Before we go further, it may be useful to discuss who may perform an exorcism. There’s a debate on this with one side saying only a priest or bishop can cast out entities, while the other side says anyone, including a layperson, may perform exorcism.
First I’m going to give the short answer, and then I’m going to go into the reasoning leading to the long answer (and it’s long!)
- Short Answer:
1. Yes, laypeople are capable of successfully performing exorcism.
2. The restriction to priests is part of a well-intentioned power grab spanning centuries.
3. The power to perform exorcism does not come from ordination but from baptism.
As a sort of postscript, I should point out that I’m answering this question from a Catholic perspective because Protestants don’t seem to have this level of debate over hierarchical authority when it comes to exorcism. Catholics, on the other hand, tend to have hang-ups about authority mainly because “pay, pray, and obey” was pounded into their brains since childhood.
- Long Answer: Validity versus Liceity
The question of whether only a priest can perform an exorcism boils down to a concept a lot of the faithful don’t seem to understand: the question of validity versus liceity.
In essence, validity refers to whether the action “works” or if it’s successful, while liceity refers to whether the person doing the deed has permission from an institution’s leaders. My favorite example is driving a car: you can drive from point A to point B validly even without a license, but it’s not licit unless you have that license. When dealing with Church law, this is an important distinction a lot of people don’t seem to understand.
- The Order of Exorcists
I successfully performed exorcisms for nine years before being ordained, thus I know a layperson may validly perform an exorcism even if it’s not licit. In fact for most of the Church’s history exorcism was not only the province of the priesthood but also of commissioned Exorcists (a “minor order” several steps below the priesthood), and the rite for commissioning an exorcist specifically tells the exorcist-to-be:
“You receive, therefore, the power to lay your hands upon the possessed; and by the imposition of your hands, the grace of the Holy Spirit, and the words of the exorcism, the unclean spirits shall be cast out from the bodies of the possessed.”
Later in the rite, as the bishop says to each new exorcist as they come forward:
“Receive, and commit to memory, and have the power to lay your hands upon the possessed, be they baptized or catechumens.”
And finally the bishop prays over the new exorcists:
“Let us, dearly beloved brethren, humbly beseech God, the Father Almighty, that He may graciously + bless these His servants for the office of exorcist. May they be spiritual commanders, to cast out of the bodies of the possessed the evil spirits with all their manifold wickedness. Through His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with Him in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, forever and ever. Amen.”
- Canon Law, 1917
Over time the Order of Exorcist became less a function in itself but a step on the way to the priesthood (those steps consisting of four “minor orders” and the three “major orders”), and the action of exorcism became the purview of the priesthood and then only with permission of their bishop.
We see this spelled out clearly in the 1917 Code of Canon Law, in Canon 1151. There’s an important distinction here, so I’m first going to quote the original Latin and then give an English translation:
- 1. Nemo, potestate exorcizandi praeditus, exorcismos in obsessos proferre legitime potest, nisi ab Ordinario peculiarem et expressam licentiam obtinuerit.
“§1. No one, endowed with the power of exorcizing, can legitimately perform exorcisms on those obsessed, unless he shall have obtained especial and express license from the Ordinary.”
- 2. Haec licentia ab Ordinario concedatur tantummodo sacerdoti pietate, prudentia ac vitae integritate praedito; qui ad exorcismos ne procedat, nisi postquam diligenti prudentique investigatione compererit exorcizandum esse revera a daemone obsessum.
“§2. This license from the Ordinary may only be conceded to a priest endowed with piety, prudence, and integrity of life; who may not proceed to exorcisms except after having determined the person is obsessed by way of diligent and prudent investigation.”
We gain a few pieces of insight from this piece of legal code. First and foremost we see that it doesn’t say only a priest may validly perform an exorcism, it says those people endowed with the power of exorcism must have permission from the bishop. Then it restricts that permission to priests, but there’s clearly no assumption that only a priest may validly perform exorcisms. The references to “legitimately” and “license” in the Code make it clear this is an issue of liceity.
