Ghosts and the Catholic Church: Pointing to the Permanence of the Soul

COMMENTARY: People want to believe in ghosts for a simple reason: It provides proof of the immortality of the human soul.

by THOMAS L. MCDONALD 10/31/2014 for the National Catholic Register
Do you believe in ghosts?
You may be surprised to find out which Church Fathers and doctors did and which didn’t.
What’s clear is that, whether or not many Americans believe in ghosts, many clearly want to. Television and film are crowded with stories about ghosts and the supernatural. “Ghost hunter” reality-TV shows proliferate, producing no evidence to prove the reality of ghosts beyond a lot of grainy, green night-vision footage of people acting scared of the dark. Almost everyone has heard someone tell of an encounter that he or she cannot explain.
People want to believe in ghosts for a simple reason: It provides proof of the immortality of the human soul and the possibility of life after death.
The Christian doesn’t require this kind of anecdotal proof, but from the very earliest days of the faith, the Church has wrestled with the idea that the souls of the dead can make themselves known to the living.
Both the Old and New Testaments witness to a belief in ghosts. In 1 Samuel 28, of course, we are told of Saul’s encounter with the Witch of Endor, who summons Samuel to predict Saul’s fate. The Church Fathers were largely unanimous in calling this a demonic apparition, not a true vision of the risen soul of Samuel.
In the New Testament, the apostles mistake Jesus for a ghost when he is seen walking on water (Matthew 14:26). After the Resurrection, they must be reassured that he’s not a ghost and are told to touch him to see that he is substantial (Luke 24:37-40).
This tells us that ghosts were known to the people of ancient Israel, but also that that people were uncomfortable with the idea.
Some of this has to do with a natural reaction to any strange phenomena. But Jewish perceptions of the dead, the ritual impurity from contact with the dead and the association with paganism also made it sit uneasily in Jewish and Christian cultures.
Pagans were known for ancestor worship, lavish funeral customs (including meals for and with the dead) and other excesses all aimed at propitiating restless spirits and signaling social status. The Church Fathers were eager to reject this, and they had an airtight case right from the lips of Jesus himself.
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