(Questions and Answers For This Article)

Question: It is interesting what you write about Blessed Marie Eugene and what he says about the stages of spiritual growth. Have you ever read “Reflections on the Problem of Gradual Ascent to Christian Perfection” (in Theological Investigations, vol. 3, 20– 21) by Karl Rahner? He was an important theologian who contributed much to the Second Vatican Council.

Answer: Karl Rahner is not specialised in Spiritual Theology. He is mainly a Dogmatician. The distinction between the two specialisations is very important. I do believe in specialisation, in being really knowledgeable in a specific field. Many great theologians – like Hans Urs von Balthasar – have “played” with Spiritual Theology while they weren’t properly specialised or trained in Spiritual Theology. They blended it into their theological thinking. The need is understandable but being qualified to do so is another issue. It is not their field, they came to it obliquely, not directly, so to speak.

Rahner (like Balthasar later) was for years the idol of many students in Theology as well as of priests. Like a god on earth. He certainly has merit in many points in Theology. Unfortunately, his article became a milestone in the spontaneous operation of the complete implosion of the theological understanding of what growth is and its stages.  It is because of his article – coming from such a rising authority – that we lost the notion of growth completely. People believed him and not Tradition. I am sure it wasn’t at all his intention to do so. De facto he certainly expressed and voiced real questions that were emerging in his times. Voicing questions is one thing, and this is to his credit; but offering true answers is another issue! Thus, when you (the Church) are left with true theological questions and no real answers you implode theologically.

Example of the implosion: the disappearance of a proper understanding of the notion of purification. As a consequence, you often hear and read today of Spiritual Theology “specialists” saying that purification can occur after Union with God!!

This is why in my Thesis I had to re study the whole file, pulling it back and studying the development of our understanding of Growth from day one. I had to do a Thesis before my Thesis. It took time and effort.

I recently read an Italian article on the stages of growth in current manuals of Spiritual Theolgy and the writer, Fr. Laurent Touze, was saying that Growth initially constituted the vertebral spine of the entire Treatise of Spiritual Theology, but that now it was just one minor chapter in the Treatise or Manual. Although he will soften his statement toward the end of his study, one can easily continue to say: the core of the problem is not resolved by the actual authors of Manuals or Treatises in Spiritual Theology. They just went back to pre 1965-1985 Treatises, without solving the real issues (the challenge constituted by human growth, as will be shown below).

Can you conceive of the scale of the disaster? From being the spinal cord, the vertebral spine and support of the entire Treatise of Spiritual Theology, the notion of growth became a minor chapter! Marginalised! If you destroy the spinal cord, if you destroy the goal and the stages, how can you survive? With what? This is a bona fide disaster. But let us go deeper into the causes.

“Human Maturity” as a New Challenge

One of the reasons for the change or hesitation or doubt that pervaded all the teaching in Spiritual Theology from 1965 onwards, is the pressure coming from Psychology and Psychoanalysis and therefore the emergence of a new and different understanding of growth or maturity. The Second Vatican Council talks about human maturity to be followed up and realised in the candidates for Priesthood and Religious Life. (Already the Council was perceiving the new challenges: see Blessed Marie-Eugene’s pages on psychology in “I Want to see God” – they are totally new in the history of Spiritual Theology. In addition, psychoanalysis is a very young science, to take an example: the first PhD in the field in Italy was in the early 1970s. The pressure from the new prodigious discoveries in Psychology, however. started from the 1930s at least. But very few pre 1965 Treatises or Manuals responded to the challenge! In this Blessed Marie-Eugene is ahead of his time and in fact in the 1940-50s the French OCD organised Seminars inviting experts in Psychoanalysis.

The huge development of this new dimension of growth (human maturity) and the necessity to integrate it with spiritual growth, shook the concept of Spiritual Growth to the core – actually it made it implode. It was new! It is true that this seems shocking and that it caught us unprepared. See how the pre 1965 Treaties reacted! With the exception of Blessed Marie-Eugene, there was very little reaction.

This point is fundamental. Rahner’s article is an epiphenomenon to something way deeper that had already been happening for years but that was sort of unintentionally “repressed”. Rahner’s article just voiced what was said in the private conversations in the Faculties.

– The question is: have we survived this challenging encounter today?

– No.

– Why?

– Because we often have experts well versed either in the field of Psychology or in that of Spiritual Theology. And if we have one who is knowledgeable in both these fields it is often more so in Psychology than in Spiritual Theology. As a consequence, the structure of what he sees, and judges, is considerably weakened because of the overwhelming credit that is given to Psychology over the work of the grace of God.

