Q. Do ghosts fit into Catholic belief? -- R. F., Los Angeles, CA
We receive this question at TCA nearly every year as Halloween draws near. Some may quickly scoff at the idea as fanciful or superstitious. But belief in ghosts seems to have been universal across human cultures from the beginning of recorded history, and it’s based at least in part on countless reports that the living have in fact encountered them. Given the special significance that genuine ghostly phenomena would have for theology, Catholics shouldn’t so easily dismiss the possibility.
A. ghosts in fact exist? To answer that question we must define “ghost.”
According to Webster’s, the word means “the soul of a dead person, a disembodied spirit.” That seems to fit best the popular use of the term, so we’ll accept it as a working definition. We should keep in mind, then, that in the present discussion, “ghost” does not refer to an angel or demon, a poltergeist (check back tomorrow) or even an extraterrestrial. Rather, it’s that part of a human being which is not corporeal (bodily), and which has been separated from the body through death.
With this definition, Catholics should readily affirm that ghosts do indeed exist. After all, it’s a fundamental part of Catholic belief that the human being is a union of soul and body; that at death, the soul and body are separated; and that after death, though the body usually decays, the soul survives, awaiting the Last Judgment, when the body will at last be raised and reunited with the soul.
From a Catholic perspective, then, not only the souls in hell and purgatory, but also the saints in heaven can be called ghosts (with the exception of Our Lady, who is not a disembodied spirit because her body was assumed with her soul into heaven). The question for Catholics is thus not whether ghosts truly exist. They do. The more pressing question is whether disembodied human souls, in the present time before the Last Judgment, are able to manifest themselves to those still alive on earth.
Can the dead appear to the living? Scripture shows that they can. The clearest biblical example of a ghostly apparition is the Gospel account of Our Lord’s transfiguration on the mountain, when Moses (who had died centuries before) appeared to Jesus and three of His apostles, conversing with Him. (See Mt 17:1–3. We don’t include Elijah in this passage as a “ghost” because Scripture seems to indicate that he had not died, but rather had taken his body with him when he left the earth; see 2 Kgs 2:11–12).
In the Old Testament, one debated example of a ghostly visitor is that of the deceased prophet Samuel, who appeared to King Saul (see 1 Sm 28:3–20). Some have concluded that the apparition was actually a diabolical counterfeit, since it took place at the bidding of a necromancer (what today would be called a “channeler”) outlawed by God. However, because the scriptural text itself refers to the spirit repeatedly as Samuel, St. Augustine and other authoritative interpreters have insisted that it was indeed his ghost and not a demon.
If we consider as well ghostly visitations in dreams or visions, then we can also cite the biblical story of Judas Maccabeus. He had a vision of Onias, a deceased high priest, praying for the Jews. (This, by the way, is also a scriptural example of the saints’ intercession for the living). Onias was followed in the vision by the deceased prophet Jeremiah, who spoke to Judas and gave him a golden sword (see 2 Mc 15:11–16).
Beyond the examples in Scripture, numerous accounts of ghostly appearances have come down to us in Catholic tradition since biblical times. The sixth-century Pope St. Gregory the Great, for example, recounted several such instances in his famous “Dialogues.” For Gregory as for St. Augustine and other Doctors of the Church, ghostly apparitions certainly had their place in a Catholic view of the world.
According to these reports, sometimes the deceased figure who appeared was a recognized saint. At other times, the apparition was of a recently deceased holy man or woman who came to help the living. In still other accounts, a troubled soul, presumably undergoing the purgatorial process, came to ask the help of those still on earth.
No doubt many such stories can be viewed as pious legend or superstition, hoax or hallucination. But some of them are difficult to dismiss. The more compelling accounts come to us from multiple witnesses of clearly sound mind and impeccable character, and they often date from quite recent times, firsthand accounts with no possibility of legendary accretions. Among these would be some of the well-known postmortem appearances of St. Pio of Pietrelcina (Padre Pio, 1887–1968).
One well-authenticated story comes from St. John Bosco (1815–1888). As a seminarian, St. John once recalled, he had agreed with a fellow student named Comollo that whichever of the two died first was to give the other some indication concerning the state of his own soul. Comollo died April 2, 1839, and on the night after the funeral, the “indication” came.
Along with twenty other theology students gathered in the same room, John suddenly heard a mighty and sustained roar that shook the building. Then they watched as the door opened violently of its own accord. A dim light with changing color appeared, and a voice was clearly heard: “Bosco, Bosco, Bosco, I am saved …”
“For a long time afterwards,” St. John concluded his recollection, “there was no other subject of conversation in the seminary.”
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a number of respected Catholic scholars collected many reliable accounts of ghostly phenomena, gathered from contemporary eyewitnesses and official police and medical documents. They attempted to place these accounts, along with reports of other occult phenomena, within a framework of traditional Catholic theology (usually Thomist) and the findings of modern psychology and parapsychology. Perhaps the best known of these theologian-researchers were the Jesuit priests Herbert Thurston and F. X. Schouppe, and the Trappist abbot Alois Wiesinger. (Click here for one of their works on this subject that’s still in print.)
