Pentecostalism: Evaluating a Phenomenon
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Before entering on the formal presentation,
I think it will be useful to first clarify some possible sources of misunderstanding.
The immediate focus of this study is Pentecostalism. It is not directly concerned
with the persons who call themselves Pentecostals or, as some prefer, Charismatics.
Moreover, the purpose here is to make an evaluation. It is not to impart information
about Pentecostalism, since such information is fairly presumed, with all the
literature by and about the movement and, for many people, either personal experience
or direct observation of the movement in action.
Finally, though I seldom do this when speaking,
in this case it may be useful to give a brief run-down of references about
the speakers own qualifications in talking on the subject.
My professional work is teaching Comparative Religion. A phenomenon like Pentecostalism,
I know, has for years been one of the characteristic features in other religious
cultures, and not only in Protestantism or Roman Catholicism; in fact, not only
Since the first stirring of Pentecostalism in Catholic circles, I have been
asked to give some appraisal of it to leaders in the Church who sought counsel
on the question: e.g., Bishop Zaleski as chairman of the American Bishops Doctrinal
Commission and, recently, the Jesuit Provincial of the Southern Province, in
a three-day private conference in New Orleans.
For several years I have been counseling persons dedicated to Pentecostalism,
mainly priests, religious, and seminarians. And on Palm Sunday of this year
I preached at the First Solemn Mass of a priest who is deeply involved in the
My plan for todays talk is to cover three areas
of the subject, at uneven length, namely:
- The Historical Background of the Pentecostal Movement,
up to the present.
- What are the principal elements of Pentecostalism, as
viewed by Roman Catholics dedicated to the movement?
- An Evaluation in the form of a Critical Analysis of Pentecostalism
as a Phenomenon which has developed an Ideology.
The essentials of the Pentecostalism we know today began with the Reformation
in the sixteenth century as a complement to Biblicism. The two together have
formed an inseparable duality in historic Protestantism.
Where the Bible was canonized in the phrase, Sola Scriptura, as the sole repository
of divine revelation, the indwelling Holy Spirit in the heart of every believer
was invoked as the only criterion for interpreting the Scriptures or even for
recognizing their canonicity. Thus Solo Spiritu became the basic
principle of direction in the life of a Christian, in place of the professedly
divine guidance by the Spirit residing in the papacy and the Catholic hierarchy.
Pentecostalism turned sectarian in the nineteenth
century when groups like the Irvingites, Shakers, and Mormons broke away from
their parent bodies over what they said was indifference in the established
Protestant churches to external manifestations of the presence in converted
believers of the Holy Spirit.
What gave these sectarian groups theological rootage was the parallel rise
of the Holiness movement among Methodists. Experience of conversion and an
awareness of the Spirit had always been prominent in Wesleyan thought. With
the advent of biblical criticism and the solvent of rationalism, many followers
of Wesley fell back almost exclusively on personal experience as a sign of Gods
When some of these Holiness groups affiliated with the Irvingites and their
counterparts, modern Pentecostalism was born.
Some would date the beginning with 1900, but, more accurately, from 1900 on
the Pentecostal movement began its denominational period. One after another,
new congregations were formed or old ones changed to become Pentecostal in principle
and policy. By 1971, some 200 distinct denominations in America qualified as
Pentecostals. While total membership is uncertain, ten million in the United
States is not too high a figure. Outside North America, the largest contingent
is in South America, where Pentecostal missionaries from the States have successfully
evangelized in every country below the Rio Grande. Brazil alone has four million,
of whom 1,800,000 are communicants; mainly converts who were originally baptized
The most recent development in Pentecostalism
was the ecumenical collaboration with Catholic groups in the United States,
at first cautious, then bolder, and now becoming a pattern that gave rise to
what some call Catholic Pentecostalism, but others prefer to say is The Pentecostal
Movement in the Catholic Church.
From this point on, my concern will be uniquely
with this latest development, seen through the eyes of its dedicated followers
and described by men and women who believe they are, and wish to remain, loyal
Catholics but honestly believe that a new dimension should be added to the concept
of Catholicism before it was touched by the present outpouring of the Pentecostal
grace of the Spirit.
