Q. Do ghosts fit into Catholic belief?
A. This question often arises around Halloween (All Saints’ Eve.) First, a definition: According to Webster’s, a ghost is “the soul of a dead person, a disembodied spirit.” It’s that part of a human being which is not corporeal (bodily), and which has been separated from the body through death.
With this definition, Catholics should readily affirm that ghosts do indeed exist. It’s a fundamental part of Catholic belief that the human being is a union of soul and body; that at death, the soul and body are separated; and that after death, though the body usually decays, the soul survives, awaiting the Last Judgment, when the body will at last be raised and reunited with the soul. Not only the souls in hell and purgatory, then, but also the saints in heaven can be called ghosts (with the exception of Our Lady, who is not a disembodied spirit because her body was assumed with her soul into heaven).
The question for Catholics is thus not whether ghosts truly exist. They do. The more pressing question, of course, is whether disembodied human souls, in the present time before the Last Judgment, are able to manifest themselves to those still alive on earth by God’s permission. And Scripture shows that they can.
When Jesus was transfigured on the mountain, Moses (who had died centuries before) appeared to Him and three of His apostles (see Matthew 17:1–3). In the Old Testament, the deceased prophet Samuel appeared to King Saul (1 Samuel 28:3–20).
Numerous accounts of ghostly appearances have also come down to us in Catholic tradition from reputable sources since biblical times. According to these reports, the deceased figure who appeared was sometimes a recognized saint, sometimes a recently deceased holy man or woman who came to help the living, and sometimes a troubled soul, presumably undergoing the purgatorial process, coming to ask the help of those still on earth.
No doubt many such stories can be viewed as pious legend or superstition, hoax or hallucination. But some of them are difficult to dismiss. The more compelling accounts come to us from multiple witnesses of clearly sound mind and impeccable character, and they often date from quite recent times, firsthand accounts with no possibility of legendary accretions. Among these would be some of the well-known postmortem appearances of St. Pio of Pietrelcina (Padre Pio, 1887–1968).
We must emphasize that the Church has always forbidden attempts to communicate with the dead through means such as “channelers,” séances or Ouija boards. Demons can counterfeit the spirits of the deceased, and they may take advantage of these occult practices to manipulate and oppress people. We must treat with great caution and discernment any encounters with unexplained phenomena. Genuine ghostly apparitions that are unsought by the living and permitted by God’s grace seem to be extremely rare.