Friday, December 18, 2009

The Imperative Of Growing Towards The Light

The following article taken from makes a very important point about spiritual growth and how a real spiritual community must foster the spiritual growth of people in all stages of spiritual development. This task is completely impossible for religious leaders who have not progressed from a community based spirituality to a personally based spirituality.

In many respects, Catholicism is not caught between political poles of right and left, but between spiritual poles. One pole is represented by individuals on a personal path wishing to be nurtured by a community and the other pole is represented by a path which is dictated for the individual by the community and usually it's leadership.

In this article Sydney based Fr. Dan Donovan contrasts these two spiritual paths and the communities they engender by using the examples of St. Mary's Brisbane and Opus Dei. One represents the concept of emerging church which is far more responsive to the needs of individuals with in the social/worldly community in which it operates. The other is focused on the maintenance of the Institutional Church irrespective of the social/worldly community in which it operates.

One can never forget that these approaches are in many respects irreconcilable when the approach in ascendancy is operating from the community understanding of spiritual experience.

Faith Development in a Community of Disciples
Father Dan Donovan,, 12/18/08

James Fowler speaks of faith as a way of making meaning and that there are identifiable stages of faith which develop over the person's life cycle. Fowler speaks of faith as a "verb" and contrasts his understanding of faith with those who would consider faith to be a "noun". When faith is understood as a noun, it is like having a bank deposit rather than being involved in a life long process (doing). (And the bankers have all the power and all the truth.)
Among those who have applied Fowler's research to the Christian life, is a Maryknoll priest, John Walsh. Walsh's faith stages will be used here because his language and explanation of the faith levels are easily grasped. Walsh details six faith stages which are not to be understood as a linear continuum in which a higher stage is to be understood as better than a lower stage. Gabriel Moran suggests that the pretzel shape is a better visualisation of the faith development stages. Each stage is complete and provides a meaningful faith response to life. Walsh does point out that each stage has an in built tension which allows the person's growth to the next stage (1 Cor 13: 11). Persons at lower stages are unable to grasp the reality of the person who is at a higher stage and this can lead to mistrust and suspicion of those who have moved out of the socialisation parade of stages 1-3 and have begun to develop a personal faith. (It would be better to use colors for these stages rather than numbers. This is about meaningful stages of spiritual understanding not rank order of spiritual truth.)

There are six levels of faith identified by Walsh are briefly explained below in a descending order from 6 to 1. As noted by Moran above faith development is pretzel shaped so the stages are to be understood as the predominant stage of the person's faith rather than a state which does not allow for further growth.

Marathon runner (level 6): Universal Faith … Resolution of models: This person has many models of making meaning in life and there is a resolution of the tension between the various models which work in a perfect harmony.

Jogging (level 5): Community Faith … Many models: This person is able to deal with paradox in life and is able to deal with reality which is not always "either…or" style but frequently involves "both…and." There is openness to the views and the sensitivities of others. All persons who undertake ministry in the Church must have reached this stage of faith development.

Hopping (level 4): Personal Faith … One Model: This person has undergone some conversion experience which had resulted in an analysis of faith and realised that there are many ways in which various people can appropriate and personalise their faith.

Parade Socialisation (level 3): Searching Faith… Carried by the community: This person follows significant others in the parade in a rather unquestioning and non-judgmental manner. This person is happy in his or her parade and will derive his or her identity from the group.

Indoctrination (level 2): Affiliative Faith … Carried by the community: This person is formed in-doctrine of the story of the particular faith tradition. Faith is doing and believing what is taught / presented.

Vibrations (level 1): Experienced Faith … Carried by the community: This person shares the faith experience of her/his parents. God is like a super parent. Basically, this stage should convince the child that life is worth living.

A person will not move to the next stage until she or he is faced with a disequilibrium which challenges their present stage of faith and its inability to make meaning of the new experience. Parents will remember that Sunday morning when they called their teenage son or daughter to get out of bed and get ready for Mass. Then the response comes from beneath the blankets, "I'm not goin'". Frequently, parents go into a guilt attack asking, "What have we done wrong?" The truth is as Tertullian (c.160-220) observed that "Christians are made not born". (One thing not mentioned, but also true, is that people living their faith in a more developed personal state can also be knocked back to initial stages by stressful situations. For instance, a person can certainly find their child version of God while in a fox hole under fire or experiencing a bout of PTSD triggered by childhood abuse.)

