Can Damned Souls Possess People? - More to Consider

In my previous article on this topic, I addressed a concern that had been raised by some as to whether or not the souls of the damned are capable of possessing people.  As I pointed out, some exorcists think it is a reality while others think it is not possible.  St. Thomas and the Roman Ritual are quoted by those who oppose the idea, but exorcists who support this possibility/reality also reference St. Thomas and the Roman Ritual in defense of their opinion.  As we all know these days, the proper translation, and the full context, are both critical for the discussion.

In my previous article on the matter, Summa Prima Pars Q 117 a4 was the key text.  However, as someone has graciously pointed out to me, there is much more that St. Thomas has said on the matter, all of which taken together paints a very different, and more complicated, picture regarding this present issue.

Dr. Andrew Beards, a Philosophy professor at Allen Hall Seminary in Chelsea, London, who has multiple degrees in Philosophy, has generously offered his summary of key issues that must be considered in this debate.

Please enjoy the following commentary, courtesy of Dr. Beards:

Firstly I would point out that if one reads this short article the central point, as you well summarise it, is that a soul separated from its body cannot cause movement of that body nor can the separated soul cause the movement of the body of another. St Thomas’ reference to the position of St Augustine and to St John Chrysostom, in the article, is in the reply to the second objection in favour of the contrary view. That objection brings up a story from the Itinerary of Clement concerning a magus who is said to have exercised control over the body of a boy through the separated soul of the same, over whom the magus had gained control.

The sort of movement in question, then, is akin to that which souls bring about through their bodies in this life.

Given St Thomas’ metaphysical objection to this, the authority of St Augustine and St John Chrysostom is invoked to provide a more satisfactory explanation of the episode in terms of the deception often (NB ‘often’ not ‘always’) worked by demons, who deceitfully purport to be souls of the deceased.

The latter point is standard in the whole tradition of the Church. It is that made by the Roman Ritual and repeated by modern exorcists and sound Catholic spiritual writers.

The position concerning the non-possibility of separated souls moving bodies – either their own or of others – and the traditional warning that often manifestations of departed souls are tricks of demons are, however, not meant to rule out the causal interaction with and influence of departed – even damned – souls upon the living. This is, I believe, evident from positions clearly stated elsewhere by St Thomas himself.

Thus, we read:

Nevertheless, according to the disposition of Divine providence separated souls sometimes come forth from their abode and appear to men,...It is also credible that this may occur sometimes to the damned, and that for man's instruction and intimidation they be permitted to appear to the living; or again in order to seek our suffrages, as to those who are detained in purgatory, as evidenced by many instances related in the fourth book of the Dialogues. (ST Supplementum Tertiae Partis Q. 69 Art. 3)

And again:

The souls of the damned are never outside hell, except by Divine permission, either for the instruction or for the trial of the elect.[emphasis added] (ST Q. 70 Art. 3 ad 8)

Further in a text regarding souls in purgatory, St Thomas acknowledges the force of accounts which would seem to relate to the perennial experience had in many hauntings or in some poltergeist phenomena:

Another place of Purgatory is according to dispensation: and thus sometimes, as we read, some are punished in various places, either that the living may learn, or that the dead may be succoured, seeing that their punishment being made known to the living may be mitigated through the prayers of the Church. (Supplementum: Appendix 2 Purgatory: Art 2)

In these cases of separated souls of the damned and of those in purgatory, St Thomas is saying there are cases of interaction with the living. Therefore, he certainly does not hold that all apparent manifestations of damned souls in our world are to be ruled out as deceits of the demons. Further, when one considers the nature of such ‘interactions’, allowed in Divine providence, the implication would be of some causal influence over the human sensory and thus bodily functions on the part of these separated souls. He alludes to the many stories of departed souls visiting the living, found in Pope St Gregory the Great’s IV Dialogue. In the case of souls in purgatory allowed to be in a given place in order to interact with those in the world of the living, we know that the movement of physical objects is common, and of direct contact with the human body. This can be the case too with hauntings of a more sinister nature which are perhaps manifestations of damned souls, in which physical contact occurs.

St Thomas is explicit that both kinds of souls can manifest themselves to the living through apparitions and visions. Indeed, there are accounts, taken as reliable by modern authors such as Torrell, that St Thomas’ own departed sister appeared to him in a dream.

