One thing you will search in vain for in the Catechism of the Catholic Church is any discussion of the phenomenon of ghosts.

That doesn’t mean Catholics are forbidden to believe in ghosts. It just means the Church has no particular doctrine concerning them.

The Faith, recall, is not an ideology. Ideology, and its twin sister Heresy are attempts to explain Absolutely Everything in terms of some cramped idea or other. Everything is Economics. Everything is Electricity. Everything is Evolution. The Faith does not attempt to whittle reality down like that. Instead, it says, “We don’t know much about this big weird world, but here is the one thing we do know:

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, of all things visible and invisible.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ… etc.”

It proposes no all-explaining theory of everything about the formation of the moon, or human psychology, or the Perfect State–or ghosts.

The Faith leaves the exploration of the big weird world to us and follows with interest–and a certain, non-commital, easy-going flexibility–the discoveries and advances of human exploration in the various fields of human knowledge. What profitable things humans can learn about the world she urges them to use for the common good and to glorify God the Creator. She does not fear whatever truths might be discovered because she knows all truth is God’s truth. But nor is she discomfited by the fact that some things are not fully penetrable by the human mind. She is comfortable with mystery. So ghosts (if they are real) do not freak out the Catholic mind either. So, from what I can tell, the Church remains comfortably agnostic about them, neither endorsing nor denying their reality.

For myself, I have never experienced ghosts (though I have had uncanny encounters with the dead in other ways, and known people who have). On at least two occasions, I had encounters with my Dad after his death, and both were important and healing. My mother likewise had an experience of encounter with my Dad after his death that was deeply healing and consoling for her. I know of other people who have Tales of the Unexplained to tell (and I would invite you to add your own in the comboxes since I am perfectly certain that such experiences are, in fact, very common and a global and pan-historical phenomenon.)

That’s why I have no trouble thinking that ghosts are real. I have enormous respect for broadly attested human traditions and the traditions of encounters with ghosts is, so far as I can tell, universal across both human cultures and human history. Yes, they inhabit folklore. But not just folklore. They also inhabit stories of people claiming to be genuine eyewitnesses with all the things we expect from sober people who are not in it for the money, or fame, or because they suffer from mental illness. When the whole human race shares in believing something that widespread and age-old, my respect for universal human experience accords with that of Chesterton:

Somehow or other an extraordinary idea has arisen that the disbelievers in miracles consider them coldly and fairly, while believers in miracles accept them only in connection with some dogma. The fact is quite the other way. The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them. The open, obvious, democratic thing is to believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a miracle, just as you believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a murder. The plain, popular course is to trust the peasant’s word about the ghost exactly as far as you trust the peasant’s word about the landlord. Being a peasant he will probably have a great deal of healthy agnosticism about both. Still you could fill the British Museum with evidence uttered by the peasant, and given in favour of the ghost. If it comes to human testimony there is a choking cataract of human testimony in favour of the supernatural. If you reject it, you can only mean one of two things. You reject the peasant’s story about the ghost either because the man is a peasant or because the story is a ghost story. That is, you either deny the main principle of democracy, or you affirm the main principle of materialism— the abstract impossibility of miracle. You have a perfect right to do so; but in that case you are the dogmatist. It is we Christians who accept all actual evidence—it is you rationalists who refuse actual evidence being constrained to do so by your creed. But I am not constrained by any creed in the matter, and looking impartially into certain miracles of mediaeval and modern times, I have come to the conclusion that they occurred. All argument against these plain facts is always argument in a circle. If I say, “Mediaeval documents attest certain miracles as much as they attest certain battles,” they answer, “But mediaevals were superstitious”; if I want to know in what they were superstitious, the only ultimate answer is that they believed in the miracles. If I say “a peasant saw a ghost,” I am told, “But peasants are so credulous.” If I ask, “Why credulous?” the only answer is—that they see ghosts. Iceland is impossible because only stupid sailors have seen it; and the sailors are only stupid because they say they have seen Iceland.

