“One cannot really be a Catholic and grown-up,” wrote George Orwell in an essay on Evelyn Waugh. Orwell never finished the essay; the remark appears in a collection of fragments jotted down for explication at some moment that never arrived. But it seems to refer to the deathbed scene in Brideshead, Revisited, where Lord Marchmain signals his repentance by making the sign of the cross while in a stupor. In Orwell’s world, being grown-up meant recognizing that old rakes never came home to Jesus.
The claim that religion retards or stunts the psychological growth of the faithful is a common one and a powerful piece of propaganda. Nobody wants to remain a kid forever. Before debating the point, we should unpack it and figure out how, exactly, non-religious people think an adult should view the world.
In his essay “My Daughter and God,” novelist Justin Cronin writes of how, as a college student, he’d rejected religion as “infantile,” mainly for its “love of hocus-pocus” and “doctrine of obedience.” The Cambridge Companion to Atheism notes that unbelief becomes more common as societies “mature” – that is, become wealthier and more stable. So, to take these two accounts as representative, the secular requirements for adulthood include: 1) a moral independence; 2) denial of the supernatural; and 3) reliance on human ingenuity to create happiness on earth.
Christianity has some ready-made answers for this: Pride goeth before a fall. If you want to see how marvelously man does when he relies on his wits, look at the Titanic, Auschwitz, Hiroshima. In fact, the central event in Justin Cronin’s essay is his somewhat skittish reversion to Christianity after his wife and daughter emerge unhurt from a freeway rollover. Against his better judgment, their survival strikes him as miraculous. “In hindsight,” he writes, “this self-congratulatory belief in my ability to chart my own destiny was patently ridiculous.”
At least in the sense of calling God “Father” and acknowledging lifelong dependence on him, Christians do see themselves as childlike. They sometimes speak of literal children and childhood with a wistfulness that verges on sentimentality. Chesterton overused this device to the point where it became a gimmick. St. Josemaría Escrivá, normally a person with gravitas to burn, once confessed to feeling “a holy envy” at seeing a four-year-old boy clinging with perfect filial loyalty to his father’s trouser leg. In the pious legend, it is a child who warns St. Augustine that he has as much chance of spooning the entire Mediterranean into a hole dug out of the sandy beach as the Church Doctor has of processing the mystery of the Trinity with his well-oiled scholar’s brain.
John Zmirak once made an often-overlooked point regarding a cosmology that distinguishes good from evil, and leaves room for forces beyond man’s control: It’s fun. “My boyish love of kings and popes, of miracles and sacraments, could not attach itself to dissident biblical scholars and feminist nuns,” he wrote of a high-school religious education long on sociology but short on romance. (“If you’re not going to finish your hocus-pocus,” he might have said to the young Justin Cronin, “gimme.”) Nothing in the 30 intervening years has caused him to reassess that verdict.
But even Christians have no wish to remain childlike in every respect. St. Paul wrote the Corinthians of putting away childish things and informed them that he had been feeding them milk instead of solid food. It’s common to speak of “growing” or “maturing” in the faith – a process said, paradoxically, to involve becoming ever less self-willed and more submissive to God, less skeptical and more trusting. In the real paradox, one that must surely frustrate outsiders, holding oneself open to Grace to a childlike degree demands an adult self-awareness and self-mastery.
If Shaw was right about youth being wasted on the young, the same could be said for spiritual childhoods. Judging by anecdotal evidence, coming-of-age drama has a way of distorting received religious truths to the point where they become grotesque, terrifying, and possibly alienating. As an adult convert, I count myself lucky not to have wasted any hours wondering whether the spontaneous erections of puberty would end up planting me deep in a Malebolge.
But there’s also that famous Jesuit boast “Give me a child to the age of seven and I’ll give you the man.” Psychologists now believe that brains are far more elastic than that, capable of developing to the very edge of the grave. Still, compared with adults, children have fewer habits of thought and behavior to unlearn. They also have fewer experiences or convictions with which to mount a counterattack against the truths and habits they’re supposed to be learning. We adults have to flush out the old even as we stuff in the new, and we can’t waste time because we could be dead soon.
During the Synod, one insult I often saw lobbed in comboxes was “schoolboy theology,” which seemed to refer to a kind of ill-informed rigorism. It stung, since, once my resistance began to crumble, I did go about catechizing myself in a very schoolboyish way, memorizing lists of virtues and vices and putting myself through routines meant to inculcate the former and squash the latter. As I had been a slouch during my actual school days – Bill Watterson’s Calvin maturing slightly into Bart Simpson – it’s been nice to suppose I’ve been doing it right this time, playing the earnest, bright-eyed squirt of a batsman in Sir Henry Newbolt’s poem:
There’s a breathless hush in the Close to-night —
Ten to make and the match to win —
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
But his Captain’s hand on his shoulder smote
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”
As Sir Henry makes clear in the next stanza, this is more than fun and games. All those ingrained habits of team spirit and good sportsmanship serve the lad very well later in life:
The sand of the desert is sodden red, —
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; —
The Gatling’s jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of schoolboy rallies the ranks,
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”
No doubt there is something very childish about my checking off items on a list and crowing, “Drinking: done! Smoking: Down to seven cigarettes a day! Self-abuse: Reduced to a rarity I’d once have imagined impossible! Contemplative prayer: Fifteen minutes a day!” (The unchecked items include things like tithing and volunteering – this New Year should see some stern resolutions.) I’m not sure whether I’m still drinking milk or whether I’ve graduated to solid food. My suspicion is that I’m somewhere in between, gorging on bison mozzarella and doing horrible mischief to my GI tract.
How the real thing, red-meat spiritual maturity, will feel, I have no idea. And perhaps I am not so eager to find out, as this second late childhood is proving too much fun. But one thing that should remain constant is hope, belief in the promise of a permanent upward trend. Catholics are very often world-weary; they may put on a curmudgeonly face. But as long as they’re serious, they’re unlikely to become truly cynical, or even wholly realistic. Like Evelyn Waugh, they will insist on seeing Grace operating in the unlikeliest places.
In that sense, Catholics – and, I assume, sincere believers in other religions – never do fully grow up. On behalf of us all, let me conclude by saying: Na-nanny boo-boo.