Exorcism: Legal perspective.

Donbosco J. Mawdsley, SMA



When someone speaks about exorcism there could be a strange look from the crowd around. Some might say he is old fashioned, others might say he is out of season or they might even say that he is strange. But one cannot deny or hide from the reality of the presence of evil and its consequences from the time of creation. Any reality that has an influence on human act has legal effects. Exorcism also having influence on human act has its own legal out comes.  Other articles in this bulletin might have defined and explained what is exorcism from scriptural, social, psychological point of view. Here let us see what are the legal implications of exorcism.  

Legal Documents of the Church.

There are a lot of legal documents in the Church regarding exorcism especially in liturgical laws. In the liturgy exorcism was a part of baptismal rite. In later stage exorcism, the so called ‘Major Exorcism’ i.e., the casting out of the devil from the possessed, which was not part of the baptismal rite which had its own rite; Roman Ritual of 1614, 1925, 1952 and 1998.

The first canonical document was the first Code of Canon Law of 1917. This contains the following canons which explain canonical procedures of an exorcism.

 “Can 1151 §1. No one, even if endowed with the power of exorcism, can legitimately perform an exorcism over the [possessed] unless he has obtained express and specific authorisation from the Ordinary.

  • 2. This authorisation from the Ordinary can be granted only to Priests outstanding for their piety, Prudence, and integrity of Life; such a one shall not proceed to exorcism unless, after a diligent and prudent investigation, he finds that the one to be exorcized is actually [Possessed] by a Demon.

Can 1152. Exorcism by legitimate ministers can be performed not only on the faithful and Catechumens, but also upon non-Catholics and the excommunicated.

Can 1153. The minister of the exorcisms that occur in Baptism and in Consecrations or blessings are those who are the legitimate Ministers of those sacred Rites.” (1917 Code Canons 1151-1153).

Following the revision of the 1917 Code the 1983 Code also had a specific canon regarding Exorcism.

“Can. 1172 § 1. No one can perform exorcisms legitimately upon the possessed unless he has obtained special and express permission from the local ordinary.

  • 2. The local ordinary is to give this permission only to a presbyter who has piety, knowledge, prudence, and integrity of life.” (1983 code Can. 1172).

Following these Codes of Canon law and the teaching of the Second Vatican Council the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines and explains what is exorcism and who is an Exorcist priest in number 1673.

“When the Church asks publicly and authoritatively in the name of Jesus Christ that a person or object be protected against the power of the Evil One and withdrawn from his dominion, it is called exorcism. Jesus performed exorcisms and from him the Church has received the power and office of exorcizing. In a simple form, exorcism is performed at the celebration of Baptism. The solemn exorcism, called “a major exorcism,” can be performed only by a priest and with the permission of the bishop. The priest must proceed with prudence, strictly observing the rules established by the Church. Exorcism is directed at the expulsion of demons or to the liberation from demonic possession through the spiritual authority which Jesus entrusted to his Church. Illness, especially psychological illness, is a very different matter; treating this is the concern of medical science. Therefore, before an exorcism is performed, it is important to ascertain that one is dealing with the presence of the Evil One, and not an illness” (CCC 1673).


The Documents on the Liturgical Laws specifically for the celebration of the Exorcism date back to sixth century AD. Some parts of the 1614 Roman Ritual are identifiable with the text of late 3rd and early 4th centuries.[1] The Rite also contains twenty one instructions for the Exorcist.[2] Particular Attention is given to the so called Exorcism of Pope Leo XIII.[3]Statuta Ecclesiae Latinae, a collection of the Church legislation that was issued about the year 500, contains one of the earliest formulas for Exorcism.” [4]  Following this there existed a wide spread of other formulas which, in 1614, were complied into one collection; the Rituale Romanun De exorcizandis obsessis daemonio.[5]  This Roman Rite underwent different amendments in the year 1925 and 1952. Following the Liturgical reform according to Vatican Council II the Roman Rite was revised and published in 1998 as Rituale Romanun  De exorcismis et supplicationibus quibusdam, which was officially promulgated in 2004.

