The recent movie The Rite is loosely based on a (supposedly) nonfiction book that was published two years ago, The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist by Matt Baglio. The book is about an American priest who spent his sabbatical year in Italy training to be an exorcist.
As Laura Miller explains in “Eat your saints, purge your demons,” Salon, March 27, 2009:
Father Gary Thomas, Baglio’s trainee exorcist, half fell into the job; he volunteered when, in 2004, the Vatican asked every Catholic bishop to appoint an official exorcist to his diocese. This startling development can be explained by the fact that for the past decade Italy has been gripped by an intermittent satanic ritual abuse panic similar to the hysteria that swept through the U.S. in the 1980s.
True, but I think that’s only one of the reasons for the Vatican’s stepped-up interest in exorcism. Another, more global reason has to do with the growth of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement. Exorcism/”deliverance” is very much a part of the Pentecostal/charismatic movement in all its many branches, both Catholic and Protestant. Furthermore, Protestant Pentecostals are the Roman Catholic Church’s strongest competitors, having won vast numbers of converts in traditionally Catholic Latin America over the past several decades. So, if the Catholic Church wants Catholic Charismatics — a very large sector of the Catholic Church’s own most fervent adherents worldwide — to remain Catholic and not go join the Pentecostals, then the Vatican absolutely must make exorcism widely available on the Vatican’s own terms.
Anyhow, Laura Miller says the following about Italy’s Satanic panic:
The precipitating events were two murder cases, both involving disturbed teenage drug abusers, the more notorious of which featured the Beasts of Satan, a heavy metal band made up of self-styled devil worshipers who ultimately killed three of their cronies. This in turn led to allegations, made by civic and religious authorities, that a network of secret satanic cults was active throughout the country, engaging in human sacrifice and the sexual molestation of children among other crimes. Some church spokesmen have stated that “as many as 8,000 satanic sects with more than 600,000 members exist within Italy.”
There does not appear to have ever been any rigorous, concerted effort to substantiate these claims, and most likely they are, like similar assertions made in America during our own ritual satanic abuse panic, entirely false. This stuff is, however, catnip for the press and also useful for public servants eager to further their ambitions or cover up their incompetence. In the 2008 book “The Monster of Florence,” about that city’s most notorious (and still unsolved) serial killer case, authors Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi described how a police inspector who was getting nowhere in solving the crimes suddenly announced that he had evidence that a satanic cult was responsible and was interfering with his investigation. When Preston and Spezi criticized this theory, they were themselves accused of belonging to the cult and Spezi was arrested. A mentally unbalanced woman put up a Web site promoting the satanic cult theory and contending that the cult’s sinister influence had extensively penetrated the upper echelons of Italian society; the site became popular and the woman herself gained an astonishing amount of cultural and political influence.
Laura Miller also points out, correctly, about the Catholic exorcism trend:
The exorcism course that Father Gary attended was first offered by the Regina Apostolorum, a Catholic university run by the right-wing Legionnaires of Christ, in 2005, and it is part of a general conservative trend in the church, led by the current pope, Benedict XVI.
As has been widely noted, the Regina Apostolorum’s 2005 exorcism course included presentations by alleged “experts” on Satanism.
I’ll now examine the claims of those “experts” as paraphrased in Matt Baglio’s book. Alas I don’t know how accurately their claims are represented by Baglio, who also attended the exorcism course (and met Gary Thomas there). Page numbers will refer to the paperback edition of The Rite.
A presentation by Dr. Marco Strano, described on page 54 as “a criminologist and psychologist with the state police,” began with a slide showing a church that had been vandalized with graffiti including inverted crosses and “666.” Other slides included pictures of “elaborate satanic tattoos, self-mutilations, shattered storefronts blocked off by yellow crime-scene tape.”
Nowhere does Baglio even mention the existence of law-abiding Satanists, let alone point out that the kids who spray-paint graffiti are unlikely to be serious about any religion of any kind, as distinct from just using Satanic symbols to shock the grownups. There are plenty of good reasons for Satanists not to commit crimes such as vandalism. (See the Church of Azazel protocongregation’s Statement against violent crime and vandalism, for example.)
