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Our readers asked:

Does the Catholic Church have an official stance on speaking in tongues?

Fr. Joe Answers:

Question: Some of my Pentecostal friends believe that speaking in tongues is a sign that you are “saved.” Does the Catholic Church have an official stance on speaking in tongues?

I don’t believe that the Catholic Church has an official stance on speaking in tongues. In recent years its approach to this phenomenon seems to have been one of cautious acceptance, with an emphasis on the “cautious.”

Speaking in tongues (also known as “glossolalia,” from the Greek word “glossa” meaning tongue or language) has been part of Catholic experience at two periods of our history.

The first was in the very early Church, as recorded in the New Testament. There are three references in the Acts of the Apostles to speaking in tongues (Acts 2:4,6, 10:46 and 19:6). In these instances, speaking in tongues is described as a community-wide experience which assists in the establishment and expansion of the community of faith. When St. Paul describes tongues in his letter to the Christians in Corinth (1 Corinthians 14:5) he seems to be observing not a community-wide event but a gift that particular Christians receive. Paul recognizes it as a gift from the Holy Spirit, but considers it a less important gift than some others and counsels that it must serve, as do all the Spirit’s gifts, to build up the community rather than create distinctions or divisions among its members.

After the time of St. Paul, speaking in tongues does not make a wide appearance in the Catholic Church until 1967. In that year a Catholic prayer group meeting near Duquesne University in Pittsburgh received this gift. Other charismatic Catholic prayer groups began to experience speaking in tongues, and it became a key element in the development of the charismatic movement within the Church. It usually takes place at prayer meetings, but can also be part of private, individual prayer.

Speaking in tongues is not a phenomena unique to Catholic Christians. Some Protestant Christians in the United States, called “Pentecostals,” began to speak in tongues at the beginning of the 20th century. They considered it a sign of being baptized by the Holy Spirit. Speaking in tongues had spread to some “mainline” Protestant denominations by 1960.

What is glossolalia? Some have believed that the “tongue” spoken is an ancient language not known to the speaker, or perhaps a combination of different languages. But this does not seem to be the case. Linguistic researchers who have studied this practice believe that it’s not a true language but rather consists of sounds that are formed like speech but have no intelligibility of their own. It’s not a miraculous occurance, but can be a genuine form of prayer.

While the Catholic charismatic movement has spread throughout the world, and charismatic prayer groups have found a home in many Catholic parishes, this movement would still represent a minority of Catholics. The Catholic Church does not believe that speaking in tongues is necessary for salvation or that its practice makes one a “better” Catholic or Christian.

Is speaking in tongues good or bad? The answer is probably that it depends. St. Paul’s test for judging gifts of the Spirit may still be the best. If speaking in tongues (or any other gift) brings genuine wisdom, understanding, right judgment, knowledge, and reverence to a person or a community, it’s likely to be a genuine gift of the Spirit. If a community which practices speaking in tongues is also characterized by joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trust, gentleness, humility, generosity, mercy, justice and truth, then it seems evident that the Holy Spirit is at work there. If, however, speaking in tongues leads to elitism, a sense of some Christians being “in” and others “out”, anger, dissension or divisiveness, then that particular faith community may be focusing too much on the gift of tongues to the detriment of other gifts which might more effectively build up its unity.

Fr Joe Scott CSP lives in Los Angeles and is a longtime contributor to the Busted Halo Question Box

The Author : Fr. Joe
Fr. Joe Scott, CSP, has been a campus minister, pastor and editor as a Paulist priest.
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  • Rene

    Thanks for the article Fr. Joe. From what I understand is that when the apostles spoke to the crowd in tongues, everyone understood the message no matter what their spoken language was at the time. However, today only the speaker understands & that can’t be right. If it is a gift then all in the crowd should understand. How do they know that they are not speaking the tongue of the devil himself & he is not teasing God to the fact that he can touch even his best. If everyone in the congregation or group does not understand, we should steer clear of it. Most times the speaker themselves don’t understand what they just said or did.

  • Natalie Rosamund

    Oh my goodness, I must chime in that speaking in tongues is a miraculous occurrence! After writing a letter of forgiveness in 1995, (and I had been steeped in Scripture at the time), it felt like water was poured over my head and I began weeping and speaking in tongues. At the time I was by myself by a swimming pool. I kept thinking that this gift would end, especially if I sinned. But it never has left me. It has no beginning and no end, and is easier to speak than English. This has been a private prayer language for me. However one time I felt compelled to share it. I had been teaching ESL to high school students from around the world at Pepperdine University. One afternoon we took all the classes to have lunch under the trees. I sat with a few girls from Israel who were not in my class. My tongues sounds very Hebrew to me, so I spoke a couple lines and asked if it meant anything. Their eyes grew wide, and they said that I had spoken Hebrew mixed with some language they’d never heard, and what they could make out was, (and they said it in unison): “The One, the One is coming Who is going to raise everyone from the dead.” I was so thrilled that I spoke another couple lines and they said it was something about John from the Bible but they could not make out the rest. Tongues is not something that is required for believers, or that should puff them up. Rather, a gift is a commentary on the Giver. It seems in my research that the Catholic and Orthodox churches can be so leery of it that they often emphasise how unimportant it is, a minor gift at best. It’s a far different matter if you have been given this gift, I can tell you. It helps show you that the God of the universe is alive, is real. It is a blessing, and we are to desire God’s good gifts. And He shall give to each of us the gifts that He knows we need. But let us be excited about tongues as being a miraculous sign of God… because it truly is!