Tertullian's insight is perhaps the reason for many cultural Christians failing to successfully negotiate the shift from community faith (stages 1-3) to personal faith (stages 4-5 and hopefully 6). Some of these cultural Christians will return later in life when they have owned their faith but many will never return. Dr Chris O'Brien (2008) graphically describes his own coming to personal faith in his recent book, Never say die.

On the other hand, a recent article in The Australian (28th October 2008) by Ms Tess Livingston which renounced the public musings of Fr Peter Dresser in God is big, real big (2008) is an excellent example of defending the parade mentality. It is clear that the actual book of Dresser's was not the concern of the article but rather the book was used to attack St Mary's Parish in South Brisbane where the book was on sale.

It would be good, if Ms Livingston explained what exactly she is defending. Does it threaten the unity of the Catholic Church that not every person is at the same level of her/his faith development? After all, there is a proud Tradition in the Catholic Church which encourages thought and distinguishes between unity and uniformity. The Spirit is the source of unity and also the giver of diverse gifts through which the Church is built up for service. The Australian article did neither justice to Dresser's own faith journey nor did it incorporate a serious criticism of the arguments presented. In fact, it was rather self-defeating, when one of the "experts" shifted from an historical critique of Dresser's thought to ad hominem attack on the author labelling him, "a breathtaking know all".

Ms Livingston's response to Dresser's book is by no means the only understanding nor is it the most helpful. A person who had moved from the earlier carried stages of faith to a more personal faith stage (stages 4-6) would read the book with interest. She/he would not suddenly find her/his faith threatened but would work through the book with pencil in hand relating to the text. The book should be read in much the same way as one would read Chris O'Brien's book — with an open mind. Augustine was right when he wrote that it is only the foolish pilgrim who turns from her/his journey to pick the flowers along the way. Likewise, he could draw the same conclusion about any person who would accept uncritically all aspects of Dresser's book. The letter to the Ephesians correctly identifies God "who is over us all and in us all and living through us all" (Eph 4:6) as the quintessential guarantee of the one faith.

Local Church and Opus Dei

Vatican II delivered a world Church in the strict sense. Local Bishops' Conferences were to have greater freedom to adapt the various rites and ritual according to the local customs and cultures of the people. This was by no means an attack on the Petrine Office or the place of the Bishop of Rome as the first among equals (primus inter pares) but an attempt to decentralise the administration of the Church. Yet about ten years after the Council's closure, the world synod of Bishops was terminated and during the papacy of John Paul II, Opus Dei was given the status of a prelature. Essentially the Work, as it is known, became a church within the Church. As Opus Dei spread from Spain throughout the world it adopted an approach of spying on Bishops and local churches. Robert Hutchison (1997) goes so far as to say that there are two popes one elected by the Cardinals and the other, the head of Opus Dei.

With a platform which seeks control of education, journalism and finances, the Work attaches itself to a local Church and undermines that Church's culture and identity. Slowly this has happened in the Archdiocese of Sydney with adult education, the seminary and schools under the Work. Pope Benedict XVI, during his recent visit to Sydney, stayed at an Opus Dei Centre in Kenthurst whereas the other popes have stayed at the Cathedral presbytery. The involvement of the Work in the Australian Church raises serious questions about the autonomy of the local Church and its leadership. (This should be no shock given Cardinal Pell's connections with Opus Dei.)

Strong and vibrant local Churches are not a threat to Rome but guarantee its mission to make disciples of all nations (Mt 28:20). Pope Paul VI in his Apostolic Exhortation, On evangelisation in the modern World, writes;
Nevertheless this universal Church is in practice incarnate in the individual Churches made up of such and such an actual part of mankind, speaking such and such a language, heirs of a cultural patrimony, of a vision of the world, of a historical past, of a particular human substratum. Receptivity to the wealth of the individual Church corresponds to a special sensitivity of modern man.

Local Churches need local leaders who understand local issues and employ open and transparent processes. The growing practice of moving Bishops from diocese to diocese is counter productive. Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, was a soldier when chosen by the people as bishop because of his leadership qualities to save the local Church from division and heresy. In his preaching and writings Ambrose proved himself to be both faithful to God and the people whom he serve with love and compassion.


