Over at Fr. Dwight’s blog, the redoubtable Paul Thigpen answers in the affirmative with a fun survey of the history of Catholic opinions on the question. This has always been a minor interest of mine, partly personal and partly professional. Personal, because I’ve known lot of people over the course of my life who are smart, honest, good and sane who have had… encounters that they they basically chalked up to ghosts. Professional because, as a Catholic, one of the things I have always had a deep respect for are broadly attested human traditions that appear in every nation, language, culture and tribe in the world. Chestertonian common sense says that when the whole human race from it remotest origins right up to the present affirms that a thing is so, the smart money is on the testimony of ordinary Schmoes and not on the snooty “expert” who is speaking out of some personal materialist dogma.
Well, one of the things the whole human race has always borne witness to is the reality of ghosts, of encounters with the shades of those who have died. It is a thing believed “always, everywhere, and by all” broadly speaking (with, of course, exceptions among the cranks of each culture). So my assumption has always been that there is something rather than nothing to this phenomenon. But at the same time, I’ve been struck by the perception that the Church never seemed to address the question. However, I’ve never really looked beyond that since it is, after all, still only a minor interest for me, not a major one. Basically, the Church says, “Don’t try to summon the dead” and that’s about it as far as pastoral guidance goes. Doctrinally, the Church has nothing to say about the matter. But that doesn’t mean much since the Church has nothing to say about relativity, the justice of Red Sox winning the World Series, or whether I need to lose more weight. There are vast regions of human experience that the Church has not official teaching about–but about which reliable Catholics have lots of reasonable commentary. Ghosts appear to fall in that category. Catholics like St. John Bosco have had experiences with the dead–and this is something that goes all the way back to Saul and the Witch of Endor summoning the shade of Samuel, to encounters like that of Peter, James and John with the very dead Moses on the Mount of Transfiguration. Indeed, we know the apostles believed in ghosts because they thought the Risen Christ was one till he requested the most famous fish dinner in history.
And so the Church’s pastoral practice seems to maintain a sort of practical agnosticism toward such claims and deal with them on a case-by-case basis. The idea is “Don’t borrow trouble by *looking* for ghosts, but if something weird happens, consider the possibility a) that you are dealing with a spirit and b) that the spirit you are dealing with might be demonic or might be the ghost of a human being, whether from heaven (as in the apparation of some saint) or perhaps from purgatory (as in some stories of hauntings that seem to involve people working through some sin or other issue that they never finished dealing with in this life). I’d be interested in hearing from readers on any ghost stories they might have, particularly clerical readers who have been asked to deal sacramentally with hauntings, minor exorcissm and so forth. I know such things happen because I’ve talked to priests who have done them personally. But I’d be interested in hearing your story if you have one.