(SIDE NOTE: For anyone with questions, “legitime” in the framework of Canon Law refers specifically to liceity. If the text were addressing validity, the word would be “valide.”)
Another thing we notice is that the Code explicitly limits itself to possessed persons, with no reference to exorcizing places or objects. In practice the exorcism of a person (I called them “human cases” in my exorcist days) is a relatively rare thing, and it’s mostly places and objects that will occupy the exorcist’s attention.
Thus far, the Code neither states non-priests are not capable of performing an effective exorcism, nor does the Code require the bishop’s permission to exorcise anything that’s not a human being.
- Exorcism Allowed to Laity
These conclusions are further corroborated by the publication of the Exorcismus in Satanam et Angelos Apostaticos by Leo XIII – also called the “St. Michael Exorcism” or the “Exorcism Against Satan and the Rebellious Angels” and directed at exorcizing objects and places. This exorcism was published in English translation in several pamphlets each bearing the imprimatur (official permission) of various bishops, and explicitly stated this exorcism was allowed to the laity so long as they omitted a small handful of words.
- Canon Law, 1983
Eighteen years after Vatican II, the 1983 Code of Canon Law retains a shortened form of this law in Canon 1172. Again, I give the text in the original Latin and in English translation.
- 1. Nemo exorcismos in obsessos proferre legitime potest, nisi ab Ordinario loci peculiarem et expressam licentiam obtinuerit.
“§1. No one can perform exorcisms legitimately upon the possessed unless he has obtained special and express permission from the local ordinary.”
- 2. Haec licentia ab Ordinario loci concedatur tantummodo presbytero pietate, scientia, prudentia ac vitae integritate praedito.
“§2. The local ordinary is to give this permission only to a presbyter who has piety, knowledge, prudence, and integrity of life.”
Again, we see this applies only to possessed people and speaks only of liceity, not validity. The terms “legitime” and “licentia” (with the lack of “valide”) are our indicators here. What’s also missing is the requirement for diligent investigation before performing the exorcism, but that’s such an established practice it’s not an issue for argument here.
So our take-aways thus far: 1) a non-priest can validly perform exorcisms over possessed people as well as places or things, 2) a non-priest can validly and licitly perform exorcisms over places and things, and 3) a non-priest may not licitly perform exorcisms over a person.
Well, not so fast. That window was closed in 1984.
- The Power Grab Is Complete
In 1984 then-Cardinal Ratzinger published Inde ab Aliquot Annos, in which he revoked any and all permissions for laypersons to use the Leo XIII exorcism or any other form “…in the course of which the demons are directly disturbed and an attempt is made to determine their identity.”
Like most post-Vatican II pronouncements, this document only addresses liceity and not validity. While there’s a reference to “those who lack the requisite power” (ii qui debita potestate carent), there’s no delineation for who has and who doesn’t have that power.
In fact the general rule is that the Church can only legislate concerning liceity; she can’t legislate validity but can only recognize the conditions leading to it (this is why modern-day Rome is careful to avoid pronouncing on the validity of schismatic and non-canonical ordinations, usually saying “whatever the validity may be, we don’t recognize their authority within our institution.”)
In any case, as of 1984 – and I find it ironic the year was 1984 – the transference of exorcism out of the hands of the laity and everyone else outside the priesthood is complete, and non-priests are left with only the scraps of asking “please God, take this evil away from me” and told they’re not allowed to stand up and take care of the problem like a grown-up.
I don’t think this power grab was made without reason, though. It’s not uncommon to hear of cases where people die in the course of exorcisms, and what can happen when an unqualified would-be exorcist confronts a spiritual power that’s more than they bargained for.
Love her or hate her, the fact stands that Roman Catholic Church is a dictatorship and not a democracy, and a dictatorship that demands docility of its subjects (Catechism, n. 87, and the word “subject” is the term found in Canon Law). When you seek to subjugate those under you and tell them they must be docile, you automatically take on the duty of protecting those people from themselves.
