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Possible Dangers of the Charismatic Movement

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Before you read the title and think I am opposed to charismatic or pentecostal experiences, realize that I consider myself charismatic, in a limited sense (at least limited from the perspective of some Charismatics). I am not opposed to the stirrings of the Holy Spirit, and I believe that the Holy Spirit works in the Church and in the hearts of believers today. I have had experiences that I consider "charismatic." Please see my article I Can't Be Charismatic. I'm Catholic. However, I believe that all baptized Catholics are pentecostals in a sense, on account of having received the Holy Spirit at Baptism.

While I was in the process of researching the charismatic movement in the Catholic Church, I came across a book entitled The Pentecostal Movement in the Catholic Church by Edward O'Connor, CSC. Written in the 1970s, Fr. O'Connor is a charismatic Catholic, but also seems to be a loyal Catholic, so he lists some dangers that may result from excesses related to the charismatic movement. These dangers and excesses seem to plague many charismatic churches, and are the main reason I am suspicious of purely charismatic churches. Here is his basic list of dangers and excesses, combined with my own contributions, and my explanations of Fr. O'Connor's ideas.

1. Illuminism - This is the tendency for folks to believe and emphasize that God is telling them something unique that nobody else knows. There is a need to feel "special" and if God isn't telling you something unique or even mildly provocative, your credibility as a leader/follower is called into question. In my parents' old Sunday school class, when I was in college, there were a few people who always said "God told me to..." whether it was which car to buy or even whether to get up in the morning. First, this mocks the free will God created us with. Does God really need to tell his intelligent creatures, created in his image, to carry out routine tasks? God gave us reason for a reason! Second, illuminist claims shut down any reasonable argument. After all, how can you possibly challenge someone who says "God told me..."?

2. Paraclericalism - This is a downplaying of the role of clergy, or even suggesting there is no need for the Church hierarchy that Christ established. I have seen this attitude even among charismatic clergy! There is such an emphasis on the experience of the individual, that any kind of formality or hierarchy is looked down upon. The result for some Catholics is to downplay the role of the Holy Spirit acting in the Church, because the Church and her rules seem too "formal," and the hierarchy too "stifling." This leads some charismatic Catholics to become cafeteria Catholics, believing only in what gets them spiritually "excited." It leads others to seek out other churches, where they are more able to "do what they feel like doing."

3. Charismania - This is attributing excessive significance to certain charisms while downplaying other good spiritual acts. I have seen this, not so much firsthand, but from the testimony of others. Speaking in tongues or prophesying becomes the litmus tests for true spirituality, while feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc, are downplayed or even ignored. In some churches, the more outrageous the "charismatic" event, the more the Holy Spirit is deemed present. Unfortunately, this means the Holy Spirit is never allowed to work in a dignified and quiet manner.

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4. Neglect of Traditional Spirituality - This happens when past spiritual experiences are downplayed or not even studied because one's faith is all about what "I" am experiencing "now." This can also be seen when the traditional liturgy is "suspended" when the Spirit leads, to be replaced by questionable pet projects of the pastor. Sometimes this manifests itself as a hostility to any kind of formality, and those suggesting that something be done a proper way (such as using proper clerical dress or properly executing an essential part of the liturgy) are viewed suspiciously. Some charismatics advocate jettisoning meaningful Catholic traditions, such as Gregorian Chant, in favor of doing what is "new" and trendy.

5. Tyranny of the Prophetic - This isn't on Fr. O'Connor's list, but is a term used by a good charismatic friend of mine from seminary. This means that the prophetic, in this case referring to the illuminism mentioned above, trumps everything. In other words, if there is an objection to what an individual (often the pastor) is doing, then he just reminds the objectors that he has talked to Jesus, or received a special revelation, and "God told him..." and that settles everything. 2000 years of Spirit-guided Tradition is forced submit to the private revelation of one individual. Also, words of prophecy are placed on such a pedestal, that very little can get done without prophetic impetus.

6. Cult of Personality - This is not on Fr. O'Connor's list, but I have added it after discussion surrounding the original blog post. One person involved in the discussion made a good point in that in some charismatic churches, and even charismatic movements, a cult of personality can develop around the pastor or leader. Despite a general suspicion of traditional hierarchy and church order, the pastor, who has been given special prophetic knowledge, is often viewed unrealistically and idealistically. The result is that he (or she) can do whatever he wants without discipline or question, including taking huge sums of money from the congregation. Why? Well it goes back to number 5. He has spoken with God and received special revelation. That settles it! I recall a local pastor, now deceased, who absolutely forbade members of his flock from getting a divorce. However, he left his wife and remarried. Why was he permitted to divorce while his parishioners were not? God told him personally that his situation was like that of Jacob in the Old Testament, and his old wife was his "Leah" and his new wife was his "Rachel." Surely attributing this hypocritical action to God himself violates the commandment that we shall not take God's name in vain!

Now, these six dangers are not reasons to give up on the charismatic movement in the Catholic Church; they are just a kind of friendly warning. I have provided a list of possible charismatic excesses that can occur when individual experiences are not kept in check by the Church. I mention in my article I Can't Be Charismatic...I'm Catholic that personal charismatic experiences must submit to the Teaching of Christ's Church, where the Holy Spirit objectively operates. And while renewal movements often spiritually enliven the Church at times when she needs renewal, all renewal must be subject to the Teachings of Christ in His Church. What is the main thrust of this article? It is that the Holy Spirit operating in the individual will not contradict His operation in Christ's Church.

Last updated 2-22-2010