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Sunday, August 10, 2008


I recently had a conversation with a relative about vocations, specifically about losing vocations. She had definite opinions concerning the lifestyle of a man or a woman discerning a vocation to the priesthood or the religious life.

According to her theory, anyone who may have been dating or otherwise romantically interested in the person undergoing discernment should immediately cut off all contact with the one doing the discernment. Discernment requires solitude, prayer, spiritual direction. The things of the world distract from spiritual pursuits and interfere with the process of discernment.

Allowing these things in is precisely how vocations are lost, she said.

I disagreed.

Someone who is undergoing discernment about their proper state in life should certainly undertake experiences of solitude, constantly pray, and follow spiritual direction, sure.

But isn't marriage a vocation? Isn't that worthy of discernment as well?

In fact, isn't it possible that the insistence on shutting out conversations with the romantically interested is also a way of shutting down, a way of losing, a real vocation?

After all, what if the person undertaking discernment really is supposed to marry? Isn't continuing conversation with the future spouse likely to help bring out that vocation?

In centuries past, when nearly everyone either married or entered some kind of religious orders, there may have been some valid concerns about the need to avoid the call of marriage so as to better hear the call of orders.

But today, as marriage rates drop across the board pretty much everywhere in the world, is this still the right way to look at it?

Today, the marriage vocation is in as much danger as holy orders or religious orders. It is often pointed out that upwards of one in every four people living in medieval Europe were in some religious order. Read Chaucer's Canterbury Tales to see how well the orders fared during that period. One may argue the veracity of the popular perception, but the perception was precisely that religious orders were rife with drunken and fornicating monks and nuns.

Has it ever occurred to anyone that it is possible far too many vocations to marriage were lost during that period? After all, living the consecrated life of a religious order is laudable but it is not, by itself, a means of sanctifying grace. It is not a sacrament. Only the sacraments bring sanctifying grace, and living out marriage is a sacrament. Living in a monastery is not.

While Holy Orders is likewise a sacrament, it is not the first sacrament. Marriage is. The Eucharist is the heart of the sacramental life, but marriage is the form and foundation of that life.

In the order of sacraments, marriage came first. Through its fecundity holy orders are filled, through its example, monastic life takes its measure. It is the only sacrament called a sacrament in all of Scripture (Ephesians 5: "I speak of a great mystery..." - the word mysterion translates into Latin as sacramentum).

So should seminarians have conversations with women not their mothers or sisters while they are discerning their vocation, before they or ordained to transitional deacon?**

I don't see why not.

A seminarian who is talking with an old girlfriend, and through those conversations decides to become a husband and a father instead of a priest and a father is not "a lost vocation." The woman who woos him is not to be attacked for doing so.

It isn't a question of "losing a vocation", rather, it's a question of discerning the right vocation. For we must remember, both Holy Orders and Holy Matrimony are vocations.

He didn't lose his vocation.
He found it.

**After ordination, of course, the situation changes radically.


Kate said...

I think in the Middle Ages the religious life was, for some, a way to flee from undesirable marriage prospects. Yes, marriages were supposed to be voluntary, but the more money your family had, the less likely that was to be the case as pressure and even physical abuse pushed children into agreeing to financially beneficial marriages. SO did we lose some good married vocation then? Yup. And the low numbers of vocations to the religious life is not the only vocations crisis in the Church.

Patrick said...

Considering that only someone who has received Holy Orders is allowed to marry two individuals, and not the other way around, it certainly would impact the number of married individuals when we lack priests in many locations. From simply a numbers point of view, possibly hindering a future priest immediately affects many more people than possibly hindering a future marriage. Now, as the Church is coming closer to that critical tipping point in priest numbers, a future priest easily tops a future husband in this priority list and that is not even including their numerical impact on passing along graces. It's good to remember the proverb, "A priest for life but only a husband until death."

1 Corinthians 7:27 - "Art thou bound unto a wife? Seek not to be loosed. Art thou loosed from a wife? Seek not a wife."

1 Corinthians 7:38 - "So then both he that giveth his own virgin daughter in marriage doeth well; and he that giveth her not in marriage shall do better."

Luke 20:34-36 - "And Jesus said unto them, 'The sons of this world marry, and are given in marriage: but they that are accounted worthy to attain to that world, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry, nor are given in marriage: for neither can they die any more: for they are equal unto the angels; and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.'"

Steve Kellmeyer said...

Sure, ordination seals your soul indelibly while marriage doesn't.

But as nearly everyone agrees, the vocations crisis is a crisis of good families. We don't have enough good Catholic husbands and fathers.

So, while one priest can marry a lot more spouses than one family can raise priests, without that good family, you won't get the priests you need to affect the world.

Chicken or egg?

Jordanes said...

It's true that holy matrimony is a divine vocation and that it is the "womb" (metaphor deliberately chosen) of holy orders. Nevertheless, I think your emphasis is a little misplaced, leading to an analysis and conclusion that aren't quite right. First of all, holy matrimony is a vocation, but it's also something natural and normal that was raised to the level of a sacrament. As a rule, almost all of us (adults, I mean) are called to matrimony. A few are called to virginity, to celibacy, to religious life. A few are called to holy orders, which in the Latin Rite also means celibacy and can also mean life in a religious community. Now the Church has always recognised that the vocation to renunciation of matrimony for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven is more noble and superior to the entirely noble and holy vocation to matrimony (cf. I Cor. 7:32-34). That is because God has naturally ordered us to matrimony, and all that naturally goes with it: sexual attraction and impulses. In short, the consecrated celibate has a tougher row to hoe than we who have been called to the sacrament of marriage -- and yes, our "row" is pretty tough too. We are all called to overcome nature and be conformed with grace, but in their case it will be a real struggle sometimes to overcome nature.

