What Happens to a Church When the Members Won’t Grow Up?

The problem for the Church is … the spiritual immaturity of men and of women in the Church, and the lack of guidance they are receiving on how to grow up to spiritual maturity as Catholic Christians.

 

 

What happens to a culture when the men refuse to grow up? What happens when no one is left to teach them how to grow up? What happens when the problem extends into the Church?

The situation in secular America is getting serious, according to a recent book by William Bennett, The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood. 1 Bennett wrote an article for CNN Online, 2 based on his book, and including these observations:

  • For the first time in history, women are better educated, more ambitious, and arguably more successful than men.
  • In 1950, five percent of men in the prime working age were unemployed. As of last year (2010), 20 percent were not working, the highest ever recorded.
  •  The out-of-wedlock birthrate is more than 40 percent in America.
  • Men are less religious than ever before. According to Gallup polling, 39 percent of men reported attending church regularly in 2010, compared to 47 percent of women.
  • Ask young women about men today. … their prolonged adolescence, and men who refuse to grow up. … “Where are the decent single men?”
  • Today, 18- to-34-year-old men spend more time playing video games a day than 12- to-17-year-old boys. While women are graduating from college and finding good jobs, too many men are not going to work, not getting married, and not raising families.
  • Movies offer stories of men who refuse to grow up or to take responsibility. … Men, some obsessed with sex, treat women as toys.
  • Boys need to be guided through advice, habit, instruction, example, and correction, to become men.
  • We need to say to many young men, “Get off the video games five hours a day, get yourself together, get a challenging job, and get married.” It’s time for men to man up.

The problem for the Church is not merely the increasing emotional and psychological immaturity of young men generally. More serious, although I suspect related, is the problem of the spiritual immaturity of men and of women in the Church, and the lack of guidance they are receiving on how to grow up to spiritual maturity as Catholic Christians.

We are all called to spiritual maturity—to “perfection”—as Scripture and the Catechism teach: “All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity.” All are called to holiness: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Catechism of the Catholic Church §2013).

Here the word “perfect” (τέλειος, teleios, perfect, complete, mature) points us to the maturity of our human vocation, created as we are in his image. The Catechism emphasizes this call many times, for example:

… Human beings make their own contribution to their interior growth; they make their whole sentient and spiritual lives into means of this growth. With the help of grace, they grow in virtue, avoid sin, and if they sin, they entrust themselves, as did the prodigal son, to the mercy of our Father in heaven. In this way they attain to the perfection of charity (CCC §1700).

It is the work of the Church to so build up the members that all can attain to this, our common vocation, in maturity—the perfection of charity:

…to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood {τέλειος, teleios, perfect, complete, mature}, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ; so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles. (Eph 4:12-14)

So How Are We Doing? Bernard’s Degrees of Love

Sadly, few parishes—in my limited and humble experience—are taking seriously the work of bringing the members “to mature manhood,” “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” Catholic spiritual theology of growth in the spiritual life is well-developed, shown by living examples in the saints, well-described by many holy men and women, and is available today in many written resources. 3 Why is it not being taught and used in adult formation alongside adult-level catechesis of the doctrines and moral teachings of the Church? Sadly, precious little of any adult formation is taking place. We are becoming a church of spiritual children raising spiritual children. 4 Pope Francis is warning us of the inward preoccupations of the spiritually immature. He recently said, “We need to come out of ourselves. … We need to avoid the spiritual sickness of a Church that is wrapped up in its own world: when a Church becomes like this, it grows sick.” 5

Maybe, it would help if we gained a clearer view of the path of progress that we ought to be walking, in our journey of discipleship. Catholic theology, and the experience of the saints, describe for us a journey of stages in the spiritual life. We all know of the normal physical, rational, and emotional path of maturity of a human being: child to adolescent to adult. There is, we have learned, an analogous spiritual path to maturity in the interior life of the soul, a journey in stages: beginning in the purgative stage, one ought to grow and progress to the illuminative stage, and continue growing to the perfection—the spiritual “adulthood”—of the unitive stage.

Our call from God is to the perfection of charity—divine love—love for God because of who he is, and love for others because of God, and in God. To begin to understand the stages involved in the process of growing toward this perfection, this spiritual “adulthood,” let’s consider a 12th-century contribution from one of our many holy saints. St. Bernard of Clairvaux observed and described for us many centuries ago, the stages of four “degrees of love.”