As to what ghosts are and how they fit in with what my Faith reveals about the dead, I see no great difficulty. The faith certainly reveals that all who have ever lived, live still. The Church’s doctrine of the particular judgment is that:

1022 Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven-through a purification or immediately, — or immediate and everlasting damnation.At the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love.

Now, as has been rightly said, God, under carefully controlled laboratory conditions, can do whatever he likes. That can, for all I know, include permitting certain souls to work out whatever they still need to work out with respect to ties to this world. My own encounter with my Dad seems to have involved this and was for my good as well as his.

As I get older and approach the possibility of my own death with all sorts of projects uncompleted, hopes and dreams unfulfilled, and various wounds unhealed, the more it makes sense to me that some people could die locked into being consumed by such unfinished business. So I can certainly imagine certain personalities, particularly enormously strong-willed or addictive ones, getting “stuck” and unable to move on to the good God wills for them in the next life just as they can often get stuck even in this life.

It may be that part of the good the communion of saints does for us might involve drawing us onward at the hour of our death and breaking the grip of earthly obsession with unfinished business. At any rate, I think if my darling Janet pre-deceased me, desire to see her again would be a powerful sacramental grace–perhaps the last grace of the sacrament of marriage–in dislodging me from getting stuck on That Book I Never Finished or That Relationship I Never Healed or whatever else it was that got me stuck on earth and unable to move on. The love of the saints may be the solvent that frees us from unhealthy ties to the past and helps us com further up and further in.

Not, of course, that we are to try to seek encounters with the dead. Scripture forbids necromancy for a reason. For us to pursue traffic with the dead is, in a curious way, a sort of idolatry: an attempt to make an end run around Christ and get at the Blessed Realm without him. It’s the same error Adam and Eve made and results in the same thing: death. And, of course, there is the reality of the demonic. Satan appears as an Angel of Light, or as a loved one at a seance if that will do the trick in stealing a heart away from hope in God to mere hope in continuance of earthly life. Our destiny is transformation–theosis. A glorified and risen human existence in the New Heaven and the New Earth, not mere stretching into an endless future as a disembodied spook. The pursuance of an afterlife in defiance of God’s will is the exact wrong way to get what we actually want. “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.” (Matthew 6:33).

But though we are so bound, God is not bound. If (as he sometimes seem to do) he permits the Blessed (as at Lourdes or in other saintly apparitions) or those undergoing Purgatory to appear to those on earth, that’s his business. He knows best and can order all such things according to his will.


5 Responses

  1. Certainly Apostles believed in ghosts and Jesus had no problem with it. Luke 24:36-43, when risen Jesus appeared to the Apostles, they were frightened because they thought they’d seen a ghost. Jesus answers that a ghost does not have flesh and bones as He does.
    It’s pretty clear that Jews and early Christians had a good idea of the nature of ghosts. One would think that if ghosts weren’t compatible with Judaism or Christianity, it would be the perfect occasion for Jesus to say so at that time instead of affirming ghosts.

  2. The thing about reality is that its intersectional: nothing exists in isolation. Knowledge about one area will invariably create ripple effects that affect our knowledge in others. Yet, this is not the case with ghosts. You might think I’m arrogant and close-minded for not believing in ghosts, but if I were to follow through on the implications of their existence, you would think I’m being ridiculous.

    If ghosts are real, then we’re talking about a completely different way of transmitting light and sound. Should that be the cornerstone of a new communication technology?
    Should we invest government resources into helping ghosts solve their unfinished business and cross over?
    Actually, why shouldn’t the dead be allowed to vote?
    Should we amend our legal system to accommodate for ghosts and spirits?
    Should law firms consider creating an afterlife division?

    I could go on, but again, you would consider all this to be ridiculous. But why? Why would the logical implications of the existence of ghosts seem like a mockery of the very concept?