The ignorance of what the grace of God can achieve – which is at the core of the issue – and will not achieve psychologically (i.e. if a person is psychologically ill, he or she will remain ill), is the core reason of our incapacity to overcome the challenge.

Today and from the 1980s, people who have both qualifications are seen in the Church as gods, everybody listens to them as if they were oracles. But the unfortunate ignorance they often have about the real understanding of what the Grace of God can and wants to achieve constitutes a huge setback.

When I was studying in Rome, attending different Spiritual Theology Courses with the OCDs, I was able to witness this huge change. The lack of clarity and discernment between the two notions of growth: the human one and the spiritual one. And all sorts of options were taken. i.e. does human growth come before the change? Does it command spiritual growth? Which one should have the priority, if it were to have priority? There are all sorts of underlying unresolved issues that undermine the development of Spiritual Theology today.

Recent Example

Let me take one recent example. But please don’t let this simple example overwhelm your perception. This is only a minute example from a huge list. The example is: Paedophilia amongst Priests and Religious. Humbly, in my eyes, the main question to be asked is: how come, during the very long time of formation (minimum seven years) none of the formators was able to spot the problem in one of his candidates?

Recently, one of the paedophile French priests gave witness in the civil court and said, without any intention of denying guilt on his part, but merely to explain: my superiors knew about my problems (not specifically paedophilia but psychological problems), but they didn’t do anything, they let me continue toward ordination.

Were they prepared to help him? To address the question? Did they really understand it?

Now, there is another important question since additional victims of the priestly paedophilia are their superiors, the Bishops: how come when Bishops came to know about the paedophile behaviour of one of their priests (of course the proportion of paedophilia amongst priest is very small compared to the proportion practised in families, by fathers, uncles, etc) they just continued to “hide” the problem, and just moved the priest from one area to another? What was the implicit belief behind this behaviour? It is important to note that today people cannot understand the cultural epochal change we have gone through in just a few years.  Why did they hold back from seeing the true problem? Were they capable of discerning the differences between human growth and spiritual growth? Did have any clue about psychological soundness? About the damage these paedophile priests where doing to young people? Did they keep the conviction of the superiority of the Church’s Law over common sense? All the taboo that surrounded the issue? Their irresponsible behaviour of taking such issues lightly lay in the lack of clear definition that paedophilia is a crime.

Let us not stray from the point: what is at stake here? The simple answer is: human maturity, human growth and balance, psychological soundness.

From 1965 to 1985 roughly, the Church in the West was in a huge crisis of growth. Everything was imploding: the old certainties and solutions were all in doubt; new experiments were ongoing; human growth was impacting on judgement; the notion of sin disappeared in the midst of the turmoil, grave sin at least, and in general the lack of rules and regulations for these specific issues, but mostly still the lack of proper discernment and action. Everything or almost everything was allowed and did happen. It was only and gradually from John Paul II that things started to be clarified, but not all of these issues and human maturity stayed unclarified.

But still, what is at stake is the definition, discernment and handling of human growth and maturity. It involves mainly the notion of psychological maturity and fitness.

All the above is just a small example (and I insist that paedophilia, quantity wise, and despite its huge huge gravity, is a very small problem when compared to the real wider problem of growth – spiritual and human). The above example is taken only to show you the type of pressure the Church has been under for various decades and finally it had to change its law and send priests to civil prisons: what was the decision Pope Benedict took? He allowed, in a way and so to speak, the civil law to override the Church’s law! However, the real “secret” is: he was forced by the outside world to do so! Shame on us. He said: once there is a serious accusation of paedophilia, the priest is to be seen as a criminal and must be immediately surrendered to the civil authorities (i.e. we are not above civil law – or common sense)! Today this looks totally fair and normal! But when you think about it, this is a new and totally unheard-of type of relationship between the Church (canon law) and the World  (civil law), in the sense that the Church is in a way considering the civil Ius (law in Latin, Jurisprudence) above the Church’s one, or better said: The Church’s law failed to face a problem both upstream and downstream! Can you imagine??? You are surrendering a Priest to Civil Law! In olden times you would never even have thought of that. Today, it is totally normal and mandatory. Why? Because we consider, and rightly so, that the Priest is a proper criminal. So, this means that we had a potential criminal ordained priest! Something during formation time must have gone awry or was simply wrong!

Before, that it wasn’t the case! The Church’s Ius (Law in Latin) was considered different and superior. Of course  this never meant that the Church would contradict civil Ius, but it would find it impossible to be under Civil law owing to the superiority of the Gospel. Remember, here, St. Paul shaming the Corinthians for having to go to court to solve their problems.

