Confusion about Graces: A Catholic Critique of the Charismatic Movement

All Catholics will sooner or later be asked a question like this: “So, what do you think of the charismatic movement?” It may come from a Catholic heavily involved in the “renewal”; it may come from a hardened skeptic; it may arise out of a simple desire to understand a fairly widespread phenomenon that appears to enjoy the endorsement of the last few popes.

As an adolescent enrolled in a very secular “Catholic” high school, my own moribund faith seemed to be destined for extinction until it was reawakened in a two-year stint with a charismatic youth group. The people in it were genuinely fervent and friendly, although the music was atrociously hyperactive, the spontaneous intercessions ooey-gooey, and some of the Masses borderline illicit. I cannot pretend that “I knew something was wrong” from the start, but I can say that as I began to study my faith in greater depth, the catechetical component of the youth group satisfied me less and less, and when I finally attended the “big tent” meeting at Steubenville, I actually felt put off by the emotionalism, the message, and the mass hysteria. I don’t doubt for a moment the good will of the people who plan and execute these sorts of things, but I do wonder where they get their notions of prayer, liturgy, music, and, to put it in a nutshell, Catholicism from.

A combination of Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Marian devotion, liberal education at Thomas Aquinas College, singing Gregorian chant, and, at last, experiencing the traditional Latin Mass took me in a totally different direction—to a place that truly fulfilled me, a religion that answered the quest of my mind for truth, the thirst of my heart for the beautiful. I was led into a Catholicism that takes seriously the Deposit of the Faith, the wisdom of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and the great inheritance of our corporate prayer, devotions, and liturgical arts—precious gifts of the Holy Spirit that summoned me to ever-greater wonder, sacrifice, and transformation.

The charismatic movement had given me a desire to pray, but the prayer it favored seemed to get stuck on the surface, enchained in the emotions, dependent on the group dynamic. When I encountered the old Mass, I discovered an ocean of prayer that I had not even imagined possible, in which one could swim forever and never grow tired. There was no sudden mystical transport, at least not for me; rather, I found a deep, resonant, quiet space within which to meet the Lord and learn His language—slow, gentle, and peaceful. Not, of course, without its (sometimes formidable) challenges, but never lacking in consolations. I found a liturgy breathing in and breathing out with the rhythm of the saints in the two-millennium history of the Latin Church. The signs and symbols—the many kissings of the altar, genuflections, bows, signs of the cross; the praying ad orientem; noble vestments and vessels; the chant, the incense, etc.—all these reached into my soul and “took every thought captive to obey Christ” (cf. 2 Cor 10:5).

All this I say by way of introducing a homily preached some years ago by a traditional Catholic priest for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, the Epistle of which is 1 Corinthians 12:2–11. (Incidentally, is it not ironic that the new age of the Spirit that was supposed to come after Vatican II was marked, inter alia, by the abolition of the ancient classification of “Sundays after Pentecost”? This perpetual reminder of the outpouring of the Spirit was replaced by the thrilling “Sundays of Ordinary Time.”) When I met this priest and we began to discuss the topic of the charismatic movement, he shared this homily with me, and I obtained his permission to publish it anonymously. It takes us through the Catholic understanding of charisms or special spiritual gifts, using this as a point of departure for a respectful but incisive critique.

After the homily, resources for further reading will be provided.

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On the Charismatic Gifts

by a Catholic priest

In the past fifty or sixty years, we have been witnessing the surge (or onslaught depending on how one wishes to look at it) of what could be called religious revival meetings, which usually occur within Protestant circles but have also and regrettably found a growing niche within Catholic circles. Regardless of where, there are common qualities: usually there is some dynamic speaker or panel that works up the crowd, there is so-called “praise and worship” that has music and gestures that are characteristic of high-school pep rallies, and there seems to be the presence of various manifestations of the Holy Ghost, usually in the form of what could be called speaking in tongues, interpretations, healings, and the like. Catholic circles tend to take this all one step further by sometimes having these things within the framework of Mass or Eucharistic adoration.

