Vocations, Vocations, Vocations: A Plea for Precision

David Cruz-Uribe over at Vox Nova recently posted Some Thoughts on Promoting Vocations, which sounds like it is intended to be the first of a series.

But there is a terminology problem here – and almost everywhere, honestly. “Vocation” is used as if it means exclusively “vocation to the priesthood” or, occasionally, “vocation to the priesthood or religious life”.

As a Catholic child, I was taught that we all have a vocation, a calling, from God: either a vocation to the priesthood or religious life; or a vocation to married life; or a vocation to single life. And that we should all pray to discern which vocation we have, which state God is calling us towards.

I believe very strongly that the single best way to increase the discernment, awareness, and acceptance of priestly vocations would be to return to this practice of teaching, describing, and discerning all three of these state-of-life vocations.

I believe this would also do more to strengthen marriage and reduce the divorce rate than anything else:

because it would present marriage as one of three options, all of which are considered, all of which have their challenges and their rewards, each of which may be particularly suited for persons with certain temperaments or gifts.

As things are now, Catholics tend to absorb the default cultural norm that pretty much everybody eventually gets married and has children. (While this is no longer the default reality, it’s still the default norm.) Using the term “vocation” as if it is synonymous with “priestly (or religious) vocation” implicitly accepts that cultural-default framing of the question, and positions “choosing to be a priest (or religious)” over against “being normal.”

It also insidiously supports the culture of clericalism: sure, the church teaches that we all have a calling from God to use the gifts God has given us in our lives, but we only give the special word “vocation” to the special calling “priest”. So the other ones must not matter as much, and priests must be more special and more important than the rest of us.

Insisting on the broader meaning of vocation, and explicitly addressing all three of them, both challenges the cultural default and re-emphasizes a Catholic distinctive of finding value in secular non-married life. (Thus reminding us that the cultural defaults in the US lean Protestant, and that it’s a good idea for Catholics to examine them with some care.)

Given the prevalence and fruitfulness of later-in-life priestly vocations, and the reality of widowhood and divorce, I do think the state-of-life framing I was taught as a child would need a little modification (eg, what is God calling you to do as you being your adult life? What might God be calling you to do at this point in your life?); but the basic concept remains.

Thus, my plea for precision: if you mean priestly vocations, say “priestly vocations.” Don’t just say “vocations.” Or, rather, when you do say “vocations”, really talk about all of them: their particular crosses and challenges, joys and blessings, constraints and opportunites; and the particular gifts, talents, temperaments, and desires by which people may recognize the particular vocation to which God is calling them.

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9 Responses to Vocations, Vocations, Vocations: A Plea for Precision

  1. David Cruz-Uribe, SFO says:

    Fair criticism: I am aware of the distinction and it comes out in the comments even more clearly. I guess I got lazy typing: “priestly vocation” has twice as many characters! 🙂

    • And to be fair likewise, this rant has been building for at least five years: your post just happened to be the occasion that prompted it. 🙂

      I do intend this as a serious response to the question of how to foster vocations to the priesthood, though. It’s always easier to comprehend something when it’s presented in “compare and contrast” mode!

  2. I know that in the wake of Vatican II, it become commonplace to speak of marriage as a vocation, but I still have mixed feelings about it. I suppose that’s because it’s tied to the Church’s understanding of marriage. The more I learn about what the Church teaches about marriage the more I am dissatisfied with it.

    • I think it must be a pre-Vatican II thing, because I was taught this as a little kid, before there was yet much of a post-Vatican II wake, by a mother who never quite warmed up to the changes in the church.

      I’m interested in what you find dissatisfying about Church teaching on marriage, if you’re willing to share.

      • It would take a long time to talk about my dissatisfaction, not just because it’s more than just one thing, but also because it would take me a fair amount of time to make it coherent.

        I’ll say this though. I am really, really tired of Catholics using the “Protestants don’t view marriage as a sacrament” as a weapon against Protestants. Unbelievably tired.

        • O.O
          People *do* that??
          Wow. I suddenly feel very lucky in the Catholics with whom I associate.

          • I’ve seen this more on the internet than experienced it in person. It’s still upsetting because
            1 It shows a complete ignorance (even willful blindness) about Protestant theology and Protestant vocabulary
            2 It starts from a false premise (non-sacraments have no value) which is absurd, especially for evangelical Protestant thinking
            3 It also shows ignorance (even willful blindness) for Catholic thought and teaching about marriage over the centuries, particularly through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (the very time of the Reformation!)
            4 Catholic theology about the sacramental nature of marriage is, for my money, so inadequate, even offensive to a degree, it needs to be completely overhauled.

  3. brian martin says:

    I love it. I absolutely believe that if we were to raise our children teaching them about discernment and about the idea that we all have vocations, and those vocations are not simply “priest or deacon”, “brother or sister” or “married or single” but may well be cook, therapist, doctor etc. or it may be a lay ecclesial minister, etc. If we were to talk about vocations in that sense, we would open up people to the idea of God’s Call in their lives, and would likely open up people to the possibility of Priesthood etc.
    another blog that I find interesting speaks of these things

    • I think there’s real value both in talking about the state-of-life vocations, and in talking in more detail and practical focus about what God calls us to do, how we might best develop and apply our talents in service to the world or the church.

      There’s a great book a priest recommended to me once – The Unwilling Celibates: A Spirituality for Single Adults. In this book, the author talks specifically about the challenges and gifts about the circumstances in which single, married, and religions persons live: ie, alone; in a family; or in community. It’s really well done.

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