Christopher Howse asks whether Catholics are permitted to believe in the existence of ghosts A(u
fter the Second Vatican Council 1962-65), the Holy Ghost became the Holy Spirit. The 'liking was that ghosts are things like sheets that go "Wh000!" and frighten you, whereas God is invisible and ought not to frighten you. As the old Penny Catechism remarked on an allied question, "By the words, 'is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty', I do not mean that God the Father has hands, for he is a spirit."
But, if the Holy Ghost is not a ghost, what is a ghost? And if God is a spirit, what are other spirits like? The difficulty is not merely a verbal one. Last week we heard a passage of the Gospel according to St Luke in which Jesus mentions the nature of ghosts. "Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, 'Peace be with you.' They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, `Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that 1 have'."
Or at least that is what it says in the New Revised Standard Version. In the Authorised Version, the word used is "spirit", not "ghost" (and so it is in the Douay version). All these translations are renderings of the original Greek pneuma, but the reference is to the apparition of someone assumed dead — what we call a ghost.
Of course, when Jesus says: "A ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have," he is not teaching us about the existence of ghosts. In the same way, he might once have made some unrecorded reference to the nature of a unicorn without implying that unicorns exist. But he knew that a ghost was what his disciples were mistaking him for, and he proved he was risen bodily from the dead by showing he was of flesh and bone.
There are certain difficulties in explaining how one might see an apparition of someone who is dead. The dead person's body is buried, perhaps quite corrupted. What then do you see? It cannot be the soul , for a disembodied soul is a spirit, and, in this respect is like God, and has no hands or other bodily parts.
The same difficulty applies to those spirits called angels, who are normally invisible. Medieval theologians came up with several possible methods by which angels made themselves visible. They might operate directly on the senses of the beholder or on the imagination. They might act on matter to produce a sort of cloudy simulacrum of a body. Or they might manipulate elements to give a solid structure resembling a man. It would not be a human being, but, judging by the adventures of the angel Raphael and his human charge Tobias, you would never know.
Ghosts, however, are in an altogether more tricky fix. Human beings have nothing like the great power and intellect of an angel. Dead human beings are incapable of acting on others and reliant on God's direct aid to supply them with information, until they get their bodies back at the general resurrection. These souls arc not visible, so what are ghosts?
They might be merely physical phenomena, a sort of memory attached to a place like a magnetic recording attached to a tape. And then, some places do convey a feeling of holiness, others of anguish or wickedness. It is as difficult to explain these impressions as it is to explain dowsing for water. But dowsers do find water.
Or ghosts might be apparitions or waking dreams allowed by God, from which the dead person or the observer should benefit. Hamlet, with a vague notion that "souls" might walk the night, hopes that the ghost of his father is appearing to him from Purgatory. To playgoers in Shakespeare's day, this, and other indicators (that Hamlet senior died "unhouseled, disappointed, unannealed", that is, without the last sacraments) unmistakeably portrayed a Catholic cosmos in which the drama is taking place.
At the same time, Hamlet is worried lest the apparition be the work of the Devil, out to trick him into evil. This was an anxiety shared by both Catholics and Protestants. The classic scriptural precedent was in the First Book of Samuel (chapter 28), where Saul sees the ghost of Samuel.
The trouble is that Saul only sees the ghost after seeking a woman "with a familiar spirit", the Witch of Endor. Saul knows that such consultations are forbidden. Yet it was the opinion of the Fathers of the Church commenting on this passage that Saul really did see the ghost of Samuel, brought, not by the power of the witch, but by the will of God.
In Christian times, witches were not much of a problem until the eve of the Reformation, and an obsession with them was predominantly a Protestant trait. James VI of Scotland in his treatise Daemonologie (1597) compiles the received wisdom on witches and the Devil's delusions, he being "the prince of the power of the air" (Ephesians 2:2), meaning both that the Devil had his own sphere of influence below the orbit of the Moon, and that he could compose false apparitions from congealing the element of air.
Meanwhile the Spanish Inquisition had decided not to proceed against women who claimed they had flown through the air to witches' sabbaths, such a thing being impossible and so not subject to judicial examination.
It took the new superstitions of the 19th century to give new life to diabolically inspired apparitions. Spiritualism (or, technically, Spiritism), became a craze in the America of the 1840s. It was brought to England in the 1850s by the mediums Mrs Hayden and Mrs Roberts, and then by that Rasputin of the spirit world, Daniel Dunglas Home (1833-86). At seances in Jermyn Street and Ealing he convinced the impressionable, from Edward Bulwer Lytton to Napoleon III, with table-rapping and clairvoyant visions of departed spirits. He also earned the antipathy of Robert Browning who depicted him as "Mr Sludge, the Medium".
So, by the help of the pseudo-scientific apparatus of "psychical research", ghosts were drawn into an interconnected world of "phenomena" from poltergeist manifestations to spontaneous combustion.
But in parallel with this unsettling development, ghosts suffered demotion in the mythology of Western culture. Peter Ackroyd has traced the rise of the ghost story in the English-speaking world to a gap left in its world-view left by the Reformation. When people no longer believed in saints and their miracles they began to suspend their disbelief in fictional ghosts, thus giving themselves a make-believe thrill. At its best this new convention gave us the ghost stories of M R James; at it worst it left us with Nightmare on Elm Street horror films and the two-dimensional spooks of Scooby-Doo cartoons.
For all that, a Catholic might be frightened by a ghost, as by a fierce dog, whether a real one or a hallucination. But either are an invitation to trust in God's sovereign and unfailing protection.
Christopher Howse is an assistant editor of "the Daily Telegraph