Therefore, if God is calling a man or woman to consecrated celibacy, discernment of a vocation is going to require that he focus his mind and his spirit and removing distraction and the familiar attachments and regular comforts and consolations of his ordinary life. In particular he will abstain from dating or courtship. If he is called to forego that, he shouldn't be doing it, since the cares of this life and his God-given desires and the natural ordering of his body and soul will readily divert him from discernment, and he would quite easily turn aside from his vocation. On the other hand, if he finds that he is not after all called to a celibate life, he can return to secular life and resume dating: if God wants him to marry, God will send his mate in due course. There's a difference, you see, between the general vocation to matrimony that almost all of us have, and the specific mate that God wants us to marry -- even if a seminarian isn't being called to holy orders or celibacy, that doesn't mean he is being called to marry that particular woman he was dating before he went into the seminary.

Another consideration to keep in mind: is it fair for a young man studying to see if God wants him to become a priest or religious to give a young woman false hope that she might become the mother of his children? As Tolkien told his son Michael, "She should not be asked to wait." If God has called her to be a wife and mother, she shouldn't be strung along, even unintentionally, while she loses years in which she could be having children.

Therefore, all in all, I think it is best if men and women who are in discernment put aside romantic entanglements until they have discerned God's will for them. Part of discernment is experiencing what it is like not to date, not to follow natural attractions and desires, not to be attached to the things of this life -- since celibates must do that for the rest of their lives, they need to get a taste of it too. They won't get that taste if they're maintaining even to a small degree a romantic attachment to a member of the opposite sex.

One last observation about the prevalence of religious life in medieval times. You've got a point that many people who probably weren't called to celibacy were admitted into religious life back then. Apart from the strong other-worldliness of medieval culture, the strong sense that this life is transitory and that eternity is what really matters (something our culture has completely lost), another thing to consider is that the monasteries and convents were the only institutes of higher learning and really the only "retirement homes" around. Teachers or professors or scholars naturally gravitated to the monasteries, and it was common for widows and widowers to enter religious life back then (it's not like God can't give you another vocation after you've completed your calling to marriage), or for rulers to retire from public life by becoming monks or nuns. So that's another reason why so many people became religious: when you got older, and your spouse was dead, if you didn't have family to care for you, the religious community would be your family. Today, however, we have nursing homes, and I can't say that's really progress.

Steve Kellmeyer said...


While I don't disagree with anything you've said, it seems to me that our problem is precisely the attack on all vocations.

As JP II said, we are all called to marriage. But in times past, pretty much everyone DID get married. The call to the vocation of the priesthood needed to be distinguished from the call to marriage.

But today?
Have you noticed how people are talking about single life as if it were a vocation? Single life that has not partaken of religious vows is not a vocation - it is a part of life everyone must pass through, but we aren't supposed to stay there. We are supposed to take some kind of vow, whether it be the sacramental vows of Holy Orders or Holy Matrimony, or the non-sacramental vows of religious life.

Today, marriage is under the same kind of obscuring that Holy Orders used to suffer uniquely.

Is it any wonder that people in the first world marry later and later, as the culture more and more obscures the ability to hear the call to marriage?

We have seminaries for discerning the call to Orders, but where can anyone go to discern the call of marriage?

Seminaries have only been around for 500 years. We've never had a similar place to discern marriage. Given marriage rates in Europe and the US, especially among certain sub-populations, perhaps this needs to change.

Jordanes said...

We have seminaries for discerning the call to Orders, but where can anyone go to discern the call of marriage?

Seminaries have only been around for 500 years. We've never had a similar place to discern marriage.

We used to have this thing called the family --- that's where most people discerned their call to marriage, and it's also where most people first discerned their call to priesthood or religious life. With the family destroyed by prolonged adolescence, physical and emotional abuse, divorce, remarriage, adultery, premarital sex, contraception, pornography, and all manner of sexual perversion, we've finally reached the point where people just don't care all that much about marriage any more. And if you don't care about marriage, you'll hardly be able to care about any sort of religious vocation.

Patrick said...

Actually, Catholics do recognize non-married, non-priests to have a calling just like everyone else. God calls everyone uniquely and I'm not sure how the Church could currently afford for everyone who is not married to be supported by the church if the church is having money issues the way it is. As far as prolonging the time to determine what your calling is, this makes complete sense with a population that is aging up from previous generations. If you live longer, any decision you make will last longer so it is human nature to delay those decisions until you are completely certain of it. Looking at length of life comparisons, it would be erroneous to believe life choices are being made significantly later than previous generations. However, if instead you are arguing that it is interfering with decisions to become priests, I would instead argue that their court cases have had far more to do with that. When the Pope, the bishops and the local parish priests have to continue to apologize for pedophile priests, not including other normal scandals that occur, it will certainly cut into the numbers who would be interested in that life.