Vocation Versus State of Life

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We know that all things work for good for those who
love God, who are called according to His purpose.
— Romans 8:28

Whether there is a single lay vocation is a question fraught with emotion, as the comments section of any article having to do with single people in the Church reveals. It is a raw, sensitive topic because there are many hurt single souls, wounded by our culture or uncertain about God’s providential plan for them. It is a discussion in which people often seem to talk past one another because there is a lack of precision and clarity regarding vocabulary and especially regarding the nature of vocation. Further, today’s fluid society — where rigid, sometimes predetermined roles have been replaced by perpetual self-invention — seems to have generated a  hunger for clearly labeled identities with respect to one’s place in the institutional Church.

Is the question of whether there is an authentic single vocation simply a technical issue of nomenclature, or is there something fundamental to this inquiry that gets at the core of what it means to be holy? I think it is both.

“Vocation” means different things to different people, especially depending on the context. I think what most confuses the discussion is the fact that “vocation” has a different meaning from “state of life,” though they are often used interchangeably. The indiscriminate intermingling of these terms greatly muddles the debate.

The word “state” comes from a German word meaning “stand,” conveying a static quality. “State,” therefore refers to a legal, publicly recognized way of life. “State of life” implies rules of life, established norms and obligations. Throughout most of human history, one’s place in society generally was rigidly circumscribed and most often based on birth. During the Middle Ages, the various states included nobles, gentry, serfs, and craftsmen, each having its own officially recognized status. Church-defined ordained or consecrated states were also institutionalized by the Middle Ages. The clergy, for example, had the right to function according to canon law and, in the case of vowed priests, religious rules.

The early Church distinguished between two states of life: ordained (or priestly) and lay, with the lay state expressing itself in myriad, evolving forms over the centuries. The earliest seeds of a third state of life, consecrated religious, were first planted by young Christian virgins (and martyrs) during the first centuries after the foundation of the Church. Consecrated life became more prominent among the early Christian hermits, ascetics, and monks starting around the fourth century, after the early persecution of the Church ended, and especially after St. Benedict’s establishment of the rule of monastic life in the early sixth century.

During the Middle Ages, professing vows of poverty and obedience, in addition to the long-established vow of celibacy, became the norm for entrance into religious life. It was also at this time that the three states of life — ordained, religious, and lay — became widely recognized. The Church has traditionally viewed those who profess the evangelical counsels, especially celibacy, as having a special, higher calling than those living in the lay state. Indeed, ordained and religious states were commonly referred to as “states of perfection” or “states of election.”

The concept of “state of life” is important for understanding the Catholic Church’s perspective on the visible, concrete path on which God has placed each of us so that we may best fulfill our particular vocations to love. A state of life in the Church is an objective, public structure, within which people receive the grace to grow in faith, hope, and love by fulfilling sacred vows, either baptismal, consecrated, or marital. We are each called to a state of life that corresponds to our God-given talents and particular life circumstances.

The idea that God calls each of us to a particular state of life is as old as the Church, but it may seem a bit foreign to us today. Societies have become much more fluid, especially here in the United States, which was founded on the notion that one’s status at birth, whether lowly or noble, need not determine one’s earthly destiny. And, over the ages, some have pushed back against extreme ways in which the evangelical counsels were lived out and against rigidly delineated roles within the Church.

But throughout most of history, and still today in many cultures, one’s state of life, or caste, has been rigidly fixed. In the United States, where it is quite normal to change jobs, homes, and even careers, the idea of having a fixed state of life is less familiar, especially among the young. Our culture has embraced fluidity to an unhealthy extreme. Moreover, our cultural core is Protestant, with its attendant skepticism toward the Church’s “rigid” institutionalized structure and perceived differentiated “classes” of faithful. We see a hint of this in Hans Urs von Balthasar’s major work, The Christian State of Life.

