Let’s face it: Weird things happen. In fact, there’s a popular magazine (and website) called The Fortean Times dedicated to all things weird and wonderful. There you will find a surprisingly Catholic approach to the paranormal.
Everything is reported and investigated with an objective eye and a tongue in cheek. Whether it is fish and frogs raining from the sky or human spontaneous combustion; or ghosts, ghouls, freaks and frauds; or crop circles and stone circles; or mermaids and monsters, leprechauns and leviathans; or ancient oddities and modern anomalies, Fortean Times has it all.
What are we to make of the wide and wild range of Fortean phenomena? I said the magazine’s approach to supernatural events was “Catholic” because the proper Catholic approach to inexplicable events is cautious open-mindedness. We are neither gullible nor doubting. When confronted with miracles and prophecies and paranormal experiences of any kind, faithful Catholics should regard them with interest. We look first for every possible natural explanation, and even when we cannot find a natural explanation we withhold final judgment. The event may be supernatural or it may have a natural explanation that we have not yet discovered.
On the other hand, the occurrence may be supernatural in origin. Even when it is, we operate with caution and the proper level of skepticism. A supernatural event is not necessarily of God, nor is it necessarily of the devil. It may be “supernatural” in a way and in a dimension for which we still do not have an adequate explanation.
The madness of materialism
What do paranormal occurrences tell us about the nature of reality? To think about the topic in more detail, let’s take a specific topic of paranormal fascination: Alien intelligence. Is there such a thing as extraterrestrial intelligence? Are aliens real? If so, in what way? What about UFOs and alien abductions? Do UFOs exist? Have creatures from other planets invaded our world and taken human beings captive?
One of the main difficulties in discussing the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence is the pervasiveness of materialistic ways of thinking. The decades-old SETI project, for example (SETI stands for Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) uses radio, computer, and space exploration technology to search the cosmos for signs of extraterrestrial beings.
The problem with such an approach is that it assumes that the material world is a given and that all other forms of intelligence must interact with the physical realm in the same way we do. Such an approach is narrow-minded. If there is extraterrestrial intelligence, the creatures may be so advanced that our radio communications are irrelevant. Other intelligences may be so far superior to us that our attempts to communicate with radio waves would be like a housefly trying to communicate with us by rubbing his front legs together.
Listening in on possible alien communications with a large radio telescope is similar to the attempts to photograph ghosts, do hospital experiments to prove the power of prayer, or register the existence of poltergeists with a Geiger counter. Such attempts to register supernatural phenomena with natural scientific methods are bound to fail. They are using the wrong methods, the wrong tools, and the wrong presuppositions.
If materialistic explorations do not work, what about psychological explanations? One of the most interesting discussions of paranormal phenomena from a psychological point of view is Patrick Harpur’s book Daimonic Reality. Harpur theorizes that paranormal phenomena of all sorts are manifestations of a “world soul”—the part of us that connects with the collective unconscious. His theory weaves in the depth psychology of Carl Jung with the theories of astronomers and UFO investigators Jacques Vallee and Allen Hynek.
In the 1960s and ‘70s Vallee and Hynek went from being professional astronomers and UFO debunkers to believers in the UFO phenomenon. However, being knowledgeable about astronomy and aeronautics, they rejected the simple “visitors from outer space” theory. Real spacecraft—even of a highly advanced technology—could not behave the way UFOs reportedly behaved.
Instead, Vallee and Hynek suggested that UFO sightings and alien encounters were manifestations of some other power that interacted in unknown ways between the psychic and physical dimensions. In other words, UFOs were not spaceships from another planet and their occupants were not physical humanoid alien beings. Instead they were a “psychic manifestation.”
Harpur theorizes that humans have a “world soul” that is irrational and unpredictable, and it can produce phenomena in the material world as a kind of “echo” or projection of the reality in the unconscious world. However, this “dream soul” cannot produce real, solid, material phenomena.
To put it in plain terms, it might produce a sighting, or at most a scorch mark in a field, but it can never produce a solid alien spacecraft. It may produce an appearance of an alien or even a footprint of Bigfoot, but it will never produce an alien monster you can keep in a cage or a hairy giant you can put in a zoo.
