On the Problem of Arrested Spiritual Development

Consider a five-year-old child who had not yet learned to walk or talk, who could only lie in his crib, who could not eat solid food. Most of us would consider this a great tragedy, a case of arrested development. Surely as he failed to pass expected milestones his parents would consult multiple doctors in an anxious search for the cause of the problem and its cure. No one would fail to see the problem or shrug it off.

Now, let’s look at a case of arrested spiritual development and compare the typical response:

Consider a young adult—say 25 years old—who has graduated high school and even earned a college degree. Perhaps upon graduation he landed a job in a cutting-edge field. Despite being a highly trained expert in his secular field, his spiritual development is arrested; he has progressed little since the second grade. In some ways he has even gone backward: he can no longer recite an Act of Contrition or even the Hail Mary.

He still goes to Mass, but he is incapable of expressing much of anything about his faith. He knows that there is a God but does not know for sure if Jesus is God—he thinks so, but he’s not sure. He is aware of the Bible but can’t name all four Gospels and wouldn’t even be sure exactly where to find them in it. Names like Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, David, Peter, and Judas all sound familiar, but he can’t tell you much about them except that they’re in the Bible—somewhere. He’s heard of the sacraments but can’t name them; he isn’t sure he’s received any of them or if they are only for priests and nuns. Every now and then he thinks to pray, but he really doesn’t know what to say or how to do it. Sometimes he remembers a prayer from Mass, but when he tries to recite it on his own he gets stuck because there aren’t other people around him saying it and helping him along. He can recite the Our Father, though; we have to give him that!

Mind you, this is a smart guy: he has a lot of knowledge in his field and is sought out for technical advice in the corporation where he works. Spiritually, however, he’s an infant.

The interesting question is this: why were his parents and others in his parish not alarmed as they noticed his arrested spiritual development? As he went from second grade to third and then on to fourth, not only did not progress, he regressed. Why were his parents not concerned? Why were the pastor and catechists not shocked that he seemed to show no progress in the spiritual life?

As he advanced to high school his moral life began to slide. Soon his language coarsened, he resented authority, and he began consuming pornography on the Internet. His parents were irritated by this, but not alarmed enough to intensify his recourse to the sacraments or to augment his spiritual training. Spiritually he was frozen in time, but no one seemed to care enough to do anything about it.

But, by God, when he almost failed a math course his parents sprang into action and hired a tutor! After all, a failing grade might threaten his ability to get into a good college. In contrast, his failure to grow spiritually didn’t seem to faze them much. When he went off to college they drove up with him, toured the dorms, met a few professors, and attended orientation sessions—but they never thought to meet the college chaplain or to ask who would be spiritually teaching or pastoring their son. That sort of stuff just didn’t occur to them to ask about.

Well, you get the picture:

  • Expectations are low. 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 laypeople just don’t expect much and thus are not alarmed that they and their kids know next to nothing about the faith.
  • The faith is a side issue to many people. What really matters is that you study hard to get into a career that will get you access to 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.
  • The sense that faith really matters at all is muted.Many people today have the unbiblical view that almost everyone goes to Heaven. This removes motivation to grow in the faith or be serious about living in a countercultural way. They think, why work hard or seek to develop yourself when the “the paycheck has already been deposited and you’ll continue get paid no matter what”?

So, here we are today with many Christians who have a very bad case of arrested development. Scripture says,

  • 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).
  • 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).
  • Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults (1 Cor 14:20).
  • 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).
  • 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).
  • 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).

Scripture is clear that the normal Christian life is this:

  • To be constantly growing in our faith.
  • To go from the mother’s milk of elementary doctrine to the solid food of more advanced understanding.
  • To progress from being young students to mature teachers.
  • To exhibit mature knowledge of the faith and behavior that bespeaks mature Christianity.
  • To go from being worldly in our priorities to being spiritual.
  • To be able to distinguish false doctrine from true.
  • To show forth a stability of life and not be easily carried away by all the latest trends and 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 that you who read this blog are well along this path and are seeking to grow. I presume it, in fact.

Many are not maturing, however, and I wonder if enough of us in the Church today see this for the horrifically strange and tragic phenomenon that it is. It is far stranger and more tragic than a five-year-old still lying in a crib, speechless and unable to eat solid food. It is vastly more serious than the high schooler who is failing math. To fail math may affect college and a career, but those are passing consequences. To fail in the faith affects eternity.

