Reflections on loving God, being Catholic, being a woman, being ill, loving life and anything else that comes to mind.

Monday, September 24, 2007

"Two (and Only Two) Vocations"

The question has arisen: does the church really teach that there are only two vocations, marriage and consecration to Christ? (In the latter I include mystical marriage to God as well as those who make a vow of celibacy and live in obedience, formal or otherwise, to their bishop or some other authority.) When I wrote my first post on this subject, I had read a great deal of Theology of the Body and all of Mulieris Dignitatem and, was, in fact, participating in a study group with several theologians that focuses on Theology of the Body and discusses this very issue. Since then, I've read nearly all of the first, reread the latter and also read Familiaris Consortio. Additionally, I continue my participation in the study group and have had many discussions on the topic with priests and theologians. My additional reading and some of those conversations require that I alter my language a bit - the church teaches that there are two ways to realize our vocation to love, marriage and consecration to Christ (though, as I've indicated already, that consecration need not be "formal").

Theology of the Body and Mulieris Dignitatem call us to give ourselves in one of two ways, marriage or consecration to Christ. As Mary Beth Bonacci puts it, "[a]s far as the Church is concerned, [an unconsecrated single "vocation"] doesn't exist." That’s not surprising – the concept of a vocation to the unconsecrated single life is quite modern and though the magisterium reads the signs of the times and speaks the truth regardless of the clamour from the marketplace, their teaching is rarely clairvoyant nor is it normally pre-emptive.

But already Familiaris Consortio teaches: "Christian revelation recognizes two specific ways of realizing the vocation of the human person, in its entirety, to love: marriage and virginity or celibacy. Either one is in its own proper form an actuation of the most profound truth of man, of his being "created in the image of God."

The encyclical goes on to define what is meant by virginity or celibacy: "In virginity or celibacy, the human being is awaiting, also in a bodily way, the eschatological marriage of Christ with the church, giving himself or herself completely to the church in the hope that Christ may give himself to the church in the full truth of eternal life. The celibate person thus anticipates in his or her flesh the new world of the future resurrection."

Then it addresses unmarried Catholics who have not given themselves completely to the church: "These reflections on virginity or celibacy can enlighten and help those who, for reasons independent of their own will, have been unable to marry and have then accepted their situation in a spirit of service. (emphasis added)

[F]or reasons independent of their own will is extremely important – that is what I am writing about, the ways I choose to close myself to marriage. (This is, after all, my story.)

Of course there is still a great deal of discussion about vocation, including the possibility of a vocation to some sort of unconsecrated single life. But discussion is not church teaching. And just as there has been and continues to be development of the theology of the body, the same is and will be true regarding development of the theology of vocation. In fact, the two go hand in hand. Yet, over and over again, when the magisterium of the church discusses a possible vocation to single life, they also point out that that life must have a purpose that is lived within the church and is self-giving and, those bishops keep coming back to some sort of formal or informal consecration to Christ. Again, that's not at all surprising. Development seeks to be consistent and grows out of existing Church teaching and tradition.

Living out our vocation to love requires commitment, requires that we ratify a specific call from God. The church teaches that that call always takes us into deeper and deeper relationship within the body of Christ including relationship with those of the opposite sex. And though, within marriage and giving ourselves completely to the church, there are many possibilities for living out our ultimate vocation to love, there is no call to a life apart and certainly no call to reject those of the opposite sex.

So if I live living out attitudes that close me off to marriage such as:

- I'm fine on my own
- I have my friends, my job, my activities, I go to mass and confess regularly, men are superfluous
- I don't need a relationship with a man to be fulfilled, I can be fulfilled on my own
- Men are so much work, why bother

is then, in fact, being I would be selfish. It is living for myself and defining God and the world by the yardstick of my wounds, my brokenness, my sin.

Married couples are called to be open to children but they are not commanded to have them. Such command is not possible, children are a gift. Whether married couples are truly open is something only they and God know (honestly, only God really knows). Confessors, families, friends – all might have some knowledge about a couple's openness but there is no litmus test – openness is truly a matter of conscience.

