Autumn 1986, Vol. 38, pp. 209-220.

David Roth:
      Confused by the Spirit

Catholic and Protestant pentecostal proximity can contribute depth and richness to authentic Christian ecumenism if the participants remain true to their roots.

Mr. Roth is married and the father of two children. He is director of the catechumenate of the American national church in Rome, Santa Susanna's, and a free-lance consultant in catechetics, lay ministries and evangelization. A lay Dominican, he has a Licentiate in Sacred Theology in spirituality from the Angelicum and a masters degree in religious studies from Providence College.

CHRISTIANS, be they Catholic, Orthodox, mainline Protestant, Anglican or "new Church" fundamentalists or evangelicals, have in common the presence of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is, indeed, the principle of life in Christ and although we live in a time of a Christianity divided countless times by the sins of men, the "spirit of unity' is what many Christians are seeking today, especially through a "unity of the Spirit" (cf. Eph 4:1-3).

Vatican Council II affirmed the supreme importance of the Spirit for the unity of the Church:

It is the Holy Spirit, dwelling in those who believe and pervading and ruling over the entire Church, who brings about that wonderful communion of the faithful and joins them together so intimately in Christ that he is the principle of the Church's unity. By distributing various kinds of spiritual gifts and ministries, he enriches the Church of Jesus Christ with different functions 'in order to equip the saints for the work of service, so as to build up the body of Christ' (Eph 4:12) (Decree on Ecumenism, no. 2).
It is worth noting that, as the ecumenical era took on new significance in the early 1960s when the Catholic Church became an active participant with other churches in seeking a unity which was not a mere categorical "coming home to Rome," there appeared also what has come to be called the charismatic renewal. First among Protestant circles, then in Catholic, this neo-pentecostal experience of the Holy Spirit has brought many Christians throughout the world together for prayer, worship and ministry when otherwise they might have been totally separated along denominational lines. At a time when theological panels representing the numerous churches have been sitting down to work out dialogue papers, statements and agreements, ordinary Christians who have had a common experience of being "baptised in the Holy Spirit" have been sharing their experiences of personal faith in Christ, spontaneous prayer, often in "tongues," and the activity of the Spirit operating through spiritual gifts or charisms such as those mentioned in Paul's epistles (cf. 1 Cor 12-14, especially 12:8-11; also Rom 12:6ff and Eph 4:11).

This grass-roots sort of ecumenism, if it can be called that, associated with a movement of the Holy Spirit throughout Christendom, is in some ways confusing. It certainly demonstrates the point made by Karl Rahner that for the average Christian of whatever brand, Christian unity is not a function of accord by theologians and bishops on fine points of doctrine as crafted in documents duly countersigned.(1) Whether it qualifies as "spiritual ecumenism" in the narrow, even, we might say, technical sense as expressed by the Second Vatican Council is doubtful: there is much more going on in the charismatic renewal besides "change of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians [which] should be regarded as the soul of the whole ecumenical movement" (Decree on Ecumenism, no. 7).(2) Conversion and the Christian life for charismatics has often meant public and private prayer in unity with fellow Christians and not just for unity for any number of reasons, not the least of which is the simple praise and glory of God. If this charismatic experience is indeed an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in our time (as has been acknowledged in some sense by both Popes Paul VI and John Paul II) then it might not be too preposterous to ask if it may not be an avenue if not the avenue to authentic and lasting Christian unity. If it is the Spirit who unites and not signatories, could it not be the mode of operation of the timeless I AM in our own time or the not-too-distant future?


In his book on the Holy Spirit in the Church of our time, Leon Joseph Cardinal Suenens, before dealing specifically with the question of the Holy Spirit and ecumenism among other questions, reminds us of the vision of the popes who presided over the Council (John XXIII: "O Holy Spirit, renew your wonders this day, as by a new Pentecost." Paul VI: "The Christology and particularly the Ecclesiology of the Council must be succeeded by a new study and a new devotion to the Holy Spirit, precisely as the indispensable complement to the teaching of the Council.").(3) In some measure both Pope John's prayer and Pope Paul's vision have been fulfilled in our own time.(4) And to speak of such fulfillment without mentioning the charismatic renewal is simply evasive if not impossible.

