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Mass Shootings, Demon Possession and Mental Illness

This article was originally published on July 25, 2012, in the aftermath of the Colorado shooting under the title Fr. Longenecker, Stuart James, Demonic Possession, Mental Illness and the Colorado Shooting. I’m republishing it today in the aftermath of yet another tragic mass shooting.


Stuart has taken issue with Fr. Dwight Longenecker. Stuart says that Fr. Longenecker is “conflating evil and demonic possession with mental illness.” I tend to disagree with the word “conflating” in the sense that I don’t think that was Fr. Longenecker’s intent at all. Also, I don’t think most people will understand what Stuart means by “conflating”….but I do…because like him, I live with Bipolar Disorder and I see this through the eyes of someone who deals with it on a daily basis.

I think Fr. Longenecker was trying to be fairly clear that he separates the two…but he mussed it up.

Stuart writes:

Given this, my main contention with the ‘demonic possession’ theory would be the degree of culpability. How much blame and responsibility can be attributed to the man, and how much to the demon? We don’t tend to observe criticism of the man from Gadarenes, ‘Legion’; in fact, quite the opposite, he’s viewed with sympathy as an unfortunate victim.

We have no capacity to blame. Only God can rightly judge. We use our best judgment as to the danger someone may pose to society and we act to protect society from people who might be aggressive. There isn’t anyone who knows the culpability of any other person on anything. We can only make guesses about that, and if society itself has become barbaric, society is even less able to judge than it would be if it were a moral society. Having said that, Stuart is right that we must be very careful not to cast aggressors as victims unless we are reasonably sure that the person was definitely under the influence of something he had no control over. Still, that point is rather a side issue in all this.

Fr. Longenecker writes:

The human person is an intricate organism in which the physical, mental and spiritual aspects are totally interwoven. Therefore, in most cases, trying to diagnose the possibility of demonic influence is extremely difficult.

To this, Stuart responds:

The use of the term ‘diagnose’ is interesting as this would usually have medical connotations, and I suspect Longenecker has this in the back of his mind; especially in relation to mental illness.

I’ll give Fr. Longenecker leeway on that since even my mechanic uses the word “diagnose” in reference to analyzing what’s wrong with my car. I think the fact that Stuart isn’t giving him that leeway may explain, at least in part, why he reacted so strongly to what Fr. Longenecker wrote. This is not to say that Stuart isn’t justified in being disturbed by the article.

Fr. Longenecker wrote:

The obsession with evil will probably have an addictive element. The personality begins to change. The individual may seem “normal” most of the time, but he’ll have “dark moments” when his “inner demons” take over. The difficulty in diagnosing demonic influence is that these same symptoms may indicate substance abuse problems, mental illness, social maladjustment, emotional inadequacy, relationship problems or a complex web of such difficulties. Demonic influence will cause these symptoms, but these symptoms are not necessarily a sign of demonic activity.

I would say that “obsession with evil” is a bad choice of words. “Obsession with evil” would not be appropriate to describe demonic possession because “obsession with evil” means that one either does not or cannot stop “thinking” about evil. The “thinking” part of that means that in “obsession” we are not referring at all to demon possession but rather to something happening within the realm of someone’s own thinking. “Possession” refers to another entity and that entity’s thoughts are separate from the thoughts of the possessed person. “Obsession” refers to the actual thoughts of the obsessed person.

“Inner demons” is also a bad choice of words on Fr. Longenecker’s part. It causes blurring of the lines between mental disorder and actual demonic possession. I am glad that he put it in quotes, but he should not have used the term at all. I agree with him that some symptoms of mental disorder may look like demonic possession, and vice versa, but the use of the term “inner demons” impedes people in coming to a full understanding of the ABSOLUTE difference between mental illness and demonic possession.

Stuart responded this way:

Here we have the paragraph start with “The obsession with evil” and then move to an explanation of the difficulties of ‘diagnosing’ possession; as this same symptom may indicate mental illness, or even emotional inadequacy.

This, to me, is a blatant conflation of evil with mental illness, or personality disorder.

I don’t personally see it as “blatant conflation.” Rather, I see it as I stated, an unfortunate use of terms that can cause a blurring of the lines. I don’t think Fr. Longenecker meant to blur the lines, but I believe he did. It seems “blatant” to Stuart because he deals, as I do, with mental illness on a daily basis, and with the stigma that comes with it. Of course it seems blatant to him…because it hurts us when we see things like this. They jump out at us. In this particular case, I see what Fr. Longenecker is trying to say but if I had read it without reading Stuart’s article first, I might have actually freaked out and gotten upset about it, too. Isn’t that ironic?

We have dignity, and when people talk in terms that tend to suggest the opposite of the truths we hold most dear in our hearts on a daily basis in order to SURVIVE….well, it’s like we’re on fire and trying to stay alive and you’re pouring a few drops of petrol on us. You may not see any harm whatsoever, but a little falsehood about what we go through….especially from faithful Catholics….can sometimes be enough to send us over the edge. I’m not talking about Stuart here. I’m talking about me…and I know Stuart understands what I’m saying because he has Bipolar Disorder, too, and he has seen that happen to me.

Fr. Longenecker wrote:

When the signs of preternatural strength are seen, horrible alien voices come from the person, vile blasphemies are heard and perverted and violent actions are witnessed, one can be fairly sure that a demonic infestation is happening. However, many of these symptoms may also be signs of a deep mental or spiritual illness which is not demonic in origin.

Stuart responds:

So, preternatural strength, horrible alien voices and vile blasphemies may be symptoms of mental illness? Well, would they not be signs of demon possession rather than mental illness? And why would someone suffering from mental illness have supernatural strength? I’ve never read of such a thing.

I’ll have to agree with Stuart on that one, except with the “vile blasphemies.” I do think “vile blasphemies” might come out of a mentally ill person’s mouth, even a Christian person with mental illness if the illness is bad enough. I myself blurt absolute nonsense out of my mouth sometimes, though not blasphemies. My kids still have not gotten used to that. But supernatural strength and horrible alien voices? No. Mental illness doesn’t cause those kinds of serious and sudden changes in physical capacity.

Fr. Longenecker writes:

Yes. Something happened to the mild mannered science geek. He turned into a monster. Something twisted in his mind and heart, and Evil made an entry. Evil infested his life. It took him over. Whether the twist was through mental illness, some inner wound or some terrible dark intelligence, we cannot say.

Hmmm.

Stuart writes:

Again, we see the monster portrayed, fully beset and overwhelmed with evil, and what may have been one of the causes? Yep, I think you’ve already guessed….mental illness.

Feel free to believe in demonology, or not. Hey, feel free to believe in mental illness, or not. But if you believe in them both, PLEASE STOP conflating the two.

Mental illness DOES NOT equate evil.

I’m going to have to side with Stuart on this one, wholeheartedly, mainly because I don’t ever see glowing posts in the Catholic blogosphere about how the mentally ill are actually the image of God in the world. If we were talked about as what we really are, instead of being talked about only when someone commits mass murder, I might see some more value in Fr. Longenecker’s post. As it stands, I’m going with Stuart on this one. I would acknowledge that Stuart seems to those who do not live with this disorder that he overreacted. Having said that, I know why he overreacted. It’s because he’s sick of this stuff, and frankly, so am I.

Jesus is our salvation, no matter how messed up our brains might be. All the trials bring us closer to Him. It’s Jesus’ picture I keep in my worn-through shoes, not Fr. Longenecker’s. :-) God bless you both.

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