James J. Thompson Jr. is a Nashville-area writer and Book Review Editor of the NOR. His latest book is The South, the Church and the Future.
Having banished one strange tongue — Latin — the Catholic Church witnessed an odd phenomenon in the 1960s: an outbreak of “unknown tongues” or glossolalia. To many Catholics, this smacked of the weird and grotesque, an invasion of the Church by Protestantism at its wackiest. Some dismissed it as another excrescence of post-Vatican II spiritual thrill-seeking. Surely it could not last! Good Catholics did not gabble incoherently and flop around like beheaded chickens. Dabbling in Protestant theology, singing “A Mighty Fortress,” and calling, like fundamentalists, for feverish Bible-study were bad enough, but speaking in tongues? That would never do; it was so, well, un-Catholic.
Two decades later, the Catholic charismatic movement has neither withered nor degenerated into anarchy. No diocese has gone untouched by this flowering of the “gifts of the Spirit,” and in some parishes the charismatics furnish the Church with a dynamism and vitality that shame more traditional Catholics. On a spiritual topographical map several spots glow with red heat: the University of Steubenville, under its Franciscan president, Fr. Michael Scanlan; Washington, D.C., home to the Mother of God community; and Ann Arbor, Michigan, headquarters to Ralph Martin’s ministry and the location of Servant Books, a publishing house dedicated to spreading the charismatic gospel. The movement flourishes worldwide, and it enjoys the general blessing of the Pope and the active participation of at least one prince of the Church, Cardinal Suenens of Belgium. This is no flash-in-the-pan fad of the moment.
Catholics like to assert primacy in all things Christian, viewing Protestants as Johnnies-come-lately who think they have invented the wheel, when all along Catholics have been rolling down the broad avenues of history. Catholics must concede to Protestants on the charismatic gifts, however; Pentecostals have been exercising them for nearly a century. In this case, Catholics are the late-arriving Johnnies.
Pentecostals and Catholic charismatics alike trace their lineage back to the Apostolic era. True primacy lies with the first Christians, for, as St. Luke demonstrates in the Acts of the Apostles, the gifts are nothing new. It all happened nearly 2,000 years ago, when the Holy Ghost descended upon the flock gathered in a room in Jerusalem: “And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:2-4).
This spiritual explosion engendered a concatenation of further “signs and wonders” among the Apostles: healing, raising the dead, discerning the secrets of the heart, casting out demons, prophesying. Even wild hillbilly fanatics marshall impeccable Apostolic support for their shenanigans, for as any Scripture-crazed east Tennessean will point out, Mark 16:18 states bluntly: “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them….” Who knows? Maybe some Catholic priest in the Tennessee mountains has already taken to twirling rattlesnakes and quaffing strychnine.
Catholics, not famed for their familiarity with Holy Writ, may be startled to discover that miraculous occurrences did not cease when Christ ascended into heaven; the New Testament crackles with strange and unearthly wonders. So stunning were the supernatural marvels performed by the Apostles that pagan peoples sometimes hailed them as gods in human form. The early Christians could take for granted what we would likely dismiss as superstition or gape at in speechless wonderment. Wonderment or not, to deny the validity of charismatic claims is to gainsay the luminous testimony of the New Testament. Something is going on now, and something was going on then, and humble inquiry, rather than condemnation or adamant incredulity, would seem best suited to finding out what.
It is odd that any devout and orthodox Catholic should be baffled by charismatic phenomena. It is understandable that Catholics who have imbibed the spirit of secularism should be distressed; after all, this is the 20th century and superstition must go. But those who have resisted conformity to the dictates of positivism and scientism have no trouble with that old bugbear “superstition.” Such a Catholic does not restrict the miraculous to New Testament times. The saints — that triumphant host of witnesses to wonder-working power — prevent that mistake.
In the last couple years, secularist Americans have been shocked to see scores of normal, well-educated, middle-class Catholics flocking to an obscure Yugoslav village to visit the site of what is said to be an ongoing apparition of Our Lady. These pilgrims also raise eyebrows among mainstream Protestants — Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and the like — who tend to confine the miraculous to the Bible. Ironically, the Catholic who believes in the continuity of miracles from New Testament times to the present finds his firmest allies among those very groups that are most overtly anti-Catholic: Pentecostals and such fundamentalists as Southern Baptists, Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Church of Christ. “Superstition,” like politics, produces strange bedfellows.
