Exorcism and multiple personality disorder from a catholic perspective

Fr J Mahoney
Consulting Chaplain of the Office of Chaplaincies of the Archdiocese of Detroit

Some mental health authors have suggested that there may be cases where exorcism is "therapeutic." This belief is based, I feel, on a judgment that if the patient subjectively feels or fears that possession has occurred, providing the suggestion that they are now freed may lead to improvement. The therapist may also believe that true possession is not ever a possibility. There may be as well a sense that religious ideation and understanding is not really an important consideration.

Rarely is Christian theology seriously considered, except by fundamentalist "Christian counselors" or "Catholic Charismatics" who may consider possession and oppression to be common occurrences, with exorcism a tool to be freely used. I obviously consider the theology involved to be very important, but the idea of it being "therapeutic" also should be examined.

The most prominent writers in the field of the treatment of MPD have noted that exorcism for MPD is therapeutically contraindicated, with various forms of harm described.

The only organized, retrospective review I am aware of was done by Dr. Fraser from the Royal Ottawa Hospital in Canada. He reviewed the experiences of a number of his patients who had undergone exorcism in various circumstances. The patients varied in religious background, as did the religion of those doing the exorcisms and the form and nature of the exorcism activity. Some exorcisms were supported by the Church or religious community of the exorcist. Some of the exorcisms had occurred before, as well as after, the diagnosis of MPD. Based on his retrospective review of 7 cases, he reached several conclusions:

· The exorcisms had an effect in that they produced a change and had an impact on the personality system. Alternate personalities can be, at least temporarily, "banished" and new personalities can be created in response to the sense of trauma.
· The effect in each case was severely destructive.
· At least in cases where MPD is present or may be present, exorcism is contraindicated.

I do not have access to an extensive library regarding the Catholic practice of exorcism, and certainly no access to restricted sources of information. The sources that I have read indicate various diagnostic signs that are to be assessed before there can be a prudent assessment that possession is a possibility, and that exorcism may be appropriate.

Much of the assessment of the signs of actual possession involves the experience, perceptions, and understanding of the person making the assessment. Things that are not considered "an ordinary part of human life" or "part of the natural order" may simply be outside the experience of the evaluator.
Those working with Multiple Personality Disorder patients frequently encounter unusual phenomena that are the lasting aftereffects of their desperate adaptation to severe and chronic childhood abuse. The most striking of those phenomena are more common with MPD patients reporting severe ritual abuse, especially Satanic. Those same patients often have personalities mimicking demons. Often, they were hypnotically suggested during the cult activity. Those personalities were developed as attempts at avoiding punishment by the cult by simulating the presence of demons. That certainly complicates the assessment process, but there are, I believe, criteria that could be used to distinguish a demonic MPD personality from a situation of true possession. The burden of reasonable proof is on the person alleging the presence of the demonic.

· If someone is diagnosed as having MPD based on other personalities, a demonic presentation should be presumed to simply be another personality, unless clearly demonstrated otherwise.
· An MPD personality will have an identifiable time of formation and functional role within the personality system consistent with the trauma as it was occurring. MPD specific therapy will result in psychologically consistent change in that personality, with improvement over time in the presence of a healthy therapeutic alliance.
· As the personality is worked with, emotions such as rage will be clearly "human" in origin, and if the personality is more developed there will be the clear existence of state-dependent learning. Knowledge possessed will be appropriate to the role and function of the personality.
· Unusual phenomena will be those seen and reported in at least some other patients clearly diagnosed with MPD, and will follow the general patterns for those phenomena.
· Unusual phenomena consistent with true possession would be clearly outside the "natural order" and/or would be situations not reasonably accounted for by science.
There are strange phenomena that are frequently seen and observed in MPD patients. They are accepted as MPD dynamics, and are often present with some personalities and absent with others. In different patients, they may or may not be linked with a subjective sense of "being evil" and are clearly linked both to trauma and attempts at adapting to that trauma. These phenomena would include at least the following:
· Susceptibility to hypnosis and an unusual ability to cause others to enter hypnotic or trance states.
· Body memories having physical characteristics. These are reenactments of past trauma and follow the same characteristics as the classic stigmata phenomena. They may appear and disappear without external manipulation and may include rashes, welts, cuts, burns, blood, swelling, and significant physiological changes.
· Apparent telepathy, clairvoyance, and unexplained knowledge. These may reflect hyperacute senses, such as hearing thoughts reflected in the movement of the larynx. Photographic state-dependent memory, extremely acute awareness of others' body language and visual cues, and unusual mental feats are also common.
· Physical strength beyond ordinary perceptions of what is humanly possible.
· Highly accelerated healing, control of bleeding, and ability to regulate physiological states in ways not normally considered possible or under conscious control.
· Ability to cause in an observer a sense of cold, evil, or threat.
· Acts of self-harm and extreme self-mutilation, hatred of God and religious objects.
· Ability to go for long periods with neither food or sleep.
· Selective, personality specific anesthesia and the blocking of normal pain stimuli.

It should be noted that many unusual phenomena that are considered in popular culture to be "psychic" or otherwise unexplainable are often based on the skills and illusions of magicians, the use of various forms of trance states, suggestibility, intentional fraud, etc.
I am not discounting the possibility that a specific MPD patient may in fact also be possessed. I feel that in such a case there should be specific evidence leading to a prudent judgment and moral certainty that such is the case, and the pertinent information should then be submitted to the Ordinary of the Diocese. I do not believe that a pastoral diagnosis of possession should ever be made without such authority.
I am available to defend the conclusions that I have reached, to provide additional information in support of those conclusions, or to work toward a more full consideration of these issues. My basic concern is that I believe that exorcisms are dangerous and tend to target the victims of severe abuse. I see them as, in effect, an additional form of abuse for which there must be accountability.

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