Main Elements of Pentecostalism
Although American Catholic involvement in the Pentecostal movement is hardly
five years old, a growing body of literature is accumulating. Most of it is
still descriptive or historical, but more than a score of monographs and half
a dozen books are frankly theological. Their authors seriously try to come
to grips with what they call Charismatic Renewal, and their studies are couched
in formal, even technical, language.
There is no doubt that those who are professed Catholics and, at the same time,
committed to Pentecostalism, want to span both shores. As they view the situation,
it should be seen from two perspectives: 1) from the standpoint of Pentecostalism,
defining what are its essential features; and 2) from the side of Catholicism,
distinguishing what is different about Pentecostalism today, compared with other
historical types of the same movement in former times.
Essentials of Pentecostalism. Writers of a Catholic persuasion isolate
certain elements of Pentecostalism and identify them as transconfessional.
They are simply characteristic of this aspect of Christianity wherever it occurs,
whether among Catholics or Protestants or, in fact, whether before the Reformation
- The primary postulate also gives Pentecostalism its name. Just as on the first
Pentecost in Jerusalem there was an extraordinary descent of the Holy Spirit
and a marvelous effusion of spiritual gifts, so at different ages in the Churchs
history a similar phenomenon occurs.
It is generally occasioned by a grave crisis or need in the Church. God raises
certain charismatic persons to visit them with special graces and make them
heralds of His mission to the world. Such were Benedict and Bruno, Francis
and Dominic, Ignatius and Teresa of Avila.
The present age is such a period, certainly
of grave crisis in Christianity, during which the Holy Spirit has decided to
enter history in a miraculous way, to raise up once again the leaders of renewal
for the Church and, through the Church, for all mankind.
- No less than on Pentecost Sunday, so now the descent of the Spirit becomes palpably
perceptible. This perceptibility shows itself especially in three ways:
- In a personally felt experience of the Spirits presence in the one who receives
Him. The qualities of this coming are variously described, but they cover one
or more of the following internal experiences: deep-felt peace of soul, joyousness
of heart, shedding of worry and anxiety, strong conviction of belief, devotion
to prayer, tranquility of emotions, sense of spiritual well-being, an ardent
piety, and, in general, a feeling of intimacy with the divine which, it is said,
had never or only for sporadic moments been experienced before.
with the internal phenomena, which themselves partake of the preternatural,
are external manifestations that can be witnessed by others. Such are speaking
in strange tongues, the gift of prophecy, the power of healing, and, it would
seem, all the gamut of charismata enumerated in the Acts of the Apostles and
the Letters of St. Paul.
- Capping the two sets of phenomena, of internal experience and external manifestation,
is the inspiration given by the Spirit to communicate these gifts to others.
Normally a Spirit-filled person is the channel of this communication; he becomes
a messenger of the Spirit to others and his zeal to act in this missionary role
is part of the change that the divine visitation effects in him.
- The basic condition required to receive the charismatic outpouring is openness
of faith. The only fundamental obstacle is diffidence or distrust of the Spirit
to produce today what He had done in ages past.
Distinctive Features. If the
foregoing are typical of Pentecostalism in every critical period of Christianity
and the common heritage in Protestant as well as Catholic experience, certain
features are typical of Pentecostalism today.
- Present-day Charismatic experience is far wider than ever before. Where in
former days only certain few people received the Pentecostal outpouring, it
is now conferred on thousands. And the conferral has only started. It is nothing
less than a deluge of preternatural visitation.
- Consistent with the large numbers is the fact that Pentecostalism, otherwise
than ever before, affects the lettered and unlettered, those obviously pursuing
holiness and the most ordinary people. Indeed, one of the truly remarkable
facts is that even quite unholy persons may now suddenly receive the Spirit,
provided they open their hearts to Him in docile confidence and faith.
- Also, unlike in previous times, this is a movement. It is not just a sporadic
experience but a veritable dawn of a new era of the Spirit; such as Christianity
had never known in ages past. It is destined, so it seems, to sweep whole countries
and cultures, and promises to effect changes in so-called institutional Christianity
not less dramatic than occurred in Jerusalem when Peter preached his first
sermon in response to the coming of the Holy Spirit.
