Paranormal activity: Do Catholics believe in ghosts?

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Article Faith and Science
Catholics believe in life after death, but things get complicated when those departed spirits start creeping across your living room.

About 10 years ago, Marla Fisher and her husband, Everett, were leaving their Pasadena, Texas ranch-style home for a weekend getaway. As Everett backed out of the driveway, Marla remembered that she’d left her curling iron in the bathroom, and she went back to retrieve it.

The couple had been renting the house for about four years, and every once in a while Marla would reach over to turn on a lamp and nothing would happen. Then she’d tighten the bulb and the light would come on.

Anywhere there was an exposed lightbulb—a lamp, a ceiling fan—at some point the bulb would loosen just enough for the electricity to misfire. The Fishers lived in the flight path of a nearby airfield, so they attributed the loose bulbs to the slight shake the house underwent each time a jet approached.

Once in a while they’d joke, “We must have ghosts.”

On the day Marla went back into the house for her curling iron, she walked through the door to the master bedroom and saw what she thought was a shadow going into the bathroom.

“There’s someone in the house,” she thought. But she and Everett had just left the house moments before.

To be sure, Marla checked the back door. It was locked. And then she realized the light was coming into the house from the back door, meaning the shadow she saw couldn’t have been a shadow. The light was coming from the opposite direction. The hair on the back of her neck stood straight up.

Marla, who calls herself a “cradle Catholic,” is involved in her parish. Before this experience, she hadn’t really thought much about ghosts, or what the church teaches about them.

“I felt that this was a spirit, but does that mean this was someone’s soul?” she asks. “Why would someone’s soul be here in my house? Are the souls of those in purgatory living among us? What do ghosts mean in the spiritual sense?”

Do you believe?

Catholics like Marla Fisher can be excused for their confusion over what the church itself believes and teaches about ghosts.

“There is no settled doctrinal or moral practice with respect to ghosts or apparitions,” says Lawrence Cunningham, professor emeritus of theology at the University of Notre Dame. “You can’t point to a canon in ecumenical councils or canon law that addresses this.”

When it comes to the paranormal, the church walks a fine line. On the one hand, Catholicism is defined by a belief in the supernatural—one person of the Trinity was in the not-too-distant past commonly called “the Holy Ghost.” But church leaders also must battle against errant belief in the occult.

The word “ghost” comes from geist, the German word for spirit. A poltergeist, or noisy ghost, is a spirit that makes its presence known with acts of mischief—throwing toasters or dining room chairs around. Martin Luther was one of the earliest to use the term “Polter-Geister.” The Modern Catholic Dictionary (Eternal Life) 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,” the definition continues. “… Their purpose may be to teach, or warn, or request some favor for the living.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “all forms of divination are to be rejected.” This includes “recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead, or other practices falsely supposed to ‘unveil’ the future.”

Consulting palm readers, interpreting omens, an interest in clairvoyance—“all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings,” according to the catechism. And all “contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone.”

And yet clearly Catholics must believe in the unbelievable. The communion of saints, for instance, necessitates a belief in miracles. Polls over the last decade suggest that somewhere between a third to one half of Americans believe in ghosts.

In 2007 Gary Jansen was living with his pregnant wife and young son in the Long Island house where he grew up. One night, he went up to his son’s room alone and felt something strange behind him.

His wife and child were the only other people in the house. He turned around, saw nothing, and, shrugging the feeling off, headed out of the room. But then he experienced something “quite out of the ordinary,” he writes in Holy Ghost: How a (Not So) Good Catholic Boy Became a Believer in Things That Go Bump in the Night (Tarcher).

The feeling was “sort of like an electric hand rubbing the length of my back,” Jansen writes. Then the sensation changed.

“I felt like I was being pressed like a grape, that something was coursing through my body like blood in my veins,” he writes. “For a brief moment I felt like I had a million little bugs crawling all over my back and neck.” Within seconds, all was back to normal.

For Jansen, that moment triggered a long reckoning of the experience he considered supernatural with the teachings of his church. He says that he sees no conflict between what the church teaches and a belief in ghosts. “Belief in all that is visible and invisible is a tenet of our faith, and in the end, spirits are part of our holy tradition,” says Jansen.

Peter Kreeft, a philosophy professor at Boston College, has written, “The dead often do appear to the living. There is enormous evidence of ‘ghosts’ in all cultures.”

Kreeft says that there is “no contradiction” between ghosts and Catholic theology. “Ghosts appear on earth, but do not live on earth any longer,” he says. “They are either in heaven, hell, or purgatory.”