Relationships are also gifts. Marriage is a gift. As is consecration to Christ (and the vocation to love). Vocation comes from God. I am only asked to listen and do the best I can to respond to his voice. And though the church's teaching about realizing vocation will continue to develop, that is really not my concern, at least not at this moment. I am not waiting for the church to tell me that it's okay for me to stay single, to stay as I am. I am not Catholic so that I can stay as I am. I want to be conformed to Christ's image and am deliriously happy to do my best to follow the teachings of the church. I spent too many years in the Anglican communion trying to follow Christ amidst a paucity of church teaching and a deficiency of church authority. It just didn't work: I am simply too small to teach myself, too small to be my own authority. I need the church's teaching and authority. Obedience, even when it is difficult, is radically better than making it up for myself.


UltraCrepidarian said...

I think your exploration is beautiful, sincere and wonderful, and it's great to see you pondering this. I don't of course know you well enough to thoroughly contradict you, but I wonder, if somehow all of this boils down to finding a way to blame yourself for being single. I know you have spoken of the ways you were closed off, but it seems to me that being aware of that was the thing that broke those bonds for you. You are not incapable of marriage, you merely have not met the right sort of person, and in that position you remain, until things change. That does not mean you have no calling, no vocation yet, or cannot fully live your Catholic faith. It just means you're not avowed to, nor necessarily capable of complete certainty, as regards your vocation.

The reason a third-vocation does not exist, is that there's no such thing as a vow to "never get married, and never become a nun", such a thing would be a negation. Thus, there is not quite the vocational status for single life. It is a state in life, possibly a necessary and helpful place to be for some, but not a vocation in the proper Catholic sense of the word.

Take for example, a person who is divorced, and who goes through an annulment process, and the annulment is not granted because the marriage bond is found to be a valid sacramental bond. Imagine he should/would/could not ever reconcile with his ex-wife, he is then, by the norms of the Church, expected to live a celibate life. I suppose he is unlikely to be permitted to take priestly orders, but could perhaps become a deacon. He could not remarry. But this is really just a question of him remaining faithful to the teaching of the Church, not of him fulfilling a formal vocational calling. He is even more thoroughly alone, because even if he meets and falls in love with someone new, he cannot licitly contract marriage with her.

But he need not imagine it to be his own fault. This whole long semi-autobiographical hypothetical rant is just to say, it's not your fault the situation you're in. You will find grace in it however bleak it looks.

I am so glad you have come to a point, like i have, of not wanting to go-it-on-my-own anymore. This is a necessary thing; if we say we love God, we show it by obeying his commands. Man (and woman) shall not live by bread alone, but by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Only the Catholic church holds and teaches every single thing Jesus said. Blessed are those who hold fast to that teaching, passed down from Jesus, to the Apostles, to us, through his One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church!


Seraphic Single said...

Hmm... I guess I will have to address this tomorrow...

Anonymous said...

Well thought, well said, well shared, Drusilla (and Warren). I recall being in what I thought of as a non-vocational status; there could now be no consideration of a consecrated life unless that decision came from outside of me from on high in some mysterious way; but neither did re-marriage seem a possibility, nor was I sure it ought to be one. I had purposely placed myself in a spot where I wouldn't be meeting anyone, but neither could my soul easily change that, for I was open to Him even there. The fact was that if the Lord wanted marriage for me, now, He'd have to drop someone in my lap. He pretty much did, and I pretty much figured out what He wanted for me, by that. What He worked was well beyond anything I could've arrived at. The key, as you allude, is to trust Him. I got up each day and gave the day to Him. He is ever busy with us; we rarely imagine how deeply so.

Drusilla said...

Warren – Why would you imagine that my exploration of this topic has anything with finding a way to blame myself for being single? Certainly not. And do you really think I believe that I'm incapable of marriage? I don’t. For goodness sake, I'm more open to marriage, much more ready to marry today than I ever was in the past (but that’s another post). This series is all about remaining open to marriage when one has been single for years and must be read as a whole. This particular post is specifically in response to the many queries and comments I've received asking if there is not a third vocation to be single.

The reason a third-vocation does not exist, is that there's no such thing as a vow to "never get married, and never become a nun", such a thing would be a negation. Thus, there is not quite the vocational status for single life. It is a state in life, possibly a necessary and helpful place to be for some, but not a vocation in the proper Catholic sense of the word.

That is spot on. But when you go on to give the example of a married person who is not granted an annulment, there is a problem. Such people are married and will remain married as long as their spouse is living. Though they cannot marry again and should not date, they are not called to be alone. Rather, they are called into the same community as all other Catholics. One doesn’t escape the self-giving nature of marriage because one is separated from one's spouse. Such persons are called to continue to live their vows and continue to be open to life within the body of Christ.