- As might be expected, the Spirit is now to affect not only individuals or scattered
groups here and there. His charismatic effusion will remake Christian society.
His gifts are to recreate and, where needed, create new communities of believers,
bound together by the powerful ties of a common religious experience and sustained
by such solidarity as only a mutually shared contact with the divine can produce.
- While there had been Pentecostal experience in every stage of Christian history,
generally they were characterized by public phenomena or at least their external
manifestations were highlighted. Modern Pentecostalism includes these phenomena,
indeed, but the stress is on the internal gifts received by the people. Their
deep inside conviction of mind and joy of heart are paramount. These are, of
course, no less phenomenal than the physical gifts of tongues or prophecy or
healing of disease. They, too, partake of the miraculous. But they are the
interior gifts from the Spirit in the spirit, and as such, are the main focus
of Pentecostalism in todays world of doubt and desperation.
So far I have given what might be called an
overview of Pentecostalism, with emphasis on that form which professed Catholics
have not only adopted but which their leaders, priests, religious and the laity,
are defining and defending in a spate of books and periodicals.
I have witnessed the phenomena they describe, read the literature they have
written, spent hours in conference and consultation with those deeply committed
to the movement, conferred at length with specialists in the psychological sciences
who dealt professionally with Catholic Pentecostals, and I have carefully
watched the consequences of the movement for several years. My growing conclusion
is that Pentecostalism in the Catholic Church is symptomatic of some grave needs
among the faithful that should be met soon and by all effective means at our
disposal. But I also think that Pentecostalism as an ideology is not the answer
to these needs. In fact, it may be a serious obstacle, even a threat, to the
authentic renewal in the Spirit inaugurated by the Second Vatican Council.
My reasons for this twofold judgment naturally suggest two sets of appraisal:
one for considering Pentecostalism symptomatic and the other for believing it
does not meet the felt needs of the Church today.
Pentecostalism As Symptomatic. It
is not surprising that a phenomenon like Pentecostalism should have risen to
the surface in Catholic circles just at this time. The Churchs history has
seen similar, if less widely publicized, phenomena before.
- The widespread confusion in theology has simmered down
to the faithful and created in the minds of many uncertainty about even such
fundamentals as Gods existence, the divinity of Christ, and the Real Presence.
Confusion seeks certitude, and certitude is sought in contact with God. When
this contact is fostered and sustained by group prayer and joint witness to
the ancient faith it answers to a deep-felt human need. Pentecostalism in
its group prayer situations tries to respond to this often desperate need.
- Among the critical causes of confusion, the Churchs authority is challenged
and in some quarters openly denied. This creates the corresponding need for
some base of religious security which Pentecostalism offers to give in the
interior peace born of union with the Spirit.
- Due to many factors, many not defensible, practices of piety and devotion
from regular Novenas, to statues, rosaries and religious articles have been
dropped or phased out of use in the lives of thousands of the faithful. Pentecostalism
serves to fill the devotional vacuum in a way that startles those who have,
mistakenly, come to identify Christianity with theological cerebration or the
bare minimum of external piety.
- Ours is, in growing measure, a prayerless culture. This has made inroads in
Catholicism. It is a commentary on our age that millions have substituted work
for prayer; and now the balance needs to be redressed with Pentecostalism
offering one means of restoring the spirit of prayer.
- In the same way, religion for too many had become listless routine, and prayer
a lip service or almost vacuous attendance at the Liturgy. Religion as experience,
knowing God and not only about Him; feeling His presence in ones innermost
being was thought either exotic, or psychotic, or presumptuous. Pentecostalism
promises to give what Christians in our dehumanized Western Society so strongly
crave intimacy with the Divine.
All of this, and more, is part of the background which helps explain why such
a movement as the Charismatic came into being. Its existence is both symptomatic
and imperative that something be done and done well to satisfy the desire
of millions of Christians for peace of mind, security of faith, devotion in
prayer, and felt realization of union with God.
