Catholic Charismatic Renewal, which originated in a charismatic event in the USA in 1967, has branches all over the world, including England, Wales and Scotland. Recently the English branch announced that, due to financial difficulties, they would be closing their office at the All Saints Pastoral Centre at London Colney (a facility owned by the Archdiocese of Westminster), and probably ceasing to publish their magazine 'GoodNews' and teaching resources. The Tablet reported (16th May 09)
In the 1980s and early 1990s the popularity of the Charismatic Renewal – the spirituality of which is centred on an encounter with the Holy Spirit – was at its peak, with conferences attracting up to 5,000 people. In recent years numbers have decreased...
A recent conference attracted 1,500.
A picture is worth a thousand words. The picture above tells us a lot about their spirituality and liturgical preferences, and the kind of people who front the organisation: in a phrase, aging trendies. This is clearly an organisation undergoing accelerating decline, but its power to harm the Church has not left it yet.
What it is
CCR is a somewhat nebulous phenomenon. It promotes prayer groups and liturgies of a particular style, and in general a theological attitude of a particular type, through a magazine, education packs, and national and local events. It promotes many good things, but mixes them in with bad or at least dubious or unproven ones. The English website includes Medjugorje among its links to officially approved Marian shrines (Medjugorje is not officially approved); it links to many pro-life groups but also to Amnesty International, which campaigns openly for the legalisation of abortion; it includes official agencies of the Catholic Bishops and non-Catholic 'healing ministries', Christian Zionists, and all sorts of weird and wonderful groups, as well as the usual aging trendy stuff, such as CAFOD and livesimply.
The fundamental problem with CCR is one of style or attitude rather than one of substance. That is not because the substance is good - it is because, like the liberal charismatic Protestantism on which it models itself, there is no substance. While not explicitly denying any doctrines, it inculcates an attitude and a spirituality which is at odds with Catholic tradition and, ultimately, at odds with Catholic doctrine.
How can we pin down the problems?
Identification with Protestantism
It is obvious that CCR is inspired by a certain kind of Protestantism. The inspiration is not simply a matter of learning from non-Catholics in matters of technique - the CCR actually sees itself as part of a 'Pentecostal/Charismatic' phenomenon.
One author in the latest magazine puts it this way:
The outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Azusa Street, Los Angeles, in 1906, saw the beginning of Pentecostalism. This was followed in the 1960s by the Charismatic Renewal in the mainline Christian denominations, alongside the birth of the Independent Charismatic House Churches. This Pentecostal/Charismatic Movement has grown from a handful of individuals in 1906 to a global force of more than 600 million people today. Such a remarkable number means that Christians who have been baptised in the Holy Spirit today represent about one third of global Christianity, and are the fastest growing part of the world-wide church. Whilst there are signs of a slow-down in Western Europe and North America, the rate of growth continues unabated in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. History tells us that renewal movements usually rise and fall, but are we experiencing something different? The time seems to be right for a new look at this amazing Pentecostal/Charismatic Movement.
It would seem useless to say to the author, Charles Whitehead (Chairman of CCR), that Pentecostalism is a group of truly appalling sects, which use the most unscrupulous means to proselytise the least educated Catholic populations they can find, to give them a religion evacuated of even the limited understanding of the Sacraments you would find in Anglicanism. In this article Whitehead identifies more with the second 'C' in CCR than with the first.
He also suggests - as his Pentecostal friends would insist - that sacramntal baptism is not true 'baptism in the Spirit'. This is a foundational belief for charismatics, and it betrays the seriousness of the problem. Our Lord explained that 'Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit' (John 3.5-6) and he instituted the sacrament of Baptism to make this possible. Baptism - note Our Lord's reference to water - objectively gives the Holy Spirit to the baptised. It is not a matter of emotion, but metaphysical fact. To say that this is not baptism of the Spirit Our Lord intended is an attack on the Church's whole sacramental system, and a replacement of the sacraments' objective signs with nothing but feelings.
The general emphasis on the experience of the Spirit creates the problem that if Church authorities - parish priests or bishops - impose any limits on what charismatic groups get up to (especially in the liturgy), Catholic charismatics have a tendency simply to leave the Church and join up with charismatics of other denominations. Protestant charismatic and Pentecostal churches in the United States have huge numbers of Catholic converts in them, and this phenomenon has, in a more limited way, been seen in the UK as well.
It hardly needs to be said that typical 'charismatic' Masses and devotions depart from the norms laid down by the Church. The invasion of the sanctuary by lay people, musicians, people being slain in the spirit, people giving personal testimonies etc. is one obvious example; another would be the constant interuption or replacement of the liturgical texts by spontaneous or scripted additions. Charismatics would find it hard to see what the problem is here, but what they are doing contravenes the law of the Church, and their attitude is completely at odds with the Church's attitude towards the liturgy. If it were meant to be a free-for-all we wouldn't have the liturgical laws we have.
For a lengthy treatment of Catholic charismatic liturgies at a conference in the USA, see John Vennari here.
