Chapter 15
Diabolical Possession and Catholic Cults?

The Lack of Psychological Awareness and the
Materialization of Belief in the Catholic Church

By psychological awareness I mean both the theoretical and the concretely lived sense of the psychological unconscious with its elements or archetypes, their energy, and the interplay of these forces with the ego. By the materialization of belief I mean the psychological forces that interact with genuine faith that lead us to believe that certain things are parts of our Christian faith when, in fact, they have a much more human origin, but not necessarily from the conscious mind. Let me start with some examples of what I consider to be a lack of psychological awareness in the Church.


Diabolical Possession

It appears that interest in diabolical possession is on the upswing in the Church and is fed by a return to traditional forms of spirituality, as well as the Catholic charismatic movement. There was, for example, the case of a public exorcism of a 16-year-old girl shown on television. This exorcism which appeared on ABC’s 20/20 in 1991 had some problematical aspects like its failure to preserve the confidentiality of the girl while it preserved the confidentiality of the exorcist. But what was most disturbing from a psychological point of view was the fact that the girl had been in treatment for psychosis before the exercise. (She was, in fact, to receive further treatment after the exorcism.)

Just what could the people who were responsible for this exorcism have been thinking? What kind of view did they have of the unconscious and the nature of psychosis? Even in healthy people the archetypes that inhabit the unconscious lead semi-autonomous lives and are continually influencing our conscious thoughts and actions. In psychosis the impairment of consciousness by biochemical disorders, or other causes, leads to more autonomy and energy in the archetypes which gives them even more power to influence consciousness and project themselves on the people and events around us. In short, the unconscious already possesses factors that can readily act like separate personalities in the right conditions. Even if we have an excellent sense of the dynamics of psychological energy in the unconscious and a keen understanding of spiritual theology and the life of prayer, it would still be extremely difficult to distinguish between an activation of the unconscious due to natural causes and a purported intervention of a truly alien or extra-psychic being.

Let’s look further at this resurgence of interest in exorcism. In an article that appeared in the National Catholic Reporter, Sept. 1, 2000, we are told that the first meeting of The International Association of Exorcists in 1993 saw six participants. But at the 2000 meeting there were more than 200 exorcists and their assistants from around the world. One American exorcist said: "There is a growing demand and we don’t have the manpower to meet it." Topics were debated like whether persons who died in mortal sin could possess the soul of someone still living. One priest thought they could, and based this belief on personal experience. A girl came to him for confession, and he felt that the confession was starting to go bad. He began to pray over her, and a spirit manifested itself, and so he started an exorcism. The demon said his name was Viktor, and Viktor turned out not to be a devil, but someone who had been married to another woman, but loved this girl so much that he finally slept with her. Then she rejected him, and he killed himself, and entered into the girl. The priest prayed over her, and in ten minutes Viktor was gone.

From a psychological point of view, this is a scary story, and not because of Viktor. It exhibits a rather startling lack of awareness of the power of the psyche to generate these kinds of phenomena. The girl who came to confession was already in a state of psychological distress, and the priest intensified this by praying over her. "There was a manifestation of a spirit, so I started the prayer of exorcism." Obviously, no time was spent considering the possibility of natural causes for this phenomenon. We can ask whether, in a certain way, the priest did not evoke Viktor out of the girl’s unconscious by his own behavior which intensified the state of tension the girl was in, and thus, energized an element in her unconscious which then appeared as Viktor.

Another exorcist felt that personal experience had led him into this kind of work. Two women came to him complaining of possession, and he began to pray for them. One was flung to the ground, and the evil one began to speak through her, glaring at the priest with eyes full of hate. The possessed woman wanted to jump at his throat, the priest tells us. He began to pray in tongues. Suddenly the woman’s face became angelic. Exorcists, we are told in the article, realize that many people wonder if "mental illness or fakery is the real cause of possession." This exorcist responds that when a sick person comes to him he simply begins to pray: "I have no time to make the distinction."

