Seven Reasons Why the Charismatic Renewal Does Not Foster Deep Spirituality

There have been many responses to the modern crisis of faith in the Catholic Church. While Traditionalist Catholics have typically sought refuge in the traditional doctrines and liturgical practices of the Church's pre-Vatican II history, other Catholics have looked to the Charismatic Renewal as a means of restoring devotion, prayer and enthusiasm to parishes. Many bishops in particular, wary of the traditionalist movement, have adopted the Charismatic Renewal (CR) in their dioceses. I once had a chat with the former Director of Seminarians for my diocese. He told me that our bishop had a "strategy" of geographically spreading priests formed in the CR all around the diocese so that as much of the flock as possible would be exposed to charismatic Catholicism. The Director of Seminarians lauded this decision as a means to promoting genuine Catholic spirituality in the diocese.

As a former Director of Religious Education and Youth Director who had to work with many young people who had been formed in the CR or were attending CR parishes, I can confidently say that this charismatic spirituality, while ostensibly promoting spiritual development, comes with a lot of negative consequences. While it is not my intention to denigrate or attack those who do have a preference for charismatic spirituality, in the words of St. Peter and St. John, "I cannot help speaking what I have seen and heard" (Acts 4:20).

The attraction of charismatic spirituality has always been on the experiential end. Participants approach their spirituality primarily through the avenue of the emotions, which certainly makes people feel good. We should not underestimate the importance of feelings in this discussion. A positive worship experience, whether it is in an incense-filled chapel to solemn Gregorian chant or in a contemporary parish to Christian rock music, can flood one with emotion, and this can be a good thing. The question is not whether or not emotions ought to be engaged in worship; the question is what place those emotions play in charismatic worship.

In charismatic worship, the emotional aspect is absolutely central. If a worshiper is unable to "loosen up" and engage in the music and worship in an emotional way, the experience is relatively stale. Basically, if one is not able to participate in the singing, hand-waving, crying, etc., there is very little left. It is too noisy to pray quietly and there is so much going on around that the experience can actually be distracting. Thus, if a person finds themselves unable to enter into the emotional aspect of the experience, there is not much left.

Here we will look at the seven reasons why the Charismatic Renewal is not the best vehicle for promoting genuine Catholic spiritual development.

1. Over-emphasis on the emotional experiences create dependency

Above, we spoke of the central place played by emotional experience in charismatic worship. Contrast this with the Traditional Latin Mass, or any reverent Novus Ordo liturgy for that matter. In these liturgies, we may be overcome by emotion at the beauty of the chant, the décor of the building, or the awesomeness of the mystery unfolding on the altar as the grace of God subtly moves us. But these emotional responses are not intrinsic to the liturgy itself; we can still recollect ourselves to pray, follow along and fully participate even if we do not feel moved to tears. Furthermore, to the extent that we do feel moved, it comes as gratuitously, almost gently, and is a gift. Contrast this with a CR Mass where we feel compelled to put ourselves into that highly-charged emotional state just in order to feel that we have had any spiritual experience at all. In effect, it makes us dependent upon this emotional high to "feel" close to God.

2. This dependency can stunt spiritual growth

A result of this dependency is that many people raised in the CR end up spiritually stunted. They go so far, but no farther, and the spirituality feels shallow over time, primarily because a true emotional response to beautiful worship has to be just that - a response. It cannot be manufactured, and over time, as one becomes accustomed to charismatic worship, one learns more and more what is "expected" in such a setting and begins to learn to manufacture the appropriate responses, gestures, etc. But the a true response to God's grace cannot be manufacture, and the whole thing becomes shallow. The emotions that allows a person to have a powerful experience at the beginning stops them from doing so by the end. If you break your leg, a crutch allows you to walk, but it also prohibits you from walking quickly. Charismatic spirituality acts as this crutch.

3. Lack of silence, which is necessary to hear God's voice

With this dependence on emotions, activity and music, there is little place for silent prayer in charismatic liturgies or worship services. This is unfortunate, because our tradition teaches us that silence is ultimately necessary to hear God's voice. We could recall the silent prayers of Jesus, or the fact that Elijah heard God as a "still, small voice" (1 Kings 19:12). But in this context we could quote Pope Benedict XVI who said:

"The Gospels often show us ... Jesus withdrawing alone to a place far from the crowds, even from His own disciples, where He can pray in silence. "The great patristic tradition teaches us that the mysteries of Christ are linked to silence, and only in silence can the Word find a place to dwell within us.

This principle holds true for individual prayer, but also for our liturgies which, to facilitate authentic listening, must also be rich in moments of silence and of non verbal acceptance. ... Silence has the capacity to open a space in our inner being, a space in which God can dwell, which can ensure that His Word remains within us, and that love for Him is rooted in our minds and hearts, and animates our lives" (Wednesday Address, March 6, 2012).