A pattern we have already noted emerges in many of the accounts gathered by these scholars: When the deceased make an appearance, they often come either to aid the living or to ask the living for help.
They might request, for example, that prayers and Masses be said for them, or they might ask that certain papers of a confidential nature be destroyed. Sometimes a deceased relative of a person in need of the sacraments comes to inform a priest of the situation and to show him where the one in need is to be found.
Stories such as these suggest a reply to the challenges commonly raised by Christians who are skeptical that the possibility of ghostly visits could fit into a faith perspective. How, they typically ask, would the dead obtain the power to visit the living? St. Augustine answered simply: “Through God’s secret ordinance.” It happens with divine permission and through divine power.
And why would God allow ghosts to visit? Apparently, to accomplish spiritual missions for themselves or others.
Finally, we must emphasize that the Church has always forbidden any attempt to seek out communication with the dead through means such as “channelers,” séances or Ouija boards. The reason is clear: Such attempts to “conjure up the dead … conceal a desire for power … as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2116).
Dangers abound here: Demons can counterfeit the spirits of the deceased, so they may take advantage of these occult practices to manipulate and oppress people. Consequently, we must treat with great caution and discernment any encounters we may have with unexplained phenomena, or reports of such that we may receive from others. Genuine ghostly apparitions, unsought by the living and permitted by God’s grace, seem to be extremely rare.
That should be a comforting thought the next time we’re alone in the dark …
Q. Does the Church have anything to say about the poltergeist phenomenon? Demons and even ghosts fit reasonably within a Catholic view of the world, but this phenomenon doesn’t quite fit as easily, as far as I can see.
-- S. H., Albany, NY
A. Well, we talked about ghosts yesterday, so we might as well tackle poltergeists today. It’s just that time of year.
Actually, yours is a reasonable question; this isn’t the first time I’ve been asked about this matter, and some rather respectable Catholic scholars (whose names we noted yesterday) have considered the matter carefully in light of theology and the scientific evidence.
The term poltergeist, from the German for “noisy spirit,” refers to phenomena in which an alleged “spirit” manifests itself by moving and influencing objects. Typical forms of poltergeist activity are raps, knocks, bumps, thumps, footsteps and bed shaking, all of which seem to have no discernible natural cause. Sometimes objects are thrown about a room or appear out of nowhere; furniture may be moved; bedcovers may be pulled off; people may be dragged around or levitated. Occasionally, a few words or laughter may be heard.
Reports of poltergeist activity go back to ancient times, and no doubt many are attributable to legend, superstition, hoax or hallucination. But there are so many reports from relatively recent times that are well documented, with multiple, reliable observers, that it’s difficult just to dismiss the matter altogether. One of the best-known accounts comes from a no-less-reputable figure than John Wesley, the Anglican pastor who founded the Methodist movement, who told of a poltergeist in the home where he grew up.
Perhaps the best collection of poltergeist stories, with analysis from a Catholic perspective, is Ghosts and Poltergeists by Father Herbert Thurston, S.J. (1856–1939). Unfortunately, the recent reprint of the book by Roman Catholic Books is now out of print, but perhaps you could find a used copy.
Father Thurston allows that some reported poltergeist activity might actually be the work instead of demonic spirits or ghosts (see yesterday’s question). But here’s the rub: Problems encountered through the activity of demons and ghosts seems to be resolved by the power of prayer, the sacraments, sacramentals and, if necessary, exorcism. Poltergeists, on the other hand, don’t seem to respond to these spiritual remedies.
Ghosts—departed human spirits that have been allowed by God to visit earth—usually cease their hauntings when they receive the help they seek from the living. Demons recoil from sacred words and objects. Yet poltergeists, when confronted with these responses, usually continue their mischief, sometimes even laughing or scoffing.
If poltergeists aren’t demons or ghosts, what exactly are they? One possibility was suggested by Father Thurston: “It is … possible that there may be natural forces involved which are so far as little known to us as the latent forces of electricity were known to the Greeks” (Ghosts and Poltergeists, p. vi). I take it that he meant here impersonal forces of nature.
Most poltergeist activity seems to be sporadic and temporary, and dependent on the presence of a particular person—usually an adolescent or child. This last element of the pattern has led some observers to suggest that perhaps such phenomena are actually being caused, unknowingly, by the person in whose presence they keep taking place. (This could also be one explanation for other well-publicized types of paranormal activity.)
Father Alois Wiesinger, O.C.S.O, placed such a proposal in the context of Catholic theology:
“Theology teaches us that in Paradise man possessed powers which were afterwards lost to him. The question is, which powers were lost completely, which were merely weakened, and whether certain of these powers, which may have remained latent, might not in certain circumstances be capable of revival” (A. Wiesinger, Occult Phenomena in the Light of Theology, Roman Catholic Books reprint, p. x).
