On the Problem of Arrested Spiritual Development

Consider a five year old child who, though physically the size of a five year old, had not yet learned to talk or walk, who could only lay in his crib and who ate no solid food, only mother’s milk. Most of us would consider this a great tragedy. It would be a case of arrested development. And surely, as he failed to pass expected milestones and make the usual progress in maturity, his parents would consult doctors and experts in an anxious search for the cause of the problem and a cure. No one would fail to see the problem or shrug it off.

Now, compare the response above to the usual response to arrested development in the spiritual order.

Consider a young adult, say 25, who had gone on to physical maturity, and even earned a college degree. Perhaps he has just landed a job in a cutting edge field and is both technically smart and talented. But, despite being a highly trained expert in his secular field, his spiritual development is arrested and he has progressed little since second grade. In some ways he has even gone backward since, in second grade, he still knew his Act of Contrition and the Hail Mary.

Now, though thank God, he still goes to Mass, he is incapable of expressing much of anything about his faith. He knows there is a God and has heard about Jesus but does not know for sure if Jesus is God, he thinks so but he’s not sure. He is aware of the Bible’s existence but cannot name all four Gospels and would not even be sure exactly where to find them in the book. He’d eventually find them but it would take a lot of time.  Names like Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, David, Peter, Judas, et al., sound familiar to him,  but he cannot tell you much about them, except that they are in the Bible. He has heard the word sacrament but cannot give an example of one and is not sure he’s received them or if that is just something priests and nuns get.  Every now and then he thinks to pray but he really does not know what to say or how to do it. Sometimes he remembers a prayer from Mass, but when he tries to say it, he gets stuck since there aren’t other people around him saying it and helping him along. He DOES know the Our Father though! We have to give him that.

Now, mind you, this is a smart guy, he has a lot of knowledge in his field which is highly technical. A lot of people seek him for technical advice and he is a real problem solver in the corporation, keeping the computers and other critical peripherals updated and in good functioning order. But spiritually he is an infant.

The interesting question is, why did his parents and parishioners not experience alarm as they noted arrested spiritual development in him? As he began to go from second grade to third and forth, not only did NOT progress, but he actually got worse. Why did his parents not sound an alarm? Why did the pastor and catechists not experience shock that he seemed to show no progress in the Spiritual life? As his age drew him into high school, not only did his knowledge of the faith not increase but his moral life now began to slide. Soon his language grew bad, he resented authority, was looking at porn on the Internet. His parents were irritated by this, but not really alarmed enough to intensify his recourse to the sacraments or augment his spiritual training. Spiritually he was frozen in time. But no one seemed to notice or care.

But, by God, when almost failed a math course his parents went into action and hired a tutor! After all, this might threaten his getting into a good college! But his failure to grow spiritually never much fazed them. When he went to college they drove up with him, looked at the dorms, met a few of his teachers and attended orientation sessions for new students. But they never thought to meet the College Chaplain or ever to ask who would be spiritually teaching or pastoring their son. You know, that sort of stuff doesn’t really occur to you to ask about.

Well, you get the picture:

  1. It starts, really, with low expectations. Most people don’t really expect that they should grow much in their faith. Advanced knowledge and deep prayer are for priests and nuns. Too many lay people just don’t expect much, and thus are not alarmed when they and their kids know next to nothing about the faith.
  2. Further, the faith is sort of a side issue to many. What really matters is that you study hard to get a career that will unlike the American Dream. Never mind that worldly things don’t last, or that it’s pointless and harmful to climb the ladder of success when it is leaning up against the wrong wall. We’ll think about all that tomorrow. For now just keep pursuing your dreams.
  3. Finally the sense that faith really matters at all is muted today when many have an unbiblical view  that almost everyone goes to heaven. This removes any motivation to grow in the faith or be serious about living it in a counter-cultural way. To put it in a worldly way: why work hard or seek to develop yourself when the paycheck has already been deposited, and you’ll get paid no matter what, and can never lose your job?

