Friday, February 16, 2007

Thoughts on the Catholic Charismatic Renewal



Picture by idivilayil.

I wrote this essay a year or more ago after observing, and worshipping with, Charismatics of a few sects in a few places and reading a smattering of literature. This is not based on any sort of broad survey. This is not meant as a criticism of Charismatics in general or any specific Charismatic in particular, but as a discussion of dangers to which I believe Charismatics are prone. My views may be heavily influenced by John MacArthur, Jr.'s The Charismatics: A Doctrinal Perspective, with which I am in only partial agreement. Scripture quotations are from the New American Bible.


In her short story “Samaritan,” Connie Willis depicts a future in which the Catholic Church and mainline Protestant sects have banded together to form a single, monolithic, vague, wishy-washy church. In the story, the reason for the sudden cooperation between sworn enemies is self-defense against the Charismatics. This is hardly realistic or believable, but speculation is the right of the speculative fiction writer. Perhaps, inadvertently, Willis teaches two important facts in this story: one is that ecumenism wrongly applied is dangerous, and the other is that the Charismatic Renewal, whether good or bad, is the absorption by the Church of a hostile movement.

First, ecumenism: Both orthodox and heretical Catholics today like to use this as a buzzword, and they mean very different things when they use it. Willis’s depiction of a drab, dull, future megachurch is a representation of a misuse of the word. Good ecumenism is not a C. S. Lewisian reduction of Christianity to an arbitrary set of “mere” attributes in order to achieve unity. Though Willis shows impressive ability in seriously exploring religious issues with sensitivity, she fails in this story. She describes the biggest controversies in bringing the Catholic Church and Presbyterians together as the use of trespasses versus debts in the Lord’s Prayer and the use of wine verses grape juice in the Lord’s Supper. This is silly. Trespasses vs. debts is hardly a serious matter, and no doubt many Presbyterians think taking communion with wine is acceptable. There are more central issue dividing Catholics and Presbyterians: What is the Eucharist? What is the nature of the Church? How can one be saved? What is the source and reservoir of Christian teaching?

Willis depicts Christians muddying these issues in the name of getting along, and in this she show predictive insight. Hans Küng, for example, claims with a straight face that Lutheran and Catholic definitions of justification are compatible. Obviously, he is willing to ignore real difference and settle for an amorphous theology in the name of ecumenism.

Willis’s vision of an ugly future church came true to a limited extent in Canada with the conglomeration of several sects in the United Church of Canada. At its formation, many optimistic Protestants claimed that it heralded the coming unification of all Protestantism. Some took it as an opportunity to scoff at Catholic critics who love to point out the Protestant capacity for schism. Today, the United Church is a swamp of theological confusion and spiritual and moral decay. This so-called “church,” dead even while it lives, stands as a warning of the consequences of wrongly directed ecumenism based on goodwill and ill intentions. We cannot claim a common gospel, common theology, common morality, or common table when simple examination of the doctrines of each sect will reveal that we have none of these things.

If Christianity is a true religion, it follows that Christianity must, at any given moment, exist in a correct form. Because differing truth claims are inherently incompatible, only one form of Christianity can be the correct one, and all others must be false. It is the duty, therefore, of all members of false churches to seek out the true Church and join it. Every member of every church must believe that his church, and only his, is the one true Church. If he cannot believe that, then he is obligated to leave his church and seek the true one, or else get another religion altogether. True and rightly oriented ecumenism is not the dilution of differing doctrines, because that would ultimately mean diluting and thereby falsifying the one true Church. Rather, true ecumenism consists of dialogue and understanding with the goal of mutual evangelism so that members of false churches may enter the True Church and false churches may peacefully die. It has become popular among Catholics to call Protestants “separated brethren,” and so they are, but let us remember that that is separated brethren. Catholics, as members of the True Church, are obligated to evangelize them and bring them into the Body of Christ where they belong. We should also never entirely forget that it is likewise appropriate to call Protestants heretics.

Some members of the Charismatic Renewal have stated that the unity of the Church is ultimately to be found in the Holy Spirit and not in dialogue or discussion. While it is certainly true that unity of the right kind (that is, unity under the umbrella of the True Church) will ultimately be an act of the Spirit, this Charismatic sentiment, taken at face value, is the same as that of those who would dilute the Church’s teaching. Mystical or emotional experience is no better a ground for unity than the lowest common denominator of doctrine. The Charismatic members of the different sects, if they are truly orthodox, are no closer to unity than are the non-Charismatic members: They are still divided by irreconcilable truth claims, although they may share an enthusiastic interest in the workings of the Spirit.