The ministry of Exorcism. 

In the 1983 Code the ministry of exorcism is treated in the IV book under the title sacramental hence a sacred sign through which Church fulfils its sanctifying office  (Can 843 § 1) and exercises the priestly function of Christ (Can 834 § 1). One should not forget that being a liturgical act, the ministry of exorcism is also governed by the liturgical laws (Can 2). The earliest mention of the office of exorcist is perhaps in a letter written by Pope Cornelius (251-252) to bishop Fabius of Antioch stating that in the Church of Rome there were “fifty-two exorcist, lectors, and porters.”[6] The 1614 Roman Rite clearly states that the priest is the legitimate minister of the Church and it is the priest who is an exorcist.[7]  The Code of Canon Law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly state that only a priest can be an exorcist.   


Special and Express permission.

For a lawful celebration of the sacramental of exorcism more than the sacred ordination of priesthood  priest needs a special and express permission. The 1614 Rite clearly states that the ministry of exorcism is solely reserved to sacred ordination of priesthood and only a priest who has the special and express permission is the legitimate minister of exorcism. Any person who celebrates this sacramental, even a validly ordained priest, without the express permission celebrates it unlawfully and this has its own consequences. Let’s recall the event in the Acts of the Apostles where the demon says ‘Jesus I know, Paul I know and who are you’ (Acts 19:15).   

Who can grant the Permission?

According to Canon law, only the local Ordinary (Can 134) can grant this special and express permission. This permission is special and not general and it has to be clearly expressed. It is special in a sense that it is granted only for a particular case or person. Since it requires an expressed permission, it’s better that it is given in a written form rather than oral (Can 59).[8]  This permission can also be granted in a stable manner as an office (Can 154).[9]  This stable office is established only on the request of the Episcopal Conference and the approval of the Holy See.[10] Only the local Ordinary can grant this permission therefore it is also territorial i.e. if the local Ordinary of the Diocese A grants the permission it cannot be applied in the Diocese B.  This authority of the local Ordinary shows his duty of vigilance over his sheep, the Diocese and the administration of the Sacraments and other liturgical acts of the Church given in his care. A priest, who is a member of a Religious Institute or a Society of Apostolic Life, even if the subject of the exorcism is a member of his own institute, is obliged to obtain the permission from the local Ordinary.[11] The vicar general or the Episcopal vicar may grant this permission only with a special mandate and when the bishop cannot be reached.[12]

Lack of Permission and its Legal effect.

Celebration of the sacramental of Exorcism without lawful permission creates an illegitimate priestly function and in accordance to Cannon 1384 can be punished with a just penalty.

An Exorcist even with the legitimate permission cannot lawfully celebrate this sacramental if he is excommunicated (Can 1331 2°). “I always use this phrase: the Prince of disobedience is Devil and you beat him by being Obedient.”[13] These words of Fr. Gaincarlo Gramolazzo clearly connect the permission given by the Bishop and received by the Priest to the act and the promise of Obedience of Priesthood.

This permission also is linked to the faithfulness of the liturgical celebration i.e. using the ritual and the words that is approved by the component authority of the Church (Can 837, 838, 846).

Quality and Duty of an Exorcist Priest.

The legal documents of the Church clearly spell out that the permission can be given only to a priest. Therefore it is clear that the first quality of an Exorcist is Priesthood. There are other qualities nominated by the codes and rituals; Piety, Knowledge, Prudence and Integrity of Life.[14] These qualities which are demanded by the law also spell out the responsibility of the local Ordinary, who grants the permission, to be vigilant and to be sure that the qualities demanded by the law are present in the Priest to whom this permission is granted.  These requirements are not only qualities but at the same time duties of an exorcist priest.

 “The power of the prayer is not in the formula but in the faith”[15] these words of Fr. Gramolazzo clearly depict that an Exorcist priest must be a man of prayer. Fr. Amorth says “Faith is worth more than anything else.”[16] Many exorcists have a special devotion to Mary who fights for them in the front line.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1673 and Can 1172 and the Roman ritual an Exorcist should not perform Exorcism before being certain and ascertaining that the person on whom the Exorcism is performed is really possessed and not affected by some illness especially mental.