Near the bottom of page 54 is a paragraph about the violent crimes — committed mainly by gangs of teenagers — that sparked Italy’s Satanic panic. The description of those crimes is immediately followed by a brief mention of the “millions of people” who are “reportedly involved in the occult” — insinuating, in classic 1980’s-style fashion, that all these people are part of one vast murderous menace.
The top of page 55 begins: “Modern Satanists, say experts, borrow from a number of historical traditions….” True so far.
That paragraph continues, “… and its tenets are hard to pin down. There is no unified belief system, as some members of the same group may become involved for more abstract practices while others do so for carnal.”
True, though it should also be pointed out that there do exist Satanist groups with publicly-articulated, codified belief systems. The best-known of these is LaVey’s atheistic Church of Satan. There also exist a variety of theistic groups, with a variety of belief systems.
Next is a paragraph about the ancient Gnostics and the medieval Cathars. When describing the beliefs of the Gnostics, Baglio identifies the Demiurge (the evil creator of the physical world) with Satan. Baglio fails to mention that some Gnostics identified the Demiurge with Jehovah and revered the Serpent of the Garden of Eden as an emissary of the true God, sent to bring knowledge to humans. (See The Genesis Factor by Stephan A. Hoeller, Quest, September 1997, reprinted with links to relevant Gnostic scriptures.)
After that, Baglio correctly says: “In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, on the heels of the revolutions in America and France and in the midst of the Enlightenment, Satan’s desire to rebel against God was cast as a bid for freedom. The Church, seen by some as too authoritarian, was accused of repressing man’s natural carnal desires.”
However, Baglio does not name any of the famous literary figures who espoused such views. He does not mention, for example, William Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” or any of Mark Twain’s novels about the Devil, or any of George Bernard Shaw’s plays featuring the Devil or a “Devil’s Disciple.” Despite being in Italy, Baglio does not even mention the “Inno a Satana” (“Hymn to Satan”) written by one of Italy’s most famous poets, Giosue Carducci. Of course, mentioning these famous writers might make Satanism seem a little too respectable for Baglio’s purposes…. Instead, Baglio mentions only the existence of groups such as Sir Francis Dashwood’s Hellfire Club.
Baglio then names one of his “experts,” Father Francesco Bamonte, who was first introduced on page 49 as an Italian exorcist. On page 55, Bamonte is paraphrased as saying that “there are two currents of Satanism. In the first, known as ‘personal,’ adepts actually believe that Satan is a physical entity, a god who can be prayed to and who will grant certain privileges, such as money and fame, if offered sacrifices. While in the second, known as ‘impersonal,’ acolytes hold that Satan represents more of a force or energy, a part of the cosmos that can be developed and used to serve them.”
That’s a vast oversimplification, to say the least. Theistic Satanists, who revere Satan as more than just a “force or energy,” do not necessarily regard Satan as “physical” — and, as far as I can tell, most do not believe in the necessity of “sacrifice.” Also, it is by no means true that all theistic Satanists are motivated primarily by the hope of material gain. Many are, but, in my experience, those who stick around the Satanist scene the longest are more likely to have been drawn to Satan via ecstatic spiritual experiences. (At least that seems to be the case here in the U.S.A.; perhaps things are different in Italy?)
Anyhow, on page 56, Baglio then paraphrases Bamonte as saying, “In both the ‘personal’ and the ‘impersonal’ currents of Satanism, the power of the individual is exalted above anything else, while the seven capital sins are celebrated.”
True up to a point. LaVeyan Satanism exalts the power of the individual above anything else. Theistic Satanists vary on this matter. Some forms of theistic Satanism, too, exalt the power of the individual above anything else, while others place more emphasis on reverence for Satan as a deity. As for the “seven capital sins,” the “seven deadly sins” are “celebrated” in Anton LaVey’s Satanic Bible, but only up to a point — only insofar as they are not counterproductive to the individual’s well-being.
Baglio then quotes Bamonte directly: “The key to understanding them is to know their motto, ‘Do what you want; that is the only law’.” This is evidently a garbled version of the famous line from Aleister Crowley’s Book of the Law: “Do What Thou Wilt Shall Be the Whole of the Law.” Crowley either was or was not a Satanist depending on precisely how you define the word “Satanist.” Most Thelemites — adherents of Thelema, the system founded by Crowley — do not consider themselves to be “Satanists.”
