The Catholic Perspective IV: Vows

A sacred vow gives form to a life.

Man loves his freedom but finds no happiness in it.  As a miser hordes his gold, so the freedom-lover hordes his options.  Both make the same mistake.  Just as the only joy in money is in spending it, the only joy in freedom is in casting it away in the act of commitment.  This indeed is the ultimate self-mastery, to hold one’s entire life in hand and, in one moment’s vow, to offer it whole to God.  The Church offers man the life-disciplines of marriage, holy orders, or the religious life.   In embracing one, he imposes on his life a unity and definiteness, an overarching project to be completed, a narrative to be lived.  His life becomes an intelligible thing, now that each episode can be related to the primary plot line.

To make one’s life something definite certainly restricts one’s future freedom, and some find this frightening.  It is also true that to see one’s life as a single, definite thing is also to see it as a finite thing; in every ordination or wedding is an intimation of mortality, and many I suspect find this frightening as well.  But what is the alternative?  An uncommitted life, a formless life, the meaningless expanse of years.  Such is the life fashioned by modern man’s miserly freedom-hoarding, the clinging to escape clauses that vitiate even those commitments he does (sort of) make.  Stuck in indeterminacy, he loses the vow’s moment of existential mastery and the subsequent comforts of a meaningful connection to his past and future.

Marriage and ordination are gifts that enlarge the soul.

Marriage and ordination are great blessings, but it would be wrong to think that, just because the free vow lies at their heart, they are blessings we bestow upon ourselves by sheer force of will.  A mere private act of will, such as a decision by a man to be faithful to a particular woman, could never order an entire life like a marriage vow can, because one moment’s decision can be overturned by any future moment’s regret.  Why should his will then have authority over his will now?  Even to promise himself to the woman is not enough, because she would then be the holder of the promise and could at any moment release him.  In marriage, through its power of sacramental signification, God lends the couple His own voice, empowering them to make a sacred vow with a moral force beyond their or anyone else’s reach.  There is a promise, but God Himself is its holder.  It is an act of freedom, yes, but a supernatural freedom bestowed by our Father in Heaven.

What’s more, if vocation were a mere act of will, its content could be nothing more than what was consciously willed; whatever was in one’s head at that moment becomes the guiding light to one’s life.  If that were the case, then the Church’s enemies would be right to see this as a diminishment of a man.  The vow would constrict his spirit, never allowing him to grow beyond the vision of that moment when he calcified his soul.  In fact, the three particular Christian vocations, although chosen by us, are not made by us.  Each is a great suprapersonal mystery, something larger than the soul that chooses it, something into which one grows.  To choose one of these paths is to expand one’s soul, opening previously inaccessible spiritual vistas, not to contract it.

Marriage and the wisdom of recklessness

Marriage is the most lowly vocation, but it is nevertheless more beautiful than anything in the profane world.  In this station the family, one’s role as mother or father, is the main organizing principle of one’s life.  Reduced to its essence, the marriage contract is a public agreement a particular man shall be recognized as father to a particular woman’s offspring, with all the duties to each other that this implies.  Contrary to what is often said today, the love of the spouses is not the contract’s defining feature.  Marriage is, however, the natural fulfillment of romantic love.  The Church didn’t invent the idea that a man and woman should promise each other exclusivity and permanence–lovers have always promised each other that; love carries with it the impulse to make such vows.  The Church is unique only in allowing these vows to mean precisely what they say.

Would any lover be content to make the marriage vows to his beloved while replacing the promise “till death” with “unless I become unhappy”?  Surely not.  True love scorns such timidity.  Even heretics and heathen, who admit divorce in principle, would think it base not to at least pretend to marry in the Catholic way.  They call the Catholic way cruel, because it traps spouses in “unhappy” and “failed” marriages.  But the vow’s “cruelty”–the depth of self-sacrifice it may potentially demand–is inseparable from its grandeur.  Moderns are never trapped in unhappy marriages at the cost that to be married now just means to be accidentally not yet divorced.  Like soldiers, married Catholics know that their honor is tied to the magnitude of sacrifice they may have to make.  Who would be so reckless as to take such a vow?  Anyone who has been in love.

