Should Catholics Believe in Ghosts? A Primer on Good & Evil Spirits, Saints & the Power of Intercessory Prayer

By Christine McCarthy

In October 2001, on a crisp and clear evening, my fellow Boston College freshmen housemates took a twilight stroll through Brighton’s Evergreen Cemetery, a shortcut from our off-campus dorm to McGuinn Hall.  Our mission: to hear a talk from what were advertised as “real-life Ghostbusters.”  I had not yet heard of Ed & Lorraine Warren, paranormal experts and founders of the New England Society for Psychic Research, but I have never forgotten them or their stories since.

From Dan Akroyd to Pope Francis…

I sat riveted in a standing-room only auditorium to hear this kindly, long-married, Catholic couple, about the age of my grandparents, share their experiences (complete with photos!) of documenting, containing, and exorcising demonic spirits.  Drawing from my memory, Ed, a demonologist who passed away in 2006, and Lorraine, a professed clairvoyant who could see auras, shared their experiences along with photos of spirits moving around cemeteries at the witching hour with some spirits taking the form of whitish clouds and others expressing fully formed faces.  They also spent a large portion of the allotted lecture time answering audience questions.

Some highlights:

  • baptized and ordained persons can be seen as such by their auras (nervous flyer Lorraine is relieved to see the auras of the ordained whenever she boards a flight);
  • we are greeted by the souls of our departed loved ones as we die to help us in the passage from life to death (not unlike the final scene of the movie, Ghost);
  • yes, Ouija boards were portals to another spiritual realm, and NO, you should NEVER use them because they open a space for evil spirits to do mischief (most of the cases they dealt with began through the use of the board game for attempted séances by amateurs);
  • and as long as you believe in God (no matter what religion), you are protected from evil.

What was clear from the lecture was that the Warrens believe in God, in the reality of spirits of good and evil, in the life of soul beyond earthly death, and that the living should let the dead rest in peace.[1]

The popularity of shows such as Syfy’s Ghost Hunters and TLC’s Long Island Medium and films like this year’s The Conjuring (based on one of the Warrens’ cases) speak to the interest that some have today in the reality of life after death and the desire to communicate with deceased loved ones for closure or affirmation of their continued love for us beyond death.

Whatever you take from this story, it certainly raised some questions for me on what the Catholic Church officially taught concerning these “paranormal” activities.

1. What does the Catholic Church have to say about the afterlife?  

It should surprise no one that the Church professes a belief that humans have immortal souls created and given to them by God (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 366).  Each person receives their particular judgment to salvation (immediately or after a purification) or damnation at the moment of death and this judgment is based on how much we have loved in our earthly life (CCC, 1022).  The Church’s teaching on purgatory was developed especially in the Councils of Florence and Trent with particular scriptural references to a cleansing fire to purify souls who have been saved but which are not yet ready to share in the joy of heaven (CCC, 1031).  The takeaway from all this is that souls (being immortal) live and learn and grow beyond the death of the physical body.


Dante and the Heavenly Hosts, "Jupiter" by Gustave Dore
Dante and the Heavenly Hosts, “Jupiter” by Gustave Dore

2. What relationship ought people to have with the deceased?

Catholics should pray for the souls of the deceased that they rest in peace it is customary to pray for the souls of the dead and take on acts of penance for them (CCC, 1032).  The saints are some of the best examples (besides a little thing called the Resurrection) of the Church’s belief in the power of prayer to connect us to the spiritual realm and ask for the intercession of the saints for us with God (CCC, 956).  While it is important to pray for the intercession of the saints in matters that are important to us, the intention of our prayers our paramount; namely, we cannot ask from a desire to know or control the outcomes of our lives or the lives of others.  The Catechism is clear that “all forms of divination are to be rejected” including consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, clairvoyance and recourse to mediums because they are all rooted in a desire to have control over others and are a displacement of one’s faith in God (CCC, 2116).  Of special concern is necromancy, or conjuring the dead by séances, example.

3. Can the souls of the deceased appear to the living?

St. Thomas Aquinas believed so.  He included a question in the Summa Theologiae asking “Whether the souls who are in heaven or hell are able to go from thence?” (ST, Suppl. Q. 69 a. 3).  He answers that divine providence allows for the souls of the deceased to appear to the living for “instruction or intimidation” of the living or also for a soul in purgatory to request the prayers and penances of the living to assist the deceased in gaining entry to heaven.  The souls of the saints however, differ from those of the damned or in purgatory in that, by virtue of the grace they had in life to heal, they can appear “wondrously” to the living such as other souls cannot without the aid of divine providence.

