On Being the Adult in the Room

In the Letter to the Ephesians, from which we read at this past Saturday’s daily Mass, St. Paul has this to say:

And [Christ] gave some as Apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers, to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the Body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood to the extent of the full stature of Christ, so that we may no longer be infants, tossed by waves and swept along by every wind of teaching arising from human trickery, from their cunning in the interests of deceitful scheming. Rather, living the truth in love, we should grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ (Eph 4:11-15).

Coming to maturity is an important step in the Christian walk. Ideally the Church persistently helps people to do so. We are expected to grow, to come to an adult faith, and to draw others—especially our children—to this. The Letter to the Hebrews has something very similar to say:

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 (Heb 5:11-14).

This is especially important today, when maturity is often significantly delayed. In fact, there are many who never seem to grow up. I have argued in other posts that one of the defining characteristics of our culture is its fixation with teenage issues and attitudes. In psychological terms, a person with a fixation is one who has not successfully navigated one of the stages of childhood and thus remains stuck to some degree in the thinking and patterns of that stage.

Our culture’s fixation on teenage issues and attitudes can be seen in some of the following:

  • Aversion to authority
  • Refusal to exercise the legitimate authority one has
  • Titillation and irresponsibility regarding sexuality
  • Lack of personal accountability
  • Irresponsibility
  • Demanding one’s rights while avoiding one’s responsibilities
  • Blaming others for one’s own personal failings
  • Being dominated by one’s emotions and carried away easily by the passions
  • Obsession with fairness, evidenced by the frequent cry, “It’s not fair!”
  • Expecting others (including the government) to do for one what one should do for oneself
  • Aversion to being instructed
  • Rejection of the wisdom of elders and tradition
  • Obsession with remaining and looking young
  • Aversion to becoming or appearing old
  • Lack of respect for elders
  • Obsession with having a thin, youthful body
  • Glorification of teenage idols
  • Inordinate delay of marriage and widespread preference for the single life


Some of the items in the list above have proper adult versions. For example, the “obsession with fairness” can mature and become a commitment to work for justice; aversion to authority can mature to a healthy and respectful insistence that those in authority be accountable to those whom they serve. It is also true that not every teenager has all the issues listed above. The point here is that the culture in which we live seems stuck on a lot of teenage attitudes and as a result our overall maturity is significantly delayed.

The description above certainly paints a less-than-flattering portrait of our culture. Archbishop Charles Chaput wrote recently on this topic, referring to it as “moral adolescence.” If you reject this assessment, how would you describe our culture? Do you think it is healthy and mature?

The call to maturity and the role of the Church – God’s expectation (expressed through His Scriptures) that we come to maturity, to the fullness of adult faith. Further, the Church is expected, as an essential part of her ministry, to bring this about in us through His grace. The Church does this in her better moments, when we who have leadership in the Church (clergy, parents, catechists, and elders) are faithful to our call. Notice that the Ephesians text says that Christ has given apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers, to equip the holy ones unto this.

The Church is expected to be “the adult in the room.” She is to summon us to live responsible, mature lives. She summons us to be accountable before others, to be sober, serious, and deeply respectful of God’s authority over us by living lives that are obedient to the faith. She teaches us to master our emotions and gain authority over our passions, by God’s grace. She holds forth for us the wisdom of tradition and the teachings of the Scriptures, insisting on reverence for them. She insists on correct doctrine and that we no longer be infants, tossed by the waves of the latest fads and swept along by every wind of false teaching arising from human illusions. We are to be stable and mature in our faith and judge the world by it.

Unfortunately, there is currently something of an internal problem. The Church has faced the grave temptation to “put on jeans” and adopt the teenage fixations. Sadly, not all leaders in the Church have taken seriously their obligation to “equip the holy ones for the work of ministry until we all attain to the unity of faith and … to mature manhood to the extent of the full stature of Christ.” Preferring popularity to the negative cries that our teachings are “unfair,” or “too hard,” many teachers and pastors have succumbed to the temptation to water down the faith and to tolerate grave immaturity on the part of fellow Catholics. We have a long way to go in terms of vigorously and credibly reasserting the call to maturity within the Church, let alone the world. Corruptio optimi pessima (the corruption of the best is the worst). Clergy and other Church leaders, catechists, and teachers must insist on their own personal maturity and hold one other accountable in attaining it. We must fulfill our role of equipping the faithful unto mature faith by first journeying to an adult faith ourselves.

