Q: What does the Church teach about ghosts? Are they real? What are we supposed to do with them?
A: That’s a very good question. I have been thinking about this a bit lately. As anyone with access to a television knows, there an abundance of movies about the “paranormal” and TV shows about people who claim to be able to communicate with the dead. What is more, November is the month the Church dedicates to prayers for the dead, and this could be a good time to be reminded that the Church on earth (the Church Militant) and the Church in Heaven (the Church Triumphant) is one with the Church in Purgatory (the Church Suffering).
It is vitally important that we make a few things clear right off the bat.
First, the Catholic Church does not have any doctrine that specifically deals with ghosts, so keep that in mind while reading this article. There have been “big deal” saints who have denied the existence of interaction with ghosts…and there have been “big deal” saints who had ghostly encounters; there appears to be some room for disagreement here.
And yet, the theology of the possibility of ghosts is sound. As Christians, we know that the human person is both body and soul. We know that there is more to this life than the natural; there is the supernatural. Further, we believe that the soul is immortal. At death, the body and the soul are separated. At this moment, the individual experiences what the Church calls “particular judgment”; we go to Hell, Heaven, or Purgatory. Could it be that God, in His wisdom, allows certain souls to manifest their presence to those still alive?
Both the life of the Church and Scripture seem to attest to this possibility. For one, the Church has numerous documented apparitions of saints who appeared to people with a message from God. The many apparitions of Mary exemplify this. (It is worth noting that Mary could be considered an exception since she dwells bodily in Heaven. She is quite distinct from a ghost since she is a “complete” human being in Heaven, body and soul.) In addition, there is the story of King Saul asking the witch of Endor to call up the spirit of the prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 28. Scripture seems to speak of this as a real thing. Which leads to the next very important point.
…we ought to never seek out or participate in seances or any other kind of action that attempts to contact those who have died.
Second, the Church very clearly and emphatically teaches that all attempts to conjure up or contact the dead are absolutely forbidden. One of the personal consequences of this is that we ought to never seek out or participate in seances or any other kind of action that attempts to contact those who have died. Another consequence is that we ought not to seek out or put faith in anyone who claims to be able to communicate with the dead. I can hear it now, “But Theresa Caputo is Catholic! And she knows things about people and their departed loved ones!” She is also most likely a charlatan. Just because the Church knows that there is a world beyond the world we can see and understand does not mean that we attribute all that we don’t understand to something supernatural. People can lie. People can be mistaken. There are often natural explanations, and thinking Catholics need to discern between what could be a natural explanation rather than a supernatural explanation.
Furthermore, when a person like the “Long Island Medium” attempts to contact the dead, not only are they violating God’s Word and the Church’s teaching, they are in a position where they may not be able to discern well. Not merely between the natural and the supernatural, but also between a potential ghost and something demonic. Demons are fallen angels whom God created good, but who, through their free choice, willed to separate themselves from God. They are not friendly, but are the enemies of mankind. Someone who is trying to contact a being in the spiritual world may have absolutely no ability to distinguish between a human soul and a demon.
Ghosts are reminders that our brothers and sisters are in need of our prayers.
Third, if God allows a soul to manifest itself from beyond death, what are we supposed to do with that? Remember, this would have to be permitted by God. Why? God often reveals things to us because He wills us to act on what we know. In the many (seemingly) reliable cases of encounters with ghosts that I have come across, there seems to be one recurring theme: prayers. As Dr. Peter Kreeft, Professor of Philosophy at Boston College, has said, “Ghosts appear on earth, but do not live on earth any longer. They are either in heaven, hell, or purgatory.” If the soul of a dead person was made manifest, the proper response is prayer. But not the prayer of fear. Rather, we offer prayers of reparation.
We believe in the Communion of Saints. That the Church exists on three “planes”: Earth, Heaven, and Purgatory. I recently heard it said, “the manifestation of ghosts is when the Church Suffering is asking the Church Militant for prayers of reparation”. Too many of us Catholics forget that we offer prayers for the dead because we believe that those prayers accomplish something. We, the living, are called to pray for the dead. We are called to have the Holy Mass celebrated on their behalf. Ghosts are reminders that our brothers and sisters are in need of our prayers.