What do all these events mean? The core of it is the following: the paedophile slipped between the fingers of formators! Then, afterwards, the paedophile was hidden by the Bishops. Human maturity and balance in the candidates to priesthood and religious life wasn’t always taken into consideration particularly in the 70s. No tools of formation were implemented to spot and face such a problem! Now, everywhere, you will witness the fear amongst the Church leaders, embodied in their surrendering to the judgment of “Specialists” with a battery of tests to perform on the poor young candidates to priesthood and religious life at all stages. On the other hand, do we have any knowledge about Spiritual Growth and its connection with human growth?

We are back to square one: the pressure from the World over the Church is huge and the Church proved unprepared for the new challenges. In this specific case, you can see the tremendous strength of the pressure: it forced the Church to do something unheard of: to surrender its priests to civil justice without any other measure internal to the Church.

In sum, from 1965-1985 onward Psychology / Psychoanalysis did something along these lines to Spiritual Theology. The latter surrendered “power” and “authority” to Psychology / Psychoanalysis. Today in the USA you have your own psychologist as a recourse when in difficulty. The Priest has disappeared from civil society, Spiritual Direction and Confession have disappeared from society. The Church’s era has ended in the West. Like Communism. The Church’s social presence and influence has fallen. I don’t mean She has been destroyed, but She has been totally marginalised and is a true minority in civil life. We are witnesses to something that has lasted from the Middle Ages and has now ended.

As you can see, the core issue is the relationship between two realities of growth: the human one and the spiritual one. And the information, teaching and knowledge about human growth now comes from the human sciences, not from theology.

How can we “combine” or articulate both realities? How do they meet?? Who comes first, if so? What can the grace of God achieve that psychology can’t? What will the grace of God not achieve? What will the grace of God not achieve that psychology has to? What will neither of them achieve? What is spiritual growth then? What level of human growth is necessary as a human foundation in order to trigger supernatural growth? Can we offer spiritual growth to a person who is deeply damaged psychologically? What is the difference between a clinically ill person and any general psychological difficulty? How can we evaluate psychological weakness and therefore fitness for spiritual life? If so, how will it be managed within spiritual life?

What level of human growth is necessary as a human foundation in order to trigger supernatural growth? This question, as you can see, might find an answer in the understanding of Second Conversion, and also in understanding the first three Mansions and what they are supposed to achieve at the level of human growth as a human solid foundation, in order to start to trigger the supernatural power of Grace.

You can very well guess how humility and prudence are a “must”. You can guess how the audacity to preach Spiritual Life is very much challenged and needs to reconsider itself when faced with such huge and serious questions like human growth.

The Last Thirty Years (1985-2015)

In the seventies every one or two years we had a new Exegetical method to read the Bible. All were coming from the human sciences and were to be applied with hardly any discernment to the Sacred Text. Structural method, psychoanalysis, etc., appeared to be the way forward. Something similar also was implemented in Theology, where, for instance, psychology and consciousness were applied to Christ’s human nature. It began to reach absurd points and even deleted important points in the faith such as the belief that the Lord in his human nature was in constant communion with his divine nature, i.e. having the Beatific Vision. They were treating Him like any human being, giving Him less recognition of spiritual union than what St. John of the Cross gives to us humans, in his books Spiritual Canticle and Living Flame of Love.

During these last thirty years or so, many – alleged specialists – have played an important role in the public scene in the Church in the field of Formation of seminarians and religious) They have offered new approaches embedding psychology and new “methods” to analyse people. These span Jungian tools (but very much reduced, and I am not sure at all if Jung would approve of their classification a classification of the types of persons according to him), to the Enneagram test, passing through other important figures in psychoanalysis, psychology, etc.

How did it occur? Out of the blue, one of these new methods arises, it becomes trendy, and everybody rushes into applying it without any discernment as if it were the “Holy Grail” of formation, the solution to all problems. This damaged and still greatly damages religious life, spiritual life and seminaries. It is still ongoing.

As we have had this “illness” of applying a new method of exegesis every few years, in order to understand the Bible, or Jesus, now the victims are people in formation. Instead of properly studying the great authors like St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross, we have decided that we know them, and that what they say is not all valid for us (see what Hans Urs von Balthasar says about the Dark Night), and that we need now to know the human being from the human sciences.

Please do not misunderstand me, for I do have the highest respect for science and for psychology and for some Heads of schools of psychoanalysis. But still, this can’t in any way be compared with what the Grace of God can achieve in the balanced person who surrenders totally to its action in him, in us in general.