Doing things like this is quite foreign to the Church’s spiritual and liturgical tradition as taught authoritatively by the great saints and doctors—masters of the spiritual life—and ratified by the Church’s Magisterium for centuries.  Forms of worship such as these put a great deal of weight upon the emotions, and although God can and does always draw good from anything, this does not preclude the fact that such forms are fundamentally flawed in that these transform the spiritual life and its progress into an emotional experience; as a result, the focus of the spiritual life is taken off the will and perfection of charity and placed upon things that are not essential.

The epistle heard today to the Corinthians was written because the new Christians in Corinth questioned St. Paul about the value of the charismatic gifts of the Holy Ghost, gifts which seemed to have permeated throughout the Church at Corinth. Because of this, an attitude of comparing and classifying the gifts had arisen among the people and this was leading to jealousies and feuds. To correct the problem, St. Paul reminds them that the gifts all have a single source, the Holy Ghost, the Spirit of Truth, and so are not matters for boasting. St. Paul then enumerates nine such gifts, including, as mentioned, speaking in tongues, interpretations, and healings, along with other ones like miracles, prophecy and so on. In the early stages of the Church, as was seen at Corinth, the presence of these gifts was quite common, but the reason for this was to assist with the diffusion and confirmation of the teachings of the Church in new regions, which is the mission of the Holy Ghost accomplished through the Apostles. And for this reason precisely, the Apostles had these gifts in their fullness—just peruse the book of Acts—and this is one of the reasons why three thousand were baptized by St. Peter on Pentecost. Nonetheless, these gifts were not confined to the Apostles; other people had them, but as the Church matured and Christianity spread and became rooted, the presence of these gifts became less and less prevalent, although never entirely disappearing. They still are operating today, from public figures of recent memory like Padre Pio, to private instances (which count for the majority), but the degree of their public presence is certainly a matter of debate.

It is interesting to note, first, that the present-day charismatic movement has its origins in Protestantism, which means it originates in a forum that fundamentally rejects rightful spiritual authority. The result is a misunderstanding and an actual blindness as to the presence, place, and function of the charismatic gifts, which is the duty of the Church’s authority to determine. We must remember how easily we can be deceived by the powers of hell who can present themselves as angels of light. Unfortunately, this misunderstanding seems to have infected Catholic circles and, together with the modern collapse of the true sense of the sacred, has led to a great deal of confusion nowadays about these gifts and their purpose. This confusion can lead to spiritual downfall or the retarding of true spiritual progress if one is not on guard. In many Protestant circles, for instance, it is considered a sign of holiness or approval from God to possess one of the charismatic gifts and it could be a safe bet that such a mentality has also crept in among Catholics, although perhaps not as widespread. This could not be further from the truth.

The Church’s teaching on the charismatic gifts, supported by St. Thomas Aquinas and the writings of the great saints, theologians, and mystics, is that these gifts belong to what is classified as “extraordinary graces,” that is, graces that are freely given by God to a person for the specific purpose of the sanctification of another soul, not the sanctification of the person who has the gift. These gifts are distinct from sanctifying grace. As we know, sanctifying grace (or charity) renders our souls pleasing to God: it is a reflection of God’s very life in the soul and remains there as long as there is no mortal sin to drive it out. In other words, sanctifying grace is ordinary and extended to all souls for the purpose of their own personal sanctification and salvation. We need it in order to go to heaven and it can increase in us with the performance of penance and good works. This is the key distinction and of extreme importance in understanding the matter: sanctifying grace is for our own holiness, the charismatic gifts are for the sanctification of another. Therefore an individual’s personal holiness is not a condition for the possession of a charismatic gift, which means an individual can be in a state of mortal sin and still have a charismatic gift.