Kreeft recalls the appearance of the dead Samuel to the witch of Endor in 1 Samuel, one of the most famous ghost stories in the Bible. When Samuel appeared, says Kreeft, “he was not on earth, though that’s where he appeared.” Similarly, “the angel of the Lord” that appears frequently in the Old Testament, which some theologians think was the preincarnate Christ, “is not actually on earth, but simply appeared to those that were,” he says.

“Ghosts confirm, rather than refute or disturb, Catholic theology of the afterlife,” says Kreeft. “Especially the very existence of a life after death, which is the main point skeptics dispute.”

Ghost skeptics, of course, are legion, and always have been. The church, too, has marshaled paranormal skeptics to battle against the encroachment of what it has called spiritualism or spiritism. Jesuit Father Philipp Schmidt wrote in the early 1960s that the “cult of spirits” was, for many people “a kind of substitute religion.”

Schmidt writes that attempts to speak to dead relatives were “not in keeping with the wisdom of God.” Human beings can’t control the supernatural—only God can. Spiritualism, he said, is hostile to all the world’s religions, and the miracles attributed to Christ and the saints “stand on a level high above all spiritistic interpretation.”

“Wherever magic begins,” Schmidt writes, “where mirrors and windowpanes break in pieces … where one can ring up on the telephone Napoleon, Cleopatra, Herod, or Paracelsus as though they were acquaintances from the rowing or the tennis club …  then spiritualistic nonsense begins.”

Unfinished business

The church has been contemplating, and trying to explain, ghostly manifestations for a long time. Much of that has been done through the uniquely Catholic concept of purgatory, where Kreeft says many ghosts reside. The church formulated the doctrine of purgatory at the Councils of Florence and Trent in the 15th and 16th centuries. The catechism defines purgatory as a “final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.”

John Newton, a Catholic and a member of Britain’s vaunted 130-year-old Society for Psychical Research, has focused his scholarly research on Reformation-era theological beliefs about ghosts.

He claims that the idea of ghosts as spirits that cannot pass over into the next life because of unfinished business is an outdated one that has parallels in early medieval Catholic sources. Usually in such sources the ghost has committed some offense that has not been atoned for, or committed some sin that restitution needs to be made for. The ghost is unable to rest until that has been done.

The model for these sorts of stories is the tale of the deacon Paschasius in St. Gregory the Great’s Dialogues, according to Newton. Paschasius was widely held to be a very holy and learned man, but when Bishop Germanus visits the baths, he is surprised to see the dead Paschasius acting as an attendant.

The deacon confides in the bishop that he is there because he continued to support the antipope Laurentius even after the church had healed the schism with Laurentius’ party and universally accepted Symmachus as pope. Paschasius asks the bishop to pray for him, which he does with great fervor. When Germanus next returns to the baths, Paschasius is not there, presumably having entered into heaven.

“The theological point seems to be that purgatory can be undergone here on earth,” Newton says.

Who’s doing the haunting?

Souls in purgatory are one of three types of ghosts, says Kreeft. The first are “sad, wispy ones” that are “suffering some purgatorial purification until released from their earthly business.”

These ghosts “just barely made it to purgatory,” “feel little or no joy yet,” and “need to learn many painful lessons about their past life on earth,” Kreeft writes.

The next type of ghosts are “malicious and deceptive spirits” that are likely the ones “who respond to conjurings at séances” and “come from hell.”

Lastly, there are “bright, happy spirits of dead friends and family, especially spouses, who appear unbidden, at God’s will, not ours, with messages of hope and love.”

These ghosts return “for the sake of us the living, to tell us all is well,” according to Kreeft. “Even the bright spirits appear ghostlike to us because a ghost of any type is one whose substance does not belong in or come from this world. In heaven these spirits are not ghosts but real, solid, and substantial because they are at home there: One can’t be a ghost in one’s own country.”

John Newton says the question of what is occurring when someone claims to have seen a ghost “is a highly complex one.”

“Certainly I see no good reason, all other factors being equal, to deny that someone who claims to have seen a ghost has not had a genuine experience of some sort,” Newton says. “The question then is what sort of experience has occurred.”

It could be that they have actually encountered some sort of spirit, or that they’ve experienced a hallucination. Or it could be that certain environmental factors have given rise to an experience that has been misinterpreted as a spirit.

Newton says that over the years “a significant number of the cases” gathered by the Society for Psychical Research are “personal experiences where an individual reports encountering a departed loved one.”

The experience of seeing or communicating with a dead loved one is “qualitatively different” from the experience of seeing the ghost of a stranger “because of the emotional content that it will have,” Newton says. “But the question of whether we can differentiate these two types comes back to the question about what actually happens during such an experience, and that continues to be an open question.”

‘You saw it, didn’t you?’

Marla Fisher froze for a moment, and nothing happened.

