly.

As a Thomistic Aristotelian I do believe in other weird kinds of things: essences, for example, and distinctions between substances and accidents. These are slightly more technical things than ghosts, but equally silly in the mind of the materialist and the empiricist. I happen to think that there are no non-arbitrary reasons to reject such things and plenty of non-arbitrary reasons to accept them, but these are subjects about which reasonable people can agree to disagree, at least in my opinion. But for some reason, when it comes to ghosts and the like, I have a tendency to think that there's no way a reasonable person is going to take the idea seriously even for a second.

Hence you can imagine my surprise to find that some people, including some people whom I generally admire in the intellect department, appear to be endorsing the idea that Cho Seung-Hui, the young man who murdered more than 30 people at Virginia Tech before killing himself, did what he did because he was possessed by a demon. There is an interesting blog item about it at Spirit and Life, written by a priest by the name of Thomas Euteneuer. Euteneuer accepts the very real possibility that Cho was indeed possessed when he acted as he did. In my view, this is utter nonsense. Indeed, it is not merely utter nonsense, it is literally nonsense, and it is not something that I think any intelligent person can reasonably endorse.

First, it is unscriptural. The cases of demon possession in the New Testament are exclusively cases in which a demon is tormenting a person internally, not driving a person to commit evil acts against his will.

Second, speaking of acting against one's will, the idea that demons can, by means of possession, drive people to commit evil acts, destroys the notion of free will and takes away individual autonomy and moral responsibility. On this point, Euteneuer writes:
Well, first let me say that, as a Catholic priest, I have seen and worked with my share of possessed and obsessed individuals. It’s entirely possible for someone to be at once responsible for his own acts and totally under the influence of the devil in committing them. In this case, Cho pulled the trigger, but the devil was the author of the deed. Does not Jesus call him “a murderer from the beginning”? The devil is the prime mover of all evil in the world, but human beings freely cooperate with him in their evil decisions. No one gets off the hook of responsibility by blaming the devil, but we can’t say that the devil is a detached observer to crimes like this.
Virtually every sentence in this quotation begs the question, but it will suffice to point out that it is just plain silly to say that "It's entirely possible for someone to be at once responsible for his own acts and totally under the influence of the devil in committing them." This is either an outright contradiction or it is just plain bad theology. One would like to know more about how such a thing is "entirely possible", but we get no explanation, only assertion.

Third, demon possession is explanatorily otiose in cases such as this. Cho's behavior can be fully explained in terms of perfectly ordinary human motivations, mental illness, and other mundane concepts. There is literally no need to invoke some further cause, namely a "demon", to make the explanation of what he did complete. If there were such a need, then there is no reason to think that every evil act is not caused by demon possession. Sure, this act seems to us particularly egregious, but line-drawing is a notoriously arbitrary affair. If he had killed, say, five fewer people, would that mean he was not demon possessed? How about 15 fewer? What if he had only killed three people? Or just one? How does one know such things? It cannot be merely some vague and subjective sense of the enormity of it all, since that is nothing more than a personal and subjective judgment, and every such killing spree is, after all, nothing other than a concatenation of individual killings. If a killing spree is caused by demon possession, so is every individual killing. Yet that seems, well, rather difficult to believe, if for no other reason than that it leads to a slippery slope in which every evil act is reducible to a demonic possession, and demonic possession becomes nothing more than a synonym for "evil act". And yet clearly we distinguish between genuine demonic possession and mere run-of-the-mill viciousness.

Fourth, invoking demon possession does not seem to differ from the sort of magical thinking that always looks for a hidden variable to explain what appears to be otherwise inexplicable. Take, for example, this little gem from Euteneuer:
a crime of this immensity cannot be accomplished without a person’s total emotional commitment. After reprogramming a person’s thought patterns, the demon excites his passions to do what he wants. Others have very credibly explained how Cho’s pathetic video images imitating the Korean flick, Old Boy, were evidence of his heightened emotions influenced by violent images. He even ranted in imitation of the Columbine killers Harris and Klebold in solidarity for the deed he was about to commit. In other words, it’s very difficult to sustain such an emotional intensity about the evil he planned and carried out without some direct force multiplier.
Euteneuer can't imagine an unaided human being being able to sustain "such an emotional intensity about the evil he planned and carried out", so he posits "some direct force multiplier" that is literally outside of the system. Talk about begging the question! And yet this is given as one of the necessary conditions for demon possession. And then there's this:
He plotted—like all demons from Satan to the perpetrators of the World Trade Center attacks. He bought guns and ammo, he planned the date and times and places of the murder, and he even went regularly at night to work out at the campus gym in order to look the part of a mass murderer. The devil must have been very happy to witness his prey blast his brains out after perpetrating the bloody murders of 32 innocents. That is the ultimate victory for the devil.
Planning ahead is also a necessary condition on demon possession, it seems. Now there's underdetermination for you. This guy has been taking his Screwtape Letters way too seriously.

Fifth, it is way too provincial to think of acts such as Cho's as somehow fitting into a kind of paradigm of demon-possessed evil. History is long and full of far worse things that what Cho did, and it begins to seem rather desperate to explain all such things away as nothing more than cases of demon possession. It reduces the human person to a kind of automaton, for one thing, and a peculiarly simplistic one at that.

Now, don't get me wrong: I'm not claiming that there is not now, nor has there ever been any such thing as demon possession. But I don't see any reason to think that demon possession is what we see in the case of a person like Cho, or Stalin, or Hitler, and any such folks. The stories of demon possession that we find in the New Testament may, of course, be correctly describing the ontological status of the persons being described, but (a) they are clearly quite different than what Euteneuer is talking about and (b) I'm not so much of a fundamentalist as to think that the stories of demon possession in the New Testament are open to only one interpretation.

Clearly we want explanations for things like what Cho did; even more pressing is the need for an explanation when there is no evident will involved in suffering, as when a tsunami kills nearly half a million people. But I don't think it's a good idea to just make up explanations that appeal to whatever nostrums happen to be stowed away in our own peculiar ideational backpacks. That's not what explanation is all about. Maybe you have to have a little something extra in your intellectual equipment to take such explanations seriously, but I'm pretty sure I don't have that equipment, because I can never take such explanations seriously even for a second. They are laughable, in my view, and reveal more about the person who posits them than about the person who is allegedly "possessed".


concerned heart said...

How about a biological view of the deranged being the Seung-hiu Cho was? He had terrible mutations to his DNA from mutated sperm from an older father who was 38 or 39 when he was born.It would be important to scan thoroughly a DNA sample of his and of his father's somatic cells and his father's sperm.


The most irrefutable finding is our demonstration that a father’s age is a major risk factor for schizophrenia. We were the first group to show that schizophrenia is linearly related to paternal age and that the risk is tripled for the offspring of the oldest groups of fathers.7 This finding has been born out in every single cohort study that has looked at paternal age and the risk for schizophrenia. The only other finding that has been as consistently replicated in schizophrenia research is that there is an increased risk associated with a family history of schizophrenia. Since only 10% to 15% of schizophrenia cases have a family history, family history does not explain much of the population risk for schizophrenia. However, we think that approximately one third or one quarter of all schizophrenia cases may be attributable to paternal age. Paternal age is the major source of de novo genetic diseases in the human population, which was first described by Penrose8 in the 1950s. He hypothesized that this was due to copy errors that arose in the male germ line over the many cycles of sperm cell replications. These mutations accumulate as paternal age advances. After the Penrose report, medical researchers identified scores of sporadic diseases in the offspring of older fathers, suggesting that these could occur from gene mutations. Particular attention was paid to conditions in last-born children.


Pastor Chad said...

First off, in response to the comment that, "it is just plain silly to say that 'It's entirely possible for someone to be at once responsible for his own acts and totally under the influence of the devil in committing them.'" I wonder what your view, as a Thomist, of free will is. It seems to me that Thomas allows for outside influences to impact our decisions, while at the same time maintaining our complete responsibility in our free will.

Secondly, I am uncertain as to whether Cho was demon possessed or not, I do not have enough evidence one way or the other. It is interesting to not that intellectual people from other cultures view what we can mental illness as demon possession. We should not be so close minded as to think that we 'moderns' are much too advanced to be influenced by the power of the devil. If we ignore his power, it makes it harder to fight him. After all, as Paul says, "our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world, and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms."

Finally, I am surprised at the rhetoric in this article, "there's no way a reasonable person is going to take the idea seriously even for a second", and "it is not something that I think any intelligent person can reasonably endorse." This kind of argumentation is out of place in an intellectual argument; making anyone who disagrees with this viewpoint, "obviously irrational." I do not think it is very civil, let alone Christian.

Scott Carson said...

I do not think it is very civil, let alone Christian.

Wow, that is so true! And yet, ordinarily I'm very civil and Christian. I guess the only rational explanation for my behavior is that I was possessed by a demon when I wrote that!

Martin said...

There is nothing objectionable, per se, with accepting the possibility that Cho was possessed when he acted as he did. At the same time it is true that Cho's behavior can be fully explained in terms of perfectly ordinary human motivations, mental illness, and other mundane concepts.

Normally the Church, when it examines a case for possible exorcism, attempts to rule out perfectly ordinary human motivations, mental illness, and other mundane concepts. For example, signs of superhuman knowledge, strength, and the like are looked for. On the other hand, exorcists and ordinary priests relate tales of entering prisons and mental hospitals in civilian garb under very ordinary circumstances and having inmates recognize them as priests and become quite agitated, indicating that possession may be more common than usually presumed.

In the ordinary teaching on demonic possession


it is noted that the demon may assume control of man’s body from within (possession), and while the Fathers and theologians agree that the soul itself can never be "possessed" nor deprived of liberty, ordinary control over the members of the body may be hindered by the obsessing spirit.

In Matthew 17 a demon causes a man’s son to fall into fires, or water:

14 When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before him. 15 "Lord, have mercy on my son," he said. "He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water.

Jesus rebukes the demon, not the son, since it is the demon who is acting, not the son.

In fact, in casting out spirits Jesus addresses the spirit or spirits directly without exception.

Since it is the body, not the soul, under the demon’s control, free will, moral individual autonomy, and moral responsibility are not at issue.

With that said, I have no particular problem in believing that Cho was possessed when he acted as he did, nor any particular reason to believe that he was.

More likely is the typical human condition of Cho cooperating with Evil, consorting with Evil, and embracing Evil.

That’s a more reasonable belief than one syndicated Catholic priest’s conclusion published nationally under the heading “Blacksburg killings: How do we deal with evil in this world?”:

"Despite the will of the majority of the American people, the National Rifle Association will win again. I have no illusions. Its money corrupts politics. The unholy alliance of gun money and political influence will keep our society awash in gun violence for a long time to come."

The Evil One was more probably involved than the National Rifle Association.

Rick said...

In relation to Cho, I think Fr. E. should have been more specific on exactly what he meant. In a class on the Theology of Grace the priest/professor covered 3 levels of demonic activity in relation to a person: 1) Level 1-Infestatio-the person is tormented on all sides by external torments, 2) Level 2 --Obsessio-person is the willing instrument of the devil, here the person is fixated by evil things and thus becomes the tool for the devil. This precedes possession. And, 3) Level 3-full possession. In the classic work Spirtually Theology, Fr. Jordan Aumann states “Obsession occurs whènever the devil torments a person from without and in a manner that is so intense that there can be no doubt about his presence and his action. In simple temptation the diabolical action is not so evident; absolutely speaking, it could be due to other causes. But in true and authentic obsession, the presence and activity of Satan are so clear and unequivocal that neither the soul nor the director can have the least doubt of it.” Maybe, this is what Fr. E. was referring to than actual full possession.
In reference to your quotes about Hitler, again maybe not full possession but perhaps elements of the demonic were at work to varying degrees, the following is from the National Catholic Register in reference to God and the World (Ignatius, 2002), “There are reliable reports by eyewitnesses that suggest he had some kind of demonic encounters,…He would say, trembling: ‘He was there again,’ and other such things. We cannot get to the bottom of it. I believe one can see that he was taken into the demonic realm in some profound way, by the way in which he was able to wield power and by the terror, the harm, that his power inflicted.” Cardinal Ratzinger addressed the question when journalist Peter Seewald asked him about it. “What about Hitler?” asked Seewald. “Was he, as many people think, ‘Satan incarnate’? Sartre once said, ‘The devil is Hitler, that is, Nazi Germany.’” Cardinal Ratzinger answered: “On the one hand, Hitler was a demonic figure. One only need read the history of the German generals, who time and again made up their minds, just for once, to tell him to his face what they really thought, and who were then yet again so overcome by his power of fascination that they did not dare to. But then, when you look at him from up close, this same person who has a demonic fascination about him is really just a quite banal hoodlum.” l He pointed out that “the power of evil makes itself at home precisely in what is banal” because, when it comes to evil, “the greater it is, the more pitiful.” Dictators such as Stalin and Hitler turned away from God and refused such cooperation, he said. He also believes that mental illness and possession can often exist at once in the same person, and that psychological illnesses are frequently caused by persistent sinful behavior.l In his interview, Cardinal Ratzinger pointed to a deeper relationship between Hitler and the devil.l “Hitler was able to foresee demonic situations,” he said. “For instance, I once read an account of how the preparations were made for Il Duce’s (Italian dictator Benito Mussolini) visit to Berlin. Those who were responsible for various aspects of it made their suggestions, and after a long time he said: ‘No, none of that is right. I can see how it ought to go.’ And in a kind of ecstasy he delivered a lecture about it, and it was all done like that. That is to say, there is some kind of demonic power that takes possession somehow, that makes what is banal great — and makes what is great appear banal — and above all makes it dangerous and destructive.”

