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.


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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

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