For all its sentimentality, the world does not respect romantic love nearly as much as the Church does.  Modernity indulges lovers, but it doesn’t respect them.  It treats them like drunks whose car keys need to be taken away.  Yes, lovers feel compelled to promise each other undying love, but this is a sort of madness, and it would be cruel to hold them to it after they’ve sobered up.  The Catholic Church, on the other hand, sees love–and especially the urge to make of one’s life a gift to another in contempt for one’s future freedom or ease–as a special lucidity of mind, and she grants to lovers her supernatural binding power.  What modernity calls wisdom, the prioritizing of personal happiness over marital duty as if life were long and eternity short, is where we see a clouding and enfeeblement of the mind.

Career as modernity’s replacement for marriage

It is sad to think of a person looking back on a life of hopping from spouse to spouse and family to family.  (Like Saint Paul, I suspect that even widowers would be happier not remarrying, although there is no sin in them doing so.)  What would such a life be about?  Where would be the unity to it?  The modern world, which celebrates divorce, does have an answer to this, though more often implied than stated.  For the modern man, career is supposed to be the focus of one’s life.  Career is the ultimate substantive good in the world’s dominant ideologies of liberalism, capitalism, and feminism.  Career is what liberalism means by freedom and what feminism means by self-actualization.  Looking back on his life, modern man on his deathbed can recollect how well he climbed up the corporate ladder.  That is what his life was about.  That is the freedom that the destruction of Catholic patriarchy delivers.

The priesthood is not a job.

Vocations to the priesthood and religious life are similar in spirit to marriage, but more elevated in that God is more directly the object of self-offering.  Much of the world’s confusion about the Catholic priesthood stems from failing to realize that the priesthood is a vocation, not a job (or–Heaven forbid!–a career).  Thus, we hear many asinine remarks about how women or married temporary functionaries could perform the same functions as an ordained man.  This is false (no one but an ordained man can confect the Eucharist, the main duty of a priest), and the reason is that a man’s priestly role has to be his core self-identity.

Suppose one were to say that a revolving sequence of babysitters could take care of a child just as well as his mother could.  Of course, the babysitters could do many of the same things as the mother, but the depth of meaning would be lost, because when a mother cares for her child, these acts are the very heart of her life.  Priesthood is spiritual fatherhood; we even call our priests “father”.  What wife and children are to a married man, his parishioners are to a priest.

(This understanding, while somewhat safeguarded by the discipline of celibacy, which deprives the priest of any competing “private life”, has been gravely obscured in recent times by the horrible policy of rotating priests from parish to parish every six years or so.  Evidently, the bishops have begun thinking of their priests as mere employees, who needn’t develop a personal patriarchal relationship with their parish, and the laity have just taking this attitude to its logical conclusion of wanting married/women/pervert priests who can “do the job just as well”.)

When, endowed by God with a special sacramental character, the priest stands on the altar and speaks Christ’s own words in His place, we see the heart of his life.  The perfection of the Eucharistic sacrifice demands that the identity of priest and victim be maintained.  The priest must sacramentally identify as Jesus Christ.  This must be the core of his life and his identity, with his own personality displaced to the periphery.

Religious life:  a deliberate scandal to the worldly

Then there is the religious life, which scandalizes modern men most of all.  Marriage they understand as emotional fulfillment, and a priest they imagine to be a funny kind of therapist, but what could be the point of monks and nuns?  Some indeed perform secularly useful charitable work, but we should be clear that the purpose of most religious orders is not to staff schools, hospitals, and soup kitchens.  It would be closer to the truth to say that their purpose is to give the sort of scandal they give, to present the sort of life that can’t be understood, or even (like marriage and the priesthood) misunderstood by worldly minds.  The religious stand out as a sign that temporal usefulness is not the ultimate measure of value, that what we call “the real world” is a small and transient thing in the light of eternity.  Appreciate why the Church thinks it good that some should devote their lives to prayer, and one can then understand why she thinks it good that others should marry or be priests.