Of the nine gifts of the Spirit enumerated by St. Paul in II Corinthians 12:8-10, two receive the bulk of attention today: healing and speaking in tongues. A question naturally arises: Since these gifts were rampant in the early Church, why the long hiatus between that era and the present revivification? On the matter of healing, the Catholic charismatic replies that there is no hiatus; miraculous healings have continued in unbroken succession since the time of Christ. Only glossolalia presents a revival of a long-absent practice. Pentecostals, who sometimes refer to themselves as the “Latter Rain Movement,” admit the gap in both areas. As Donald Dayton explains in Theological Roots of Pentecostalism, the alternative name accounts for the gulf between the Apostolic age and the present. In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke describes the “early rain” that accompanied the “planting” of the Church. Today we are witnessing, after a long drought, the “latter rain” that is preparing the way for the “harvest,” the fast-approaching Second Coming of Christ.
Pentecostals differ as to the precise moment this began. Some date it to an outbreak of glossolalia in Los Angeles in 1906 in revivals conducted by a black preacher, W.J. Seymour. More properly, the key event occurred six years earlier at a Bible college in Topeka, Kansas, when, in a meeting directed by Charles F. Parham, a young woman was seized with the Spirit and spouted strange tongues. In any case, for Pentecostals, baptism in the Spirit burst de novo upon unsuspecting souls; preparation for the harvest was launched by divine fiat.
Dayton endeavors to dispel this notion — not to discredit the movement, but rather, in good historical fashion, to unearth the “roots” that existed before Pentecostalism appeared in full panoply. In this, his work parallels Ernest Sandeen’s book of 1970, The Roots of Fundamentalism. Sandeen tackled two labors: one, to demonstrate that fundamentalism did not spring from nowhere in the 1920s; and two, to rescue the movement from the predominant sociological interpretation (that it represented a revolt of rural America against the pernicious influence of the city) and to establish it upon a firm theological foundation. So, too, Dayton with Pentecostalism.
In an elegant exercise in intellectual history, Dayton reveals the sources of Pentecostalism. He finds three main ones: the exfoliation of Wesleyan teachings, particularly the doctrine of sanctification; the theological discourse that accompanied the revivals of the 19th century, especially the one that swept America on the eve of the Civil War; and the Holiness or Christian perfection movement of the late 19th century. Taken together, Dayton contends, these facets of pre-20th-century religious life contained in nascent shape all the elements of Pentecostalism. “A sort of pre-Pentecostal tinder-box” existed at the turn of the century, “awaiting the spark that would set it off.” That spark was speaking in tongues, “the evidence of having received the baptism with the Holy Spirit.” The resulting holy conflagration still rages.
By focusing attention on the theological roots of Pentecostalism, Dayton downplays the popular sociological explanation that has largely controlled understanding of the phenomenon. In its most rudimentary configuration, this treats Pentecostalism as social pathology, as a peculiar brand of religiosity fabricated by disinherited blacks and poor whites in an effort to find emotional release from the oppressive weight of hopeless circumstances.
One can accept Dayton’s emphasis without denying the cogency of the sociological interpretation. Pentecostalism did derive various doctrines from previous religious thought; a theological perspective enhances one’s comprehension of what paved the way for the events in Topeka and Los Angeles. Just as surely, it is obvious that Pentecostal fires burned most intensely among those for whom the hardships of daily existence could be mitigated by ecstatic emotionalism and the promise of Christ’s imminent return. To say this, does not necessarily rob Pentecostalism of its genuineness as a divine moving of the Spirit.
