Believe in ghosts? Regardless, pray for the dead

| Father Michael Schmitz | November 4, 2015 | 0 Comments

Q. What does the Church teach about ghosts? Are they real? What are we supposed to do with them?

A. As anyone with access to a television knows, there’s an abundance of movies about the “paranormal” and TV shows about people who claim to be able to communicate with the dead. What is more, November is the month the Church dedicates to prayers for the dead, and this could be a good time to be reminded that the Church on earth (the Church Militant) and the Church in heaven (the Church Triumphant) is one with the Church in purgatory (the Church Suffering).

It is vitally important that we make a few things clear right off the bat. First, the Catholic Church does not have any doctrine that specifically deals with ghosts, so keep that in mind while reading this article. There have been “big deal” saints who have denied the existence of interaction with ghosts — and there have been “big deal” saints who had ghostly encounters. There appears to be some room for disagreement here.

And yet, the theology of the possibility of ghosts is sound. As Christians, we know that the human person is both body and soul. We know that there is more to this life than the natural; there is the supernatural. Further, we believe that the soul is immortal. At death, the body and the soul are separated. At this moment, the individual experiences what the Church calls “particular judgment”; we go to hell, heaven or purgatory. Could it be that God, in his wisdom, allows certain souls to manifest their presence to those still alive?

Both the life of the Church and Scripture seem to attest to this possibility. For one, the Church has numerous documented apparitions of saints who appeared to people with a message from God. In addition, there is the story of King Saul asking the witch of Endor to call up the spirit of the prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 28. Scripture seems to speak of this as a real thing.

This leads to the next very important point: The Church very clearly and emphatically teaches that all attempts to conjure up or contact the dead are absolutely forbidden. One of the personal consequences of this is that we ought never to seek out or participate in séances or any other kind of action that attempts to contact those who have died. Another consequence is that we ought not to seek out or put faith in anyone who claims to be able to communicate with the dead.

I can hear it now, “But Theresa Caputo is Catholic! And she knows things about people and their departed loved ones!” She is also most likely a charlatan. Just because the Church knows that there is a world beyond the world we can see and understand does not mean that we attribute all that we don’t understand to something supernatural.

Furthermore, when people like the “Long Island Medium” attempt to contact the dead, not only are they violating God’s Word and the Church’s teaching, they are in a position where they may not be able to discern well, not merely between the natural and the supernatural, but also between a potential ghost and something demonic. Someone who is trying to contact a being in the spiritual world may have absolutely no ability to distinguish between a human soul and a demon.

Third, if God allows a soul to manifest itself from beyond death, what are we supposed to do with that? Remember, this would have to be permitted by God. Why? God often reveals things to us because he wills us to act on what we know.

In the many (seemingly) reliable cases of encounters with ghosts that I have come across, there seems to be one recurring theme: prayers. As Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College, has said, “Ghosts appear on earth but do not live on earth any longer. They are either in heaven, hell or purgatory.” If the soul of a dead person was made manifest, the proper response is prayer. But not the prayer of fear. Rather, we offer prayers of reparation.

We believe in the communion of saints, that the Church exists on three “planes”: earth, heaven and purgatory. I recently heard it said: “The manifestation of ghosts is when the Church Suffering is asking the Church Militant for prayers of reparation.” We, the living, are called to pray for the dead. We are called to have the holy Mass celebrated on their behalf. Ghosts may be reminders that our brothers and sisters are in need of our prayers.

Father Schmitz is director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth and chaplain of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Email:

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