Catholic Charismatic Renewal: A Defense

Catholic Charismatic Renewal: A Defense August 2, 2018

Liberation theology, process theology, radical feminism, Mariolatry, etc. have all been condemned by the Church, but the Catholic charismatic renewal (“CCR”) has been accepted. The charismatic movement in its Catholic “wing” has not been condemned by the Church. I have seen statements by the pope and people such as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, in support of it. Many orthodox Catholics, however, seem to be suspicious of it, often on the grounds of it being a “Protestantizing influence.” Or they consider it subversive of the Mass or distinctive Catholic piety or Catholic obedience, etc.

I attend charismatic Masses occasionally. I’ve also attended healing Masses. To my knowledge, they have not been condemned by the Church. The movement also has implications for ecumenism which are very positive, in my opinion. I’ve heard that charismatic seminarians comprise a great percentage of up-and-coming priests, and that they are solidly orthodox as a group.

There are excesses among individuals, of course (as in, e.g., some alleged Marian apparitions). I have always strongly critiqued these, both as a Protestant and as a Catholic, but I don’t regard the CCR as contrary to orthodoxy at all. God intends His spiritual gifts to be perpetual. He certainly still heals. The degree and frequency of miracles may not be what we saw in the apostolic period, but they still occur. Mother Angelica’s healing was a well-known recent example.

I would be interested to see those Catholics who are skeptical of the Catholic charismatic movement, produce an official Church document which either discourages or condemns Catholic involvement. And if there is no such document, and if the movement is so pernicious, why has the Church not condemned it, I would ask?

Church teaching is clear on all the “disputed” issues. When it comes to the charismatic movement, however, we find no such condemnations. If it were wrong, certainly they would be there, since everything else imaginable (i.e., with regard to theology) has been discussed in official Church documents. The burden of proof lies with the skeptics: to produce the magisterial proclamations that discourage the charismatic movement.

Lacking those, I think the anti-charismatic critique too often falls back upon mere prejudice, misunderstanding, and — most importantly — a wrongheaded equating of excess with essence, or, proverbially, “throwing the baby out with the bath water.” If we have no Church teaching to back up our skepticism, we are relying upon private judgment and going by our own opinion and emotions rather than the mind of the Church.

Critics of the CCR speak of a “hunger for spiritual phenomena.” This is excess, and would be condemned by any thoughtful, educated charismatic. But here again excess is equated with essence, and that is where such observations are fundamentally flawed and fallacious. Any charismatic would admit excess and over-enthusiasm in the movement, among some.

I contend that excess is to be altogether expected as part of the human condition. Our Lord Jesus, in the parable of the wheat and tares informs us that flat-out unbelievers would be mixed in with true believers in the Church, let alone mere imbalances and corruptions of true, sincere believers. The Apostle Paul dealt with problems such as incest in the primal church at Corinth, and had to rebuke the first pope, Peter, for his hypocritical behavior at one point. Welcome to the human race!

That being the case, why should folks be so hard on charismatics, simply because they have some problems? If one is going to be this judgmental, they should at least do so across the board — and that is where the “excess” argument also breaks down, because it proves too much. All Catholic sub-groups (indeed all Catholics whatever) would have to be condemned, if they had to withstand the undue scrutiny of being equated with their flaws and shortcomings and “growing pains.”

Errors among those in the CCR may, for example, flow from inadequate catechesis or the espousal of liberal theological notions. It’s not necessarily the case that they derived from the CCR itself. There is a certain sort of nominal, liberal Catholicism and/or the wrong, false kind of “warm fuzzy,” “E Fluvius Fluffyhead” indifferentist sort of “ecumenism.” Perhaps in past years that sort of thought tended to get mixed in with Catholic charismatic circles. People saw it as an excuse and opportunity to lean towards Protestant thought in several areas.

But that was because they didn’t know their faith in the first place. They didn’t realize that everything in the realm of spiritual gifts, experience, the Holy Spirit, prayer, etc. was perfectly in accord with good Catholic theology and spirituality, and had been for hundreds of years. I think of, for example, Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, which even evangelical Christian bookstores love to carry on their shelves.

In like fashion, a Catholic in, say, 1975, who wanted to study the Bible with other Christians, would have looked around for a Catholic Bible study, found none, and so went to one of the myriad Protestant Bible studies. Does this prove that the Catholic Church is against the Bible? Of course not. But it does indicate that Protestants understood the value of Bible study far better than most Catholics — they were actually being better “Catholics” than Catholics were, with regard to that one aspect. The reverse would hold in matters of sacred tradition and sacramentalism: elements of Christianity that many many evangelical Protestants have largely or wholly ignored.

