Demonology: Catholic versus Protestant Views Concerning Possessions and Exorcisms

[Demonic Possession]    [Exorcism]    [Demonologists]    [Historical Connections] [Works Cited]

 Until well into the 17th century there was a predictable division along religious lines.

Both Catholics and Protestants firmly believed in the existence of witches and the practice of witchcraft. However, the difference lies in regards to possession. While Catholics were adamant about the possibility of possession and exorcism, Protestants out rightly expressed disbelief and disproval of the ideas of possession and the practices of exorcism.


Catholic Views

  • "In Catholic Demonology, possession by any evil spirit became limited to possession by a Christian devil. As a Christian devil, he admitted the superior power of the Christian God and therefore obeyed the commands of a Christian priest acting through exorcism on behalf of God and the Church (Robbins 181)"
  • Catholics viewed exorcism as an ideal opportunity to demonstrate that the heavenly force was with them.
  • "The Catholic church usually continued to offer exorcism at the local level (Briggs 80)."
  • Only the catholic church offers a formal ritual to practice exorcism

Exorcism of devils. Engraving by Adam van Noort (1562-1641)


Protestant Views

  • "The mainline Protestants, with their rejection of traditional views about the permeability of the physical and supernatural worlds, were generally hostile to the practice of exorcism (Briggs 389)." 
  • Protestant churches rejected the theory of possession and exorcism 
  • "The use of exorcism as a therapy was largely rejected by mainline Protestants... (Briggs 80)"
  • "In Protestant counties, exorcism was not used, and in England the attempts at exorcism by an unattached preacher, John Darrell, lead to Canon 72 of the Episcopal Church, in practice forbidding exorcism (Robbins 397)"


 Political Implications

Set against the drop of the Counter-Reformation, it is extremely important to realize that the witch hunts in Europe were conducted by the Church, both Catholic and Protestant. Whatever the differences in beliefs were, both churches strove to increase popularity and gain followers during this time of religious unrest and discomfort.

The practice of exorcism grew out of the New Testament. The rite was introduced into the Catholic church at a very early date. In response, the exorcists formed one of the four minor orders of the Church. It is also pertinent to mention that only priest and high men of the church were allowed to perform exorcisms. Thus, if a person were possessed by a demon, there would be no hope for a cure without a frequent, often lengthy, visit to the church's priest. Creating this monopoly on religious salvation enabled the reputation of the Catholic church to spread the new faith all over Europe.

 "Exorcisms which involved prominent persons or major political issues could attract an enormous amount of attention and spawn a considerable literature (Briggs 131)." Demonologists would catalog popular and scientific accounts of exorcism and possession. They would record this information, publish it, circulate it, and perpetuate the uptake and belief of these claims stated by the scientific authorities of demonology, the demonologists. In addition, public exorcisms drew a huge crowd of intrigued on-lookers. In reference to the power of the church, "there was a curious tension between the need to cure the sufferer, as evidence that the exorcist enjoyed divine support, and the desire to keep the performance going as a propagandist exercise (Briggs 388)."

Eventually, "political and social changes, and backlash reactions to the persecutions, made witch-hunting both undesirable and unnecessary...the industrial revolution and Age of Science brought shifts to urban population centres, changes in livelihood and more education. Among the learned men, the skepticism of science took hold, and it became unfashionable to believe in witchcraft and magic (Guiley 373)."

Oesterreich puts it best in 1930 that "possession begins to disappear amongst civilized races as soon as belief in spirits loses its power. In modern Europe this point of time was marked by the advent of the Age of Enlightenment. Not all its rationalistic exaggerations can prevent the unprejudiced from seeing in that drastic intellectual criticism... a great world, inasmuch as at this stage European thought achieved complete liberation from the older theological system or at least made definite and final preparations to do so (Robbins 398)."


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