Was the Catholic Charismatic Renewal Really Catholic?

The week after next the grilling of our latest Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, will begin.  There will be a great deal of pressure brought to bear on the fact that she is a serious Roman Catholic.  That happened during the last nominating process; Diane Feinstein’s remark about the dogma living loudly within her reflected that.  There will be more focus on that.

But is that focus misplaced?  She is a product of a covenant community, the People of Praise, and a major one at that.  This puts her whole relationship with Roman Catholicism in a different light.  The relationship between the covenant communities and the Church is a complicated one.  This isn’t going to be a “blow by blow” account of that, but more of a personal reflection based in part on experience and in part on knowledge gleaned from others with more personal–and in some cases unhappy–experience with covenant communities (most of my personal experience comes with prayer groups that did not formalize a covenant commitment.)

Let’s start by making a bold statement: the RCC in the US during the late 1960’s and 1970’s was, in many ways, a different church than the one we have now.  In the wake of Vatican II and the introduction of the Novus Ordo Missae (the liturgy that followed Vatican II) it was more open to influences coming from outside of the Church than before or since.  David Peterman, who headed up the Community of God’s Delight (a major covenant community in Dallas) noted that there were two streams flowing: the one of Catholic thought before Vatican II and the other from Pentecostal and Evangelical Christianity.  Because the Church never figured out how to communicate the former to the faithful, the latter surged in those years, and the Church had a decidedly “Protestant” feel to it.  #straightouttairondale types will hit the floor before they can grab the smelling salts at that statement, but one advantage is that it made it easier to get converts (like me) coming from Main Line churches which were selling the pass on the basics.  It was possible in the 1970’s to go through Catholic life without an Ave Maria or a rosary; I know, I did it.

That brings us to the ecumenical nature of prayer groups and covenant communities.  Catholic permission for ecumenical activities is, even after Vatican II, fairly restrictive.  Ecumenical groups such as the People of Praise weren’t really “according to Hoyle” but the hierarchy, from the parish level up, was so shell-shocked that they let it slide.  It’s interesting to note that many of the objections to this state of affairs comes not from traditional Catholics but from the left, from the likes of J. Massyngberde Ford or John Flaherty.  And the influence of those communities and prayer groups on parishes was usually limited.  I was confidently told that there was a certain Mass at St. Rita’s in Dallas where members of God’s Delight gathered, and I went, but you really had to look hard to detect their presence.

At this point I want to stop and say with a decent degree of confidence that the type of Christianity that Judge Barrett experienced in the Catholic Charismatic renewal was different in important ways from either the conventional Catholicism of the day or the Trad/Rad Trad Catholicism that is fashionable in some circles today.

However, like the covenant communities themselves, this situation was metastable.  The thing that changed was the accession of Pope John Paul II in 1978, who was determined to bring some order to the chaos of the waning decade.  The existing renewal was impacted and responded in various ways.  One of them was the Sword of the Spirit network, led by Steve Clark and Ralph Martin, who wanted to continue on as they had with the ecumenical and authoritarian communities by more or less going “underground.”  (The People of Praise split off from this.)  In other cases the Church brought these communities to heel, either by forcing them to abandon their ecumenical ways (God’s Delight) or by dissolving the community altogether (Servants of Christ the King.)  But another effective weapon was the imposition of Marian devotions, which was guaranteed to split covenant community and prayer group alike.  I was involved in a prayer group that experienced the latter; it was one of the nastiest things I’ve ever seen in a Christian group.  This kind of thing generally came from the inside, which only made matters worse.

So the situation today is much different than before.  That difference is obscured by the fact that many of the major figures of those times in the Renewal have switched over to the #straightouttairondale Catholicism, which in many ways is antithetical to what they were in before.

My advice to everyone is to evaluate Amy Coney Barrett on what presents itself now and not try to impose some ideal construct of what Catholicism is or is supposed to be.  In addition to being from the New Orleans area (which always complicates things) her antecedents coming out of a covenant community are more complicated than they look.  I doubt that members of the U.S. Senate will do this, but stuff like that is one reason why it isn’t the deliberative body it used to be.

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