On Vocations

Thursday, October 16, 2003



Over the weekend, I was at a small dinner party at my brother's home, and the issue of women's ordination briefly came up. Everyone in the room was Catholic. I expressed in passing that I was a supporter of the ordination of women to ministerial priesthood, and a Catholic woman stated that she was opposed. I asked her why, and she really had no reason. She answered simply that she trusted the Pope, and she never felt the desire to be a priest. The assumption she seemed to be making is that God must not give this desire to women, since she had never felt it.

I think many conservative Catholics take a similar stance. It is easy to support Rome when a teaching in question does not interfere with your personal life. Many married men will defend the Pope on the issue of celibate priesthood, but if you ask them if they feel called to priesthood, they will admit that they either never felt it, or only had a brief passing desire for priesthood as a child. If a married man or a woman never felt the sense of being called to priesthood, it really makes no difference to them who is made a priest, and they want to know why anyone would question the Holy Father. Reasoning is then set forth by such conservative laity that nobody has a "right" to be ordained a ministerial priest.

What is at stake is how we make a determination who is right when the subjective desire of an individual person is at variance with the objective teaching of the Church as proclaimed by the magisterium. To the conservative, this is a no brainer, since popes are infallible. However, progressives are willing to question non-infallible rulings of the Pope, and argue the case cannot be treated this simply.

Settling the conflict by siding with Rome often makes sense to conservatives, because we all know the experience of subjective desires that simply pass, and many of us Catholics have even desired things that we know are sinful. It is a wholly Catholic habitual practice to try to hold our subjective desires in check according to the objective teaching of the Church. In most cases, this habit serves us well, and it usually makes sense to us. Because of this habit, we tend to devalue subjective experience sometimes.

However, in the matter of vocation, I would argue that this habit does not apply very well. The reason it does not apply very well is that a vocation is recognized, in part, by the subjective desire of the person receiving a calling from God. Most deacons and priests have not heard voices or heard visions as part of their decision to pursue ordination. People's feelings are an extremely important part of discerning a vocation.

Perhaps I need to define my terms a bit and make some clarifications. A vocation is a call from God. Objectively speaking, when we speak of a vocation, we are trying to determine if God is asking something particular of a given individual.

There are many types of vocations. There is the general vocation of a Christian to live a life of holiness. Then there are specific callings in specific instances where we are invited by God to act in certain ways, such as when we resist a temptation or do a good deed. Between the most general calling to all Christians and the specific day to day callings in particular moments, there are broad life-style choices that Catholics speak of most frequently when referring to vocation. Our choice of career can be referred to as a calling. However, Catholics often use the word vocation to refer to three specific life-style choices: marriage, the single life, and ordained ministry.

The Church blesses certain life-style choices as a vocation from God because those who receive these callings have a fundamental role in building up the Body of Christ. The vocation to live as a celibate woman in a community devoted to prayer and good works is blessed, and we often refer to women receiving this calling as sisters and nuns. The male celibate ordained priesthood is also blessed by the Church.

How is a vocation recognized?

As a community, we recognize a vocation in public through the bishop or priest blessing the particular choice of an individual. The priest or bishop does not act as an individual in such a circumstance. Rather, he acts as a representative of the whole Church.

Thus, the entire global Catholic community accepts the validity of a vocation to marriage between a man and woman if a priest blessed the union within the context of the sacrament of marriage. The entire global Catholic community recognizes the validity of a vocation to priesthood when the vocation was blessed by a bishop in the sacrament of ordination. The Church, as a whole, is authorized to confirm or deny a vocation, and the priest or bishop acts as the spokesperson for the community when this is done. Because of our desire to maintain global unity and unity with our ancestors, we look to the Pope for guidance in making the decision to affirm or deny a vocation.

We invest such authority in our priests and bishops for two reasons that come together at a single point of contact. First, we believe that Christ instituted the roles of priest and bishop. Second, we recognize that people make mistakes in vocational choices. So, it is a natural point of contact to turn to existing priests and bishops to determine if an individual claiming to have a vocation is mistaken or correct.

Yet, what is often lost as we look to Rome is that the individual receives a vocation directly from God, and not from the Pope. The Pope does not issue the vocation, but affirms or denies its validity.

Furthermore, the condition for the possibility of a particular man becoming a priest is that this particular man first wants to be a priest. If a man does not want to be a priest, the Church cannot force ordination upon him. Some theologians do speak of vocation coming from the whole Church, as when Saint Augustine was called forth by a local community. Nevertheless, Augustine was free to reject the call from the community, and in this sense, there remains an entirely subjective dimension to the discernment of a vocation.

So, in the discussion of whether women or married men are called to priesthood, what we are really arguing about is not what the Pope says. Rather, we are discussing whether God, himself, has placed a desire in the heart of the individual who claims to have a calling.

In this sense, I would define a vocation from two angles. From the perspective of God, the matter is simple: either he does call the individual, or he does not. From the human angle, a vocation is a God given strong and persistent desire to use your talents and gifts in the service of the Church in a specific way. The role of the Church between God and the individual is to discern whether the subjective desire is really coming from God, or from some other source.

Conservatives will often claim that the desire of a women for ordained ministry must not come from God, since the authority Christ invested in the papacy indicates that this is impossible. Conservatives will then sometimes make up analogies to defend this position.

For example, I am only five feet and six inches tall, and no matter how badly I wanted to be a professional basketball player, I will not be able to play at a competitive level well enough to compete in the NBA. There would be an inherent incompatibility between my subjective desire and the fulfillment of this desire. In a like manner, the Holy Father has the right to say that women and married men cannot be ordained, because there is an inherent incompatibility between subjective desire and the fulfillment of the role of the particular vocation.