Scripture –  So here we are with a lot Christians who have a very bad case of arrested development. Scripture says:

  1. We have much to say….but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But  solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil (Hebrews 5:11-14)
  2. Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. (1 Cor 3:1-2)
  3. Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. (1 Cor 14:20)
  4. My people are fools; they do not know me. They are senseless children; they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil; they know not how to do good.” (Jer 4:22)
  5. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. (1 Cor 13:11)
  6. It was [the Lord] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. (Eph 4:11-15)

So then, Scripture is clear that the normal Christian life is

  • To be constantly growing in our faith.
  • To go from mother’s milk (of elementary doctrines) to the solid food of more advanced understanding.
  • To go from being young students to mature teachers.
  • To exhibit mature knowledge of the faith and also a behavior that bespeaks mature Christianity.
  • To go from being worldly in our priorities to being spiritual.
  • To be able to aptly distinguish false doctrine from true doctrine.
  • To show forth a stability of life and not be easily carried away by all the latest trends and ephemeral fads.

Yes, this is the normal Christian life. Maturity pertains to the human person in general and it certainly ought to pertain to men and women of faith. I pray you who read this blog are well along this path and are seeking to grow. I presume it, in fact.

But many are not Maturing. And I wonder if enough of us in the Church today see this as the horrifically strange and tragic phenomenon that it is. It is really far stranger and far more tragic than a five year old still lying in a crib, speechless and on mother’s milk. It is vastly more serious than the high schooler who is failing math and needs a tutor. To fail math may impact college and a career, but these are passing consequences. To fail in faith impacts eternity, not just for me but others.

Why are we so serious about passing worldly threats and not so about threats that have eternal consequences? In the end arrested spiritual development is by far the most serious of all developmental issues. A parent may give their child every good thing, but if they do not ensure the gift of strong and mature faith, they have given their children nothing but sand slipping thorough their fingers.

Only what you do for Christ will last. Pray God we get our priorities straight and make sure we ourselves and everyone grows up in the Lord. It is true that we must accept the Kingdom of God like a little child in order to enter it. But this text refers to our dependance not our ignorance. God made us to know him and to fail in this way is to miss the whole point and dignity of our life.


37 Replies to “On the Problem of Arrested Spiritual Development”

  1. I agree with you that most parents do more about hiring tutors for physics and chemistry than they do when they find their child slipping in their behavior. The problem is that a lot of parents are not even home to notice any of it. At my son’s middle school, many of the children are left alone at home unsupervised with the television and Internet to entertain them. By the time the kids get to high school, it is too late … the kids have their fancy cars and they do as they please. There is no discipline.

    I often tell our children that they will thank us when they’re 30 for the way we live. We give them the gift of our time. We watch movies together, we supervise how they use the Internet (they read this blog sometimes :), who they play with, etc. I know they would like to have freedom but they are not yet wise. I have seen what their friends are watching, and this is not what I want for our children. It is difficult to go against the grain … and I know our son feels deprived, but we are praying for an undivided heart … a heart for Jesus.

    The video was excellent but appalling … I wouldn’t think a Catholic school would dumb down our faith. I was reading a small bit in the newspaper that some theologians are saying that celibacy should be thrown out the window for priests and that women should be ordained and same-sex marriage allowed. The newspaper didn’t say who these people are but is it true that Catholic theologians are saying these things? If so, it is scary because they are going against what is taught … and you wouldn’t want them teaching in Catholic schools and universities because young minds who’ve not had a chance to develop could be swayed by these people.

      1. While I believe that celibacy is a gift to both the priest and the people they serve, it is a fact that there were married priests for the first 1400+ years of the Church. There were also several married popes, including St. Peter. There is also significant evidence that women were ordained deacons for the first 300+ years of the Church.

        What the Church has done, the Church may do again.

        1. Karen,

          You distort history. Celibacy was not invented in the 1400’s. It is an ancient apostolic practice recommended by Christ himself. In the RCC it is a disciplinary rule, not a dogma. Yes, Peter was married before he met Jesus, but he was chaste, just as St Joseph was. Priests were never allowed to marry, this is true even of our Orthodox brethren. They must be married before ordination and even in Orthodoxy bishops must be celibate.

