Dear Catholic Exchange:
As Halloween approaches, one hears more about phenomena such as ghosts, or spirits inhabiting houses who are purported to be the spirits of people who had once lived or died there. What is the Catholic Church's understanding of such phenomena? Can the souls of the dead really roam the earth at will?
Dear Mrs. Vogel
Peace in Christ!
In fact, the Church believes that ghosts, or spirits, do exist. There are times when spirits appear to our benefit, but we are warned against attempting to contact spirits.
“Ghost” is simply another word for “spirit” (geist means “spirit” in German). Spirit is of three kinds: the human spirit which combined with body make up a human being; the defined spirit that has no body, such as angels; and the infinite Spirit, or God, of Whom the Third Person is the Holy Ghost. When someone asks whether ghosts exist, he usually has in mind the first kind, a human spirit. Hence Fr. John Hardon defines “ghost” as
“a disembodied spirit. Christianity believes that God may, and sometimes does, permit a departed soul to appear in some visible form to people on earth. Allowing for legend and illusion, there is enough authentic evidence, for example in the lives of the saints, to indicate that such apparitions occur. Their purpose may be to teach or warn, or request some favor of the living” (Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, Modern Catholic Dictionary (Garden City, New York: John A. Hardon, ©1980) published by Doubleday and Co., p. 229).
The last sentence of Fr. Hardon’s definition implicitly gives the Church’s teaching on ghosts. Appearances of ghosts are understood with regard to our salvation. Ghosts can come to us for good, but we must not attempt to conjure or control spirits. The Church teaches that “spiritism,” seeking recourse or power from ghosts, is contrary to the virtue of religion (i.e., the Commandment “You shall have no other gods before Me”):
“All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one's service and have a supernatural power over others even if this were for the sake of restoring their health are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion. These practices are even more to be condemned when accompanied by the intention of harming someone, or when they have recourse to the intervention of demons. Wearing charms is also reprehensible. Spiritism often implies divination or magical practices; the Church for her part warns the faithful against it. Recourse to so-called traditional cures does not justify either the invocation of evil powers or the exploitation of another’s credulity” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2117).
Thus, while the Church recognizes the existence of ghosts, we are not to intentionally seek them out for good or for ill.
United in the Faith,
Catholics United for the Faith
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