Why are we so serious about passing, worldly threats and not so much about threats that have eternal consequences? Arrested spiritual development is by far the most serious of all developmental issues. Parents may give their child every good thing, but if they do not ensure the gift of strong and mature faith, they have given him nothing but sand that will slip through his fingers.

Only what you do for Christ will last. Pray God that we get our priorities straight and make sure that we—and everyone—grow 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 well-known scriptural text refers to our dependence not our ignorance. God made us to know Him and to fail to do so is to miss the whole point and dignity of our life.


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

  1. Thank you Msgr. Pope. It is so sad and frustrating to see the vast majority of people living the lifestyle you’ve described even if they had been well formed Christians in their youth. Some of them, myself included, eventually grow up thanks be to God. Those who had been well formed (as I was) have roots to return to and redevelop their character and spiritual life. It is so important for parents to focus on their child’s spiritual growth. Once I had been told by my friends that my role as their son’s godfather was merely honorary. I responded by writing them a letter speaking as their son in I which I explained why it was so important for me (their child) be to be educated in the faith. (A Child’s Plea for Eternal Life at https://fjdalessio.wordpress.com/2006/10/08/a-childs-plea-for-eternal-life. I think you’d fully agree with.

    God bless

  2. It seems to me, (in my parish at least) the people who suffer most for the faith are CCD students. These children are brought in at the end of a school day, given one hour of “catechesis” a week, and then sent back to their families, where the over-stressed parents are too exhausted from working multiple jobs themselves to engage in any sort of spiritual direction for the family.

    Priests rarely visit the CCD class rooms, and when they do, it is only for a few minutes once a year. Rarely are there assemblies or opportunity for community development with the children’s families. The teachers (especially of the young) are often untrained parents/volunteers. The classroom materials can barely be considered informative, and unless one is a trained catechist or school teacher, lesson plans are often not created.

    Is it any wonder then that we find so many of our fellow Catholics in a state of severe arrested spiritual development?

  3. Thank you, Monsignor. This describes my generation to a T. I would beg you all not to lose hope. God has a special school for the spiritually delayed – it’s called suffering. And when God calls you to attend, you are stripped right back. You realise that nothing in this world can give you answers or fill a God sized hole in your life and so hopefully you go in search of Him. Suffering is painful but it is not what it seems to the world. It is possibly the greatest gift God ever gave us. God bless.

  4. Monsignor, I greatly appreciate your articles. Thank you . In response to today’s article , as a single mother of three , two of which are 26 &24 , I see the devils work . Sister Lucia said , ” Satan will attack the family” . He attacked my marriage. I raised my girls Catholic , we had bible readings before bedtime, were taught morals and values , CCD , etc. when with me. When visiting their father – nothing. However, their faith remained stable . My oldest went to private school . She has become worldly , doesn’t believe in all I have taught her , but does believe in God and has a strong devotion to The Blessed Virgin Mary and I do believe will “come around” . My 24 year old went to public school , public university , and this past May Graduated from Berkeley Law School. Having spent the last year at Harvard Law on an exchange program within the two Universities. She starts work at a prominent law firm in Oct. When we spoke about our faith over the years she appeased me . This summer, after returning home , I began to speak with her about God . Her response was , ” You don’t really believe in all that stuff mom ? It’s a fairy tail .” My youngest, the jury is still out . I believe the secular education , divorce , rampant destruction of morals , pornography and the likes , has destroyed our youth. But , clearly there is a strong difference in beliefs between two sisters in the same home. One taught at a private facility , and one educated at a public facility. The Law graduate has a promising “future ” in this world . It’s the next world I’m worried about . My prayers are constant for my children . I have consecrated them to the BVM .

    God Bless Monsignor

    1. C.L., your message touched my heart. You are a good and faithful and prayerful mother. Trust that, even if you do not yet see the fruit of your efforts, the fact that you planted and tended the seeds God entrusted to you means you can count on their flourishing in God’s good time.

  5. Thank you for this incisive and well written instruction, Msgr. Pope. Your list of the characteristics of the normal Christian life reminds me of another classic – the Rule of St. Benedict.

    Well done!

  6. Thank you, Msgr Pope for this personal and timely reminder on our imperative to spiritual development. I strongly identify with the single mother concerned for her three children’s catholic spiritual health. I am a father with 2 sons, though. They are 46 & 37. I will share this advice and comments with them as starters for a paternal ‘cor ad cor’ talk. Yes, Sts Benedict and Ignatius of Loyola will be included.

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