A preference for style over substance
Pentecostalism can be seen as the taking of certain Protestant themes to a logical extreme: a rejection of ritual and formalism (including vestments, the sacraments, even the baptismal formula), and a rejection of intellectualism (including any properly articulated theology). Instead Pentecostal groups rely entirely on a personal connection with the Holy Spirit. Followers think they can tell that the Spirit is with a particular leader because he says so, and tries to demonstrate it in various ways. Preaching is one; others include making odd noises when praying ('speaking in tongues'), claiming miraculous healing powers, and having the ability to mesmerise an audience. Confidence tricksters and stage hypnotists can, of course, do similar things.
The resulting sect is made up of an inner core of people who may feel important because of their role or may be benefitting financially from the sect, and an outer group which often has a high turn-over as people become discouraged, when the extravagant claims of the preacher fail to solve their personal problems, or see through the sham, or hear an even more mesmerising preacher working down the road. These kinds of groups often attract many young people, especially the intellectually unsophisticated, but these young people tend not to become older devotees - as they age they drift away.
CCR is not, of course, guilty of the worst excesses of the Pentecostal movement, and working within the Church the Church's sacramental and intellectual resources remain, at least theoretically, available. But insofar as they claim to be inspired by the Pentecostal/Charismatic tendency in Protestantism, they are travelling down that same road. This places a personal feeling of being 'touched by the Spirit' above any objective sacramental event, and shunts difficult theological questions aside. While claiming that God will solve your problems, and that God can be found where His Spirit can be seen visibly working, they set people up for an exaggerated enthusiasm to be followed by disappointment. This is a road out of the Church for many people.
Style can get you noticed, but substance gives staying power. When Catholics formed by CCR are confronted with real personal difficulties, or real theological objections to Catholicism or belief in God, they are extremely vulnerable.
The fundamental claim of the charismatic movement is that they 'have' the Spirit, and people should take notice of them for that reason. It follows that they can't afford to be shy about claiming to be inspired, either personally - having messages from God and so forth - or as a group - experiencing group phenomena such as being 'slain in the spirit', 'speaking in tongues' and so on. After all, if they didn't, no one would have any reason to pay attention to them.
So we find a way of talking which completely lacks the caution and discretion which characterises the Catholic tradition, and in particular Catholic spiritual masters. We read, for example,
The Burning Bush Initiative, grew out of a prophetic inspiration given to Kim Kollins, a leader in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, when she was attending a gathering over a decade ago in Rome. Her experience brought an unplanned extended stay during the next months where she was led by God to remain in Rome and intercede for the Renewal and for the world. Over this time, she felt God tell her to encourage those in the Charismatic Renewal to return to intercessory prayer for a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
There is nothing wrong in having an idea, after prayer and reflection, and feeling that perhaps this is providential. This is clearly what happened to Kim Kollins. But by expressing it as it is in this passage, it leaves no room for the thing to be a mistake. Not only are they setting people up for a huge disappointment, when (as is overwhelmingly likely) nothing much comes of it, but in the meantime anyone who has a different idea is implicitly condemned as opposing God's revealed will.
But it gets worse. Fr Pat Collins writes in an earlier edition of GoodNews of a particular prophecy made by a one charismatic leader as though it were a fifth gospel. He explains his approach in deciding which of the spontaneous and mutually contradictory babblings to believe:
Over the years I have heard many prophecies. It is notoriously hard to know whether they come from God or not. However, there are some which have considerable authority because of the circumstances in which they were spoken, the acknowledged giftedness of the people who spoke them, and the way in which they evoked an answering amen of approval in the Christian community. On Pentecost Monday 1975 such a prophecy was given by Ralph Martin in St Peter’s Basilica, Rome, in the presence of Pope Paul VI.
The Church has a very long experience in dealing with alleged prophecies. Are these the criteria used by the Church? No. Has this been assessed and approved by the proper authorities? No. But never mind - Fr Collins believes it because he thinks Ralph Martin has the Spirit, and they supply a theme for the entire issue of Goodnews.
The tradition calls this 'presumption'. The Church has always exercised great caution with regard to private revelations; even the most carefully investigated are said merely to be 'worthy of belief'; Catholics are never required to accept them. We like to think the founders of religious orders were prompted by God act as they did, but it would be absurd to try to argue that an order should be fostered because it is God's will - rather, we see evidence of God's will in the fruits the order brings forth. CCR, by contrast, constantly tells its followers that this initiative or that has been willed by God, and should be supported for that reason. Unfortunatly, we only have their word for it.
A dismissal of tradition
Rather by silence than by objections, CCR dismisses the Church's traditions: liturgical, spiritual, intellectual, cultural. They have no importance for CCR - what is important is what the Holy Spirit has told them since breakfast.
CCR has become adept at selecting quotations from Popes and the tradition which appear to support their case. This is not difficult because all the fathers and doctors of the Church were deeply concerned with spirituality and the Spirit. What is evident, however, is that all of them would be absolutely horrified if they saw and heard what goes on in charismatic services. It is totally alien to their entire conception of the role of the Spirit in the Christian life.