It is clear that a variety of Christians are coming together as charismatics. But just what is it that Catholics and members of Assembly of God churches have as common ground? Or is it common ground at all? We are not, let us recall, speaking of specific matters of doctrine; they are, for the most part, outside the scope of our consideration here and certainly are not the concern of the average charismatic non-theologian. Perhaps a look at what might be called "charismatic spirituality" is of some value.


In a book chapter titled, "An Authentic Charismatic Spirituality,"(5) James E. Byrne identifies three necessary characteristics of charismatic spiritual life no matter what denominational association a charismatic may have. Such a spirituality must be 1) contemporary, 2) "catholic," and 3) charismatic. By contemporary he means it must be rooted in what God is saying to the world today. This is very different from saying that it must be popular. Quite the contrary, Byrne sees the importance, even the necessity, of a recognizable continuity within one's spiritual tradition which is far from faddish. However, to be contemporary signifies an openness to the Lord's message and his will for us in our time.

An authentic spirituality must be deeply rooted in a charismatic, Christian's heritage; this notion is what Byrne terms "catholic." Whenever the Spirit moves to renew the Church it builds upon that which is authentic and good, wherever it may be found. This is in contrast to the all-too-common "human renewal" which seems more often than not to tend towards demolition, obliteration and starting over again. There is a richness in the diversity of Christian expressions which shows the Spirit to be at work in a variety of ways. To preserve, affirm and strengthen rather than uproot this richness of traditions is necessary for an authentic charismatic spirituality. They are the very channels of grace through which God's marvels are worked. Openness and faithfulness to the Spirit actually compels such a commitment to continuity.

For Roman Catholic charismatics an authentically catholic spirituality, one rooted in one's own tradition, must include certain elements. It must be founded on the revelation of Christ living in the Church which is the authentic interpreter of that revelation. It must be nourished by the Scriptures and the teaching which proceeds from its pastors. It must also be nourished at the table of the Eucharist, where the faithful gather for "the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42), and the sacramental and liturgical life which are at the heart of unity among members of the Body of Christ cannot be too highly treasured. It must preserve a sense of unity among Christians throughout time and space, neither forgetting the lives of the saints who have preceded us on the journey to full union with Christ nor failing to appreciate their roles, even now, in the kingdom of God. One cannot avoid special mention of Mary and her place in the life of the Lord and of the Church. It should be informed and fashioned in light of the great spiritual and doctrinal teachers, notably the Fathers and the Doctors of the Church, whose abundant experience and wisdom is a manifestation of the grace of the Holy Spirit and it should find a sense of patrimony in faith in the great spiritualities which characterize Catholicism.

Such a deeply rooted spirituality can be both charismatic and a contribution to ecumenical endeavours. Most of all, it can be faithful to the Spirit who has inspired it. This point of Byrne's, which we must remember pertains not only to Roman Catholics but to all traditions, is an important one for our consideration of ecumenism and the charismatic renewal. We shall return to it.

Thirdly, charismatic spirituality must be open to the power of God working dramatically, especially through the charismatic gifts of the Spirit. Byrne rightly points out that without charity they are empty, without order they do not edify, and yet properly ministered they are integral by definition of the word charism (gift) to the charismatic renewal and its spirituality. By being faithful ministers of the charismatic gifts one builds up the Church as a whole by building up its members. In turn both the minister of the gift and those who receive its benefits are strengthened.

But the charismatic renewal's contribution is not limited to the actual occasions on which particular gifts are manifested. The renewal brings with it a charismatic quality which takes the form of an outlook and an openness to the inspirations of the Spirit. One can speak of the gift, which precedes and follows upon the gifts per se, which is an openness and inner sensitivity to the Spirit. Faithfulness to the Spirit consists essentially in this openness and sensitivity. It is through these qualities which form the basis for one's Christian witness that a charismatic can respond to God's particular graces. To be truly integrated these qualities must become regular features of a charismatic's life and are a sign of his or her spiritual maturity. Healthy charismatic spirituality is of this sort: it unashamedly includes, but goes much deeper than occasionally manifesting, particular charisms.

This three-fold package for a charismatic spirituality is sound. It represents all that is best in the charismatic renewal and its ideal for the spiritual life. One could hardly contend with this Catholic layman's characterization of what it means in the best sense to be a charismatic. Certainly his understanding is in line with that of the best and most ecumenical of the leaders outside the Catholic camp, from H.V. Syrian of the Holiness Pentecostals to Dennis Bennett of the Episcopal Church and David DuPlessis, a classical Pentecostal.


