On June 25, 2016, the British Catholic magazine The Tablet reported that the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF—the institutional offspring, though at a comfortable distance in time, of the Holy Office of the Inquisition) had sent a statement to fifty dioceses around the world. Entitled Iuvenescit Ecclesia”/”The Church Rejuvenates,” it deals with the hierarchical structure and charismatic movements in the life of the Church. This description is a bit misleading. It follows the traditional meaning of “charisms” in the New Testament—different vocations or callings in the Christian community. Some are called to preach, others to prophesy, others to heal, and so forth. In recent times the meaning of “charismatic movements” has been narrower, designating those that practice the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” as expressed in ecstatic worship/speaking in tongues and miraculous healing. Some are inside the Catholic Church, the vast majority outside it—namely, the global Pentecostal movement, which is growing with enormous speed and is now estimated (probably too conservatively) as having at least 600 million adherents worldwide. Although Protestant Pentecostalism has been a major challenge to the Catholic Church, especially in Latin America, the CDF statement only deals with comparable movements within the Church. The Vatican has a large number of bureaucratic divisions (“congregations”)—I suppose that the CDF only has jurisdiction for intra-Catholic “charisms.” On the other hand, its scope is broader: It deals with other movements, many of them involving lay people as well as priests and members of religious orders, as long as they are not directly part of the official hierarchy—such as the Legion of Mary, Cursillos, and Communion and Liberation.
The Tablet article is very informative and indicates where the document is heading. It mentions the statement of Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, the head of CDF, who at the public release of the document advised all movements “to obey” the hierarchy. I then read the entire document itself. It doesn’t make for easy bathtub reading, but its basic message is very clear: The movements must remain within the Church and not go off on their own. They must accept the authority of the Pope and the Bishops. Hierarchy and the movements are “co-essential,” mutually respectful. The language of the document is revealing: The hierarchy must “authenticate” the charismatic gifts (just as, in other jurisdictions, it “authenticates” miracles, the status of individual candidates for sainthood or beatitude, or for that matter of demons for exorcism). The movements are urged to accept the guidance of the Code of Canon Law. Another interesting term: The hierarchy must exercise “vigilant paternity” over the movements. The document too was duly “authenticated”: Several months before it was published, in an audience with Cardinal Koch, Pope Francis approved its content and gave the traditional imprimatur—“Let it be printed!”
If the sociology of religion has any use, it is putting particular curiosities in a comparative perspective. The problem of the Vatican with charisma is neither new nor unique. The Roman Catholic Church was from its beginnings a priestly hierarchy, and it may also be the oldest international bureaucracy in modern times. Priests have often had problems with prophets—bureaucrats are suspicious of free enterprise.
Priests and prophets have big roles in the Hebrew Bible. Much of modern Biblical scholarship developed in the 19th century in Protestant theological faculties in Germany. It is not surprising that many of these scholars looked at the relationship of priests and prophets through Protestant glasses—in other words as opposing religious prototypes. The mental picture was that of Luther standing before the Imperial Diet of Worms (1521), his life in danger, refusing to recant as demanded by the Emperor and the Church dignitaries sitting before him in judgment, and defiantly shouting “Here I stand, I can do no other.” Apparently he never spoke these exact words. What he actually said was a little longer, but the message was the same. The Hebrew prophets did sometimes “speak truth to power,” often shrieking out curses and blessings—“charisms” indeed. But their relationship with the priesthood was more complicated. The Hebrew Bible mentions “a school of prophets” in the town of Ramah, near Jerusalem, founded by the prophet Samuel who lived there with his disciples. Modern scholars have discovered that similar “schools of prophets” existed in other Near Eastern countries, often actually located near or in sanctuaries—which were presumably administrated by priests. We can imagine a historic compromise: The shrieking prophets, no matter what they were shrieking, disturbed the priests in their routine performances. Then one ingenious administrator came up with a very good idea: “Look. We obviously can’t have these characters run around this place whenever and wherever they want. We’ll tell them they can prophesy on Tuesday and Thursday from 10 to 12 in the morning in Temple 8, which has thick walls. Then they can shriek all they want, nobody can hear them, and we can go about our business undisturbed.” At that point prophecy itself has been routinized. The priestly conspiracy I invented at some “school of prophets” in the ancient Near East did not have the benefit of Cardinal Mueller’s guidelines for handling charismatic movements, but they instinctively anticipated the “vigilant paternity” he recommends.
