Catholic Issues Articles & Reviews
An Exorcist Tells His Story (1999)
Review by Dr. Edward N. Peters
We need a good book on extraordinary demonic activity, since there has been so much of it lately, and we need a good book on exorcism, now that the new rite of exorcism has finally been released, thus completing the post-conciliar project to reform all of the rites. But despite some strengths, Fr. Gabriel Amorth’s An Exorcist Tells His Story is not that book. At the very least, it demonstrates that not every practitioner in a field is an effective apologist for that field.
Amorth is the Chief Exorcist for the Diocese of Rome. He worked for several years under the tutelage of Fr. Candido Amantini (d. 1992), a priest with 30 years of exorcism experience. Hence, one approaches Amorth’s book, which has already gone through several printings in its Italian original, with high expectations. Amorth makes, however, the astounding claim to have personally performed 30,000* exorcisms over nine years (p. 169), a claim that surpasses the credulity of even the most favorably-disposed reader. And even though this particular claim appears late in the book, a careful reader will encounter many other problems throughout the work.
I begin by noting that Fr. Benedict Groeschel wrote one of the most tepid forewords to a book I have ever seen. “At first I declined,” he noted, and then he continued, “…I have difficulties with Fr. Amorth’s approach. He writes of this intriguing subject in ways quite foreign to the ideas of the English-speaking world…he uses rhetoric foreign to most of us and even theological concepts alien to our way of thinking…” Groeschel’s concerns are justified, and the cultural oddities are many. See, for example, Amorth’s comments on gypsies, mentioned only because “they are everywhere in Europe”, and whom he lumps together with “card readers and scoundrels” (p. 161), or his brief but confused discussion of the stereotypically Italian “evil eye” (p. 132). But bothersome as such details are, the problems are deeper than this.
Amorth’s book will not fare well under scholarly, or even under commonly thoughtful, analysis. There are, for starters, no footnotes, no bibliography, and no index. Save, then, for a small number of in-text references, there is no way to check most of Amorth’s multitudinous assertions, even many that he claims are well-documented. And as for the personal, real-life life episodes described by Amorth, supposedly a chief contribution of this work, they are, at least insofar as what is actually presented, frequently unconvincing. Consider one of three examples of a “curse” narrated by Amorth (pp. 130-131): A father cursed his son at birth and continued to curse him as long as the son lived at home. The son, says Amorth, “suffered from every conceivable misfortune” including—the exorcist’s hyperbole nothwithstanding—poor health, unemployment, marriage difficulties, and health problems with his own children. But how does any of this prove the existence of a “curse”? These sad facts seem readily explainable as the common manifestations of an emotionally battered child reared by an utterly dysfunctional father. With dads like that, who needs devils?
Serious inconsistencies are common in Amorth’s work. For example, he correctly notes that canon law requires priests to obtain specific and express permission to perform an exorcism and that such a solemn rite should be applied only after diligent examination (see Canon 1172). Yet Amorth describes case after case of people who seem to appear on his doorstep, only to have him immediately set about performing an exorcism (pp. 70, 77, 88, 158-159). Even accepting Amorth’s claim that only 94 of his 30,000 exorcisms represented full-blown possession (the primary scenario for which exorcism is supposed to be canonically authorized), even that would have required roughly one case a month to be thoroughly examined and processed over nine years with hardly a break. Amorth adds, by the way, that he has all the names of victims written down (p. 169). Why? With what precautions?
Amorth is critical of physicians who treat patients for years with little or no results (pp. 62, 70), and yet he does not blush at recording his own weekly exorcisms of some people that run on for years, often enough with mixed results of his own (pp. 49, 73, 139, 169). Elsewhere he states, regarding evidence for hexes, that “if I were to tell of the bizarre, unbelievable facts that I have witnessed, I could go on forever”, this, despite the fact that “hexes are always rare.” (pp. 134-135) Amorth’s does not explain exactly how such a rare occurrence leaves him with an inexhaustible supply of evidence.
