What is for sure is that people throughout history have wanted to believe they exist. Why? Perhaps because the existence of ghosts would seem to affirm our belief in the immortality of the soul.
While neither the Code of Canon Law nor any ecumenical council has made any official statement about ghosts — which is simply a German word for spirit — the modern Catholic Dictionary tells us a ghost is a disembodied spirit, and that God may and sometimes does permit a departed soul to appear in some form to people on earth. Their purpose among us may be to assure us of their safety or most importantly, to ask for our prayers.
While the fathers of the church were not of one mind about ghosts, St. Augustine in particular was not convinced, but St. Thomas Aquinas was. He wrote that it is “absurd to say souls of the departed do not leave their abode. According to the disposition of divine providence, separated souls sometimes come forth from their abode and appear to men.” Thomas believed he was visited by the ghosts of his sister and a former Dominican brother.
The great Thomistic scholar and Boston College philosophy professor Peter Kreeft believes it is our Catholic teaching on purgatory that gives us a path for understanding the existence of ghosts which he believes is “enormously likely.”
Kreeft suggests three types of ghosts: The “sad wispy” ones that are suffering in purgatory, being purified for heaven, as they learn painful lessons about their past lives on earth. Secondly, there are the malicious and deceptive spirits from hell. They are likely the ones who respond to conjurings at seances. Thirdly, there are the bright happy spirits of our friends and family (especially spouses) who appear unbidden at God’s will with messages of hope and love.
It is important to remember that not only the Catechism of the Catholic Church but Scripture itself explicitly forbids recourse to Satan, demons, or conjuring up the dead. Consulting palm readers, interpreting omens, and an interest in clairvoyance all conceal a desire for power over time, history and other people. It violates the First Commandment and the reverence we owe to God alone. Mediums who “contact” the dead are not only frauds preying on the weak, they are dabbling in things and potentially unleashing an evil they cannot comprehend.
The experience of the saints (at least as far back as St. Perpetua in the third century) who have written about their encounters with ghosts confirms that our only conversation with them must be to affirm our desire to pray for them. Any communication beyond this is likely demonic deception. The souls in purgatory are aware of God’s prohibitions about seeking information from the dead and would never draw the living into conversation beyond the need for prayers. Praying for the souls we encounter as ghosts, especially at holy Mass, is our greatest response and a gift for them. In this way, we affirm our belief in the power of the sacraments, the immortality of the soul, and the glory we long for in heaven.
Father John Titus is pastor at Immaculate Conception Parish in Mattoon and St. Columcille Parish in Sullivan.