Argue one may over what prompted the rise of Pentecostalism, but one thing is indisputable: like fire through dry brush, it swept out of America and spread across the globe, its path marked most noticeably by the twin features of healing and tongues. Smith Wigglesworth, a prosperous Yorkshire plumber, had launched a healing ministry in the late 1880s. He did not embrace glossolalia until 1907, just after it arrived in England, but once in possession of this talent, he combined it with healing to forge a ministry that propelled him to worldwide fame. In the course of his long life (he did not die until 1947), Wigglesworth ranged across the globe from England to the Continent, to South Africa and Australia, to Canada and the United States. As much as anyone, he created international Pentecostalism.
Jack Hywel-Davies, himself an English Pentecostal, chronicles the miracles performed in these journeys. Wigglesworth healed by laying hands upon the afflicted, but when crowds grew too massive for individual attention, he called the Spirit down upon the whole multitude at once. Some people were healed, Wigglesworth believed, merely by touching his person. He blessed handkerchiefs which, when placed upon the afflicted, achieved “miraculous results,” according to Hywel-Davies. The author is reticent to assert that Wigglesworth raised the dead, but he does advert to an earlier book which cites 14 such incidents.
All this earned Wigglesworth a choice spot in the Pentecostal pantheon. To a less favorably disposed outsider, however, Wigglesworth’s flaws reveal a number of Pentecostalism’s enduring shortcomings. He was a humorless and rigidly puritanical man who eyed suspiciously the spontaneous joys of life’s small pleasures. He denounced tobacco, alcohol, card-playing, and dancing, insisting that those filled with the Spirit would recoil from such tawdry pursuits. Hywel-Davies praises Wigglesworth’s humility; less admiring observers might instead discern an authoritarianism toward his fellow man and a spiritual presumption that bordered on arrogance. “If the Spirit does not move me,” he once proclaimed, “I move the Spirit.” He snatched up the prophet’s mantle with an alacrity that contrasts sharply with those Old Testament prophets who quavered when summoned to chastise Israel in the name of Yahweh. He evinced an anti-Catholicism that still infects Pentecostalism. To a young priest who was conducting him on a tour of the catacombs in Rome, Wigglesworth blurted: “Now, young man you would make a good Christian if you were to get saved.” As Jimmy Swaggart would say, even Mother Teresa can’t go to heaven if she has not been born again.
Antagonists of Christianity assail the faith for distracting men from the imperative to grapple with temporal evils; pie in the sky substitutes for pie on the table. Despite the dubious merits of this argument, it possesses force when applied to Pentecostalism. Given the deprivation and powerlessness of so many of its votaries, Pentecostalism is long on heaven and short on the urgency of earthly reconstruction.
Hywel-Davies does not address this, other than to note that Wigglesworth drew no distinctions on the basis of “the colour of one’s skin or the size of one’s bank balance.” The author does, however, recount a revealing incident. An English industrialist once invited Wigglesworth to commandeer his factory for a season of revival. Wigglesworth swept in and converted the heathen workers in large numbers. Hywel-Davies comments that “the number of workmen who became Christians…changed the face of the factory.” One hates to be cynical, but a suspicion worms its way into the brain. By winning the workers to Christ, Wigglesworth transformed them into a pliant labor force, no longer a trial to their benevolent boss. Their souls were saved, while, presumably, their wages remained the same — as did, one imagines, the factory master’s profits.
One thinks of those Southern slaveholders who unleashed Baptist and Methodist exhorters upon their slaves, no doubt out of sincere concern for their souls, but also to pacify them and to buttress the master’s dominance. This is not to denigrate the compelling need to save the souls of the lowly, but it does point to the fact that those who clutch the reins of power often espy side benefits in a religion that adjures meek submissiveness and patient acceptance of one’s earthly lot.
Smith Wigglesworth belonged to this century’s first wave of Pentecostalism, a torrent that swept over North America, Western Europe, parts of Africa, and Australia and New Zealand. In the U.S. it peaked in the 1920s, boosted to notoriety by such flamboyant figures as Aimee Semple McPherson, founder of the Four Square Gospel Church. The movement slackened during the Depression and war years, but revived after World War II with a fresh expansiveness and fervor. For about a decade, until the late 1950s, American Pentecostalism elevated faith healing to a pinnacle. Two dominant preachers emerged, one who still regularly pops up in the news, the other long dead and remembered only by the remnant of his followers. The first was Oral Roberts, renowned most recently for strong-arming God for hard cash; the second was William Marrion Branham of Jeffersonville, Indiana.