If we examine St Thomas’ own analysis of visions and apparitions, as given in the section of the Summa on prophesy (See ST II-II Q. 173 Art. 3), these are in accord with St Thomas’ general account of human knowing. Such manifestations of separated souls must be said to be causal influences upon the senses/and or upon the imagination (phantasms). Even the demons themselves are restricted to these kinds and are not able to effect a deeper kind of vision in the soul. As such, the vision, apparition, dream of the damned soul – which St Thomas admits possible – will be some kind of causal influence on the sensory, bodily aspects of our nature in order to communicate with the whole human person, body and soul.

Thus, the point about separated souls not being able to move a human body does not rule out all causal influence over such a body. If the damned soul can cause the organisation of sensory imagery in the mind – as St Thomas’ position implies – why cannot it cause, say, the movement of vocal cords?

According to St Thomas’ analysis of man, body and soul in ST I Q. 76 the movement of the body is an aspect of the soul’s action as form, formal cause. I think that the denial of the possibility of bodily movement by the soul of another or by the separated soul of the same person in ST I Q 117, is to be seen in this context.

Indeed, St Thomas brings up demonic possession – which of course he accepts – in an analysis which connects with this point. At ST I 52 Art. 3 in his discussion of Angels and how they can and cannot be said to occupy spaces, he brings up demonic possession. He accepts one of the premises of an objection raised to his view on this (Objection 3). He accepts with the objector that demons cannot possess souls as such – in this life – but do occasionally possess bodies of living persons. But he denies what the objector thinks follows from this regarding the way Angelic beings occupy places, writing:

Not even a demon and a soul are compared to a body according to the same relation of causality; since the soul is its form, while the demon is not. Hence the inference does not follow. (ST I 52 Art 3, ad. 3)

In other words, according to St Thomas, even the demons cannot become the formal cause of bodily movement. Their causal activity in a possession is of a different order.

To summarise:

Understanding ST I Q. 177 and its import for the discussion on the possibility of possessions by damned souls:
  • The denial of the possibility of ‘local movement’ on the part of separated souls vis-à-vis their bodies and souls of others has to be understood in the context of what St Thomas says in other places such as ST I 52, ST I Q. 76
  • ‘Local movement’ means the general actions of the body as brought about by the soul as its form, formal cause
  • Demons, even in cases of possession, cannot act as the form, formal cause of the body
  • However, as having superior power, they could bring about bodily movements which thus feign the kind of actions brought about by a soul informing that body – thus the story of the boy in the Itinerary of Clement is explained in that fashion
However, these points do not preclude the ‘movements’ in the human body – including voice production – which would occur in any possible case of possession by a damned separated soul.

  • Because St Thomas says (ST I Q. 110 Art 3 ad 1) that some bodily movements can be brought about by causal agents other than the form, formal cause of the body
  • St Thomas’ own analysis of visions and apparitions (ST II-II Q. 173 Art. 3), taken in conjunction with his admission that souls of the damned can appear to the living for warning or even to ‘test them’ (ST III Q. 70 Art. 3 ad 8; III Q. 69 Art. 3) implies that such souls would cause some bodily (sensory/imaginative) effects in human bodies
The more I think about it, the clearing up of what St Thomas does and does not mean by 'local motion' in Q117 helps remove the objection.

What he says at ST I Q. 110 Art 3 ad 1 is simple: water of itself does not move, but there is constant movement in the water in the sea because of the action of the moon on the tides. Of course, St Thomas knew that local movement of human beings happens other than simply by the movement of themselves, as the formal cause of movement: he knew knights got knocked off horses and that people got moved around in horses and carts which stopped and started independently of the person's will.

The issue at Q117 is about the immanent movement that comes from the soul as the formal cause. It does not preclude all kinds of other ways of me being moved around by inside or outside forces.


Thank you again, Dr. Beards.  This is well said.  Hopefully, it will be of service to exorcists as they continue to debate among themselves, and discern within their ministry, whether damned souls are capable of possessing.

Get your copy of Slaying Dragons: What Exorcists See & What We Should Know on Amazon.  In the next few weeks, the Audible version, the Spanish paperback, and the Spanish eBook will be available.  In addition, these books (minus the Audible) will also be distributed through IngramSparks and available much more widely, in the States and in more countries throughout the world. 

Subscribe to this website (top of page) and on Facebook and Twitter to know when things are ready.