  1. Bernard’s first degree of love is prior to conversion, and thus before baptism and the gift of theological charity. The man is an unbeliever, and his love is self-centered. The person loves what is good for him—what benefits him and pleases him, that which is subjectively satisfying.  For such a person, holy charity—love for God because of who God is, and love for others because of God and in God—is not a reality because God is not a reality for him, or within him.

    Are such people present as members in the Church? As we know, unforgiven mortal sin darkens the soul of a believer to the extent of elimination of charity! Even the potency of charity, given an infant at baptism, is now lacking in such an adult. Such a person has profound need of repentance and return to the state of grace, for his soul is in mortal danger. Such a person could well have fallen into the category of “practical atheist,” who would intellectually agree that “God exists,” but for whom God is irrelevant. There is no interior communion in his soul with the living God, in whom is our life.

  2. Bernard’s second degree of love comes with grace, and the discovery of the living God. This then will become the beginning stage of discipleship for the believer. The man discovers in God the best of things that are good for him! He realizes that God is essential to his good, and among the other good things that benefit him and please him, God is the most beneficial! This is a radical and good development in the soul although certainly it ought not be the end of the story. Here, the person “loves God, but not for God’s sake, but selfishly.” 6 Yet, this is the beginning of the virtue of charity and life in the soul. The soul here is, however, mixed. This man’s love for God is “mercenary,” but God, loving Father that he is, is patient with the self-centered love of a little child.

    Are there such persons in the Church? Most certainly. Bernard’s second degree of love—the very beginnings of the life of grace in the person—is identified with the classic and traditional stage of the interior life called the Purgative Stage, or the Stage of the Beginner. This stage has distinct and identifiable marks that are seen in the person’s prayer life, his dominant spiritual concerns, and particular dangers to be avoided. We will return to this later.

  3. Bernard’s third degree of love can come after some time of pursuing more and more the things of this God who is good for him: he begins to learn more and more the goodness of this God as he is. The man discovers and realizes that this God is truly great and is supremely good in himself. The man discovers the great and divine truth, beauty, and goodness of God in himself, independent of the subjective and personal good that God proved to be for him, personally.

    Bernard wrote: But when, in truth, on account of his own necessity, he has begun to worship and come to Him, again and again, by meditating, by reading, by prayer, and by being obedient, little by little, God becomes known to him through experience, in a sort of familiarity; and, consequently, he grows more lovable, and, thus, by tasting how sweet the Lord is (cf. Ps 34:9), he passes to the third degree so that he loves God now, not for his own sake but for Himself. 7

    Are there such persons in the Church? Most certainly. Bernard’s third degree of love—the second and “progressing” stage in the life of grace—is identified with the traditional stage of the interior life called the Progressing or Proficient Stage, or the Illuminative Stage, in Catholic spiritual theology. This stage has distinct and identifiable marks that are seen in the person’s prayer life, his dominant spiritual concerns, and particular dangers to be avoided. We will return also to this, later.

  4. Bernard’s final, and fourth, degree of love reveals the perfection of charity for a human person. Here, the man who was in the second and Progressing Stage, following faithful growth in what is of God, and interior death to what is not, the great and divine beauty of God becomes clear and pure in him. The supreme goodness of God is seen and loved above all things, to the filling of the man’s heart and mind. The person comes to love God above all else, even above himself and his own life. God is all in all. Here is heroic virtue even unto martyrdom if charity and faithfulness require it. This fourth degree of love described by Bernard is now seen to be the final and third stage of the interior life, the Stage of the Perfect, or Unitive Stage, in Catholic spiritual theology. Bernard, in personal humility, wrote of this stage,

Surely, he must remain long in this state {the previous third degree of love}; and I know not whether it would be possible to make further progress in this life to that fourth degree and perfect condition wherein man loves himself solely for God’s sake. Let any who have attained so far bear record; I confess it seems beyond my powers. 8

Again, the question arises: are there such persons in the Unitive Stage in the Church today? Are there holy saints in the Church today? Most certainly there could be, even in our local parishes.  This Unitive Stage also has distinct and identifiable marks that are seen in the person’s prayer life, his dominant spiritual concerns, and dangers to be avoided. We will return also to this, later.