Douglas Weaver displays admirable restraint in scrutinizing Branham’s career, but the evidence is unmistakable: Branham was a repellent character who teetered on the brink of derangement. He began preaching in the early 1930s, but his ministry languished until 1946 when, he later revealed, an angelic emissary materialized with a divine commission. This transformed Branham, notes Weaver, from “an anonymous, small-town Baptist preacher to an internationally known faith healer.” At his peak in the early 1950s, he exulted that more works were performed by God in only one of his services than were told of in the entire New Testament.
Branham’s downfall was precipitous. Financial mismanagement (not dishonesty), administrative ineptitude, and the discrediting of the healing revival in general by a host of fast operators plunged him back into penny-ante revivalism. While his popularity plummeted, his notoriety increased in Pentecostal circles, for he waded chin-deep into weirdness. Wigglesworth had required the sick to evidence faith in God; Branham demanded they profess faith in him as a unique vessel of divine blessing. He warned those who mocked his powers that they would be punished by God, a threat he backed up by recounting, writes Weaver, “morbid stories about people having accidents, contracting diseases, or dying after they had criticized divine healing….”
Wigglesworth had claimed to be a prophet; Branham identified himself as the prophet, the messenger nonpareil, chosen to herald the imminent Second Coming of Christ. Wigglesworth’s distaste for Catholicism became for Branham “a paranoia,” especially after John Kennedy’s election to the presidency; to Branham, this signaled the inauguration of the final stage of the Catholic Church’s plot to capture control of the United States. His doctrine of the “serpent’s seed” inspired a vicious misogyny, for by Branham’s reckoning, Eve and the serpent had engaged in sexual intercourse, thereby bequeathing to womankind “the literal seed of the devil.” Weaver writes of his subject’s “humility,” but “megalomania” would be more apt: Late in his ministry he asserted that God had granted him the power to create life ex nihilo, a privilege he immediately exercised by creating three squirrels (which he then shot and ate). By the time of his death in 1965 some of his followers (over his objections) had begun to acclaim him as God incarnate; some of them still wait expectantly for his second coming.
By the 1960s Branham had ceased to typify Pentecostalism. The mainline, best represented by the Assemblies of God, had repudiated the healing revivals because of the hucksterism and show-biz antics that thrived among the peripatetic impresarios. Responsible Pentecostals were also dismayed that healing had been allowed to overshadow the other gifts of the Spirit. By the time of Branham’s death, Pentecostalism was attracting attention from discontented spiritual seekers in the old-line denominations. The newfound respectability and popularity would quickly erase the bizarre image projected by such men as Branham. Oral Roberts did his part by folding his tent, becoming a Methodist, and launching a career in university-building. A new breed of media-Pentecostals — notably Jimmy Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and Pat Robertson (though Robertson is formally a Southern Baptist) — began their rise to prominence. This new breadth and sophistication led some observers to coin the term “Neo-Pentecostalism.”
Since the late 1960s this resurgence has reaped millions of souls in the U.S., and has swept to unparalleled victories abroad. In Latin America, for example, American evangelists and homegrown preachers have mounted a stunning challenge to Catholicism, and in Africa Pentecostalism has erected a Third Force, vigorously contesting Islam and the traditional Christian communions for the souls of black folk. In typical fashion, the secular media have paid scant attention to this development, concentrating instead on the titillations provided by the sexual escapades of Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. Contrary to what some people think, neither ignoring nor deriding the movement will make it disappear.
The most intriguing feature of Neo-Pentecostalism is its infiltration of the Catholic Church. It is all rather odd to many Catholics, but two recent books — Fr. Ralph DiOrio’s Signs and Wonders and Martin and Sally Lynch’s Healed for Holiness — should partly allay suspicion about those arm-waving, Jesus-praising charismatics. Fr. DiOrio, head of the Apostolate of Prayer for Healing and Evangelism in Worcester, Massachusetts, has garnered considerable attention in recent years. In Signs and Wonders he collects testimonies from 18 people he has healed, and includes his own brief accounts of 15 other cases.
