Amy Coney Barrett is the first charismatic Christian nominee for the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, the significance of this event has been overshadowed by anti-charismatic sentiments. Many have made bigoted claims about Barrett’s relationship to the ecumenical charismatic community People of Praise. Some have said that it is a cult, or that it inspired Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Bill Maher called Barrett a “f***ing nut” because “she’s really, really Catholic, like speaking in tongues.” Massimo Faggioli declared that it’s not anti-Catholic to question Barrett's association with People of Praise.
It is ironic that Maher thinks the association with charismatic Christianity is “really Catholic,” whereas Faggioli, a liberal Catholic theologian, thinks it’s not Catholic and thus fair game. Unfortunately, these are both common reactions to charismatic Catholics. Secular figures criticize them for speaking in tongues, yet other Catholics regard them as suspect. But these reactions are either the result of willful ignorance or a disingenuous attempt to portray charismatic Catholics in a negative light.
The modern charismatic movement began in the 1960s, when the spirituality of Pentecostalism influenced mainline Protestantism and the Catholic Church. Central to this spirituality is a focus on “baptism in the Spirit.” While interpretations of this work of God vary within the global charismatic movement, the common elements of the experience are a strong sense of the personal presence of Christ and empowerment through the Holy Spirit, a deep love for others, the exercise of gifts that the Spirit brings, and spoken utterances that approximate human languages (speaking in tongues).
The charismatic movement entered the U.S. Catholic Church in 1967 through university professors and students at Duquesne, Notre Dame, and Michigan State. They were not your average Catholic laypeople. Kevin and Dorothy Ranaghan, for example, both had charismatic experiences at Notre Dame and then wrote about them in Catholic Pentecostals (1969), one of the first books to chronicle the early events and offer theological reflections on these spiritual experiences. They were not hiding anything. Instead, they were trying to integrate Pentecostal spirituality with official Catholic teaching.
The Ranaghans, along with Paul DeCelles, founded People of Praise in 1971. People of Praise has always been intentionally ecumenical. At one time the community explored the possibility of forming a group formally connected to the Catholic Church, but the local bishop (William McManus of South Bend) preferred that members of People of Praise simply remain committed to their local parishes.
One of the standard ways Catholics entered the movement was through a seminar called Life in the Spirit. This is how Barrett’s father, Mike Coney, became a charismatic Catholic. He was a lawyer working at Shell when he attended the seminar and experienced baptism in the Spirit. Shortly thereafter, he became a permanent deacon and joined People of Praise.
Marian devotion also influenced charismatic Catholicism. Luke’s Gospel tells us that Mary was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit. As part of his efforts to integrate the charismatic Catholic movement into the Catholic Church, Cardinal Suenens, archbishop of Malines-Brussels, published Une nouvelle Pentecôte (1974), in which he referred to Mary as “the first charismatic.” Pope Paul VI had appointed Suenens to oversee the charismatic Catholic renewal. Marian devotion has always been part of charismatic Catholicism, so it should not be surprising to find references to Mary as “handmaid” within charismatic Catholic communities. Charismatic Catholics see Mary as a person empowered with charisms to do the work of God.
As Pope Francis remarked in 2015, the charismatic renewal is not like other ecclesial movements because it has no founders. Instead, various communities emerged that created structures to facilitate unity and spiritual renewal through ongoing spiritual formation. The challenge was to create ecumenical communities that facilitated fellowship and growth while not detracting from the authority or teaching of the Catholic Church or other Protestant churches.
This initially proved difficult. Some Catholics thought that the communities were “too Protestant,” a criticism some still voice today. Moreover, there were legitimate concerns during the early life of these communities that their structures of formation allowed members to become too intrusive in offering spiritual guidance regarding other members' personal decisions. However, the 1990s brought more oversight from bishops in the various dioceses where these communities were located. This renewed oversight, coupled with a loosening of the organizational structures, has meant that many charismatic Catholic communities, including People of Praise, are in good standing with the Catholic hierarchy. The members’ pledge of covenant is not a “solemn vow,” but more closely resembles something like Methodist “bands” (small groups of persons who covenant together). It is an agreement to be in a relationship of mutual support and service.
Bishop Peter Smith, auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese of Portland, is part of the Brotherhood of the People of Praise, a private association with canonical status in the Catholic Church. He has also been appointed to represent North America on the international council of CHARIS (Catholic Charismatic Renewal International Service), a body created at the request of Pope Francis. This council oversees the global charismatic Catholic renewal. In his first address to the movement after the creation of CHARIS, Pope Francis said that he expected charismatic Catholics to share the baptism in the Spirit, serve the unity of the body of Christ, and serve the poor and those in need. (Notably, Faggioli left this information out of his account.)
Maher and Faggioli represent two sides of the same anti-charismatic impulse. The truth is that members of People of Praise are normal Christians who have decided to associate with one another as an intentional ecumenical community. There is no single way that members do this, and like most Christian groups, there are different levels of personal commitment. To me, charismatic Catholics are brothers and sisters in Christ whose commitment I admire and whose spirituality I share. As my fellow Pentecostal Rev. Eugene Rivers said of Barrett recently, “we will not stand by in silence as our sister in the faith is persecuted for the ‘political crime’ of her beliefs.” Criticize Barrett's judicial record and philosophy if you wish, but leave her religion, including its charismatic dimension, alone.
Dale M. Coulter is professor of historical theology at Pentecostal Theological Seminary.
Photo via CSPAN. Image cropped.
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