The Three Stages of the Interior Life: The Purgative Stage

The Purgative Stage, corresponding to Bernard’s second degree of love, is, thus, the beginning of the Christian life of grace. It is a time for purgation, cleansing, and separation from the former ways of the old man, the unbeliever, in Bernard’s first degree of love. The beginner must turn away from all sin, turn to the Lord Jesus Christ, and strive to remain close to him. He must guard the grace he has received. In this stage, the active effort of the person for his sanctification is essential. But also he needs to be exhorted and encouraged to do what is right, to go to the means of grace, and to stop all sin. The beginner needs such counsel, and needs to strive to follow it.

This is the time for disciplined growth in prayer. 9 Ascetical prayer is characteristic of this stage, and ought to advance and deepen as time proceeds, from vocal prayer (both formula and spontaneous), into discursive meditation, ever growing in the knowledge and love of God, and in personal relationship with him.

The beginner must seek to follow Jesus as the first disciples followed Jesus, in a simple and childlike way, in ready obedience, remaining with him even as the scandal of the cross gets nearer and nearer.

The Illuminative Stage

If the person perseveres and grows in his beginning stage, troubling and strange times can come upon him: what John of the Cross calls the dark night of the senses, and bursting upon the soul, the mystical prayer of infused contemplation. Persons here need spiritual advice from learned—and one hopes—experienced guides. For those who persevere, new light has come into the soul, the way of illumination has begun, and thus the Illuminative Stage has been entered. The radically different experiences in prayer, experiences of infused contemplation, bring a totally new relationship with God, and totally new demands upon his Christian response.

Unfortunately, many may not persevere or continue through the trying crisis of the times of darkness. One spiritual writer, in a short but full synthesis of the work of John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, asserted that most people never advance out of the beginning stage: “This is the stage at which the majority of Christians remain all their lives, sad to say, so that purgatory has to accomplish what they left undone on earth.” 10

This new stage of relationship with God is manifested through, as was said, radical changes in prayer and by the radical experience of the “second conversion.” This stage corresponds to Bernard’s third degree of love, of which he wrote, “by meditating, by reading, by prayer and by being obedient, little by little, God becomes known to him through experience, in a sort of familiarity.” It is this experiential fact of God met in prayer that radically transforms both prayer and life to one in the illuminative stage.

Persons in this stage hear the call to a deeper and complete following of Christ, an interior conformity to him. We are called to imitate him and those who are like him, the saints. We must have his sentiments, his passion, his self-donation, his love.

Besides the deeper interior nature of this stage of conversion is the uniquely passive nature of it, contrasted with the active purgation of the beginning stage. This work is the work of God, through the gifts of the Holy Spirit, given at the beginning (at baptism). This is not to say that the person is called into passivity: it is essential that the person actively cooperate with the Spirit, and to receive from him the inner formation which he is accomplishing.

The Unitive Stage

Entrance to this final stage is less dramatic, in a sense, than that to the prior one: it is more hidden and interior; the work of God in the soul is most intimate. This stage is the perfection of what was begun in the illuminative way, as Bernard’s fourth degree of love is the perfection of the third. This, the “third conversion,” brings to the disciple the completeness, the perfection, of his formation in Christ. Such a soul has come to the habit of holiness, finally fit to be a living witness to the Gospel.

In the unitive way, the enlightened Christian “lives in a union that is, so to speak, continual with Christ.” 11 The unitive way, Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange writes, is the normal prelude to the beatific vision. 12 In this third stage, an anonymous nun writes that the identification with Christ has become complete: “…they would be ready to die for God and cheerfully; they feel completely detached from the world if they could only gain God. That is the sign of this stage, along with conscious union with his will in daily life. …” 13

Perhaps, at the entrance to this stage, or, perhaps, embodied within it, is the severe trial and purgation of the second dark night described by John of the Cross, the night of the spirit. There is much that could be said of this profound darkness, and the profound intimacy with Christ of this Unitive Stage, but we must be brief. More can be learned in the references cited at the beginning of this article.