This has been the story not of two cities as such but of two Churches from two very different cities, Sydney and Rome. Like children in a family, the relationship with parents matures over the years. This maturity of relationship is organic and has parallels in the relationship between Christian communities. The Sydney Church is not the Roman Church. This is not to weaken the unity between the two communities but to rather point to their strength. Rome has nothing to gain from weak local Churches which would appear to be a branch office but it has much to gain from strong local Churches continuing to make disciples of all nations.
Today more than ever, there is a need for a leader whose authority is rooted in service not power. Eucharist is the key to authority in the Church. Jesus considered the meal as basic to the exercise of leadership among his disciples. Through the meal Jesus would be among his disciples as the one who serves and in turn their service of each other would mediate his service. In other words, the Eucharist was not a doctrinal museum enshrining a past but rather the Eucharist is the blueprint for all Christian life. This is the mystery of the Eucharist that Jesus' sacrifice is present transforming the community so that God might see and love in this community what God loves in the Son (Lk 3:21).

Finally, there must be a return to local Church. Only in the local Church can there be a gradual process of faith development. Faith is as Fowler shows a "verb", it is growing and develops through identifiable stages. A healthy community will constantly be challenging its members to personalise faith and to take responsibility for their decisions. There are those who would speak about left wing and right wing of the Church and this language is unhelpful because the Church is not a political party. Moreover such language tends to reinforce the paranoia of leaders who blame the reforms of Vatican II for the democratisation of the Church. There is a need for an Australian leadership which will rescue the Sydney Church and its specific culture before it is lost in the bland big Church model.


I have a very vivid memory of a conversation with one of my theology professors way back when. I asked him what was the most frustrating thing he encountered in teaching theology. He said hands down it was dealing with otherwise highly educated professionals whose understanding of their faith stopped at twelve. He admitted he was completely unable to understand the kind of intellectual compartmentalization that gap required. He said the one's who drove him the craziest were doctors and lawyers.

I asked him about psychologists and sociologists, and he laughed. He said theologians couldn't keep up with the information flow and that fact might prove to be a real problem in the long run. Especially if the Vatican kept silencing the theologians who were able to keep up. Theology had to honestly reflect man's understanding of himself and the social sciences were describing a different understanding of what makes humanity tick. He predicted this real divergence in the understanding of mankind would result in a very fractured Church. This was back in 1977.

Thirty some years later his words seem prophetic. Silencing theologians who dove into the new understandings of humanity have not done rank and file Catholics much good. Essentially we've been forced to choose between the security of the parental God of our youth or the far more intellectually engaging and mysterious God inherent in our sciences. That God is a verb not a noun. That God can't be defined and boxed. That God is found with in ourselves actively pushing our consciousness and understanding to growth. Growth reflects creation. Kittens become cats, seeds sprout into flowers, life moves towards more complexity and more beauty.

When that underlying impetus to growth is blocked, the result is stagnation, rot, and eventual death. That's just as true for Spiritual growth as any other kind of growth. The experience of being a child is meaningful and valid with in the context of the childhood experience. These experiences lay down the roots for the adult person. They are not however, intended to be the whole plant. That's a truism our current Church leadership seems unwilling to accept. Instead it sees this notion of individual spiritual growth as the ultimate threat to itself. Which is true as long as the leadership maintains the need to see it's leadership as a function of patriarchal dominance rather than maternal nurturing.

No matter how big the obstacles blocking a sapling, the sapling will grow towards the light. That's just the way life works and even the biggest of stumbling blocks can't stop that.


  1. How right you are. The Church that refuses to be informed becomes a dangerous and dysfunctional behemoth.

    In fairness, doctors and lawyers are probably equally appalled by theologians' ignorance of medicine and law.

  2. Yes right on Joe. I have noticed that doctors and lawyers are appalled by the ignorance of some theogians and many others who professionally claim to know the mind of God.

    I also know a lot of mental health professionals who are getting real tired of dealing with the results of guilt based religion and have an even dimmer view of theologians and those who professionally claim to know the mind of God.

  3. Theories like Fowler's are, I've long thought, the key to understanding the conflict in the church. I have a few more blog posts in the works on precisely this topic.

    The article you quoted says about stage 5, "All persons who undertake ministry in the Church must have reached this stage of faith development." Wouldn't that be nice!

    BTW, your idea of using colours instead of numbers is a good one (Ken Wilber does that, and it makes sense). Fowler himself stopped using numbers awhile ago.

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