7 Responses

  1. Excellent Bonald! Thanks for all your work on this, and for sharing it with us.

  2. Truly beautiful reflections, Bonald. Some of your best work yet.

  3. Great post Bonald, I especially like the point about the religious life being radically opposed to the ways of the modern capitalist world. The Church must see itself as in but not of America.

  4. Thanks, guys!

  5. Very nice essay, but it does not seem to speak to people in my situation. I am a 47-year-old woman, never married, no children, celibate and chaste. Because of my history of severe depression, I did not want to have children who might inherit my bad genes, and therefore a marriage in the Catholic Church — I would not want any other kind — was impossible for me, even if I had fallen in love with a man who reciprocated my love. In addition, because of my history of severe depression, religious life was not an option for me (I inquired into several religious communities when I was in my thirties and they all gave the same reply). I have never had a full-time job, much less a career: I have been on SSI for the past 10 years.

    After all, Bonald, there are people, even practicing Catholics, who are suitable neither for marriage nor the priesthood nor the religious life: what is to be done with them in this world? Some Catholic writers state that the celibate and chaste single life is a vocation, and not just by default. Do you agree? If so, why? If not, why not?

  6. Gentillylace:
    Every life is a vocation. I knew a young man who died in his early teens of congenital medical problems. His entire life was filled with pain and ostracism, despite living in a very decent traditional community. His personality was indomitable. I never saw so many people at a funeral Mass as attended his. I expect he will one day be declared a saint, and I already ask for his intercession.

    St Gemma Galgani is another favorite suffering Saint. She was also rejected by religious orders because of her health, was ridiculed by her own sister, and was suspected of mental illness.

  7. Hello Gentillylace,

    I hope you won’t be too set on forsaking marriage. God cares very little for the “bad genes” of those in His kingdom. My wife takes medicine for a pretty severe bipolar disorder, as does her mother, but I certainly think her existence and our daughter’s have been worthwhile. I’m also very sorry to hear that you haven’t been allowed into a religious order. In past ages, being a place for people who otherwise didn’t fit into society was one of their noblest roles, and I think they’re making a big mistake treating people as if they’re applying for a job.

    You’ve raised a very important issue, and one that troubles me greatly. To the extent that people can’t find a suitable particular vocation recognized by the Church, the Church is failing people. Not that we’re meaning to, but it’s a difficult problem. Just calling the single life a vocation won’t help, I think, because singleness per se is defined negatively and doesn’t involve any sort of distinct commitment. For example, suppose a young man tries for a long time to find himself a wife, but no girl is interested, so eventually he just decides that God must intend for him to be single. If he then later finds his dream girl, and she’s in love with him and wants to marry him, what should he do? If there’s no reason not to marry her, then his singleness really was just a waiting period prior to his actual vocation. If he won’t marry her because he thinks he’s called to singleness, then what we’re really dealing with is a case of someone called to consecrated virginity, and the Church should validate this calling and provide the appropriate institutional and communal support.

    I think it’s probably true that a minority of people aren’t called to any of the three vocations as currently constituted. Perhaps there are other vocations that should be recognized; it’s conceivable, for instance, that some people really are called to serve God primarily through a secular career. It may also be that many of these people could be accommodated by a less narrow vision of the possibilities of the religious life. However, I don’t think we’ve done justice to people like you (assuming you don’t eventually fit into one of the “standard” Catholic stations) until we’ve recognized your distinct positive calling.

    So I suppose my belief is that singleness is not itself a vocation, but that some people do have vocations that involve being single (unmarried, unordained, not in a standard religious order).

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