Non right-wing activists who read Embattled Ecumenism by Jill Gill will get the chills as they read of events (up to 1963) that led to travails for one element in American religion. Boise State professor Gill, in a well-researched and even-handedly written history, shows how the leaders of The National Council of Churches, even if/when their positions were appropriate, failed to effect positive purposes because they failed to make a moral case among their own ought-to-be followings. (No one “joins” councils of churches; their church bodies do, which means that membership is at second hand.) The councils made historic, theologically informed contributions to civil rights, “welfare,” and peace causes. But as times changed and they opposed the Vietnam War, many lost their bearings and hearings. Why bring up that ancient “Sixties” history this busy week?

Answer: Because there are manifold signs that the leaders of “Mainline,” “African-American,” “Evangelical,” “Catholic” and other churchly forces may hold refined moral positions, but that they generally fail to have strong and enthusiastic constituent followings “in the pews.” We used to speak of these leaders—whose views I often supported and support—as “generals without armies.” Now, today there are in most of these churchly and other religious groups thoughtful leaders, lay and clerical, who are trying to re-set the strategies and make the moral case.

But recent events, one in particular, reveal how tricky it is for religious groups to use church instruments to make political points if their constituents are not with them. I refer to the efforts by the Springfield, Illinois, Roman-Catholic Bishop, who last week made headlined appearances as he ceremonially bade “Vade Retro Satana!” “Begone, Father of lies, enemy of human salvation. Give way to Christ.”

The context for this archaic and arcane shout? The bishop timed his cathedral ceremony to follow by one hour Governor Pat Quinn’s signing of Illinois’ legislation, which authorizes same-sex marriages in his state. “Politicians responsible” for enacting such marriage legislation, added the Bishop, “are morally complicit as cooperators in facilitating this grave sin.” Etc. One would expect pro-same-sex marriage groups, within or alongside churches, to deride the Bishop. Many dismissed his ceremony as a “stunt.” But the word “stunt” also shows up, not only among secular writers, but also prominently in critical writings of responsible Catholic editors and theologians.

When a profound liturgical act, the prayer service, with an exorcism attached, gets seen as a “stunt,” it loses its ability to achieve its non-stunt end, of which nothing is more profound and urgent in Catholic and other Christian liturgies.

Let’s back up: “Exorcism” once had a clear if often misused function, back before it became a pop-cult feature (after films like “The Exorcist”). Add to that, non-stunt forms of exorcism are repeated in many church liturgies (including, by the way, Lutheran baptismal rites). And, while the faithful may not imagine “Satana” in his caricatured form—clad in a red union suit and with a flaming pitchfork aimed at troubled and troubling sinners—it’s not hard to picture more-than-human agencies behind the manifest evils around and within the believing community (and everywhere else).

But stunting liturgies perceived simply as attention-getting political gestures stunt do not attract or sway the faithful. The American Catholic bishops have recently sent out a new instrument, a questionnaire, to help them “hear” the faithful. We wish them well.

References and Further Reading:

Balmer, Randall. Review of Embattled Ecumenism, by Jill K. Gill. The Christian Century, July 17, 2012.
Lindsey, William. “On Yesterday’s Paprocki Show: A Selection of Commentary.”Paperblog, November 21, 2013.
Pashman, Manya Brachear. “Exorcism against same-sex marriage decried as ‘political stunt.’” The Chicago Tribune, November 19, 2013.,0,6854748.story.
“Bishop Thomas John Paprocki to Offer ‘Prayers of Supplication and Exorcism in Reparation for the Sin of Same-sex Marriage,’” Office for Communications, Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, November 14, 2013.
“Gay Marriage Exorcism: Illinois Bishop Plans Prayer Service Opposing ‘Evil’ Marriage Equality Law,” Huffington Post, November 14, 2013.
O’Loughlin, Michael J. “Over objection, Catholic bishop holds anti-gay exorcism.”Religion News Service, November 20, 2013.
Paprocki, Thomas. “Homily for Prayers of Supplication and Exorcism in Reparation for the Sin of Same-Sex Marriage.” Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, Diocesan Blog, November 20, 2013.
Geller, Allison. “Right-Wing Group Blames Illinois Tornadoes on Gay Marriage,”Opposing Views, November 21, 2013.
Photo Credit: Nick Thompson / flickr

Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. 

Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Marty Center Junior Fellow.