          Matt. 19:11-12 – Jesus says celibacy is a gift from God and whoever can bear it should bear it. Jesus praises and recommends celibacy for full-time ministers in the Church. Because celibacy is a gift from God, those who criticize the Church’s practice of celibacy are criticizing God and this wonderful gift He bestows on His chosen ones.

          Matt. 19:29 – Jesus says that whoever gives up children for the sake of His name will receive a hundred times more and will inherit eternal life. Jesus praises celibacy when it is done for the sake of His kingdom.

          Matt. 22:30 – Jesus explains that in heaven there are no marriages. To bring about Jesus’ kingdom on earth, priests live the heavenly consecration to God by not taking a wife in marriage. This way, priests are able to focus exclusively on the spiritual family, and not have any additional pressures of the biological family (which is for the vocation of marriage). This also makes it easier for priests to be transferred to different parishes where they are most needed without having to worry about the impact of their transfer on wife and children.

          1 Cor 7:1 Paul teaches that it is well for a man not to touch a woman. This is the choice that the Catholic priests of the Roman rite freely make.

          1 Cor. 7:7 – Paul also acknowledges that celibacy is a gift from God and wishes that all were celibate like he is.

          1 Cor. 7:27 Paul teaches men that they should not seek marriage. In Pauls opinion, marriage introduces worldly temptations that can interfere with ones relationship with God, specifically regarding those who will become full-time ministers in the Church.

          1 Cor. 7:32-33, 38 – Paul recommends celibacy for full-time ministers in the Church so that they are able to focus entirely upon God and building up His kingdom. He who refrains from marriage will do better.

          1 Tim. 3:2 – Paul instructs that bishops must be married only once. Many use this verse to prove that the Church’s celibacy law is in error. But they are mistaken because this verse refers to bishops that were widowers. Paul is instructing that these widowers could not remarry. The verse also refers to those bishops who were currently married. They also could not remarry (in the Catholic Church’s Eastern rite, priests are allowed to marry before ordination; celibacy is only a disciplinary rule for the clergy of the Roman rite). Therefore, this text has nothing to do with imposing a marriage requirement on becoming a bishop.

          1 Tim. 4:3 – in this verse, Paul refers to deceitful doctrines that forbid marriage. Many non-Catholics also use this verse to impugn the Church’s practice of celibacy. This is entirely misguided because the Catholic Church (unlike many other churches) exalts marriage to a sacrament. In fact, marriage is elevated to a sacrament, but consecrated virginity is not. The Church declares marriage sacred, covenantal and lifegiving. Paul is referring to doctrines that forbid marriage and other goods when done outside the teaching of Christ and for a lessor good. Celibacy is an act of giving up one good (marriage and children) for a greater good (complete spiritual union with God).

          1 Tim. 5:9-12 – Paul recommends that older widows take a pledge of celibacy. This was the beginning of women religious orders.

          2 Tim. 2:3-4 – Paul instructs his bishop Timothy that no soldier on service gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim his to satisfy the One who enlisted him. Paul is using an analogy to describe the role of the celibate priesthood in the Church.

          Rev. 14:4 – unlike our sinful world of the flesh, in heaven, those consecrated to virginity are honored.

          Isaiah 56:3-7 – the eunuchs who keep God’s covenant will have a special place in the kingdom of heaven.

          Jer. 16:1-4 – Jeremiah is told by God not to take a wife or have children.

          1. History cannot be distorted – it just is. There are/were married priests. There were popes with children. Neither of those facts are in dispute in any way, nor do they in any way indicate that celibacy was not the encouraged norm.

          2. Marriage after ordination was never allowed in history, for a priest of the East or West. You are mistaken. It was only allowed before being ordained to the priesthood. So saying priests were allowed to marry is false.

          3. I agree that saying priests are/were allowed to marry would be false. Reread my posts – I never said that. What I said is that there are and were married priests.

