The term “charism” (“carisma”) – held by the more rigorous literary criticism to be extraneous to the extra-biblical vocabulary – has been coined by the Apostle Paul as an alternative semantic expression to elucidate to the Christians of Corinth the nature of the extraordinary phenomena of the Spirit experienced in their Church and described by them with the Hellenistic term “pneumatika.” All of the 17 New Testament texts in which the word charism recurs belong, in fact, to the Pauline writings, with the exception of 1 Pt 4:10. That the term was not used in the Gospels and in the other New Testament writings, and that its frequency is negligible even in the Apostolic Fathers, is an indication that the question of charisms emerged only rarely in the primitive preaching. St. Paul attributes a clear Christological and ecclesiological value to charism. However, the fact of its being constantly used as synonymous with other notions used in the same context, such as ministry, service (diakonia), and operation, makes the term remain open to express every “gift” given by the Spirit for the edification of the Church, but also makes it indeterminate. The range of meanings, frequently determined in their content only by context, is quite vast. Christ Himself is defined as a “charism,” that is, a gift sent by the Spirit of God. Likewise, it refers to the gratuitous vocation to faith given equally to all Christians. Charisms include virginity, but also all those more spectacular phenomena in which the Spirit of Christ is manifested, such as speaking in tongues and healings. St. Paul’s concern is to hold the list of charisms as open as possible in order to guarantee a place to all the gifts of the Spirit and to all Christians threatened with being left in the background by the more stable charisms and by those charisms which serve more immediately for the building up of the community. These latter charisms would include those of the Apostles, founders of Churches; and those of prophets and teachers in the interpretation of the faith, functions or ministries which Paul is always careful to consider to be gifts of the Spirit. This Pauline theology of charisms hinges around certain fundamental principles: that of the unity in variety of charisms and of variety in unity; that of dependence of all charisms on the judgment and interpretation of the other prophets, but especially of the Apostles; that of their character of service on behalf of the good of the whole community. Even when the gifts of the Spirit seem to be tied more to individual persons than to objective requirements for the management of the Church, they are not given so much for individual sanctification as for the growth of all in the faith. This has led St. Paul, on the one hand, to establish an intrinsic dependence of all charisms on charity, in which Christ, who made Himself the servant of all, is expressed as the gift sent by the Spirit of God. On the other hand, he constantly gives the first place to the charism of the Apostle, whose ministry is that of guiding the Church in the work of evangelization.
In the two pastoral letters to Timothy (I 4:14; II 1:6), charism appears with a new meaning, distinct from that which it had in the letters to the Romans (1:11; 5:15-16; 6:23; 11:29; 12:6) and to the Corinthians (I 1:7; 7:7; 12:4, 9, 28, 30-31; II1:11). It is made to depend on the imposition of hands, expressing ministerial-sacramental ordination. This would seem to be opposed to the preceding doctrine according to which the “gifts” of the Holy Spirit are already conferred on the Christian with Baptism. It is quite clear that in Pauline ecclesiology the charismatic element belongs to the essence of the mystery of the Church and of Christian experience, like ministry (or ecclesial office) and the sacraments. Nevertheless, theology has continually posed the question whether St. Paul simply used the doctrine of charisms to express the idea of an operation of the Holy Spirit within the Church which arouses Christians to an ethical behavior, or whether he also held, as in the two pastoral letters, that charism is a constitutive element of the ordained ministry as such. Did he intend to present charism as an element of the spiritual life of the Christian, or a valid model for the organization of the Christian community?
The Protestant and the Catholic traditions are divided over this interpretation of the intentions of St. Paul. Whereas the propensity of the former has always been that of making the ordained ministry coincide with a form of charism, so as to exclude its properly sacramental origin, the latter has assumed charism only as a marginal element, unilaterally emphasizing the sacramental-institutional structure of the Church. The convergence of these two conceptions, now underway, is occurring in the Protestant camp on the basis of the reappraisal of the ordained ministry, and in the Catholic camp with the recovery of charism as a fundamental element of the Constitution of the Church. The Magisterium itself has given a very important contribution with Mystici Corporis and above all with Vatican II, whose texts on charisms reveal an extraordinary richness. This concordance converges towards a progressive emptying of the antinomy theorized to exist between nature and the supernatural, between faith and reason, charity and the law, charism and institution. The most radical attempt underway in the Catholic camp is that of turning the terms of the problem upside down (Sartori). It is not just a matter of recognizing that there is no structural contradiction between charism and institution, since both come from God and from His Spirit as from one source, but of affirming that sacramentality itself and ministries themselves have a charismatic origin and are of a charismatic nature (Sartori). Sacramental ministries would only be the outcome of the official and historical authentication made a posteriori by the Church, which by her authority sanctions, in a more or less definitive way, the charisms which have proven themselves to be of greater service in the building up and management of the Church. This thesis presupposes the existence of a fundamentally charismatic structure of the Church. That the dynamics of this process of reappraisal coincide exactly with current theology and with the practice of a certain type of contemporary Protestantism with regard to ministries should be verified. In any case, examples of this progressive institutionalization of charisms can be found in the past in the institution of minor orders, as well as, for example, in that of exorcists. 