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Phantoms and poltergeists, spirits and specters. Ghosts go 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.”

Ghosts Today

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.

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Comments

16 COMMENTS

  1. From 1978 to 1981 I served as a Royal Air Force officer in Berlin and it had to be the most haunted place on earth. I had one experience in the cellars of the Officers’ Mess and heard of at least three other incidents from friends there whom I had no reason to doubt or suspect of lying. Given the history of the place, I assumed these incidents to be somehow psychological imprints of the terrors people had seen or experienced.

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  3. I worked in a hospital for over 40 years. If ghosts are the disembodied spirits of the dead, I should have been tripping over them.

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  5. It seems a good bit of the problem with the question is the use of “spirit” and “ghost” interchangeably. This tends to confuse the issue. It seems to me that spirit would be more acceptable as most of us were taught early on that man is compose of body and spirit. Most saints who have also had vision of the dead normally refer to them as spirits.

  6. I once saw a picture of a “ghost”. It was taken with some kind of special camera…place-Gettysburg; time-sometime after 1865.

    It was a woman who was dressed in a GORGEOUS hoop dress of the era supposedly looking for her lover (not sure husband, fiance or boyfriend).

  7. I have seen ghosts my whole life. I did not ask for this, but I have it anyway. I do kot know what to do with my gift. I know God will show me at the right time, but I do get scared sometimes when I see certain horrific things. I constantly have supernatural activity around me and anyone I have ever been close to has noticed. So how am I suppose to feel? I just get emotionally and spiritually exhausted week to week. Sometimes I feel like these things affect me in strange ways. I pray all the time!

    • I agree, it is not a gift I wanted. I am not afraid of spirits I just don’t like when I know something is going to happen and when it finally does I pray God give me the strength to deal with it. So many times people will say “I wish I had ESP,” no I wish I could stop the feelings that come with the tragedies to follow because I know they are coming but don’t know when or how. I’ve had these spirit visions since I was 3 years old and saw the spirit of my father. My mom told me not to tell anyone because they wouldn’t believe me, that was 63 years ago and I remember it as if it happened today. I have been told we all have some type of spirit filled gift but in order to keep it or become more spirit filled you have to work on it. Just like a body builder has the same muscles we have but if they work out they build them up and if a person wants to become a person who sees spirits and communicates with them they have to work with it. I say no thank you I’ll be the skinny guy on the beach getting sand kicked in my face.

  8. I have often wondered whether belief in ghosts was contrary to Catholic teaching. I’ve never encountered one, but I grew up in an ancient house where several people died and one person murdered. A dog we had when we moved in circa 1967 would not enter the bedroom where the man was hanged from the stairwell. The dog would whine and cry but not go in. And an overnight guest sleeping in that room reported an invisible presence sitting on the bed, waking her up. But since I’ve never had such an experience I remain skeptical.

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