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The Catholic Charismatic Movement Is Alive and Bearing Fruit

As a longtime fan of Karl Keating and the work of Catholic Answers—I often turn to as a resource in my own parish ministry—I was disappointed by Karl’s recent critique of the Catholic charismatic movement, Ever Heard of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal? The article seemed dismissive of the Renewal without offering strong arguments against it.

Karl places the Catholic Charismatic Renewal within the context of “enthusiastic religion,” which he described as “the distrust of religious truth unless confirmed by the emotions.” Yet including the Renewal with “enthusiastic” heretical movements such as the Montanists, Donatists, or Albigensians is a false comparison. The Church rightfully condemned these heretical movements, but the Catholic Charismatic Renewal has enjoyed the support and recognition of the hierarchy and faithful theologians for decades. Furthermore, one would be hard pressed to find any serious writing or teaching from leaders of the Renewal promoting “distrust of religious truth unless confirmed by the emotions.”

Emotion as an asset

Does the Renewal incorporate an emotional response to the work of the Holy Spirit? Yes, and why shouldn’t it? We were created as emotional beings, and Scripture is full of appeals to the heart, not just the head. As Benedict XVI clarified in Deus Caritas Est, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

Such a personal encounter will evoke an emotional response. Can emotions be misled or manipulated? Certainly! Then again, so can the intellect. There have been far more heresies rooted in intellectual error than emotional imbalance.

Papal support

Karl did briefly mention the support of Paul VI and John Paul II for the Renewal, but within a very limited scope, concluding that “the popes never went much further than that.” However, the Renewal has enjoyed the support of all of the post-conciliar pontiffs. The Vatican has hosted several international gatherings of the Renewal and will host the fiftieth anniversary celebration this summer. Prior to his election, the future Benedict XVI gave a very supportive description of the Renewal in The Ratzinger Report:

In the heart of a world desiccated by rationalistic skepticism a new experience of the Holy Spirit has come about, amounting to a worldwide renewal movement. What the New Testament describes, with reference to the charisms, as visible signs of the coming of the Holy Spirit is no longer merely ancient, past history: this history is becoming a reality today. . . . It is evidence of hope, a positive sign of the times, a gift of God to our age. It is a rediscovery of the joy and wealth of prayer over and against theories and practices which had become increasingly ossified and shriveled as a result of secularized rationalism. . . . As I have already said, like any other reality entrusted to human beings, it too is exposed to misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and exaggeration. But it would be dangerous to see only the risks and not also the gift offered by God.

Pope Francis has continued this papal support of the Renewal through several addresses to regional, national, and international gatherings. It is particularly telling that the last three popes have maintained the same priest as the preacher to the papal household: Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, a Charismatic who has written extensively about the place of the Renewal in the spiritual life of all Catholics.

The glossolalia

It is true that none of these popes mentioned their support for speaking or praying in tongues (glossolalia), and this practice has long been a lightning rod for criticism of the Renewal. But it’s also one of its most misunderstood aspects. In The Interior Castle St. Teresa of Avila wrote of her experience of strange prayers of jubilant praise that rise up from the soul, and her hope that God would give that gift to all. This seems to echo St. Paul’s desire that “I would like all of you to speak in tongues” (1 Cor. 14:5). Arguments against glossolalia that rely on the experience of the apostles at Pentecost (where the gift of tongues allowed visitors to Jerusalem could all hear the gospel in their own language) fail to note that here Paul refers tongues as private prayer language as well.

A fruitful participation 

The fruits of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal also speak to its lasting value. If not for the Renewal, there would be no Franciscan University to host the Defending the Faith conferences at which Karl has frequently spoken. (Read Let the Fire Fall, Fr. Michael Scanlan’s memoir of rescuing the university from bankruptcy and closure through the work of the Holy Spirit and the Charismatic Renewal.) The modern Catholic apologetics movement, in which Karl has been a key figure, would certainly be less robust. And despite the Renewal’s nature lending itself more to spirituality than theology, its members do not suffer from “disinterest in intellectual rigor.” Many within the Renewal actively engage their faith through study and intellectual pursuit. Some of the Church’s best minds today, including Scott Hahn and Peter Kreeft, have been involved with the movement themselves or have defended it.

It is true, as Karl notes, that the Renewal in the United States has experienced a decline over the last twenty years. I believe some of this has been the result of criticism from “traditional” Catholic groups that focus only on cases of excess or error. You will certainly encounter some strange people at a Charismatic gathering, but many of them were strange before their involvement in the Renewal. There will always be people pushing the boundaries and living a life out of balance; this is not unique to Charismatics.

I also believe that there are many more people who have been impacted by the Charismatic Renewal who have moved from the periphery of church life into the heart of their parishes. They bring with them their Charismatic spirituality but have stopped using certain catch phrases. I’m one of those people. I haven’t been to a Charismatic prayer group meeting for many years, but I still pray in tongues in my personal prayer time, still pray for healing of the sick, and still believe that God can speak to me personally. And I am not alone: today the Renewal can be found in more than 230 countries with more than 160 million members—that’s roughly 13 percent of all Catholics. It is still on the rise in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

A place in the current conversation

I respect that the Renewal never appealed to Karl. However, I disagree with his assessment that it was “a wrong turn.”  At the heart of the Charismatic Renewal is a call to a personal encounter with Jesus and ongoing discipleship through the power of the Holy Spirit. I think that we can all agree that those are worthy pursuits.

Although our faith is rational, it must also transcend mere intellectual assent. As Paul reminded the Corinthians, “My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:4).

Bishop Robert Barron provides an insightful commentary on this while discussing the growth of the Church in Africa—a place where the Charismatic Renewal is still going strong. As Bishop Barron states, “The reason a supernaturally oriented Christianity grows is that it is congruent with the purposes of the Holy Spirit, and also that it presents something that the world cannot.” I for one am convinced that what the Church needs most right now is not a better argument but demonstrations of the love of God manifested through the power of the Holy Spirit.

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