Pentecostalism As Mistaken Ideology. The question that still remains, however, is whether the Pentecostal
movement is a valid answer to these recognized needs. Notice I do not say that
individuals who have entered the movement cannot find many of their spiritual
needs satisfied. Nor am I saying that group prayer is not helpful for many
people; nor, least of all, that the Holy Spirit has been inactive during these
trying times to confer precisely an abundance of His seven-fold gifts on those
who humbly and in faith invoke His sanctifying name.
What I must affirm is that Pentecostalism is not a mere movement; it is, as
the ending ism indicates, an ideology. And as such it is creating more problems
objectively than it solves subjectively. In other words, even when it gives
symptomatic relief to some people, it produces a rash of new, and graver, issues
touching on the Catholic faith and its authentic expression by the faithful.
- The fundamental problem it creates is the absolute conviction of devoted
Pentecostals that they have actually received a charismatic visitation of the
I am not here referring to such external phenomena
as the gift of tongues, but of the deeply inward certitude that a person has
been the object of a preternatural infusion, with stress on the infusion of
preternatural insight, i.e., in the cognitive order.
This is an astounding assertion, and the only
thing unremarkable about it is that so many Pentecostals are now firmly convinced
they have been so enlightened.
Their books and monographs, lectures and testimonials
simply assume to be incontestable - and beyond refutation - that they have been
specially illumined by a chrism which, they say, is available to others who
are equally disposed to receive it.
But repeated affirmation is not enough, and
even the strongest subjective conviction is not proof - where a person claims
to have been the recipient of such extraordinary gifts - notably of spiritual
knowledge as God conferred in apostolic times or gave to His great mystics
in different times.
The dilemma this raises can be easily stated:
Everything which the Pentecostal leadership
says suggests that they consider the experience - and I quote their terms -
preternatural, special, mystical, charismatic, extraordinary.
- Either the Pentecostal experience
really confers preternatural insight (at least among its leaders),
- Or the experience is quite natural,
while certainly allowing for the normal operations of divine grace.
- It is irrelevant to discourse about the charismata in the New Testament,
or theologize about the gifts of the Holy Spirit. No believing Christian denies
either the charisms or the gifts. The question at stake is not of faith, but
Are the so-called charismata truly charismatic? If they are, then we stand
in the presence of a cosmic miracle, more stupendous in proportion by reason
of sheer numbers than anything the Church has seen, I would say, even in apostolic
But if the experiences are not authentically charismatic, then, again, we stand
in the presence of a growing multitude of persons who believe themselves charismatically
led by the Holy Spirit. They will make drastic decisions, institute revolutionary
changes, or act in a host of other ways - firmly convinced they are responding
to a special divine impulse whereas in reality they are acting in response to
quite ordinary, and certainly less infallible, motions of the human spirit.
- At this point we could begin a completely separate analysis, namely, of
the accumulating evidence that the impulses which the Pentecostal leaders consider
charismatic are suspiciously very human. Their humanity, to use a mild word,
is becoming increasingly clear from the attitudes being assumed toward established
principles and practices in Catholicism.
Logically, it may be inferred, the Holy Spirit would not contradict Himself.
We expect Him to support what Catholic Christianity believes is the fruit of
His abiding presence in the Church of which He is the animating principle of
What do we find? In the published statements, and therefore not the casual
remarks of those who are guiding the destiny of the Pentecostal movement among
Catholics, are too many disconcerting positions to be lightly dismissed by anyone
who wants to make an objective appraisal of what is happening.
I limit myself to only a few crucial issues, each of which I am sure, will
soon have a cluster of consequences in the practical order:
- The Papacy. If there is one doctrine of Catholic Christianity that
is challenged today it is the Roman Primacy. Yet in hundreds of pages of professional
writing about the charismatic gifts, we find a studied silence - no doubt to
avoid offense to other Pentecostals - about the papacy; and a corresponding
silence about a more loyal attachment to the Holy See.
It is painful to record but should be said that,
the pioneer of American Pentecostalism among Catholics and its prolific defender
(Kevin Ranaghan) was among the first to publicly take issue with Pope Paul VI
on Humanae Vitae.
- The Priesthood and Episcopate. Running as a thread through apologists
for Catholic Pentecostalism is an almost instinctive contraposition of, and
I quote, charismatic and hierarchical or spiritual and institutional.