“Don’t be silly,” she thought, and walked into the bathroom to get her curling iron. As she turned a corner, she almost ran into her husband, Everett, who had come to check on her.

“You saw it, didn’t you?” he asked. The hair on the back of Marla’s neck was getting a workout.

Everett, a pipe fitter at an oil refinery, is “Mr. Patient,” according to Marla. “He would have checked the glove compartment, fiddled with the radio, and dusted off the dashboard before coming into the house to see what was taking me so long,” she says. “I’d been standing there for a lot longer than I’d realized.”

“What are you talking about?” she asked him.

Everett had been struggling with insomnia for a while, he explained. He’d get up and watch television in the middle of the night. He told Marla that many times while he was sitting on the couch, something would pass between him and the television. He had the feeling it was a woman, he said. He couldn’t quite make out a shape or a figure; it was more like a feeling or energy. Whatever it was, it was something. And it happened a lot.

“He’d never told me because he didn’t want to freak me out,” Marla says. “But now he saw my face, and he knew I’d seen it, too … We both believed it was a spirit.”

Like church leaders through time, lay Catholics have widely differing views of how to handle a haunted experience. A Canadian truck driver who goes only by the name Demetrius founded the Ontario Catholic Paranormal Research Society (OCPRS) in Toronto in 2010 after debunking a popular ghost story at a college.

The mission of the OCPRS is to continue debunking ghost stories, using the teachings of the early church leaders as foundational documents. Demetrius says the third-century theologian St. Hippolytus was an early skeptic, exposing ventriloquists who were claiming to speak to the dead.

“By picking up old arguments and bringing them back to light,” Demetrius says, “we hope to offer people Christian solutions, to turn away from occult and new age practices and back to Jesus Christ.”

Today’s public has been mesmerized by the abundance of television shows dealing with the paranormal, according to Demetrius—Ghost Hunters, The Othersiders, and the like. “We’re overwhelmed with it in mass media,” he says.

The OCPRS fights mass media with mass media, using YouTube to “investigate” supposedly haunted destinations, often incorporating the production values of the network shows, then pointing viewers to patristic sources—St. John Chrysostom, St. Athanasius, St. Justin Martyr.

“People present a problem, and we address the issues in accord with what the church has to say,” Demetrius says. “Some people are receptive, and some call me a Bible thumper after I recommend a certain passage.

“I wish more priests would take up this issue and present it from a more authoritative platform,” he says. “People might take a priest more seriously than a truck driver.”

Holy hauntings

For some Chicago priests, encountering ghostly presences that force them to acknowledge the possibility of belief in apparitions has been a frequent experience for decades. Chicago auxiliary bishop and former vicar general Bishop Raymond Goedert, 85, lived in the 1950s in the rectory at the former St. Charles Borromeo Parish, which was said to be haunted by the ghost of Bishop Peter Muldoon (1862–1927).

Goedert was working downtown at the archdiocese’s marriage tribunal and was in residence at St. Charles Borromeo on the city’s tough northwest side. Only four people—the pastor, the caretaker, and one other priest in residence aside from Goedert—lived in the rectory. And yet the activity they heard in the house suggested otherwise.

The Muldoon haunting was made famous in a book written by the other priest in residence, Father Rocco Facchini, called Muldoon: A True Chicago Ghost Story (Thunder Bay).

“I never actually saw anything, but I heard plenty of noise,” says Goedert. He says the priests would often sit in Facchini’s room watching the news and suddenly hear raucous noises from the floor above, “like someone moving the dresser for some reason.” The next day the priests asked the caretaker, who lived on that floor, if she’d been moving furniture.

“She said she’d been scared to death when she heard the noise, and put a chair against her door to prevent whatever it was from coming inside,” Goedert says. “She asked the pastor to bless her room because she was so scared.”

Goedert says they often heard the front door slamming and would race down to see who had come in, but the door was always locked. “It was a tough neighborhood, so no one left the doors open.”

At one point a seminarian came to visit and asked Facchini about the man he’d seen at the front desk as he entered the rectory. “There’s no one else here,” Facchini said, and the two promptly forgot about it. But when Facchini escorted the seminarian out, the young man saw a portrait of Muldoon on the wall. “That’s him,” he said. “That’s the man I saw when I came in.”

“That’s when we began to wonder if Muldoon really was coming around,” Goedert says.

The bishop says he isn’t ready to commit one way or another when it comes to a belief in ghosts. “I believe in spirits,” he says. “I’m aware that it’s possible that a person who dies can appear to the living. But that’s up to God—if God wants to let that person appear, he will.”

Goedert says he prefers to use the phrasing “appearances which God has somehow allowed” rather than the word “ghosts.” “These things don’t happen without God’s OK,” he says.

