There’s an essential difference between the calling of the laity and a religious vocation
February 2, 2021 (LifeSiteNews) -- The feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary — otherwise known as the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple, or more familiarly as Candlemas — is also, since 1997, the World Day of Consecrated Life. It affords each year an opportune moment for reflecting on the specific nature of consecrated life, one of the greatest gifts our Lord has left His Church, and one that is in great danger of being forgotten or diluted.
It is quite common nowadays for people to speak of “the vocation of marriage” and “the vocation of religious life” as if they were equivalent, as if we are using the term “vocation” univocally (with the same meaning). This is simply not true, and runs directly against Catholic teaching.
A vocation, just looking to the etymology of the word in the verb vocare (to call, to summon), refers to a call from God addressed to an individual. God is calling that person out from a natural way of life to a supernatural state or condition.
Thus, we rightly speak of a “baptismal vocation,” because baptism establishes a person in the Christian state, a supernatural condition that is a pure gratuitous gift from God and not something imminent to our nature or merited by our humanity. Again, we speak of a “vocation to the religious life” — that is, the life constituted by the evangelical counsels of poverty for the Kingdom of God, chastity in the sense of perfect continence, and obedience as a sacrifice of self-determination in the world — because this state goes beyond what is natural to men and women as social animals living in this world: it is a gratuitous gift from God, summoning to a divine way of life, in imitation of the God-Man, Jesus Christ, who lived His life on earth entirely and exclusively for the glory of the Father and for the salvation of mankind.
In contrast, marriage — understood in its essence as the lifelong bond between a man and a woman for the procreation and education of children and for the mutual help and comfort of the spouses — is a natural condition for human beings. We were made for it, and it well suits the conditions of our mortal existence.
Marriage, for that reason, is not a vocation in the strict sense, a gratuitous gift that elevates one beyond what is normal in social and earthly life.
It is true, of course, that Our Lord elevated the natural state of marriage to the dignity of a sacrament. But the Church traditionally understands the sacrament as rendering the conjugal union of a baptized couple a grace-bearing and grace-bestowing reality for them; in other words, a way to sanctify temporally what remains, in itself, a state tied to this world and this passing order, which the laity are deputed to “conquer” for the Kingdom of God. Marriage thus points to the union of Christ and the Church, but it does not realize this union in the personal and eschatological way that the religious life does. Put differently, the religious is already beginning to live, on earth, the life of the world to come, where no one “marries or is given in marriage” (Mt 22:30).
This is why we can say that religious life is the most perfect living-out of the baptismal vocation possible, for baptism consecrates a man or woman to God, and the religious life completes this by consecrating the totality of his or her life to God, with no “thought,” as it were, for the temporal order that passes by. He or she no longer lives as befits life in the present age, by acquiring and possessing private property, bringing of children into the world by marital union, and retaining freedom of personal disposition (where I will live, what my job will be, etc.).
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “The precepts [the Ten Commandments] are intended to remove whatever is incompatible with charity. The aim of the counsels is to remove whatever might hinder the development of charity, even if it is not contrary to it” (§1973, referring to St. Thomas, Summa theologiae II-II.184.3). “In the economy of the Redemption, the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience constitute the most radical means for transforming in the human heart this relationship with ‘the world’” (John Paul II, Redemptionis Donum, IV.9; cf. St. Thomas, ST II-II.186.7).
