Friday, January 27, 2012

Letter to Penny Quostal, part 3

Letter to Penny Quostal, continued:

At this point in our disquisition we come to an interesting point. God makes use of some very shady people. I am thoroughly tired of people complaining about Renaissance popes and their decadence. In the past century or two, the popes have been routinely virtuous men, but in times past there have been popes who came with, well, baggage. And sometimes with an illegitimate child or five. The Catholic Church has cleaned up its act over the past 500 years pretty well, despite some recent unpleasantness. The track record of Pentecostal faith-healer-miracle-workers is at least as dicey as the worst epochs of Catholic history.  I have already mentioned Brother Swaggart. Don’t forget the amazing Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, Marvin Gorman, Ted Haggard and the great Benny Hinn whose wife is divorcing him. One only wonders who will get possession of the Gulf Stream jet that he purchased for his ministry at the price of $36 million.

Catholics have had their share of venal, sinful, money-grubbing  idiots and so has every other Christian group. The abuse of the manifestations of God’s Holy Spirit does not detract from their reality. I’ve had worried people asked me “If the preacher who healed my lumbago has been disgraced, will my lumbago come back?” 

We Catholics solved this problem in 313 AD when we dealt with the Donatist heresy. The Donatists held that sinful clergy, who may have handed over the sacred books during the Roman persecutions could not validly administer sacraments. In 311, a new bishop was ordained for Carthage by a bishop who had weakened during persecution. The Donatists eventually left the Catholic Church and chose a fellow named Donatus as their bishop, hence the name. Pope Miltiades said that the moral  perfection of the man is not the point. 

It is grace that saves and if the bishop or priest or deacon administers a sacrament doing what the Church says and intending what the Church intends, sinner though he may be, the Sacrament is valid. After all, you may think your confirmation was just swell followed by a great party and a lot of nice presents, but secretly the bishop who confirmed you was running guns to the Hottentots and losing Archdiocesan funds at the dog track, so, without knowing it, you wouldn’t really be confirmed! Or still worse ordained! The Donatists kept long pedigrees of perfect bishops to prove that they had nothing but saints in their background. Yeah, right.

Because of this episode, the Catholic Church developed the principal of “Ex opere operato” or “From the work having been done.”  ( It loses a little in the translation.) It means that if a bad priest says Mass it is still Mass if he says it the way he’s supposed to.  On the other hand a very good priest can say a very bad Mass. He may be a saint who is clueless, who writes his own consecration that is politically correct, consecrates twinkies and Hawaiian punch at children’s liturgies and is the nicest guy in the world. No matter what a sweetheart he may be and no matter how good he is with dogs and small children, his Masses are still not valid. Entertaining maybe, but not valid. 

A bad priest can say a good Mass, a bad bishop can ordain good priests, a bad pope can still count on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, because it’s all grace. Christ is the one who works in the Sacraments, not the priest or the bishop or the pope, and though God may work through a bad man, that man will have a harsher judgment, St. James tells us. (James 3:1) 

Herein lies part of the answer to the question asked: Sacraments are external and objective. The manifestations of the Holy Spirit are not. They are internal and subjective. They are a reaction of our humanity to the experience of God’s amazing love and grace. They are subject to our own personal interpretation and sometimes misinterpretation. They are words from God to the human heart and, to the degree that the heart clings to corruption, it corrupts the word that God may send prophetically. Sacraments are completely different. They are outward, objective visible signs established by Christ to give grace. More on this later.

The whole strange business points out some very important truths regarding the “manifestations” of the Holy Spirit. First, they are not necessarily signs of  a person’s sanctity. The Scriptures say that “by their fruits you shall know them” (Matt 7:16), not by their “gifts.” And what are the fruits of the Holy Spirit? (Galatians 5:22) “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control ...” 

The Christian life and the indwelling of the Spirit of God are to be judged not by whether you fall over, or can heal the sick, but by a life of genuine love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Manifestations of the Holy Spirit are always prophetic, that is, they are in a certain sense, words from God and so are subject to our imperfect understanding. They are the reaction of the human person to the sensed presence of God. They are always part God and part us. In 1st Corinthians 13:9 we read, “For we know in part and we prophesy in part...”  In other words, no prophecy outside of the word of Scripture is 100% and even our individual interpretation of Biblical prophecy is incorrect, at least in part. That’s why God gave us a pope in Rome. Part of his job is to guard the authentic tradition of revealed truth. 

Without real authority, you get some really weird stuff.  Just think of the many times that “Biblical prophecy” has pinpointed the return of Lord at tea time of a Thursday, and then the prophet calls a press conference on Friday, explains how miscalculated and calls it for the coming Monday. You think people would get tired of it. “For we know in part and we prophesy in part.”  All these things are part God and part us. And that’s just fine. It makes them no less real, but I want to arrive at the point of holiness and humility that it is mostly God and not mostly me! 

Scripture tells us to “test the spirits to see if they are from God because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”(1John 4:1)  Sometimes it’s mostly  us and very little God.  This goes for Pentecostal faith healers and Catholic mystic wanna-bees who see the blessed Mother appearing every Tuesday and Thursday in a cabbage patch on the family farm. 

For all its problems and abuses, the Pentecostal/Charismatic renewal was not a waste of time. Fr. Branagan of St. Armadillo’s in Amarillo makes a good point. “The real struggle in the Church is not between the so-called liberal and conservative. It is between those who believe in supernatural reality and those who don’t.”  At a time when my teachers, most of whom left the priesthood, didn’t believe a word of this stuff. It was always “Christ as...”  Christ as liberator Christ as healer, Christ as leftist rebel, Christ as misunderstood rabbi... Christ as, Christ as, Christ as... never just Christ. 

They  were gnostics who believed in salvation by progressive theology, not by grace through faith.  St Paul told St. Timothy that “people will be lovers of themselves ....not lovers of the good,  ..lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them.”(1Tim3:2-5)  Novenas and rosaries and Eucharistic adoration were all discouraged to the point of being forbidden in my seminary days and a young man could be tossed from the seminary for being too pious. The Pentecostals were my hiding place until the worst of the storm was past and it was once again allowed to believe in the power of God to heal and change lives.  They were very dark times, but for all the abuses of the Holy Spirit’s manifestations, we Pentecostals never let the theologians quite forget that God works in a real and powerful way in the world. Still, I miss Pentecostalism and long for a return of the real thing. There is so little of it left these days.

So what’s the difference between the laying of hands that confers a Sacrament and praying over people in Pentecostal prayer groups? What are Sacraments anyway? That, dear reader, will have to wait until next week.....

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