A Primer for Nancy Pelosi's Home 'Exorcism'
Exorcisms have come a long way since the days of Hollywood's spinning heads
A reporter colleague called me after reading a New York Times profile of Nancy Pelosi in which her daughter, Alexandra, said, “I think that [the attack on PAUL PELOSI] weighed really heavy on her soul. I think she felt really guilty. I think that really broke her. Over Thanksgiving, she had priests coming, trying to have an exorcism of the house and having prayer services.”
“The Catholic Church doesn’t still do exorcisms, right?” I was probably the right person to ask. And it is not just because I was raised Catholic, served as an altar boy, and was taught by the Sisters of Charity in grammar school and the Jesuits in a college preparatory. Although I am not now a practicing Catholic, my friend figured I would know because I spent the better part of nine years investigating the Vatican for my 2015 New York Times bestseller about the church’s finances (God’s Bankers: A History of Money and Power at the Vatican).
“Exorcisms are bigger than ever,” I told him.
Most people know about exorcisms only through horror novels like William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist and its follow-up film and decades of knockoffs. Few remember that even Blatty’s novel was based on what he learned as a Georgetown undergrad about a real case of demonic possession and exorcism a year earlier.
For most of the 20th century, exorcism was rare, and the Catholic Church viewed it as an anachronistic and somewhat embarrassing practice. Protestants long criticized Catholics as fixated on the supernatural and superstitious. The comeback for exorcism in the Catholic Church started in the early 1980s. What had changed? Pentecostals were bragging about how they cast out demons and even a slew of New Age healers were offering exorcisms. The Catholic Church did not want to be left out on a practice it had originated.
In 1990, six priests, led by a world-famous Roman exorcist, Father Gabriele Amorth, created the International Association of Exorcists. Amorth had done more exorcisms than any other priest. He had witnessed dozens of cases involving trances, violent fits, strange languages, and twice, he claimed, possessed victims levitated. “We try to keep the person in the armchair,” he told a reporter, adding that demons “do it just to show off.” Amorth’s group lobbied the Vatican to kickstart a worldwide recruitment of exorcist priests. The following year the church gave a surprising green light to allow ABC’s 20/20 to film an exorcism.
The big change came in 1999 and few outside the church paid attention. The rules that applied to exorcism got their first major update since 1614. “The Vatican thinks in centuries,” a British envoy posted there had once noted. The new code differentiated between demonic possession and a psychological or physical illness. Exorcist clerics were encouraged, when possible, to consult with Catholic psychiatrists and physicians to rule out other causes.
A major exorcism was listed as a last resort.
What became clear very quickly was that the demand for exorcists far outstripped the supply of priests capable of casting out demons. In 2004, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith asked thousands of dioceses around the world to each appoint an exorcist. The following year, the Vatican seminary, the Regina Apostolorum, began offering a one-week course — “Exorcism and the Prayer of Liberation” — to wanna-be exorcist clerics. Until it was interrupted by the pandemic in 2020, as many as 250 priests annually, from dozens of countries, arrived in Rome and paid €300 to learn how to positively identify demonic possession and learn the rituals to expel demons.
The U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2014 adopted an extensive policy statement embracing exorcisms. Pope Francis has been enthusiastic about their effectiveness. In 2017, he told priests that they "must not hesitate" to send parishioners with “genuine spiritual disturbances” to exorcists. In Italy alone, about half a million people annually seek exorcisms. Parishes from Sicily to Chicago have started their own exorcism courses to meet the demand.
It is not difficult to ask for help. The procedures to “Request an Exorcism” are spelled out on one page, for instance, on the website for the Archdiocese of Washington D.C. Most other parishes have similar online ‘how to get help’ pages.
So, what about Nancy Pelosi? Can a home be exorcised for bad demons? The church’s literal policy is that fallen angels, dubbed demons, only possess people (a minority view is that animals can also be possessed). Nothing covers inanimate objects so haunted houses are pretty much on their own when it comes to getting back good mojo. However, in June and October 2020, the archbishop of San Francisco, Salvatore Cordileone, personally performed exorcisms at sites where racial justice protestors had toppled statues of the 18th century Spanish missionary, Father Junipero Serra. Cordileone told the press that his exorcisms were meant to drive out evil from the places where protestors had destroyed the statutes.
No one has identified the priest who did Pelosi a favor by ‘casting out the demons’ from her home. It is unlikely, however, that Cordileone performed the exorcism. The former Speaker of the House and the Archbishop are not on speaking terms after he publicly banned her from receiving communion last May, an order that will stay in effect until she repudiates “her abortion advocacy.”