While some commentators state the dual aspects in the Church and even stress
the importance of harmony between the two, others have begun to opt for a theological
position quite at variance with historic Catholicism. They suggest that in
the New Testament there was essentially only one sacrament for conferring the
gifts of the Spirit. Baptism gave a Christian all the essentials of what later
on the institutional church developed into separate functions, namely the
diaconate, priesthood, and episcopate. 
- Catholic Apostolate. The heaviest artillery of Pentecostals in
the Catholic camp is leveled at the ineffectual, irrelevant and dispirited
form of Christianity prevalent in the Church.
Accordingly, under the impulse of the Spirit, radical changes are demanded
in the Churchs apostolate. Old forms of trying to reach the people, especially
the young, should be abandoned. This applies particularly to Catholic education.
In spite of the immense expenditure of money and human effort being put into
parochial schools, Pentecostals are saying, how often do we not hear the complaint
that a pitifully small proportion of the students emerge as deeply convinced
and committed Christians? We can therefore well use some new life in the Church. 
Concretely, this means to enter other kinds of work for the faithful, and not
retain Catholic parochial schools - as more than one teaching order, influenced
by Pentecostalism, has already decided to carry into effect.
- The New Spirituality. Given the posture of Pentecostalism as a
phenomenal downpour of charismatic grace, it is only natural that the human
contribution to the divine effusion is minimized. Actual defendants of the
movement are careful to explain that a new kind of spirituality was born with
As heretofore taught, persons aspiring to sanctity were told that recollection
has to be worked at and cultivated. It meant painstaking effort to keep oneself
in the presence of God and consciously fostering, perhaps through years of practice,
prayerful awareness of God. The charismatic movement is actually a discovery
that all of these propaedeutics are unnecessary. In view of its importance,
it is worth quoting the new spiritual doctrine in full:
There is a subtle but very significant difference
between what the presence of God means in the spiritual doctrine that has long
been usual in novitiates, seminaries and the like, and what it means for those
who have shared the Pentecostal experience.
The difference can be put bluntly in the following terms: the former put the
accent on the practice, whereas the latter put it on the presence.
That is to say, the former regard the constant awareness of Gods presence as
a goal to be striven for but difficult to attain; hence they exert themselves
in recalling over and over that God is here and in frequently renewing their
intention to turn their thoughts to Him.
It is not too much to call this instant mysticism. And if some Charismatics
do not succeed as well (or as soon) as others in this sudden experience of God
which dispenses with the laborious process of cultivating recollection, it must
be put down to a lack of sufficient docility to the Spirit or, more simply,
to the fact that the Holy Spirit remains master of His gifts and breathes when
(and where) He wills.
The latter, on the contrary, seem to start with
the experiential awareness of Gods presence as the root which enlivens and
gives its characteristic notes to all their prayer, love and spirituality. 
But the essential dictum stands: those who charismatically experience God,
and they are now numbered in thousands, came by the phenomenon without having
to go through the hard school of mental and ascetical discipline still taught
by an outmoded spirituality.
- Aggressive Defensiveness. Having postulated what they call the
Pentecostal Spirituality, its proponents defend it not only against present-day
critics of such cheap grace, but they anticipate unspoken objections from
the masters of mystical theology. Among their silent critics, whom they criticize,
is St. John of the Cross.
As elsewhere, so here is offered a contraposition, the classical doctrine on
the charisms (or extraordinary gifts of the Spirit) and the new doctrine of
Pentecostalism. Again, direct quotation will bring out the full confrontation:
On the practical level, the classical doctrine on the charisms has been formed
chiefly by St. John of the Cross.
The stand that he takes is predominantly negative; i.e., a warning against
the harm that comes from rejoining excessively in the possession of such gifts.
The one who does so, he says, leaves himself open to deception, either by the
devil or by his own imagination; in relying on these charisms, he loses some
of the merit of faith; and finally, he is tempted to vainglory.
Similarly, when St. John discusses supernatural communications that come by
way of visions or words, particularly those that are perceived by the imagination
or the bodily senses, he is mainly concerned to warn against the dangers of
deception and excessive attachment. He condemns the practice of seeking to
obtain information from God through persons favored with such communication.