One can only agree with the comments of Joseph Mahoney, a Catholic chaplain in Detroit, who believes that exorcism can be extremely destructive when practiced on people with undiagnosed multi-personality disorders. One study, he tells us, concluded that exorcism could create new personalities. I think it would be possible to general Mahoney’s comments and say that even in healthy people the unconscious is filled with semi-autonomous factors, or archetypes, and exorcism can energize them and lead to psychological problems. Exorcism has the destructive potential to activate and evoke "demons" out of the unconscious and betrays in the cases we have been seeing a serious and dangerous lack of psychological awareness. It is also interesting to note that in the cases mentioned above, it was celibate men exorcising women, a fact which has the potential to intensify the psychological dynamics on both sides.



There has been a growing interest in a ministry of exorcism. Michael Cuneo in American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty gives us a detailed account of the contemporary scene, and while he strives to be both objective and sympathetic, the overall picture we end up with is not reassuring. Some of the people, for example, who are in a position to observe supposed cases of diabolic possession have seen a great interest in possession - which Cuneo attributes in part to the media - in which people are concerned whether they, themselves, or their family, or even their pets are possessed, but these observers agree that they have seen no evidence of actual possession. Cuneo, himself, writes in regard to the existence of devils in these situations: "More than fifty exorcisms later I’m still in no position to pass judgment on this. All I can say is that my fifty-plus exorcisms turned up no definitive evidence of their existence. And right now this is all I have to go on."1

There is a whole world that is preoccupied even obsessed with demons and their expulsion, but it is a world that shows a real lack of psychological knowledge. In this world it is at times strongly suggested to people that they are possessed or in some way afflicted by devils, and need to be exorcised. From a psychological point of view this creates a dangerous atmosphere. It externalizes our problems by attributing them to outside forces, and then pretends to eliminate them by banishing those evil spirits responsible for them. What it does not do is genuinely deal with these problems. In fact, it can actually make things worse by convincing people that they are, indeed, infected by alien powers that must be fought rather than faced with dimensions of their own psyche that need to be integrated.

Recently, Gabriele Amorth, a noted Italian exorcist, is reported to have told the press that the Pope, himself, has performed three exorcisms. Amorth tells us that in a 1982 papal exorcism, "This girl was rolling around on the ground. People in the Vatican had never seen anything like it. For us exorcists it is run of the mill." The rolling around on the ground may be run of the mill, but the assumption that this is a case of actual possession certainly should be questioned. What we need is a deep theological and psychological analysis of this whole question.


Making Saints

Let’s look at things at the other end of the sanctity scale. In a well-written study on the Church’s processes to certify sanctity called Making Saints, Kenneth Woodward touches on the psychological knowledge of those whose task it is to evaluate candidates proposed for canonization. While trained in spiritual theology, they are rarely educated in depth psychology. One clerical consultant told him: "You cannot mention Sigmund Freud at the Vatican. You cannot Carl Jung, either, because they are considered atheists. You can, of course, make use of their theories, but you must be guarded in what you write."2

This is highly regrettable. Some of the cases examined cry out for psychological analysis. In one case that Woodward reports, a Portuguese woman visionary undergoes various childhood traumas, including an attempted rape, which leads to total paralysis. Then she turns to religion and is free of the paralysis during her passion ecstasies. The consultant in this case considered that her visions and revelations - which contained a significant amount of psycho-sexual material - could be of divine origin and don’t appear effected by " a mental illness to which her extraordinary manifestations could be attributed." They have doubts, however, about her protracted bouts with the devil and her feeling that the devil has turned her body into an instrument of lust. "We don’t know of any other example in the whole of hagiography like the experience suffered by Alexandrina." Hardly. Such cases appear both in the spiritual and psychological literature and can be manifestations of the autonomy and power of the archetypes, especially when they have been cut off from normal conscious expression.


Catholic Cults?

Exploring the phenomenology of cults is scarcely new territory, but when cult-like behavior takes place in the Catholic Church, it seems to be able to hide for quite a while under the guise of religion, and even to receive approbation and protection from Rome.