We shouldn’t be so hard on the particular shortcomings and faults of charismatics, over against their actual doctrinal beliefs, as set forth by the leaders of the movement. The tendency of Catholics to become Protestantized is far more complex than a simple boogeyman of “charismatics.” Correlation doesn’t always equal cause. But I think this was far more true 15-20 years ago than it is today. Why? Because today charismatics (like many other Catholics) are learning their faith, and learning how to defend it, much more than they have in the recent past.

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No charismatic with half a wit (Catholic or Protestant) I know would deny the existence of counterfeit gifts or manifestations. In fact, they are far more aware of them than non-charismatics, in my experience, for the simple fact that they are interested in (and study) spiritual experience in the first place. We discern spiritual manifestations from experience, Christian maturity, and spiritual intuition, just as any Christian feels that God “talks to them” on occasion, or leads them in a certain direction. Why should we apply a more stringent “discipline” to charismatics only, rather than to all Christians who feel led by the Holy Spirit or God the Father in prayer, etc.?

If we maintain that no Christian can ever know “for sure” that God is leading them, then we have a major problem, and this would extend to all the great saints, and any others who have claimed some “experience.” No sensible charismatic would say that all spiritual manifestations come from God. Some are simply self-generated, and not particularly divine or demonic.

It’s a familiar non-charismatic complaint (both Protestant and Catholic) that charismatics create a “two-tier” state of affairs in which those who don’t have the experiences or particular gifts are made to feel like outsiders or “second-class Christians.” This happens a lot, and is very unfortunate, but I would say, nevertheless, that it isn’t the essence of the outlook, but rather, only a sadly common corruption of it. Some Protestant pentecostal theologies, however, indeed institutionalize this, with their warped theology of the “baptism of the Holy Spirit,” in its implications regarding those who don’t receive it.

I’ve heard Protestant charismatics claim that Billy Graham was not filled with the Holy Spirit because he isn’t a charismatic. That’s sheer nonsense, and arrogant and just plain silly to boot. I never believed in the “second work of grace” as a Protestant, nor that everyone should speak in tongues (clear from 1 Cor 12:1-11, 27-31). I never signed on as a member of the Assemblies of God [which I attended from 1982-1986] because I didn’t accept their belief in the “enduement of power,” evidenced by tongues. I thought that was ludicrous and unbiblical (per the above verses).

One might observe that some “anti-charismatics” tend to be excessively un-emotional, and allow religion to become too much of the “head,” and mere legalism, and not enough heart. This certainly happens a lot. I say the Church is once again “both/and” on this matter: we are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. This involves emotions and passion and sometimes visible expression, and charismatics have a good understanding of that, nothwithstanding the excesses.

St. Thomas Aquinas was a mystic and Marian and eucharistic devotee in addition to an extraordinary — perhaps unparalleled — mind. He understood the balance. Catholic charismatics are under the authority of their priests and Church teaching, and they are among the numbers of the orthodox in the Church, not the liberals and dissenters and nominal hordes.

Spiritual experiences may be verified or approved, sure, but in the final analysis they are personal and subjective. That’s why the Church doesn’t impose an obligation to believe in private revelations (such as Marian apparitions). It’s often assumed that Catholic charismatics as a group are lone rangers who are not in touch with the spiritual direction of Church or pastor, or even directives of the prayer group they may be in.

This is ludicrous. It might apply much more to Protestant charismatics, as private judgment is the Protestant principle to start with, but it is far too extreme of a judgment to apply to Catholic charismatics as their “essence.” One mustn’t over-argue a point: it will backfire because it is reduced to absurdity in application.

Excesses are real, and the pope is vigilant to address those. This is natural. But it seems to me that if the movement is essentially non-Catholic in theory and spirit and practice, then wouldn’t Pope John Paul II would boldly point that out? This is a man who is not afraid to tell anyone anything they need to hear: be it Communists or Family Planners or our illustrious President. Yet he is supposedly scared to speak the truth to charismatics?! I just don’t get it.

The pope says the movement is “one of the many fruits of Vatican Council II” and that it stimulated “an extraordinary flourishing of groups and movements especially sensitive to the Holy Spirit.” It is his job, on the other hand, to seek to prevent excesses and errors which can readily be observed. I have critiqued them for 16 years now, and once got “excommunicated” from a charismatic congregation in part because of my critiques — denounced from the pulpit!