Periods of silence are essential for our spiritual growth. Without it, we can never mature, never "open a space in our inner being", as the pope says. This is true "for individual prayer, but also for our liturgies." Unfortunately, in liturgies influenced by the CR we are never allowed a moment of silence; every aspect of the liturgy is consumed with music, gesticulation, and noise. Silence is banished, and participants are never permitted to develop a tradition of silent, contemplative prayer.

4. Charismatic worship promotes undue familiarity with the Divine

We are certainly called to draw near to God and have intimacy with our Lord Jesus Christ, but we must always remember that we are approaching the Divine, and that our familiarity must be within the proper context, especially liturgically when there are clear distinctions between the liberties allowed the clergy and those the laity.

It is easier to give an example:

At one charismatic liturgy I attended, boys and girls (both weeping) were permitted to be "slain in the spirit" and laid down on the floor in the sanctuary between the altar and the tabernacle. Boys were sitting with girls, laying down next to them on the floor, some were rubbing each other on the back or "laying hands" on each other, all in the immediate presence of the Blessed Sacrament. Another boy came in, wearing daisy dukes and barefoot. He apparently believed that it was acceptable to enter into the sanctuary and the presence of God wearing shorts that would make any girl blush and with no shoes.

All of this behavior demonstrates and inappropriate familiarity with the sacred that brings the mysterious down to the level of the human and banalizes the transcendent nature of God. Even when we "draw close to the throne of grace" (Heb. 4:16), we ought to do so carefully, in "fear and trembling," remembering to Whom we are speaking. We cannot let our emotional desire to "feel" close to God to permit us to engage in behavior that, in the guise of false intimacy, borders on the sacrilegious.

5. Too much focus on supernatural intuition not enough on development of virtue

Charismatics rightly remind themselves that God is a God of wonders and that, when following God, we ought to expect to see wondrous things. I do think the CR is responsible for a modern renewal in Faith in miracles, and I do applaud them for that - though I doubt the legitimacy of what often passes for the miraculous in many CR circles. That being said, the CR tends to put so much emphasis on the miraculous that Christians are led to believe that the normative course of their lives are supposed to be guided by supernatural intuition and the guiding of the Spirit.

One charismatic priest I know of told his congregation that he was at a cafeteria one day and was about to eat some peas. As he was about to take the peas, he heard the Holy Spirit telling him, "No, take the carrots instead." He took this as a supernatural inspiration of God. This may or may not alright for him, but the fact is that, in recounting this story, the priest, as a role model, was intimating that his parishioners should also expect God's immediate direction in similarly trivial matters. As youth director, I frequently spoke with young people who were torn because either they were not getting these sorts of verbatim direction or they thought every thought and inspiration they had was from the Holy Spirit.

Basically, there was so much emphasis on supernatural inspiration as a means for discerning God's will that there was little emphasis on growing in virtue as a means to discern God's will - habitually doing the good things we know we are required to do and gradually, through the practice of virtue, becoming more discriminating in the things of the spirit and learning to discern the inspirations of God from the movements of the devil or ones own thoughts. People are not taught how to truly discern God's will. They just get confused.

6. Confusion on issue of tongues

Speaking of confusion, nothing has caused more confusion about this than the issue of tongues. Regardless of whether you think what modern charismatics do is tongues or not, the fact is that not everyone, even those involved in CR parishes, will speak in tongues. Yet they are encouraged, sometimes even pressured, by well-meaning peers and family who insist that speaking in tongues is a sign of a special indwelling of the Holy Spirit and will result in deeper worship and a closer walk with God. Those who do not manifest this sign are implicitly led to believe that they are not as close to God as they should be, that there may be something defective with their spiritual life, and that a deeper walk with God is not possible for them. Besides being cruelly false, this leads people to focus more on spiritual manifestations as the key to closeness with God rather than personal holiness and aggressively rooting out sin.

7. Less appreciation for tradition


All of this, of course, leads to a situation in which people are practicing a form of Catholicism greatly different from that known by the saints and doctors. Without the traditional liturgy, without the Latin prayers of the Church that have been sanctified by the long passing of centuries, without the traditional spiritual direction as laid down by masters like St. Bernard, St. John of the Cross, St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Alphonsus Ligouri and St. Therese of Lisieux. Tradition is replaced by something different, something that substitutes emotion for devotion, produces confusion, stunts spiritual growth and fails to teach proper spiritual discernment. Loss of Tradition = loss of a distinctly Catholic character. True, charismatic parishes do have character, but it is not the character of the historic Church. It is at best a form of Catholicized Protestant pentecostalism, from which all charismatic movements are derived.


The result of all this is that people enmeshed in the Charismatic Renewal do not mature in their faith. They tend to remain fixed on their emotions and subject to inner doubts and scrupulosity because they have not truly learned how to discern the will of God or worship in spirit and truth. I do not say this without any experience; besides helping many young people through these sorts of struggles as a youth director, I myself as a very young Christian was involved in the charismatic movement and found this to be true in my own life.

Therefore, though spreading the Renewal around may in the short term get us a lot of "dynamic" parishes with youth programs attracting a lot of young people by their music and emotional engagement, this is not the best way to develop authentic Catholic spirituality, in my humble opinion.