Saturday, April 02, 2011

Some thoughts on the charismatic renewal and Catholic tradition

I found myself jarred by the title: "Assisi 2011: Road to Pentecost." Then I read the name of the website: "ICCRS: International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Services." I had thought at first that the reference was to Pope Benedict's scheduled return to Assisi this fall to revisit the international meeting of world religious leaders first convoked by his predecessor, John Paul II, an event to which many of us likely respond with what a good Englishman might call, in unimpeachable understatement, mixed feelings. But the present reference to Assisi and Pentecost signifies, instead, a convocation of Catholics involved in the charismatic renewal for a series of "inspirational talks" leading up to Pentecost.

All of which raises some issues that I have begun studying in recent weeks about the place of the charismatic movement within Catholic history. It's all a bit curious. Among the spiritual gifts cited by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians, speaking in tongues and prophecy are sharply minimized in the public life of the Church. They are not to be viewed as a source of pride or a litmus test of advanced spiritual standing, but are placed well behind the greatest gifts: faith, hope and charity.

In Msgr. Ronald Knox's study of related spiritual phenomena in his Catholic classic, entitled Enthusiasm(1950; rpt., University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), he refers to movements exhibiting similar tendencies as "ultrasupernaturalism" and chronicles their trajectory from New Testament times in the Church of Corinth through the recensions of the Montanists, Donatists Albigensians, and various Medieval heresiarchs, up through 16th century Anabaptists, George Fox and his Quakers, Jansenists, Quietists, and various French prophets, and Moravians to the Methodist movement of the Wesley brothers. He writes:
The strength of this personal approach is that it dominates the imagination, and presents a future world in all the colours of reality. Its weakness -- but we are not concerned here to criticize -- is an anthropocentric bias; not God's glory but your own salvation preoccupies the mind, with some risk of scruples, and even of despair.

But the implications of enthusiasm go deeper than this; at the root of it lies a different theology of grace. Our traditional doctrine is that grace perfects nature, elevates it to a higher pitch, so that it can bear its part in the music of eternity, but leaves it nature still. The assumption of the enthusiast is bolder and simpler; for him, grace has destroyed nature, and replaced it. The saved man has come out into a new order of being, with a new set of faculties which are proper to his state; ... he decries the use of human reason as a guide to any sort of religious truth. A direct indication of the Divine will is communicated to him at every turn, if only he will consent to abandon the 'arm of flesh' -- Man's miserable intellect, fatally obscured by the Fall. (pp. 2-3)
The contemporary Catholic charismatic renewal movement is part of a more recent phenomenon. In Jack W. Hayford and S. David Moore's The Charismatic Century(New York: Warner, 2006), the 20th century movement is described in terms of "three waves." The first wave began, the authors say, with the historic Pentecostal revival meeting in Los Angeles on April 14, 1906, with the African American preacher, William J. Seymour -- an event known as the "Azusa Street Revival." The second wave, often called Neo-Pentecostalism, is associated with the "Latter Rain" movement, the healing movement linked with Oral Roberts in Topeka, Kansas, after the Second World War, as well as with the Episcopalian priest Dennis Bennett of Van Nuys, California, after his experience of speaking in tongues drew national attention. The third wave, as C. Peter Wagner calls it, apparently refers to those Christians intent on practicing biblical Christianity who acknowledge the "place and power of the Holy Spirit in ways of which many [are] unaware" (pp. 8-9), but who prefer not to be called Pentecostal or identified directly with those involved in the first two waves. The Catholic charismatic renewal apparently finds its place in this latter movement.

According to the authors, the Catholic charismatic movement grew out of post-Vatican II movements of spiritual renewal. Particularly, the movement is said to have been sparked by a weekend retreat on February 17, 1967, involving Catholic students, a priest and two faculty members from Duquesne University, who gathered to read and discuss evangelical author, David Wilkerson's book The Cross and the Switchblade, "because of its emphasis on the importance of Spirit baptism" (p. 217).

