On the homepage this weekend, Clay Routledge has a piece in which he notes that Americans believe in the supernatural and paranormal even as they drift from organized religion. These are the “nones.” They are “religious” in no conventional sense, but many are “spiritual.”
“Young adults are less religious than older generations but are more inclined to believe in ghosts, astrology, and clairvoyance,” Clay writes. He suggests that belief in such putative manifestations of the supernatural, or in the “supernatural-lite,” as he calls it, is “alternative.” Belief that ghosts and clairvoyance exist is consistent with a lot of mainstream religion, though, and obviously no one doubts the existence of astrology. The question is how the believer should respond to spiritual phenomena and occult practices.
“Ghost” is an old English word that meant simply “soul” or “spirit.” Not so long ago, English-speaking Catholics still spoke of the Holy Trinity as “the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” But “ghost” is now belittling. It’s come to mean primarily a figment of a superstitious person’s imagination. So we say “Holy Spirit” instead. Let’s recognize that people who believe in “ghosts,” as we say, believe what most Christians believe: that disembodied souls or spirits exist.
Catholics and Eastern Christians have systematic teachings on the subject, though the exact doctrines in the different churches diverge, as does their vocabulary. In Catholic tradition, a soul in purgatory — the term “purgatory” is peculiar to Rome, but the concept it refers to is familiar in many Christian churches rooted in antiquity — may reach out to those of us this side of the grave, seeking our prayers. A strong feeling, all of a sudden, that we should pray for someone who died years ago may overcome us. Or the dead may appear or speak to us in a dream. We have a duty to pray for souls in purgatory in any case, regardless of whether we think they’ve knocked on our door. At the same time, we must not try to communicate with the dead for the thrill of it, to satisfy curiosity, or even to assuage grief. Then again, we may ask the souls of the dead who are sainted and in heaven to add their prayers to ours, just as we would ask a fellow believer who is still living.
How to respond, if at all, to the existence of disembodied spirits, whether human or angelic (or demonic), is a heavy question. To arrive at the correct answer, we need discernment and prudence. Organized religions provide it, or attempt to. They’re like the Food and Drug Administration, a clearinghouse of information on the safety and effectiveness, or lack thereof, of various spiritual practices. The skeptic assumes that they’re all anodyne: ineffective and safe in themselves, mere sugar pills, although the believer’s fixation on them can cause harm or be a symptom of mental illness.
Religion tends to be more cautious and nuanced in these matters. A skeptic would dismiss tarot cards, for example, simply as an unreliable method for predicting the future, whereas in the Catholic Church they would be off limits because, even if they were reliable — the Church isn’t much interested in whether they are — those who practice divination “conceal a wish to conciliate hidden powers” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2116). Where those powers turn out to be real, divination is all the more dangerous, because we can’t be sure what they are or what they want from us.
Astrology as divination is rejected explicitly in the Catechism, although you can find signs of the zodiac in the Basilica of Saint Mary and the Martyrs, a Catholic church in Rome. It was designed by Michelangelo in the 16th century, when astrology was still seen as an ancient scholarly discipline and not clearly distinguished from astronomy. Signs of the zodiac are evocative symbols. In that limited capacity, they appear in the basilica, as do pagan sibyls on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at St. Peter’s. It was an era when the Church was bold about appropriating “the spoil of Egypt,” the inheritance of pre-Christian classical civilization.
The sibyls on the ceiling are an affirmation that the Church holds that clairvoyance is real. In their company up there are the Old Testament prophets. Church teaching on clairvoyance might be summed up as a twin admonition: Don’t seek it out for yourself but respect it in those on whom God has conferred that gift, and respect it in yourself in the unlikely event that God has conferred it on you, if only for a specific purpose on an isolated occasion. For a careful treatment of these and related questions, see Alois Wiesinger, Occult Phenomena in the Light of Theology (1957). He was a Benedictine abbot, and the book is stamped imprimatur and nibil obstat.
Nones who are eager for spiritual experience and are curious about occult phenomena might be surprised at the riches they could find in organized religion, which has accumulated a lot of wisdom in that department. They might find the bliss or rapture that they seek. They might also find what they need, which is guidance.