Attempting to bring a sprawling and sometimes unruly charismatic movement in the Catholic Church under tighter control, Archbishop Cyprian Kizito Lwanga of Kampala, Uganda, has issued new restrictions that include a ban on shouting, falling and rolling around on the ground during prayer services.

Issued in late March, the new rules also stipulate:

  • Only an ordained priest may bless and administer holy oils.
  • Those holy oils may not be sold for profit.
  • Charismatic prayer services may be held only in churches or other locations approved by the bishop.
  • Prayer services may be led only by an ordained priest or deacon.
  • Only priests authorized by the bishop may perform exorcisms.
  • Charismatic preachers need a bishop’s permission to appear in the media.

Lwanga told a Ugandan newspaper that he was acting to protect vulnerable faithful from “self-styled preachers”, and also exercising his responsibility as a bishop to ensure that what happens in his archdiocese is in accord with “traditional Catholic practice, the doctrine of the Church and the Code of Canon Law.”

Though Lwanga did not mention anyone by name as the target of his decree, many Ugandans perceived an echo of recent controversies involving a charismatic leader named John Bosco Mukajanga, who often conducts prayer services at a Catholic church in Kampala.

Among other things, Mukajanga has been accused of performing some of the functions normally restricted to priests, such as administering blessings and performing exorcisms, and also of selling holy oil he’s consecrated for roughly $15 a bottle.

Recently a Catholic lawyer’s group in Uganda threated to sue Mukajanga for impersonating an authorized Catholic minister.

The term “charismatic” generally refers to a lively form of Christian practice rooted in the “gifts of the Holy Spirit” and expressed in supernatural phenomena such as miracles, healings, speaking in tongues and casting out demons. “Pentecostalism” is the term for whole churches or denominations devoted to those gifts, while “charismatic” is used for movements or groups within established denominations that engage in similar practices.

Together, the conventional estimate is that Pentecostals and Charismatics represent roughly 600 million people worldwide, which is roughly one-quarter of the world’s total Christian population.

In Uganda, the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, introduced in the country in 1973 by an American Missionaries of Africa priest named Father  Roger LaBonte, now claims more than 2,000 prayer groups in 19 dioceses around the country, and regular attendance at events of over 800,000.

Despite the phenomenal growth of the charismatic impulse in Catholicism, it has often run into conflict over the years with Church leaders, who sometimes see it as undisciplined in terms of worship, insufficiently respectful of clerical authority, and too casual when it comes to doctrine.

One perennial lighting rod along those lines in the 1980s and 1990s was former Archbishop Emanuel Milingo of Zambia, whose charismatic prayer services featuring exorcisms and healings were wildly popular both in Africa and in Europe, but who was perennially at odds with the Vatican over his orthodoxy and his obedience.

Milingo eventually left the Catholic to head a pro-married priests advocacy group supported by the Unification Church of the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

In 2000, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a document titled “Instruction on Prayers for Healing,” which was widely seen as an attempt to impose some order on charismatic practice in the Church.

Among other things, it stipulated that the ordinary rules for celebration of the Mass must not be set aside in order to accommodate healings and exorcisms; that extra-liturgical healing services must have the approval of the bishop; and that charismatic individuals said to have a “gift” of healing must not supplant the sacraments as the basic way grace is distributed.

At a Rome summit between Vatican officials and charismatic leaders to discuss the document, American Cardinal James Francis Stafford, at the time president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, pled for patience.

“In the contemporary church, this kind of prayer for healing is new, and it will take time for you to help the hierarchical church understand it,” he said.

“But brothers and sisters, you can’t be like Luther and refuse to accept the Petrine element in the church,” he said, referring to the papacy and clerical authority. “Your holiness will have to take shape in interaction with the Petrine and apostolic elements.”