Glad You Asked: Do Catholics believe in ghosts?

On this episode of the podcast, religion scholar Matthew J. Cressler talks about church teaching on ghosts and the spirit world.

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Belief in the spirit world is central to the Christian faith, but Catholicism takes communion with supernatural realities to a whole new level. Catholics pray not only to God but also to Mary and the saints. Catholics even talk to their dead, say prayers for them, and ask them, in turn, for intercession. The lives of the saints are filled with stories about miraculous healings, levitation, bilocation, visions of the afterlife, and mystical conversations with Jesus, the angels, and the saints. 

But does this mean that Catholics believe in ghosts? Does the Catholic Church have a teaching on whether or not the dead can walk this earth, appear to people, and haunt places that were important to them? When Catholics pray to saints or talk to their beloved dead, how is this different from trying to make contact with the spirits of those who have departed this life? 

The guest on this episode of Glad You Asked will help answer these questions. Matthew J. Cressler is a scholar of religion, race, and culture. He is the author of Authentically Black and Truly Catholic: The Rise of Black Catholicism in the Great Migrations (NYU Press) as well as numerous scholarly articles. Cressler has written for U.S. Catholic and many other publications, including America, The Atlantic, National Catholic Reporter, Religion News Service, The Revealer, and Slate. Together with Adelle M. Banks, he co-reported the Religion News Service series “Beyond the Most Segregated Hour,” which won a Wilbur Award from the Religion Communicators Council.

You can read some of Cressler’s writings, and learn more about this topic, in the links below.

The following is a transcript of this episode of Glad You Asked:

Rebecca: Matthew, thank you so much for joining us on the Glad You Asked podcast.

Matthew J. Cressler: Pleasure to be here with both of you.

Emily: So first of all, let’s clarify what we mean when we say ghost. How is a ghost different from other kinds of paranormal phenomena?

Matthew: Yeah, that’s a great place to start because I think that when we hear the word ghost, we think kind of generally about things going bump in the night, and we think about a whole host of different paranormal activity. But, you know, I think if we’re talking about ghosts, we should think specifically about a bodiless soul of someone, a human being usually, but maybe an animal as well that is deceased. The word ghost kind of comes from the old English word gost and the German word geist, which mean kind of spirit or soul. So when we’re talking about ghosts, that’s what we tend to be talking about, bodiless souls of the recently or not so recently departed.

Rebecca: So what is the official Catholic teaching then on the relationship between the body and the soul? Is there any teaching about whether, say, disembodied spirits can walk the earth in the form of ghosts?

Matthew: Yeah, so church teaching on, you know, I was gonna say on the soul, but it’s really just on what it means to be a human person, is that we are both body and soul and that we are created by, for, and in the image of God. Again, both body and soul. So when we get to the end of our natural life and that body dies, the soul, the church teaches, kind of stays around. It’s eternal, right? So it goes to a place, to heaven or hell, to purgatory, and then is reunited with a resurrected body at the end of time, at the last judgment. So that’s what the church teaches about the body and soul.

You know, funny enough, what I find really interesting is that the question of whether souls having left the living body can return and wander about is kind of just up there unanswered by church teaching. I have a used copy of a Catholic dictionary from the 1960s and the entry on ghosts begins, “Catholic theology has nothing to say against the possibility of the ghost in the sense of the dead.” So it’s kind of like the church doesn’t not teach that ghosts can exist, that ghosts operate. So depending on which church teacher you go to, kind of talking like Augustine, Aquinas, etc, you can get different answers, but the clearest answer is the unclear. The church is very clear that the soul kind of persists, endures, is eternal after the body is dead. But the question of whether the souls of some departed can return is a kind of open question that isn’t closed by church teaching for sure.

Emily: So how have Catholic folk traditions kind of stepped into this gap? Like, what in practice do Catholics kind of think or do around ghosts?

