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Of Angels and Demons

The death of director William Friedkin last month prompted an outpouring of paeans, no surprise for the man who made films like “The French Connection” and, of course, “The Exorcist,” the 1973 adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s bestselling novel. It was the latter movie that naturally generated a wave of Catholic commentary, the most puzzling of which was Matthew Walther’s column in The New York Times declaring that “The Exorcist” was “the best film ever made about the Roman Catholic Church.”

Now, I appreciate that a columnist needs an eye-catching premise, especially if you are writing for The Times, and on a topic that was already boiling in hot takes. And film nerds can engage in never-ending debates about which movie is the best of any category. For what it’s worth, “The Exorcist” was a great horror film. Yet any number of other films would be better nominees in terms of portraying Catholicism: “Of Gods and Men,” for example, is a personal favorite, and there’s “True Confessions” if you want insights into the priesthood, or “The Shoes of the Fisherman” for an entertaining and moving look at the politics of a conclave. “The Two Popes” is a more recent and insightful entrant in that category, and Terrence Malick’s latest, “A Hidden Life,” is astonishing.

Pick one of those, or something else. Maybe “The Mission” or “Black Robe” if you can put your anti-Jesuit bias aside. But giving “The Exorcist” the award for best film about Catholicism is silly. That is, unless you are trying to make a different argument, which seems to be Walther’s goal when he claims that “The Exorcist” presented viewers with the stark choice between a faith that expresses a “transcendent moral and metaphysical order” and one that “is it just another way of pursuing ideals of compassion and social justice,” which he said is what liberal theologians had been pushing since the 1960s. Friedkin’s adaptation of Blatty’s book “came down on the side of tradition,” Walther declares as he goes on to recite the usual litany of complaints about Vatican II’s “modernizing” reforms and the subsequent collapse in vocations, Mass attendance, supernatural belief and the church’s “moral credibility.” It seems that “The Exorcist” and its agnostic Jewish director took a stand against all that.

Well, leaving aside Walther’s retrofitting of a 1973 film for his 2023 polemic, it’s hard to see how a horror flick about demonic possession, fraught with a seventeenth-century rite long out of fashion, best depicts the sublime essence of the faith. You don’t jump scare people into Catholicism. If that were the case, then the trends that Walther laments would have reversed themselves; there were multiple “Exorcist” sequels plus even a television series and innumerable devil-made-me-do-it knock-offs.

For a Catholic believer, taking the supernatural seriously doesn’t require repeated doses of schlock and shock. More importantly, the supernatural is far more than the demonic. As George Burns lamented in “Oh, God!,” arguably the most theologically astute film from the 1970s, “Nobody had any problem believing that the devil took over and existed in a little girl. All she had to do was wet the rug, throw up some pea soup and everybody believed. The devil you could believe, but not God?”

Indeed, Walther’s real problem is that in his urgency to enlist “The Exorcist” as a weapon in his Catholic culture war thesis (even Benedict XVI and the “hermeneutic of continuity” make an appearance—everybody drink!), he fundamentally misconstrues not only Catholicism but also the film and the novel. As Blatty wrote in a 1974 essay in America magazine responding to his Catholic critics, “The Exorcist” was not primarily about evil and the demonic but about “the neglected and far more positive, consoling and even joyous ‘mystery of goodness.’ It is the point all the critics miss.”

Walther sees the two central priest characters in the story, Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) and Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), as embodying the “opposition of modernity and tradition”—Merrin the holy, orthodox, old guard cleric and Karras the “young liberal Jesuit.” Good and evil, as it were. Yet after Merrin dies while attempting to exorcise the demon possessing the 12-year-old Regan (spoiler alert!), Karras demands that the demon possess him instead of the girl. The demon, according to Blatty, is defeated by “this act of love” and Karras hurls himself from the window, and by dying expels the demon, saves his soul and saves Regan. “In his act of love, Fr. Karras triumphs,” Blatty writes. That’s not how exorcisms are supposed to go, but never mind. Karras’ sacrifice is the truly Catholic message of the film. It is a hard message to apprehend and harder to make convincing, and horror films like “The Exorcist” don’t necessarily help. “When Jesus cured the blind and raised the dead, there were many who saw and yet did not believe. Faith has more to do with love than with levitating beds,” Blatty wrote.

Pope Francis might agree. “[D]o not take refuge in a religiosity made up of extraordinary events and dramatic experiences, out of fear of facing reality and its daily struggles, its hardships and contradictions,” Francis wrote in his message of Lent this year. “The light that Jesus shows the disciples is an anticipation of Easter glory, and that must be the goal of our own journey.”

Walther’s essay instead is more evidence of the boutique trend toward “weird Christianity” that has captivated a slice of young converts and theocons who elevate medieval aesthetics and baroque rituals into the source and summit of the Catholic faith. It treats Catholicism as a cultural oddity, a style story that appeals to Times editors but does little to witness to the faith.  

A better testimonial came in another Times column two days later, by Margaret Renkl. She wrote about a Catholic priest in Nashville, Father Charles Strobel, who had just passed away at 80 after a career spent serving the poor and needy while reminding a gentrifying city to always recall its better angels. Exorcising demons, alas, is far more entertaining, and Walther’s column generated twice as many comments as Renkl’s. So it goes.

David Gibson is a journalist and author and director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University. 


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