In addition to these alternatives — natural forces not yet discovered, preternatural human abilities not fully lost in the Fall — two, even more sensational, possibilities have been suggested: (1) Poltergeists are a usually-hidden form of intelligent but non-human terrestrial life once known as “fairy folk” (C. S. Lewis had some interesting things to say about this); or (2) Poltergeists are a form of extraterrestrial intelligence.
Maybe one day soon at this site we’ll have occasion to tackle those other two fascinating possibilities in light of what the Church teaches. For now, let’s just say that the Church has nothing definitive to say about poltergeists, but her teaching opens up intriguing lines of speculation.
Q. While traveling on I-95 in South Carolina I listened to a radio broadcast called The Catholic Answer. I have been a subscriber to your magazine for a few years and thoroughly enjoy it and frequently quote answers to the questions contained therein.
I would like to know if The Catholic Answer radio program is broadcast in Florida. Thank you and keep up the good work -- D. T., Leesburg, FL
A. Glad to hear you’re enjoying Catholic radio — it’s a much-needed apostolate that can reach people who might not otherwise have a chance to hear the fullness of Catholic truth. You were no doubt tuned in to my good friends at Mediatrix SC radio, whose broadcasts cover most of South Carolina.
At this point, The Catholic Answer (our magazine, published by Our Sunday Visitor, Inc.) doesn’t have a radio program, though I’d love to see that happen in the not-so-distant future. Meanwhile, our magazine columnist Father Frances Hoffman is a regular contributor to Relevant Radio’s Morning Air program, where he tackles some of the same issues he addresses in the magazine. For more about Relevant Radio, click here.
What you no doubt heard was Catholic Answers Live, which is a two-hour broadcast, airing on weekdays, from Catholic Answers, a fine Catholic apologetics ministry based in California that’s not related to our organization, despite our similar names. (They also publish This Rock magazine.) For a list of the radio stations carrying that program, click here. For more about the Catholic Answers apostolate, click here.
Thanks for the encouraging words about TCA. Between the magazine and this website, you should have plenty of answers to keep you busy!
Q. I have often wondered what is meant in the Nicene Creed when it says of Jesus, “begotten, not made.” Can you tell me what this means and give examples of what “begotten” means and what “made” means? Human beings are also begotten, except perhaps for Adam and Eve, who were “made”? I know this term involves the Incarnation, which is a mystery and not easily, if at all, understood. -- M. S., Canastota, NY
A. Another reader recently submitted this question to TCA. Our columnist, Father Ray Ryland, gave this reply:
The phrase “begotten, not made” means the same as the phrase that immediately follows in the creed: “one in Being with the Father.” “Begotten” and “one in Being” clearly distinguish our Lord from all mere creatures. Earlier in the creed we say, “eternally begotten of the Father.”
On the human level, a man can make a table or a chair, let’s say. But we do not say he “makes” sons and daughters. We say he “begets” sons and daughters; “begets,” because they are of the same (human) nature as himself. To speak of the Son as “begotten of the Father” indicates He is of the same (divine) nature as the Father, not a creature of the Father.
I might add to Father Ryland’s reply this observation: When attempting to describe the profound mystery of God’s inner nature, even the technical theological terms developed by the Church must make use of figurative language. God the Father has not “begotten” God the Son from before all ages in literally the same way that a human father begets a son within time.
Nevertheless, the word has been carefully chosen and can’t be dismissed as a “mere metaphor.” “Begotten” has a precise meaning: It refers to Someone who is not a creature, distinct from God, but Someone who shares God’s very essence. And a whole world of difference hangs on that distinction.
Q. Why is the Transfiguration found in all the Gospels except for John’s? After all, he is the only Gospel writer who was actually present at the Transfiguration, yet he doesn’t include it. Or is it there and I can’t find it? -- M. S., Canastota, NY
A. You are correct that no explicit account of Christ’s transfiguration on the mount is found in the Gospel of John, as we find in the first three Gospels (see Matthew 17:1–6; Mark 9:1–8; Luke 9:28–36). However, as you noted, since St. John was indeed a witness of the event, he may well be alluding to it when he declares in the prologue to his Gospel that “we have beheld [Jesus’] glory, glory as of the only-begotten Son of the Father” (John 1:14). St. Peter was on the mount as well, and his first epistle alludes in a similar way to the event, though more clearly (see 2 Peter 1:16–18).
Keep in mind that St. John apparently wrote his Gospel some years after the others were written and in circulation. He included some important material that was missing from the other accounts and omitted some material that was already familiar to the young Christian community.
In addition, compared to the other three evangelists, John focused much more attention on Jesus’ words than on His deeds. In this light, Our Lord’s high priestly prayer as reported by John, with its profound references to sharing His Father’s glory (chapter 17), can be seen as providing certain insights into what happened that day.
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