For instance, a priest in a state of sin while hearing confessions could very well be given a gift from God to read the soul of a person making a confession in order to bring to light sins the person has forgotten or is too embarrassed to tell. In such a case, the gift has no bearing on the soul of the priest but rather prevents the penitent from making an incomplete confession or committing a sacrilege. This shows overall that the charismatic gifts are completely gratuitous and are completely dependent upon the good pleasure of God. In granting these gifts for a person to use, God may do so only once, or occasionally, or even habitually, but these gifts are never to be desired or prayed for, keeping in mind that when God does grant a person the habitual presence of a gift (as He did for Padre Pio), God always attaches a great deal of suffering with it in order to keep the person humble and to manifest that it is completely His work; in fact, this would be one sign that the gift is authentic. We can conclude from this, then, that it would be highly suspect for someone with a charismatic grace to openly advertise having it because it would lead others to place their hope in the gift or the person and not in God, which is completely contrary to the purpose of the gift.

The correct understanding of the proper place and function of the charismatic gifts establishes the grounds for legitimately calling into question the purpose of so-called charismatic revivals and, most importantly, why we even see them in the Catholic Church. Now the good will of the people involved in such things is not being criticized here. With that said, and as stated earlier, these practices have a tremendous focus upon the emotions. It is not that our emotions are bad, but they require our reason in order to be governed or else they take on “a mind of their own.” The essence of the spiritual life consists in the union of our wills with God’s, and since the path to such union is often difficult and trying (it is essentially the way of the Cross), God will from time to time give the soul some sensible consolations, a certain sweetness of His presence, in order to help the soul along and encourage it, sort of like an oasis in the desert. Understandably, we tend to like these emotions. Such consolations are more frequent when a soul begins taking the spiritual life seriously, but as progress is made, God will scale back on the frequency of the consolations in order to enable to the soul to begin taking more delight in Him rather than in the gifts He gives. He tests the soul’s resolve and also gives it more occasions to make acts of charity, which are far more pleasing to Him. In short, He weans us from consolations. That is the teaching of all the great masters of the spiritual life, especially the Carmelites: St. Teresa of Jesus, St. John of the Cross, St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

Unfortunately, many souls do not get this far and become alarmed when their initial fervor is lost and the consolations disappear. Instead of continuing on the straight and narrow path to a higher maturity, and fearing that God has abandoned them, they may turn to things that feed the emotions in order to regain some taste of the consolations they once had. In fact, a certain expectation (and it can be very subtle) begins to set in that this is the purpose and function of divine worship: how often nowadays is Mass attended with the intent to leave feeling personally affirmed and good about oneself? Since the manifestations of the charismatic gifts are sensible to a large degree, it is easy to try seeking consolations in them. This really is not any different than when the crowd asked our Lord to show them a sign and our Lord retorted, saying: Perverse generation that seeks a sign. The first thought of our spiritual life should always be God’s glory, not our own consolation and progress, and in so doing we actually serve our interests better because God will not lead us astray. For good reason, then, has the Church always commanded great caution when it comes to the presence and operation of the charismatic gifts because, in general, they are often sought for the wrong reasons, and because their manifestations can actually be false, either as a product of an emotional or psychological frenzy or arising from the demonic.

One such example of this, which is quite characteristic of revivals, is the apparent speaking in tongues. Recalling that charismatic gifts are always for the spiritual benefit of another soul, and recalling too how this gift of tongues was manifested in the Apostles on Pentecost, we get a clear sense of what this gift entails. When the Apostles, filled with the Holy Ghost and confirmed in grace, emerged from the upper room and stood before the crowd of various nationalities, they began preaching the Faith and each person heard them in his or her own language. In other words, for the benefit of a person listening, the Apostles, although speaking one intelligible language, were understood by another person in his own intelligible language so that he could understand the truths of the Faith which are necessary for salvation. The gift was not for any other purpose but that; the Apostles were not announcing their favorite colors nor their top picks for the local father-son tag-team chariot semi-final races later that week. Although not in this instance, the gift of tongues can also be manifested by way of a person speaking a language they have no natural knowledge of, but once again, for the instruction of another in that language in matters pertaining to the Faith, as we read about in the lives of certain saintly missionaries.