A good preliminary introduction to Crowley’s beliefs can be found in Tim Maroney’s Introduction to Crowley (in Five Voices). The meaning of “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law” is discussed on this page.
Baglio’s next “expert” is Father Alto Buonaiuto, described as “a member of the John XXIII Community Association” and said to have been “working with ex-cult members for some time.” He is said to be the author of a book titled “Le mani occulte: viaggio nel monde del satanismo (The Hands of the Occult: A Voyage Into the World of Satanism).”
Right off the bat, I would say it’s a very bad sign when an alleged “expert” appears to be equating “the occult” in general with Satanism. The vast majority of occultists are not Satanists. There are also plenty of Satanists who are not occultists — although most Satanists are influenced, to one degree or another, by at least some aspects of the Western occult tradition. Anyone who is unaware of such basics as the difference between Satanism and occultism in general is clearly unqualified to be an “expert” on either.
What is Buonaiuto’s alleged source of information? According to Baglio on page 57: “For the past five years, Baglio has been running a cult hotline in Italy, counseling individuals and family members who are trying to get out of cults.”
Here are some of Buonaiuto’s claims, according to Baglio on page 56: “During the course of his work, Father Buonaiuto has come up with different designations within satanic cults. The first, which he calls ‘Youth Acid,’ consists of mostly young people into the physical trappings of Satanism: the hedonistic lifestyle mixed with drugs, self-mutilation, pedophilia, suicide, and even murder to provide human sacrifice.”
This lumping together of “self-mutilation, pedophilia, suicide, and even murder,” all as alleged “trappings of Satanism,” is classic Satanic panic.
Buonaiuto next category of Satanists, according to Baglio: “The second designation, known as ‘Power Satanism,’ is more sophisticated, he claims, and counts as members very wealthy and influenctial people who are said to sell their souls to the Devil for the promise of power and riches, which are then used to ensure a perpetual state of strife — war, famine, economic instability, and such.”
Wait a minute: What “war, famine, economic instability, and such” are we talking about here??? Supposedly these alleged “Power Satanists” whom Buonaiuto has encountered are in Italy, right? But there have not been any wars on Italian soil since World War II, nor any famines there recently either. Nor is Italy a great power, hence not in a good position to stir up wars or famines anywhere else in the world either.
The most charitable explanation I can think of is that Buonaiuto’s “cult hotline” may have attracted some crank callers — or perhaps some people with highly questionable “recovered memories.” On page 258, Buonaiuto is paraphrased as saying that “the hotline gets around twenty calls a day, running the gamut from ex-cult members on the run to people just seeking attention.” Perhaps Buonaiuto has been fooled by some of the more creative attention-seekers?
Then again, there really are some people in Italy who are in a good position to cause misery worldwide — and who, in fact, have often done so. Those people are the Pope and assorted Vatican officials. As far as I am aware, they haven’t caused any wars or famines during the past half century, but surely the effects of famines are worsened by the Catholic Church’s hardline stance against birth control — and against any U.N. programs to educate poor people about birth control. And the Catholic Church’s stance against homosexuality has surely resulted in many more teen suicides than Satanism could possibly ever have had anything to do with. And, of course, there’s the long history of coverups of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.
But it’s highly unlikely that Vatican officials have been calling up Buonaiuto’s cult hotline.
Back to Buonaiuto’s categories of Satanists. On page 56: “The third designation he calls ‘Apocalyptic Satanism,’ which, as the name suggests, has as its goal the total destruction of life as we know it; not surprisingly, he claims that this is the most dangerous category.”
Sounds like some metal lyrics I’ve heard. Only a handful of crazies would have this as an actual goal, it seems to me.
On page 57, Baglio finally gets around to acknowledging the possibility of Satanic panic, and that there’s at least some debate over whether groups like the “Beasts of Satan” (an Italian metal band whose members murdered some close associates) are “part of a bigger problem, or just deeply troubled kids.” He even mentions the McMartin Preschool case.
Baglio then admits:
Italy has seen its fair share of scandals that, while garnering headlines, have failed to deliver. In 1996, for example, Marco Dimitri, the leader of a satanic cult called the bambini di Satana (Children of Satan) was acquitted of raping a two-year-old boy and a ten-year-old girl during an alleged satanic ritual. Likewise, in 2007, the town of Rigmano Flaminion near Rome went through its very own McMartin-style scandal when fifteen students in a nursery school accused six individuals, including several teachers, of sexually abusing them in satanic rituals. A lengthy investigation, however, involving a number of child psychologists, failed to turn up any evidence.
Baglio also admits that Dr. Strano, the criminologist whose slide show he featured earlier, “doesn’t believe the more sensational crimes attributed to satanic cults — such as human sacrifice, organ trafficking, and slavery — are going on to the extent that some people imagine.” However, if Baglio is accurately representing his views, even Dr. Strano seems unaware of the existence of law-abiding Satanist groups with thought-out worldviews. The only type of “Satanist” that Dr. Strano seems to acknowledge is rebellious young folks doing drugs, most of whom “do not even know what they are doing.” [Sigh!]
Baglio then lets the cult hotline guy, Father Buonaiuto, have the last word. Buonaiuto disagrees with Dr. Strano, insofar as Buonaiuto sees Satanism as a huge menace. Buonaiuto claims that groups like the “Beasts of Satan” are not “isolated groups” but part of a much larger, organized subculture (complete with “territory”) of unbelievably horrible people who revel in death and cruelty.
Finally, on page 58, Baglio winds down his section on Satanism, and segues back to his main topics of demon possession and exorcism, by having Buonaiuto say that Satanism doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with “the demonic.” Buonaiuto is quoted as saying: “The world of satanic cults is one thing and demonic possession another. Satanism is more about an exterior thing, a cultural movement in which people perpetrate crimes such as fraud and in extreme cases even murder. Some people in these groups don’t even believe in the Devil but use him as s shield to victimize impressionable people. Demonic possession, on the other hand, is an individual thing, which if it affects a person, does so on an interior spiritual level.”
The “Satanism” he talks about here would seem to be all about crime. His “satanic cults” are primarily criminal gangs. Their Satanic symbolism is only secondary and just another tool to manipulate “impressionable people.”
Insofar as the “Satanism” described by Buonaiuto is just “an exterior thing,” it is utterly unlike the Satanism of the (mostly law-abiding) theistic Satanists whom I have known. Most forms of theistic Satanism place a strong emphasis on “interior” spiritual experience, cultivating such experience through ritual and/or meditation. Likewise, all serious forms of occultism are primarily about “interior” things.
Insofar as the “Satanism” described by Buonaiuto is all about crime and drugs, it is utterly unlike LaVeyan Satanism too. LaVeyan Satanism is atheistic, regarding Satan as just a symbol of individuality, independence, etc., but the Church of Satan does require its members to be law-abiding.
I would say that Buonaiuto’s “satanic cults,” insofar as they actually exist, should not be seen as religious entities, but, instead, just another manifestation of the age-old problem of juvenile criminal gangs.
Baglio’s section on Satanism closes with a warning, from exorcist Father Bamonte, that Satanism could lead to demon possession. According to Baglio’s paraphrase, “If a person were to enter such a group and perform magic or certain rituals, that could open up the person to demonic attack.” Of course, that’s the standard claim, by the more authoritarian-minded Christians, about spirituality of all kinds other than worship of the self-described “jealous” Abrahamic God.
I might write more later about other aspects of The Rite. In the meantime, here are some interviews with Matt Baglio and Father Gary Thomas:
- The Story of a Modern-Day Exorcist by Gilbert Cruz, Time magazine, Monday, Mar. 16, 2009
- Matt Baglio, exorcist hunter by Rod Dreher, BeliefNet, Friday April 17, 2009
- Interview With the Exorcist: Father Gary Thomas on The Busted Halo® Show with Father Dave Dwyer, January 17th, 2011
Regarding the connections between Catholic exorcism and the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement, see various sources linked in the following blog posts of mine: Exorcism and religious intolerance on Talk To Action, February 1, 2011, and Catholic exorcism and NYPD “experts on occult crimes”???, LiveJournal, February 6, 2011.