Charisms Don’t Make You a Saint

One of the big puzzles that many Catholics have grappled with in recent years is the baffling phenomenon of some charismatic figure (one thinks of a Rev. Marcial Maciel, for instance) who can, for years, inspire or otherwise offer blessing and solace to good and decent Christians who are full of faith and obedient to the Church. Said figure can preach or write clear and engaging explications of the Faith. He can do all sorts of wonderful things that help struggling souls find healing, that give new purpose to the hopeless, and that help the lost discover the riches of grace in Christ. He is beloved by his devotees– and not without reason.

And yet that charismatic figure then turns out to be bound up with very serious sin or even shown to be, as in Father Maciel’s case, a monster of diabolical proportions.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

It’s a question that haunts people in the wake of the Maciel debacle and of similar falls. On the one hand, you had people — aware of the evidence pointing to a radically duplicitous life — pointing and waving at the flashing red lights and loud warning klaxons that were sounding with ever greater shrillness while the evidence piled up that the Beloved Hero was an utter fraud.

On the other hand, you had lots of people, very good people — a blessed pope, even — trusting men like Father Maciel and simply unable to bring themselves to believe that the people waving their hands and shouting warnings could possibly be right. Some of them even attacked the critics and whistleblowers as enemies of the Church, motivated by evil spirits or malice or worse. And oftentimes the (very reasonable) thing holding them back from so much as letting themselves suspect the fraud was, in part, that Jesus Himself had said:

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? So, every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit. A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits. (Mt 7:15-20)

“So there you are!” said the defenders of “solidly orthodox” scoundrels like Father Maciel. “His fruit” — by which they meant orthodox preaching or writing, inspirational talks, various things done that they found helpful, illuminating, moving, healing, or motivational –“is good. I’ve experienced his fruit in my own life! He was an instrument of healing and conversion for me. He saved my soul! He brought me into the Church. He taught me my faith straight from the Catechism, and it changed my life. I will be grateful to that man till the day I die. So he can’t be a bad tree! Anybody who says otherwise simply has to be motivated by hatred of the Church, envy, or just plain Satan.”

And then it all comes out. The guy was a fraud. He’d been playing his adulators for suckers for years, lying to them all and even using them as human shields to protect himself while he subtly worked them into a fury against his critics, investigators, and accusers (all while adopting a properly martyred pose of patient resignation to persecution, of course) and sent them out to shout down and destroy the whistleblowers and witnesses to his perfidy.

Everybody is stunned. They have to work through all the stages of dying to reach the place where they really do admit to themselves that they were not just suckers, but suckers who persecuted whistleblowers on behalf of the guy who suckered them. How could they have gotten played so badly? There is a period of mourning — and then we move on to believing completely in the next guy with a gift of gab or a knack for writing snappy prose/singing catchy Christian tunes/making popular Christian movies. Pretty soon we have that guy on the fast track to canonization, and if somebody says that there’s something sketchy about him… well, just look at his fruits! How can he possibly have something seriously wrong with his credibility?

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice…


There are a lot of dynamics that enter into this deathless tendency to credulity and idolatry — our current cult of celebrity in the West, tribalism, lack of discernment, clericalism, false humility, fear, the need for a hero, a vortex of simpleminded culture-warrior narratives that sees the Church neatly divided between Valiant Heroes Who Tell It Like It Is vs. Craven Lickspittle Members of a Shadowy Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy Out to Destroy These Heroes — but I think one factor that gets overlooked a lot centers precisely on this matter of “fruit.” What is Jesus talking about?

Well, what He is not talking about is what many defenders of religious charlatans and flimflam men believe fruit to be: namely, the exercise of charisms such as preaching, evangelization, exhortation, or (my own particular charism) yakking about the Faith and theology. How do I know? Because St. Paul understood perfectly clearly that merely being a yakker about the Faith — even a profoundly orthodox one — was no guarantee of his salvation:

Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Cor 9:25-27, emphasis added)

Paul is the original orthodox preacher of the Faith. Yet he does not see in that a slam dunk guarantee of his sanctity. He recognizes that he, even he, could still blow the race by grave sin and apostasy. So he keeps a tight rein on himself lest, in getting swept up in the razzle-dazzle of adulation from the people he ministers to, he forget his duty of discipleship and the fact that everything is from God’s grace and to God’s glory. (The above was, after all, written to the Church that was splitting up into fan clubs shouting, “I am of Paul! I am of Peter! I am of Apollos!” (cf. 1 Cor 1:11-13).) Paul was gravely concerned about the possibility that, even as he led others to Christ, he might lose his salvation himself.