I would assert that authentic Catholic charismatic theology and practice is wholly in accord with Catholic Tradition. Whatever is true in Protestantism is already derived from Catholicism.

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As for tongues, some “babbling” is just that. What else would one expect in a large group of people, concerning a subjective experience? I don’t see that as compelling grounds for outright rejection. Tongues are, after all, a biblical phenomena. We have to incorporate them somewhere in our thinking, if we’re serious about being biblical and apostolic. The Baptists take the position that they have ceased altogether. But on what basis? Some of the arguments for “cessationism” that I have seen (even from otherwise respectable scholars) are laughable and ludicrous. The subjective aspect is a two-edged sword.

Critics of the CCR ask why charismatic distinctives have not been incorporated into the Mass. We know (unarguably) that both tongues and prophecy are biblical and legitimate charisms. Furthermore, there are many legitimate Catholic forms of spirituality (and yes, worship) which are present outside the Mass. Marian apparitions; indeed all private revelations, visions, most miracles, etc., immediately come to mind as examples, as well as various devotional exercises such as the Stations of the Cross, the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, retreats, Novenas, fasts, the Rosary, the liturgy of the hours, Eucharistic processions and adoration, etc. Bible study in its standard discussion format and extended prayer meetings are not part of the Mass, either. Yet who would deny that all of these are beneficially and piously practiced by Catholics?  Obviously, the Mass is not all-inclusive.

Tongues and prophecy have not been institutionalized within the Mass itself, but that doesn’t rule them out altogether, any more than any of the above practices are impermissible. I sometimes see Catholics reciting the Rosary all through Mass (as I understand used to be common). This is as contrary to the active participation in the Mass which Vatican II stresses (and possibly distracting to others), as is someone praying in tongues at Mass. But if charismatic worship is not “consistent with the mind of the Church,” that brings us back to the question of why the Church hasn’t so pronounced. We have, rather, enthusiastic endorsement, it seems to me.

There are times of reflection and silence, and of congregational singing during the Mass. Soft-spoken worship in tongues doesn’t subvert the Mass, in my opinion, especially if the priest presiding is agreeable to it. We should rejoice that these Catholics are engaging in heartfelt worship, and enjoying the presence of God so much. That’s far better than the millions of dead, nominal “Catholics” who frequent our pews. Even if we ourselves don’t care for the charismatic style of worship, I think we can at least rejoice in the fact that the average charismatic Catholic has a tangible enthusiasm for God and a pious joy in His presence.

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Charismatics are neither schismatic nor heretical. They aren’t schismatic because they haven’t left the Church. Individual ones have, but then so have several million other sorts of Catholics. Catholics leave the Church for many reasons (all, I think, illegitimate and inadequate in the final analysis, of course).

It’s asserted that charismatic worship is dangerous because it introduces Protestant forms of thought, worship, and theology. Charismatic theology is either orthodox or heretical. If the former, these sorts of  objections collapse, except for the correcting of abuses, which all agree with, anyway. If the latter, then I continue to assert that it is exceedingly strange and implausible that the Church hasn’t condemned the false theology, as it has condemned all other false and heretical beliefs I can think of.

It’s said that charismatics have too much desire for experiences, emotions, and miracles. But perhaps many of them simply had a spiritual experience (without particularly seeking it), and figured out that that was part of the spiritual life, benefited from it, grew closer to God as a result of it, felt more inner joy, and hence pursued it further, and joined with those who could relate to such experiences.

In this instance, the “hunger” would be more so for God than for the experience. The experience is thus a means to an end, as it should be. As long as no dichotomy is made, and experience isn’t made the end of the spiritual life, but — on the contrary — a means to God, I see no wrong in it, and nothing contrary to Catholic spirituality.

Or perhaps they desired a closer relationship with God, more fellowship, more corporate prayer. None of these have to do directly with experience or the gifts, but charismatics stress, and do well in these areas. I must say that — speaking of my own odyssey — these sorts of things drew me closer to Catholicism (in baby steps at that point), not further from it. One charismatic prayer meeting I attended showed me that Catholics loved the Lord as much as my fellow evangelicals.

It was the papal encyclical on Mary on the back table which made me feel that Catholics were lacking in true theology. Ditto for the music of John Michael Talbot, who is a charismatic, I’m pretty sure. So commonality doesn’t always lead one away from the Church, but often to it. One can walk both ways on a bridge.