1 In the future this could take place with the recognition of new ecclesial clerical and lay ministries, of a more or less avowedly sacramental character. In this thesis, the notion of charism is used according to a sense that is fundamentally applicable to all the forms assumed by the operations and gifts of the Holy Spirit, so as to be applicable to Christ Himself and to the Church, without taking into account the formal and material specifications already discerned by theology. Leaving aside the sociological sense assumed by the term charism in modern literature following Max Weber, 2 in which charism and charismatic signify any spiritual and cultural force capable of creating any type of “leadership,” in modern theological terminology the term has assumed a specific Christological and ecclesiological significance, obtained in virtue of the conceptual developments made possible above all by scholasticism. This has enabled a distinction to be made between charism and other forms of intervention by the Holy Spirit, such as created grace, the gifts of the Spirit conferred in Baptism, the infused supernatural virtues, and the grace of office, poured out for personal salvation or for the building up of the Church through the ordinary sacramental economy of the Church. Having recourse to a fundamental notion of charism and to a dynamic understanding of sacrament is insufficient to take away the doctrinal tension historically created between charism and institution. This is because the fact remains that Baptism and Holy Orders, as well as the other sacraments, although they ultimately have their origin in a gift or charism made to men by the Spirit of God through Christ, remain institutional elements which have their immediate or mediate institutional genesis in the Incarnation of Christ. The Church can only intervene in a limited way with regard to their existence and nature. It does not seem that the Church can institutionalize charisms by giving them a properly sacramental structure. On the other hand, it is not possible to prescind from the fact that the institution of the sacraments (even if this occurred through the mediation of the Apostles) is not attributed directly to the Holy Spirit, in the same way as the charisms. It is true that Christ is the total epiphany of the Spirit of God in history, for which reason it is not possible to contrast the Holy Spirit with Christ, supreme expression of the very notion of unity. However, it is equally true that if one does not distinguish the different operations of each Person, the very notion of the Trinity is put in jeopardy. To overcome the tension that has historically emerged from the bipolar relationship between charism and institution, theorized by Luther as the antinomy “Law and Gospel” (which leads to the doctrine of the two Churches: visible and invisible), and further radicalized by the antijuridical manifesto of R. Sohm 3 on the existence of an absolute contradiction between law and the Church, it is not necessary to attribute to the Church a fundamental structure that is solely charismatic, in which the transformations on an institutional level would assume a purely quantitative and not qualitative character. It is necessary, on the other hand, to review the ecclesiological significance of the term “institution.”
Contrary to that which occurs in the modern State, the institutional element in the Church does not coincide with the public organization of power, that is, with authority. Inter-ecclesial relations do not occur, in fact, between person and institution, but rather between institution and institution, that is, between person and person, because the sacraments and the ministries do not exist in themselves as institutional abstractions along the lines of the logical hypostatization applied to the State and to its offices, but as an ontological dimension of baptized and sacramentally ordained persons. If by institution one means the stable and constitutive structures of a social reality, one must agree that this structure is conferred on the Church by Sacrament and Word, which interpenetrate each other. The Church, in fact, begins to exist as such with the sacrament of Baptism, diversifying herself from a mere state of “Christian religion” founded only on the Word and on faith in Christ. Thus the institutional dimension is realized around the two poles of Baptism and Holy Orders (which converge with the other sacraments in the Eucharist), or in other words, around the common priesthood, which is expressed also according to the modality of the Word that emerges in thesensus fidei of all the faithful, and around the ministerial priesthood, in which Sacrament and Word assume the binding force of the potestas sacra. The only non-institutional element of the constitution of the Church is charism. As one can gather from the doctrine of St. Paul, the existence of charisms presupposes the reception of Baptism, as is clearly evident from the letters to the Romans and Corinthians, before the conferral of the sacrament of Orders (1-2 Tim). Thus it is necessary to distinguish between institution and constitution in the Church, because the ecclesial constitution does not coincide with the institutional element, as is the case in the structure of the State. The constitution of the Church always necessarily also includes the charismatic element, freely raised up by the Holy Spirit. The evangelical counsels are one of the permanent and paradigmatic forms of this eschatological witness intrinsic to all charisms. Notwithstanding appearances and despite various theories that have been proposed in the course of history, the real tension which has manifested itself in the historical experience of the Church has not been that between charism and institution – the latter being identified in a reductive way with the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood. On the contrary, the real tension has been that between the laity and the clergy, that is, between the common and the ministerial priesthood, which comprise the two poles of the institutional dimension. 