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.