There were antecedent hints before this that something was afoot, the authors suggest. They point Pope Leo XIII's invocation of the Holy Spirit by singing the hymn "Veni Creator Spiritus" on January 1, 1901, dedicating the twentieth century to the Holy Spirit. They suggest the particular inspiration by the Holy Spirit of movements associated with the Second Vatican Council:
In 1959 Pope John XXIII, at the "sudden inspiration" of the Holy Spirit, called for the [twenty-]first ecumenical council for the Roman Catholic Church, only the third council since the Reformation. Especially important was the prayer of Pope John XXIII that the council might be a "New Pentecost." Several themes emerged from the council's periodic meetings from 1961 to 1965 that helped create a favorable environment from which the Catholic Charismatic Renewal emerged. There was a particular emphasis on the importance of charismatic gifts in the church. A key leader to the discussion on the gifts of the Holy Spirit was Belgium's Leon Joseph Cardinal Suenens, whose words helped foster an atmosphere friendly to the Renewal.
It will not pass without notice by some of our readers that Cardinal Suenenes was one of those ambivalently-regarded luminaries in the firmament of the "Spirit of Vatican II" who promoted contraception in defiance of Church teaching (as Dr. Janet Smith pointed out to me), introduced Communion in the hand in Europe in defiance of the rubrics of the Holy See, and, among other things, disdained the traditional pre-Vatican II Latin liturgy.

All of which raises a host of questions about the relationship of the Catholic Renewal to Catholic Tradition, about priorities, emphases, the place of Magisterial teaching, formal Church membership, the life of faith, personal experience, supernatural graces, hermeneutics of "rupture" and "continuity," the letter and spirit of the law, and so forth. Not only this. It raises questions also about what led to the spiritual wasteland and the dearth of spiritual food and drink apparently perceived by many Catholics in the aftermath of Vatican II that induced them to turn to these experience-based movements of spiritual renewal. Apparently the stripped-down free-form New Mass alone did not quite do the trick. As one wag observed: “The police did not need to be called to Catholic churches each Sunday to hold back the hordes of lapsed Catholics whose faith had been rekindled at the prospect of saying the Confíteor in English” (Michael Davies, Pope Paul's New Mass,p. 92) -- or, one could add, holding hands during the Our Father and exchanging hugs during the rite of peace.

One of the chief patterns that emerges in Msgr. Knox's study is the propensity of movements of the charismatic kind, in their celebration of spiritual charisms, to become detached from the institutional Church and her liturgical and sacramental forms. This may not always happen, as it assuredly does not among most Catholic charismatics whom I know. Yet there could still be a subconscious inclination to regard formal 'set' prayers and liturgies and chants as, at best, a set of disposable training wheels to prepare one to ride solo, as practices that outwardly conform to the 'letter' of the law but inwardly may hamper the free flight of the 'spirit' if one continued to adhere rigidly to them -- whereas extemporaneous forms of prayer and worship and song may be regarded as the more authentic medium for expressing heart-felt devotion in a living relationship with Jesus Christ.

Without question there are traditions of mystical theology in Catholic tradition that attest to sublime flights of the spirit into realms transcending the mundane dimensions of religious experience. One thinks of the Carmelite mystics. Without question there are traditions of miraculous healings and supernatural happenings in Catholic tradition. One thinks of any number of saints, although Padre Pio comes to mind at the moment. Yet whatever graces such phenomena may hold, the conclusion that emerges from Msgr. Knox's study is that none may serve to substitute for the ordinary means of grace furnished by Holy Mother Church in her seven sacraments, her liturgy, her teaching, her traditions of dogma, prayer and devotion. These have always been the ordinary means of supernatural grace in the life of Catholics throughout the ages -- the place where the individual soul encounters his living Maker and Redeemer.

One memory is, for me, emblematic of the problem at issue here. I remember sitting in the room where, after one of Franciscan University's summer conferences, the meeting was held that led to the founding of the Coming Home Network, the association that has assisted numerous former Protestant pastors, laymen and their wives make the arduous transition across the Tiber to Rome. Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska, was present, and, at one point, he was asked to say a few words, which he did. The principals in the leadership of the convocation apparently involved a significant number of charismatics and former Protestants. At one point, an individual in attendance -- one, I think, who had not yet become a Catholic -- requested prayer for his particular circumstances. A number of those in attendance got up from their seats, surrounded the individual seated in the front of the room, and placed their hands on his head as one of them said a prayer invoking God's anointing and guidance in the man's life. Bishop Bruskewitz remained seated throughout, a bit awkwardly it seemed to me, his apostolic office as bishop neither solicited or consulted, but seemingly regarded in this instance as inessential.

