Cuneo Examines Exorcism, Part 2

Michael Cuneo, American ExorcismMichael W. Cuneo. 2001. American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty. New York: DoubleDay.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In 2012 as a chaplain intern, the social worker that I worked most closely with referred me to an eighty-year old resident in the retirement center who was bed-ridden. After several visits, the woman confided with me that her dead mother occasionally visited and warned her that she could not trust her siblings in dealing with the estate. Proud of these visits, she broke off contact with her siblings and found herself alone in this world.

Interns are normally expected to be little more a comforting presence and the woman was too old for a psychiatric referral so I decided on a pastoral approach. Because she professed to be a good Baptist, I asked if she was aware that the Bible teaches that the dead are not supposed to talk to the living and vice-versa.[1] Because of the obvious harm perpetrated by this lingering spirit, I advised her: “The next time that your mother visits, ask her—what are doing here?”

In part one of this review, I present an overview of Cuneo’s book. Here in part two, I will examine key issues that he raises about the practice of exorcism.

What is an Exorcism?

Cuneo writes:

“The rite of exorcism itself, according to [Malachi] Martin, is also a process consisting of several more or less distinct stages. At the outset the priest-exorcist is forced to contend with the pretense, a baffling (and sometimes protracted) state in which the demonic present attempts to disguise its true identity and intentions. The breakdown occurs when the demon abandons subterfuge and begins to speak in its own voice; and during the next stage—what Martin refers to as the clash—the exorcist and demon become locked in a harrowing contest of wills for the soul of the possessed. Finally, if everything goes according to plan, the process concludes with the expulsion of the demonic presence.”(20)

Martin was a “breakaway”Jesuit and the author of numerous books, especially Hostage to the Devil. The formal process of exorcism in the Catholic church is found in the Roman Ritual (259-260), which is a formal ceremony requiring the services of a priest and normally requires the approval of a bishop. Outside the Catholic church, exorcism can take a number of forms when performed by Pentecostals, Charismatics, and other Evangelicals as Cuneo chronicles. Muslims and Jews also practice exorcism, but Cuneo limits his research to practices among white American Christians (xiv).

The Issue of Transcendence

The strong influence of secular atheism on the institutional church in our time questions all references to transcendence in scripture and church life. If the physical world is all there is, then how can spiritual beings, such as angels and demons, even exist? Cuneo reports:

“The rite of exorcism, in fact, is the only Catholic rite in which the officiating priest is advised to take an initial stance of incredulity. Rather than assuming possession straightway and proceeding with an exorcism, the priest is supposed to rule out all other possibilities—from organic disorder to psychological pathology to outright fraud.”(12)

The level of skepticism after the Second Vatican Council that Cuneo reports that: “As recently as the mid-nineties here was only one officially appointed priest-exorcist in the entire country…”(257) Informally, however, some priests have always quietly performed exorcisms and some Evangelical groups treat demonic oppression (not formal possession) as a common problem. The most common response of liberal Protestants and Catholics, however, is to view a request for exorcism as akin to requesting a psychiatric referral.

Cuneo’s Experience

In Cuneo’s experience, having observed more than fifty exorcisms, he reports:

“Some of the people who showed up for exorcisms seemed deeply troubled, some mildly troubled, and some hardly troubled at all. The symptoms they complained of—the addictions and compulsions, the violent mood swings, the blurred self-identities, the disturbing visions and somatic sensations—all of this seemed to me fully explainable in social, cultural, medical, and psychological terms…The same with the antics I sometimes witnessed while the exorcisms were actually taking place, the flailing and slithering, the shrieking and moaning, the grimacing and growling—none of this, insofar as I could tell, suggested the presence of demons.”(275-276)

He suggested that exorcism may have a kind of placebo effect (277).


Michael Cuneo’s American Exorcism is a fascinating read. His story telling, literature review, and personal interviews surpass anything that I have read about exorcism practices. The more typical author writing in this genre focuses on their own methods and experiences, which leaves the reader wondering whether the author’s work is typical, reliable, authoritative. Practitioners may find helpful advice owning to the wide scope of Cuneo’s work. In any case, Cuneo writes from the perspective of a skeptical Jesuit with a background in sociology. And that’s okay.


Marin, Malachi. 1976. Hostage to the Devil. New York: Reader’s Digest Press.

Montenegro, Marcia. 2006. Spellbound: The Paranormal Seduction of Today’s Kids. Colorado Springs: Life Journey.


[1]Deut 18:10-12 (Montenegro 2006, 26). Also: 1 Sam 28.

Cuneo Examines Exorcism, Part 2

Also see:

A Place for Authoritative Prayer

Wicks Seeks Availability Deepens Faith

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

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