4 If charism and institution have been conceived to be antithetical, this is because there has always been a tacit and never sufficiently verified presupposition, going back to Montanism, that charism was the almost exclusive privilege of the laity, understood not in the ecclesiological sense of the laity as expressed by Vatican II, but as a sociological element in which the “base” of the Church is manifested. In reality, even the Protestant Reformation, in which the ideas of the ancient and medieval spiritualist movements in the Church converged, counterposed the common priesthood of the laity, undervalued during the entire Middle Ages, with the ministerial priesthood of clerics, always in a position of hegemony in the Church. Thus they gave the impression of contrasting the charismatic with the institutional dimension. Vatican II, in teaching that charisms are given by the Holy Spirit to the “faithful of every order,” has overcome this antinomy, without denying the existence of charisms specific to the priestly order, such as that of the infallibility of the Pope (LG 25, 3). Charismatic gifts, always given to both poles of the institutional dimension (the common and the ministerial priesthood), have the task of provoking the ministerial priesthood towards a greater purity of values and of relativizing any possible claim it may make to set itself up as an autonomously exclusive guide of the Church. The structural problem of the Church is thus not that of realizing the unity between the charismatic and institutional dimensions, supplanting the constitutive function of Sacrament and Word so as to derive the institutional dimension from charism. Instead, the structural problem is that of realizing the unity of the common and ministerial priesthood. They are related to each other above all according to a relation of reciprocal immanence (specific structural principle of the communion “Ecclesiae et Ecclesiarum5 ), since the common priesthood continues to subsist in the ministerial priesthood and the ministerial priesthood exists and has its reason for being only for the sake of service to the common priesthood. Charism is always given within the institutional dimension to aid it to realize the equilibrium intrinsic to its own polarity. Recalling to it the absolute priority of the Spirit and relativizing its power so that it does not become autarchic and absolute, charism vivifies it, helping it to overcome the danger of competition proper to every form of power, which has always been translated in the Church into a preeminence either of the hierarchy over the laity or of the laity over the hierarchy. Giving in to the recurrent objection according to which charism cannot be measured from the juridical perspective, the Code has abdicated its responsibility of penetrating to the heart of the constitutional structure of the Church through a treatment of the problem of charism. In effect, a member of the faithful is not constituted solely by his sacramental baptismal structure, on account of which he is invested with the common priesthood and the sensus fidei, but also by the possibility of becoming the holder of a charism. Without this potential charismatic dimension, the faithful (and consequently the entire People of God) would remain gravely mortified in their ecclesial and juridical identity. Vatican II does not hesitate to recognize among the principal rights of the faithful, the right to exercise their charisms (AA 3, 4).
Evidently, allusions to the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church are not lacking in the Code. This can be seen in can. 879 with regard to the sacrament of Confirmation; in can. 369 as the unifying force of the particular Church; in can. 375 § 1 as the constitutive element of apostolic succession; or in can. 747 § 1 in relation to the assistance of the Holy Spirit to the Magisterium of the Church. A clear reference to the “gifts of the Holy Spirit” appears in the norms on the Institutes of Consecrated Life (can. 573-746). However, it is necessary to keep in mind the fact that this expression (can. 605), together with others such as “donationes” (can. 577), or “patrimonium instituti” (can. 631 § 1) – evidently held by the legislator to be more anodyne, if not totally different – were purposely chosen to substitute for the term “charism,” inexorably cut out from the Code. It appeared seven times in the Preparatory Scheme of 1982. 6 However, contrary to Vatican II, where charisms are always attributed to all the faithful as such, in theScheme they are exclusively reserved to members of the institutes of consecrated life. The embarrassment of the legislator with regard to the reality of charisms is thus very evident. Despite the fact that it does not have an institutional character, charism has a precise juridical significance. Two texts of Vatican II are sufficient to prove it: that of LG 12, 2 in which it is affirmed, along the lines of the Pauline tradition, that charisms must be submitted to the judgment of Pastors, who are not to extinguish the gifts of the Spirit; and that of AG 28, 1 (following the text of AA 3, 4 mentioned above), in which charism is considered to be foundation of the duty-right of the faithful to collaborate in the spreading of the Gospel. The juridical significance of charisms is clearly revealed in the fact that – parallel to the duties and rights of the faithful as such – it sets up an inviolable limit to the exercise of the sacra potestas of the Pastors, 7 who have the responsibility not only to judge the authenticity of charisms, but also and above all to respect them in their right to exist and to be practiced. This negative judgment on the elimination of charisms from the canonical order is attenuated by the fact that the Code, contrary to the Preparatory Projects up to 1980, has recognized that the institutes of consecrated life have a constitutional and not simply associative character. The Code, in the footsteps of Vatican II, has sought to reinforce their ecclesiological and constitutional density, without wishing to resolve the oldquaestio disputata with regard to whether the evangelical counsels have their origin in the ius divinum, even though they represent in any case an institutionalized form of charism. Thus it not only declares them to belong to the “life and sanctity of the Church” (can. 207 § 2), but clearly underlines the fact that they are a “divine gift that the Church has received from the Lord” (can. 575).

