The subject of ghosts and the paranormal is one that interested me as a kid, but as I grew older I began to doubt how well the entire subject fit within a traditional Catholic perspective. Common sense certainly seems to allow that some sort of paranormal entities could exist, and could interact with us (after all, for God all things are possible), however the Christian eschatological sense seems to introduce some doubt. We wonder what reasons God may have for allowing a deceased human soul to return to our world, or more troubling still, a damned soul. Such questions require first a strong faith in the teaching authority of the Church, and second an unshakable belief in God's goodness, even when we may not understand His actions.
I will begin by quoting a passage from Exorcism and the Church Militant by Rev. Thomas J. Euteneuer. While I'm very troubled by the rumours I've heard regarding his conduct, his information is still solid and may be accepted regardless of his own difficulties.
"Most pagan societies believe in the separation of the soul from the body and an afterlife. This includes the idea that souls may "linger" after death due to "unfinished business" such as unbroken attachments to the earth, to unreconciled relationships or to the affairs of men that supposedly last beyond the grave. In this view, the souls can be benign or malicious; often pagan traditions of ancestor worship or appeasement of the dead are the result of these beliefs.
"The Roman Catholic belief is categorically different from these pagan beliefs, however. The theological tradition concerning souls in purgatory is based on the belief that bodily death constitutes a definitive entrance into an afterlife which is either a temporal purification followed by heaven, or an eternal damnation. Thus, for Catholics there is no such thing as a "lingering" or "wandering" soul who has "not cut the bonds of this earthly life." For Catholics, there is another way to explain these things than the standard pagan reasoning.
"A strong theological tradition recognizes that deceased human souls can and do visit the living after death for various reasons and in various modes. It is clear that this is only done "according to the disposition of Divine providence" and not as a common occurrence. St. Thomas Aquinas says that "separated souls sometimes come forth from their abode and appear to men...", and this can be both for "intimidation" (i.e., damned souls) or for "instruction" (i.e., redeemed souls). He also claims that souls may appear to others "in order to seek our suffrages" (i.e., souls in purgatory). Such apparitions can also be due to a special intervention into the human sphere by a demon creating a deception or an angel appearing in human form to communicate a message.
"Some people call these various apparitions "ghosts." In light of the tradition above, these can be either disembodied human souls or evil spirits. In Catholic thought, however, if such appearances happen, they are always limited and marked by truth, simplicity and utter clarity to distinguish a holy apparition from a demonic one, which is always marked by confusion, discord, chaos, fear and anxiety. Thus, there is no strictly theological basis for believing that there are souls "wandering" around in the world communicating with loved ones, or "haunting" places, but Catholics do believe that the deceased can appear after death in a strictly limited fashion and only with God's permission for some greater reason.
"What has been absolutely forbidden by the Church from the beginning is the attempt to conjure deceased souls from the grave or to communicate with the dead, a dark art known as necromancy. This prohibition is from Scripture. In the Christian tradition, we honor the dead and pray for them- we even consider ourselves in communion with them- but we do not conjure them up or attempt to dialogue with them. All such practices open us up to demonic deception and infestation."Rev. Euteneuer goes on to speculate as to whether or not a damned human soul could possess a living person in the same way that a demonic entity is able to do, and I will revisit this later.
I think we can condense his answer into a few key points.
- Judgement after death is immediate.
- God can allow, for various reasons, a deceased human soul to interact with living beings.
- These scenarios should be considered irregular and rare.
- We are not to seek out deceased souls with satanic magic.
It will be useful from here, I believe, to glance at Church teaching on the immediacy of judgement after death.
Catechism of the Catholic Church
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.So we can conclude from these that if we living beings find ourselves interacting with a deceased human entity, this entity has already faced its judgement. Therefore it may be a damned soul, in which case it may seek to cause us grave harm, or it may be a saved soul. Of the souls of the saved, it may be undergoing purgation, in which case it is in need of our prayers, or it may be a member of the Church Triumphant, and therefore be able to intercede for us with the power of the saints.
We can conclude now that ghostly/paranormal activity is a possibility from a Catholic point of view, and it would be good to examine this activity in greater depth.