Charismatic Covenant Communities

The case of the Word of God Community and some of the Sword of the Spirit communities affiliated with it illustrates Catholic cult-like behavior. The Word of God community grew out of the early Catholic charismatic movement in the U.S., but over a number of years began to exhibit classic signs of cult-like behavior.3 They included an increasingly hierarchical structure built around "shepherding" or "discipleship", a particularly intensive form of spiritual direction that told people where to live, how to schedule their lives, what level of intimacy was appropriate in the dating process, who to marry, and on occasion, who to punish. This shepherding direction was arranged in hierarchical fashion so that the two founders of the community stood at the apex of this pyramid of control. This kind of structure fosters psychological immaturity under the guise of obedience to the will of God which, in fact, is more like obedience to those who are above oneself in this hierarchy of shepherds. The will of the founder, or founders in this case, tends to obscure the will of God, or better, they are seen as the mediators of God’s will to such a degree that a personal sense of freedom and critical reflection and searching before God in conscience for what is to be done is diminished.

This kind of structure leads to a sense of privileged contact and communication with God, and inversely, to a view that the world outside the community, even if it is the Catholic Church, itself, is less favored if not hostile and downright evil. Even within the community exorcism, or "deliverance", was frequently practiced. "According to Word of God literature, those with certain problems are considered possessed by demons, and deliverance experts cure them."4 Obviously, the potential for abuse in these kinds of structures is enormous.


The Toronto Blessing

The Catholic charismatic movement has already appeared here in connection with covenant communities and exorcism, and I have written about this movement elsewhere. (Jungian and Catholic?; An Open Letter to Catholic Charismatics) What I would like to do here is to look at an extreme example of Protestant Pentecostalism known as the Toronto Blessing, or Holy Laughter, and see what kinds of questions it poses for the Catholic charismatic movement.

According to one report,5 the people at the Toronto Blessing "… bark like dogs, they roar like lions, they oink like pigs, they leap like kangaroos, they prance like deer, they roll around on the floor laughing like hyenas, they get "pinned" to the floor with "holy glue" and can’t get up, they twitch, jerk, gyrate, and tremble uncontrollably. They become "inebriated.""6 These phenomena began at the Toronto Airport Vineyard in 1994, although their roots can be traced to a South African evangelist Rodney Howard-Browne in 1979. They spread quickly and found some limited acceptance in Catholic Pentecostal circles. There is no need to go into these phenomena from a psychological point of view, but they do pose some interesting questions. When Catholic Pentecostals, for example, are exposed to these things, do red flags go up in their minds? Or do they see them as perhaps extreme examples, but nonetheless still within a certain continuity with the phenomena that takes place within their own circles? The answer to this question would shed light on the psychological awareness of Catholic Charismatics, and incidentally, on the psychological awareness of the members of the hierarchy in the Church that support them.


A Cult-Like Community of Sisters?

Members of the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist, the Benedictine nuns of the Primitive Observance of Regina Laudis, and the Sisters of Mercy of Alba, Michigan, have been accused of operating in a cult-like fashion.7 Once again, the symptoms are familiar from far beyond the boundaries of the Church. The leaders "challenge" new recruits and lay associates to give them their money and property. They try to exercise undo control over their members, in one case telling a married couple to give up their unborn baby for adoption. Fortunately, the couple refused. They seem to exhibit a certain contempt for the world outside the community, which manifests itself in a willingness to circumvent its rules, to readily litigate, and to engage in psychological and even physical intimidation of people. Their sense of being right extends to being willing to alienate children from their parents, and spouses from each other.

In this particular case, this cult-like behavior is allied with a strange spirituality in which everything is interpreted in terms of female sexuality. The prayers of the sisters, for example, are supposed to be most powerful when they are at the most fecund time of their menstrual cycle, and the Jesuit priest who is the spiritual guide of the community allegedly said that the nuns could expect orgasm at the time of reception of Holy Communion as he, himself, sometimes did, for they were receiving their spouse, Christ, into their bodies.8 What at first glance is also remarkable about a community like this is the high favor it enjoyed in Rome for a long time. This is a point we will return to shortly.