And history is littered with people who demonstrate the very live possibility of this. Case in point: Tertullian. Rock-star convert. Priest. Brilliant defender of the Faith. Magnificent writer. We still quote him today. He’s the guy that gave us such lines as, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,” “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” and other quotables. The early Tertullian is one of the ablest exponents of the Faith from the patristic era.

But Tertullian ended as an apostate. The gift of gab was not a proof of sanctity. He saved others. Only God knows if he himself was saved.

This is also true for those with other, even more spectacular charisms, such as prophecy. For example, one contributor to the text of the New Testament spoke, without any possible doubt, under the inspired prophetic inspiration of the Holy Spirit. His words constitute part of the inspired word of God, and the apostle John fully endorses them as an able encapsulation of the entire gospel message. His name was Caiaphas, and he uttered this inspired prophetic oracle that neatly summarizes the truth about Jesus:

You know nothing at all; you do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish. (Jn 11:49-50)

That’s solid orthodox Christian preaching, that is. And yet, Caiaphas is not what we would call a saint or even a disciple of Jesus, given that he is directly responsible for engineering the judicial murder of the Son of God.


Examples can be multiplied, but we’ll stop there. The point is that there are two different sorts of gifts that the Church speaks of: charismatic gifts and sanctifying gifts. Here is the basic lowdown on charisms:

Whether extraordinary or simple and humble, charisms are graces of the Holy Spirit which directly or indirectly benefit the Church, ordered as they are to her building up, to the good of men, and to the needs of the world. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 799)

Charisms are fantastically diverse. Paul gives not a definitive list, but a sort of Whitman’s Sampler of them in Roman 12 and 1 Corinthians 12. There’s lots more where that came from. They range, as the Church says, from extraordinary (St. Padre Pio bilocated and St. Joseph of Cupertino levitated) to simple and humble. (My wife has a charism of hospitality. She makes our home into a cross between Rivendell and a certain house in Nazareth whose hospitality to guests was literally heavenly. That won’t get into the history books like St. Pio or the Flying Saint, but it has done wonders to show our guests the welcome of the Kingdom of God.)

Now, Paul’s point in describing the charisms is this: Your charisms are not for you. They are the gifts God gives you (typically in baptism and confirmation, though God is not bound by the sacraments) to give away. Their purpose is to build up the body of Christ, help your neighbor, and renew the face of the earth. Somebody exercising a charism is exercising it for the benefit not of himself, but another.

The fascinating thing about this is that charisms need not have any particular relationship to somebody’s maturity or sanctity. A classic example is the Mozart we see in Amadeus. He is a majestically gifted musician with a charism for creating music that still propels us into the heavens. He is also a complete jerk. Indeed, the entire drama — the very name of the film — is about a protagonist who is deeply angered that such a man is “beloved of God” and who acutely feels his own lack of giftedness in comparison to Mozart’s towering genius.

Salieri is not the first person in history to wonder why God sometimes gives immense gifts and abilities to people who are, in other ways, radically defective. But the reality, judging from experience, is that this is indeed what He does. But in each case, such charisms are given not for the benefit of the one with the gift, but for the benefit of those around him; they trace their origin and purpose back not to the gifted individual, but to Jesus who works through them to draw us to Himself into one body.

One of the ways in which we grow in grace is to be obedient to our charisms and let them be expressed. Charisms are vital to our vocation and are given by God so that we can do the work of love to which we are called. In the words of the St. Catherine of Siena Institute, “If you are called, you are gifted, and if you are gifted, you are called.” But (mark this) it is the obedience to God which is the thing that does the possessor of the charism good, not the charism per se. In the words of Albus Dumbledore, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

Indeed, without the practice of virtuous obedience to God, a charism can often just make one’s fall more complicated and disastrous. So while suppression of one’s charism through fear can be a form of disobedience, likewise perversion of one’s charism by sinfully turning it from the service of God to selfish purposes can be a much graver sin that distorts and destroys oneself and one’s gifts.

Once again, Father Maciel is instructive here: a man of massive organizational charisms who used those gifts to create an organization whose purpose, in the final analysis, was to supply him with means to pursue his proclivities and guard him from being discovered. He designed the robot so well that it went lumbering on defending him even after he was dead — because organizational systems, like computers, don’t do what we want them to do. They do what they are designed to do. Father Maciel perverted his charism to fool people into trusting him and then organized those people into a phalanx of defenders. He understood the Number One Rule of the Con Man is that a con man does not fool people. He gets people to fool themselves.