Therefore, speaking in tongues, if it is authentic, is never under the form of unintelligible gibberish claimed as adoration or praise of God, which is what usually happens at charismatic revivals. The gift of tongues deals with intelligible languages, meaning the language possesses an order by which it can be known and understood. Aside, then, from the fact that gibberish draws attention to the person who is speaking, we must look first of all to the fact that God gives us intellect and will because He desires from His rational creation intelligent and volitional worship. Unintelligible gibberish completely fails in this regard. Secondly, there is no purpose to it, no instruction is being given to another; nor is there any place for the gift of interpretation of the tongue because that gift is to make sure what is being taught is understood in the correct way (in other words, the gift of interpretation is a protection from the Spirit of Truth against heresy). And furthermore, we must beware that demons can influence a person to speak a language he or she does not know, and this can easily happen to people who desire to possess these gifts. That is why this gift must always be connected with the expounding of the Faith, and if conditions are otherwise, the gift is not from God nor is it authentic. It should be obvious, then, why the Church’s scrutiny and judgment in these matters is of great importance, and why a silence by Church authority concerning the proliferation of so-called “charisms,” or worse, an endorsement of them, can lead many souls astray.

When it comes to the charismatic gifts, the best attitude to have is one of indifference. Since they are not directed to our sanctification, which is our primary obligation, we should heed the Apostle’s advice and always seek the higher gifts—above all, charity, in which our spiritual perfection consists. No one can ever go astray seeking and begging for an increase of faith, hope, or charity, or an increase in the gifts and fruits of the Holy Ghost that are poured forth on all the baptized. These are the virtues and gifts of which we stand in lifelong urgent need, and to which we even have a certain “right,” inasmuch as God has adopted us as His sons in the Son.

When it comes to charismatic revivals, the best thing to do is stay away. In the end, we should follow the example of the prayer of the publican in the Gospel today: humble, honest, and sincere, not seeking any sign from God, but only His mercy. It is a prayer that is a testament to the Holy Ghost’s continuous work in our souls that attunes us to those quiet whispers of His that we may be missing or ignoring. Actually, it is in those quiet whispers that we often find the strength to persevere, provided we do not waste time in seeking solace in useless signs or wonders; it is also in those quiet whispers of the Holy Ghost that we discover for ourselves His greatest charism, the one which prompted Christ to carry His Cross and hang on it, which truly revives all of us and sets our souls on fire.

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FURTHER READING

To read more about the theological, spiritual, and liturgical problems of the charismatic movement, the following articles may be recommended:

Fr. John Hardon, S.J., “Pentecostalism: Evaluating a Phenomenon”
http://www.therealpresence.org/archives/Protestantism/Protestantism_002.htm

James Likoudis, “The Pentecostalism Controversy”
https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=6587

Fr. Scott Gardner, “The Catholic Charismatic Renewal”
http://archives.sspx.org/miscellaneous/catholic_charismatic_renewal.htm

Peter Kwasniewski, “Objective Form and Subjective Experience: The Benedictine/Jesuit Controversy, Revisited”
http://www.newliturgicalmovement.org/2017/09/objective-form-and-subjective.html#.W-nuTYc2qUk

More articles may be found at https://charismataexamined.wordpress.com/spirituality-doctrine/.

I have written a fair amount on the predilection for “praise and worship” music among charismatics:

“Sacred Music vs. ‘Praise & Worship’—Does it Matter?”
Part I https://onepeterfive.com/sacred-music-vs-praise-worship-matter-pt/
Part II https://onepeterfive.com/sacred-music-vs-praise-worship-does-it-matter-pt-ii/

“A Plea to Youth Ministers: Give Up the Past and Embrace an Ageless Tradition”
https://onepeterfive.com/youth-ministers-give-up-past-embrace/

“Is ‘Contemporary’ Church Music a Good Example of Inculturation?”
https://onepeterfive.com/is-contemporary-church-music-a-good-example-of-inculturation/

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