Understanding the Catholic approach to the paranormal

John Madill AP Dan Smith of St. Joseph, Mich, has been decorating his yard for twenty-one years, including a haunted … Continued

John Madill

AP

Dan Smith of St. Joseph, Mich, has been decorating his yard for twenty-one years, including a haunted house in his garage visitors can tour. So he is not afraid of ghosts, even this one waving in the wind Saturday, Oct. 29, 2011. (AP Photo/The Herald-Palladium, John Madill)

Unlike those traditions that dismiss Halloween as a pagan custom, my local parish of St. Luke’s celebrated a lively Halloween parade. Why, it might be asked, do so many Catholics in America welcome witches, zombies, monsters, ghosts and the like when this day before All Saints’ Day clearly has pagan roots? The answer: we welcome witches, zombies, monsters and ghosts because they have a place in our Catholic theology.

It is a well documented fact that All Hallow’s Eve is linked to Samhain, the Celtic religion’s ancient New Year. Catholic missionaries long ago adopted a policy of co-optation of previous religious beliefs in spreading the Gospel. Some call this “syncretism,” and Protestants early on considered such syncretism to have diluted the faith, resulting in a third religion that was neither authentic “paganism” nor authentic “Christianity.” But we should not ignore how the Gospels cite the existence of Satan and possession by evil spirits. In other words, witches, zombies, monsters and ghosts are embedded in Christian belief. And, as demonstrated in the appropriation of Aztec belief in the “Day of the Dead” by Latin American Catholicism, we consider the dead to be “family.” In the Patristic age, Origen (c. 185-232) wrote (erroneously) that Christ would save even the damned.

This is where the paranormal enters into Catholic America. There are observable phenomena like voices and self-moving objects that violate normal rules of physics. We Catholics believe that the causes of certain paranormal events are spirits: if they are the saints, we call them “miracles:” when we are unsure they can be ascribed to “restless spirits” to diabolical forces attacking people of virtue.

Before attaching the labels of “superstitious” and “gullible” to this aspect of Catholic belief, recall that the Church has been rigorous in applying science to the detection of the paranormal, precisely to avoid confusing the phony and fake with faithful and factual. At Lourdes, for instance, scientific rigor has been applied to the examination of claims for spiritual intromission with careful record keeping. Every person seeking a cure is examined by doctors and past medical records are requested. While most people exit from a washing in the shrine’s water with little more than psychological calm about accepting their sufferings, there have been some 67 cases categorized as “unexplainable by science.” These include phenomena like the sudden dissipation of tumors, the disappearance of cancerous cells, the regeneration of damaged organs of sight and hearing.

Attempting to discredit the role of faith, some claim that these effects are natural occurrences. Tumors sometimes dissipate outside of any religious setting, thus proving it is “only” a natural phenomenon. What such an opinion does not explain satisfactorily is why such phenomena take place so often after a religious act.

When it comes to things like levitation – that is, a person floating several feet in the air without support – rationalists simply deny such things are possible. This rationalist denial is old hat for Catholicism: Remember that the Lutheran Duke John Fredrick of Brunswick converted to Catholicism after seeing St. Joseph Cupertino, the Franciscan friar float in the air, something the saint did on more than 50 recorded events before assembled witnesses. You also don’t have to be Catholic to levitate.

We need to consider the stigmata, i.e., the wounds of Christ appearing on a person’s hands, feet and side in imitation of the Crucified Jesus as “paranormal.” Padre Pio, the Italian priest, was probably the most recent and best documented case.

Often rationalists denying any spiritual order to human existence or the existence of God come up with fantastic explanations that do little more than claim “what happened didn’t happen.” Actually, it is more logical to acknowledge the realm of the spirit in explaining these observed events than it is to stretch the imagination with such near-paranoid claims.

I know that the kid dressed like a ghost asking for candy at my door is not espousing this theology of the paranormal; still I still like celebrating our tradition that even the wild and weird in the afterlife remembered at Halloween fit into the Catholic cosmos.

  • SODDI

    Your average Catholic and their priesthood are very superstitious creatures.

  • WmarkW

    Although it’s my opinion that paranormal beliefs are intellectually stultifying and a drag on improvement of society, there is one upside:

    Catholics have been many of the best painters and filmmakers because they are oriented to pictorial representations of abstract ideas.

  • ccnl1

    Anthony noted:

    “This is where the paranormal enters into Catholic America. There are observable phenomena like voices and self-moving objects that violate normal rules of physics. We Catholics believe that the causes of certain paranormal events are spirits: if they are the saints, we call them “miracles:” when we are unsure they can be ascribed to “restless spirits” to diabolical forces attacking people of virtue. ”

    Obviously, Stephen is as wacky as JC:

    To wit:

    Actually, Jesus was a bit “touched”/wacky. After all he thought he spoke to Satan, thought he changed water into wine, thought he raised Lazarus from the dead etc. In today’s world, said Jesus would be declared legally insane.

    Or did P, M, M, L and J simply make him into a first century magic-man via their epistles and gospels of semi-fiction? Most contemporary NT experts after thorough analyses of all the scriptures go with the latter magic-man conclusion with J’s gospel being mostly fiction.

    Obviously, today’s followers (e.g. Anthony) of Paul et al’s “magic-man” are also a bit on the odd side believing in all the Christian mumbo jumbo about bodies resurrecting, and exorcisms, and miracles, and “magic-man atonement, and infallible, old, European/Utah white men, and 24/7 body/blood sacrifices followed by consumption of said sacrifices. Yummy!!!!

    So why do we really care what a first century CE, illiterate, long-dead, preacher man would do or say?

  • Rongoklunk

    What silly nonsense. You ought to be ashamed of yourself peddling such blatant crap. It’s articles like this that made me an atheist in the first place. It’s so insulting to ones intelligence – only a moron can believe it.

    Have you no shame sir?

  • Sajanas

    Well, lets try unpacking this article. He sites several lines of evidence for the supernatural. Lets consider the alternative, non paranormal notions without heaping derision on them.

    1. Mysterious sounds and voices, caused by spirits. No. Ghosts are not the only thing that can cause sounds in an otherwise quiet area. Its also important to realize that human hearing is very precisely tuned to hear human voice, and I personally have experienced the sounds of my washing machine sound like unintelligible speech when I hear it through a closed door. One’s brain is constantly making assumptions and is biased to detect certain things and react in certain ways. Its part of the reason why observer testimony is called ‘anecdote’ rather than ‘evidence’.

    2. Miraculous cures are kept track of, and the Catholic Church is insuring their veracity. No. The Catholic Church is in fact the worst organization to investigate these situations, both because they have a vested financial interest in its success (imagine how much Lordes makes from those sick pilgrims?), and because they are biased to the supernatural. The medical miracles are never regrowth of limbs, eyes, or lost organs, people becoming young again, or other incredible things. They are always miracles that happen in people with disorders that are commonly misdiagnosed, or have certain chance of recovery. Tumors do go into remission, and often times people go to these shrines *while being treated with conventional medicine*. Mother Teresa’s “miracle” was someone recovering from cancer while wearing her medal, and being treated with chemotherapy! Stat massaging is not a miracle. Also, plenty of ‘miracles’ like ‘blood’ that turns out to be chemicals, the fake Turin Shroud, and the like are exposed, yet still continue to be worshiped and defended. That is not the sign of an objective source.

    3. Stigmata is real. No. Stigmata has been shown over and over again to be fraud. Its so easy to do, and often times, t

  • kpharri

    Given that Catholics believe that wafers, when eaten, turn into the actual body of a 2000-yr old man, it should come as no surprise that they also believe in the panoply of fictitious creatures celebrated at Halloween.

    It’s a bit of an eye-opener to see someone be so open and frank about it, though, and without even the slightest hint of embarrassment!