Matthew: Yeah, I mean, that’s a great question because as a teacher I like to tell my students that, you know, we can talk about what religions or religious institutions say, but then there’s of course the question of what idiosyncratic, eclectic kind of billions of people do in their lives. So the church can teach one thing. Catholics do all sorts of different things. And I think that when we’re talking about Catholic practices around ghosts, the undead, the monstrous, the miraculous—I think it’s pretty clear that we can say that Catholics believe a whole host of certain things, or actually, rather than using the word believe, we might just say that Catholics experience and encounter and live a lot of different relationships. And if we’re talking about the present, or talking about the past 2000 years, that certainly includes Catholic belief in ghosts and relationships with ghosts. It also involves and includes Catholic beliefs and relationships with other kind of monstrous folkloric figures like werewolves and vampires and other Halloween favorites. But, you know, the Catholic belief in ghosts is pretty clear, like if we’re talking about Americans, over half of Americans are polled as saying that they believe in ghosts. And given the fact that Catholics make up the largest religious community in America, I think it’s safe to say that a significant number of Catholics do kind of find no trouble reconciling a belief in ghosts with their practice of Catholicism in their lives.

Rebecca: Now I have encountered some people who believe that ghosts or the experience of haunting or something trying to make contact with you, that all of that is caused by evil spirits. Does the church have any kind of stance on that?

Matthew: Well, to go back to my 1960s dictionary, the Maryknoll Catholic Dictionary, it says that the church, in addition to saying that there is nothing in Catholic theology that is against the possibility of ghosts, it also says that the church recognizes the possibility of diabolical apparitions. So, you know, to step back a second and think about encountering something that is bumping about your house in the night. You know, if we sit in that encounter, the question then becomes, what have I just experienced? Is this a ghost? Is this, in other words, a bodiless soul of my deceased loved one? Or is this something else? Is this something kind of produced by evil spirits?

So the church kind of offers both possibilities as explanations for paranormal activity. So I guess I would say that it would be a mistake to simply kind of write off all kinds of experiences of the paranormal as always already an experience of evil or demonic or diabolical activity as far as the church is concerned. But that doesn’t kind of preclude the possibility. So for fans of The Conjuring, the classic horror movie, that movie starts out, you know, you assume it’s a ghost story, and then like the Warrens show up and they’re like, surprise, it’s not a ghost, it’s an evil spirit. It’s a, you know, a satanic witch spirit. And so I think that that’s kind of what we could say about church teaching, is that the possibilities are open to kind of either of those two things. Part of what, as an institution, the church might look to differentiate is like the difference between those two things.

Emily: I feel like there’s also this idea that maybe ghosts are actually the souls of people in purgatory. Is there anything in church teaching to suggest that this is the case? Or like, how does that fit in?

Matthew: Yeah, so this question reminds me of a position I held as a teenage apologist of Catholic theology. So I remember as a kid going up to my parents and being very confident and triumphant with this formulation that I was like, “there can’t be ghosts because when humans die, their souls go to one of three places, heaven, hell, or purgatory. So if they go to one of those three places, how can they possibly be here as ghosts?” And I was like, very confident in that. As I just said, my confidence was a little misplaced, but that logic is kind of how, if we looked at Thomas Aquinas, how Thomas Aquinas thinks about this question.

You know, the reason that the dictionary also kind of implies this in its answer, like the reason that the church teaches that ghosts can walk about our houses in the world, is because God is omnipotent. And if God wills the soul of a departed person to return to Earth, to teach a lesson, to kind of give some sort of message, then that’s like within the power of God.

What Aquinas kind of argues is that isn’t the case with souls in hell. That, you know, he makes some sort of, I’m not an Aquinas specialist, so I’m riffing off some things that I’ve read, but basically he says that like, God does not permit the souls of people who are damned to hell to return to Earth. So I think the idea behind the question, that maybe ghosts are souls in purgatory, the answer is, yeah, that could be possible. But the church certainly doesn’t teach that when you encounter a ghost, what you’re encountering is a soul from purgatory. Instead, the church leaves open the possibility of when you encounter a ghost, yes, you may in fact be encountering a soul that has by the power of God been allowed to return to Earth for X, Y, or Z kind of mission or lesson or reason.

