What is the Catholic Church’s view/teaching on speaking in tongues via the gift of the Spirit?
A reality of our faith in God that is referred to and reflected upon far too rarely is the truth that the Holy Spirit bestows particular gifts upon the baptized. Indeed, each and every one of us among the baptized has received the outpouring of the Holy Spirit through our baptism and through the particular spiritual gifts that God has chosen to bestow upon each one of us. Furthermore, in the sacrament of Confirmation, we are “sealed” with the gift of the Holy Spirit, that these gifts might produce fruit within the Church.
When it comes to speaking of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, another term we might use to describe each of these gifts is “charism.” According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 798, charisms are “special graces…by which [the Holy Spirit] makes the faithful ‘fit and ready to undertake various tasks and offices for the renewal and building up of the Church.’” This quote, which includes reference to Vatican II’s “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” Lumen gentium, classifies such a gift of the Holy Spirit under those gifts given “for the renewal and building up of the Church.” This classification should already give us a significant understanding that true charisms are always meant for the good of the Church, and are therefore to be offered on behalf of the Church for the good of the salvation of souls.
I make particular note of charisms being for the good of others in the Church as such a distinction is essential to rightly understand the gift of speaking in tongues. For those who are/were part of what has been termed the “Charismatic Renewal,” often times there are reports of people “speaking in tongues” as others pray over them, or when they are having a seemingly more intense or direct experience of the presence of the Holy Spirit. While my own ignorance of the Charismatic Renewal only allows me to say this much on the matter of such individual experiences, I would confidently say this: based upon the gift of tongues that was offered to the Apostles at the first Pentecost (see Acts 2:1-13), these types of individual experiences are not envisioned in the same way as the “charism” of tongues – which is to be offered for the good of others. Furthermore, the additional charism of understanding of tongues goes hand in hand with the gift of speaking in tongues – as is also made evident by the story of Pentecost in Acts 2, where the people in Jerusalem understood what the apostles were saying, each in their own language. On the other hand, we must acknowledge that the experience of tongues (as experienced by some individuals in particular moments of prayer) is later referenced by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 14 that such an experience is meant for the individual who receives it as a sign for unbelievers. In other words, such a gift should be considered as a particular blessing to confirm individual faith (an actual grace received in a particular moment for a particular purpose) and not as one’s ongoing gift for building up the Church (for if no one is there to interpret, it truly does not serve others in the Church – and therefore is not the same as a charism).
In conclusion, the Church most certainly recognizes the gift of tongues. For this gift to be called a true “charism,” it will be given such that it can build up the life of the Church – being offered for the good of others. On the other hand, when one speaks “in tongues” during a prayer experience, such a gift is most likely for their own
individual good and it is given as a particular gift for that moment. Please note that such individual experiences should never be understood as making one to appear “holier”/”more spirit filled” than others who do not have that same experience. For as St. Paul also says, “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit…to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Corinthians 12:4, 7) Thus, any “personal” experiences of tongues must always be discerned for whether or not they are a true gift from God for the good of the whole Church or simply as a particular grace given to the individual in a particular moment. If it is a true charism, this gift will lead one to serve the good of the Church by offering the gift which they received for the good of the Church.