    • Jesus is God

      Hallelujah Natalie! Praise Jesus our blessed and soon coming King of kings! I am 55 now Natalie and I received the Holy Ghost baptism with the gift of speaking in tongues in 1982 when I was “born again” in the Holy Spirit. I too am a born again Catholic! We should encourage every single believer to ask the Lord for the supernatural gift of praying in the Holy Ghost! If I hadn’t received this majestic perfect supernatural manifestation of the Holy Spirit living within us, I would probably be dead now! I pray that all Christians would receive the gift of speaking in tongues. Frankly, given the horrific wickedness that Christians have to confront in the world today, I don’t see how a Christian can live without it. May the Lord bless you Natalie! Jesus is Lord and He came in human flesh to blaze the path for all true Christians to follow through the anointing of the Holy Ghost!!! Jesus is our soon coming King! Hallelujah!!!

      • Natalie Rosamund

        I’m so sorry I didn’t reply to this sooner– I replied in my heart and in my mind! Thank you so much, and I say a hearty “Amen” to what you said! I am happy you are delighting in this good gift of God! May God bless you richly, may His peace that goes beyond what we can understand fill you! :-)

  • dulce

    Thank you father Joe.

  • Milano Mitchell

    Father you have spoken well but Jesus says that you must be born again John 3:1-10 and Peter of the Apostolic succession declares what Jesus instruted in Acts 2:38. In His Service Elder Mitchell of the Apostolic Faith

  • tom

    Let’s take the second citation first. Mary, too, required a Savior. Like all other descendants of Adam, she was subject to the necessity of contracting original sin. But by a special intervention of God, undertaken at the instant she was conceived, she was preserved from the stain of original sin and its consequences. She was therefore redeemed by the grace of Christ, but in a special way—by anticipation.

    Why is this so important? Sometimes divisive. Maybethis is a cop out to you; but Mary is Jesus’ mother. Come one, she deserves our love, but Jesus is the way, truth the life. Can’t we stay focused on Jesus’? So one is right, one is not. We will all find out when we get to heaven and spend eternity with Jesus, the Christ. thanks

  • Tom

    Father Joe, Thank you for your article. I have a questions. It seems that Scripture makes a distinction between praying in tongues and speaking in tongues. In Luke when the Apostles speak in tongues then they can speak other languages. Where in some of Paul’s writing it talks about speaking in tongues but also of praying in tongues. They appear to be different gifts and many in charismatic circles seem to have the gift of praying in tongues but not speaking in tongues. What do you think?

  • Mike Hayes

    Todd, if you look carefully, you’ll see that Fr. Joe referred to both scripture and tradition, which is what we as Catholics believe. I’m not sure what you’re referring to here but let us know what your issue is with this.

  • Todd

    Father Joe, how about answering with what God’s stance is? Is His Word more important than Church opinion? This is another example of taking something God breathed and scriptural and putting it in a box. Good grief. And some wonder why there are 45 million fallen away Catholics.

  • Steve

    Wayne, the following is from a tract by Catholic Answers. You can follow the link to find out more information about Mary’s Immaculate Conception. Also, the topic has probably been covered on this site as well.

    Fundamentalists‚Äô chief reason for objecting to the Immaculate Conception and Mary‚Äôs consequent sinlessness is that we are told that “all have sinned” (Rom. 3:23). Besides, they say, Mary said her “spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:47), and only a sinner needs a Savior.

    Let’s take the second citation first. Mary, too, required a Savior. Like all other descendants of Adam, she was subject to the necessity of contracting original sin. But by a special intervention of God, undertaken at the instant she was conceived, she was preserved from the stain of original sin and its consequences. She was therefore redeemed by the grace of Christ, but in a special way—by anticipation.

    Consider an analogy: Suppose a man falls into a deep pit, and someone reaches down to pull him out. The man has been “saved” from the pit. Now imagine a woman walking along, and she too is about to topple into the pit, but at the very moment that she is to fall in, someone holds her back and prevents her. She too has been saved from the pit, but in an even better way: She was not simply taken out of the pit, she was prevented from getting stained by the mud in the first place. This is the illustration Christians have used for a thousand years to explain how Mary was saved by Christ. By receiving Christ‚Äôs grace at her conception, she had his grace applied to her before she was able to become mired in original sin and its stain.

    The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that she was “redeemed in a more exalted fashion, by reason of the merits of her Son” (CCC 492). She has more reason to call God her Savior than we do, because he saved her in an even more glorious manner!


  • Wayne kirkendall

    Iconverted to the Catholic Faith on Easter of 2008.
    I try to defend the faith specifically about Immaculate sinless state of Our Mother but my protestant friends say that “she herself, admitted that she was not without Sin in the magnificat when she said “My soul procalims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior”. Why would Mary feel compelled to say “savior” if she was sinless?

    • Tweck

      She was saved by God before her conception, or at the moment of it. Note that she was with child at the time – Jesus hadn’t yet redeemed the world.

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