None of the above aspects are contrary to Catholicism, so they fill an ecumenical function, among other things. They are elements which evangelicals and Catholics hold in common; charismatics have a better understanding of this, and so it becomes a manifestation of the Church which appeals to Protestants who will usually notice the distinctives of Catholicism and oftentimes be put off by those.

Furthermore, I would say that charismatics excel at emphasizing the feelings and emotions and passions, which are altogether proper when we ponder what God has done for us. One could seek that “deeper walk” with God which all Christians ought to pursue, without necessarily having or seeking spiritual experiences. Again, charismatics are more spontaneous in emotional expressions of worship and praise.

I see that (within proper bounds and propriety) as exciting and encouraging, and quite in accord with the true spirit of Vatican II and the Bible itself (read many of the Psalms, where this is patently obvious). In any event, there are several reasons for being attracted to charismatic Catholicism other than an imbalanced “hunger” or “enthusiasm” in the derogatory sense.

Catholic charismatics place an emphasis on the spiritual gifts, and feeling and emotion, but it’s not that they feel themselves spiritually superior simply in doing that. This is no different in essence or purpose from any number of Catholic movements. Dominicans don’t claim to have a lock on reason and logic, nor Missionaries of Charity on love and care of the poor, nor Trappists on silent contemplation, nor Franciscans on simplicity and childlike faith, nor Jesuits on teaching and evangelistic skill and zeal, etc.

Rightly understood, charismatics would not say that non-charismatics didn’t “have the Spirit.” If they did, this would clearly be non-Catholic teaching (especially with regard to confirmation). But they could say they had something to offer by way of understanding and experience, and I see nothing wrong with that, if there is no heresy. All of us are prone to spiritual pride. It would be grossly unfair to pin that on charismatics more so than other sorts of Catholics.

They don’t see the chrisms or gifts as extraordinary, so much as “ordinary”. In others words, everyone should possess one or more spiritual gifts. Therefore, if a Catholic or any other Christian seems to give no place to the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts, it is he who is abnormal or deficient in spirituality, rather than the charismatic being “extraordinary” or unusual. It’s all in one’s perspective, and in the Bible St. Paul is pretty clear about this, it seems to me.

There are many gifts, and I believe most biblical scholars feel that the New Testament listings are not exhaustive. Paul clearly teaches us that every Christian possesses one or more (1 Cor 12:6-7, 11, 31; 14:1). Paul also talks about being “filled with the Spirit,” as an ongoing process (cf. Eph 5:18; Greek sense: “filled continually”).

The point isn’t will power or self-exertion, but being open to the Holy Spirit and what He desires to give to us. There are many gifts. Many charismatics will say that tongues is the least of the gifts (note, e.g., 1 Cor 14:18-19). As I understand it, tongues do not come from within, as a natural phenomena, but from without: from the Holy Spirit’s prompting (I believe Rom 8:26 might be cited in this vein). It isn’t a matter of “getting yourself to do it,” at least not when properly understood. That may occur in some unsophisticated Protestant pentecostal circles, but I think it’s lousy theology, and coercive to boot.

I don’t think that most Catholic charismatics believe that the gift of tongues is for everyone (1 Cor 12:11, 30). This is why I have never felt “inferior” or “second-class” in the least (as one who has never spoken in tongues), and I have moved in many charismatic circles. I also am pretty sure that much (not sure how much) of what passes for tongues is merely people’s self-willed utterances. Otherwise, I don’t think it would be so nearly universal among charismatics.

There is an argument that can be made about the existence of a “prayer tongue” apart from the gifts, and I’ve made it myself. Each person can only examine themselves as to whether their own tongues-speaking is from the Spirit or psychologically or emotionally driven, from the will: mere self-produced “babbling.”

I think most Catholic charismatics would say they want to feel closer to God, and to have the “power” in the Christian life which He desires them to have, in order to overcome sin, the world, the flesh, and the devil. Nothing wrong with that, that I can see. I’m much more troubled by lukewarm, liberal, compromised, ignorant, uncharitable, fornicating or contracepting or greedy Catholics than by charismatics who love the Lord with all their heart, but who may get excessive in doctrine or deed on occasion.

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Analogously, how often do we hear about supposed “Mariolatry” and “paganism” and “worshiping of idols” from our anti-Catholic friends? They think (in fact, are thoroughly convinced) that such things are of the essence of Catholicism, don’t they? They define us right out of Christianity because of it. But we know better. And non-believers in general are always quick to point out Christian hypocrisy as an alleged disproof of Christianity. But we know better than that, too.