Charismatic Catholics are prone to intense devotion and all the benefits that accompany it. However, they are also prone to certain abuses, of which many are apparently unaware. Note the following.

First, the Charismatic Renewal began as a Protestant and not a Catholic movement. Many Charismatics appear to have absorbed some of the doctrine of the sects from which the movement originated. As the Catholic Church already has the fullness of the faith, this can have only a detrimental effect on the Church and on the members of the Renewal. While, for example, the Charismatics are right in emphasizing a personal relationship with Christ and the Spirit, they are wrong if they forget that such a relationship belongs in the Church, in obedience to the Magisterium, and that the Christian is obligated to receive the sacraments, which are the channels of Christ’s grace.

Second, Charismatics tend to emphasize glossolalia, sometimes to the point of distortion. God gives his charisms as he pleases and no particular gift should be elevated above the others. St. Paul asks (1 Corinthians 12.30 NAB), “Do all speak in tongues?” The implied answer is no. Many Protestant Charismatics have so emphasized tongues as to make it the one sure sign that one has the Spirit. This is unbiblical and even appears to be one of the errors St. Paul combats in 1 Corinthians. Some Catholics seem to be adopting this detrimental concept or at least coming close to it.

Third, Catholic Charismatics would do well to drop the phrase baptism of the Holy Spirit, referring to a powerful and personal confrontation with the Holy Spirit, apparently regarded by some non-Catholic Charismatics as necessary for salvation (and sometimes demonstrated by glossolalia). I do not know the origin of this concept. My earliest encounter with it is in Andrew Murray, a South African Dutch Reformed minister, who mentions it in his famous With Christ in the School of Prayer. Whether the concept ultimately comes from Murray or an earlier source, it is not, strictly speaking, biblical. Rather, it is roughly a desacramentalized form of chrismation. It is therefore ultimately incompatible with Catholic theology. Catholic Charismatics have adjusted the concept to mean something more like a full realization or appropriation of the gift of the Spirit already received in chrismation. Nonetheless, when scripture speaks of baptism with the Spirit, it refers to the sacrament of baptism. In order to bring Charismatic thought into line with scripture and Tradition, Charismatics would do well to abandon the phrase in favor of something more like being filled with the Spirit, cooperating with the Spirit, or even conversion.

Fourth, the Protestant movement saw a “second wave” of Charismaticism featuring a greater insistence on and distortion of the gift of tongues, as well as hysterical behaviors such as uncontrolled laughter. This second wave has begun making inroads into the Church, based on a video I saw on the subject (and I'm sorry, but the title escapes me). Uncontrolled behavior such as this is incompatible with St. Paul’s descriptions when he says, “he is not the God of disorder but of peace” (1 Corinthians 14.33 NAB). He further rebukes the Corinthians for disorderly behavior in their meetings when he says, “So if the whole church meets in one place and everyone speaks in tongues, and then uninstructed people or unbelievers should come in, will they not say that you are out of your minds?” (1 Corinthians 14.23 NAB). Furthermore, St. Paul indicates the charisms are not uncontrolled ecstatic behaviors but controllable abilities: “Indeed, the spirits of prophets are under the prophets' control” (1 Corinthians 14.32 NAB). It seems remarkable that powerful gifts of God are potentially subject to human control or even abuse, but they are. In fact, admonitions against abuse are the primary ways the Bible presents these gifts.

Fifth, private prayer language is a non-biblical phrase denoting the use of glossolalia for private devotion. The Bible does not forbid this (cf. 1 Corinthians 14.13-19, 14.28), but St. Paul de-emphasizes it and encourages private prayer in a language the pray-er understands in order to benefit both his mind and spirit. Emphasis on private use of glossolalia runs contrary to St. Paul and risks distorting the gift’s intended purpose of evangelism and edification of the Church.

Finally, while the Charismatic Renewal can potentially invigorate the spiritual life of many Catholics, it may also represent another aspect of a disturbing trend in North American Catholicism: The habit of conservative Catholics of absorbing too much evangelical thought. The Charismatic Renewal would do well to consciously distance itself from its Protestant roots and carefully ensure its teachings are fully in line with scripture, Tradition, and the teaching of the Magisterium.
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