Does the Catholic Church believe in ghosts?

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | October 25, 2019

Exploring the spiritual side of Catholic Church teaching

Halloween and ghosts just seem to go together. Who hasn’t dressed as a ghost, or told ghost stories around a bonfire?

But what does the church say about ghosts?

Spirits and ghosts and All Hallows Eve. (Bigstock.com)

Fr. Kenneth Doyle, a columnist for Catholic News Service, had a reader ask if Jesus confirmed the existence of ghosts after his resurrection when he said “a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have” (Lk 24:39). Fr. Doyle answered, “I am aware of no scriptural scholar who would say that this statement of Jesus confirms that there are, in fact, ghosts. On the other hand, Jesus did not debunk the notion when given the chance. Which is pretty much where the Catholic Church stands on the matter of ghosts: There is no settled doctrinal teaching with respect to their existence, no provision in conciliar teaching or canon law that addresses it.”

While the church doesn’t speak directly about ghosts, it does acknowledge the presence of what some would call “ghosts.”

Where ‘ghosts’ came from

The word “ghost” comes to us from the German word geist for “spirit.” And the church does believe in spirits: beings who have no physical body.

The most important spiritual being of all is God. God the Father is spiritual, dwelling “in unapproachable light, and whom no human being has seen or can see” (1 Tim 6:16). God the Son became human and his divine spirit became united eternally to that human body after the Resurrection. And throughout much of church history, the Third Person of the Trinity was called “the Holy Ghost,” blowing like wind and fire. Today, we use the term “the Holy Spirit.”

The next type of spirits the church believes in are angels. Angels are purely spiritual beings. They do not have physical bodies, although they can manifest themselves in physical bodies. This is why we hear of angels appearing to people such as the Archangel Raphael as a traveling companion to the young Tobiah in the Book of Tobit.

Good and bad angels

Now, there are good angels and bad angels. Bad angels are known as demons. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that, “Satan or the devil and the other demons are fallen angels who have freely refused to serve God and his plan” (n. 414). These demons also can take on physical manifestations. This is where scary “ghost stories” can come into play.

Finally, there are human spirits. The church teaches that humans have both a physical body and a nonphysical spirit. “In Sacred Scripture,” the catechism notes, “the term ‘soul’ often refers to human life or the entire human person. But ‘soul’ also refers to the innermost aspect of man … that by which he is most especially in God’s image: ‘soul’ signifies the spiritual principle in man” (n 363).

When we die, our physical bodies are separated from our immortal souls. The church teaches that souls will not be reunited to their bodies until the resurrection of the dead. Therefore, only Jesus, the resurrected Christ, and his mother, Mary of the Assumption, possess bodies in heaven. (What heaven is, exactly, is for God to reveal.)

Appearing on earth

Now there have been appearances on earth of saints — who exist constantly in the presence of God. But they have also died and their appearances, which happen by the will and purpose of God, are apparitions of their souls, of their spiritual selves, and not their actual physical bodies. Therefore, by the German-derived definition above, they are “ghosts,” though it is uncommon to speak of apparitions of saints in that way.

St. Thomas Aquinas explained this: “According to the disposition of Divine providence (God’s will), separated souls sometimes come forth from their abode and appear to men …” (Summa Theologica, supplement, 69:3).

Nor is it always saints who appear on earth. God sometimes also wills that souls of the dead appear, most often for two reasons.

The first is for our own good — either as a warning or for inspiration. St. Maria Goretti, before she was even beatified, appeared to her murderer, Alessandro Serenelli, in prison. Her appearance filled Serenelli with peace, he later said, and he became a model prisoner.

Another reason for a spiritual appearance is for the good of that departed spirit. These “ghosts” appear in order to ask the living for prayers. Sometimes they reappear to thank someone for prayers. This has happened to various saints. One was St. Padre Pio, who once said, “More souls of the dead than of the living climb this mountain to attend my Masses and to seek my prayers.”

Praying for the dead is something that we hear about both from the saints and in the teachings of the Catholic Church. However, even the Old Testament speaks of praying for spirits of the dead, as Judas Maccabeus ordered after the battle for Jerusalem (2 Maccabees, chap. 12).

The sentiment of Judas Maccabeus, who “made atonement for the dead that they might be absolved from their sin,” continues to this day. Fr. Mark Schmitt, of the Newman Catholic Campus Ministries at the University of Minnesota Duluth, notes, “Ghosts are reminders that our brothers and sisters are in need of our prayers.” This is also why November is traditionally a time when the church prays for the souls of the dead.

Bad ghosts

Finally, let’s look at the bad ghosts. The church does not deny their existence. St. Thomas Aquinas, in speaking of attacks by evil spirits, said, “The assault itself is due to the malice of the demons, who through envy endeavor to hinder man’s progress; and through pride usurp a semblance of divine power, by deputing certain ministers to assail man, as the angels of God in their various offices minister to man’s salvation.”

So demons try to imitate God’s angels, but not for any good purpose. Demons want to scare us; they want to trick us and lead us away from God. This can also happen when people develop a fascination with things of the occult, such as séances and fortune-telling.

However, we must remember that God is greater than any demonic spirit or bad ghost. Satan was defeated; the war has been won by Christ, even though the battles continue “until all enemies are placed under his feet” (1 Cor 15:25).

While the church doesn’t speak definitively about “ghosts,” it has plenty to teach about spirits. And those are great stories to share, around a bonfire or anytime.

 

Sources: Summa Theologica; Summa Theologica, supplement; Catholic News Service; Aleteia.org; catholicexchange.com; bulldogcatholic.org; catholic.com; and the Catechism of the Catholic Church

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