The Church is not composed only of clergy and religious. Lay people must also take up their proper role as mature, adult Christians, active in renewing the temporal order. Many already have done this magnificently. but more must follow and be formed in this way. Our culture is in dire need of well-formed Christians to restore greater maturity, sobriety, and responsibility.

By God’s grace, we are called to be “the adult in the room.”

Here is a video (from a more mature time) on one aspect of maturity: proper self-reliance. It’s a little corny, but it does model something that is often lacking in families and in youth formation today: clear teaching by adults. The point made in the video is that we should not usually do for others what they can and should do for themselves. Part of maturing is learning that behavior has consequences, as well as learning the value of and need for hard work. While it is appropriate to rely on others to some degree and to rely completely on God, there is also a proper self-reliance in coming to maturity.

On the Adolescent Fixation of the Modern West

Recently at the Synod on Youth, Archbishop Charles Chaput made the following observation:

Unfortunately, many “developed” countries today are actually “underdeveloped in their humanity. They’re frozen in a kind of moral adolescence; an adolescence which they’ve chosen for themselves and now seek to impose upon others.

I have written on this topic as well. What follows is largely taken from an article I first published on this blog in 2010. In it I wrote about the kind of teenage fixation that is evident in our culture.

Psychologists define fixation in the following way:

Fixation refers to a persistent focus of pleasure-seeking energies on an earlier stage of psychosexual development. A fixation occurs when an issue or conflict in a psychosexual stage remains unresolved, leaving the individual focused on this stage and unable to move onto the next.

I would like to argue that our modern culture seems to manifest many fixations that are typical of the teenage years. In fact, one way to describe our modern culture is to see it as developmentally like that of a teenager. Such a situation presents rather serious problems in terms of facing life with the necessary sobriety, seriousness, and maturity; it also means that there are many people in our culture who never grow up.

Here are some examples of what I see as a teenage mentality and a fixation on teenage issues.

Wanting all the rights but none of the responsibilities – As children begin to approach adulthood, it is not uncommon for them to declare to their parents that once they are 18 they are adults and therefore should be able to do as they please.

Adulthood does not magically happen at the age of 18. Rather, it happens as children move out, get a job, and pay their own bills. In other words, adulthood is about accepting and exercising responsibility for oneself. The teenage mentality claims the rights of adulthood (e.g., autonomy) without wanting to accept the concomitant responsibilities.

This is very often the case in our culture today. Strident claims are made regarding rights, but little is said of duties. Accepting responsibility for our actions is often cast aside by excuses that blame others: I’m not responsible because my mother dropped me on my head when I was two, or because grew up poor, or because I have ADHD. There can be legitimate explanations, but we seem to have made an art of it. Our culture has a hard time insisting that people take responsibility for their actions. Those who do suggest such things are often labeled insensitive and harsh.

Not only do many make excuses for their bad behavior but they often try to shift to focus to others, pointing out that they are worse: “Well what about him?”

Further, people increasingly expect others to provide for them what they ought to provide for themselves. Surely there are some basic needs that government and industry can and should provide, and there are those among us who truly cannot care for themselves, but the list of entitlements grows ever longer, and money seems to be no object.

All these behaviors tend to overemphasize rights while minimizing personal responsibility. I argue that this bespeaks a teenage mentality. An adult attitude recognizes the need to take responsibility for our own life, asking for help when we need, but not asking others to do for us what we can and should do for ourselves. An adult attitude also takes responsibility for the consequences of our decisions and actions, not trying to blame others.

Sexual immaturity – Teenagers experience a powerful sexual awakening and their bodies flood with hormones.

At first, they manifest a general silliness about sexuality; there is a lot of giggling and the relating of off-color jokes. Everything is thought of in terms of sex and many ordinary words and phrases are used that have secondary sexually related meanings. In short, there is a kind of obsession with sex.

Some teenagers begin to dress provocatively, “strutting their stuff.” Sadly, teenagers struggle with sexual misbehavior and some exhibit poor judgment about sexual matters. This is all the more prevalent today because we do not chaperone or oversee youth in the way we should. Neither do we teach them well about sexuality and modesty.