Much of what Goedert described from his own experience at St. Charles Borromeo—moving furniture, unexplained flickering of lights—suggests a poltergeist. In the 1930s the British Jesuit Father Herbert Thurston wrote an acclaimed essay about the church and the history of poltergeists.

Thurston says poltergeist visitations in the 17th and 18th centuries were written as “apologia”—“the disturbances universally ascribed to the action of the devil … a diabolic visitation was suggestive of an unholy familiarity with witchcraft and sorcery.”

“Although I am myself quite satisfied of the reality of many of these poltergeist phenomena,” Thurston writes, “I have no thought of contesting the fact that nothing more purposeless—one might say nothing more childish—could be imagined than these incomprehensible displays of some Puck-like spook bent on every exasperating form of mischief.”

To attribute all poltergeist activity to “diabolical agency” is difficult, he writes, “if only because we credit the enemy of mankind with a higher level of intelligence than that which seems to prompt these outbreaks.”

Thurston says exorcism and other rites of the church were not generally effective in permanently ending poltergeist disturbances. On the other hand, he says, “I have come across a few cases in which a special novena or the saying of Mass seems definitely to have gotten rid of the nuisance.”

Msgr. Wayne Prist oversaw the renovation of the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary campus in Chicago for a decade. During his time there, while he never experienced any unusual activity himself, he heard the stories from years past: Some say dead priests came through the walls.

“It becomes part of the legacy of a place,” Prist says. “Catholics are more susceptible to such stories because we believe in the communion of saints and purgatory. We have a whole tradition of apparitions, so even if we want to dismiss it, we can’t, because it’s so much a part of our tradition.”

Father Lawrence Hennessey, a systematic theology professor at Mundelein, says people have experienced what he calls “manifestations” on campus over the decades.

He says in the 1960s when Father John Nicola, an adviser on the movie The Exorcist, was researching his influential book Diabolical Possession and Exorcism, he experienced such “manifestations”—the ink in his pen would suddenly drop to nothing, for instance.

The campus has seen more recent paranormal activity, Hennessey says, including within the last decade during a basketball tournament called the Mundelein Seminary Shootout. Each year, the school hosts teams from about 10 other Midwestern colleges and major seminaries.

One year a visiting player reported waking up in the middle of the night to see a lamp in his room “shaking violently,” Hennessey says. Others saw lights go on and off without explanation. An exorcist from the archdiocese was brought in to bless the rooms, and the activity ceased.

Hennessey says he has witnessed strange things at Mundelein himself. One night soon after he arrived at the seminary two decades ago, he recalls seeing “a luminous presence” standing on a pier on St. Mary’s Lake.

“It was beckoning towards me, but I never went down,” he says. “I still don’t go down there. It was not a graceful presence. This was creepy.”

Calling all ghosts

One day, not long after the curling iron incident, Marla Fisher was home alone. She was thinking “about this spirit cohabitating with us, and loosening my lightbulbs,” and she decided to have a chat with it. She spoke to the spirit out loud.

“OK,” she said. “Obviously I’m not alone here. Somebody else has been living with us for several years. You’ve made yourself known to both Everett and me, and we’ve been here for years without suffering any harm. You’re not malevolent—all you’ve done is loosen our lightbulbs to let us know you’re around. I’m fine with that. As long as you don’t mean us harm, I’m OK with you being here.”

The couple lived in the house for another 18 months. They never had another loose lightbulb.

If the Fishers’ house was haunted, it wasn’t because anything evil had happened there. It was one of four homes in a development that the builder had double-mortgaged, and it was owned by the bank and managed by a leasing company that rented it out. The home was only about 10 years old, and no one had died in it.

But not far from the Fishers’ house was the San Jacinto battleground where General Sam Houston and the Texian Army killed more than 600 Mexican soldiers in less than 20 minutes in 1836 during the Texan Revolution.

“There could have been ghosts from way back then,” Marla says. “Or later there were strawberry fields on the site. Maybe someone died in the strawberry fields.”

Despite what skeptics say, Boston College’s Peter Kreeft believes the existence of ghosts is “enormously likely.”

Kreeft says that even if most “ghost sightings” are fakes or hallucinations, “the existence of counterfeit money strongly argues for the existence of real money somewhere.”

It’s not something in the nature of belief that convinces people they’ve seen a ghost, Kreeft says. After all, they see it. “Do you have to believe something to see an ostrich?” he asks. “But ostriches are much harder to believe in than ghosts.”

This article appeared in the October 2013 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 10, pages 12-17).

Read more about ghosts and the Catholic Church in these two web-exclusive sidebars: Ghosts of Christians past: The church’s long history of spooks and hauntings and Who're you gonna call when you see a ghost?

Image: Flickr photo cc by Mikamatto