Rebecca: Now, as Catholics, we do have a tradition of believing that we can talk to the dead. We say prayers, we ask the saints, and we ask the souls in purgatory to intercede for us. What’s the difference between this belief and say, believing in like conjuring up a ghost in a seance, for instance?

Matthew: Yeah, this is where I’m going to get really religious studies professor-y about it. I mean, I guess in my first answer, which would be to say that before we try to rush into a definitive answer, we should kind of sit and say, “Yeah, what is the difference between these things?” Because like, you know, Catholics kind of understand Mary to have appeared to a variety of different people over the course of human history. And we talk about kind of Marian apparitions as maybe not normal occurrences, but that we usually talk about as not frightening things, but as kind of jubilant things, as incredible things, as miraculous things. But if a woman were to appear out of thin air in front of you and start kind of giving you things that you needed to deal with, oftentimes like giving you messages about the world coming to an end or like something that needs to be done or else, right? If most of us would experience that, we would experience it as terrifying, as kind of horrifying, along with a whole host of other experiences. So the first answer to the question is just, yes, what is the difference between all of these different things, at least on the level of experience? As far as church teaching is concerned, I think the big difference between or the kind of disjunct between the idea of conjuring a ghost through a seance or a kind of spiritualist encounter would be the idea of who’s doing the conjuring. In a sense that like, you know, the Catholic teaching doesn’t have a lot very specific to say about ghosts, but all of what it does say is rooted on the idea that God, in God’s kind of infinite power, of course can allow a soul to return to earth because God can do whatever God wills. The idea of human beings gathering and kind of through their human power, through some sort of human ritual, kind of conjuring or calling people back from purgatory or back from heaven or, in movies, back from hell. It’s not something, at least as far as I have encountered, something that the church teaches. Again, plenty of Catholics, you know, I’m not an expert but I’m sure that there are plenty of Catholics who have attended seances and engaged in kind of spiritualist rituals over the years. But I think that would be the distinction that like an official church teaching would make about the difference between the Catholic conception that yes, in fact, ghosts likely kind of exist and we encounter them, but that humans don’t by themselves have the power to kind of bring them here.

Emily: So before we wrap up, I feel like I have to ask you about the most famous ghost in Catholicism, which is the Holy Ghost, right? Where does that terminology come from?

Matthew: Yeah, so this is one of the most interesting little tidbits that I found as I was kind of doing some reading for our conversation. So, the Holy Ghost. The ghost in Holy Ghost has its same root as the ghost in the word that we use to describe what goes bump in the night, the word geist or spirit. And Holy Ghost and Holy Spirit were kind of used interchangeably through the years, though prior to the Second Vatican Council, prior to the mid-20th century, it was more common to use Holy Ghost. From what I gather, and this is definitely what this Catholic dictionary references, one of the primary reasons that the shift happened from Holy Ghost to Holy Spirit was because of everything we’ve just been talking about. Like, basically by the mid-20th century, most people in the modern world when they heard the word ghost, thought of the bodiless soul of a dead person coming to haunt you. And so the shift to Holy Spirit was in part a way to kind of reiterate that when we’re talking about the Holy Ghost, or when we’re talking about the Holy Spirit, the third person in the Trinity, we’re not talking about like the dead soul or the bodiless soul of Jesus coming back to haunt you. We’re not talking about a kind of poltergeist, but we’re talking about, you know, the trinitarian God. So the root word is the same. And actually, like, I don’t know, maybe like the popularity of horror movies in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s helped to push us away from using that word, even though they have the root word geist and spirit. You know, the root word geist means both ghost and spirit. They’re kind of interchangeable terms.

Rebecca: Matthew, thank you so much for answering all of these questions and for being our guest on today’s episode.

Matthew: Thank you so much for having me. It was a blast, a lot of fun.

Glad You Asked is sponsored by the Claretian Missionaries.