No one (sensibly) gives up their belief simply because there are always hypocrites and “spiritual ignoramuses” to be found. Many people leave denominations or church groups because of hypocrisy and sin in its history or members, but I have never taken that to be a valid reason, unless such sin was institutionalized in that group. By the same token, the Psalms would have to be ditched because David was a first-degree murderer and adulterer; Paul’s epistles tossed because he killed Christians; the disciples (including Matthew and John) suspect because Judas (chosen by Jesus Himself) was among their number. This is our Bible and apostolic Tradition.

I don’t see charismatics running down the traditional Mass and all the perfectly good and valid forms and customs and traditions which go with it. I love the Latin Mass myself, yet I also like charismatic Masses on occasion. I don’t see that they are mutually exclusive any more than different liturgical rites in the Church are. The Church is big enough to include all these things. This is part of its glory. One Mass may have Gregorian Chant, another spontaneous praises and contemporary worship music. As long as the Mass isn’t subverted, the important thing is to worship God from the heart and soul and mind, in whatever form this takes place (worship in silence is wonderful, too).

There are cultural differences (beyond the charisms issue) which are legitimately incorporated into the Mass. Lousy and embarrassed congregational singing is very much a result of Anglo-Saxon reticence and tempering of overt emotions. I know all about this: I grew up Methodist. We see the difference even in black Catholic churches. Who’s to say what is more spiritual? Silence and solemnity are great, but so are expressed passion and heartfelt emotion, when appropriate. I want excellent aesthetics in church, too, whether we are talking about “traditional” church music or contemporary.

Speaking for myself, I want to become whatever God wants me to be, whatever He calls me to. As I believe in the existence of all the spiritual gifts, I will accept whichever one the Spirit sees fit to grant to me. Thus far, I believe I have the gift of discernment and am a (lay) teacher in the Church.

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The CCR is analogous to the ecumenical movement, which has only really flourished and been emphasized in the Catholic Church since Pope Pius XII (for about 50 years). This was not a major emphasis by the Church prior to that time, and there were good reasons for that. Various heresies, Protestantism, etc., constituted “competing truth claims” to the Church, and hence the Church assumed a “defensive” / “Catholic Reformation” stance for several hundred years.

Yet the kernel of ecumenism and a less strict interpretation of “no salvation outside the Church” was there at least since St. Augustine and the struggle with the Donatists, when it was decided by the Church that Donatists re-entering the Catholic Church need not be re-baptized. In other words, baptism administered outside the Church proper was considered valid. Protestant trinitarian baptisms are viewed in the same way. This was the seed of the earnest ecumenism we see today: baptismal character and regeneration across many Christian denominational lines.

Quasi-schismatic Catholics today (and many legitimate traditionalists) claim that ecumenism is “un-Catholic,” “indifferentist,” “modernist,” etc. ad nauseam, because it has been supposedly only recently devised. But this isn’t true: development can occur in spurts and starts. Such  Catholics make the same point about the Catholic stance on religious liberty, saying that it contradicts former Catholic dogma, and was an “invention” of Vatican II. The same reasoning holds with regard to religious liberty.

So just as ecumenism has only recently come into the foreground in Catholic thought and practice, without explicit precedent, yet not without seeds throughout Church history (and explicit sanction of infallible Vatican II); in like fashion, so can the charismatic renewal flourish suddenly in our own time: seemingly something very new, yet with much scriptural justification and enough continuance throughout Church history to legitimize it (not to mention the original Pentecost itself).

I think we would have a very difficult time finding any other practice or belief system that is consistently spoken of in such glowing terms by popes and bishops, yet is somehow inherently “un-Catholic” and “quasi-Gnostic,” as one prominent critic seems to believe. I think that whole scenario stretches credulity beyond the breaking point.

On the other hand, if critics of the CCR can simply admit that there are excesses (even many), but that the movement is a good and Catholic thing at bottom, all these difficulties disappear. Between the two choices, there is no contest. If the popes (and bishops) had either not spoken on this, or in a much different, more reticent tone, then the critics might have a case, and I would be quite glad to follow their lead, but as it stands, I can’t agree.

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(originally 1998; edited down from a very long debate, on 8-2-18)

Photo credit: Day of Pentecost (c. 1620), by Juan Bautista Mayno (1581-1649) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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