August 12, 2023


The Ultimate Horror Movie Is Really About Heaven and Hell (NY Times, August 12, 2023)

In "The Exorcist," the opposition of modernity and tradition is dramatized through the two main priest characters, Father Damien Karras and Father Lankester Merrin. Father Karras is a typical clergyman of the modern era, a young liberal Jesuit disillusioned with the priesthood for whom secular learning and even physical exercise have usurped the role of dogma. When the mother of the possessed girl asks him how someone obtains permission for an exorcism, he replies, "I'd have to get them into a time machine and get them back to the 16th century."

By contrast, Father Merrin is an older, traditionally minded scholar-priest, an expert in ancient Near Eastern cultures who accepts the reality of the demonic and fears it. He is an embodiment of what Pope Benedict XVI once called the "hermeneutic of continuity," a refusal to regard the 1960s as the beginning of a new divine dispensation.

The movie suggests that Father Karras's ambivalence about the church has morally compromised the way he sees the world. When he encounters a homeless man who asks him for change ("Could you help an old altar boy?"), he exhibits visceral disgust. He sees not a human being made in God's image but an object of hopelessness for whom he feels neither love nor responsibility.

The contrast between the two priests is central to the film's climax. When Father Merrin arrives to assist Father Karras with the exorcism, he instructs the younger priest to bring sacerdotal vestments, holy water and a copy of "Rituale Romanum," a pre-Vatican II liturgical book that contains the formula used for exorcism.

When Father Karras asks Father Merrin whether he would like to read the facts of the case first, he replies, tersely: "Why?" For Father Merrin, the girl is not a psychiatric patient to be analyzed, her symptoms ticked off as with any other diagnosis, just as the devil is not a mere symbol of the possibility of evil that lurks in every human heart. The girl is actually possessed, and the devil is an actual being, the prince of the fallen angels who "prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls" (in the words of a prayer that before Vatican II had been recited at the end of Low Masses throughout the world).

Father Karras's reluctance to accept the possibility of supernatural evil is intimately bound up in his inability to see God in the face of the poor. It is only by finally acknowledging the reality of supernatural evil -- and the all-pervading goodness of God, of which evil is merely a privation -- that Father Karras is ultimately able to sacrifice his own life to save the girl.

In "The Exorcist," neither the plot nor the characters can be understood from a nonreligious vantage point.

The Culture Wars are a rout.
Posted by at August 12, 2023 8:36 AM