Phantoms and poltergeists, spirits and specters. Ghosts by many a name. A candle suddenly extinguishes without a trace, but a gust of wind is nowhere to be found to blame. Lights turn off with no explanation, and papers don’t stay where they’re put.
Popular folklore offers the explanation that such phenomena are the consequence of an errant spirit attempting to communicate with those on Earth.
Do Catholics really believe in ghosts, and what does the Church have to say? At first glance, it’s a simple question; however, it just begins to scratch the surface of the supernatural subject matter.
Spirit versus Sinister
When talking about ghosts, the distinction must be made between what colloquial usage would call ‘good’ and ‘bad’ spirits. Satan can manifest to mankind to try and lead us into temptation and sin, what popular usage would refer to as demons or evil spirits. The point of contention arises when discussing ‘good’ spirits, the souls of the departed appearing to the living on Earth, and if such a phenomena is accepted as a possibility within the Faith.
“Beloved, do not trust every spirit but test the spirits to see whether they belong to God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” – 1 John 4:1
The Biblical Basis for Ghosts
Ghosts were clearly known to the citizens of Israel during the time of our Lord. Twice the apostles mistook Jesus appearing to them as being a ghost. First, when they see Him walking on water, and second when He appears to them after the Resurrection.
“When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified. “It is a ghost,” they said, and they cried out in fear.” – Matthew 14:26
“While they were still speaking about this, he stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” But they were startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost.” – Luke 24:36-37
Church Fathers Offer Guidance
Saint Augustine tackled the topic of ghosts in the contents of his Letter 159 to Evodius. In the letter, Augustine rejects the idea that the dead can return to the living, because a soul, when separated from the body, carries with it no additional material body that would allow it to be perceived by the living. Instead, he posits that ghosts are simply spiritual visions, much like dreaming of a person. When one sees a ghost, they are not seeing their material bodies, but “semblances” of their bodies. However, Augustine concedes that for many instances he has no explanation, such as when a ghost offers information on the material world to a person who otherwise would have no way of knowing such information.
“I by no means believe that the soul in departing from the body is accompanied by another body of any kind.” Saint Augustine, Letter 159 to Evodius
In the middle ages, theologians took up the idea that the dead return from purgatory to ask for prayers so their souls may be released to Heaven. While Saint Augustine had a highly nuanced position on ghosts, Saint Thomas Aquinas flatly says that “it is absurd to say that the souls of the departed do not leave their abode.”
Despite numerous works by the great Church Fathers and theologians throughout the ages, the Church has not produced any specific doctrine or teaching on the definitive existence of ghosts. Instead, the Church offers that God may allow saints, angels, and even the souls of the dead to appear to the living if it His will.
Peter Kreeft, a professor of philosophy at Boston College and writer of Catholic theology, says that the existence of ghosts is “enormously likely.” He posits that there is no contradiction between ghosts and Catholic theology.
“Ghosts appear on earth, but do not live on earth any longer. They are either in heaven, hell, or purgatory. … Ghosts confirm, rather than refute or disturb, Catholic theology of the afterlife. Especially the very existence of a life after death, which is the main point skeptics dispute”
What the composite of Catholic teachings and philosophy boils down to is that yes, it is perfectly acceptable for Catholics to believe in ghosts: the souls of those in purgatory manifesting themselves to the living on earth to beg for our prayers so they may enter through the Gates of Heaven.