The Catholic Church was not invented yesterday. When we say she was founded by Our Lord we mean really founded, as a historical fact, by the man Jesus, and not simply 'inspired' by Him. That is why the Church's tradition is so important: it is a continuous and living link to Our Lord. The Church's traditions convey to the present day the will of God and the understanding of that will by the Apostles and subsequent generations. It is through her traditions and enormous historical resources that the Church can be truly renewed: this is the course set for the Church by all her great leaders, and particularly by Pope Benedict XVI.
This means nothing the the CCR. As Our Lord said, 'Who does not gather with me, scatters.' (Mat 12.30)
The verdict of recent Popes
Charismatics love to claim that Paul VI and John-Paul II gave them a complete endorsement. The Wikipedia article on the (international) Catholic Charismatic Renewal is one-sided and very favourable to them, and makes this point at length. The truth is rather different. Here is the summary of Papal teaching given in a superb analysis of the movement published in Christian Order in 2000:
Pope Paul VI on Sept. 3rd 1969 at Castelgandolfo referred to phenomena which
"not only offend canon law but also the very heart of Catholic worship, since we find them, dispensing with the institutional structures of the authentic, real and human Church, in the false hope of setting up a free and purely Charismatic Christianity, but which is -really amorphous, evanescent and blown about by any passing wind of passion or fashion. " On Sept. 24th 1969: "Many who talk about the Church today say they are inspired by a prophetic spirit. They make risky and sometimes inadmissible assertions, and appeal to the Holy Spirit as if the Divine Paraclete were at their service at all times; they sometimes do this, unfortunately, with an unspoken intention of freeing themselves from the Church's Magisterium, which enjoys the assistance of the Holy Spirit. May God grant that this Presumption of elevating a personal judgement or personal experience into a rule or criterion of religious doctrine may notcause havoc. May God never allow that treating these private opinions as charismatic gifts and prophetic inspirations should lead astray so many good and well-meaning people." On Oct. 25th 1972: "a pretentious charismatic sufficiency will not preserve an authentic vivifying presence of the Holy Spirit in these spiritualistic trends, in which, sadly enough, it is often easy to see dissent or profane mentalities infiltrated. The needs of theChurch are very different."
Pope John Paul I had a lot to say, and said it before his election. His very short life as Vicar of Christ on earth, only thirty-three days, providentially brought to the notice of the world what he had written. Addressing St. Theresa of Avila in his book Illustrissimi he says:
Charismatic experiences are not anyone's private reserve. They may be given to anyone: priests and laymen, men and women. It is one thing though, to beable to have visions, and quite another to actually have them. In your Libro de las fundaciones I find written: "a woman penitent told her confessor that the Madonna often came to see her and stayed talking for over an hour, revealing the future and many other things to her. And as something true occasionally emerged from all the nonsense, it all seemed to be true. I realised at once what it was all about ... but merely told the confessor to wait for the result of the prophesies, to find our for himself about the penitent's way of life and to look for further signs of sanctity in her. In the end ... it was seen that her visions were all fantasies." Dear St. Theresa, if only you could come back today! The word "charisma" is squandered. All kinds of people are known as prophets, even the students who confront the-police in the streets, or the guerrillas of Latin America. People try to set up the Charismatics in opposition to the pastors. What would you say? You who obeyed your confessors, even when their advice turned out to be the opposite of that given to you by God in prayer?"
Our present Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, when he addresses Charismatic groups follows the usual format. There is a kindly greeting. There is a word of pleasure and approval that they have gathered in Rome because their choice of Rome shows that they understand the importance of being rooted in that Catholic unity of Faith and charity which finds its visible centre in the See of Peter. Then he teaches, and the teaching, if analysed, is a series of warnings. In general these are:-
Fidelity to the authentic teaching of the Faith. Whatever contradicts this doctrine does not come from the spirit.
Value the gifts which are given in service of the common good.
Pursue that charity alone which brings the Christian to perfection.
Time and again the Holy Father stresses the need for good leaders and good priests with the requisite theology. But in practice, if these leaders and priests become part of the Charismatic Renewal and do not remain outside it, they become moulded by it, gradually moulded by emotional experiences which overthrow in them that which constituted them a possible safeguard for others. If they remain outside, they carry no weight because these Charismatics are not charismatics in the sense that St. Theresa of Avila was.
A priest writer in GoodNews notes sadly
In many places, and not only in the more developed nations, the charismatic renewal is limping badly, diminishing in numbers and in the power of the Holy Spirit, and even dying.
There is hope, he adds. Yes, there is indeed hope that CCR is dying. The great experiment, which it was 'prophesied' would revitalise the Church, has clearly failed - and not for want of enthusiasm or resources. The Popes have warned us against it and the theological problems it raises are manifest. But it is still active in parishes and dioceses up and down the country, and should be exposed for what it is and opposed. Do not let them lead another generation of impressionable, and increasingly badly-formed, young Catholics down the path of Pentecostalism.
For more on the Charismatic movement within the Church, see John Vennari's description a Catholic Charismatic conference, and some theological implications of the movement, here. There is an excellent Christian Order article here, written by someone who was heavily involved in movement in the UK in the 1990s. This article exposes the techniques and realities of charismatic phenomena and how attractive it can be; it deserves a wider audience.