It depends on what one means by “vocation”. People who speak of a vocation to the single life mean to say that God has a particular plan for each individual, and this includes people who are not called to be married, to be priests, or to be religious. I don’t have an objection to this. In fact, this use of the word “vocation” is its most common contemporary meaning. However, making “vocation” mean “particular life path toward which one is called by God” makes it a less interesting word than it can be. It is at once too general in meaning and too specific in application. “Particular life path” is so general, very little can be said about “vocation” that would cover all instances. And God’s particular path for me presumably includes not just being married, but being married to a particular woman, living in a particular place, working a particular job, and so forth. If all these are part of my vocation, I lose the sense of marriage having any privileged place in ordering my life.
It used to be that when Catholics spoke of “vocation”, they meant the priesthood and religious orders. (Protestants used “vocation” to mean “line of work”, as in “vocational training”. They took this as a sign of having done a better job sanctifying lay life, and we took it as a sign of them being silly heretics.) Everyone most certainly did not have one of these vocations. Even today, when we pray for vocations, we’re not asking God to help our young men and women find each other (but please do, Lord!). Here vocation clearly means a consecration to God. The man or woman called by God takes a vow to forsake secular life to dedicate him or herself entirely to His service and worship. The vow was necessarily understood to be lifelong.
Given this understanding of vocation, it was easy to see how marriage for the laity is analogous to holy orders for the priesthood. In marriage, we once again have a sacrament centered on a lifelong vow. The celibacy of the clergy in the Latin Rite makes the correspondence even tighter. One has only one life to dispose, so one only gets to choose one vocation. One or the other thing, or both, could not be understood to be life-disposing. Hence, the celibacy of the clergy served to elevate marriage.
The analogy between marriage, the priesthood, and the religious life is so close (much closer than any analogy between the priesthood and secular careers), it makes sense to identify them as three members of a type. Hence my usual use of the word “vocation” for “sacramental life-structuring vow.” This seems to me to be a real essence; there is much one can say about such a thing without needing to be more specific.
By this definition, being a bachelor is not a vocation. There’s no vow, no sacrament, and no fixed positive duties. Suppose a man gets it into his head that God is “calling” him to “the single life”. (We’ll take him to be a man because the survey shows I only have two female readers.) I suppose this happens a lot, mostly to guys who don’t think they’d make good priests and who haven’t had luck finding a girlfriend. Nothing wrong with wondering about God’s plans. Now suppose he meets the girl of this dreams, everything he ever wanted in a woman, and she’s desperately in love with him and eager to bear and homeschool a dozen good Catholic children by him. Should our hypothetical fellow turn down marriage with this girl because of his “vocation to singleness”? Should he not rather consider that his excellent good fortune is a sign that God is in fact not calling him to “the single life” but to matrimony?
Notice that if a man meets the girl of his dreams and decides to up and change his idea of God’s calling for him…and he happens to already be a priest, a monk, or the husband of another woman, we would call this an obvious self-serving rationalization for betraying his vow. The existence of a vow makes the cases very different.
One could equally well think of cases where our hypothetical man might decide that he really does have a calling to be a priest or monk after previously thinking that God just wanted him to be a bachelor. Why shouldn’t he pursue this new idea? There’s no vow for him to break.
That being said, I’ll repeat that God does have plans of some sort, and opportunities for holiness of some sort, for those who never marry, join the priesthood, or join the religious life. It may also be the case that there are more than three vocations in my restricted meaning of the word, and that the Church has yet to recognize some of them. If they do exist, a man living one of these other vocations would currently be categorized as a bachelor. Nevertheless, bachelorhood per se would not be his vocation in either meaning of the word. “The single life” has a purely negative meaning, and when the Church lists it among the vocations, I think she’s just using it as a blanket term for “other”.
Filed under: Uncategorized |