From my previous reading of anecdotal 'evidence' [read: ghost stories], I think we can safely divide paranormal activity into four main categories. These categories are:
- Good entities
- Evil entities
- Benign/neutral haunted houses
We will examine each in turn.
I think we may conclude safely that these are the least problematic of any category of paranormal activity. These must be either souls in purgatory or in heaven, because a damned soul would be entirely unable to do good works. For a soul in purgatory, God may allow its temporary return in order to somehow right any damage it caused in its life. A soul undergoing purgation would also be especially inclined to ask for prayers. We can only speculate on particulars, and of course we must remember that it is not for us to understand the will of God. A hypothetical scenario which occurred to me is that of a father who became estranged from his son, and returned briefly after death to offer and receive healing and forgiveness. I recall Fr. Gabriele Amorth writing about a nun who was visited by a recently deceased member of the same order who begged for her prayers, and eventually her prayers led to the deceased nun's completion of purgation. However, I cannot find this story to reproduce it here in more detail, because I don't have the time to reread both his books.
A soul already experiencing the beatific vision may also be sent by God, in a similar manner to the angels, in order that it may intercede for us in some way. These actions would be directed somehow towards the benefits of we who are living, ultimately to inspire or strengthen our faith and resolve. We know that they have no need to complete any 'mission'. They cannot have 'unfinished business', because they have been perfected and are conformed to Christ. Maybe we can even consider the same father from our previous hypothetical who, having finished his purgation, returns to console his son during a crisis of faith later in life.
This category is also simple. We can quite safely say that if a deceased human entity intends harm for we who are living, then that soul must be damned. Souls in purgatory are unable to sin, and we need not even mention those in heaven. However, the souls of the damned live eternally in their sin; they know nothing but. Were a damned soul to temporarily visit the world of the living, we should conclude that it has been sent by Satan, but permitted by God, in the same way as demonic activity. We know also that these souls remain damned, as their judgement is final and eternal.
The extent of the influence of these damned souls may certainly be debated. It is, of course, exceedingly difficult for us, with our limited perspective, to distinguish between a damned human and a demon. This is simply because demons are wicked liars and would not hesitate to pose as a human if they perceived any benefit in doing so. Likewise it is reasonable that a damned soul might imitate a demon in hopes of intimidating a member of the living. Later in this post I will speculate further on this subject.
Poltergeist activity, along with so-called haunted houses are far more complex questions than simple good or evil entities. From stories we hear that poltergeists tend to be attached to a particular person, often an adolescent. These poltergeists tend to be mischievous, but mainly benign.
According to Fr. Herbert Thurston, SJ, (Ghosts and Poltergeists, page 2)
"A poltergeist is simply a racketing spirit, which in almost all cases remains invisible, but which manifests its presence by throwing things about, [...] in the course of which the human spectators are occasionally hit by flying objects, but as a rule suffer no serious injury."
He says further that particular aspects of the poltergeist are,
"the invisibility of the agents, the sporadic and temporary nature of the manifestations, and notably their dependence upon the presence of some particular individual- usually a young person and often a child- who must be assumed to possess strange, if unconscious, mediumistic powers."Interestingly, Fr. Thurston seems to imply here that poltergeist activity is caused by "mediumistic" [psychic?] powers on the account of the central individual. Maybe in the case of poltergeists we are dealing with unconscious psychic powers of 'sensitive' individuals.
"Charismatics and Sensitives
"I mention both although we mistakenly tend to lump them together as one.
Charismatics have received a particular gift, or charism, from the Holy Spirit, which is to be used for the good of the entire Church, and not for their own personal benefit,
Sensitives, by nature, have higher levels of sensitivity (we often refer to a sixth sense) and are able to perceive things that cannot be detected by most individuals."
On the subject of Poltergeists, I will let the conclusions of Fr. Thurston speak in my place.