In this accessible magnum opus, Balthasar takes more than five hundred pages to explain the theological meaning behind states of life. His objective in writing the book was to provide a “comprehensive meditation” on the discernment of that state of life that will most help us achieve our ultimate goal, union with God. Balthasar beautifully articulates the special nature of ordained and consecrated life — which he variously terms the “state of election,” “state of perfection,” “way of the counsels,” and “evangelical state” — in relation to the lay state, which he often refers to as the “way of the commandments.”

In later works, focused more on the lay state, Balthasar tempered the degree to which he elevated the priestly and religious states of election over the lay state. The seed of his evolved way of thinking about vocation and states of life can be detected early on in The Christian State of Life, when he acknowledges that where one “stands” in the world or in the Church may be viewed as less important than how one responds to God’s love:

From one point of view, the way of the counsels seems unambiguously better than the way of the commandments; from another, the perfection of love seems to be grounded so thoroughly in that disposition of indifference, that is lovingly ready for all that can be asked of it, that it is no longer possible to understand why the way of the counsels should be considered “more perfect” than the way of the commandments. And it is no clearer now . . . why the way of love should be split into two paths so fundamentally different that they actually constitute two different “states of life.”Just as we can conceive of innumerable variations in man’s passage from sin to love, so we can conceive here of innumerable calls from God and corresponding Christian vocations that would all issue from the identical point of human readiness. But neither in the naked will of God as such, nor in His loving will can we find any explanation for the existence of these sharply distinguished states of life within the Church.

How and to what degree one’s state of life bears upon one’s sanctity is a question that has elicited much ink and discussion throughout the history of the Church. It continues to do so to this day. As this question relates to the discussion about the dedicated single vocation, what is pertinent is understanding where a dedicated single person fits into the formal structure of the Church and what differentiates the various states of life. Such an understanding provides helpful clarity for living out one’s vocation well. In an effort to identify a place and a role for dedicated singles within the Church, it is useful to understand the historical context and the mind-set of the institutional Church, a task wrought with challenge, given the rapid pace of change inside and outside the Church over the past half century.

The Second Vatican Council documents and Pope St. John Paul II’s 1988 apostolic exhortation Christifideles Laici (Christ’s Faithful People) beautifully articulate the important role of the laity in the Church. By the mid-twentieth century, the pendulum, which had swung too far in the direction of exalting clergy and religious vis-à-vis the laity, was starting to swing back to a more balanced middle ground. The complementarity of the clergy and religious and the laity — whether married or single — and of each unique Christian vocation began to gain recognition, thanks, in part, to welcome theological support by these documents.

Singles share this lay state with the married. It has become common in recent years, however, to refer to marriage as its own distinct state, separate from the state of the single life.

The Church’s heightened focus on marriage is desperately needed and greatly appreciated. But does referring to marriage as a state of life in the Church diminish the richness of the concept of the general lay state? Does it inadvertently “peripherize” (a Pope Francis verb) single laity, whether transitional, vowed, same-sex attracted, civilly divorced, or widowed?

A vocation is a personal call from God to live out one’s life or pursue a particular mission within an established state of life. The idea of vocation is more expansive and fluid than the more fixed, structural concept of states of life. God provides the circumstances and the talents to fulfill the vocational mission planned for us. “For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them” (Eph. 2:10). He also gives us the freedom to embrace or reject His plans for us.

One may have a number of vocations throughout one’s life, or one may have a singular, grand vocation or mission. “God does not give us our vocation as we enter the seminary or enter marriage. We shall find out our vocation at the moment of death,” suggests papal theologian Fr. Wojciech Giertych, O.P.

Might we think of St. Jerome’s vocation as the translation of Holy Scripture from Greek and Hebrew into Latin? Might St. Joan d’Arc’s vocation have been to lead the French in defeat of the English? Was St. Catherine of Siena’s vocation to implore Pope Gregory XI to buck up and return to Rome from his exile in Avignon? As for devout singles who have not been added to the pantheon of recognized saints, might Antoni Gaudí’s design of the Basílica de la Sagrada Família in Barcelona, or Jan Tyranowski’s spiritual influence on the young Karol Wojty?a (the future Pope John Paul II), or Frank Duff’s founding of the Legion of Mary have been their special vocations?

