Posted by: L. E. Barnes | February 15, 2011

How Right Is “The Rite”?

I remember reading a humorous little story in which the devil had a “Going out of Business Sale.” Alas, if only the devil would go out of business. But for the time being, we’re stuck with having to deal with him and his demon underlings, who sometimes don’t just harass people but end up possessing them outright. The recent film The Rite, starring renowned British actor Anthony Hopkins, portrays a priest and young deacon dealing with demonic possession.

This movie is based on the book by the same title, which focuses on a real exorcist: Fr. Gary Thomas. In this clip, Fr. Thomas and the author of The Rite talk about actual exorcisms:

So how accurately does the film portray exorcisms? In an interview in Our Sunday Visitor, Fr. Thomas shares his views:

“The movie is loosely based on the book, and the book is written about my experiences being trained as an exorcist in Rome. The book is all true, but the movie took some license, which is OK,” said Father Thomas. “I think what makes this movie different is there’s a much better plot developed and it’s a movie about faith, and not how we can scare people. I was on set to give some direction on the exorcism scenes, and they are very accurate and very true to life for the most part. The prayers and dialogue between Hopkins and my character is much more in sync with the teaching of the Church.” 

It may surprise you to learn that in most cases a person’s bizarre or disconcerting feelings or behavior have natural causes, especially mental illness. Exorcism, in fact, is only turned to as a last resort:

To help him discern if there’s simply a need for mental health care, Father Thomas works with a medical doctor and a psychiatrist. “My role is to get to what’s the root cause,” he told OSV. “People say, ‘I need an exorcist,’ but I say I don’t do them on demand and my role is to get to the root cause. The last thing an exorcist does is an exorcism.” 

One bishop even commented that “most movies about the subject do a disservice by showing the freakish extremes of behavior that possessed people go through, without showing the fact that evil often worms its way into human hearts in more subtle fashions.”

And Fr. Thomas agrees, asserting that “the Sacrament of Penance is more powerful… We don’t do exorcisms on demand. It’s the last thing when all else fails, and the exorcist has to have a certainty that an exorcist is what’s most prudential.”

You can read the full article here.

One of the things I’ve come to appreciate very strongly about the Catholic Church is that it tries to take a balanced approach to such matters. In the charismatic churches I attended while growing up, it was all too common for people to rush to blame demons for their problems rather than trying to rule out natural causes first. (I’ve even read that it’s common for people in charismatic churches in Africa to blame all–yes A-L-L!–problems on demonic activity.) And sometimes these people, both laity and ordained ministers, would try to cast demons out of anyone who simply acted in ways they considered strange or expressed having unpleasant thoughts or feelings. It’s probably fitting that a religious “light bulb” joke I heard goes as follows:

How many charismatics does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: Ten–while one person is changing the bulb, another nine have to pray against the spirit of darkness!

But seriously….

Let’s not forget that the devil is still active in today’s world, but let’s not assume there are demons hiding behind every tree or under every rock. Also, let’s leave exorcisms in the hands of folks who know what they’re doing!

As for The Rite, I’ll wait until it comes out on DVD. (Sorry, but I’m not paying the exorbitant ticket prices at cinemas these days!)



  1. Funny joke! It seems to me that we blame too much of our own “stuff” on demons. While they certainly harass people to a degree we are still the ones who choose sin. Excellent post, Evan!

    • Religious “light bulb” jokes can be really funny. And you can make them about any group!

      Yes, demons aren’t to be blamed for everything, though they certainly do their share. But frankly, we humans are all too good at creating our own problems.

      Thanks for commenting!

  2. It’s good to see a real exorcist speaking about what he does. One important point is that most possessed people have invited the demon in by some action. A trained exorcist once told me never to go to gambling casinos (like I would!) because there are many demons there. From what little I know, it may be true. If we are taking our spiritual life seriously, I don’t think we need to worry about being possessed. We need to beware of our weaknesses and tendencies to sin.

    I’m with you. I might rent the DVD, but I won’t go to the theater.

    • I’ve only been to a casino once. Actually it was a casino ship–and I was ‘seasick’ for a couple of days afterward! I don’t know if you risk getting demon-possessed by going to those places, but I wouldn’t recommend them anyway.

      Possessions seem to be rare anyway, so I agree that we need to focus more on overcoming sin in our lives.

  3. How many feminists does it take to change a lightbulb?

    I resent that! That’s not funny!

    • How many “feminists”? What are you talking about?

  4. I really appreciate this post. I keep hearing @ this movie, and I must admit that exorcism is WWWWWAAAAAYYYY out of my comfort zone. It makes me feel better to know that mental illness is fully explored before jumping to the demons.

    • I remember seeing exorcisms (if in fact they could truly be called ‘exorcisms’) being done in the charismatic churches I attended years back, and yes, they could be pretty freaky! And again, I’m glad the Catholic Church doesn’t rush to cast ‘demons’ out of people but instead tries to make a careful inquiry to determine if there might in fact be just a natural explanation for a person’s problems.

  5. Jesus’ ministry included His dealings with Satan. He called Evil a person not an exotic illness or faulty understanding of what’s actually going on. I’m thankful the Apostles did the same and that the Church is faithful to His teaching, even if reluctantly.

  6. The rite of exorcism is old. The Catholic Church has been practicing exorcisms for centuries. Because of erratic successes and failures of this practice throughout the centuries, the Catholic Church decided to codify this rite in 1666-67 (ironic number, huh?). Since the rite was introduced, success in exorcizing evil spirits increased dramatically. Since the advent of modern medicine, priests began, as well as medical professionals, to understand that not all mental imbalances are demon-induced. In fact, the vast majority of mental cases are medical in nature. Priests and the Catholic Church are well aware of this fact.

    In the case of Africa, Christianity has had some success in establishing itself in that continent. However, as they say, old habits are hard to do away with. Many African tribes have melded Catholic doctrine with that of many voodoo and other demon-influenced religions of old. The result is that Evil Spirit continues to “hang around” in many parts of Africa. The same goes with pre-columbian religions of Latin America.

    Now, in my research of this subject, the movie, “The Rite” is essentially correct in its theology. There may be a thing or two that is simply Hollywood, but the foundation of the movie was pretty darn accurate. There were several scenes where the character played by Anthony Hopkins commanded Evil Spirit to reveal a truth. However, he did not command it by using the phrase, “In the name of Jesus Christ”. When commanding Evil Spirit, one must ALWAYS use this phrase for it to be obedient. To not use this phrase means that one is trying to command Evil Spirit to ovey by simply using your one’s own power. This is a grave mistake because we do NOT have the power within ourselves to expel anything, much less an evil entity.

    But all in all, it was a pretty accurate movie, but in my opinion, it could have been made with more action and a better plot. They had the ingredients: an interesting subject, good actors, and a great setting. What they needed was a better script.

    • Thanks for stopping by and commenting. You raise some good points.

      I too have heard that there’s quite a lot of synchretism in African churches, as has often been the case in many Latin American churches (both Catholic and Protestant). I suppose that’s just to be expected–as you noted, old habits indeed die hard!

      I definitely plan to see “The Rite” when it comes out on DVD. While some artistic license is inevitable, filmmakers should not misrepresent the Church or such sensitive matters as demonic possession. I’m glad to hear that this film apparently has kept a fair degree of accuracy.

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