Even when God answers the queries that are thus addressed to Him, He does so
out of condescension for our weakness, and not because He is pleased to be thus
If there is anywhere that Pentecostal spirituality
seems to conflict with the classical it is here. 
Then follow pages of a strong defense of the new positive approach to charismatic
experience, admitting that where conflict exists between this and the teaching
of such mystics as John of the Cross, the main reason is obvious. Men like
John and women like Teresa of Avila lived in a former age, when charisms were
rare and then given only to individuals. In our age they are literally an inundation
and their recipients are countless multitudes.
- Religious Communities. Not surprisingly, the Pentecostal movement
has made some of its deepest effects on religious communities, of men, but especially
All problems facing
the Church at large affected the lives of those who, by prior commitment, dedicated
themselves to the pursuit of holiness.
When the charismatic experience offered them release
from anxiety and the hope of a strong sense of Gods presence in spite of
the turmoil all around religious took to the movement on a scale that no one
actually knows. But all estimates indicate that the number is large.
We are still on our
final analysis and our approach has been to point up the ideology of Pentecostal
Leadership; to see whether (and if) it is at variance with historic Catholicism.
A recently, privately-bound
study of religious who took to Pentecostalism reveals many things about converts
and cloisters that is common knowledge among the initiated but still unknown
among the faithful at large.
Thematic to this study is the firm belief that the
bete noire of religious life is structure and institutionalism; that openness
to the Spirit along Pentecostal lines gives best promise for religious in the
future. A few sample statements indicate the general tenor:
We must remember that in order to choose religious life, you must be a
The danger is that a sacred institution tends to isolate
man so he can stand back and deal with God. The institution tends to come between
man and God.
Religious life is a human institution that God merely
tolerates. Gods good pleasure is the one thing necessary, and Gods good pleasure
is mans total openness. It is in this openness that we find our true identity,
but this takes courage.
While other factors
have also been operative, it was sentiments like these that contributed to the
growing tide in some communities with impatience at the slowness of the institutional
Church to up-date religious life, make it truly open to the Spirit, and experience
the rich depth of internal peace and joy that seemed to be so lacking in structured
Total openness takes faith. Awareness of our true
identity implies a life of faith. But faith implies doubt. You cant have
faith without doubt. Doubt and faith are two sides of the same thing. We dont
pray right because we evade doubt. And we evade it by regularity and by activities.
It is in these two ways
by which we justify the self-perpetuation of
our institutions. 
It is not a coincidence that some spokesmen for the
charismatic approach to a life of the evangelical counsels have been most critical
of such symbols of institutionalism as the Sacred Congregation for Religious.
Nor is it surprising that some who feel that Rome is archaic or out of touch
with the times should also be most enthusiastic about Pentecostalism.
There are those who say we should just allow the Pentecostal
movement to go on and then see what happens. But that is not in the best tradition
of Christian prudence. If, as I personally believe, latter-day Pentecostalism
is in the same essential stream with Gnosticism, Montanism, and Illuminism,
we do not pass moral judgment on people but prudential judgment on an ideology
if we say all that I have said in this lecture.
There are grave needs
in the Church today - of which the gravest is the urgent recovery of prayer
across the spectrum of Catholic living - among bishops, priests, religious and
But if prayer and the experience of Gods presence
are so urgently needed, we must use the means that centuries old Christian wisdom
has shown are securely effective to satisfy this need. Pentecostalism is not
one of these means.
John A. Hardon, S.J.
Lecture given at the
Annual Conference for the Clergy,
Archdiocese of New York,
April 20-21, 1971.
1 Kevin and Dorothy Ranaghan, Catholic Pentecostals, New York:
Paulist Press, 1969, p. 128. In context, the authors apply all the classic
passages in St. Paul as conferring no special sacramental grace of orders.
Their line of argument is the same as that of writers like Hans Kung, who
claim that the apostolic Church did not recognize a unique sacrament deriving
from Christs ordination of the apostles at the Last Supper, which confers
the priestly powers including the change of bread and wine into the Body and
Blood of Christ.
2 Edward D. OConnor, The Pentecostal Movement in the Catholic Church,
Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1971, p. 180.
Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica