Thursday, June 18, 2015

Book Review: "Demons, Deliverance, and Discernment" by Fr. Mike Driscoll

When Catholic Answers Press tackles a topic, I have come to expect a well-researched, well-balanced presentations. Father Mike Driscoll's Demons, Deliverance, and Discernment: Separating Fact from Fiction About the Spiritual World did not disappoint in this regard and is a nice addition to Catholic Answers' list of titles. 

Although not expressly stated in the title, Fr. Driscoll's book is focused on exorcism. Something that immediately caught my attention was that, unlike other recent books on the topic (Fr. Gabriele Amorth's An Exorcist Tells His Story and  Interview with an Exorcist, and Fr. Thomas Euteneuer's Exorcism and the Church Militant), Fr. Driscoll is not himself an exorcist. Rather, he is a hospital chaplain with a doctorate in counseling, who wrote his doctoral disseration on the ways Catholic exorcists distinguish between demonic possession and mental disorders. (Neat twist, eh?) In the course of writing his dissertation he performed a great deal of historical research into the ministry of exorcism throughout Church history as well as interviewed a number of exorcists. Bottom line: I feel like he gives a fact-based, level-headed assessment of an often overly-sensationalized topic.

Father Driscoll believes, with the New Testament and the Church, that demons are real and that possessions do occur. He leads the reader through the New Testament data, pointing out how both the writers of Scripture and subsequent Church authorities clearly distinguish between possession and mental illness. He also points out how Scripture shows cases where possession and illness are co-morbid conditions. Father speculates that demons - bullies that they are - sometimes assault those already weakened in some way.

What I found most fascinating was the actual Rite of Exorcism. I did not realize that most exorcists used the rite established in 1614, nor did I know that the rite identified three signs that exorcists should look for to accurately diagnose a case of possession. (Fr. Driscoll points out how these three signs - speaking a foreign language, knowledge of hidden events, and displays of power beyond the subject's age and natural condition - completely rule out mistaking possession with a mental disorder.) I was surprised at how straight-forward the rite is. It was also quite interesting to read that, even though the rite gives exorcists latitude in certain places, those exorcists who follow the rite more rigidly actually report both a higher success rate (100% when the afflicted cooperate with the process) and a smaller number of sessions (twelve) needed to expel demons than exorcists who take a "wider approach." 

In his final chapter Fr. Driscoll discussed good and bad spiritual habits, with the reminder that having a solid
 spiritual life (the Sacraments, regular prayer, Scripture, sacramentals) is the best way to protect oneself from the enemy. He also included two helpful appendices: Prayers for Protection Against Demons (which is quite thorough) and Advice for Pastors and Ministers (with important cautions and a few creative suggestions for making exorcism better understood).

The only part of the book that left me uncomfortable was the chapter dealing with deliverance ministries, titled "Deliverance" Drama. "Deliverance" in this context refers to the work of helping those who suffer from lower-level demonic attacks such as temptation, opposition, and bondage/influence. The Church reserves the work of exorcism to priests appointed by their bishop, but has no such restriction, or even officially-stated position, regarding praying for, or with, someone for release from such lower-level attacks. In large part, deliverance is heard of in connection with priests and lay people involved with the charismatic renewal movement, a movement that has received numerous endorsements from our recent popes but spoken of, at least in my opinion, in a rather negative and dismissive tone by Fr. Driscoll. 

In the late 1960s, some Catholics began bringing Pentecostal spirituality into the Church. This started with students and instructors at Duquesne University who had been reading books written by Pentecostals, attending their prayer services, and inviting them to instruct Catholics in their spirituality. In addition to imitating the alleged extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit they learned of, some Catholics wished to drive out demons in the same dramatic fashion as their Pentecostal counterparts. (p.126)
I should point out that the Catechism acknowledges that God continues to impart spiritual gifts such as those seen in the charismatic renewal (see more here); but back to our discussion: Fr. Driscoll went on to discuss works produced by authors such as Fr. Michael Scanlan, T.O.R. (Deliverance From Evil Spirits) and John LaBriola (Onward Catholic Soldier), as well as several others with whom I was unfamiliar. In Mr. LaBriola's case, I know his book was endorsed by solid, orthodox Catholics such as Johnette Benkovic and Fr. Joseph Langford, co-founder of Blessed Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity Fathers (see right side of page). Fr. Driscoll quotes from the book written by Fr. Scanlan, and his co-author Randall Cirner, in the following passage:
Deliverance professionals tend to insist that their methods and only their methods, followed according to the specific steps, are safe and effective for delivering people from demons...Two such professionals explain that their deliverance method is superior because it is the most comprehensive, "Other approaches to deliverance tend to isolate on aspect of [our] approach. We do not believe that these approaches work as well as ones which integrate deliverance into a system of pastoral care...To isolate one stage is to risk a serious distortion or imbalance in gospel living" (Deliverance From Evil Spirits, 78).
I had Scanlan and Cirner's book on the shelf and, upon consultation, felt that Fr. Driscoll's quotation did not represent the original authors' overall intent. The "method" recommended by Scanlan and Cirner is meant to be wholistic, one that breaks free of an overly-narrow focus on the demonic. Allow me to quote directly from the authors:
While no two sessions are alike, an effective deliverance ministry should incorporate seven elements or stages. These stages do not have to be followed rigidly, one after another. But all stages should be present because all seven are important parts of the pastoral care for the person present for ministry...The goal is not to do a specific form of prayer or to employ any set of schema of word or actions, nor is it to mechanically implement a standard remedy for a problem diagnosed before the session...The model format for deliverance ministry will include the necessary elements. The seven stages are: (1) Preparation, (2) Introduction, (3) Listening, (4) Repentance, (5) Deliverance, (6) Healing-Blessing, and (7) Pastoral Guidance. (Deliverance From Evil Spirits, 80)
Anyway, that is my one criticism of the work. Let me end by saying that I think that Fr. Driscoll has crafted a solid, sane, well-balanced explanation of the phenomena of possession and exorcism; and I have no difficulty giving Demons, Deliverance, and Discernment: Separating Fact from Fiction About the Spiritual World my endorsement. (And as a bonus - it's one that you can read without being afraid to turn out the lights afterwards.)


  1. Thank you. I found this review to be very helpful, including your endorsement.