4. Do good and evil spirits exist beyond the souls of deceased humans?

Yes, the Church maintains belief in the existence of angels and demons.  Angels are the non-corporeal beings who are servants and messengers of God, having intelligence and will (CCC, 328-30).  The Catechism teaches that each believer is protected by a guardian angel who cares and intercedes for them from the beginning of life until death (CCC, 336).  Because of their free will, angels also have the ability to turn away from God and the Catechism holds that Scripture and Tradition teaches that the “seductive voice” in opposition to God was that of a fallen angel who was created good but irrevocably rejected God (CCC, 391).

The Vatican maintains the employment of exorcists and understands exorcisms as a process dealing with and rejecting evil, something distinct from mental illness (CCC, 1673).  When recently preaching on the Lucan story in which people doubt Jesus’ ability to cast out demons, Pope Francis spoke of the reality of the devil, the deceit and seduction of evil, and the need for Christians to be on guard against such evil:

It is true that at that time, they could confuse epilepsy with demonic possession; but it is also true that there was the devil! And we do not have the right to simplify the matter, as if to say: All of these (people) were not possessed; they were mentally ill. No! The presence of the devil is on the first page of the Bible, and the Bible ends as well with the presence of the devil, with the victory of God over the devil. (Pope Francis, 10/11/13)

Interestingly, video footage exists in which Pope Francis is purported by some to have performed his “first exorcism” as pontiff in St. Peter’s Square after celebrating mass on Pentecost. The Vatican has responded by saying Francis did not “intend” to perform an exorcism but only intended to offer a blessing to the wheelchair-bound man.  The 43-year old Mexican man, Angel, on whom Francis laid his hands claims that while he is still possessed by demons, he was able to regain his ability to walk after receiving his blessing from the Pope.

The brief footage is readily found on YouTube and is worth a gander if you are not easily creeped out to see the Pope’s jovial expression change to one of concern as he is briefed by the man’s handlers only then to see the man gasp, moan, writhe and slump in his chair as the Pope lays both hands on his forehead during the blessing.  I’m not in the position to judge what exactly to make of the event, although the Vatican’s chief exorcist, Gabriele Amorth, seems to think it was indeed an exorcism or at least a prayer to liberate the man’s soul from the devil.  Maybe it’s just hard not to get overwhelmed in the presence of the Pope?

What we can say is that heaven, hell, angels, demons, ghosts, saints and exorcisms—these all have a place in Catholic tradition even to this day.  As someone who works in the area of Catholic Social Teaching, these are hardly the topics that fuel my research but they are an important reminder that the primary purpose of the Church’s social teaching is “the salvation of souls” and that salvation includes and goes beyond attentiveness to social justice.

For my own part, these teachings raise my final question:

5. What good comes from such beliefs?

I’m happy to be reminded of the importance of praying for the dead, the power of the saints to intercede for me with God, and the reality that their souls live on and guide us through the communion of saints to an end in God.  This prayerfulness highlights the Christian mysticism of Karl Rahner who said that the Christians of the future will be mystics or they will not exist at all (Theological Investigations, XX, 149).  It is prayer and the belief in the communion of the saints that contributes to the experience of Christian mysticism as the experience of interaction between the human and the divine.  Inasmuch as Rahner’s mysticism is rooted in direct encounter of the person with God, the saints also play an important role and this, I suggest, is the best way to understand why Catholics should believe in ‘ghosts.’  In The Mystical Way in Everyday Life, Rahner writes of the particular importance of Thomas Aquinas:

Thomas is alive.  He may seem far away to us.  But he is not, because the communion of saints is near and the apparent distance is only an illusion.  The saints may appear to us as if they had been extinguished by the blinding splendor of the eternal God into which they had entered, as if they had vanished into the distance of buried centuries.  But time ripens into eternity, and God is not a God of the dead but of the living.  Whatever has gone home to him is alive.  And therefore Thomas is alive.  We are asked whether our faith is alive enough, so that from among the thousands upon thousands of saints, Thomas, too, can play a part in our life. (p. 134)

Catholics believe in the immortality of the soul and the communion of saints as a reality of faith.  To believe in, experience and pray with the saints deepens one’s faith in God and sharpens one’s ability to discern one’s purpose in life and in God’s kingdom because it invites God and God’s saints intimately into our lives.  True, I can’t recall ever taking that shortcut through the cemetery again, but more important to me than a real respect for the dead is faith in the reality that the knowledge and the practice of praying with the saints and putting trust in God contributes to a living share in God’s Kingdom with all souls.

Christine McCarthy is a Ph.D. Candidate in Systematic Theology and Ethics in the Department of Theology at Fordham University.  Her dissertation work is on the intersection of Catholic Social Thought and family planning.