    The way I see it, we’ve been I’d say we’ve conditioned by our culture to both entertain the possibility that ghosts are real, while at the same time, to have no expectations of them ever interacting with the rest of reality. Its like conspiracy theories: both all encompassing and perpetually out of touch from the rest of the world.

    Its really that aspect, more than any other, which prevent me from taking those claims seriously.

    1. Why ridiculous? There’s the adage that with increased number of cameras in the public, UFO or big foot sightings, ghostly apparitions, etc., are much fewer than before, but if ghosts were real, the only reason for this would be that they wouldn’t appear where they could be reliably recorded.

      But if you entertain the notion that ghosts are real, then this entails a number of implications, most of which we simply have no means of knowing, let alone addressing.

      Let’s assume ghosts are real and let me propose answers to your proposals, shall we?

      > If ghosts are real, then we’re talking about a completely different way of transmitting light and sound. Should that be the cornerstone of a new communication technology?
      Suppose that ghosts were interdimensional beings that can choose to cross over to our four dimensions here. That’s one of a myriad of explanations, and has the advantage that it’s preternatural, not supernatural. It would be immensely exciting to be able to harness that capability. But we have no idea of the processes or energies involved and ghosts are apparently uninterested in helping us discover and develop this as a technology. Who knows? Maybe the perspective that the afterlife provides is simply so exciting that our worldy affairs seem absurdly limited and boring? Maybe even Type III civilization on Kardashev scale, or a hypothetical Type IV is still so absurdly limited to them that it doesn’t warrant any interest? Maybe harnessing those capabilities would open up such a vast pool of virtually free energy that we would destroy ourselves in the process.

      > Should we invest government resources into helping ghosts solve their unfinished business and cross over?
      Ghosts apparently have no needs that we could satisfy other than that unfinished business. Since they have no need for sustenance, they do not drain our resources. If they become a nuisance and we need to address them, they still choose to address only those who might be of help to them to be able to cross over.

      > Actually, why shouldn’t the dead be allowed to vote?
      Because they’re uninterested in our day to day affairs and are hyper focused on finishing the business they need to cross over. Again, maybe the perspective that the afterlife provides is so vast that our measly 2-6 year terms are so minuscule and unimportant in the grand scheme of things that spending any time on them is time wasted?
      Also, since our politics has absolutely no bearing on their existence or on their business here, there’s also no reason to address them as a contituency.
      It’s a variant of the reason why we only allow adults to vote.

      > Should we amend our legal system to accommodate for ghosts and spirits?
      No. The only help that ghosts could bring to our legal system is accommodated. If a spirit’s assistance helped somebody uncover new facts about a cold case, and these facts are brought forward, this is enough.

      > Should law firms consider creating an afterlife division?
      Sure they could, assuming no government resources are allocated. Whether they get any return on that investment is debatable.

      1. And thus, you prove my point:

        “The way I see it, we’ve been I’d say we’ve conditioned by our culture to both entertain the possibility that ghosts are real, while at the same time, to have no expectations of them ever interacting with the rest of reality. Its like conspiracy theories: both all encompassing and perpetually out of touch from the rest of the world.”

      2. Unless I’m misreading, you seem to think that one excludes the other. Or that a claim is only valid if it’s deterministic, reproducible and objectively verifiable, otherwise it might as well not happened at all.

        For what it’s worth, I’ve had repeated inexplicable déjà vu experiences in my life. I’ve had dreams, which I knew were significant when I woke up, and the scene from the dream replayed itself verbatim sometime in the next few days to weeks. I tried to read about such experiences but all sources were completely dismissive of this possibility. And obviously, since it’s not reproducible on demand, I cannot, say, purposefully dream the lottery numbers, pick them and then win.

        But suppose I did dream the lottery numbers, picked them and won. What then? It still doesn’t prove anything to anyone else, even though it would be a huge deal for me.

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