“Vocation” is also understood in the Church to mean a very specific call to the priesthood or to the consecrated life. When we are asked to pray for an increase in vocations at Mass, we all know this is the type of vocation implied. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that marriage was widely considered to be a vocation in the Church.

Outside the Church, the term “vocation” refers to a wide array of endeavors, whether it be a particular trade, career, hobby, or parenthood. Given this broader understanding of vocation, one can better appreciate the pushback against those who deny vocational status to singles.

Let’s return to St. Francis de Sales’s definition of a true vocation: “the firm and constant will possessed by the person called, to want to serve God in the manner and in the place where the Divine Majesty calls her.” Again, according to de Sales, a vocation consists of three elements: constancy, a desire to love and serve God, and an embrace of the circumstances in which God calls us. We may add to this definition the element of self-gift, which underpins the Church’s understanding of vocation and of general human flourishing.

The single life, when it is transitional, clearly does not correspond to this understanding of a vocational calling in the Church. Singles still discerning God’s call or older singles open to marriage, whether or not they peacefully accept God’s will for them, are not living out a single vocation.

What constitutes a true single vocation? It is the call to single life as the permanent and providentially ordained means to love and serve God wholeheartedly; the definitive giving of oneself to Christ exclusively and permanently.

As for understanding the deeper underpinnings of the single vocation question, we can’t go wrong with Aquinas. According to the Angelic Doctor, something is perfect “when it attains its proper end.” For the human soul, God is its ultimate end. We also know from Scriptures that “God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him” (1 John 4:16). Therefore, Aquinas concludes that “the perfection of the Christian life consists principally in charity.” We also know from Aquinas that “something is bad when it does not have what is fitting to it, that is, what properly belongs to it.” An act is bad when it deviates from one’s nature. It leads us away from fulfillment or our ultimate end.

So, in light of Aquinas’s teachings, is being single a bad thing, a neutral thing, or a good thing? I think Aquinas would suggest that we still do not have enough information to make a judgment.

Implicitly or explicitly, the single life is viewed by many as bad or, at best, neutral. How many young people aspire to being single all their lives? How many parents pray that their children be single adults? How many priests during Mass ask us to pray for more single vocations? The religious, ordained, and married states are objectively good, irrespective of the sanctity of the individuals who enter these states. In contrast, being single is seen as a neutral and, most often, default state. Understanding its quality or characterizing it depends on external circumstances and internal motives more so than any other state.

Part of the pastoral-outreach challenge for the Church is that, when it comes to singles, generalizations obscure profoundly different personal situations, significantly more so than for religious, ordained, or married states. Single life can entail a wide variety of circumstances, telling us very little of the intent and quality of this way of life. A single person may be living a life of licentious pleasure; willful independence focused on self; holy patience waiting for a spouse or discerning a potential religious call; bitterness for not having found a spouse; or sacrificial resignation over a way of life not chosen. Or the person may be following St. Paul’s counsel and living a fully embraced celibate life to love Christ undividedly in the world.

The single life, in itself, does not necessarily go against one’s nature or move one away from one’s supernatural or even temporal fulfillment. Indeed, being single may lead some more readily to their supernatural end — perfect love of and union with God. But the risks of living as a single person are greater than living in the married or consecrated states. The exterior constraints of marriage and religious life make smoother the road to interior freedom and holiness. How easy it is for exterior freedom, inherent in a single life, to lead to selfishness, a hardening of the heart, and pride of life, the jailers in an interior incarceration. “Whoever loves his life loses it” (John 12:25).

Dietrich von Hildebrand suggests that marriage (and, presumably, religious life) is a powerful antidote to a host of negative traits that can plague singles:

If the act of marriage when accomplished in the highest way destroys a certain stiff self-containedness [to which singles are susceptible] which tends to harden the heart, blunt the susceptibilities, and produce a self-important prig, this peculiar self-containedness is destroyed by marriage with Christ in a far more complete and radical fashion.