"Although, as the reader will infer, I am myself quite satisfied of the reality of many of these poltergeist phenomena, notable in such a case as that of the Ketkar household at Poona, 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 exasperation form of mischief. In the words of Alice in Wonderland, "he only does it to annoy, because he knows it teases." Nevertheless, these phenomena seem to me to have their value as a proof of the existence of a world of spiritual agencies, not cognoscible directly by our sense perceptions. For the crude materialist such incidents must surely be very difficult to explain away. The stones have fallen, for they are solid and still to be seen; but who has thrown them? Crockery, chimney ornaments and glasses have been smashed, heavy pieces of furniture have been moved, pictures have jumped from the walls, but witnesses declare that they stood by and saw that no human hand came near them. Now it would be a very violent supposition to maintain that any human being is so psychically endowed that by taking thought he can make material objects external to himself fly about in eccentric paths, that he can move furniture, spirit away the contents of receptacles closed and locked, or set a curtain on fire by merely looking at it. What the nature of the agency is that performs these marvels we are not called upon to determine. Divines of all creeds in the seventeenth century were satisfied that such alarming phenomena could only be the work of the devil. I am not prepared to declare that they were wrong, though this solution cannot, I submit, be treated as a manner of certainty. But, be this as it may, we may reasonably call upon materialists who deny the possibility of miracles either to provide a physical explanation of these extraordinary poltergeist disturbances, or to submit some reasonable ground for rejecting the mass of evidence by which their reality has been established.
"It may be admitted in any case that nothing could be conceived more purposeless or irrational than the vagaries of the poltergeist. None the less, it seems impossible to reject the evidence which for so many centuries and in every country of the world attests the sporadic occurrence of such phenomena. To attribute them all to diabolic agency is difficult, if only because we credit the enemy of mankind with a higher level of intelligence than that which seems to prompt these outbreaks. Experience has shown that the exorcism and comminatory rites of the Church are not always, or indeed generally, effective in putting and end to poltergeist disturbances, though they sometimes produce a temporary mitigation. On the other hand, I have come across a few cases in which a special novena or the saying of Mass seems definitely to have got rid of the nuisance."I will submit then, tentatively yet in line with Fr. Thurston's thoughts on the matter, that poltergeist activity is indeed not otherworldly, at least not in a direct sense. In more unusual poltergeist cases which do not follow the common script, such as cases where prayers of exorcism are effective, where serious physical or spiritual harm occurs, or where evidence of witchcraft presents itself, it is rather easier to infer the presence of demonic activity. If we are to accept my conclusions, then we will reject these as being not true poltergeist activity, but rather a demon masquerading as a harmless, though annoying poltergeist.
What then would cause poltergeist activity? Referring back to Fr. Amorth I will suggest that, while a charismatic may have particular preternatural spiritual gifts, a young person afflicted with poltergeist activity has been chosen by God for spiritual trials. I will suggest that the charismatic and the focal point of a poltergeist both have particularly a keen and abnormal (yet likely unconscious) affinity for the spiritual world. While the charismatic may use this affinity for discernment, etc., the focal point of a poltergeist creates a sort of disturbance in the physical world due to his unconscious link to the spiritual world.
As for the reasons for this, we can only speculate. As Fr. Thurston mentions, poltergeist activity is mystifyingly purposeless. Maybe we can compare it to an infant not yet aware of his control over his own body, who thrashes and moves without really understanding how he does it. The mediumistic individual may have a poorly-understood access to the spiritual aspects of Creation, yet does not realize or understand how to control his particular form of control.
We recall also that poltergeist activity seems to be more common in young people. I am reminded of Jesus' call to "let the little children come to Me", and that we must be like children to attain salvation. Children are unique and somewhat anomalous in a very dark world. Maybe they are more open to these things that we do not understand.
Benign/Neutral 'Haunted Houses'
I finally have come to the last category of paranormal activity, and that is the phenomenon of the classic "haunted house." In my opinion this is the trickiest category, and one about which I still have no firm conclusions. We can conclude surely that some kind of haunting of buildings does exist. We know, of course, that inanimate objects may be infested by the demonic. This could be from curses, or from previous satanic activity, or (I think it is reasonable to assume) prolonged contact with someone severely afflicted by the demonic.
However, the demonic infestation of objects does not explain the 'classic' haunted house. These stories seem to have a few characteristics that are much more reminiscent of poltergeists than demons. Generally according to these stories, the house will remain 'haunted' over a long period of time. This seems to conflict with what we so far have believed of deceased human souls, namely that they are only allowed to return for brief periods. (See, for instance, Summa Theologica Supplementum, Q. 69 Article 3) We may answer this by remembering that God's time is not our time, so what seems to be a perpetually haunted house is still only a temporary state for the deceased soul.
