Demons and Devotion: The Hours of Catherine of Cleves - Demon
Demons and Devotion: The Hours of Catherine of Cleves – Demon. Image uploaded by Gwen via Flickr

Most religious and mythological traditions attest to the reality of demons. For the most part, demons are regarded as dark, evil spiritual beings whose sole purpose is to wreak havoc on individuals and the world.

In Hinduism, demons appear in the Puranas as Rakshakas (evil beings capable of shape-shifting) and tramp souls. Also in Hinduism the, at one time, god-like asuras of the Vedas devolve into demonic spirit beings which, the mystic Sri Aurobindo says, try to place false and harmful ideas into the minds of impressionable, vulnerable human beings.

In Tibetan Buddhism, immediately after a person dies a priest reads the Tibetan Book of the Dead aloud over the dead body, instructing the departed soul how to avoid different spiritual lights and deceptions that demonic beings use to try to trick the deceased into falling into another earthly incarnation. And Mahayana Buddhism portrays many hells, each presided over by horrific entities

In China demons are thought to be able to inhabit dead bodies and haunt various places, both inside and out.

Demons in China… are capable of animating dead bodies, haunting cemeteries, cross roads, and the homes of relatives. Some live in Hades…others inhabit the air. Many are hungry ghosts, the spirits of those who have had no proper burial or who have no decendants to feed them sacrifices.¹

Traditional Roman Catholicism doesn’t envision the demon in terms of a psychoanalytic, physiological id or Jungian shadow archetype, as is fashionable in some circles today. Instead, traditional Catholicism makes no bones about the belief in demons. The Prayer Against Satan and The Rebellious Angels, published in 1961 by order of H. H. Pope Leo XIII refers to various “spirits of wickedness,” “diabolical legions” and “infernal invaders” that are to be driven away with the help of this solemn prayer.

Contemporary Catholicism, however, is incorporating secular and psychiatric perspectives on demons, but arguably in a clunky manner that seems to conform to ancient and medieval styles of analyzing issues. This shouldn’t be surprising as certain aspects of Catholic theological discourse borrow from Aristotelian and Thomist analytical categories and modes of analysis. And as history suggests, deeply entrenched patterns of thought and practice usually take time to be positively redirected.

In secular society alleged demons are often described as nothing more than a product of the imagination, hallucinations, an arrested or disturbed personality, mutated chromosomes, or the much debated idea of chemical imbalances. Along these lines the Catholic Catechism makes a sharp distinction between “the presence of the Evil One,” on the one hand, and current understandings of mental illness on the other:

The solemn exorcism, called “a major exorcism,” can be performed only by a priest and with the permission of the bishop. The priest must proceed with prudence, strictly observing the rules established by the Church. Exorcism is directed at the expulsion of demons or to the liberation from demonic possession through the spiritual authority which Jesus entrusted to his Church. Illness, especially psychological illness, is a very different matter; treating this is the concern of medical science. Therefore, before an exorcism is performed, it is important to ascertain that one is dealing with the presence of the Evil One, and not an illness.²

In contrast to the arguably underdeveloped either/or perspective outlined above, a more productive and responsible approach would intelligently consider different perspectives — physiological, psychological, cultural, transpersonal and spiritual — using as many of the analytical tools that are available to us in the 21st century.

Having said that, we should also keep in mind the very real possibility that God could permit a fundamentally good and ‘well adjusted’ person to be afflicted by evil, as we find, for instance, in the Old Testament Book of Job.

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¹ S. G. F. Brandon, A Dictionary of Comparative Religion, 1971, p. 230.

² Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1673.