Having said this, I hasten to conclude on a personal note by observing that I owe a debt of gratitude to Catholics associated more or less with the charismatic renewal during the years around the time I was received into the Church. While I have never been personally disposed to seek any of the extraordinary charisms such as speaking in tongues, I found that the verbal expressions of faith among charismatic Catholics I initially encountered coincided most directly with my own as a former Protestant -- not in the sense that I was ever personally a charismatic, but in the sense that the language of personal experience was most reminiscent of the more evangelical style of Protestant faith to which I had ample exposure since my childhood. The Catholic who sponsored me at my Confirmation was a charismatic. Many of those whom I came to know at Franciscan University and its summer conferences were charismatics. My erstwhile colleague at Lenoir-Rhyne University (no longer there), Dr. Ronda Chervin, is a charismatic. More recently, the deacon who baptized our youngest daughter in North Carolina was a charismatic. A number of my closest and dearest colleagues at Sacred Heart Major Seminary have been formed or influenced in one way or another by the Charismatic Renewal. In light of this, nothing I have said in the preceding post may be construed fairly as stemming from any kind of personal animus against those involved in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. On the contrary, I have great appreciation for their personal and spiritual depth and wisdom -- nobody more than Fr. Francis Martin, who just retired from Sacred Heart Major Seminary and whom I have known from the two separate occasions we had him down to speak to an annual theology conference hosted by the Center for Theology at Lenoir-Rhyne Univeristy in North Carolina.


Tim Ferguson said...

I think this is an important piece in construction a healthy critique of the charistmatic movement in the Catholic Church. Thus far, it seems to me, the movement has not really been subject to real, thoughtful criticism, articles either coming from the standpoint of dismissal and ridicule to unquestioning praise. Thanks for this thoughtful piece!

Ralph Roister-Doister said...

The bishop was inessential. The priest is inessential. And actually, the church is inessential. All you need is a group of egotists joining hands and invoking Christ's power, as if it was their due, and Jesus only its caretaker.

I've witnessed charismatic ceremonies in churches in which no priest was present, and the charismatic forehead thunk was delivered by an eye-rolling EMHC or other self-styled vessel of grace. That is common, at least in my diocese. I've seen people who did not collapse in spirit-thrall after the head slap -- in one case a fellow in his 70s -- who were later whispered about by charismatic eminentoes as though their spirituality was somehow lacking -- as if Christ had somehow turned up his nose at this particular person, as He certainly had not to THEM.

No one is prepared to write off charismatic renewal completely. But I think of it, in the main, as an egotistical bauble, an exclusionary game people play to put the spotlight on themselves. The great Catholic mystics, including Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, have warned off would-be Conspicuous Swooners, reminding them that the origin of the charismatic thrill is more often delusional, even demonic, as not. You, me, and the charismatic swooner behind that tree, might not like to hear such blunt talk, even from Teresa, and in our pride might even presume to harrumph it away. But to do so is behavior as reckless as is charismatic shenannigans in the first place.

In an age when Catholics (especially their "leaders") run panting after protestants and their futile idiosyncrasies, an age where Scott Hahn is treated as the newest doctor of the Church, it is not surprising that the Church's own spiritual traditions, and the warnings that must accompany it, are ignored and/or distorted through a protestent/new age glass.

I would recommend Garrigou-Lagrange's "The Three Ages of the Interior Life," especially the strong cautions therein. Just as good, but far harder to obtain, is a book by a Sepulchan priest, Albert Farges, entitled "Mystical Phenomena Compared with Their Human and Diabolical Counterparts." In that book you will learn that many of our greatest saints were never granted visions, never bothered themselves with flashing charm bracelets of their many charisms, and found their way to heaven (we believe and pray) nonetheless.
It is available in a reprint from Kessinger Publishing.

JM said...

Additional names would include Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, Stephen B. Clark, Ralph Martin, Fr. George T. Montague, Fr. Michael Scanlan, and Peter Kreeft ... I am not a charismatic myself, but I found your balance a nice change of pace from the tone-deaf condemnations of John Vennari and some other Trads I otherwise find helpful. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

an age where Scott Hahn is treated as the newest doctor of the Church

Don't you mean Rockin' Doctor of the Church?:


Scott W.

Anonymous said...


I have always had a mistrust of the so-called Charismatic movement within the Catholic Church. The "spirit" I have encountered there is one of ignorance of Church teaching and disregard for anything which doesn't square with the pre-determined result.

Charismatic Catholic is an absolute oxymoron.

Perhaps I can explain by noting that the essence of liturgy is emptying of self, while the essence of charismaticism is filling oneself up with -- whatever spirit groanings happen to be at the cafeteria diner.

Ralph Roister-Doister said...

I identified Albert Farges as a priest of the "Sepulchran" order. I should have written "Sulpician", but I relied on my memory of the text, which I shall strive never to do again.

JM said...

"Charismatic Catholic is an absolute oxymoron."

Methinks you hijacked his original intent. Rhonda Chervin is an example of one, a convert under the von Hildebrands. Hardly dubious quarters.

thomas tucker said...

