2012-02-16 / Commentary

Bedeviled by that old black magic

BY MAREEN DOWD

WASHINGTON — As though Bill Donohue didn’t have enough to be cranky about.

The perpetually apoplectic Catholic League president is on the rampage about President Barack Obama trying to make sure women working at Catholic institutions get insurance coverage for birth control.

What’s wrong with the rhythm method anyway? That’s how I got here.

Donohue took time out from hyperventilating against the president to hyperventilate against rapper Nicki Minaj. He was in a snit about Minaj arriving at the Grammys in a red Versace cloak resembling a cardinal’s, arm in arm with an actor dressed like the pope, and her over- the- top exorcist- themed number.

“Perhaps the most vulgar part was the sexual statement that showed a scantily clad female dancer stretching backwards while an altar boy knelt between her legs in prayer,” Donohue bristled.

The rapper was debuting a song called “Roman Holiday,” featuring one of her alter-egos, Roman Zolanski. She has described Roman as her gay twin sister and a lunatic, born of rage who comes out when she’s angry (or hyping a new album).

It was more bizarre than outrageous, like bad vintage Madonna now that the Material Girl has gone mainstream. The only good thing about it, as Marc Hogan wrote in Spin, was the chance her devilish song might make “Bill Donohue’s head spin while spewing green vomit.”

The satanic rap was merely the latest illustration of the renewed fascination with the ancient rite of exorcism. After languishing in the Catholic Church, exorcisms are back in fashion. In 2004, worried about the rise of the occult, Pope John Paul II asked Cardinal Ratzinger, the head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith who went on to become Pope Benedict XVI, to direct bishops around the world to appoint and train exorcists in their dioceses.

The infusion of Hispanic and African Catholics to the U.S., with their more intense belief in the supernatural, has brought a fresh demand.

In 2010, U. S. bishops held a conference in Baltimore on the topic.

Last month, the low- budget shaky-cam exorcist movie, “The Devil Inside,” scored big despite sulfurous reviews. And, in a new book, Father Gabriele Amorth, the exorcist for the diocese of Rome — who has complained that yoga and Harry Potter are evil — claims that Pope Benedict exorcised two possessed men who were howling and banging their heads on the ground by blessing them.

The Vatican demurred that the pope has no knowledge of this. But Amorth wrote that “simply the presence of the pope can soothe and in some way help the possessed in their fight against the one who possesses them.”

In an interview in October with The Huffington Post, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of “The Exorcist,” William Peter Blatty said his book and the Linda Blair movie resonated as an affirmation that “ man is something more than a neuron net,” that “there is an intelligence, a creator whom C. S. Lewis famously alluded to as ‘the love that made the worlds.’”

I recently visited Father Gary Thomas, the pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Saratoga in Northern California, an exorcist who was the focus of a book by Matt Baglio called “The Rite” that became a movie last year with Anthony Hopkins. It chronicled Thomas’ demonology and exorcism training in Rome.

Thomas thinks the time is ripe for exorcisms because “ our country is at war with itself culturally over whether or not it believes in God” and because “there is a growing amount of paganism — New Age practices like crystals, reiki, witchcraft, black magic, tarot cards, Ouija boards, seances.” He said he knows of 52 exorcising priests in America.

Sitting in his office, holding a red book titled “De Exorcismis Et Supplicationibus Quibusdam,” (“Of Exorcisms and Certain Supplications”), he conceded that despite 75 exorcisms on eight people, his success has been limited. (Nicki Minaj told Ryan Seacrest that her mock exorcism failed, too, because Roman was too “ amazing” to succumb to holy water.)

The pastor explained that “ soul wounds,” like sexual abuse, pornography and sexual addiction, can serve as “doorways” to demonic attachment and possession. “ Demons are always looking for people who have broken relationships and no relationships,” he said. “That’s why sexual abuse mixed with the occult is the perfect cocktail.

“Demons don’t have corporeal bodies like we do. They can travel faster, are far more intelligent and have a much keener sense of free will.”

He’s not frightened of meeting a violent end like Fathers Merrin and Karras. “I’m protected,” he said. “ I go to confession before an exorcism.” The 58- year-old priest does, however, think that Satan has tried to tempt him with “lustful urges.”

“ I would be in my car and have this visual rush,” he said, “and I’m like, ‘Where the hell did that come from?”’

Hell?

MAUREEN DOWD writes for The New York Times.

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