By the time Luther challenged the authority of the Pope, the Roman Catholic Church had accumulated many centuries of experience in handling charismatic movements. The institution of monastic orders was a politically sophisticated method of control. Asceticism has always attracted individuals with extreme religious views (moderates typically choose more sedate vocations). Prophets, shrieking or not, can act out their beliefs within the confines of a monastic order, as long as the hierarchy stays in charge. If charisma is viewed as a dangerous condition, monasticism serves as a form of disease control. Much of the time this works quite well. Francis of Assisi certainly had some rather extreme views. His giving away clothes to beggars or preaching to birds would not bother vigilant cardinals, nor were they bothered by his Franciscan friars running around barefoot. But when the Franciscan Spirituals, in the 13th and 14th centuries (after their founder’s death), used his ideal of poverty to attack princes of the Church living in luxury and indeed to attack the legitimacy of the hierarchical order—alarm bells went off in Rome. The Franciscan order was purged, and the Spirituals were expelled and repressed.
It did not take long before the charismatic virus caught up with the Protestants. Luther himself had to return from his hiding place to Wittenberg, in order to preach against the so-called Zwickau Prophets who had created a disturbance there. And then came the Anabaptists, who rebelled not only by opposing infant baptism, but by repudiating the authority of the hierarchy to rule on anything at all. That was bad enough for Luther, who believed in order. It was made much worse from his point of view when a significant number of Anabaptists transformed their radicalism into a revolutionary political program, linking up with the peasants’ rebellion. That infuriated Luther, who saw his idea of Christian freedom distorted into a curious anticipation of 20th-century Liberation Theology. Charisma was relatively contained (basically through coercion) where Protestant churches were established by the state, though even in those places it often survived in enclaves within established churches. Then religious pluralism coincided with religious freedom, notably in the English-speaking colonies, later states, in North America. The religious scene was inundated in wave after wave of charismatic Protestantism—from the First Great Awakening to Billy Graham.
The complex relationship between institutional hierarchies and charismatic movements is not just a Christian phenomenon. Heretical movements in Judaism and Islam were frequently associated with mysticism (respectively, Sufi and Kabbalistic movements). Neither Judaism nor Islam has priests. The normative institutions are based on religious law. The legal scholars were always suspicious of charismatic movements, and issued rulings that defined the boundaries of acceptable beliefs and practices. One of the most famous charismatic Sufis was Mansur al-Hallaj (858-922 CE), who ran through the streets of Baghdad in ecstasy, shouting “I am the Truth,” which was interpreted as meaning “I am God”—clearly a blasphemous statement. Hallaj was finally executed. One of the wildest Jewish charismatic movements was that of Shabbatai Zvi (1626-1676 CE), who claimed to be the Messiah and preached the message that all was permitted now that the Messianic age had arrived (he followed his own teaching by travelling with a concubine). Needless to say, the rabbis were not amused. While traveling in the Middle East Shabbatai created the unruly excitement that is endemic to charismatic movements. He was arrested by the Ottoman authorities, who couldn’t care less about some crazy Jew claiming a meaningless title, but they cared very much about the sort of religious excitement that could disturb social order. Shabbatai was arrested and given the choice of execution or conversion to Islam. To the dismay of most of his followers he chose conversion. But, curiously, some of his followers proposed that, on the contrary the apostasy was at the core of Shabbatai’s Messianic mission. But enough of this hopping around curiosities of religious history. I want to conclude by proposing that understanding the tensions between religious institutions and charismatic movements can benefit by bringing together some ideas of two important 20th-century scholars of religion.
Rudolf Otto (1859-1937) was a highly productive scholar of comparative religion, the star of the so-called Marburg School of Religionswissenschaft. His best-known book is what in the English translation has the remarkably ill-chosen title The Idea of the Holy—the title of the German original (1917) is just The Holy, and one of its central propositions is that “the holy” is not an idea but a basically irrational experience. That experience is one of tremendous mystery and is not only awe-inspiring but very dangerous. One of Otto’s prime examples is an event mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, when a man unintentionally touched the Ark of the Covenant and immediately dropped dead (Otto uses the analogy of someone touching an electrically charged wire). The significance of Otto’s perspective is illustrated by two different interpretations of the Latin word religio. Its etymology is commonly derived from the verb religare “to tie again” (evoked by the old Protestant hymn, favored in Protestant Sunday Schools, “The Tie that Binds”). Otto suggests a different etymology—relegere, “to be careful”. That is why the first words spoken by angels or other supernatural beings is “Be not afraid!” Much of religious ritual can then be understood as an effort to assuage or domesticate the dangerous power of the holy—or, so to speak, make canny the uncanny.