Which brings us to the second sort of spiritual gifts: sanctifying gifts. These are the gifts you get to keep. The sanctifying gifts, not the charismatic ones, are the gifts that make you like Christ, and you typically receive them in Confirmation.

Confirmation is a sacrament as old as the Church. You can see it happening, for instance, here:

Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit; for it had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. (Acts 8:14-17)

Early on, the apostles are aware that initiation into the Church involves two movements, baptism and confirmation. Confirmation strengthens us in our baptismal graces and, in particular, is ordered toward making us friends of Christ and participants in His mission. The sanctifying graces given us in that sacrament are all ordered toward making us Christlike so that, in preaching to others, we ourselves are not lost. They are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. And it is from these gifts that we get the “fruit of the Spirit” that scripture describes: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22-23).

Note that there is nothing in this list of fruits about racking up convert scalps, nor gathering crowds of impressive size, nor inspiring people with great talks, nor astounding them with wonderful and even miraculous deeds, nor inspiring them, nor a thrilling/funny/moving/orthodox conversion story, nor in a knack for recitation of Scripture and Catechism. That is because Paul is aware that the real fruit of the Spirit is rooted in the sanctifying gifts and not in the charismatic ones. He says exactly this in perhaps the most famous passage out of his entire corpus of work:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Cor 13:1-13)

Paul, as is his custom, is following his Master here — and in a way that really ought to make those who are struggling with the matter of fruit and trees prick up our ears and listen. Because the fascinating thing is that the place where Jesus makes exactly the same point Paul is making in 1 Corinthians 13 comes in the Sermon on the Mount, in the verse immediately following the passage about judging a tree by its fruits we saw above. Jesus says:

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.” (Mt 7:21-23)

That’s why the distinction between the charismatic and sanctifying gifts is so vital in asking “what went wrong?” in our discernment of Father Maciel and various other figures in the Church who have demonstrated enormous charisms but little or no sanctity. Creating ministries that pull in thousands of devoted followers, swaying big crowds with words of inspiration, becoming popular and beloved — all these things may accompany somebody who is a saint (as the lives of St. Paul, St. Francis, or Blessed John Paul II demonstrate). Saints can, in fact, prophesy in Christ’s name, cast out demons in His name, and do many mighty works in His name.

But these things — along with organizing the Legionaries, preaching to giant conferences, or becoming a media star preacher or (ahem) pudgy blabbermouth writer — do not, in themselves, constitute the fruit of sanctity and may even mask a deeply perverse spirit, as Father Maciel and sundry others demonstrate. Indeed, it should be borne in mind that the devil himself remains an extraordinarily gifted creature, with resources of intellect and a mastery of Scripture that he does not hesitate to use in his attempts to pervert us:

Then the devil took him to the holy city, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge of you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” (Mt 4:5-6)

If the devil can quote the Psalms, we should not be too surprised if his servants can quote the Catechism.

For the same reason, a mere passive-aggressive ability to observe the pieties or claim to love one’s Catholic Faith while in fact harboring hostility to Christ and His Church is one of the oldest tricks in the book, whether one is Maureen Dowd or John Corapi fomenting rebellion among his “fans” (as he now calls them) by baselessly declaring his bishop to be a blackmailer and libelous, by lying that his allegedly persecuting superiors “wanted me gone” (when SOLT, in fact, labored to persuade him to stay faithful to his vocation and remain a priest), by claiming his investigators to have been dragging out his investigation (which he himself actually hindered and destroyed by his civil lawsuit against the witnesses and his willful defection from the priesthood) — all while duplicitously promising “complete cooperation” and posing as humbly submissive to his bishop and superior as “honorable men.”

Judas, recall, also betrayed Jesus with a kiss.

Bottom line: The fruit of sanctity comes from obedience to God and is seen not in popularity, nor in hitting all the right notes calculated to stoke the pieties of conservative Catholics (as Father Maciel and men like him have been past masters at), nor even in orthodox yakking, but in “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” Look for these things — rooted in obedience to God — and not merely to dazzling charismatic gifts, and, in the words of St. Pete Townshend, we won’t get fooled again.


Image: Keystone/Getty


  • Mark P. Shea

    Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

We must raise $60,000 to fund our work and continue offering the most incisive commentary in the culture wars.

Will you please make a donation today?

Share to...