Conclusion

Christ calls us to intimacy with him, and to a share in his life, love, and holiness. How are we to respond to him? God designed natural life to grow through stages—childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. God also designed the supernatural life of the soul, the interior life, to grow in stages—and there are no shortcuts. He has called us to the perfection, the fullness and maturity of holy charity! By his grace, we can respond to his call, one step at a time. But, we need to learn of, and understand, the steps, the process, his path, so that we can live it.

So many in the Church know nothing of the process of spiritual growth that God has designed for our souls! So many know nothing of the journey of growth in prayer. It is not fitting for men to cling to the toys of boys and their pastimes! Nor is it fitting for Catholics to cling to immaturity and remain as children all their lives. Aim higher! Seek him! And he will be found.

We need to be formed in prayer and the interior life, so that we can grow in him. Of course, more generally, we need adult formation: doctrinal, moral, sacramental, and spiritual. Our need is to grow up into the mature man or woman that God first intended us to become. What happens to a Church when the members do grow up? Ah, that will be a glorious day!

  1. William J. Bennett, The Book of Man, (Nashville TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2011) http://tntradebooks.com/bookofman
  2.  http://www.cnn.com/2011/10/04/opinion/bennett-men-in-trouble
  3. An excellent and comprehensive two-volume work on this subject is: Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., The Three Ages of the Interior Life, trans. M. Timothea Doyle, O.P. (Rockford, IL: Tan Books, 1989). Also, I wrote a book on the interior life especially for lay men and women explaining, and based on, this spiritual theology. R. Thomas Richard. The Ordinary Path to Holiness (Staten Island NY: Alba House, 2003). This latter book is available in paperback and in digital form for the Nook and the Kindle.
  4. We are remaining “spiritual children” not in the sense of St. Therese, unfortunately, but as Paul uses the term in the Ephesians passage just quoted. We are largely ignoring the call “to mature manhood” in Christ.
  5. Pope Francis, quoted in The Guardian, 13 March 2013.
  6. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, The Love of God and Other Writings, ed. Msgr. Charles Dollen (New York: Alba House, 1996) ch. XV, 1.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. The “grades” of prayer, both ascetical and mystical, are discussed more fully in The Ordinary Path to Holiness, ch. 4.
  10.  A Discalced Carmelite Nun, The Stages of Prayer (St. Paul, MN: Carmel of Our Lady of Divine Providence, 1971), 2.
  11. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. Christian Perfection and Contemplation, trans. M. Timothea Doyle, O.P. (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1954), 10.
  12. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. The Three Ages of the Interior Life, trans. M. Timothea Doyle, O.P. (Rockford, IL: Tan Books, 1989), vol II, 354.
  13. A Discalced Carmelite Nun, The Stages of Prayer (St. Paul, MN: Carmel of Our Lady of Divine Providence, 1971), 9.
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avatar About R. Thomas Richard, Ph.D.

R. Thomas Richard, Ph.D., together with his wife, currently offers parish presentations and adult formation opportunities. He has served as religious formation director for parishes, director of lay ministry and deacon formation at the diocesan level, and retreat director. A former teacher, engineer, Protestant minister, and missionary, he has earned graduate degrees in Catholic theology and ministry, Protestant ministry, and physics. He is the author of several books in Catholic spirituality, which are described on his website, www.renewthechurch.com.

Comments

  1. avatar Linda Priest says:

    The second paragraph of your conclusion sums up perfectly what I witnessed first-hand during a discussion with a fellow member of our parish at our Ministry Fair. When I asked this person if she was a member of the Legion of Mary, she gasped and replied that she could not take one more thing on “her plate.” When I explained that auxiliary membership is so easy for all of us by simply saying a daily rosary and the short legion prayers, she smiled and said: “I can say a Hail Mary.” In so many conversations, spiritual discussion usually results in jest or silliness. We, indeed, have a lot of growing up to do!

    • … “spiritual discussion usually results in jest or silliness” – Or sometimes blank stares and awkward silence, all of which again points to our need for substantive formation in the Faith in all its dimensions. Thank you for your comment.

  2. avatar Micha Elyi says:

    Want to learn what happens when the Church feasts on man-bashing? Just look around you.

    • The introduction to my article – Bill Bennett’s comments on the wide-spread immaturity of men in the secular society – could well lead into an article on the emasculation (and the corresponding feminization) that can be seen within the Church. Such is part of that same distortion we see in the secular culture, which is progressing in the culture (and advancing into the Church) as an illustration of the power of the ideology pushing it.

      But the Gospel is more powerful than ideology. The proper answer to this problem in the Church – and ultimately in the secular culture as well, I think – is found on the path of spiritual maturation of both men and women, as briefly outlined in the rest of my article. Men find their authentic masculinity and women find their authentic femininity through Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. In our following Jesus, we become the men and the women God intended, and intends. He is the healer who can restore us and make us whole – despite the aberrations inflicted upon us by the ideologies and confusions of this world.

      • avatar Greg Bierbaum says:

        Dr. Richard, along with general secularization of our society, the issue of emasculation of men, is I believe, at the heart of the spiritual immaturity of men. Just look at many television commercials and one will see a consistent denigration of men as well as the role of fatherhood. Time and time again, they are made to look like goofballs. A little jest is one thing. A seemingly systematic undermining of the dignity and role of men and fathers is quite another. This is not to excuse men’s lack of spiritual maturity but it certainly plays a role in this critical issue. I agree with you that the Gospel is more powerful than ideology.

  3. avatar Carlos M. Gopez, Jr. says:

    I can relate to this article. This is Carmelite spirituality which I have learned (and still learning) from the studies of the works of Sts. Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Therese of Lisieux, etc.
    I am an active (lay) Secular Carmelite (aka Third Order in the old days).

    Carlos M. Gopez, Jr., OCDS
    Alhambra (California) OCDS Community
    The Community of Saints Teresa of Jesus and John of the Cross

  4. avatar Tom McGuire says:

    Men and women have more in common than in difference. Rather than focus on the immaturity of men which probably will not open any man’s heart to encounter Jesus Christ. What is needed are ways to engage men and women in discovering the deepest desires of their hearts. At the level of deepest desire conversion takes place. Only then does the spiritual journey begin to make sense.

    • Hello Mr. McGuire. While I began the article with Bill Bennett’s observations on the immaturity of men, specifically, in the secular culture, I focused my concern on the men and women of the Church. I wrote:

      “The problem for the Church is not merely the increasing emotional and psychological immaturity of young men generally. More serious, although I suspect related, is the problem of the spiritual immaturity of men and of women in the Church, and the lack of guidance they are receiving on how to grow up to spiritual maturity as Catholic Christians.”

      The concern I wanted to express in my article is that the path to Christian maturity (which is our goal, in Christ), is a process. This is the case for men and for women. It is a path through stages, which have specific characteristics, and which have a sequence. We begin in immaturity, and are called to maturity. The path has been experienced and the journey well-described by many of our saints – and the spiritual theology that results can enlighten our pastoral work, and illuminate our catechesis, and help direct our pastoral programs toward the full Christian development of the faithful, both men and women.

  5. avatar Tom McGuire says:

    Fr Richard, I missed the point you made in my quick read of your article. However, in the conversations and articles I read the differences between men and women is often exaggerated. In particular the way men and women are viewed in the Catholic Church. Francis’, Bishop of Rome, view of a need for a deeper theology of women seems to understand this exaggeration.

    • avatar TerryC says:

      I must say that in my mind the problem is not in the exaggeration of the differences between men and women but in the suppression of those differences. There is a reason that God made men and women different, and a reason they have different roles in the Church. The purpose of a deeper theology of women is to point out and celebrate those differences, not try to minimize them. Minimizing them is what’s causing the problems, both in the Church and in the world.

      • Or we might even say that the problem is a false caricature of the differences, and not an authentic characterization of them, in the light of Christ and the Gospel. The man/woman caricatures are driven by ideology – “progressive” on the one hand, “conservative” on the other. Both miss the mark, and the truth. In the mystery of the Gospel, God has gifted His people with equal dignity, but different and complementary gifts meant to draw us into a communion of mutual love in Christ.

        That said, though, my article was concerned with the need for all of us in the Church – for men and for women – to grow in Christ. Our vocation is to the perfection of charity: (Eph 4:13) “… until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.”

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  3. [...] The situation in secular America is getting serious, according to a recent book by William Bennett, The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood. 1 Bennett wrote an article for CNN Online, 2 based on his book, and including these observations:…more [...]

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