The recent arrest of Father Travis John Clark of Saints Peter and Paul Church in Pearl River, Louisiana, opened up a rather lurid story. Apparently, the cleric in question had hired two self-described dominatrices to engage in sex with him. On the altar. On camera. One of the… ah, ladies in question had posted on a social media account that she was meeting with a sister in the trade to “defile a house of God.” Not too surprisingly, Archbishop Aymond of New Orleanswas rather perturbed about the whole thing, declaring that “His behavior was obscene, his desecration of the altar is demonic.” As is customary in such cases, the ruined altar was burned, and a new one consecrated in its place.
While various unpleasant details about Father Clark’s background have since emerged (including the molester status of one his boyhood clerical idols), the Archbishop’s observation regarding the demonic nature of the enterprise is worth some careful reflection. Certainly, aberrant sexual behaviour by the clergy is always sinful; morally speaking, the consecrated nature of its participants adds another layer of evil beyond the same acts practised by laymen. But there is a third tier of evil we ignore at our peril—the desire by some clerics not merely to gratify their worst desires, but to serve the Prince of Darkness thereby.
This is not an area in which the layman can easily probe, nor would he want to, normally. But one cannot help but wonder—in the case of an industrial-strength abuser like Cardinal McCarrick, for example—if there was not a Satanic element in the wave of molestation that has swirled around the Church in the past several decades. This has been one of the contentions of Randy Engel’s multi-volume work, The Rite of Sodomy: Homosexuality and the Roman Catholic Church. Without wanting to get involved in any of the specifics in the book, I would point out that there has been no real attempt to refute her assertions, which I leave to the reader.
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Nevertheless, if her charges are true, there is a long and unpleasant history of clerical Satanism—real or alleged. In 19th century France, Joseph-Antoine Boullan began as a normal-appearing French priest with a mystical bent—and ended up fathering at least one child, corrupting a number of nuns, and celebrating both Black Masses and a sort of liturgy of fornication. Both Bertrand Guilladot and Louis Debaraz were priests of Lyons executed for witchraft in the 1740s. At the Court of Louis XIV in the 17th century, the “Affair of the Poisons” revolved around Black Masses offered by Étienne Guibourg. Earlier in the century, such clerics as Urbain Grandier at Loudun and Louis Gaufridi at Aix-en-Provence were caught up in (and executed as a result of) trials involving possessed nuns. During the Middle Ages, priests could be found who were willing to celebrate the so-called “Mass of Saint-Sécaire” for a sum of money—a variant of the Black Mass. There were in those days priests who—while eschewing any evocation of demons—would nevertheless offer a Requiem Mass for a living person; this was believed to cause the death of whoever was the unwitting recipient.
Now, amidst all of this farrago of witchcraft and the Black Arts, it may well be asked if these priests were really guilty. All too often that question is asked upon the basis of whether or not they were actually able to perform the occult marvels they were accused of or else boasted of being able to perform. But that question is in reality irrelevant; the real issue at stake is whether they broke their vows to satisfy their own strange desires or to gain power from the Prince of Darkness—or both. This latter is a damning crime whether or not they achieved their object.
Regardless of whether these errant priests could perform wonders, through sexual and other malfeasances they damaged souls, including their own. Corruptio optima pessimma, and there is certainly no one whose corruption pleases Satan more than that of a priest, anointed offerer of the Eternal Sacrifice and invoker of God upon the altar. He certainly bends his efforts toward their spiritual ruin.
Nevertheless, one hesitates to say that this moral evil is all that is concerned with these and countless other accounts. Certainly, the idea of witchcraft—that is, the acquisition of preternatural powers through cooperation with whatever a given religion or culture considers to be spiritual evil—is a universal motif in human societies. Pace the Wiccans (followers of an age-old faith invented in the 1920s), the identification of Witchcraft with Satanism did not originate with the Catholic Church; the Biblical injunction “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” comes from the Old, not the New Testament—and the Witch of Endor was plying her trade long before the time of Christ. Nor did it originate with the Jews—and to this day in pagan areas of Africa and China accused witches are put to death by their neighbours.
While no doubt many innocent people died during the witch persecutions of the early modern era (not, let it be known, the Medieval period), the accounts offered by the Inquisition—which had, contrary to popular opinion, very stringent rules of evidence—are pretty eerie. They leave those of us who read them to-day, not having been there, scratching our heads. Even at Salem, for all of the malfeasances of procedure and definite executions of innocents, there is some evidence that something else was going on at the same time. As Chadwick Hansen observed in his 1969 work Witchcraft at Salem, “There was witchcraft in Salem, and it worked. There was every reason to regard it as a criminal offense.”
However much our modern sensibilities may be upset by such assertions, many a grave Catholic scholar—even such saints as Jerome and Augustine—have speculated about things that go bump in the night. Leo Allatius and Dom Austin Calmet wrote about vampires, while Ludovico Sinistrari dealt with fairies. Numerous writers have tackled ghosts—even such as Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson and Sir Shane Leslie. The eminent French religious Father Victor Jouet not only collected artifacts claimed to have been touched by souls returning from Purgatory to ask for prayers and Masses, he mounted them for display in the church he founded in Rome. The baffling Father Montague Summers, as erudite as he was bizarre, applied himself to the study of all such things. Certainly, such contemporary priests as Fathers Chad Ripperger, Jose Antonio Fortea, and the late Gabriele Amorth have devoted a great deal of time and practise to exorcisms and demonology. Without wanting to pass judgement on the details of the work of these figures, taken together, they do offer a powerful series of arguments that things outside our ken do indeed regularly occur—and, moreover, that the Church via her rites and sacramentals has much more of a handle on them than anyone else.
Which brings us to the time of year we are in, which Ray Bradbury so evocatively named the October Country: “the late Autumn, the entry into November, the month of the Holy Souls, via Halloween. Certainly, it is a spooky time in our culture, and one hears the phrase “the veil between the worlds is very thin” so much that it has become a cliché. But apart from the costumes, Jack O’Lanterns, old horror movies, and the rest of Halloween’s uncanny panoply, we can use this time to good advantage by studying both the Church’s dealing with the preternatural (as opposed to material written by Fundamentalists or New Agers) and her traditions regarding prayer for the dead. Even trick-or-treating ultimately descends from “souling”: the practice of going door to door begging for alms in return for praying for the deceased of the households visited.
Certainly, the Pearl River case reminds us of the power of the Devil. Let us use this time to build up our arsenals against him! Have the priest bless our houses and enthrone images of the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts. Learn about the various scapulars and the St. Benedict medal. Install a holy water stoup and keep it filled. Remember to get candles blessed at Candlemas, and light them in times of fear and worry. The more that preternatural evil appears to swirl around us, the more we can safeguard ourselves.
[Image: The Baphomet statue is seen in the conversion room at the Satanic Temple in Salem, Massachusetts. Photo credit: Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images]