The doctrine of the universal vocation of all the Faithful to holiness of life, regardless of their position or social situation, has been advanced very much in modern times, and this is as it should be. Nevertheless, Paul VI sounded a note of caution and offered an important clarification:
We must be on guard lest, for this very reason, the true notion of religious life as it has traditionally flourished in the Church should become obscured. We must beware lest our mouth, becoming confused while thinking about their choice of a state in life, should be thereby hindered in some way from having a clear and distinct vision of the special function and immutable importance of the religious state within the Church… This stable way of life, which receives its proper character from profession of the evangelical vows, is a perfect way of living according to the example and teaching of Jesus Christ. It is a state of life which keeps in view the constant growth of charity leading to its final perfection. In other ways of life, though legitimate in themselves, the specific ends, advantages, and functions are of a temporal character. (Address to the General Chapters of Religious Orders and Congregations, May 23, 1964)
The foregoing helps us to see the precise mistake made by those who speak of marriage and religious life as if they are simply diverse vocations: “Marriage is better for some people, and religious life for others, so as long as you do what you are ‘called’ to do. The two ways are equally good ways of growing in virtue and in love for God.” Such a view marks a recrudescence of the Jovinianism against which St. Jerome battled in his day.
The “calling” to marriage is inscribed in human nature, and that is why it is altogether good. It is our nature, fashioned by God the Creator, that impels us to start a family, and it is by God’s universal Providence that we meet a spouse, get married, and have a family with His blessing. The desire to do all this is rooted in our need for completion and our power of fruitfulness, as we see it presented in the creation accounts in Genesis. In a sense, to speak of a “vocation” to marriage from God would be much like speaking of a “vocation” to eat and drink, or to work and rest, or to think and love. This need and this power are meant to teach us, under the guidance of divine faith, about a need that is more definitive and all-encompassing: the hunger for God, the thirst for union with Him, the yearning to see Him face to face in heaven.
We know that all are called to the end of holiness by their baptism, and that, for some individuals, marriage will help them to achieve holiness better than religious life. But having said this, religious life still offers a better means for attaining the end of holiness. In itself, the state of Christian virginity or celibacy is preferable to that of marriage, since this state “frees the heart of man in a unique fashion (cf. 1 Cor 7:32–35) so that it may be more inflamed with love for God and for all men” (Vatican II, Perfectae Caritatis, n. 12). In order to accomplish this function and to serve this end, it must be embraced with the proper motivation, namely “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 19:12) and as a way of giving oneself entirely to God. The total gift of self in the religious life depends upon love — the basis on which every one of us will be judged by the Lord.
To devote oneself wholeheartedly to a life of virginity or celibacy requires a special charism, a grace of enlightenment and movement of the heart, which is not given to all — a special “mode” of divine love, which disposes one to devote oneself exclusively to Christ and His Church, and enables one to make a firm choice of this way of life. This charism is not to be understood as a higher degree of love, as though all who embrace the virginal or celibate state love God more than those who do not. Nor is this charism to be understood by way of subtraction, as if those called to belong wholly to Christ were either incapable of making a gift of themselves to another human being in marriage, or were not inclined to do so. A lack of the natural inclination towards marriage would impede the virginal or celibate self-giving to Christ and His Church. This charism is rather to be understood by way of an addition to the love, an excess, which is capable of specifying the love, giving it a more completely spousal mode.
In our age, when the word and the reality of marriage have been perverted in countless ways, a man’s or woman’s intention to marry a member of the opposite sex, in the Church, for the sake of having children and bringing them up in the fear and love of God, will be looked upon as abnormal, indeed heroic. Think of how much stranger, even offensive, it will seem to many when someone announces the intention to give his or her entire life to Jesus Christ alone!
This was already a stumbling block in the ancient world, and so it has become again in the post-Christian West. John Paul II recognized this when he said:
Jesus calls attention to the gift of divine light needed to “understand” the way of voluntary celibacy. Not everyone can understand it, in the sense that not everyone is “able” to grasp its meaning, to accept it, to practice it. This gift of light and decision is only granted to some. It is a privilege granted them for the sake of a greater love. We should not be surprised then if many, who do not understand the value of consecrated celibacy, are not attracted to it, and often are not even able to appreciate it. (Catechesis on the Consecrated Life, November 16, 1994)
We believe in the glorious example of Christ and of His immutably true promises, which are stronger than culture, stronger than fashion, stronger than false philosophy. His voice continues to call unbelievers to conversion and baptism, believers to fuller commitment, and individual Christians to the most radical gift of self, in imitation of Him.