Charismatic Renewal

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The Charismatic Renewal in the Catholic Church has both approval and support from the Church (see also here). There are numerous personal testimonies from all levels within the Church, both clergy and lay, that experience with the Charismatic Renewal has been a source of grace and growth in the Christian life. For many it is the beginning of a serious walk with God, the first time that faith becomes real for them in the sense that emotions as well as the intellect are engaged. For others still, existing faith is deepened and there is a sense of renewal, of rejuvenation.

For all the enthusiastic personal testimonies, there are an equal number of bad experiences that often lead people away from God and the Faith entirely. Because these experiences are common and, some would say, unavoidable over time, we cannot give a blanket approval or unconditional recommendation that one who has no experience with the Charismatic Renewal should become involved and active. As with all things spiritual, discernment is necessary before embarking on a journey through a particular mode or style of spirituality.  

It can be argued that charismatic spirituality is, at best, a stage or phase within the spiritual lives of individuals, and that it should eventually be outgrown. Since spiritual maturity cannot be confused with age, charismatic spirituality can arguably be understood as an example of spiritual childhood and adolescence. That we are encouraged by many spiritual masters to be childlike in our relationship with God should not be confused with an encouragement to be childish. There is almost nothing in the writings of the acknowledged masters of the spiritual life, the Doctors of the Church, or in the lives of the saints that would suggest that charismatic spirituality can be anything more than a moment in one's journey to God, and a potentially dangerous one at that.

What needs to be distinguished here is the difference between substance and style. There is little in the substance of the Charismatic Renewal that is dangerous: greater faith and dependence on God, and obvious spiritual fruits such as charity and growth in virtue. What is dangerous is the confusion of charismatic substance with style. Because charismatic spirituality is so tightly identified with visible style — including speaking in tongues, exercise of the gift of prophecy within prayer meetings and liturgy. or visible exuberance — people have difficulty growing spiritually beyond what these external and visible expressions of spirituality permit. Being charismatic becomes an issue of personal spiritual identity. If God calls someone to something more, charismatic Christians often find it difficult, even a crisis of faith, to abandon habits that are an integral part of their understanding of themselves as Christians.

The history of Christianity shows a rapid decline in what charismatic Christians understand to be authentic Christianity. While there is evidence in the Scriptures for charismatic gifts and powerful manifestations of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church, there is evidence that the Early Church rapidly understood that a more institutional and hierarchical approach to local and universal Church organization was more effective. There is no question that charismatic gifts need to be discerned by one with authority. The "Didache," one of the earliest Church manuscripts, expresses concern about "itinerant prophets" and the necessity of discernment by the Church community. As the Early Church grew, it became obvious that what might work in a small community setting becomes problematic as the community grows larger. It might sound good, but is it really practical or prudent to "trust in the Holy Spirit" for all things? All we have to do is witness the effect of Protestantism, with its dependence on the Holy Spirit to lead all to Truth, to see what can happen when there isn't a divinely appointed Rock to protect and teach the Faith. The community fractures inevitably into thousands of pieces.

The Charismatic Renewal arose from the Pentecostal movement within Protestantism. As such, it has Protestant fingerprints all over it, including faith in the movement and guidance of the Holy Spirit in all things. Faithful Catholics believe the Holy Spirit guides the Church through the Magisterium and the Holy Father. The Holy Spirit is, of course, active in the lives of individuals, but charismatic spirituality leans inexorably towards the personal.  here is a strong grassroots ecumenism within most charismatic communities. Even very large, established covenant charismatic communities pray together but cannot celebrate Eucharist together. Such communities acknowledge the brokenness of the Body of Christ but make no attempt to heal it through evangelization and conversion. Charismatic communities of any size often act as if they have more in common with other charismatic Christians than with members of their own Church who are not charismatic.

Without reference to statements from Church authorities or theological treatises on charismatic spirituality, one only has to witness a typical charismatic Mass to understand that there is something deeply troubling behind the visible appearances of joyful enthusiasm. If the Mass is the re-presentation of Our Lord's Sacrifice on Calvary, if the Mass is Calvary made present through time, then charismatic Masses cannot be understood as inspired by the Holy Spirit. If we are at Calvary, we do not behave as if we are at a loud party or nightclub. It is common, for example, at charismatic Masses that the elevation of the consecrated Host is greeted with long and loud cries of "Praise God!" and "Hallelujah!" and "singing in tongues" that go on for a half hour or more, followed by the same response at the elevation of the consecrated Wine in the Chalice. There is much joyous singing accompanied by tambourines, drums, guitars and noise, but does that remotely resemble the response of Our Blessed Mother at Calvary? Charismatic Masses are but one symptom within the charismatic movement that all that appears good may not actually be so.

