The Gift of Tongues

by John Vennari

At the 30th Anniversary Charismatic Conference, I found myself next to a woman who was joining in the "prayer of tongues" initiated by the Emcee. She was "praying" with hands raised along with moderate body fidgeting. Her style of "tongues" was an indistinguishable mutter put to an improvised flighty melody. When I pointed my hand-held micro- cassette in her direction, she immediately stepped up the volume of her "tongue melody" and inched closer to the recorder. This woman had divined that I was looking for a show, and she was determined to provide me one.

Tongues in Scripture

Sacred Scripture seems to recount two different classifications of the gift of tongues. The first is that special gift recorded in the Acts on the day of the Pentecost where the Apostles would preach in their own language and people from many different lands heard them in their native speech. It would be as if Cardinal Stickler preached at the United Nations General Assembly with all the participants from various nations understanding his words without the aid of an interpreter. Very few saints were favored with this gift, most notably St. Francis Xavier and St. Vincent Ferrer. The other manifestation of tongues appears to be what is recorded in St. Paul's letter to the Corinthians. As if giving a precise definition in order to counteract modern-day Pentecostalism, The Catholic Biblical Encyclopedia employs careful language to define this gift:

"The Gift of Tongues is a charism. consisting in an articulate, intelligible utterance (1 Cor. 14, 9. 19) that could be interpreted with the assistance of another special gift (14, 5. 13. 27f) either by the speaker himself or by another in the audience."
The 'tongues' of today's Pentecostals bear no resemblance to either of these two gifts.


Msgr. Ronald Knox was one of the most eminent Catholic Churchmen in England in the first half of this (20th) century, and was an acquaintance of Bishop Fulton Sheen and a friend of writer Evelyn Waugh. His book Enthusiasm, which took 30 years to write, is unparalleled in documenting the history of 'ultra-supernaturalism' in the Church. He covers such peculiarities as the Church of Corinth, the Morovian heresy, John Wesley, the Quakers, Shakers and my personal favorite, the Convulsionaries of Saint Medard. The manifestation of 'tongues', as practiced today, is treated in one of the final chapters entitled "Some Vagaries of Modern Enthusiasm." In Chapter Two, under the subheading entitled "Greediness Over the Gifts of the Spirit," Knox mentions that there were certain manifestations of tongues at the time of St. Paul in Corinth. These tongues would have to be along the lines of what the Catholic Biblical Encyclopedia defined above. Knox notes that Saint Paul would attempt to check such activities, for he wrote that "it was the curb, not the spur that is needed in first-century Corinth." Knox further commented that "it was not till the 2nd Century that such manifestations grew rare, and were viewed with misgiving by those in authority."(2) The disappearance of the gift of tongues occurred early in Church history. Father Rumble of Radio Replies explains:

"Under the control of ecclesiastical authority the chaff was winnowed from the wheat, and it was soon seen that the Holy Spirit had no intention of continuing -in the Church miraculous gifts ordained only to the pressing needs of initial stages; and such abnormal phenomena rapidly became a thing of the past at least, as a regular feature of Christianity. So much was this the case, that when Montanus claimed to be restoring them to the middle of the 2nd Century, he was at once branded as an innovator, an impostor and a heretic."(3) By the 4th Century, we can rest assured that such activities disappeared. Augustine wrote: "Who in our day expects that those on whom hands are laid so that they may receive the Holy Spirit should forthwith speak with tongues? ... These were signs adapted to the times. For there behooved to be that betokening of the Spirit in all tongues to show that the Gospel of God was to run through all the tongues over the earth."

But that thing was done for the betokening, and it has passed away." By the time of the 13th Century, when St. Thomas Aquinas wrote his magnificent Summa Theologica, the Angelic Doctor would simply treat the gift of tongues as "the divinely imparted knowledge of a variety of languages. The apostles had this gift and were able to speak the languages of all the people to whom they were sent ... speaking in one language, they were understood by all."

St. Thomas, with his vast knowledge of the Fathers of the Church would have mentioned another such manifestation of tongues if it had continued in Church history.


Most writers hold that glossolaly (speaking in tongues) seemed to reappear in the Protestant sect founded by Charles Parham in Topeka, Kansas around 1901. Msgr. Ronald Knox, however, speaks of an earlier reappearance in Presbyterian Edward Irving's congregation in the 1830's. He writes, "Glossolaly began in Irving's congregation; and before long, to the scandal of many, but to his own delight, his sermons were interrupted by prophets who rose and uttered their message, sometimes, intelligibly, sometimes by the use of tongues." Of this phenomenon, Knox remarks, "I do not deny the existence of glossolaly all through the period under dispute. To speak with tongues you had never learned was, and is, a recognized symptom in cases of alleged diabolic possession. What does not appear is that it was ever claimed, at least on a large scale, as a symptom of divine inspiration, until the end of the 17th Century."(7) Knox observes that this glossolaly is "beyond the reach of any lexicon", and wryly comments, "we must admit that a child prattles no less convincingly." Knox also explains that such glossolaly is of no use. He writes: "The gift of tongues, when so understood, loses its main evidential value; nobody who is present, in merely inquiring spirit, will be impressed with the sight of (A) talking gibberish and (B) saying the gibberish means this and that." Yet this 'gibberish' is precisely the manner of 'tongues' practiced by present day Charismatics. In summary:

  1. Pentecostalism practices a 'tongues' that bears no resemblance to what appears in the Acts of the Apostles.
  2. Pentecostalism practices a 'tongues' that bears no resemblance to what the Catholic Biblical Encyclopedia carefully defines as "an articulate and intelligible speech..."
  3. Pentecostalism practices a 'tongues' described by Msgr. Ronald Knox as 'gibberish'.
  4. Despite all this, Pentecostals insist that these 'tongues' are a true manifestation of the Holy Ghost, and completely disregard Msgr. Knox's gentle reminder that "to speak in a tongues one had never learned... is a recognized symptom in alleged cases of diabolic possession."

Let Women Keep Silence?

In closing, it should be noted that at this 30th Anniversary Charismatic Conference, there was no shortage of women at the microphone prophesying, giving lectures, leading the bidding prayers at Mass, leading the congregation in an eruption of indistinguishable 'tongues', leading the rootin' tootin' prayer session on Saturday. It is obvious that these Charismatics, who constantly justify their existence by quoting St. Paul's Epistle to the Corinthians, blithely ignore the passage in the same book of Corinthians which command , "Let women keep silence in the Churches."(10)


  1. Steinmueller and Sullivan, Catholic Biblical Encyclopedia, (Joseph Wagner, Inc., New York, 1949) pp. 635-636
  2. See Ronald A. Knox, Enthusiasm, (Oxford University Press - New York & Oxford) pp. 21-24.
  3. Rev. Dr. L. Rumble, M.S.C. "Assemblies of God"and other "Pentecostal Churches" p. 25
  4. Cf. William J. Whalen, Minority Religions-in America, (Alba House, Staten Island, 1971) p. 179
  5. Quote taken from Msgr. Paul Glenn, A Tour of the Summa, p. 296. [For the full quote of St. Thomas Aquinas, please see Summa Theologica, Ila, Ilae, Q. 176 article 1 ]
  6. Enthusiasm, p. 552
  7. Ibid. p. 551
  8. Ibid. p. 553
  9. Ibid. p. 554
  10. 1 Corinthians 14, 34

Taken from The Catholic Family News