Diabolical Possession (Theology of)

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The theological problems raised by the phenomenon of diabolical possession are both empirical and speculative: how may a true case of possession be detected, and how is possession compatible with the radical freedom of the human will and with divine justice? A satisfactory answer to the first question was necessarily delayed by the general ignorance about the organic causes of various neurasthenic disorders. Possession was thought to exist where, perhaps most often, it did not. The speculative question did not present the same difficulty. As spirits, the demons are capable of penetrating and manipulating matter of any sort. Hence, according to both St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure, what occurs in instances of possession is the entrance of a demon into a human body, the faculties (physical) of which he proceeds to control. The soul, however, cannot be entered or overcome and thus remains free, although its functions in respect to the body it informs are, as it were, suspended. Estius described possession in terms of a ship: the demon assumes the role of the pilot who steers the vessel. The 17th-century French divine, Surin, actually compared the demon's role to that of the soul. Probably the most authoritative statement in this matter is that of Benedict XIV in his De servorum Dei beatificatione, et beatorum canonizatione ( This is not in any sense a dogmatic definition, since it was issued in his capacity as a private theologian, not as pope, but it is clear and succinct: "Demons, in the individuals whom they possess, are like motors within the bodies which they move, but in such a way that they impress no quality on the human body nor do they give it any new mode of existence nor, strictly speaking, do they constitute, together with the possessed person, a single being."

Credit for distinguishing among the apparent signs of possession must be given to the 17th-century theologian P. Thyräus, SJ. In his judgment the physical or corporeal indications of possessionspastic movements or hysterical convulsions, etc.were not to be considered in any way decisive. The true criteria, he asserted, are a knowledge of secret things and a knowledge of languages never learned (by the possessed individual). Even these criteria leave something to be desired, since one is aware today of the very real probability that telepathic communications between human beings exist, but at least Thyräus relegated the popular signs to the minimal significance they should have.

All writers on the subject of possession have insisted that the possessed person's lack of memory as to what he did or said during the seizure also be recognized as another fundamental criterion. Possession, in other words, precludes normal human consciousness. In this respect cases of possession resemble those pathological states known to modern clinical psychology in which the patient projects two or more wholly different personalities none of which is conscious of the other. The parallel here illustrates again the caution that must be preserved in attempting to determine an authentic case of possession. Perhaps only the effect of an exorcism upon the person possessed can really be said to settle the question.

One cannot hope to understand in everyif in anycase, why God permits possession. It is, however, a consequence of the fact that He has not annihilated the evil spirits, who remain, therefore, capable of disturbing the normal processes of created matter. The Council of Trent noted that man had become subject to Satanic influence as a result of the Fall (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 1511), and although man has been "rescued from the power of darkness" by Jesus Christ (Col 1.13), he has not been relieved of the necessity of struggling against the continued attacks of that power (Eph 6.12). In exorcism, however, he possesses the ultimate weapon against these inroads of Satan, which are not, in any case, as frequent as once imagined.

See Also: diabolical obsession; demon (theology of).

Bibliography: l. roure, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., (Paris 190350) 12.2:264047. b. thum et al., Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiburg 195765) 2:294300. Satan, ed. b. de jÉsusmarie, tr. m. carroll et al., (New York 1952). l. cristani, Evidence of Satan in the Modern World, tr. c. rowland (New York 1962). t. k. oesterreich, Possession, Demoniacal and Other, tr. d. ibberson (New York 1930). j. lhermitte, True and False Possession, tr. p. j. hepburne-scott (New York 1963). j. de tonquÉdec, Les Maladies nerveuses ou mentales et les manifestations diaboliques (Paris 1938).

[l. j. elmer]