Opus Dei

We might be tempted to write off the two preceding examples of cult-like communities as fringe phenomena, but what of Opus Dei? Opus Dei enjoys a high level of papal favor, and its founder, José María Escrivá, was recently beatified in an accelerated but controversial process. Yet it, too, exhibits cult-like behavior, but of a subtler sort that blends at one end into the practices of traditional pre-conciliar religious life. It makes, for example, intensive and deliberate campaigns to recruit the best and the brightest candidates, using techniques which, while not overtly coercive, are still psychologically suspect. After recruitment, members are weaned away from their own families and friends, and incorporated into the Opus Dei family, and in a certain strange way, into Escrivá’s family so that in times past a person who might be discouraged from communicating with his or her own mother, would celebrate the birthday of Escrivá’s mother. The role that Escrivá himself played and still plays in the community is problematical from the point of view of a healthy Christian spirituality and psychology. He wanted to be called the Father, or the Founder, and he had a well-developed sense of his own importance. He documented his activities for posterity except for things like his outbursts of anger, and his picture was omnipresent in Opus Dei houses. He played a dominant role in the lives of his followers, reminiscent of cult leaders who feel they have the God-given right to organize and dispose of the lives of their followers as they see fit.

Opus Dei does not foster free and open discussion with its members about itself, or encourage them to discover their individual gifts and vocations by a process of personal and free self-inquiry before God. Rather, God’s will becomes known through the Founder and his appointed representatives. It is here that Opus Dei begins to resemble traditional religious life which might account for part of Rome’s approval for this kind of spiritual authoritarianism. It is certainly a way of behaving that is very familiar to the Roman authorities.

María del Carmen Tapia, a long-time Opus Dei member who eventually left, describes this attitude in Opus Dei as follows: "One facet of Opus Dei’s brainwashing was to make its members believe that Opus Dei is perfect because it came from God, and that every pronouncement by its Founder was by God’s divine inspiration… The indoctrination we received did not allow us to reflect analytically on anything that we were unable to understand. Any critical thought was an indication of lack of unity and lack of "good spirit," which we had to report in our weekly chat as a negative moment in our spiritual life. As women who had requested admission into Opus Dei, were we fools or so naïve as to be manipulated like puppets? No! We had simply entered Opus Dei with the intention of doing God’s will."9

When María del Carmen was about to leave, she thought: "… I realized that I was an Opus Dei numerary more than a normal person… I was ready for anything as long as it fulfilled not just God’s will, but "the Father’s will." … It is as if the adoration of God is exchanged for "the will of Monsignor Escrivá" in whom "the good spirit of Opus Dei" is acquired. The Father is turned into the likeness of God. This cult to the Founder is so ingrained in the numeraries with "good spirit" so as to form the essence of their interior life. To please the Father, pleases God, and not the reverse."10


The Legion of Christ

Some of the same forms of behavior that we have been seeing can be found in the Legion of Christ11: a strict hierarchical approach, a tendency to secrecy, the stress on unity and obedience, the lack of apparent hesitation to involve themselves in lawsuits, and so forth. Their founder, Marcial Marciel Degollado, is called within the order Nuestro Padre, or Our Father, and he wrote: "The director represents the authority of Christ, the head, and the subject the redemptive obedience of Christ."12 This kind of comment is put into context when we learn that the Legion priests take a vow never to speak ill of their community or its founder, or their superiors, and to inform on anyone who does. This is a striking indication of the kind of materialization of belief we are talking about where the founder stands in the place of God in an unhealthy way.

Once again, the Order is looked upon by Rome with favor which, far from being a confirmation of the lack of any serious problems, could be read, instead, as an indication of the existence of similar mentalities in the Vatican. Even serious accusations of sexual abuse leveled against Degollado have met with silence there, and after they surfaced he was given various honors.