I don’t know whether the two scholars were familiar with each other’s work (it is possible, the periods of their highest productivity overlapped). But Otto’s view of the holy intersects in an interesting way with the understanding of charisma by Max Weber (1864-1920). Weber was by far the most fertile father of classical sociology of religion. Among his most influential contributions has been his theory of charisma. Weber took the term charisma from the New Testament, where it meant very much what “charism” means in current Catholic discourse as discussed earlier in this post—a gift of the Spirit, often different from the gifts expressed in actions of the hierarchical Church. Weber distinguished three types of authority in religion, or politics, or any other area of human actions. Charismatic authority is based on the extraordinary status ascribed to a leader. A prototypical case is Jesus, who kept saying “You have it heard it said…but I say to you.” In this “but I” lies the claim to extraordinary authority. The other types of authority are traditional, based on precedent, and legal-rational, based on explicitly formulated rules. Charismatic authority is typically asserted against tradition or law—prophets against priests or bureaucrats. The most interesting proposition, and indeed prediction, of Weber’s theory is that charisma doesn’t last (usually not beyond the second generation of followers). Weber called this the routinization of charisma. This can take two forms. It becomes traditionalized (say, the descendants of the prophet become a hereditary dynasty of priests or rulers)…or rationalized (as Weber put it, charisma of person becomes charisma of office). The Roman Catholic Church is clearly a case of the latter: A Pope, bishop, or simple parish priest does not have to be in any sense extraordinary. His authority rests on the fact that he had acquired his status through a proper procedure of canon law.
I think it is very interesting how neatly Weber’s and Otto’s perceptions can be merged: The holy (or as Otto liked to call it by its archaic, not ethically charged, Latin term—the numinous) is “totally other,” threatening to undermine the ordinary business of society. If people were constantly living in the presence of supernatural power, they would have neither time nor interest in working the land, raising children, or making war. The ordinary must be protected against the extraordinary. Religious institutions have a double function. They must pass on the great revelations of the founding leaders to later generations who have not themselves experienced them. They do this through memory-bearing rituals and narratives. But also they must defang, mute, and domesticate it. There is a circular quality to this process: Religious hierarchies try to put the wild spirits into bottles. This requires an effort, sometimes violent repression. It can be successful for quite some time. The numinous has been routinized, the words that once shook the world are now mumbled absent-mindedly by a teenage boy who is thinking of girls (or even flirting with them) while he mumbles. But sooner or later one of the spirits will escape from the bottle, to the dismay of the officials in charge.
Back to Rome’s problem with charismatic movements: Cardinal Mueller of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has his focus on movements within the Church. But the movement that is the most important challenge to the authority of the hierarchy is the global Pentecostal movement, most of whose adherents, even if they used to be in the Catholic Church, are now emphatically outside it. Our research center at Boston University began to study Pentecostalism in the 1980s. The project began in Latin America, and was then extended to other parts of the world. At the very beginning I visited with the team in Chile. I attended a conference on “the sects” (Catholic term for the Pentecostals) at a Jesuit center in Santiago. There was an interesting lecture, based on very objective research, by a Catholic sociologist, who described the Pentecostal phenomenon and its attraction. The head of the Institute, a very thoughtful Spanish Jesuit, asked me: Tell me, what did we do wrong? I don’t remember what I said. Since then the Catholic Church has changed its attitude toward the charismatics. At the time the attitude was strongly negative—these people were renegade heretics, seduced by rich Gringo missionaries, maybe even funded by the CIA. Now the tone has become more friendly, more ecumenically minded. But also there has been an attempt to encourage “charismatic Catholics,” who can speak in tongues, pray with uplifted arms and generally resemble the behavior of their Protestant cousins. I would now answer the question I was asked in Santiago de Chile: You‘re asking the wrong question. It’s not that you did something wrong. It is what the Pentecostals deeply want, and what you deeply are. The Pentecostals want to create their own world, have direct access to God without hierarchical mediation, speak their own language, “in tongues,” not the ritual language of the Mass. I don’t think you can really compete with this. The hierarchical principle is in the DNA of Catholicism, you cannot compromise it without giving up your very identity. The Church has always tolerated all kinds of dubious practices (I remember Mass being celebrated in the Cathedral of Guatemala City, while outside people were dancing before the old gods or having ritualized conversations with the dead)—as long as the bishop (even if reluctantly) has given his consent.
You can put charisma in a bottle and keep it there for a while. Eventually it will escape and create the usual havoc. Then routinization will start all over again. And so on. (Christians may want to add…until the end time.)