Apollodorus said...

I was expelled from high school for being possessed by demons. The evidence? I had migraine headaches, I read Anne Rice novels, I listened to Metallica. Now that's inference to the best explanation for you.

I feel about demons about the same way I feel about ghosts. I'm not entitled to say that they don't exist or couldn't possibly exist, but I've never seen anything remotely like compelling evidence that they do. Virtually every case of alleged demon possession sounds to me like a case of mental illness explained by people who are over-indulgent in their personal fantasies. The suggestion that we should learn from other cultures who describe mental illness as demonic possession seems pretty ridiculous; it substitutes a mode of explanation in which we can possibly explain and manage a phenomenon with a mode of description that can only be metaphor in most if not all cases.

Does the Catholic Church actually compel its members to believe in the real existence of Satan? The positive existence of evil seems to me to be a pretty Manichean and generally idolatrous idea.

Scott Carson said...

I've never seen anything remotely like compelling evidence that they do [exist]

I've never seen anything remotely like evidence of any kind that they exist. As a Catholic, I grudgingly consent to the teaching that they do exist, but I have absolutely no use for them whatsoever, nor do I think they serve any explanatory purpose in Catholic theology. I think you're quite right that the idea that we should try to "learn" from people who endorse such beliefs is ridiculous.

Believing in Satan does not commit one to Manicheanism, since Satan is not a rival God, but a being who was originally created by God and who was, to boot, created good by God. He fell, just as humans have fallen and do fall. Calling him "pure evil" or anything like that is clearly metaphorical for having a will that is as perfectly opposed to God's will as Christ's was perfectly in harmony with it.

Pax Christi said...

I side with the takes from Pastor Chad, Martin and Rick on this subject. One needs only to go waaaaaay back to the Garden of Eden to see how humans cooperated with evil. Catholics are taught that we have the free will to cooperate with grace. It seems only logical that there is a flip side, that we can just as well cooperate with the verso of grace. So, yes, it is entirely plausible that one can cooperate with evil to argue that Satan and demons don't exist, let alone put others under their spell.

Martin said...

Yes, Appollodorus, the Catholic Church actually compels its members to believe in the real existence of Satan. The reason why that is not Manichean is that Satan is a creature of God, not a god or God’s equal but opposite. While he opposes God, he is not the complete negation of God.

While many have never seen anything remotely like evidence of any kind that demons exist, many have not seen anything remotely like evidence that God Himself exists, or angels, or hell, or many other things which are as real as the folks commenting here. That may be a blessing or a curse, but it says nothing at all about their reality.

Those that I know that have encountered demons - particularly exorcists from mission areas - certainly have no doubt about either their reality or their power.

The existence of Satan and his minions is part of the Church’s consistent ordinary teaching -

“414 Satan or the devil and the other demons are fallen angels who have freely refused to serve God and his plan. Their choice against God is definitive. They try to associate man in their revolt against God.” - Catechism of the Catholic Church

and they involve Man in their cosmic battle with God Himself. Like us, they were made originally good, but (CCC 391 - 395) like us chose to reject God and exult their own will. Their rejection of God is final, while the fate of men remains unresolved in their own lifetimes.

As the angels cooperate in God’s plan and act as messengers and protectors of men, so the demons cooperate in Satan’s plan and act as tempters and snarers of men.

And, of course, they work hard to convince men that they don’t exist, and to present evil as good, which is why the Church speaks of the “snares of the Devil”.

That is their explanatory purpose in Catholic theology- as tempters and aiders of evil.

John L said...

Your point about Cho not being possessed is a legitimate one, but it simply requires a distinction between demonic possession (which I gather involves suspension of the will and may not even be remembered by the person concerned), and acting under demonic control. The latter seems to be in essence what Fr. Unteneuer had in mind. It is not hard to see how it is compatible with free will; it would simply involve freely consenting to demonic suggestion about how to act, and demonic influences on the emotions. The scriptural case that comes to mind would be Satan's entering in to Judas; clearly not a case of demonic possession of the kind that Christ went around curing, but instead a case of yielding to demonic influence and suggestion. Jesus's determined enemies would in general seem to be greater or lesser cases of this influence - hence his remark 'You are of your father the devil'. Such yielding could make resisting demonic influence and suggestion difficult; as is the case with yielding to a human being's influence on one's life. Your objection that there is no reason to believe in such control seems to rest on the claim that there are other possible explanations available. That's not enough; you have to show that there are other possible explanations that are just as probable as the demonic control one. Reasons why one might say that there are not - in the absence of specific knowledge of this case - is that deliberate planning and killing of many people whom one does not know and has no reason to hate is deeply aberrant and not within the range of normal human psychology. Natural causes that can explain such an act would include severe abuse in childhood that would prevent normal human attachment and instil violent tendencies, and physical malfunction of the brain. If you find a case where such natural causes are not present, or not present in a high enough degree to give a good explanation of such acts, then demonic control becomes a plausible alternative explanation. It becomes more plausible if it turns out to be associated with telltale signs that are present in the case being examined, as is argued by Fr. Unteneuer [sp?] In Cho's case, the available natural explanations do not seem to be very strong, at least not strong enough to explain the magnitude of his crime - he was actually psychiatrically examined and judged not to present a danger to others. His mother seems to have had enough concern about him to worry that he was demonically possessed. So the answer to the question of what possesses some people to believe what they believe is, in this case, the fact that demonic influence - something we know, through divine revelation, to exist and to be an important influence on human life - seems like a good explanation. the purpose of the teaching on demonic influence in Catholic theology would be to inform us about the explanation of such events, and alert us about the dangers of such influence. In fact the existence of teaching on demons in divine revelation would imply that it has a use of this kind; otherwise why would God go to the trouble of imparting it?

Apollodorus said...

I thought the Catholic Church had left unimaginative literalism to the right-wing Protestants. Hold on to your literal reading of demonic possession if you like, but don't be surprised when it eventually becomes possible to explain adequately every alleged case of possession in psychological and psychiatric terms.

If your God is really restricted to communicating in purely literal terms and demands that you believe things for which no plausible account can be given, then he's a pretty small god. Why not insist on interpreting everything else in Scripture and Tradition in the same literal way? Are you going to insist that Jesus' resurrected body physically 'ascended' into heaven because heaven is a place 'up there' somewhere? That God has a face because Scripture refers to God having a face? That Jesus is literally a road by which people can travel from one destination to another? This sort of understanding might be appropriate for a six year old, but not for adults.

Quite apart from the mistake of insisting on a literal understanding of demonic possession, there is something more than a little suspicious about the urge to attribute demonic causes and influences to human actions. Why should we find it so hard to believe that human beings can commit horrible acts of violence on their own, just because they will to do so? Why should we not believe that psychological and psychiatric problems of a non-supernatural origin can drive people to commit similarly horrendous acts? At the core of Christian teaching is that the world is broken. Why do we need to introduce other-worldy beings to explain that fact? I can only think of three reasons: 1) deference to unimaginative literalism, which I have already scorned sufficiently; 2) a dark sort of romanticism that prefers to project demons into the world because they make life seem more interesting than it would otherwise; 3) refusal to acknowledge human responsibility for evil. All of these things strike me as attitudes to be rejected wholesale by any reasonable human being, but especially by Christians.