In a well-intentioned effort to reach out to the growing number of singles, some in the Church have tried to shift the narrative by characterizing singleness as a blessed good without adequately acknowledging that most have not chosen this way of living out their baptismal vocations.

Others, when making the argument that there is no such thing as a single vocation, seemingly blame singles for having done something wrong, though perhaps unwittingly. The assumption is that singles either did not heed a call to the religious or married states or that they made myriad mistakes in dating, which prevented them from landing a spouse. In the past, however, it was more widely held that someone beyond a certain age without a spouse or a religious habit had rejected a vocation to the consecrated state. The young rich man who walks sadly away from Christ’s invitation to the evangelical counsels immediately comes to mind. Surely today there are those who consciously turn away from a clearly discerned vocation to consecrated life.

Not answering a call to religious, ordained, or married life certainly is not good, nor is it simply a neutral act, and it is unhelpful to single souls to whitewash this fact. Balthasar, in The Christian State of Life, has strong words to say about the consequences of a rejected call to the “state of election,” the consecrated life:

He causes untold harm who rejects God’s call because his “no” affects not only himself, but also all those who depend on his mission. And, in the end, he will be called to account not only for himself alone, but also for all the graces that have been withheld from the world by reason of his “no”. . . . The greater the mission, the more unique it is. For him who is called to do great things for the Lord, it is a question of all or nothing. If he rejects his mission, he can neither demand nor expect it to be replaced by one that is second-best.

Many of the devout, single Catholic women I know are not single because they rejected a vocation to religious or married life. They are single because the opportunity to marry a virtuous man, to whom it would have been right and fitting to give one’s heart, has not presented itself. Others did not discern a call to religious life, despite being truly open to such a call.

Objectively, a rejection of God’s design for our lives is a rejection of God’s love. But only God can judge our hearts and the import of the circumstances that lead each of us to reject His will for us, whether it be a major vocational call to consecrated life or daily promptings from the Holy Spirit. God typically does not make His calls crystal clear; He is gentler than that, allowing us to wiggle out of His will for us.

The Gospel is full of repentant sinners who, through grace and hard work, turn their lives around and become great disciples of Christ. Might this same dynamic play out for those who grow in love and generosity such that, over time, their wills bend toward God? After all, “we know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28).

Take Catherine of Genoa. She felt called to enter the convent as a young teen but was turned away for being too young. She later abided by her parents’ wishes and married a nobleman when she was sixteen, rather than holding firm to her earlier calling. Countless saints were coerced, sometimes under pain of death, to marry, but they held firm to their vocational call to virginity or consecrated life. Catherine endured ten years of an awful, abusive marriage, during which she turned to the world for solace. Then, one day, she experienced an intense mystical experience that marked the beginning of the rest of her life, which she spent in service to the poor and the sick in close union with God. Catherine is most known for the profound interior inspirations she experienced, most notably concerning purgatory.

Might St. Catherine of Genoa have effectively rejected her first major vocational call to religious life? God clearly had a major mission for her that, in human terms, would have been better fulfilled as a nun. Instead, provoked by an awful marriage, she strayed for a number of years before God assertively reached out to her to complete a hugely important mission. Was this God’s plan all along, or did her less than devoutly lived years “work for good”?

In his typically profound yet gentle manner, Pope Benedict XVI extracts God from the rigid mold we like to create for Him and attributes to His providence much more leeway:

God did not intend Israel to have a kingdom. The kingdom was a result of Israel’s rebellion against God. . . . God yielded to Israel’s obstinacy and so devised a new kind of kingship for them. The King is Jesus; in Him God entered humanity and espoused it to Himself. This is the usual form of the divine activity in relation to mankind. God does not have a fixed plan that He must carry out; on the contrary, He has many different ways of finding man and even of turning his wrong ways into right ways. . . . The feast of Christ the King is therefore not a feast of those who are subjugated, but a feast of those who know that they are in the hands of the one who writes straight on crooked lines.

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This article is adapted from a chapter in Single for a Greater Purpose by Luanne Zurlo which is available from Sophia Institute Press.

Art for this post on Vocation versus State of Life: Cover and featured image used with permission.

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