More troubling with the cases of haunted houses is the apparent purposelessness, like that of poltergeists, which sheds more doubt on the whole subject. If God allows a soul to return to this world, we know it must be for some greater purpose. In the case of haunted houses, it appears more often than not that the entity does not interact with any living parties
I have heard two complementary explanations for the presence of haunted houses that I will share now. The first is that the classic haunted house is inhabited by the soul of a person in purgatory, and that their presence in the world of the living is to obtain our prayers for its salvation. By our awareness of its presence, we may be called to offer prayers for its purification.
The second explanation addresses the apparent purposelessness of hauntings, and that is that for some reason, these souls are unable to communicate in a direct manner with we who are living. We might speculate even, that some aspect of their purgation involves time on earth, mostly in isolation. I am considering for instance, a person who, though in a state of grace, was so attached to his house that he must be rid of this attachment to be free of the inclination to sin. Maybe his primary purpose on earth is to rid himself of this attachment, and secondarily, by our awareness of him we should pray that he is able to do so. This explanation also offers a clue as to why some hauntings are more subtle than others. This may conform to the level of attachment to that particular building on the part of the deceased.
Though I covered it elsewhere, I feel that I should say again that if a 'haunting' is violent or involves emotional, spiritual, psychological, or even physical harm, then it is almost certainly a demon masquerading as a soul in purgatory.
I will note finally that I consider many so-called haunted houses to be explainable by natural reasons. Some recent research has shown that certain frequencies which are below our ability to detect can cause sympathetic vibrations in the body that simulate feelings of dread, the feeling of being watched, or even the sensation of seeing something out of the corner of your eye. It is possible that some pipes vibrate at this particular range of frequencies, as well as old electronics, etc..
The Powers of Evil Spirits
I mentioned above that I wished to take a moment to discuss the potential power that the souls of the damned can have over us. This section is purely speculative, and I'd welcome any additional research that could be contributed. I'll open with Fr. Euteneuer's treatment of the topic.
Exorcism and the Church Militant
"Whether damned souls can actually possess living persons is an open question still debated even by experienced exorcists, but the classical view is against the idea. Notwithstanding what was mentioned above about "separated souls", it is hard to see how a damned human soul would be released from hell to independently possess or haunt another human being. This is first of all based upon the biblical image of the "chasm between us and you" of the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. A damned soul would not have the spiritual power over nature to return to torment humans as a demon would and, being separated from the body, would not likely be able to manifest itself in the world with any great power that would be needed for an actual possession. If a damned soul were somehow "attached" to a demon roaming the world, such a soul would be entirely controlled by the stronger demon and theoretically participate vicariously in the demon's haunting, harassing, frightening or possession of the living human person but not be able to do those same activities on its own. This however, is pure speculation and is not defined doctrinally. Biblically and theologically, it is most accurate to presume that damned human souls do not possess or torment other human beings."I wish to speculate just a bit further in the same direction as Fr. Euteneuer.
I think first of all, an important recognition is that a damned human soul is still human, and therefore has the same nature and ability as any other human. However, no longer having a body, it will not have the same limitations or strengths as a living human.
Since these souls are not confined by a body, I think it is reasonable to suggest that they are able to co-exist within the body of a living person. I think that it is also reasonable that, once existing within a body, they would be able to cause spiritual disturbances and generally harass the victim.
More important however, is to examine why these things may be able to happen. As Fr. Euteneuer says, it is somewhat problematic to think that the damned souls may temporarily leave hell independently. To answer this, I propose that it may be possible for a soul to temporarily leave hell while being controlled by a demon, however over the course of harassment of the victim God has not allowed the demon any amount of latitude. We know very clearly that demons are able to do only what God has allowed. Thus, I think we may suggest that while the demon was not given permission to oppress or possess the victim, the damned soul accompanying the demon was given some amount of permission to test and otherwise oppress the living soul.
Discernment of Spirits
But prove all things; hold fast that which is good. (1 Thessalonians 5, 21)
Last of all, we will spend a moment on the discernment of spirits. For this, I will merely copy verbatim from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola:
RULES FOR THE SAME EFFECT WITH GREATER DISCERNMENT OF SPIRITS
First Rule. The first: It is proper to God and to His Angels in their movements to give true spiritual gladness and joy, taking away all sadness and disturbance which the enemy brings on. Of this latter it is proper to fight against the spiritual gladness and consolation, bringing apparent reasons, subtleties and continual fallacies.