Scott Carson said...


I don't think the comments that have been drifting in from some quarters represent genuine Catholic theological teachings at all, quite frankly.

True, the Church recognizes the existence of non-material beings, such as angels, and such beings can will things that are opposed to what God wills, in which case such beings are said to be evil, and some people like to use the word "demon" or "devil" to designate such beings. I suspect that some people like to use such words precisely because of the rather spooky and medieval connotations such terms have come to have in today's culture.

But all the stuff about possession and how it's supposed to work is nothing more than theological speculation, and of a particularly jejune kind, as you yourself have noted. The appeal to demonic possession serves no genuine theological or explanatory purpose, and is nothing more than idle speculation that some people, for some bizarre reason, find more comforting than just admitting that some people can be perfectly evil on their own, without any help from supernatural forces.

I'm particularly puzzled by the alleged need to appeal to demons in order to explain what some people have been calling "cooperation with evil." This is banal. When someone chooses to act in a way contrary to God's will, that is evil in and of itself; it is not merely cooperating with some other being's decision to go against God's will. This is why all of this talk is dangerous to the whole notion of autonomy. No matter how you slice it (and some of these folks are slicing it pretty think) the appeal to demonic influence has a tendency to destroy the notion of moral responsibility, which is merely one reason among many why the whole thing is stupid and dangerous.

Rick said...

Scott, In the rare instances the Church does allow exorcism, the individual must undergo a battery of physical and psychological testing, so it wants to rule out either physical and/or mental illness. If no medical pathology can be found, what can be the cause of such strange manifestations in people? Is everyone of these exorcisms reducible to "natural" causes?
Humans are capable of great evil by our own willing, but is everything evil (such as Hitler and Stalin) in this world reducible to purely human choices? I grant that Fr. E can be overly "dramatic" in his arguments, so let's put aside what he is saying. And, even if the demonic is involved with such persons as mentioned above, that does not lessen their culpability. There is no way of ever proving the work of Satan/demonic in the world. On the other hand, there is no real way of proving God is acting in the world, one must see it with the eyes of faith. In regards to the demonic, if the Church investigates such cases, and there are no natural explanations, then it is reasonable to conclude that such influences could be at work. We should also avoid being overly rationalistic. I was rather stunned when I read Benedict's comments about Hitler and the devil in God and the World. This are the words of one of the most learned men in Europe, even if a Catholic has a different perspective on the Nazi evil, his words should earn some merit simply on his status as a renowned theologian. He does not strike me as one who believes in mere ghost type stories. So, given the fact that some notable theologians and the Church do recognize the presence of demonic evil in the world, I think we should not dismiss it lightly and reduce everything to purely human evil and that at times the demonic is strongly present in the world.

Scott Carson said...


There's a very important, indeed, essential, principle in the philosophy of science: the lack of an explanation does not entail the impossibility of an explanation, and indeed, it is impossible to know for absolute certain that no scientific explanation for a given phenomenon is possible at least in principle. Hence it will never be the case that there will be a phenomenon for which there is no scientific explanation possible, there will only ever be cases where none is yet available. Even if, per impossibile, there were a case for which there was no possible scientific explanation, we would not be able to know with certainty that no scientific explanation was possible, hence such a case would be beyond our epistemic capacity to judge.

Having said that, let me add that I can agree with you that it is not necessarily the case that literally every case of evil in the world must have naturalistic and only naturalistic causes/explanations and yet still maintain that I have seen no compelling reason to think otherwise or to believe that there have ever been any cases of demonic possession outside of the cases recounted in the Scriptures (which I continue to maintain were quite different in kind from the sort that is ordinarily referred to in discussions of this sort). I do grant the possibility of such things as demonic possession, as I think I admitted in an earlier comment. I think I also confessed that my assent to that is rather grudging, as I can see no theological or explanatory purpose to such explanations, so as far as I'm concerned the whole "demonic possession" thing is theologically otiose, a non-starter. But to think that is really quite different from denying outright that it is even possible. This is all just my own opinion, obviously, and I'm fully aware that plenty of well-respected theologians think otherwise.

