David Peterman and the Hard Choices of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal

In the midst of all the excitement we have these days, I have a few commemorations of my own.  This month is the fortieth anniversary of entering into the full-time workforce, when I started my brief time working at Texas Instruments in Dallas.   (And yes, a new President then, in that case Jimmy Carter, made an impact, especially since I was doing defence work.)  But it was also the time when I made the decision to skip the Catholic Charismatic covenant community route set forth by the Community of God’s Delight.  It was an important decision for me, but the Community ended up making some important decisions of its own.

One of the people I got to know in the process was Dr. David A. Peterman, who worked at TI.  I’ve discussed that relationship here and won’t go through it again.  In 2009 he gave an address at a leaders conference of the Catholic Fraternity of Charismatic Covenant Communities and Fellowships (CFCCCF).  It’s probably as straightforward of an account of at least one community’s experience in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, and helps to answer the question I posted earlier about how we got from the folk Mass and praise service days then to #straightouttairondale now.  The highlighting is that of my friend John Flaherty; my interests in this are a little different, as this piece will show.  But I am grateful to him for posting it.

It’s interesting that Peterman starts his talk with making a connection between the Catholic Charismatic Renewal and some of the theological currents before Vatican II, including the French (Henri de Lubac) and Cursillo, along with those of classical Pentecost.  Both of these streams are bêtes noires to the #straightouttairondale people, but both are important.  In the 1970’s Charismatic leaders tended to emphasise the latter over the former; had they taken a more balanced approach, they would have been in better shape to withstand the problems they ran into later.

The Community of God’s Delight was always an important part of the Renewal in the 1970’s, but it was always apart of the “centre” of the movement in Ann Arbor and South Bend.  Part of that was geographical, part of that was cultural, part of that was the size of the community itself.  But make no mistake: the worship, the Life in the Spirit Seminar, everything they did spoke of that kinship.  That included the authoritarian structure of the Community, which was one reason I didn’t join it.

But another problem–and Peterman does touch on it but doesn’t really tackle the issue–is what I call the “ecclesiastically metastable” nature of covenant communities.  The biggest structural weakness in Roman Catholicism is the parish system, which puts its parishioners into an anonymous collection of people who go to Mass every Sunday.  This is in part a product of Roman Catholicism’s sacramental theology; dispensing same is the key function of the priest and receiving same is the key function of the laity.  As long as that was enough–and Catholic parishes were the social club of people from the “old country”–it worked.  (That’s a warning for Pentecostal churches and their large immigrant churches.)

But as American society changed and people longed for a stronger connection with God and each other than the parish system provided, something had to give.  The Renewal’s answer to this was first the prayer groups and then the covenant communities.  Leaving aside the other problems, this dual allegiance was a kludge, and many of us instinctively realised this.  David makes an interesting statement about this, casting it in the Catholicity issue:

Due to their unfamiliarity and misunderstandings, many bishops had grown very suspicious or even antagonistic towards the Renewal in general, and to covenant communities in particular. Some of this was justified, as there were some Catholics who had left the Church due to their confusion between their experience of Christianity in the broad Renewal and in nondenominational communities as compared with what was perceived as a lesser authenticity in their parish life. That is a story for another talk.

Indeed.  There’s no question that what people experienced in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal led them out of the Catholic Church, both in Dallas and elsewhere.  Had the parish system been stronger, some of that might have been alleviated, and the resources put into “bringing Catholics home” might be put to better use.

In any case, David’s account of the split between God’s Delight (and others) and Steven Clark and the Sword of the Spirit people is interesting for aficionados of the subject.  Also interesting is the long process during John Paul II’s pontificate of turning those communities and groups who had split with the Sword of the Spirit into a recognised Catholic organisation.  The critical moment came in 1985, when Bishop Paul Cordes made the Charismatics an offer they couldn’t refuse (and I mean that in a Sicilian way) to form an “authentic Catholic entity” and the rest, as they say, is history.

But in reality that process of forcing the Renewal back into the Church in a full way had been going on for some time.  The favoured device was the use of Marian devotions as a litmus test of true Catholicity, which led to widespread heartburn for many, another bleed of parishioners and the division or dissolution of many prayer groups and some covenant communities.

David always struck me as a level-headed and intelligent person; the choices he and his colleagues made, in a Catholic context, were entirely sensible.  He, as another PhD holder in the sciences used to say, played the cards he was dealt.  But I think, in the context of an American church with such strong, anti-clockwise forces in it, that the Renewal has been subsumed in other agendas that not only seek to banish the non-Catholic roots of the Renewal from the Church, but the Catholic ones too.  And that’s a tragedy both for those who stayed and those of us who left.  Some of that is due to the polarised, binary way Americans do just about everything and have done it since the 1960’s, and that’s certainly relevant for more than just Catholics.

And there’s a warning for us too.  I’ve seen many of my Pentecostal seminary academics and their friends in the pastoral ministry toy with liturgical and sacramental Christianity.  Our pastor even did an “Advent” sermon series, which would have been unheard of twenty years ago.  But I get the impression that neither their concept nor their execution of liturgy or sacrament is very strong.  If that changes, they need to come to grips with whether (or how) a truly Pentecostal, Spirit-led church can survive in a liturgical-sacramental context.  The experience of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal is not encouraging in that regard, but perhaps someone will learn from their mistakes.  As David said at the start of his monologue, which deserves a full reading:

Human knowledge passes from generation to generation. Essentially what we know is based on what has been passed on to us as well as what we personally experience. But even our experiences are interpreted in light of what we have learned from history. Without the discoveries and experiences of others, we would still all live like cave men. So we all owe a great debt to our predecessors – who’ve put history’s “lessons” into our hands and minds.

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