Catholic and Pentecostal Dialogue

Father Juan Usma Gómez, an official of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, recently wrote a most helpful report titled, “Catholics and Pentecostals: A Historical Overview.” It offers some extremely interesting insights into how two very different Christian traditions can and do approach issues related to the ministry of the Holy Spirit. 

Gomez recounts the events that led up to the 1905 Azusa Street revival by writing:

The first religious service took place on April 14, 1906. The story says that it was actually in Azusa Street that a large number of the faithful experienced the "personal Pentecost," in other words, that spiritual experience generally recognized as the beginning of Pentecostalism, which was later to be called "Baptism in the Holy Spirit."

Reactions to this event were varied and conflicting. Those who received the "anointing" spoke of it as the sovereign touch of God, whereas leaders of the Protestant and Evangelical Communities kept their distance, fearing that such an experience could not have solid spiritual and doctrinal foundations.

Gomez gives then devotes particular emphasis to the question of whether or not there is organic institutional unity in Pentecostalism by adding: 

Although they all describe themselves as Pentecostal, there are slight structural differences between them; while three important trends can be identified, there is no organic institutional unity among them nor a totally representative world structure.

Many claim, on the other hand, that the spiritual unity which derives from "Baptism in the Spirit" is a fundamental and sufficient bond.

In addition to the properly Pentecostal denominations (classical Pentecostals), Pentecostal groups exist within the various Churches and ecclesial communities: (denominational Pentecostals, such as the Catholic Charismatic Renewal); many others define themselves as non–denominational, neo-charismatic and independent.

To these can be added a long list of groups of a dubious ecclesial and Christian character that can hardly be called religious but that carry out activities using Pentecostal forms.

In 2005, it was calculated that there were 500 million Pentecostals.

Certain studies forecast a growth of 2.25% in comparison with the 1.23% (4) increase in the world population. It should be noted that these figures also include Christians who live Pentecostal spirituality in their own Churches and those who occasionally come into contact with the Pentecostal reality. Also, there are no statistics for those who have abandoned Pentecostalism. 

In fact, the openness of the first groups who offered the grace of "Baptism in the Spirit" as a source of spiritual renewal was followed by a clash in the area of mission due to the rejection by the other Christian Communities: the Pentecostal certainty of salvation obtained through "Baptism in the Spirit" and the fear of being found guilty by God for failing to convert those who say they are Christians (but not Pentecostals) obviously imbues Pentecostals with missionary zeal.

The focus of this paper of Father Gomez is particularly on the relationship of Pentecostalism to Roman Catholicism. This is because of serious and official dialogues between Rome and certain Pentecostal fellowships, which many find amazing when they learn of such meetings. It is here that Gomez proves immensely helpful when he notes:

With regard to Catholics, this movement, born as a reaction to a "dead orthodoxy" and a "Christian nominalism," has retained its negative attitude: the identification of Rome with Babylon, inherited from the Reformation, has not entirely disappeared.

The situation changed with the recognition of the Pentecostal experience within the Christian communities and consequently does not make a change of ecclesial affiliation necessary. Pentecostals recognize bonds of communion with charismatics: they claim, in fact, that the Holy Spirit works excellently in those believers who have received "Baptism in the Spirit" independently of the Church to which they belong. But this spiritual unity, which has given rise to certain missionary associations and alliances, does not legitimize Christian Communities as such.

Catholics and Pentecostals meet all over the world and confront each other everywhere. Aggression and diffidence have frequently been at the root of their relations: the desire to convert clouds minds and hearts. Pentecostals have difficulty in recognizing the saving value of the Catholic Church and of the sacraments, whereas many Catholics view with suspicion the proliferation of divine interventions and consider the promises of healing, prophecies and spiritual gifts as forms of proselytism.

The Catholic-Pentecostal international dialogue began in 1972. It should be remembered that 40 years ago, Catholics were in the dark about Pentecostal spirituality and missiology. Nor did the majority of Pentecostals know of the rich spirituality and missionary vitality of Catholics. Catholics and Pentecostals were diffident and wary of each other.

