In Defense of Charismatic Catholicism

You read that correctly. In this article I will take up the position that Charismatic Catholicism is actually more valid than many think, and why I currently support a more charismatic Catholicism.

When I say Charismatic Catholicism, I essentially mean the emphasizes the Holy Spirit, the role of grace, miracles and healing, and what I will call “subjective experience.” I am not really referring to happy-clappy felt-banner movements that just want peace and love on the planet Earth.

From my own experience, the person of the Trinity that has been neglected most by the Catholic Church is the Holy Spirit. Most people have a decent enough understanding of the person of Jesus. Serious Catholics (I mean here ones who actually believe in the basic tenets of the faith) know about transubstantiation, and they often have devotions to things like Eucharistic Adoration or the Divine Mercy. We see the crucifix everywhere we go, and the rosary is primarily about mysteries surrounding the life of Jesus (with some exceptions of course). The Father is misunderstood in some ways, because the world now has a very transcendentalist view of the Father, seeing Him as mostly a far-away God who is above everything and hard to access. Nevertheless, Catholics tend to still pray to the Father and many Catholics adequately recognize the role of the Father, at least in relation to the Son. The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, seems to be most neglected from what I see both in my day-to-day life and online. There are not nearly as many devotions to the third person of the Trinity, and most of the emphasis on the Spirit lies in baptism and confirmation.

This is a grave mistake. When we read the scriptures, it is abundantly clear that the post-ascension Church is dominated by the Holy Spirit. Jesus tells His disciples in John chapter 14 that, “I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you. I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you.” In fact, the coming of the Spirit is so important that Jesus says His departure from Earth is absolutely necessary because it will lead to the coming of the Holy Spirit. If he doesn’t leave, then no Spirit. The coming of the Holy Spirit and us being filled by it is something promised by God in the Old Testament too. God says to Ezekiel, “I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them.” Rather than a tabernacle/ark or a grand Temple in Jerusalem, it is our very bodies that become temples of the Holy Spirit and therefore of God.

The implications of this cannot be understated. For one, we are given the fruits of the Holy Spirit. “Love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, [and] temperance.” Every baptized believer who has the Holy Spirit ought to display these fruits. In Isaiah we hear this said of the Spirit: “the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” In the New Testament what do we hear the Spirit called? The Spirit of truth, the Spirit of POWER! The Holy Spirit also liberates the believer from the Law (“Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty”). One common theme in the New Testament is that the Spirit is an empowering and active force. When one receives the Spirit, they are transformed. Jesus only performs miracles after the Spirit descends upon Him, and it is the Spirit that empowers the Apostles to preach at Pentecost and perform other miracles. It is the Spirit that gives us the power to live righteously. This Spirit is not something we can merit for ourselves though. It only comes into us by grace, through faith, in baptism.

I could certainly go on about the significance of the Holy Spirit, but this will suffice.

With that, we come to the question at hand: Catholic Charismatic movements. These movements are undeniably post-conciliar in nature, and often have many of the same problems that the post-conciliar period had/has. Some basic characteristics of these movements include an emphasis on “baptism in the Spirit,” speaking in tongues, more “enthusiastic” worship styles, an appreciation of emotions and emotional reactions in the religious experience, belief in healings, spontaneous prayer and non-liturgical prayer services, and other such things. I am not the first to write about the charismatic movement, and I don’t really want to write about things that have already been exhausted. What I want to offer are some arguments as to why a more charismatic movement is exactly what meets the current moment head on.

We live in a world where religious affiliation is declining, and man has lost touch with the divine. The response to such a situation is not a cold, intellectual, rational, transcendent-emphasizing faith. God is already seen as inaccessible to many people today. At best, He is a faraway God who is uninvolved with day-to-day life. At worst, He doesn’t exist at all. Gone is the God who brings the rain and the sun and the harvest. At the same time, we live in a world where the subjective experience is highly valued. Emotions sometimes come above facts today. This has some problems, but it is not entirely out of line. It is an Enlightenment idea that facts are just these cold bare things floating through space with no meaning. In the world of Tradition, everything had meaning. Symbols abounded, and there was always assumed to be something beneath the surface. Yes, this thing exists, but what does its existence mean to me and the world? We can say God exists all we want, and lay out every argument there is, but if there is no personal meaning or application that follows, then it is all for nothing. We cannot be concerned with truth by itself. We must consider what truth means and how it applies to ourselves and the world around us.

With this in mind, it is clear that a more charismatic Catholicism has a lot to offer to modern man. Religion must be experienced, it must be personal, and it is not a fault of religion when it produces emotional reactions. That is a natural and good response. If your faith does not produce joy, that is not a good thing. This does not necessarily mean the faith is wrong or that you are at fault. Spiritual desolation is real. But this is a deficiency, as joy and happiness are the natural byproducts of God’s love and love for God.