The success of groups like this in recruiting is no doubt taken by them as a sign of God’s favor, but it is not particularly surprising from a psychological point of view. They promise certainty in an often confusing and perplexing world. But unfortunately, this certainty is not just the certainty that comes from genuine faith, but from a materialization of that faith, as well. These groups purport to have a direct hotline to God, and the end result is a confusion between the human and the divine.13


Spiritual Authoritarianism

It would be worthwhile to attempt to examine the general principles involved in some of the particular cases that we have been seeing. To understand what this means, let’s look at the life of religious communities as it was often lived out in the days before the Second Vatican Council, and still is lived out in places today. Holiness was defined as the conformity of our will with the will of God. Then the problem became, how could we know the will of God, and the answer given was that we knew the will of God through the teaching of the Church both in its doctrinal pronouncements and the various statements coming out of Rome from the Pope and the Curia, by the constitutions and customs of our particular community, and by the directives and commands of our general provincial and local superiors.

In short, we were faced with a vast hierarchical structure devoted to making it clear to us what the will of God was here and now, day by day, even hour by hour. Once we accepted this elaborate answer to our question, we were caught up inside a seamlessly sealed system supposedly geared to the production of holy people. While holiness is best left to God to judge, I think that this system did not work particularly well, for one of its chief byproducts was psychological and spiritual immaturity. In the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council a lot of this old-style religious life fell apart, and it did so with such rapidity and in such a dramatic way that it leads us to believe that it was being held together from the outside. It was imposed from the outside and could only function if its underlying premise that it, indeed, embodied the will of God, remained unquestioned. As soon as some light and doubt began to penetrate this hermetically sealed system, it began to disintegrate. This does not mean that individuals did not lead holy lives in these kinds of religious communities. They did and still do. But what we are looking at is the structure, itself. Young, often idealistic, people with little experience of life submitted themselves to this system out of a desire to serve God. The society and institution of the Church pervaded the homes and schools they had grown up in, and religious and priestly life were held up not only as noble ways to serve God, but as higher ways than what was open to married people. The desire to serve God became imperceptibly mingled with a submission to the whole human structure of the Church. The desire to love God became commingled with the desire to obey the rules and regulations of an institution that purported to speak in the name of God.

This commingling raises all sorts of serious theological and spiritual questions. Even the underlying premise that we must align our will with the will of God ought to be examined, not because it is false, but because it carries with it certain legalistic connotations that somehow we are called to submit our will to a complex series of laws, laws which, in fact, proliferate and grow even more complex. It would be much better to say, with Jesus, that our goal is to love God with all our hearts, and our neighbors as ourselves. This certainly leads to obeying God’s commandments, but the centrality of love is brought out much better. The idea of conforming our will to the will of God, while it has an undeniable core of truth, is simply not the best way to articulate the matter.

But there is another dimension to this problem that is even more serious. Just how do we discover the will of God? The answer given was also a legalistic and extrinsic answer. There was somebody, whether it be the Pope or the canon lawyers, or our superior, who knew what the will of God was and told us. There was certainly not a lot of talk about the interior side of this conformity that took place by conscience and the exercise of human intelligence. The central problem with this is the very premise that the system we are submitting ourselves to really does know the will of God for us here and now. Clearly, the Church is meant to teach and guide us by putting before us the person and example of Jesus. If it could not do this, what use would it be? But this is where the materialization of the spiritual begins to show itself. The teaching and guidance of the Church comes first of all in the form of the basic mysteries of the faith and its fundamental moral principles. But bridging the gap between these things and how we are to live our daily lives cannot be done by laws alone no matter how detailed they are made. We must exercise reason and conscience and a sense of just what our particular gifts are, and what prudence is calling us to do in this particular concrete situation. To do this demands a serious effort at personal maturation and integration, as well as a deep religious formation. If we do not know who we are, how can we know what we should do? This more introspective and personal process of discernment was often neglected in the older style of religious life. The will of God, as I have said, manifested itself from without in a legalistic way, and when its embodiment within the individual was neglected, the result was psychological and spiritual immaturity.