"One of the most welcome characteristics of the charismatic renewal is its ecumenical dimension," Byrne writes, and he states the clear and simple fact that "with few exceptions, anyone receiving the charismatic experience is placed in an ecumenical environment."(6) At this point I believe it is necessary to be nuanced in one's terms. It seems that the word "ecumenical" can be used broadly to mean "inter-faith" or "inter-denominational," "non-denominational" or, even perhaps better, "multi-denominational," but this is not the same usage of the term "ecumenical" as given by the Council, for example, when it defines principles for interaction with other Christians. Simply being a gathering of Christians of different affiliations does not, it seems to me, constitute "being ecumenical." It may be a multi-denominational group, but ecumenism is more than a roomful of Christians representing different churches. Fortunately Byrne goes on to clarify in his book some principles drawn from the Decree on Ecumenism and gives reflections and advice on dealing with concrete situations of what he calls "ecumenical" interactions within the charismatic renewal.(7)

While almost no one doubts that the Spirit unifies, breaks down barriers and would have all Christians be one in Spirit and Truth, it is not equally transparent that charismatic prayer groups and other gatherings of charismatic Christians are in fact thoroughly ecumenical. Simon Tugwell, O.P., has noted the temptation to a kind of "smash and grab" ecumenism among charismatics where Christians seize upon one or two common strands of experience and leave all the other differences behind as though they have no significance.(8) Or often they fail to recognize that common experience is understood very differently in different Christian traditions.

Tugwell chooses speaking in tongues as such an experience which, it seems, is seen by many non-Catholic charismatics to be (to use our term) sacramental. Among some, it and baptism constitute the "sacraments" of Christianity. Perhaps even clearer is the thorny issue of the relationship between the sacrament of Confirmation and being "baptised in the Spirit." Catholic theologians within the charismatic renewal have reconciled the two by distinguishing objectively receiving the Spirit in baptism and the Spirit's power for mission through Confirmation from its actual, specific outpouring or welling-up, often with tongues being manifested, when one is "baptised in the Spirit." Most charismatics do not see these distinctions, whether Catholic or not; certainly the terms are confusing, and most non-Catholic Christians would simply deny the value of Confirmation, making it a sticky point indeed.

Much criticism has been leveled at charismatic groups because, rather than being ecumenical, sharing the richness of the many Christian traditions, they often tend toward a kind of reductionism. A sort of 'lowest common denominator' trend has arisen in many of them in the name of unity in the Spirit, i.e. Christians only speak about such things as they agree upon. Therefore, to return to the example given, it is acceptable to focus on the common experience of the outpouring or "baptism" of the Spirit, but this experience becomes divorced from the sacramental context and the reception of the Spirit prior to its manifestation of tongues. In such an environment, to give another example, the whole doctrine of the communion of saints, too, can easily disappear as we know it. In turn ecclesiology is affected. More than one Catholic has been chastised for praying to Mary or saints in such "open" groups. At the very least it would be inappropriate to do so in such environments as do not consider the value and significance of union in heart and mind in prayer with those members of the Body of Christ who have preceded us to the actual presence of Glory.

Focus on the sensible, experiential, "in heart and mind" union in a particular place and time of the praying Christians to the exclusion of other members of the Body of Christ inadvertently undermines a Catholic ecclesiology. Regrettably, many Catholics have come away making comments such as "I don't have to pray to the dead anymore." Probably experiences such as these lead Byrne to insist on a faithfulness to one's own spiritual patrimony. And yet, ut of deference to a multiplicity of beliefs, it is easier said than done.

As a former evangelical-pentecostal myself, it is not difficult for me to see, respect, cherish, and in some ways perhaps miss what is good in non-Catholic charismatic worship and fellowship. Certainly there is something to be learned by Catholics from our separated brethren. And yet not everything in the Catholic tradition can be discarded or re-negotiated, directly and officially or indirectly on the grass-roots level. Even Heinrich Fries and Karl Rahner, recently criticized for what seems to many, myself included, to be holding a position of great and unsustainable ecumenical compromise, acknowledge this.(9) To pull certain threads is to unravel the whole garment of Catholic faith and indeed that of Christianity as a whole. Others, while not totally destructive, cause scandal and confusion of the sort which cannot be endured for long. The adage remains true: lex orandi, lex credendi. If prayer implicitly compromises, belief is explicitly compromised.