The first Catholic charismatic I ever saw was at an ecumenical charismatic gathering in Dallasin the 1970's- Maria von Trapp.

Charles said...

At times prayer has seemed to be effortless - words flowing through my lips without conscious effort. These are rare experiences. I don't really know what these experiences mean. I felt close to God for a very short time - as if the Holy Spirit were praying on my behalf and I was along for the ride.

I imagine other people have similar experiences.

To seek these experiences seems to be a mistake as does attaching some label to myself as if I were something other than an every day sinner saved through union with Christ mediated through the Church.

I think that is the risk of pentecostalism and a Catholic who thinks with the Church is likely to avoid this trap. It may be a greater risk for the kind of evangelical who has an individualistic, free church ecclesiology.

quez lo fresh said...

In response to digs at Hahn, I have to comment that

1) He is the only voice courageous enough to defend inerrancy at the moment, and Trads disdain him?!

2) He is on stage in the YouTube clip with Matt Maher, a guy making terrific music and giving Catholic belief a voice in the evangelical world of CCM.

Doctor of the Church, no, but Hahn--depsite his puns and doctrinal quirks--is quite arguably a rejuvenator and an effective corrective to Vatican II misfires.

Ralph R-D, thanks for the great book recommend, btw.

George said...

Hahn's defense of inerrancy is more or less in sync with the traditional Catholic view of encyclicals like Leo XIII's Providentissimus Deus or the work of the traditionalist, Fr. Brian Harrison, OS. That is one feature of Hahn's work I particularly appreciate, even if it's a thin slice.

Matt Maher's music is "terrific"? Depends what you mean and depends on the context. As an accompanyment to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, I would find his "worship leading" a major obstacle to worship, but that's just me. I've never my spirit elevated in adoration of Transcendent Holy One by music that clutches at me from the mosh pit, but that's just me. I must be psychologically miswired or something.

Anonymous said...

the charismatics -- wasn't that 30 yrs ago? guess there's been nothing since.

quez lo fresh said...

The context I have in mind is solid pop music with good, God-directed lyrics that mesh with Catholic belief. Chant is a tough entrance ramp for minds fed on Madona and muzak at the dentists office, and most of the Gather Hymnal could be scrapped without endangering anyone's love of singable songs. A sort of CCM that is also Catholic-friendly could provide some positive culture on which Catholic sensibilities could be raised. Not arguing Mass music in this post. I think of Reformed circles I know, where the only music R.S. Sproul approves is classical recordings by a local Brass. It's just not that good, but Sproul could never see clear to endorse any *popular* music. ... IOW, Marty Haugen does not negate good Christian pop. Marty Haugen demonstrates bad and hardly-Chrsitian pop. Huge difference.

Anonymous said...

quez lo,

I have no problem with Christian/Catholic rock, rap, folk ... whatever. In fact, I'd like to see an improvement in the quality of such populare fare.

No matter how good it may be, though, it has no place in the Mass. Youth group meeting, yes. Campfire, yes. Concert, yes. Mass, no. Now if you wanted to use it in the Novus Ordo, that would be another question. I have no problem with that, because I don't consider it worthy of the name "liturgy."

Anonymous said...

Thomas Tucker, and JM:

Associating the names you do with the Charismatic movement is a case, so far as I can tell, subject to "freely asserted, freely denied". Animal-rights people claim St. Francis. Homosexualists claim St. Paul.

Ask the so-called Charismatics what would happen if their inspiration in the Spirit conflicted with Holy Mother Church.

As to the "Catholic rock", I know I'm going to sound like a luddite here, people who know a great deal more than I do about music assert that the nature of the music itself is deformed, and thus no amount of "Catholic" text can fix the problem. Would you serve filet mignon on a dirty plate, if a clean one were available?

Anonymous said...

As to the "Catholic rock", I know I'm going to sound like a luddite here, people who know a great deal more than I do about music assert that the nature of the music itself is deformed,

I'll leave it to others to decide if it is inherently deformed (I certainly have an open mind that it is). My simpler objection is similar to my encouragement that the new translation is coming. Both rock and Everyday Joe language of the lame duck translation are unserious and have a trivializing effect on the faith. Rendering it just one more product amongst thousands at the department store.

George said...

When traditionalist Catholics complain about "neocon" Catholics seeming "Protestantized," this is likely a large part of what they mean. The thing smells vaguely Protestant and Christian, but not like historical Catholicism.

Charles said...

I wonder if "Charismatic Traditionalist" or "Traditionalist Charismatic" is an oxymoron.

Any thoughts?