It’s an interesting theory, but the problem is that it is still earthbound and human-centered. Harpur and others basically propose that paranormal phenomena of all kinds—including aliens and UFOs—are projections of the collective unconscious through individual humans.
Aquinas on angels
What the Fortean researchers rarely do is examine what organized religions have to say about supernatural phenomena. Unfortunately, they regard most religious people as either rubes or ignorant do-gooders. In fact, Catholic theologians have understood the phenomenon of what Harpur calls “Daimonic reality” for a long time. Furthermore, they have proposed fascinating theories about extraterrestrial intelligence incorporating the possibility of the human mind producing the phenomena as well as the influence of real extraterrestrial intelligence.
The term extraterrestrial intelligence is almost exactly what St. Thomas Aquinas would have used for angels. He explains that angels are nonmaterial intelligent beings. They have no corporeal bodies and are pure intelligence. However, Aquinas says that angels can assume physical bodies. They do not take over an existing physical body but they “manipulate matter so as to assume a physical appearance that is visible yet consistent with angelic character” (Summa Theologica, q. 51, art. 2).
Angels, Aquinas says, take physical form in order to communicate God’s message. They are also the main agents of God’s action in the world. So he says, “Although creativity cannot belong to them [since only God can create from nothing] angels are nevertheless the chief ministers employed by God in the governance of the universe, in securing His own glory and in distributing His goodness to all creation.” In other words, angels are God’s secret agents in the world—sent to do his bidding, communicate with us and watch over us.
In a telling warning, Aquinas also reminds us that not all angels are good, and that remarkable phenomena may be produced by the action of bad angels.
Angels, aliens, and Augustine
Aquinas says fallen angels, or demons, cannot do miracles but they can produce phenomena that are real and astounding in order to destroy or deceive humans. He quotes Augustine that these are “lying wonders . . . which will lead people into falsehood who believe in him.”
Augustine explains that the fallen angels can make things appear, or change things in the physical world by using certain material elements to produce a real wonder. More often they manipulate what we perceive as material reality in order to deceive. Augustine in De Trinitatae explains how this happens: Firstly the demon can work from within—working on a person’s imagination and corporeal senses so that something appears to be real, but the “reality” is only a product of manipulated senses of perception.
Furthermore, one person’s imagination can interact with another person’s. In City of God, Augustine says, “Man’s imagination, which whether thinking or dreaming, takes the forms of an innumerable number of things, appears to other men’s senses, as it were embodied in the semblance of some animal.”
Aquinas explains: “This not to be understood as though the imagination itself or the images formed therein were identified with that which appears embodied to the senses of another man: but that the demon, who forms an image in a man’s imagination, can offer the same picture to another man’s senses.”
In other words, demons can mess with your head. They can manipulate your sense perception to make you see and hear things that do not exist. Furthermore, they can interact between your imagination and another person’s so that your imagination is used to project imagery into the imagination of other people.
Demons can produce strange phenomena within our minds and imaginations by manipulating our sense perceptions, but they can also produce phenomena in the outer world. Aquinas explains: “For just as he (the demon) can from the air form a body of any form and shape, and assume it so as to appear in it visibly: so, in the same way he can clothe any corporeal thing with any corporeal form, so as to appear therein.”
Demons can not only mess with our heads, they can mess with the material world to manifest strange phenomena in order to deceive and destroy.
Aliens and angels
If Fortean philosophers spent more time reading the ancient theologians of the Catholic Church, they would find theories for their phenomena that are logical, philosophical, and profound.
The best explanation for UFOs and alleged encounters with aliens is that fallen angels are at work in the world. They do all they can to deceive human beings and draw them into a belief system without God, without faith, and without the necessary graces for their salvation. If they can get a people wrapped up in theories of alien visitations and extraterrestrial visitors to earth; if they can get them absorbed and fascinated by any number of paranormal phenomena and distracted from God, they will have succeeded in their diabolical mission to deceive and destroy.
What is the Catholic response? There is such a thing as extraterrestrial intelligence. These creatures really are from another world: the spiritual world. They’re what we call angels, and some of these angels are ministers of light. Others are ministers of deception and destruction.
Furthermore, these extraterrestrial forces are involved in a great cosmic war, and human beings are part of the conflict.
Once that is understood, all that remains is for you to decide on which side you plan to do battle.