The contact established between them, thanks to the appearance of Catholic Charismatic Renewal together with the participation of a Pentecostal leader in the Second Vatican Council, made it possible to initiate a dialogue with several leaders and groups of the classical Pentecostals. This dialogue aimed at deepening their knowledge of each other and at overcoming reciprocal misunderstandings.

Today, through documents published for the International Catholic Pentecostal Dialogue, Catholics and Pentecostals can recognize certain confessional traits proper to their dialogue partner and can understand the basic reasons for some of their attitudes. The process is far from easy. Indeed, their missiology and expression of spirituality are not the same, while their approach to theology is radically different.

The most important question faced in the interchange between Catholic and Pentecostal dialogue has clearly been this: How does one become a Christian? Gomez continues in his overview by writing:

These differences have emerged even more clearly in the current phase of dialogue (the fifth, since the beginning of the conversations), which addressed, in the context of biblical and patristic testimony, the theme of how one becomes a Christian. Common and complementary points in faith, conversion, the following of Christ, experience and formation were identified.

On the other hand, regarding "Baptism in the Spirit," a basic experience for Pentecostals, doctrinal differences emerged within Pentecostalism itself, together with the need for a pastoral rethinking, given that not everyone has had this experience.

Perhaps the most missiologically insightful portion of the Gomez article was its insight into how mission actually proceeds in this expression of Protestantism. Says Gomez:

Many people consider Pentecostalism as the last fruit of the Reformation. Its minimal ecclesial structure, missionary zeal, doctrinal simplicity and openness to the "supernatural," as well as its cultural flexibility, strong emotional connotation and ability to give rise to religious experiences, give it a special character of its own.

The urgent need to have and to inspire the vital experience of the Holy Spirit and the certainty of salvation explain part of its fascination and success. In this regard, during the September 2005 Study Seminar organized jointly in São Paulo by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the bishops’ conference of Brazil, Cardinal Walter Kasper presented the bishops’ work, saying: "A critical examination of our pastoral conscience is urgently necessary. We must ask ourselves: why are Catholics leaving our Church and moving to these groups? What is lacking in our parishes? What can we learn from the pastoral closeness of Pentecostals? What must we avoid?"

Whenever addressing Pentecostalism, it must be remembered that to Pentecostals, having and awakening religious experiences is essential. The very fact that the Pentecostal/Charismatic Movement is perceived as a new and definitive movement of divine origin, a sign of the last times, and that it presents "Baptism in the Spirit" as "an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that precedes the coming of Jesus Christ" and is obligatory as such if one desires to be a Christian, poses serious theological problems for Catholics.

Gomez concludes with this particularly Catholic observation:

It is clear to Catholics that the experience known as "Baptism in the Holy Spirit" (totally distinct from the sacrament of baptism) is neither the loftiest nor fullest form of experience of the Holy Spirit. It is one experience among others that is a feature of a certain spirituality within Christianity and demands serious and continuous spiritual and pastoral discernment on the part of the Church (italics mine).

Though evangelical Protestants should disagree, if they remain convinced of their understanding of basic justification and sanctification, with post-Tridentine Catholic formulations they can and should consider these kinds of fair-minded Catholic studies and then carefully weigh the value of particular criticisms. The historic Protestant view of baptism is neither Roman nor Pentecostal, as my forthcoming book on baptism (Zondervan, 2007) will, I believe, clearly demonstrate. But the emphasis on the Spirit’s anointing work, or baptizing of believers with power, in Pentecostal contexts should be seen as “one experience among others . . .” not as the sine qua non of true spirituality. This aspect of Pentecostalism remains the one part most difficult for non-Pentecostals to embrace. The fact that such a dialogue is now taking place is a good thing. It speaks of better days for all Christians since we are now, more than ever, attempting to listen to one another carefully and understand our differences. This too honors the Spirit who lives in all of us who truly know Jesus by faith, whether Catholic, Pentecostal or mainstream Protestant.

This entry was posted in Roman Catholicism. Bookmark the permalink.