* First published: “Carisma,” Digesto4 – Discipline Pubblicistiche II (Turin 1987), pp. 504-508.

1  Cf. K. Rahner, “Das Charismatische in der Kirche,” in: LThK (Freiburg 1958), II, pp. 1027-1030.

2  Cf. Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie, 3 Bände (Tübingen 1920).

3  “Das Kirchenrecht steht mit dem Wesen der Kirche in Widerspruch,” in: Kirchenrecht, I (Leipzig 1892), pp. 1 and 700.

4  Cf. E. Corecco, “Profili istituzionali di movimenti nella Chiesa,” in: I Movimenti nella Chiesa negli anni ’80. Atti del 1º Convegno Internazionale, Rome, 23-25 Sept. 1981, ed. by M. Camisasca and M. Vitali (Milan 1982), pp. 203-234.

5  Cf. E. Corecco, “Il catalogo dei doveri-diritti del fedele nel CIC,” in I Diritti fondamentali della persona umana e la libertà religiosa. Atti del V Colloquio Giuridico (8-10 March 1984) (Rome 1985).

6  Cf. can. 580, 590 § 3, 631 § 1, 708, 716 § 1, 717 § 3, 722 § 1-2.

7 Cf. E. Corecco, “Aspetti della ricezione del Vaticano II nel Codice di Diritto Canonico,” in: Il Vaticano II e la Chiesa, ed. by G. Alberigo and J.-P. Jossua (Brescia 1985), pp. 333-397.