Peter Hocken has wrestled with what he characterizes as "double loyalty." In his piece entitled "The Significance and Potential of Pentecostalism,"(10) he takes note of this phenomenon which is particularly prevalent among Catholics, for whom the blurring of denominational boundaries is less acceptable and church-hopping and church-shopping are not usually found acceptable. With their typically strong sense of denominational identity, Catholics, though not alone, are far more likely than their brother Pentecostals to develop this serious dual affiliation with both pentecostal fellowship and one's own church commitments. To evince such a double loyalty, however, does not mean putting them both on an equal footing. Double loyalty has the effect of assisting in the process of building within denominations a structure and a respectability for charismatic activities. They can be seen as Catholic or Lutheran or Anglican, for example, and not tied to Pentecostal churches as ecclesiastical structures. It fosters intradenominational renewal without anyone disavowing the positions and practices of one's traditional church. The fact is that double loyalty has had the effect in many circles of helping Christians to rediscover ever more deeply and creatively the richest aspects of their own traditions. This is certainly true in Catholic circles. By not creating an exclusive 'us vs. them situation, it makes the charismatic renewal more readily acceptable to church authorities whatever the denomination may be. Hocken reflects upon his own sentiments of double loyalty. While identifying strongly with the Pentecostal experience through prayer groups as a "corpus of spiritual wisdom and praxis," yet, at least among classical Pentecostals, "I am . . . as different as chalk from cheese," he writes. He goes on:

Their language is different their style is different, their explanations and emphases are different. I experience simultaneously an identity and an otherness. So I know them and they know me within worship and witness, but outside this doxological framework conversation is sparce and not felt to be necessary. It is the obverse of a long-familiar experience -- of being able to converse with other Christians but feeling alien as soon as worship commenced.(11)
There is no denying the impact of the charismatic experience upon one's personal faith. The understanding one has of one's own Christianity is at least somewhat transformed by such an association. My own first loyalty, in time that is, has been charismatic; it was through the charismatic experience outside the Catholic Church that the bridge was made with the Catholic charismatic renewal and the spiritual heritage and teaching of Roman Catholicism. Yet I would say without hesitation that my more fundamental loyalty is Catholic. There are a number of reasons for this. Unlike those who come from historically well-rooted Christian traditions, mine was essentially a non-tradition. I did not leave charismatic Lutheranism or Anglicanism. Rather it was from contemporary, essentially un-rooted neo-Pentecostalism (akin, I suppose, to Assembly of God churches) that I became Catholic. I find it interesting how much Peter Hocken s perceptions of his lifelong Catholicism are similar to my own, wherein lie his "prior and more fundamental Catholic loyalty." With this charismatic experience he writes
I find strands of Catholic tradition with which I identify more strongly than before; this includes an enlivening of what is most central in Catholic tradition, e.g. the trinitarian pattern of Christian life and worship, the centrality of the liturgy, the complementarity of Word and sacraments, the Church as the Body of Christ and the communion of the saints . . . [and yet] I find aspects of contemporary Catholicism of which I am now more critical, though in a spirit of hope rather than of cynical disillusionment; so I am led to question how essentially Catholic and Christian are various practices, attitudes and mentalities certainly Catholic de facto.(12)
Whatever the influence a charismatic experience may have on one's perception of his church or other churches, the charismatic renewal's real ecumenical potential becomes apparent when it actually begins to penetrate the older traditions without simply luring members out into Pentecostal assemblies or churches which sit light to their traditions of origin. It is in this combination of identity and otherness that the ecumenical potential actually resides and never in an approach which urges church members to come out of their denominations and into some supposedly "non-denominational" assembly because God never intended for us to have denominations. The latter assertion is undoubtedly true but its associated call to Exodus is so shallow, near-sighted and subjectivistic as to be insupportable and a threat to ecumenism in the short run and true Christian unity ultimately.


There is something quite disarming about letting the Spirit blow as the Spirit wills. It creates a confusion of the Spirit which is not anarchy, certainly is not reductionism or indifferentism, but absolutely calls for a stretching of our nicely packaged concepts of how we might have the Spirit work. Ecumenism leads us from an apparent clarity which accompanies every self-sufficient or self-explanatory system into a world of apparent confusion where disjunct, incomplete, overlapping and even potentially contradictory systems intersect. But from the chaos over which the Spirit of God broods, the same Spirit is forming the richness of a new creation made richer by the multiple experiences, traditions and spiritualities which reflect its touch.