Today’s Western culture too often exhibits a teenage immaturity about sexuality. There is the incessant chatter about and exhibition of sex in movies, television, music, and books. There are off-color jokes. Many comedians devote much of their material to sex, speaking of it in demeaning and unedifying ways; sex seems to be one big joke.

There is great irresponsibility and poor judgment today among adults in the area sexual behavior: premarital sex, bearing children out of wedlock, abortion, adultery, and homosexual acts to name a few.

Further, many celebrate lewdness and sexual irresponsibility, often applying moral thinking more reminiscent of a college fraternity party than a truly thoughtful and responsible perspective.

A mature attitude accepts that sex is a beautiful and personal gift given to the married. It is holy and good and is an important part of life, but it is not the only thing there is. The obsession, the silliness, and the out-of-control quality exhibited in our culture bespeaks an immaturity that reminds one of untutored and uncorrected teenagers.

Aversion to Authority – As children grow into the teenage years they naturally begin to push the boundaries with parents and other authority figures.

Teenagers test limits and ask tough questions; this is not entirely bad. They are not little children any longer and increasing autonomy is often incrementally appropriate. However, teenagers also can go too far and be both disrespectful and disobedient. At times they engage in inappropriate power struggles with their parents and other elders, asserting that no one should tell them what to do. Some even go through periods of intense dislike of and contempt for their parents and any who would try to direct them.

So, too, our culture today struggles with the issue of authority. One of the geniuses of the American system of government is the balance of power. There is also the notion that elected officials should be held accountable. So, there is such a thing as healthy and vigorous debate and a proper limiting of the power of authority. However, some of the negative attitudes toward legitimate authority—not just government officials, but police, supervisors at work, and community leaders—seem a bit immature. Whispering behind their backs, dragging of feet, making ugly comments, and outright disrespecting authority figures all seem to be a bit teenage.

One might argue that it has always been this way, but there seems to have been a major uptick in this sort of behavior starting in the 1960s. Rock music helped to usher in overly negative attitudes about authority and that thinking has become widespread in our culture today.

An adult attitude respects the place of authority and the need for it. It does not fear authority but rather speaks sincerely, truthfully, and respectfully to those who have it.

The “It’s not fair!” Mentality – One of the most common cries of children and teenagers is that something isn’t fair; it is usually plaintive and self-serving.

When someone claims that something isn’t fair, it usually means he didn’t get what he wanted while someone else did. Basically, this cry show that it’s all about me.

Truth be told, life is not fair. Both my brothers were smarter than I was. Neither of them seemed to have to study much and they still got A’s while I had to struggle mightily just to pull down B’s and C’s—not fair! However, I had other gifts they did not. The bottom line is that each of us is dealt a set of cards and those are the ones we have to play. No one has the same cards.

In our culture today, this plaintive cry about a lack of fairness goes up frequently. The most troublesome version of it comes in relation to moral and doctrinal issues. The Church is often excoriated for her positions in ways like this: “Are you saying gays can’t get married? That’s not fair!” “Are you saying women can’t be ordained? That’s not fair!” “Are you saying that people who are dying can’t end their lives by euthanasia/physician-assisted suicide but rather must accept suffering? That’s not fair!” “Are you saying a woman has to carry her child to term and can’t abort? That’s not fair, especially considering that the man can usually just walk away.”

Again, notice that most of these claims of unfairness are rather egocentric: Something isn’t fair because I can’t do what I want.

An adult attitude accepts that life is not always fair. An adult attitude does fight against true injustice; not all of life’s inequities should be tolerated. However, a mature attitude distinguishes between matter of true justice and merely getting what one wants. The battle for true justice usually involves the needs of others not just personal or egocentric concerns.

So, I offer you this analysis. I do not say that everyone is equally afflicted with this mentality, but the big picture looks fairly adolescent to me. Recognizing it is the first step to correcting the tendency.

… 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. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work (Eph 4:13-16).

This brief video shows the usual sitcom scenario: parents (especially fathers) are stupid and kids are smart and that it’s OK for them to be sassy, and disrespectful. After all it’s a teenage world.