Let me give an example. I have heard some people complain before of how some mass or another does not produce any positive reaction in them. How it feels dead or barren. Then, someone responds that just because it feels that way, “Jesus is still present in the Eucharist and you should disregard your emotions.” This response is true inasmuch as Jesus is present in the Eucharist even during a terribly boring and even badly celebrated mass. But it fails to address the very real emotion and experience of the person. The fact of the matter is that, really, the Eucharist and the mass should make you happy. It should fill you with joy. It should fill you with the Spirit. It should bring you closer to God. If it doesn’t, then there is something wrong somewhere in the equation. This is not to say that we need to obsessively curate the mass to appeal to people’s emotions, or that the emotional experience is the most important part of going to mass. But it is to say that emotion and personal experience of an event or thing is actually valuable and important. If people are not having a positive experience at mass, then it doesn’t matter how much you tell them that Jesus is there. They simply don’t perceive Him either in the mass or in their heart at that time.

All this is to say that our subjective experiences heavily shape how we perceive facts, and this is not something that can be avoided or even should be avoided.

I am also sorry to inform some that the Scriptures do not speak of a rigorously intellectual religion. Instead, they speak of a highly personal, present God who works in the everyday lives of ordinary and unordinary men and women. They speak of an irrational God. Yes, irrational! It is not “rational” to go after a single sheep and leave the 99. It is not “rational” for God to die on a cross for the salvation of mankind. It is not “rational” to believe in the bodily resurrection of both Christ and believers. Yes, I know, people have made arguments from “reason” in favor of these things but let’s be honest with ourselves, they are quite foolish to non-Christians. Just read the first chapter of 1 Corinthians. St. Paul says, “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God. For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness…”

“The disputer of this world” refers to those who revel in debate, and we can understand “the Greeks” to broadly refer to the pagans, both their religion and their philosophy.

The bottom-line is that God is meant to be experienced by the believer in the heart, not merely the mind. “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-2).

Apart from emphasis on personal experience and emotional relation to the faith, charismatic movements also tend to emphasize the role of community and the power that believers have when they worship and pray together. This has been abused by some and resulted in cult-like situations, but more broadly it is clear that these movements encourage communal worship and relationship, something desperately needed in the Church today. A belief in the fundamental power of prayer is also needed, and I think charismatic Christianity captures this better than other expressions, at least right now. Some of the most powerful prayer moments in my life have been at my Methodist church when the whole congregation (I have always attended smaller, rural churches) would gather around a person and lay their hands on that person and pray for them. Often the pastor (my father) would lead us all in prayer, but sometimes others would say something as well. And, of course, you would hear the spontaneous “Amen!” or “Yes Lord!” or even “Hallelujah!” I have seen Catholics mock these sorts of practices before, and I myself have poked fun at their more outlandish manifestations on occasion, but I honestly think these are valid and pious practices.

Of course, the difficulty here is reconciling some of the charismatic Catholic practices with common Catholic practice. I do not think there are many, if any, fundamental doctrinal issues with charismatic Catholicism (conceptually, that is. Often, in practice, some of the proponents of charismatic Catholicism have some modernist tendencies). But current Catholic practice, or historical practice over the last several hundred years does not tend to fit well with charismatic type spiritualities. Emphasis on formulas, formal worship, and, frankly, clericalism, have led to charismatic expressions of the faith being looked down upon. It doesn’t help that charismatic Catholicism is often seen as too Protestant. I do not think likeness to some Protestant denominations and practices is as big a problem as others (Protestants can be right sometimes, you know) but alas.

In my ideal world, we would see the growth of a movement which is a sort of fusion of traditionalist and charismatic Catholicism. This sort of Catholicism arguably already exists to some degree in places like the Franciscan University of Steubenville, but I am not all that aware of exactly how things are there. What I would like to see is a sort of “folk” Catholicism with traditional social values, orthodox theology, and charismatic worship and spirituality. It would also be preferable if this Catholicism was more local in nature and very tight knit. I’m talking small communities of believers being the focus rather than parishes with literally hundreds or even thousands of families.

Imagine, if you can, a large wooden structure without walls except on one side, sort of like a permanent tent, with a roof, and benches for seating. Then imagine dozens of rural Catholics packed into this structure for a service of bluegrass and spontaneous prayer. This service may also include some preaching either by lay-people or religious. Following it is a Latin Mass (be it a very traditionalist Novus Ordo, with heavy use of Latin mass parts, ad orientem, reception on the tongue, etc. or a Traditional Latin mass). Then, following this, is a grill-out.

This is basically the Catholicism I want.

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