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  • Joshua Ziefle

Glossolalic Jurisprudence

As a Church historian, there are a limited amount of instances in which my academic training provides professional opportunity for me to comment on a Supreme Court nominee. So, when the news broke that Amy Coney Barrett would be the pick to fill the currently open seat, I felt that I ought to offer a few notes.


Though the details are not as clear as they could be, it has been widely reported that Barrett is affiliated with the group known as People of Praise, which among other things is part of the Charismatic Movement within Christianity. Barrett herself is Roman Catholic and, if she is part of People of Praise, is possibly a "charismatic Catholic."


My doctoral research and dissertation focused on the Charismatic Movement. Insofar as it did, I am more familiar than most with this branch of Christianity and aspects of its Catholic variant. At its core, the Charismatic Movement is a kind of "Pentecostalization" of broader Christianity that began to take root in the middle decades of the 20th century.


Let me explain.


Most people are aware, at some level, of what are known as "Pentecostals." This group of Christians coalesced in the early decades of the 20th century after seeking a deeper experience of God's Spirit and power. They connected what they called the "baptism of the Holy Spirit" with the physical expression of glossolalia (speaking in tongues). Biblically, they looked to the book of Acts to help explain their experience and practice. Tongues-speaking had a notable role in the Acts 2 account of the Day of Pentecost. Hence we had Pentecostals.


Pentecostals were regarded by many in the larger religious and secular culture as outliers and eccentrics. They were generally shunned. Members of affiliated groups, in the early decades of the 1900s, formed into their own uniquely Pentecostal denominations. At least two of these groups today number amongst the largest Protestant denominations in the United States.


At mid-century, other Christians began to grow curious about Pentecostal experience and expression. Some sought the same work of the Holy Spirit to which Pentecostals had testified. Initially within Protestantism and later in Roman Catholicism, Christian believers outside Pentecostalism began to seek such Holy Spirit-centered experience . Yet even while they did so they remained within their original denominational homes rather than joining up with purely Pentecostal groups. Thus was born the Charismatic Movement in Christianity.


It may seem strange that Christians as different as Pentecostals and Roman Catholics would come together in any way. The former hails from just about the lowest of "low Church" expressions, while the latter is a liturgical exemplar. High-church Catholics had a lot to look down on. Pentecostals for their part could be very suspicious of Catholics, inheriting a generic Protestant theological revulsion of Rome to which was added an end-times apocalyptic mindset. In spite of this, though, charismatic Catholicism began to to take root--perhaps in part to the shared openness to the mysteriousness and miraculous of the divine that could characterize both Pentecostal and Catholic.


In the mid-to-later 1960s, first at Duquesne University and then at Notre Dame, Catholics began seeking a new experience of the the Spirit. Some began speaking in tongues. One of the groups coming out of this revival in South Bend, Indiana was the People of Praise.


In the wake of last week's news, commentator Bill Maher has apparently called Barett crazy. He also referenced her religion and the practice of speaking in tongues. And while, if you Google "People of Praise" you can find a lot of conversation about the group's purported practices (which my brief thoughts here do not address), I would say that none of this ought to be necessarily connected to Barrett's possible relationship with the heart of charismatic Catholicism. Even if we find out that People of Praise is a less-than-ideal organization, this does not mean the Charismatic Movement is some kind of cult.


Over time, the Pentecostal/Charismatic Movement has grown to be one of the dominant expressions of worldwide Christianity. According to the numbers provided by the World Christian Database, there are something like 644 million people affiliated with the broader revival around the world. That is, roughly speaking, a little more than 8% of the entire global population and more than 25% of all Christians. Charismatics proper represent a smaller number (268 million), but are still a significant group.


All this to say that a person connected to charismatic Christianity is not exactly living an obscure existence in the hinterlands of world religion. The larger movement is international and diverse, and has drawn the attention--and adherence--of many. I myself am a Pentecostal minister and part of the largest Pentecostal fellowship in the world.


As for the specifics of the "People of Praise" group, I defer to others with more knowledge and awareness. If they are found to be problematic, I simply wish to say that the entirety of their beliefs and practices need not be representative of the whole of the Charismatic Movement.


Regarding Barrett's abilities and qualifications to be a Supreme Court Justice? Whether she speaks in tongues is not where any focus should be. There could be a lot of reasons why our Senate and people may decide that she is a solid or less than ideal candidate. The "guilt by assumed peculiarity" of linking of her to the Charismatic Movement need not be one of them. Supreme Court Justices, after all, can speak in tongues and still be good judges.

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