      2. A very interesting thread has set up here and I have stayed out more due to the fact that it wasn’t the main point of the Post. Nevertheless I have followed the discussion with interest. I will only say that I agree that there are many historical distortions when it comes to understanding celibacy. I think Karen is over-simplifying the practices of the Church in this regard. Even if celibacy was not perfectly enforced or observed 100% it seems clear that it was the ideal even from apostolic times. It isn’t a mere discipline, it is an ideal. Scripture and Church practice is clear on this. The differences in the east and west are also not as pronounced as some think since their bishops are celibate. Even the married priests of the east have often had restrictions on their recourse to the marriage act in proximity to the offering of the divine liturgy. etc. etc. It’s all a little more complicated that celibacy being and all or nothing reality. Even where marriage was allowed there were resitrctions and limits as stated.

        1. With all due respect, I don’t think I oversimplified anything. I merely stated that there are and were married priests – no value judgment, no opinion, no call for change. This fact seems to upset people for some reason. Curious …

          1. Well, to be fair Karen, you DO seem to be on a bit of an errand here. It takes two to have a conversation and you are keeping up your end. It is my usual experience that when people accuse others of being upset etc there is more than a little projection going on. If you’re just serenely and disappassionately stating all this, it does not come across as that. What others may be “upset” about is that this issue is often distorted, simplified and misrepresented. Even if you are wholly innocent of this, you cannot expect to have a conversation in a vacuum. When you raise an issue in a public discussion people bring many things and experiences to the table. Now of course you know all this since I don’t suppose you were born yesterday. Thus, your “I merely stated” position is a bit unrealistic and dubious. When you tweak people, don’t be surprised if they respond

  2. Stories in scriptures just keep repeating again and again. People at comfortable times are not so serious in God. Then the Lord will send prophets like you or any lay persons to tell us to repent and reform our ways. Since biblical times men’s nature are the same even in our modern time. Most people pray to God seriously when times are hard only. God bless you Monsignor

  3. Holiness is offered to all; naturally, not all the Saints are equal: in fact, as I said, they are the spectrum of divine light. Moreover, a Saint who possesses extraordinary charisms is not necessarily a great Saint. Indeed, there are a great many whose names are known only to God, because on earth they led an apparently perfectly normal life. And precisely these “normal” saints are those habitually desired by God. Their example testifies that only when we are in touch with the Lord can we be filled with his peace and his joy and be able to spread serenity, hope and optimism everywhere.
    – Pope Benedict XVI, Reflection on several Saints

  4. Regarding St. Paul’s admonitions to “grow up” spiritually, many people today erroneously think praying, e.g., is immature. “We know better in modern times than to be superstitious,” they think. Boy have we lost touch with reality when we do not recognize our “arrested spiritual development.”

  5. Msgr Pope, thank you so much for bringing this issue to the forefront. I went to one such Catholic school, where we were challenged in every subject, but religion. It really never went past a middle school level at best, yet we were reading Hamlet and taking college-level courses in all other matter of subjects. Several of the instructors weren’t even Catholic. It’s not surprising that unfortunately this school has relinquished its Catholic identity entirely and is now simply a private college-prep high school. I didn’t go to a Catholic college or even one that offered any Catholic theology courses, but I did take a philosophy course that included some of the wriitngs of Thomas Aquinus and Thomas Moore. I had remembered hearing their names somewhere and I realized that they were saints! I am so blessed to have a mother, and now a husband, who are constantly striving to grow in their faith, and have and continue to inspire me to do so also. Hopefully Catholic high schools and higher education are paying attention to this spiritual stagnation and will help bring those fallen behind into the true fullness and knowledge of the wonderful faith we’ve been given.

    1. Thanks for the personal expereince. It is certainly sad. I once was in a parish where the school did not assign a grade in religion or give any tests. The Pastor found out about that and over-ruled the policy. You would have thought he was Hitler the way some of the faculty reacted and treated him.

  6. Great post.

    I think there is also an idea that Religious Education is something the parish is to take care of, and as long as the parents bring them to class and make sure they get their sacraments done, they did their job. Sadly, I don’t even see going to Mass each week as a family part of the priorities anymore.