The masters of the spiritual lif throughout Catholic history have told us to be wary of our emotions because they have been so corrupted by Original Sin. Sometimes these cautions can be judged excessive because rightly ordered human nature includes rightly ordered emotions, not absence of emotions. But charismatic exuberance is often an enshrinement and institutionalization of emotions as integral to the spiritual life. Absent those emotions, non-charismatic Christians are often judged "not filled with the Holy Spirit" by charismatic Christians. In many places, to not speak in tongues is judged to be a sign that one is not truly yielding to the presence of the Holy Spirit in one's life. There are many canonized saints who would be surprised to hear that.

It should not be concluded from the above that charismatic spirituality should be dismissed entirely but, rather, approached with great caution. Authentic spirituality, as contained in the writings and lives of the saints, is too often eschewed in favor of what can arguably be judged as a less mature stage in spiritual growth embraced as if it were the final destination. There is a strong potential for addiction to spiritual consolations and miraculous phenomena present in many charismatics.

It can be good if one has been blessed by charismatic spirituality, but it is unfortunate if one never grows past that stage. One cannot become a mature adult without having been a child, but one can never be an adult if one prefers to stay a child. When a person clings to childhood, growth to maturity is handicapped and stunted. Charismatic spirituality should experience "churn," i.e., whole communities of charismatic Christians should replace themselves regularly as people continue to grow in maturity. Unfortunately, leaders of such communities are often the most vulnerable to stagnation because they lose their position of leadership in the community if they cease to be visibly charismatic in their style.

Charismatic spirituality can seem, to many, like the Kingdom of God has come, that one is already in Heaven. The consolations are so frequent and many that one can easily become addicted. When the experience of consolation fades, as it inevitably must in the spiritual life, when one finally exhausts all that the charismatic experience is capable of giving one, one is left adrift wondering what could be next. There is no growth path within charismatic spirituality except to expect to be more charismatic, but no master of the spiritual life has ever outlined such a path. To be ready to grow into the next stage, to be ready to enter the next room in the interior castle, means to be ready to leave all the style and addictive consolations of charismatic spirituality behind while retaining the substance — and charismatic communities are, by definition, incapable of leading one beyond charismatic spirituality. In moving beyond charismatic spirituality, one is faced with the prospect of leaving not just charismatic style but charismatic friends and community. In authentic and traditional Catholic spirituality, one is not faced with such traumatic choices. One cannot, for example, outgrow the Traditional Latin Mass, or the Rosary, or mental prayer, or any of myriad devotions within the glorious history of Catholic spirituality.

To invitations to participate in charismatic prayer groups or communities, the best response is "tread cautiously." It is okay to participate, but one must be very discerning. If a group strikes you as more unhinge" than not, trust your instincts. If what you observe is attractive, enter cautiously. It's easy to lose one's bearings when there are so many strong emotions in play. If possible, get the advice of a good, faithful Catholic spiritual director. The Catholic Charismatic Renewal is most likely one of many fads and movements that have emerged within the decades since Vatican II. Some are good; some are not. Charismatic Christians and Charismatic Catholics are typically very good people. Faithful Catholics have much in common with them. But charismatic spirituality is more problematic than not. There are better, more "tried and true" paths to spiritual growth.

There are numerous critical assessments of the Charismatic Renewal and its spirituality (see resources below) that would be judged unfairly negative by those currently involved in the charismatic movement. However, to those who have moved on from the Charismatic Renewal, these critical assessments have the ring of truth to them. It is not insignificant that many of the most noteworthy early leaders in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement have, themselves, moved on. The ones who have not moved on are all involved as leaders in ecumenical covenant communities where Catholicism is the most dominant "denomination" within the community but where other Christian denominations are encouraged to be faithful to their own faith traditions.

To be fair and balanced, Catholic evangelist Mark Mallett is as enthusiastic about the Charismatic Renewal as others are negative about it, and the first part of his very long series on the topic can be found here. His experience is, of course, valid and faithfully Catholic, but the future is ahead of him, and it will be surprising if he writes the same from the other side of his current experience.

The Catholic Charismatic Renewal can be, for many people, like hot chocolate on a very cold day: There's nothing better. However, as the hot chocolate begins to cool to room temperature, it's less satisfying. If the hot chocolate cools and begins to spoil, it can harm you. If your faith is cold or even non-existent, the Charismatic Renewal can warm you up and get you going. But you can't live forever on a diet of gradually cooling hot chocolate. Good nutrition, both physical and spiritual, requires more than hot chocolate. The Charismatic Renewal is good for moving people from spiritual infancy to childhood and adolescence rather quickly, but we all need to aspire to spiritual maturity.

Additional Resources:

"Charismatic Covenant Community: A Failed Promise," Adrian Reimers

"More Than the Devil's Due," Adrian Reimers

"Not Reliable Guides," Adrian Reimers

"Catholic Pentecostals: The Risk Is Too Great," Hilary Campion

"The Outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal: Theological Interpretation of the Experience," John Joy

"A Closer Look at Charismatic Renewal," Gary Hershman

"Some Thoughts on the Charismatic Renewal and Catholic Tradition," Christopher Blosser

"Is the Charismatic Renewal for Real" Fr. Richard Simon (18 part series of blog postings)

Unam Sanctam Catholicam Blog: