Three Temptations to Spiritual Immaturity

shutterstock_148738886Pope Francis recently warned the bishops in Latin America of three temptations that need to be recognized and overcome.  In an address he described the three as 1) making the Gospel message an ideology, 2) functionalism (viewing and operating the Church as if it were a business), and 3) clericalism.  These three are certainly present and threatening to the Church in the United States as well!  These three call us all to an examination of moral awareness and conscience, as persons and as Church.

Francis explains only briefly the three in his address, but the three as named can serve as very helpful headings of Church weakness in the West.  They help clarify just how it is that so many of our parishes appear like a bureaucracy and are as spiritually impoverished as they are.  The temptations as named also point the way to victory and strength for us, however.  These temptations need to be met head-on and acknowledged where they exist.  The moral collapse into mere ideology, into functionalism, and/or into clericalism must be overcome by repentance, reform and renewal.  These temptations offer to Church leaders and members counterfeits of the real.  They invite us to denial of the truth, and to our vocation in Christ.

 The Temptations

Ideologies reduce the Gospel to partial truths, thus are mixed with falsity.  They reduce Christianity to the natural, neglecting the essential supernatural character of the faith.  Examples given by the Pope interestingly include both secular and religious terms:   Ideologies of sociological or psychological character flatten man and the Gospel, robbing them of their spiritual dimension, their vertical orientation.

Ideologies at least sounding more religious – “the Gnostic solution” found in “elite groups”, the “Pelagian” solution seeking to recover better times of “the lost past” – also lack the fullness of truth and similarly are the products of man and not the revelation of God.  All of these sample ideologies, whether seemingly secular or religious, can be found in the Church today.  Whether clothed with religious vocabulary or not, they are counterfeits of the Gospel, and indeed a form of idolatry.  They create a christ and a gospel to fit their ideology, but they are false.

Functionalism has a “paralyzing” effect on the Church, the Pope said.  It takes a business model and approach for what is a supernatural organism, seeking “efficiency” – thus reducing Church to an institution, an organization of men.  Such functionalism concerning the parish and diocese leads, sadly, to a corresponding functionalism concerning her holy ministers – bishops, priests and deacons.  Pastors become CEOs and managers; the priest is reduced to a dispenser of sacraments and the conductor of liturgical ceremony, the mission of the pastor is reduced to the maintenance and operation of his buildings, property and inwardly-directed programs.

What happens to the laity, in such a reduction and collapse of Church?  The pre-Vatican II joke returns: the laity is to “pay, pray and obey.”  The laity with their pastors become focused within, turned within to the local concerns and operation of the local church – losing all sense of mission that was entrusted to the Church from the beginning.  And losing as well the interior mission that is implicit in our personal call: we are all called to holiness!  Thus church becomes a social organization, a private club.  Mass becomes theater, members become spectators, sacrament becomes habit, prayer becomes rote, the Faith becomes merely the usual Sunday schedule – irrelevant to the “real world” of Monday through Saturday.  But is the parish or diocese doing the works that Christ sent us to do?  Are we making disciples?  Are we teaching all that He has given us?  Paul VI wrote that the Church exists to evangelize!

She exists in order to evangelize, that is to say, in order to preach and teach, to be the channel of the gift of grace, to reconcile sinners with God, and to perpetuate Christ’s sacrifice in the Mass, which is the memorial of His death and glorious resurrection. (Evangelii nuntiandi, #14)

Are we growing toward holiness?  Is every pastoral initiative directed to this vocation?  John Paul II wrote, “First of all, I have no hesitation in saying that all pastoral initiatives must be set in relation to holiness.” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, #30)  Our parish and diocesan planning, programs, projects, our chancery operations, would be dramatically and radically revised if holiness were to become our guiding and explicit objective.  How warmed would the hearts of the faithful become, if led toward our true vocation of holiness – and our true work of making disciples!  Functionalism is deadly to the Church, because it is dead to the life of the Lord.

The Pope listed clericalism as a major temptation to be overcome.  My wife and I, when we were working in a large parish once, were sternly “corrected” by our priest-supervisor (who was unhappy with my recommendations) with, “You work for us!”  My wife had the presence of mind to say, “But I thought we all worked for Jesus.”  The conversation ended soon after.

Clericalism must be seen for what it is, and repudiated by clergy and laity.  The Church is not another organization of the world, where the rulers lord it over those ruled, abusing their authority and treating those under them disrespectfully and condescendingly.  Jesus taught us a different way.

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.

It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant,

and whoever would be first among you must be your slave;

even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  (Mt 20:25-28)

Indeed, clericalism would hold the laity in servitude under the clergy – when both should be in service to Jesus for the lost of the world.  Clericalism keeps the laity immature.  Pope Francis once warned the parishes against forsaking the maternal role of mother who raises her children and becoming instead like a babysitter who seeks only to put them to sleep.

Ultimately, clericalism makes a pact between clergy and laity in favor of the city of man, and rejects the call of the city of God.  It replaces the narrow way of Christ with something more manageable: a compromise with the world and not its sanctification; the way of politics, the way of the projects of man.  Clericalism serves religion without life – that is, pharisaism for the clergy – and it tempts the laity to the service of compromise, serving both God and Mammon.  Worst of all, clericalism declares to the lost world that the Kingdom of God is far, far away.

Immature Souls

These temptations have had their effect, strongly weakening the Church in the West.  Together they have become institutionalized, forming a “structure of sin” that continues to wound clergy and laity.  Some of the more obvious consequences we can observe include our ignorance of the teachings of the Church, our moral autonomy and independence, our irreverence of approach to the sacraments, and the undeveloped and unpracticed nature of our prayer life.  A way to sum it up is, we are chronically immature and we are not growing toward maturity in Christ.

All believers begin as immature disciples.  But if they are authentic disciples – that is learners of Jesus – they will “naturally” (supernaturally) begin to grow, to mature and to develop as Christians.  They will grow in grace, they will turn with ever greater resolve against the things of this world to become ever stronger in the things of God.  On the other hand, it is possible for Christians to settle into lukewarmness as a permanent disposition of the soul.  It is possible to become chronically, habitually, in spiritual immaturity.

In his very thorough and brilliant two-volume work on traditional Catholic spiritual theology, The Three Ages of the Spiritual Life, Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange explains and describes in great detail the three “ages” or stages of the interior life that characterize the journey to holiness.  However, every soul does not necessarily progress, as would be normal, through the stages.  Every soul does not reach the “adulthood” of sanctity in the interior life with God.  Indeed, every soul does not necessarily progress past even the beginning.  One can fall into a static spiritual immaturity for all the rest of his life.  Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange briefly describes this condition:

Some souls, because of their negligence or spiritual sloth, do not pass from the age of beginners to that of proficients. These are retarded souls; in the spiritual life they are like abnormal children, who do not happily pass through the crisis of adolescence and who, though they do not remain children, never reach the full development of maturity. Thus these retarded souls belong neither among beginners nor among proficients. Unfortunately they are numerous.

Of these souls, some who formerly served God with fidelity are now in a state bordering on indifference. Though in the past they knew true spiritual fervor, we may say without fear of rash judgment that they seriously misused divine graces. Had it not been for this misuse, as a matter of fact the Lord would have continued what He had begun in them, for He does not refuse His help to those who do what is in their power to obtain it.

How did these souls reach this state of tepidity? As a rule, two principal causes are indicated: the neglect of little things in the service of God and the refusal to make the sacrifices He asks.

Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange discusses this collapse to a tepid observance of the Faith in more detail in his book.  When the heart is not kindled by the fire of His love, the spiritual life and discipleship grow cold, formal, institutional and lifeless.  Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange summarizes the analysis up to this point as follows:

These … enemies of the spiritual life give rise… to ambition, the desire for eminent positions or the wish to make a reputation for oneself in the sciences, and the seeking after one’s ease; all of which are manifestly opposed to spiritual progress.

Clearly these worldly choices are those of love for self, to the exclusion of love for God and His Gospel.  Carnal loves that are retained and protected – resisting the call to continual conversion to the things of God – are deadly to discipleship.  When such “enemies of the spiritual life” find shelter in the souls of the shepherds of the church, what is to become of the sheep?  When the teachers and leaders refuse to learn – and to live what they know – what is to become of those under their leadership?  It is no wonder that clericalism and careerism are paralyzing the Church.  It is no wonder that “seeking one’s ease” has invited the status quo concerns of the parishes to totally supplant the call to evangelize, and thus to be Church.

Yes, Paul VI said it plainly: the Church exists to evangelize. But an evangelical heart requires a zeal for the Lord and a love for souls that is “inconvenient” for those happily preoccupied with themselves, their ease, and the status quo.  Spiritual childishness has a similar name to the spiritual childhood so beautifully illuminated by the life of St. Therese of Lisieux!  But the two are miles apart.  St. Therese showed a Christian maturity in her child-like simplicity, that the retarded souls of a carnal faith cannot imagine.  The Church needs a purity, a simplicity, a zeal and a heroic heart that comes from maturity of soul – such souls can bear fruit for God, fruit that remains.


Pope Francis warns us of temptations to become ideologues for agendas and causes, rather than faithful followers of the Gospel.  He warns us against Church leadership of CEOs and business managers, rather than of pastors and priests.  He warns us against clericalism that makes babysitters of the clergy, and babies of the laity.  He warns us, it seems to me, against worldly hearts that make “retarded souls” of us all.

We need to hear and embrace the call to follow Christ, no matter the cost.  The “New Evangelization” of John Paul II repeated it for us.  Benedict XVI repeated it again in this still continuing “Year of Faith.”  Francis stirs us to remember our vocation, and fall not to the temptations of this world.  We need to be and to make disciples, beginning with the membership of the Church.  We need to reach out to the many Catholics who have fallen away from the Faith, and bring them home.  And then, finally, maybe we can, with some credibility, do what Jesus sent us to do in the beginning: make disciples of all the nations, teaching them to do all that He commanded.


R. Thomas Richard


R. Thomas Richard, Ph.D., together with his wife Deborah, currently offers parish adult formation opportunities, and programs for Returning Catholics.  He has served the Church in religious formation, lay ministry and deacon formation, and retreat direction.  He is the author of several articles in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, as well as books on Catholic spirituality, prayer, and the Mass – which are described on his website,  He also publishes a blog at

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • James H, London

    This is one of the most lucid commentaries on what’s wrong with the church that I’ve seen in a long time. Well done.

    “Mass becomes theater, members become spectators, sacrament becomes
    habit, prayer becomes rote, the Faith becomes merely the usual Sunday
    And yet, there are so many insisting that this is what church is supposed to be. Pope Francis ‘gets it’!

  • JMC

    There is little to be added to this article. We’ve all seen these things in action at one time or another in our lives.
    I do have a request, both to Dr. Richard and to everyone who posts articles on this site: Please stop using that gray font for emphasis. Use boldface, or italics, but not gray. I have severe vision problems; gray print has a nasty tendency to fade to near-invisibility. I end up having to block-and-copy articles into Word documents and then adjusting the font and color to something I can see.
    I know I’m not the only one with such difficulties. So please, consider an end to the use of gray fonts.

  • catholicexchange

    Thanks for bringing that to our attention. It’s something the system automatically does for us but we’ll see if there’s a better way to do it.

    Thanks, as always, for stopping by!

  • ATF

    I once had a marital problem and my wife dragged me to see the priest of our parish. He shipped us off to the prescribed therapist, where I wound up walking out and resolving it myself. But my wife hung in there and volunteered to help their Catecism School. She taught straight from her remembrance of the Nuns who taught her. That’s when she was brought in to Sister’s office and reprimanded. Reprimanded for teaching exactly what the Bible has said and corrected false teachings that all of today’s primary faiths worship the same God which was in the textbook my wife was given to teach from. It was baloney and any cradle Catholic knows that religions who view Christ as a mere prophet shouldn’t be included in Catholic textbooks as the “same God we all worship as Catholics”. It’s clearly hogwash and worse, pacification that slaps Jesus right in the face.

    I was about to give up on the Church in those days were it not for an Arch-Bishop who stepped in. An Arch-Bishop whose words my wife was taking her guidance from. He was a true man of God. She wrote to him for guidance. He didn’t ship her off to the prescribed cleric or therapist. He personally sat down and discussed God’s word and why she was correct to stand her ground. Jesus indeed was the difference between what that Nun’s textbook had to say and what the Arch-Bishop had to say. To that Arch-Bishop it didn’t matter what parents were threatening to stop paying the fee for a class and pull their kids out. He didn’t care. He cared more about teaching what the Bible does say instead of pacifying people to remain “in the club”. Then he laid into the Nun for buying textbooks that don’t adhere to the Gospel.

    If it weren’t for that Arch-Bishop, I probably wouldn’t still be Catholic today because that’s not the Catholic Church I came from either. But I did switch parishes.

    The Pope is right. More guidance and less “club factor” is not a hard course to change. If an Arch-Bishop and Pope can do that, no Nun or Priest has any excuse. There’s wisdom in “visiting the sick”. They aren’t just lying in hospital beds. A Church is supposed to be a family that cares about one another in Christ, the HOLY TRINITY – one God who doesn’t share His seat with other “gods” or religions that refer to Christ as a mere prophet. If you can’t get that point right as a Catholic Nun, how are you going to help anyone with a real problem? Ship them off to a therapist and hand them a business card you probably collect a referral for? I guess you finally just got told and you should have.

    Pray for this Pope, our Bishops and Arch-Bishops. They’re going to be attacked from without and WITHIN.

  • noelfitz

    Intersting article, but a bit too long.

    It raises a problem for me.

    Our pastor would make a brilliant CEO of a business. He has modernized the parish, encouraged people to get active and do things, he is energetic involving people, at raising money and selling books.

    I think he is wonderful, making the parish a place where people belong, but maybe he could be accused of functionalism and clericalism. I am not sure of what funtionalim means. Isn’t the Gospel messsage an ideology, a system of ideas and ideals?

  • Thomas Richard

    Hello noelfitz,

    You asked, “Isn’t the Gospel message an ideology, a system of ideas and ideals?” I want to try to answer, and I’d like to do it in a few words! I’m sorry, It’s going to take more than a few. But please listen to these thoughts from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

    First, this:

    “Many people today have a limited concept of what the Christian faith is because they identify it with a mere system of beliefs and values and not with the truth of a God revealing himself in history, eager to communicate with humanity one-on-one in a relationship of love,” (Nov-14-2012 – Catholic News Service –

    And then, this: In a catechesis focused on St. Paul’s experience of Christ on the road to Damascus, Benedict spoke of the real essence of Christianity a bit more. His words are crucially important to your question!

    First, Benedict clarified that Paul never interprets this moment as an event of “conversion.” This is because, the Pope said,

    “… this change of his life, this transformation of his whole being was not the result of a psychological process, of a maturation or intellectual and moral evolution, but it came from outside: It was not the result of his thinking but of the encounter with Jesus Christ. In this sense it was not simply a conversion, a maturing of his ‘I,’ rather, it was death and resurrection for himself: A life of his died and a new one was born with the Risen Christ. ….

    “At that moment, he did not lose all that was good and true in his life, in his heritage, but understood in a new way the wisdom, truth and depth of the law and the prophets; he appropriated them in a new way.”

    There is meaning for us in this event in Paul’s life:

    “It means that also for us, Christianity is not a new philosophy or new morality. We are Christians only if we encounter Christ. Of course he does not show himself to us in that irresistible, luminous way, as he did with Paul to make him Apostle of the Gentiles” “However, we can also encounter Christ in the reading of sacred Scripture, in prayer, in the liturgical life of the Church. We can touch Christ’s heart and feel him touch ours. Only in this personal relationship with Christ, only in this encounter with the Risen One do we really become Christians. And in this way, our reason opens, the whole of Christ’s wisdom opens and all the richness of the truth.”

    What then should we do? Benedict XVI continued:

    “Therefore, let us pray to the Lord to enlighten us, so that, in our world, he will grant us the encounter with his presence, and thus give us a lively faith, an open heart, and great charity for all, capable of renewing the world.” (SEPT. 3, 2008 – Zenit –

    Here is the key for us: pray, and listen; listen, and pray. Listen to Him – to His holy Word. The Gospel has power to change and transform our hearts beyond mere ideas, to a new life.

  • gswf

    “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few…” Matthew 9:37. It is indeed our priests and deacons who need to evangelize the evangelizers so we may go out and gather the ripe harvest. Also – it is the responsibility of the laity to be the disciples that we were all called to be at our Baptism. That may mean educating oneself on the aspects of our Faith that cannot be covered only in a Sunday homily. Pray, pray, pray and read, read, read and take part in the Faith Formation for adults that one’s diocese, archdiocese and/or parish offer. And- Yes, first answer the call that we are all called to holiness!

  • noelfitz

    Dear Dr Richard,

    Many thanks for your thoughtful and insightful reply to my post. I feel somewhat guilty that I imposed on you.

    I agree that Catholicism is more about persons and relationships than about ideas. For Catholics faith is the acceptance of dogmas, but fundamentally our relationship with God, and his love for us count, as God first loved us. We are remindedby St Paul that love is greater than faith or hope.

    Paul’s response to his encounter with the Lord on the road to Damascus was not a conversion, as he remained a Jew. Transformation is a better word.

    Considering the greater importance of relationships than intellectual acceptance of beliefs may help to understand why females are more attracted to our religion that males, but this is a consideration for another time.

    Basically I agree with you and am grateful that you took the time to reply to me.

  • Thomas Richard

    Hello gswf,

    Thank you for responding to my article, and thank you for doing so with such a spirit. Amen to your comments. I would only add one thought, saying again what is included in the article: most would understand your quote of Mt 9:37 as pointing us out to the world. Out there “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few…” And that is true. But the verse also can speak of the harvest awaiting laborers inside our parishes!

    Here, within our parishes, can often be found much activity but little labor directed to the harvest of that which will endure. May God raise up laborers working for the Kingdom among us! The New Evangelization must begin within, before it can be sent out to the world.

  • Thomas Richard

    Thank you, James. And I agree, Pope Francis is nailing truth to the doors, for all who will listen.

  • Thomas Richard

    Hello ATF – thank you for your comments. You were “fortunate” to find that Archbishop – but then, God works such things in the lives of those seeking His truth. Everyone who seeks, finds.

    Yes we need to pray for our leaders in the Church, The Lord sees it all, and we can trust Him with it all.

    Blessings and grace to you, and your wife.

  • Greg C

    Thomas, this is a fantastic article! Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I have read it 3 times and have decided to post a comment here. If I recall correctly, Benedict XVI stressed that we should pray most of all for a “listening” or “attentive” heart, so we can accomplish just what you have pointed out. If we do so, we will experience the “illumination,” not conversion, that Paul experienced. This is the very essence of the latest encyclical “Light of Faith.” The light is not a blinding light which decimates and clears all obstacles. It is a guiding light that directs us along a path of truth that unites us with God. Also, I take great joy in reading John 15. We are not the vine dressers. We are nothing without God. The best we can do is sprout branches. I like to remind myself and challenge myself everyday before my feet swing out of bed and hit the floor that: 1) I am nothing without God, 2) all of my experiences/achievements/goals/accomplishments (etc.) are nothing unless they are oriented to God, and lastly 3) People need my love and I need their love (therefore I must pray for others and I trust that they will reciprocate – No man is an island). I feel that you can substitute “love” in number 3 with virtually anything that is endearing such as “presence,” “prayer,” “commitment,” etc. It surely has been a pleasure reading your article and I hope that I haven’t bored you. Take care and please pray for me – I will surely do the same for you.

  • Thomas Richard

    Hello Greg, thank you for your comments. Three readings! I know that the article was a bit long, and thus might turn away some readers, but I am happy to learn that the length did not intimidate you!

    I am happy to read of your focus on prayer, as an important need for us. I agree, very strongly. I believe that prayer – a developing/maturing life of prayer – is the greatest need in the Church of the West today. (Thus my two more recent articles for CE – one not yet published as of today) In prayer we grow closer and closer to Him, our God, our Life.

    You certainly have not “bored” me! Your closing comment on love is crucial. In the end, love is what matters. May the Lord enkindle the flames of authentic divine love in our hearts. I will remember you in my morning prayer today, and ask for your prayers as well.