Do Ghosts Really Exist?

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Some say Catholics can’t believe in ghosts, but this priest says…

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by Father Michael Kerper

As Halloween approaches, we may wonder if ghosts are real and if Catholics ought to believe that they exist. Let’s start off by recalling that the tradition of scary costumes comes from the fact that Halloween is short for All Hallows Eve, the night before All Saints Day, when the Church pays homage to the souls of the dead who are in heaven with God.

So a question about ghosts is neither silly nor childish. It actually leads us to consider anew two key Christian beliefs: first, that every human person is a communion of body (matter) and soul (spirit); and second, that human life continues forever after bodily death, first as a bodiless soul, and eventually as a resurrected human being with body and soul reunited. To put your question differently: can bodiless souls — ghosts — appear and intervene in our lives?

We have to clarify the term “ghost.” I am not speaking about menacing spirits that terrorize movie characters. This English word “ghost” comes from the German word geist, which broadly means “spirit,” including non-personal things such as the “spirit of the age” and so on. In English, “ghost” specifically means the soul of a dead person that becomes discernible through our eyes, ears, nose (some ghosts smell!) or skin.

In theory, billions of ghosts potentially exist because billions of human beings have “lost” their bodies through death. Strictly speaking, these disembodied souls are not ghosts because they have never become discernible to any living people. Only those few souls whose presence is seen or felt by others are truly ghosts. And their existence is plausible. But here we must proceed with great caution.

Let’s look at sacred Scripture. The book of Deuteronomy condemns anyone “who consults ghosts and spirits or seeks oracles from the dead” (see Dt 18:10–11). And the book of Leviticus warn against using “mediums” to contact the souls of the dead (see Lv 19:31; 20:6, 27). These legal prohibitions demonstrate that at least some people believed in ghosts. If they didn’t, why prohibit attempted contacts?

The Old Testament also has a few ghost stories. The most famous one is in 1 Sm 28:8–20. Here the inspired writer tells how King Saul met with the ghost of the prophet Samuel. In 2 Mc 15:1–16, you can read about the encounter between Judas Maccabeus, the great Jewish patriot, and the ghost of Onias, the dead high priest. These Old Testament laws and stories affirm that the people of Israel believed that human souls survive after death and can have contact with the living, at least occasionally.

Now, let’s see what Catholic theology contributes to the matter. To be frank, not many theologians have written much about ghosts, but some have, notably St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. According to Thomas, the souls of the dead who are in heaven can indeed manifest themselves to the living on their own initiative. Such appearances, however, are not “hauntings” meant to terrify or tease people. Rather, these saintly apparitions occur only to bring comfort and encouragement, never fear. And remember, “saint” means anyone who dwells with God, not just those officially declared saints by the Church. In light of this, it is theoretically possible for loved ones, such as deceased grandparents or children (even babies), to become sensibly discernible to us. While such occurrences may be rare, there is no reason to rule them out. In a sense, these spirits are benign, even loving, ghosts.

Now we move to the matter of malicious ghosts, the nasty type that pop up in horror movies and novels. St. Thomas clearly states that the souls of the dead, who are not in heaven, can never appear to the living without God’s consent. But why would God ever allow ghosts to “haunt” people?

St. Thomas gives two reasons: first, as a warning; and second, to seek spiritual assistance from the living in the form of prayer or good deeds to advance the dead person toward fulfillment in God. The ghosts or “non-saints” may annoy people, but they can never harm them. Of course, one can read somewhat credible stories about destructive “hauntings,” but Thomas always insisted that these “ghosts” are definitely not the souls of dead people, but something else, most likely demons masquerading as ghosts.

This brief exploration about ghosts leads us to a very positive point: the spiritual bonds between the living and dead, especially those who love one another, are deep, unbreakable and mysterious because they are rooted in the Body of Christ, which embraces the living and dead. We have nothing to fear, for God governs all things — including ghosts — with wisdom and love.

(This article is excerpted and adapted with permission from A Priest Answers 27 Questions You Never Thought to Ask (Sophia Institute Press) by Father Michael Kerper.)