Speaking of which, I think I read that passage from God and the World a little differently than you; I didn't take BXVI to be endorsing anything like demonic possession in any particular case, but only the rather more straightforward idea that there is such a thing as evil and there is evidence for it in the world. Having said that, however, I do think folks like JPII and BXVI probably believe(d) in demonic possession; but I also think that other popes may well have thought otherwise, and I don't think that there is a settled, de fide teaching on this (otherwise I wouldn't question it at all, regardless of what I might believe personally). The Church often permits things, even going so far as to encourage some of them, without requiring belief in them (one thinks of the recognized Marian apparitions, for example, and the use of exorcism may well fall under the same rubric), precisely because there seems to be some element of doubt as to what certain phenomena might mean in the grand scheme of things. Sure, a Cho or a Stalin might have been possessed by demons, but we have to weigh the usefulness of such a conclusion against the usefulness of competing explanations, explanations that do far more work in a much more general way without introducing otiose entities into the equation.

Rick said...

Thanks for the response. In regards to the discussion on Benedict and Hitler, I agree that may not fall under literal possession, another type of demonic activity could be present in such cases, hence the ability of Hitler to cunningly predict the best possible outcome of some situations.
With regards to Cho, I also agree that it could be dangerous (such as with Fr. E.) to refer to the element of the demonic when there is little of no investigation of a case, it makes the real type of exorcism look rather silly when he throws the the possibility of the demonic and Cho so matter of fact.
Personally, I believe there is an element of evil present in the world that is other than human. But, this evil is overshadowed by goodness which will always prevail, as least that seems to be one of the lessons of Revelation. In the New Testament there are many references to the demonic for what just could be physical/mental illness.
Having heard some lectures and had discussions with some priests who have been involved in exorcisms, much of my own belief comes from the testimony of what their accounts, they struck me as reasonable and holy men. From a personal standpoint, I tend to view the demonic as present in the world, but also recognize that human evil is as great or greater.
On a side note, I was listening to a series of tapes on the History of Science from the Teaching Co. (Lawrence Principe from John Hopkins was the lecturer) and was rather surprised to learn that scientists such as Newton and Robert Boyle were interested in the occult, Boyle did it to try to prove the existence of the supernatural. He even consulted with those supposedly learned in the Black Arts about the existence of the demonic.

Scott Carson said...

Here is a comment that was sent to me by private email by someone calling himself "ED". "ED" noted that his WebTV connection would not let him post comments to the blog (maybe his TV is possessed by a demon) and he asked me to post it for him. It pretty much speaks for itself, so here it is:

Scott - I'm assuming that such a rare and exceptional individual like
yourself, with such a gifted, superior, and almost all-knowing
intellect, will probably not be too interested in reading the following
dribble I have provided. So please don't bother to waste your valuable
time reading it, or even replying to it. Actually, I'm just taking the
time to post this with the hope that it may possibly assist some of what
you might call your more unfortunate, simple-minded, and mentally
challenged readers (a.k.a. 'the average Catholic') out there. ~~~ [[
The infidel policy on the question is to deny the possibility of
possession in any circumstances, either on the supposition, that there
are no evil spirits in existence, or that they are powerless to
influence the human body in the manner described. It was on this
principle that, according to Lecky the world came to disbelieve in
witchcraft: men did not trouble to analyse the evidence that could be
produced in its favour; they simply decided that the testimony must be
mistaken because "they came gradually to look upon it as absurd" (op.
cit., p. 12). And it is by this same a priori principle, we believe,
that Christians who try to explain away the facts of possession are
unconsciously influenced. Though put forward once as a commonplace by
leaders of materialistic thought, there is a noticeable tendency of late
years not to insist upon it so strongly in view of the admission made by
competent scientific inquirers that many of the manifestations of
Spiritism cannot be explained by human agency (cf. Miller, op. cit.,
7-9). But whatever view Rationalists may ultimately adopt, for a sincere
believer in the Scriptures there can be no doubt that there is such a
thing as possession possible. And if he is optimistic enough to hold
that in the present order of things God would not allow the evil spirits
to exercise the powers they naturally possess, he might open his eyes to
the presence of sin and sorrow in the world, and recognize that God
causes the sun to shine on the just and the unjust and uses the powers
of evil to promote His own wise and mysterious purposes (cf. Job,
passim; Mark v, 19). ]] ~~~ [[ Man is in various ways subject to the
influence of evil spirits. By original sin he brought himself into
"captivity under the power of him who thence [from the time of Adam's
transgression] had the empire of death, that is to say, the Devil"
(Council of Trent, Sess. V, de pecc. orig., 1), and was through the fear
of death all his lifetime subject to servitude (Hebrews 2:15). Even
though redeemed by Christ, he is subject to violent temptation: "for our
wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and
powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the
spirits of wickedness in the high places" (Ephesians 6:12). But the
influence of the demon, as we know from Scripture and the history of the
Church, goes further still. He may attack man's body from without
(obsession), or assume control of it from within (possession). As we
gather from the Fathers and the theologians, the soul itself can never
be "possessed" nor deprived of liberty, though its ordinary control over
the members of the body may be hindered by the obsessing spirit (cf. St.
Aug., "De sp. et an.", 27; St. Thomas, "In II Sent.", d. VIII, Q. i;
Ribet, "La mystique divine", Paris, 1883, pp. 190 sqq.). ]] ~~~ The
Catholic Encyclopedia - (Demonical Possession) ~~~