The healings cover a broad range, everything from cancer to a severed fingertip, from encephalitis to shortness of breath. Some — the inability to walk, for example — could be dismissed as mere psychosomatic impairments from which, with a little outside prompting, the afflicted healed themselves. Doctors know, too, that some illnesses mysteriously vanish; cancer, for one, can go into remission without the ministrations of a faith healer. Nor does the case of a previously infertile woman who becomes pregnant need a supernatural explanation. Having said this, even a skeptic would have to admit that some of the things recorded here simply do not just happen. A woman with scoliosis so severe that her spinal column is twisted into an S-shape: her spine is straightened. A doctor with incurable heart disease: the condition disappears. “But then,” exclaims one person, “God always did the unbelievable, didn’t He!”
The biographers of Wigglesworth and Branham claim a questionable humility for their subjects; Fr. DiOrio really does radiate this quality. “I have no power, and want no glory,” he states. “I am a priest.” A healed sufferer remarks of DiOrio: “How humbly he implored all of us not to thank him but to thank God.” He does not demand that suppliants prove their faith in his powers, nor even in God’s. “I do not believe…that God doles out healings on the basis of faith, and therefore I call neither Him nor myself a faith healer.” The doctor cured of heart disease is a hard-boiled man of science who, he confesses, “arrived at the service with one percent belief and 99 percent disbelief.” God, DiOrio would say, does not require even so much as a single percentage point of credence.
For Fr. DiOrio, mending a broken body is not an end in itself; the ultimate thing is that “it transforms forever a person’s relationship with God.” Although the Lynches, who teach at the University of Steubenville, deal in battered hearts and wounded minds instead of fleshly ailments, they agree with the priest. “God clearly intends healing as a springboard to reformation and the lifelong pursuit of holiness,” they aver in Healed for Holiness. “Inner healing,” the goal of their ministrations, is one of those dulcet terms that trips lightly from the lips of New-Age cultists. “Wholeness” and “holistic” crop up wherever one encounters folks who talk to crystals or twitter about reincarnation. The Lynches dissociate themselves from the “deceptive promise of wholeness” that wafts from these fey precincts. They also distinguish their calling from “secular psychology,” a discipline that “wants us to believe that wholeness is self-discovery.” Rather, they call for “a radically new form of self-awareness”: the “awareness that my self, to the fullest sense possible, is loved by my heavenly father.”
How attractive DiOrio and the Lynches appear in comparison to what Douglas Weaver types as the “Pentecostal holy man.” No self-aggrandizing, no boasting of numbers, no assertions of prophetic chosenness, no demands to repose faith in an authoritarian thaumaturge: simply the unobtrusive healing of minds and bodies. One searches in vain in their books for anything that fails to square with solid Catholic teaching. For Fr. DiOrio and the Lynches, exercise of the charismatic gifts is no way conflicts with their staunch adherence to the Church.
These three individuals represent the charismatic experience at its best, but their books — because they limit themselves to the single gift of healing — provide an inadequate basis for judging the full import of the movement. To accomplish this, one must search further afield.
“By their fruits ye shall know them”: by this sound biblical precept the charismatic phenomenon qualifies as an authentic outpouring of the Holy Spirit. These people exhibit a joyousness, serenity, love, and vibrancy that attest to their baptism in the Spirit. Now the bad news: the gifts come from God, but the recipients are human beings who share in the fallenness of mankind. What God bestows, man possesses an infinite capacity to pervert. For all its virtues, the charismatic movement poses potential dangers to the Church. The problem lies not with the gifts, but how people use them.
The quotidian life of a Catholic can appear a dull affair: weekly Mass; occasional confession; regular, but naggingly inadequate, prayers; a bit of Bible-reading; the well-intentioned, but frustrating, attempt to follow Christ. Spiritual highs are few; the spirit languishes in everydayness. Surely there must be more than this! The charismatic experience invites one to shatter the mundane, to escape the routine; it also tempts one to spiritual elitism.