Amorth correctly outlines the eventual triumph of Christ over Satan that is manifested in exorcism cases (pp. 19-23, 56, 96), but then tells, for example, about a house that was so infested that “I was forced to recommend simply leaving the place” (p. 125). What are we to make of this? That some places are off limits to God? Amorth rightly notes that idle questions are not to be posed to the devil during exorcisms (p. 79), yet cites at least three examples of just these kinds of questions being posed by his mentor during the rites (pp. 75, 76). He dismisses as a “false belief” the idea that the devil will expose the sins of the others during the expulsion ceremonies, and immediately provides two examples of the devil doing precisely that (pp. 94-95). Or again, Fr. Candido supposedly learned a valuable lesson when he botched an exorcism and was in bed for three months with stomach ailments that lingered for ten more years (p. 139), and yet Amorth says later that Candido, in course of his long career, “suffered some physical illness due partly to age, but not to the devil” (p. 194). Clearly, we are faced here with an either-or here: Either Candido suffered physically as a result of his battles with the demonic, or he didn’t. The answer to this question should not depend upon what point Amorth is trying to make at the time.
Certain of Amorth’s assertions are jarring. For example, he describes the bizarre objects that the unfortunate people he works with have ingested, and states that this practice might be a sign of demonic activity (pp. 118-119). Indeed, it might be. But it might also be a sign of pica, schizophrenia, or even Kleine-Levin syndrome, none of which Amorth alludes to. And as for his mentor’s retrieving these objects from vomitus and mucus, and then keeping them around in a basket, well, at the very least, the reader should have been forewarned about that coming description and given some explanation about the need to retain such objects instead of destroying them as soon as possible, as Amorth himself recommends elsewhere (p. 139).
Finally, a few of Amorth’s assertions are simply silly. For example, after mentioning the use of cats in certain types of witchcraft, Amorth feels the need to add “I want to make it clear that it is not the fault of this charming household pet.” (p. 127). Or again, he advises that regurgitated or “materialized” objects be thrown into a river or the sewer, but never “into the toilet or sink; when this happens, often the entire house is flooded or every drain becomes plugged.” (p. 138). I can imagine.
I need no convincing that extraordinary demonic activity has increased greatly during the 20th century, especially over the last few decades. I know first-hand how difficult it is to get ecclesiastical officials to take such phenomenon seriously. I have assisted some bishops in making the initial preparations for such a controversial ministry, and I have tried to equip a few open-minded priests with the background reading that such work will require. But I understand why it is that bishops and priests tend to regard this work with suspicion and trepidation. Pervasive personal sin and serious psychological disturbances do account for much of the sorry state of affairs around us. There is no point in suspecting demonic intervention when one’s delivery truck breaks down, or if the warehouse is unexpectedly locked-up at drop-off time, or if an engagement is called-off (pp. 87, 82, 81). Indeed, proclivity toward such suspicion is itself harmful.
For all that, the devil is real, and his minions are active. At times, demonic activity can be combated only by the extraordinary invention of Christ through his Church. Amorth’s book provides some interesting descriptions of diabolical deeds, and of the salvific responses available to them. In the end, this book will go on my recommended reading list for those who would like to know more about these matters (Amorth’s observations on white magic and sorcery, to name but two topics, I found helpful) but, with Groeschel, I urge considerable caution in drawing any conclusions from it. +++
The original version of this article appeared in This Rock (January 2000).
*The number claimed rose to 50,000 by 2001.
Peters' website is canonlawinfo. He is in communion with the Modernist church and BXVI. Nevertheless he can be capable of having some correct insights on subjects of which he writes.
I personally would never read a book like Fr. Amorth's because it sounds essentially mainstream mass culture in tone. And the fact that The Exorcist was, according to A., his favorite movie, to me is a huge thumbs-down. Also the thoughtless, superficial insubstantiality of the typical favorable reviews of said book.