Martin said...

Actually the Catholic Church left unimaginative literalism to liberal Protestants who, like Virginia’s little friends, can’t believe anything they can’t see.

The existence of Satan and his minions is part of the warp and woof of Christian belief, and has been since its beginnings. It’s part of the foundational books of Judaism, intertwined with the Fall and the very beginning of evil in the world.

While this may not appeal to those enamored of Jesus the Pleasant and the Twelve either Deluded or Confused, those sorts of folks are really not the kind of people the Christian message, be it Catholic, Orthodox, or simply orthodox, is aimed at.

Having seen the disasters of the mental health professions - incarcerated victims of witch hunts at daycare centers, pedophiles who took the “cure” unleashed on new victims - I think it’s much more probable that rationalists like yourself are going to be in for a shock, most probably shortly after expiring and meeting the demon who gives greetings at the gates of Hell.

Oh, and yes, I believe there’s a Hell.

The word "demon" or "devil" to designate the fallen angels because that, in fact, in English is what they are called. If there is a “spooky” connotation to them, it’s because those who’ve encountered them have accurately described the experience. “Unpleasant non-material being” is probably not going to catch on.

The nature and motivation of demons doesn’t involve theological speculation, it involves the Church’s ordinary teaching and is part of the training of every exorcist. No one need “appeal to demonic possession”, it’s a reality, not a philosophical construct for some theological or explanatory purpose. You may not understand why a camel has one or two humps, but they do.

Denying reality because it strikes one as esthetically banal or philosophically inconvenient is a poor use of cognitive facilities, not to mention lousy theology.

Scott Carson said...

Technically I'm not a rationalist, at least not in the sense in which you're using the term. But I am at least rational, which is more than I can say for the position you're defending.

You seem to be taking it as some kind of a challenge to your ontological commitments that I challenge these sorts of interpretations of reality, but as I made explicitly clear in my post, I don't deny the ontology at all. I'm quite sure that there are non material beings, and I'm equally sure that some of those non material beings oppose God's will, just as plenty of material beings do.

It does not follow from that fact that behaviors that we find unpleasant or inexplicable are the work of demons. That sort of "explanation" is nothing more than magical thinking; indeed, it is quite simply superstition in the worst sense of the word.

You will find it difficult to show that the interpretations of reality on offer in the view you're defending are a part of the Church's ordinary magisterium. The Church teaches that demons exist, and that they may possess people. It does not teach that any particular set of events constitute a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for proof of demonic possession. The only cases of demonic possession that we may even begin to claim to know are genuine are those in the NT, but those are of a qualitatively different kind that what has been claimed in the case of Cho and they are, moreover, open to more than one (banal and literalist) interpretation.

Claiming that one's own subjective and aesthetic take on the world is the same thing as objective reality is a poor use of cognitive facilities, not to mention lousy theology.