Common Wisdom: 20/40

I guess you could say the devil made me do it. There I was, assembling thoughts for this column, when I took a break for the news at noon. After network coverage, our ABC anchor here promised a preview of a segment slated for “20/20” that evening. The locals weren’t alone in promoting the sensational story. The New York Times had featured it on page one of the second section. Clearly, media folk were abuzz about the show. And if the rest of the country heard the sound bite aired in the bay area, few viewers could be indifferent. At high noon in my cheery kitchen the ungodly exhalations of an allegedly possessed teenager pierced the sunlight with preternatural darkness. The rasping, gravelly voice brought me to a dead stop. When the usually chirpy newscaster resumed, her own reaction was a stunned “wow.” This, after a mere five-second audio.

As a believer I am a skeptic. That is, I have no problem with the Resurrection or loaves and fishes. I have a lot of problems with rumored apparitions of the Blessed Virgin in Marin county. Relatives and friends come back from Medjugorje totally convinced of supernatural visitations. Yet I stumble. On the one hand, I found myself disliking the reaction—best described as borderline deprecation—to the exorcism by Father Richard McBrien, chairman of the department of theology at Notre Dame. At the same time, I share to some degree his embarrassment.

“20/20” took camera and crew to investigate strange doings in the state of Florida, specifically the supposed demonic possession of a mentally disturbed teen. In San Francisco, a radio spokesman for the archdiocese instructed us that exorcism is a last resort. It is carried out only when a cautious Church sees four signs of possession: clairvoyance, extraordinary strength, speech in a language not studied by the individual, and levitation. At no time did “20/20” make clear that Gina exhibited all of those signs, a major oversight. Enter doubt number one for this Catholic viewer.

The visual on the exorcism itself was a letdown. We are so bombarded in the news and in media by what is violent or repulsive that a certain callousness creeps in. Gina’s possession wasn’t half as horrific as what Hollywood produced from William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. If the devil wants to score in 1991, he’d better come up with a media consultant. After all, most watching “20/20” had recently staggered out of Silence of the Lambs, a film drenched in the graphically abhorrent. Even so, when escaped serial killer Hannibal “the cannibal” Lecter confides to FBI Agent Starling that he’s “having a friend for dinner,” eyeballing his former obnoxious captor Dr. Chilton, the audience relishes the revenge about to be wreaked. There is a perverse pleasure in rooting for a maniac.

My disappointment in “20/20” was that the episode was not convincing. I believe there is a prince of darkness, and I’d hoped the program would help persuade the dubious. The topic is compelling, and Ted Koppel seized the moment by devoting Nightline to it. He secured two talking heads in Roman collars, at variance with one another. One was Father James J. LeBar, participant in the exorcism, the other, Father McBrien. The latter evidenced the sophistication of the academic, a thinly veiled discomfort at the concept of possession and exorcism as a kind of medieval hang-up unsuited to the high-tech world of 1991. In his book-lined study McBrien seemed to dismiss exorcism as, well, declassé. It was so unabashedly a Catholic thing. You don’t find Presbyterians mired in such stuff. Let’s talk, he reasoned, about the evils of war and famine. For heaven’s sake, or maybe for the ecumenical Catholic sake, let’s not flirt with the notion of a real demon invading a twentieth- century teen.

On the other side of the split screen and the argument was Father LeBar, representing elements in theology Father McBrien would sooner wither away. In his quiet manner, Father LeBar persisted in noting historical precedents of exorcism in the Church and, by referring to seven that have occurred during the current pontificate, he bestowed a contemporary authenticity to the ancient ritual. Father McBrien maintained exorcism was not an article of faith. At the conclusion, neither believer nor skeptic had a definitive case. Gina was not nearly as possessed as the foul-mouthed, head-swiveling Regan of Linda Blair. Catholics seeking clarification got confusion.

Father McBrien’s is the comfortable view, one I would rather embrace. How nice to write off as archaic nonsense alarming images of agonized souls in the grip of demons. How preferable to turn one’s thoughts to familiar economic and social evils, as opposed to the frightening possibility of individual inhabitation by the devil. Father McBrien opts for impersonal, universal evil. Father LeBar confronts specific demonic possession. Father McBrien wants to talk about grappling with worldwide iniquity. Father LeBar goes toe to toe with Satan manifested in a tormented teen. Which priest offers a more palatable agenda?

I do not know if possession takes place. I do know the hype about “20/20” and the talk shows and columns which followed it served a purpose. For one brief period of time we were grabbed by the lapels and made to focus on the devil. Ordinarily, we feel sorry about atrocities everywhere. We feel overwhelmed. We also feel disconnected. Maybe we’ll write a check and say a prayer. That is the extent of our involvement. It gives us relief; we have addressed the issue. It is the hygienic road; we feel better for it. But made to look at Gina, a bewildering desperation sets in. Money is useless. We are left with the unsettling question: is it possible?

More, how does satanic possession affect the man of faith? How often the agnostic says to us, “I wish I had the comfort of your belief.” Surely, there is much to be envied. But watching the contorted face of Gina and hearing voices from her mouth which raise gooseflesh, are we consoled? Do we sail through this grotesquerie with a sense of reassurance? Are we vindicated by the spectacle? See—we told you so! There is a devil! The hideous cascade of the damned plummeting into hell is not artistic invention. It is reality. If there is a devil, there is God. Evil incarnate only makes sense waged against incarnate good. God. Consoled? No. Challenged, yes.

My Catholic ears have heard little in recent decades about hell, fire, and damnation. It’s been a great relief to escape the grim reminder contained in the prayer we used to say at the end of Mass to St. Michael, about protecting us from the devil “who prowls about the world seeking the destruction of souls.” The idea of a slinking demon possibly zeroing in on me certainly motivated many a prayer and dissuaded many a sin. Priests now are soft on hell. We hear mostly about God’s mercy, never mind His judgment. “20/20” revived painful memories of a time when the devil and threat of hell were vivid. I’ve grown accustomed to soothing sermons. I like to hear about God’s repetitive forgiveness. Seventy times seven! Like a mantra. But, whoa, dredging up the devil on “20/20”? Hugh, Barbara, and exorcism?

We struggle to come up with reasonable explanations for the inexplicable. After “20/20” we could remind ourselves that epilepsy in Biblical times was thought to be possession. Ultimately, science explained it away. The demons cast out by Christ are now cast out by medical diagnosis and pharmaceutical potions. But efforts to rationalize take us just so far. Mystery remains.

The evening of “20/20” my husband and I discussed demonic possession at dinner. Our dining room is lit by two wall sconces, and a chandelier, on separate rheostats, deliberately dimmed. Plus a candle which, to me, is as requisite to dinner as food. “I don’t know,” he said of the subject at hand, “it strikes me as incredible.” “Well,” I countered, “isn’t the Incarnation incredible? Isn’t the fact there is a God Who loves creatures like us incredible? And isn’t it incredible that there was a Resurrection?” At the precise word “resurrection” each wall sconce, the chandelier, and the candle flame burst forth in a surge of brightness, causing us to look at one another in astonishment. Lights in adjacent rooms did not alter. No appliance shut down to account for the tremendous thrust in power. No gust of wind fanned the candle. Bathed in brilliance, we communicated wordless dismay. Somewhere, there is a simple explanation. Or is there.


B. F. Smith is a freelance writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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