The Integrity of life in a simple way is explained by St. John Paul II “The Internal Principle, the force which animates and guides the spiritual life of the Priest in as much as he is configured to Christ the Head and shepherd, is pastoral Charity, as a participation in Jesus Christ’s own pastoral charity the gift freely bestowed by the Holy Spirit and likewise a task and a call which demand a free and committed response on the part of the priest” (PDV 23).

Civil legal requirements.

An exorcist must make sure to get a written consent of the person on whom exorcism is performed.[17] If the person is of opposite sex it is strongly recommended to have another person (woman) present during the ceremony.[18]In India, in some states, there exits an anti superstition law which prohibits any human torture in the name of rituals and display of miracles.[19] Texas high court ruled exorcism protected by law.[20]


“Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching” (Jn 14:23) these words Jesus teach us that obedience is closely linked with love. Anyone who loves the Lord, His Church, His brothers and sister is expected to obey. Disobedience was the first sin. Exorcism requires a great measure of love and obedience.[21]  “For just as through one man’s disobedience many people were made sinners, so also through one man’s obedience many people will be made righteous.” (Rm 5:19). By obeying let us win the Evil. “An Italian Exorcist told of an episode involving members of a catholic charismatic prayer group who thought they had a special ‘gift’ to cast out evil spirits. During the Exorcism, the Charismatic’s were laying on hands and talking to the demon, ordering it to comply.  Without warning, the Demon turned on them saying, ‘Who are you?’ Then he launched a book case at them, sending them all to the emergency room with injuries.”[22]





[1] Malachi Martin, Hostage to the Devil, Harper New York, 1992, P459.

[2] Julian Porteous. Complied, Manual of Minor Exorcism, Catholic Truth Society 2010, P29; M. Martin Pp460-462.

[3] Davide Salvatori, Indemoniati ed esorcismi: alcuni chiarimenti dal punto di vista terminologico, in Quaderni di Diritto Ecclesiale, Anno XXVII- Gennaio 2014, p 11.

[4] Matt Baglio, The Rite: The making of a modern Exorcist, Image books newyork, 2009, P72.

[5] Cf. Davide Salvatori, Indemoniati ed esorcismi, p 11; Matt Baglio, p 74.

[6] H. Denzinger, 109 ; Cf.Matt Baglio, The Rite …, p 73.

[7]  Cf.Fabio Franchetto, Il ministro dell’esorcismo, in Quaderni di Diritto Ecclesiale, Anno XXVII- Gennaio 2014, p 28.   

[8] Cf. Fabio Franchetto, Il ministro dell’esorcismo, 36.

[9] Cf. Ibid, 37.

[10] CDF, letter, Septebmer 29, 1985; CLD 11, 276-277.

[11] Cf. Fabio Franchetto, 40.

[12] John M. Huels, Other Acts of Divine Worship, in New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law, edited by John P. Beal & Co, Study edition, TPI, Bangalore 2007, p. 1405.

[13] Matt Baglio, P73.

[14] For an Extended and deep study Cf, Fabio Franchetto, Il ministro dell’esorcismo, 43-54.

[15] Matt Baglio, P 76.

[16] Matt Baglio, P 80.

[17] Cf. Patrizia Cattaneo, Come Difendersi dal Diavolo: Colloqui con Padre Cipriano De Meo, San Paolo, Tirano, 2012, 108.

[18] 1614 roman ritual of exorcism, instruction n19.

[19] The Times of India December 23 2016,Timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/bengaluru/Govt-shelfes-anti-superstion-bill-indefinetly/articleshow/56128143.cms(accessed 26.08.2017).

[20] Houston Chronicle, Saturday June 28th2008,www. chron.com/news/Houston-Texas/article/Texas-high-court-rules exorcism-protected-by-law-1586132.php(accessed 26.08.2017).

[21] Cf. Patrizia Cattaneo, 109.

[22] Matt Baglio, P.79,80

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