Question: Over the years I have heard various accounts of people seeing “ghosts”, hearing strange sounds, seeing objects move without any apparent cause, etc. How does a Catholic look on these phenomena?
I too have heard accounts from people I know and whose judgment I trust completely having seen “ghosts” or having heard strange sounds, including voices of people who were not present.
The phenomenon of “haunted houses”, can thus seem to have some basis in fact. This is especially the case when more than one person sees or hears the same things.
What are we to make of this?
To my knowledge there has been no pronouncement of the Church on the question, so I cannot pretend to give the “definitive” answer. We will have to derive the answer from what we know by experience and by our Catholic faith.
Peter Kreeft, in his book Everything you ever wanted to know about heaven, addresses the question of ghosts. He acknowledges that there is considerable evidence of ghosts in all cultures.
He distinguishes three types of ghosts, which correspond to the common experience of people with whom I have spoken.
First there is the type referred to in your question: visible but shadowy spirits without a material body which suddenly appear and disappear, and which may sometimes be recognised as male or female, and of a particular approximate age, including children.
These, Kreeft suggests, may be the souls of people who are still in Purgatory and who have some “unfinished business” on earth. Perhaps they lived or died in the place where they now appear.
There is nothing particularly evil about them, although they often inspire fear in those who see them.
It is impossible to explain why they are allowed to appear on earth, but there are too many accounts to dismiss them out of hand. God may have some reason for allowing them to appear.
Among these reasons can be that their appearance moves those who see them to pray for them, or perhaps teaches them some lesson.
“Secondly, there are spirits of a more evil type, which may be from hell. I have heard several people speak of having seen the devil in various forms and I have no reason to doubt the truth of their claims.”
Secondly, there are spirits of a more evil type, which may be from hell. I have heard several people speak of having seen the devil in various forms and I have no reason to doubt the truth of their claims.
Of this type too may be the spirits that are conjured up in séances and other paranormal practices. Because Satan can be involved in these practices, the Church, based on Scripture (cf. Deut 18:9-13), warns the faithful against involvement in them.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to ‘unveil’ the future. Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers.
They contradict the honour, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone” (CCC 2116).
When it is a matter of objects moving without any apparent cause or strange noises, it will quite likely be due to spirits associated with Satan.
St John Vianney, the Curé of Ars, often heard the banging of furniture and strange noises in his house at night, and he had no doubt that the devil was at work to disrupt him in his fruitful ministry in the confessional.
If someone experiences phenomena of this sort in their house, it would be wise to ask a priest, or even the diocesan exorcist, to bless or exorcise the house.
Thirdly, there are accounts of appearances of deceased saints and loved ones, often family members, who are recognised as to their identity.
They do not inspire fear but rather consolation and hope. Sometimes deceased family members, angels or saints can appear when another family member is dying, perhaps to comfort the latter or to accompany them into the next life.
Here it is clearly a matter of souls or persons who are in heaven.
All in all, when human experience offers so many accounts of appearances of shadowy spiritual beings, some of which have come to be called “ghosts”, there is no reason to doubt their authenticity.
Since these appearances are quite rare, witnessed by a small minority of people, one should not fear them.
If one should see a ghost of the first type mentioned, it would be appropriate to pray for the soul of the person who appears and perhaps to sprinkle holy water in that place.
Hundreds of people every year send questions to Fr Flader, who is the Director of the Catholic Adult Education Centre in Sydney. Do you have a question? If so, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org