Second Rule. The second: It belongs to God our Lord to give consolation to the soul without preceding cause, for it is the property of the Creator to enter, go out and cause movements in the soul, bringing it all into love of His Divine Majesty. I say without cause: without any previous sense or knowledge of any object through which such consolation would come, through one’s acts of understanding and will.
Third Rule. The third: With cause, as well the good Angel as the bad can console the soul, for contrary ends: the good Angel for the profit of the soul, that it may grow and rise from good to better, and the evil Angel, for the contrary, and later on to draw it to his damnable intention and wickedness.
Fourth Rule. The fourth: It is proper to the evil Angel, who forms himself under the appearance of an angel of light, to enter with the devout soul and go out with himself: that is to say, to bring good and holy thoughts, conformable to such just soul, and then little by little he aims at coming out drawing the soul to his covert deceits and perverse intentions.
Fifth Rule. The fifth: We ought to note well the course of the thoughts, and if the beginning, middle and end is all good, inclined to all good, it is a sign of the good Angel; but if in the course of the thoughts which he brings it ends in something bad, of a distracting tendency, or less good than what the soul had previously proposed to do, or if it weakens it or disquiets or disturbs the soul, taking away its peace, tranquillity and quiet, which it had before, it is a clear sign that it proceeds from the evil spirit, enemy of our profit and eternal salvation.
Sixth Rule. The sixth: When the enemy of human nature has been perceived and known by his serpent’s tail and the bad end to which he leads on, it helps the person who was tempted by him, to look immediately at the course of the good thoughts which he brought him at their beginning, and how little by little he aimed at making him descend from the spiritual sweetness and joy in which he was, so far as to bring him to his depraved intention; in order that with this experience, known and noted, the person may be able to guard for the future against his usual deceits.
Seventh Rule. The seventh: In those who go on from good to better, the good Angel touches such soul sweetly, lightly and gently, like a drop of water which enters into a sponge; and the evil touches it sharply and with noise and disquiet, as when the drop of water falls on the stone.
And the above-said spirits touch in a contrary way those who go on from bad to worse.
The reason of this is that the disposition of the soul is contrary or like to the said Angels. Because, when it is contrary, they enter perceptibly with clatter and noise; and when it is like, they enter with silence as into their own home, through the open door.
Eighth Rule. The eighth: When the consolation is without cause, although there be no deceit in it, as being of God our Lord alone, as was said; still the spiritual person to whom God gives such consolation, ought, with much vigilance and attention, to look at and distinguish the time itself of such actual consolation from the following, in which the soul remains warm and favored with the favor and remnants of the consolation past; for often in this second time, through one’s own course of habits and the consequences of the concepts and judgments, or through the good spirit or through the bad, he forms various resolutions and opinions which are not given immediately by God our Lord, and therefore they have need to be very well examined before entire credit is given them, or they are put into effect.To summarize: those spirits which serve Satan sow only discord and weaken our faith. They can do nothing else. The spirits who are conformed with God's Will bring consolation and strength.
While this properly applies to demons and angels, we can also use these principles when dealing with human souls. We know that evil souls can bring nothing but harm, as they are no longer capable of righteousness. Conversely, we know that souls who have joined the Church Triumphant can never harm us. Souls in purgatory are slightly different. They are also incapable of sin, however they are not perfected. I think it is reasonable to think that they could frighten us (unintentionally), though they could not cause us actual harm.
I wish to conclude reaffirming that the only paranormal activity that could possibly occur is that which is allowed by God, and this activity will be permitted only for an express purpose. In the case of spiritual harassment, it is meant to test us like Job was tested, in order to deepen our faith. For souls in purgatory, we are to pray for their purification, which of course has secondary benefits for our own virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Finally, for souls who are already enjoying the Beatific Vision, their purpose would be to guide, console, and help us.
We have nothing to fear from the paranormal. In cases of evil attacks we always have recourse to the authority of the Church in formal exorcisms and liturgical healing, and also through the authority we all share as Christians, in the universal priesthood of baptism.