Understanding the Catholic approach to the paranormal

Understanding the Catholic approach to the paranormal
November 7, 2011
By Anthony Stevens-Arroyo
The Washington Post

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.
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