Why does the Spirit seize some and not others? At their best — as, for example, in the person of Fr. DiOrio — charismatics profess humility in the face of the mysterious movings of the Holy Spirit. At their worst, they gravitate toward an elitism that disdains the humdrum dailiness of the average believer. The charismatic may feel an urge to revel in his specialness, to see himself as the possessor of an extraordinary knowledge not vouchsafed to less exalted souls. Down this road lurks the antique, yet ever-seductive, heresy of gnosticism. Throughout the Church’s history, a refusal to accept the limitations of the spiritual quest, coupled with a probing for something beyond the dull routines of normal belief and practice, has lured Christians toward gnosticism.
Whether ancient or modern, gnosticism promotes hatred of the flesh and of the created order in general; the material creation, gnostics insist, is irredeemably evil. One must strive to escape the bodily chains, to free the spirit so that it may soar to union with the deity. The charismatic experience bears the subtle markings of this tendency. By seeking the ecstatic embrace of the Holy Spirit it emphasizes the spiritual at the expense of the material. Catholicism is a religion of the senses, a sacramental vision of the goodness of the material creation. Not just the bread and wine of the Eucharist, but the holiness of the entire created order lies at the heart of this sacramentalism. Though flawed by sin, the flesh is good; it is not the prison house of the spirit. But the charismatic can naturally ask: If one can shiver with the exaltation of oneness with the Holy Spirit, who needs these things of the senses?
Another potential problem arises from the easy drift toward antinomianism, or “soul liberty,” as radical Protestants have often called it. Protestantism has wrestled with this from the start; witness Luther’s fulminations against the Anabaptists. Puritan radicals brought it to these shores, and as early as the 1630s the Puritan fathers of Massachusetts Bay Colony had to crack down on Anne Hutchinson for declaring that she took her marching orders from the indwelling Holy Spirit alone. That sums up antinomianism succinctly.
No version of Christianity ascribes more importance to institutional authority than does Roman Catholicism. Sacred tradition and the Magisterium present the believer with an authority above his own personal promptings. As a Catholic, one acknowledges that the individual is not the ultimate authority; others — be it pope, bishop, or parish priest — exist to guide one through the perils of the Christian pilgrimage. This can be irksome to those who feel the fire of the Spirit coursing through their being. If one has gained direct access to the divine, why bother with institutional intermediaries, especially when those authorities have not themselves been baptized in the Spirit?
Pentecostals brook no such encumbrance — or so it probably appears to the Catholic charismatic. In fact, as Douglas Weaver argues, Pentecostalism suffers from the capriciousness of “holy men” who do not exercise their power under the chastening restraints of tradition and an institutional Church. But to the charismatic Catholic it can look as if Pentecostalism represents a pure and unimpeded oneness with the movings of the Holy Spirit. Offended by the defects in his own Church, the charismatic can lapse into a longing to unite with kindred souls outside the Roman communion. Like mysticism, the charismatic experience can devolve into a denigration of distinctive tenets and a craving for union with others on the basis of a unique experience. In such circumstances, the teachings of the Catholic Church become barriers to “true” Christian communion.
By broaching these potential dangers I do not intend to disparage charismatics, nor to accuse them of subverting the faith. These tendencies are just that: Tendencies; they need not lead inexorably to gnosticism or schism. One of the surpassing beauties of the Catholic Church is its tolerance of wildly disparate forms of faith and practice. St. Thomas devoted his days to erecting a sublime system of theology; his near-contemporary, St. Francis, became God’s fool and chatted with birds. Both were devout Catholics — a blessing to the Church of their day and to Catholics ever since. There is no reason why charismatics cannot remain firmly within the Church; the Church is dedicated to inclusiveness, not to establishing an exclusive and homogeneous club. Within the broad realm of the faith, charismatics can freely pursue their special form of spirituality. As long as they adhere to fundamental Catholic teaching and refrain from elevating their unique gifts into normative demands, there will be no problem. They bring to the Church an immense vitality and holiness; the Church provides them with the sacraments and with a hedge against excess and fanaticism. Should they wander from the fold, both they and the Church will be the poorer.