- Whence the Power Comes
In the last verses of Mark 16, Jesus was very clear that those who believe will be able to cast out demons. We also find Jesus sending out the 72 disciples in Luke 10 and telling them they’re able to cast out demons. Remember that all bishops and priests descend from the Twelve Apostles, not the 72 disciples, meaning that we had non-priests doing exorcism from the very beginning of Christianity.
This indicates to me that the power to perform exorcism doesn’t come from ordination. This power can only come from Baptism.
But I’m not finished. I’m not finished because of the Order of Exorcists. While it became so later, the Order of exorcist was not originally a step on the way to the priesthood. And even in the latter days, the exorcist did not share any part in the Sacramental Character (the imprint on the soul) of Ordination.
So let’s break out our theology textbooks, in this case Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. When discussing the Minor Orders, he says:
“The four Minor Orders and the Subdiaconate are not Sacraments but merely Sacramentals.
“The Minor Orders and the subdiaconate are not of Divine institution, but were only gradually introduced by the Church to meet special requirements. The lectorate is first attested to by Tertullian (De praescr. 41), the subdiaconate by St. Hippolytus of Rome (Traditio Apost.), all the Minor Orders (which up to the 12th century included the subdiaconate), by Pope St. Cornelius (D 45). The Greek Church knows only two Minor Orders: lectorate and hypodiaconate. The rite of consecration for these does not include the imposition of hands.”
Though not a theology textbook, the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia corroborates this and expands upon the reasoning:
“Although several medieval theologians regarded minor orders as sacramental, this view is no longer held, for the fundamental reason that minor orders, also the subdiaconate, are not of Divine or Apostolic origin. The rites by which they are conferred are quite different from ordination to holy orders.”
Perhaps what’s most telling is the fact that the Minor Orders were altogether abolished by Paul VI in 1972, in the Motu Proprio Ministeria Quaedam. The motu says the following about the minors:
“Nevertheless, since the minor orders have not always been the same and many functions connected with them, as at present, have also been exercised by the laity, it seems fitting to reexamine this practice and to adapt it to contemporary needs.”
Now we need to contrast this with what If the minors were of divine institution and an actual Sacrament, then even the Pope wouldn’t be able to abolish them, because as his predecessor Pius XII said in Sacramentum Ordinis some 25 years earlier: “The Church has no power over the substance of the Sacraments.”
In saying this, Pius XII was merely reiterating his own predecessors throughout the centuries, and the Council of Trent made the extent of the Church’s power clear in its XXI session:
“It furthermore declares, that this power has ever been in the Church, that, in the dispensation of the sacraments, their substance being untouched, it may ordain,–or change, what things soever it may judge most expedient, for the profit of those who receive, or for the veneration of the said sacraments, according to the difference of circumstances, times, and places.” – (emphasis mine)
We again see that the Church has a lot of latitude with her Sacred Rites, but no latitude whatsoever with the substance of the Sacraments. The reason is that the substance of the Sacraments (though not their exact rituals) were given directly by Christ and therefore cannot be altered or abolished altogether.
Yet a minor order is abolished altogether, and the historical and theological consensus is that the minors are not a Sacrament. So what does this mean? It means that if the Church is able to abolish the minors entirely, then the minors were not a Sacrament and therefore imparted no Sacramental Character onto the recipient’s soul.
Which, in turn, leads us to only one conclusion: the minor orders are not a Sacrament and therefore confer no spiritual power onto whoever receives them. Thus we can only conclude that if the power to perform exorcism does not come from Ordination, then the power can only come from one other place: Baptism.
Which in turn brings us back to Jesus’ own words that casting out spirits is a sign “that will follow those who believe.” Again corroborating my “short answer” that even though formal permission may be extended only to priests, exorcism may be successfully performed by any baptized Christian.
Whether the individual baptized Christian wants to break their church’s rules or is even knowledgeable or qualified to perform an exorcism, however, is a different conversation entirely.