    And let’s be honest, many parents just don’t care about the religious upbringing of their children. Mess with their baseball team, and you’ll have fifty parents down at town hall causing a fuss though!

  7. First, the positive: Great post, Msgr. I plan to give this to the parents who bring their children to RE classes.

    Second, the typos:
    “Every now and then he thinks to pray but he really does know what to say or how to do it”
    “why did his parents and parishioners experience alarm?”

    Thank you very much for your posts. I find them illuminating and inspiring.

  8. Msgr Pope, sometimes I swear you’re in my head… 😉 I’ve been writing my own entry about this very topic prompted, in part, by Fr. Barron’s video.

    When I taught confirmation I had kids who didn’t know that the Bible is divided into two Testaments and that Jesus didn’t actually put pen to paper Himself. I’ve been part of Young Adult groups where only a single person could give the definition of a Sacrament. I’ve heard lectors who were convinced that Paul once wrote a letter to the Philippines…

    When I look back on my own catechesis, it’s easy to see how stuff like this happens. The formation during my childhood was pretty good (mostly due to my mother’s dedication), but after about the age of ten, despite going to a Catholic school, I was given very little Christian “meat”. For example, I was 21 before I realised that the “Immaculate Conception” wasn’t referring to the Virgin Birth…

    When I joined a Protestant church I was surrounded by people who took growing intellectually in their faith seriously (as opposed to just spiritually). As you would expect, there was great encouragement to read Scripture and this naturally fed into the broader questions of theology. Don’t get me wrong, it was far from perfect and some people embraced this outlook more than others, but I certainly missed the environment when I returned to the Catholic Church.

    The question is: what should be done to fix this?

    1. Well, I guess a remnant such as you and others who read and study will need to rebuild this. I think the younger priests are on to the problem and were themselves sickened by the trite religious education methods and are going to get more serious about the religious ed programs in their parishes. As for me, when the kids are in Sunday School, I teach the parents. They are surely part of the lost generation in terms of catechesis. I thn encourage them to be serious about their kids religious priorities.

  9. Individuals and their families bear primary responsibility for spiritual formation. What role does the Church play, though, at parish or archdiocesan level? Some parishes take CCD and RCIA seriously; others don’t. I know that some parishes are so grateful for anyone to volunteer to teach CCD that they don’t really check what they teach the children. You wouldn’t believe the answers I’ve heard teachers give to children’s questions.

    At a different level, I see that EPS in the DC area is either cutting back significantly or closing. Where’s the archdiocesan plan to support adult education? Does this issue even reach the archdiocesan level – or are parishes supposed to deal with this huge issue themsevels?

    1. You are right in terms of parents being the primary educators of their children.

      As for EPS, that is not all we do. We have hearts aflame which is more regional and parish based as well. EPS does continue but it is not convenient for every one and it would seem that there is tension between Trinity University and the Church of late. EPS is independent of Trinity but they too have found their relationship with Trinity somewhat strained. We’ll see where this all goes but there are other campuses for EPS in Virgina too.

  10. As a convert who went through a painfully dumbed down and in some ways heretical RCIA class, i can also say that many are simply not being taught.
    when the STUDENTS in RCIA have to tel the Priest that “No, we dont think female priests are a good idea that is inevitable in the church” its bad. how then can you expect spiritual maturity from someone who has been fed such faulty doctrine?
    There is only one sure and absolute cure for this plague. The Rosary. The full Rosary, with its Mysteries and teachings and prayers, teaches doctrine in easy stages, and encourages discipline, habitual spiritual practice, and lessons in the Bible. Combined with strong teaching on matters of confession, and an encouragement toward regular Eucharistic adoration, we could solve this problem easily in the next 5 years.