If indeed the charismatic renewal is characterized by an openness to the Spirit then it seems whatever hopes for ecumenism lie here are found precisely in the serendipitous element which calls for a certain taking of risks, even the possibility of schism. While indifferentism and sectarian self-sufficiency are, psychologically speaking, much easier options than the costliness of the ambiguity which comes with double loyalty (or even what might be called multiple loyalty if one considers other possible influences than simply the "charismatic" and "denominational"), it must be recognized that the Spirit does avoid being captured and domesticated. This is something we must reckon with. Its course cannot be plotted though it might be sensed. We should not think, as we are prone to do, that in this case the shortest distance between disunity and Christian unity is a straight line. The Spirit does not subscribe to such a model.


Humanly speaking, we should not forget the Cross in the charismatic renewal and ecumenism. To do so, as some zealous Pentecostals (both non-Catholic and Catholic) are prone to do, is to fail to recognize the unity between Son and Spirit. Regarding the work of the Holy Spirit as instantaneous and painless, they fail to understand that it is through the Cross that the Body of Christ is built up and that the sufferings of the members are indeed the sufferings of Christ. While the Spirit is alive within the Church, the Church of the Spirit remains the Body of Christ as well and as such must bear wounds, both external and internal, until the fullness of time. While the healing power of the Spirit is present in the Church, the same Spirit neither compels the Body to be healed or guarantees its instantaneous restoration /glorification.

Lastly, a word about theology. In the same way that the notion of ecumenical progress is different from the perspective of the charismatic renewal than from other perspectives, so also the role of theology may be different. It is foolish to pretend that there is no role for theology as such in a move towards unity which is essentially the work of the Spirit. But it would seem there is a need for a different model of theological renewal. What it calls for is a two-way interaction between theological sources and contemporary reality, a "servant theology," to use Hocken's term. That is to say, what is needed is "a reflection of Scripture (and Christian tradition) in the present situation and a reflection on the present situation in light of Scripture (and Christian tradition)."(13)

Theology's job is not to plan the Church's future. Neither is it to pronounce on what God is and is not able to do. Theology's task is not to bring into question the experience of the Church and of its members, let alone to bring it into some sort of scrutinizing of its authenticity. The experience is a fact and it cannot be changed one iota by theology. But what theology can and should, even must, do is to examine the presuppositions of how what is experienced is described and explained. It amounts to finding, within limited human possibilities, the underlying and structurally integrated knowledge of God which is implicitly found in accounts of Christian life and experience. "It is the service of theology to free Christians from the limitations rising from defective interpretation of their experience," Hocken asserts.(14) Perhaps such a theological rethinking of the charismatic experience combined with a brave new openness to the Spirit whose ways are not our ways will make us one Body in the one Spirit. At least we must not stop praying and must not lose heart (Cf. Luke 11:13; 18:1).

  1. Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations, vol. 3 (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1974), pp. 373-400.
  2. Cf. also Secretariat for the Promotion of the Unity of Christians, Ad Totam Ecclesiam (Directory Concerning Ecumenical Matters: Part One), 14 May 1967, nn. 21ff., on the subject of "spiritual ecumenism" from the official Catholic standpoint.
  3. Leon Joseph Cardinal Suenens, A New Pentecost? (New York: Seabury, 1975), title page and pp. 16-17 respectively.
  4. Even scholarly work has begun in a serious fashion, notably and admirably in Yves Congar, I Believe in the Holy Spirit, 3 vols. (Philadelphia: Seabury, 1983).
  5. In Living in the Spirit (New York: Paulist Press, 1975), pp. 29-48.
  6. Ibid., p. 151.
  7. Ibid., pp. 152-154.
  8. "The Speech-Giving Spirit," in S. Tugwell, et al., New Heaven? New Earth? (Springfield: Templegate, 1976), pp. 123-124.
  9. Cf. Heinrich Fries and Karl Rahner, Unity of the Churches: An Actual Possibility (New York: Paulist Press, 1985).
  10. In S. Tugwell, et al., New Heaven? New Earth? pp. 16-67.
  11. Ibid., pp. 46-47.
  12. Ibid., p. 48.
  13. Ibid., p. 52.
  14. Ibid., p. 53.