  1. I agree with you that there could be a co-occurence of psychological disorder and demonic possession and the passage in the Catechism could be more nuanced. However, the passage in question does not necessarilly entail that psychological disorder and demonic posession are mutually exclusive. The Church is being conservative in that it wishes to treat supernatural maladies with the appropriate supernatural aids ( i.e. exorcism) and that it treats natural pathology with treatment methodologies gleaned from psychiatry and psychology. It is probable that there could be a complex interaction between demonic interference and psychological disorder that could complicate the discernment and treatment of the pathology.
    Perhaps the pathology is even a composite of demonic interference/psychiatric anomalies. Nevertheless, grace works through nature. Once psychiatric, biological causes of apparent demonic possession have been ruled out by a competent professional (i.e. brain lesions and trauma, faulty neural wiring or bio-chemical imbalance), and the appropriate ‘natural’ treatments have been given (therapy or pharmacological intervention) and yet the symptoms of what could be a demonic possession still perdures, then the priest could proceed with ‘supernatural treatment’ (exorcism). I do agree with you that there could be alot more work in the integration of psychology and spiritual theology and that the discernment in concrete cases could be tricky. Perhaps having a priest trained in the psychological sciences, or having a priest and psychatrist work together on a case of demonic posession could minimize the risk of mis-diagnosis, because employing the wrong treatment for the wrong disorder could be fatal for the afflicted person.


  2. Thanks for your excellent and insightful comments. I’m not used to seeing such precision on these threads…

    Having said that, I’m not certain that some thinkers would readily accept some of the assumptions built in to your argument. For instance, one could, I think rightly, question the notions of “health” and “illness.” Are they mere social constructions? Or do they possess some kind of intrinsic validity?

    There are a few other points that could be examined. From reading the first chapter of The Biochemical Basis of Neuropharmacology, 7th ed. by Jack Cooper et al., it seems that notions like “chemical imbalance” could be viewed as simplistic representations of extremely complicated debates within neuropharmacology itself… debates that highlight large degrees of uncertainty re interactions and effects on the cellular level. Thus some extreme anti-psychiatry types say that such notions are mostly marketing tools for drug companies.

    I don’t think I’d go quite that far. But it’s good to remember that we’re dealing with hypotheses and sometimes partial representations of ongoing theoretical ambiguities. And as quite a few sociologists and philosophers of science would point out, biological differences from statistical norms may be demonstrated in certain cases but we’re still left with the all-important matter of data interpretation.

    So I tend to see this as far more complicated than outlined in this entry on demons. That’s why I list related topics at the end… I should probably cross-reference a few more to further round it out!

    Note: I just updated the entry after reflecting on this thread. Thanks again for your input.


  3. I’ve been in the presence of demonic possession, and in my career I have worked with many schizophrenics who have various religious delusions – at least we “sane” professionals call them delusions. One poor man I worked with was convinced his entire family would die unless he prayed the Rosary, on his knees, all night long. He prayed the Rosary all night long and his family lived. Most people would conclude this was a coincidence.

    This man was treated with every anti-psychotic medication available, and was given so many ECT treatments he couldn’t even remember his name sometimes. My point is: the religious experience this man had praying the Rosary seems to me a valid religious experience, at least in the sense that it was acutely real to him. I don’t think he was ever actually possessed, but he was frequently tormented by acute religious crises like the one I mentioned.

    Modern medicine could do nothing to alleviate these periodic crises. Yet he was not possessed, at least in my opinion. If the Church is simplistic in its either/or perspective, what words describe a number of psychiatrists I have known who reject even the possibility of demonic possession. Which field is more simplistic? The world is full of Jobs, and it seems to me that neither religion or medicine has ever come up with a solution to end suffering.


    • Excellent comment. Psychiatry does account for religious beliefs but usually, I think, if they fall within the usual, socially recognized patterns. So yeah, a real innovator or pioneer who really is working for God might be misunderstood. But not necessarily. I believe that, like anything else, there are highly competent psychiatrists and less highly competent ones.

      As for the Church, at times it seems to toe the line and uncritically accept the latest psychiatric “truth” without really giving it much critical thought. I think this could partly be out of ignorance, partly out of legal necessity, and partly out of good intentions.

      What I’m trying to advocate is the intelligent examination of both perspectives, and more. For instance, historical and sociological perspectives could also be of great value in helping people understand what’s happening in their suffering.


    • I would like to note the existence of satanic ritual abuse, why they drown children at 3y/o. This is done in order to open the child up to spirits/demons, which can then cause all sorts of havoc in the child’s life, on up into adulthood. I say this because I am victim of it.


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