  11. Kirsten, I feel your pain. I once had to explain to a priest that Presbyterians are, in fact, Trinitarians… :-/

    With regards to your fix, while the Rosary and Eucharistic adoration are are certainly commendable, I don’t know if it really addresses the whole problem. There are plenty of faithful Catholics whose prayer lives are deepened by these practices, but who still aren’t able to explain what a Sacrament is and don’t know one end of the Bible from another… 🙁

  12. I’m a retired cop, teaching Homeland Security at several colleges, and religion at a private Catholic HS. The answer is really quite simple– the reason that those today in their teens and twenties don ‘t know about their religion is because THEIR PARENTS are just as clueless.

    I’ve been teaching catechism since 1979, and I was fortunate enough to be taught Catholicism via the Baltimore Catechism Q&A’s in the mid 1960’s. It is merely a matter of going back to the basics. While I use the current 2nd ed. of “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” it cannot, IMNSHO come close to the simplicity and veracity of the Baltimore Catechism. There was a reason it was used for so many years…it worked. I intend to keep using it in class, and it is what I teach to my own children.

  13. We were just speaking this very same subject last evening at our Parish’s Faith Formation Team, which I am a member. I thank God that he guided our family to the Parish we belong to, for our Priest speaks regulary to growth in the faith and how to go about it. However being in a city with three Catholic churches, we have gone to other Parishes when conflicts have arisen with Mass times. I must say, that I have been appalled many times of the subject matter of the sermon. Not to mention, I couldn’t even find the tabernacle in one church and knew not where to genuflect to our Lord in the Eucharist.

    In my opinion, there needs to be a dramatic change from within the Catholic Church as a whole, there seems to be two vastly divergent ways of Parish priests that are serving our parishes across the US, perhaps the world? One is certainly Traditional Catholicism the other Progressiveness. I for one am a proponent for a return to our Traditional Catholic roots, my Grandparents were strong devout Catholics who knew the Theology behind all parts of our faith and our tradition. Sadly, I do not see that in my parents. I try to lead my family (my husband and four children) in our spiritual growth and we often have discussion about the “why” we do things the way we do as Catholics. My children have been mocked among peers because we are as strict as we are, thankfully my children are able to deflect these actions by freely speaking why we are the way we are and have the constitution to “take them or leave them” based on their peer’s response. The road to heaven is not easy and why practice what you do not understand? And I believe there is a basic non-understanding or misunderstanding within the members of the Catholic Church. It seems the answer lies in a grassroots change to return to the “way we were”.

    In closing, a pediatrician told me once that toddlers and children thirst for rules. They want rules so that they know what to expect. If that is true (and surely parenting 4 children I can attest to that) how far is it to cast our minds to the fact that just maybe rules to follow within the church is something that the people are thirsting for? Many would say next we have the Ten Commandments, etc. Yes we do! But you have to understand them first before you can follow them and the rich tradition of CathoIicism is a road map filled with things that are basic rules, a guidemap, a pathway…however you want to think about it….showing us the way to heaven. I think that we’ve gotten a little loosey goosey with the rules, and maybe haven’t stopped to ask for directions or re-evaluated our roadmap. Don’t you think it’s time? I do.

  14. Before the parents can teach their children, they need good examples to follow – more good examples than bad or at least a few extremely holy examples who can consistently lead people spiritually – people like St. Francis and St. Josemaria Escriva and St. Paul and Pope Bl. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.

  15. This is our eternal inheritance. Those heirs who are ignorant of its value or neglect its care in pursuit of the secular, easily trade it away or have it stolen from them.

    Parents especially must not abdicate the responsibility of carefully passing on this treasure to their children. Catholic schools and parish catechetical programs, although providing good catechesis, are supplements to authentic Catholic instruction in the home (teaching prayers/devotions, regular participation in the Sacraments, study of Scripture and Tradition, etc).

    This “lost generation” may be the byproduct of years of teaching the children and playing with the adults. The USCCB’s Pastoral Plan “Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us” states that adult faith formation should be the priority in every parish. Unfortunately, this is not the norm. It’s never to late to turn the tide. Praise God that he can restore what has been lost through neglect on so many levels.

    1. Yes, I surely agree about the adult education needs. In my parish, when the kids are in Sunday School Class I am also teaching the parents. We also have a vigorous bible study. But it seems there can never be enough. We just have tokeep working for more.

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