It’s very, very hard and very, very painful to be divorced. And I know that you are going through a particularly difficult time of waiting to learn whether you will be granted an annulment. God is seeing you through this time and you’ll be given the means to live your vocation to love. (I do hope you are surrounded by and supported within community.) But no matter what happens, it is important that we all realize that adhering to church teaching is not a chore. It’s joy, it's a very, very good thing.

Warren, you remain in my prayers.

Drusilla said...

Warren - it was suggested that you might be responding to "So living out attitudes that close me off to marriage such as..." I've edited it so that it is conditional. Originally, I had planned to make that statement general but then made decied to make it specific so as not to speak for others.

Is that helpful.

Gregaria said...


In your reading on this subject, have you come across anything that says that some people may not have a vocation?

I also wondered if you were saying that consecrated non-religious life is a Vocation, too.

And, also, from your point of view, would sickness be a valid reason to live a consecrated non-religious life?

UltraCrepidarian said...

Yes! Exactly. Sometimes we only subtly hint at what we're really feeling. So I was taking a swing to see if you'd react (which you did! Good for you!). I think you're completely right on, and that niggly little worry feeling in the back of my head is gone now1

Oh how I love to fret over other people's anxieties. Saves me from thinking about my own...


theMerovingian said...

Powerful, Drusilla. This is a real wake-up call for me. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for bringing up this topic, Drusilla. I enjoyed hashing it out with you a few months ago.

Another comment to add to the several good ones that have already been posted: would a non-consecrated person be responding to a "calling" (vocation) in the same way that someone who formally responds to the vocations of marriage or celibacy? In other words, could a person make private "vows" to God in "response" to a private calling?

I would say no, and then I'd distinguish a formal vow from an informal promise. A formal vow takes the particular shape of self-gift either to a spouse or to God Himself; it is a lifelong commitment. A promise is something we could potentially do for some time, altering it as God wills, through the wise counsel of our spiritual director. It isn't binding in the same way as a formal vow. I don't believe it puts a "limit" on God to say that He calls us to one of two vocations; rather, I think it opens up the door for us to discern if He wills us to do something specifically within those vocations, or in the time of preparation prior to entering our permanent vocation. In other words, it in no way diminishes God's ability to call us to various walks in life (for example, I'd say I'm called to the vocation--little "v"--of studying and teaching theology).

At the end of the day, however, we are created with a human nature called to a supernatural destiny (think of Henri de Lubac's thesis in The Mystery of the Supernatural). This destiny is union with God, who IS love. His will for us to be with Him for eternity is a gratuitious gift, given to all beings who are free, and who can either accept or reject it--that's every person (and angel, if you count the other type of being with free wills)! In recent years it has been known as the universal vocation of holiness, to which every single person who ever lived and will live is called. And this needs no formal vow-taking.

But the universal call to holiness should not be confused with a particular call to marry or to remain celibate, to which formal vows are taken.

Sorry to write a book! Hope you can follow my thoughts.


Gabrielle said...

An excellent and very informative post, Drusilla. I think I understand a little bit better now why the Church teaches that there are only two vocations, since you have said that the mystical marriage to God is included in the vocation of "consecration to Christ", and also that the vocation of "consecration to Christ" does not necessarily have to be a "formal" one.

Pia said...

In reference to Adriana's comment, the difference between a promise and a vow was driven home with me when I once discussed this topic with my pastor. I was commenting on how absurd were the stories of diocesan priests in our area, who had affairs with their parishioners. I mentioned that it is probably much harder for a friar to be so tempted, because friars do not live alone. They live in a context which is quite similar to a family, and thus their need for Agape does not slide into Eros.
He responded that there was another big difference: that diocesan priests make a promise to remain celebate, whereas a friar makes a vow. It sounded like a cop-out to me, to tell you the truth.

I don't know if it is an Italian thing or if that is the situation elsewhere as well. I tend to believe it is the same everywhere... Here, especially in small communities where everyone knows each other, some things stick out like a sore thumb...

Anyway the long preamble is leading to my comment: Once a person has discerned his/her vocation, and once it becomes manifest in marriage or consecration to God, remaining faithful to those vows is a whole new ball game, and it seems to be at the bottom of the high divorce rate. I speak not only in the sense of not betraying one's spouse with another person, but betraying the spirit of the vows in the deepest sense.

This is something that the married/consecrated need to keep the awareness of how they are living out their vocation always in the forefront. Not an easy thing to do nowadays, but possible.