This materialization of the spiritual is a constant threat to a genuine living out of the spiritual life, and it is worth looking at how it manifests itself and what its underlying mechanism is. History is full of examples of various kinds of religious communities excessively sanctifying their own particular way of doing things. A certain kind of dress, for example, is somehow considered conducive to holiness because the first members of the Order wore it. And this, even though it is clear from a historical point of view, that this kind of dress was the dress of the common people of the time. This kind of sanctification of the material past could extend even to the very placement of the pins in the veil of the habit. This would, in itself, be rather harmless if it were only the expression of a certain affection for the origins of the community, or a symbol of a desire to remain faithful to the good inspirations of the community’s founder.

But it became much less admirable when it was held up as somehow an expression of the will of God. One of the most common ways for this to happen was for the very personality of the founder to become a preoccupation, indeed, an object to be studied, by the members of the community, not in a deeply spiritual sense as a kind of analogy to following the example of Jesus, himself, but in a materialistic way in which the all too human thoughts and feelings and actions of the founder or of the current superior were taken to be manifestations of the will of God.

A graphic example of this kind of spiritual authoritarianism can be found in a moving letter written by Yves Congar, the famous Dominican theologian, to his mother about the trials inflicted on him by this mentality in the years before his rehabilitation at the time of the Second Vatican Council. "What has put me in the wrong (in their eyes) is not having said false things, but having said things that they do not like to have said… The present pope (Pius XII) has (especially since 1950) developed almost to the point of obsession a paternalistic regime consisting in this: that he and he alone should say to the world what it has to think and what it must do. He wishes to reduce theologians to commenting on his statements and not to dare to think something or undertake something beyond mere commentary…"14

We have been seeing two interrelated processes emerge from these concrete cases. The first is an activation of the archetypes that leads to projection, and a belief that forces from beyond, whether God or the devil, are responsible for the phenomena that are being experienced. And this is, in a certain way, true. These forces do not originate in consciousness, and thus, are genuinely experienced as alien. This is precisely why psychological awareness of the unconscious is crucial. The other process ,which we have been seeing in terms of spiritual authoritarianism, is often less overt and colors legitimate structures with a halo emanating from the unconscious.

I believe that genuine Christian faith is not simply the result of a chain of human reasoning, and thus, a purely rational conclusion, but rather, is a supernatural knowledge in which the will or the heart plays an essential role.15 But this faith, rooted in what could be called the supernatural, or mystical, unconscious is not hermetically sealed there, but interacts with the psychological unconscious. It is constantly subjected to the temptation of taking its genuine desire to draw closer to God and clothing it with energized and projected psychological contents. Thus, as we have seen, the human spiritual father becomes like a divine oracle, or the working of the Holy Spirit takes on a dramatically tangible form in strange vocalizations or visions, and so forth. It is as if genuine faith is constantly being pulled in two different directions. In the one we are describing, it tends to become materialized, while in the second, it tends to leave behind the working of the human faculties in terms of the senses, imagination, and even the normal working of the intellect and will, as St. John of the Cross so carefully described.

It would be over-hasty and theologically dangerous to say that authentic spiritual communications, for example, both for good and for ill, are impossible. But given the strong psychological dimension to these phenomena, we can say that Christians, by and large, have been and continue to be over-credulous in these matters. These phenomena ought to be subjected not only to careful psychological analysis, but brought into the framework of John of the Cross’ profound analysis of the limitations of our normal ways of communicating with God. But now, this analysis needs to be extended to embrace not only the conscious faculties, but the psychological unconscious, as well.



  1. Michael Cuneo. American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty. p. 276.
  2. Kenneth Woodward. Making Saints. p. 171.
  3. NCR, Nov. 18, 1988; June 21, 1991.
  4. Ibid., p. 7.
  5. Catholic Family News, June 1995.
  6. Ibid., p. 1.
  7. NCR, May 29, 1987.
  8. Ibid., p. 15.
  9. María del Carmen Tapia. Beyond the Threshold, p. 59.
  10. Ibid., p. 100.
  11. National Catholic Reporter, Nov. 3, 2000.
  12. Ibid., p. 4.
  13. For more information on the Legion of Christ see
  14. NCR June 2, 2000, p. 20.
  15. See James Arraj. The Inner Nature of Faith. Chiloquin, OR: Inner Growth Books.

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