On the flip side, on the issue of women's ordination, I argue that this analogy fails, and a closer analogy is a woman graduating top of her class in medical school with a strong desire to be a surgeon, and being told that she cannot be a doctor because the role is reserved to men.

My analogy works to describe the feeling of women who seek ordination because it also touches on the response to those who argue that there are many ways to serve the Church other than being a priest. By analogy, this is similar to telling that woman at the top of her medical school class that she should be satisfied to be a nurse.

Likewise, with the issue of married clergy, I argue that the closest analogy to Church practice would be a corporate CEO dictating that company policy forbids marriage, because married employees are more expensive and cannot be forced to work as overtime. If a secular company created such a policy, I am almost certain the Church would condemn the corporation for establishing an immoral practice and making an unreasonable demand upon its workers.

If there exists women who would make good ministerial priests, and these women have a strong and persistent desire to serve as priests, and the Church as a whole has a need for priests, the burden of proof that the woman is not called to ordained ministry lies on the Church representative making the claim. Likewise, if a man who would make a good ministerial priest simultaneously has a strong and persistent desire to serve as a priest and be married, and the Church as a whole has a need for priests, the burden of proof that he must deny one of these desires lies on the one making this claim.

Because a vocation is first recognized in the desire of the individual person receiving the vocation, this feeling I am describing by analogy cannot be casually dismissed. Nor can the individual who experiences such strong and persistent desires be responded to with simple analogies. The strong and persistent desire of such a person must be taken with the utmost seriousness.

Anyone who would deny that the desire to priesthood comes from God has a burden of proof to demonstrate that such a desire is misdirected. The individual must be responded specifically! Anyone who would deny that the desire to priesthood comes from God must be able to demonstrate that there is a clear incompatibility between the desire and the fulfillment of the desire. To do otherwise is similar to the Pharisaic rejection of Jesus, or the rejection of the Old Testament prophets by some of the Jews. If a person claims to have a calling from God, we must be careful to not casually brush their feeling aside with a blind appeal to authority or an argument that "this is the way its always been done". If the person is mistaken, it must be demonstrated that they are mistaken in a specific case by case basis.

Think of it like a hiring manager interviewing candidates for a job in secular America. If an opening exists for a particular job, the hiring manager has a moral, ethical, and even legal responsibility to hire the most qualified candidate, regardless of personal or corporate bias. Certainly, if there are ten candidates for a single job, we can accurately say that no candidate has a right to the job, except the most qualified candidate! If a person is denied a position, they may not have a right to the job, but he or she does have a right to know why they were denied the opportunity.

In a like manner, there is a need for priests, and there are many people who have a strong and persistent desire to serve as priests, and seem qualified to do so. Yet, due to personal and corporate biases of the representatives of the whole Church, these people are being denied the position. Just as a secular company must demonstrate that the candidates selected were more qualified than the other candidates, the Pope and hierarchy have a moral and ethical obligation to demonstrate that the candidates they are selecting for ordained ministry are more qualified than the others. Furthermore, because the hierarchy itself admits of an abundance of openings, they must demonstrate that male celibates are not only more qualified than others. They must also demonstrate that these others are not qualified at all for the open positions.

I am not saying that the hierarchy has a legal obligation to do this, and I would never even suggest passage of such a law in secular courts. I support the separation of church and state, and believe that it would not serve the Church well to take these cases to a civil court. However, the same moral and ethical principles that we Catholics believe should guide our civil courts apply to the Church voluntarily. All moral and ethical principles come from God, and God does not issue one set of principles to the courts and another to the Church. If the Church ignores the principles that rightly guide the courts, the Church will set itself up for having lawsuits brought against it (which is beginning to happen).

I honestly believe that exclusion of women from ordination is potentially a moral issue, and until the Pope speaks ex cathedra, I think the Church is probably taking the wrong side on this issue. As a Catholic, I am a little tired of being embarrassed by our history, such as the crusades, the inquisitions, and witch burnings. The official Church never declared anyone a witch infallibly - but lots of people died at the hands of Church officials.

We need to be on constant guard for abuses of authority by the Church leadership. Our own Catholic pride and self-esteem is dependant on our ability to hold our leadership accountable. We see this not only with issues like the ordination of women and married men, but also with issues such as the sex abuse scandals and its financial repercussions.

We need to constantly challenge doctrine critically so that we ensure that public announcements of the Church can be made with certainty, intelligence, and unquestionable infallibility. Catholic laity need to develop a sort of radar for BS. By this, I mean that if we are to avoid repeating mistakes of the past, we must be alert to situations where theological language and analogies are used to justify a circumstance in the Church that we would find morally abhorrent in the rest of our lives. There is a dangerous habit of religious people to a habit called cognitive dissonance, which is really the practice of holding double standards.

Granted, people are not being physically killed in the twenty-first century by the abuses of power in the hierarchy. However, there is a use of power to settle a debate in a way that is causing spiritual confusion and anguish among the People of God. Where torture chambers were the method of choice in the middle ages, the threats are different today. Today, threats are made against theologians such as censure and excommunication, without any physical abuse. What laity often forget is that for a professional theologian, this can mean a loss of job and benefits. The Church hierarchy continues to hold considerable power over theologians who are in her employ.

Thus, the only way for any valid critique of the abuse of power to be heard is for lay people who have nothing to lose to speak up. There will not be many priests and bishops who enjoy the freedom to speak their minds, but we laity can speak our minds without fear of loss of job and livelihood.

What I am also trying to say is that critique is not always the equivalent of childish or sinful disobedience. Critique is very often an expression of sacrificial love aimed at helping the Church to understand itself better and live out its mission more fully.

To the conservative or traditionalist who wishes I would remain silent, I say that it is not that I do not love the Church. In the world, I defend her. I can sit down with an Evangelical Protestant and match him or her verse for verse in defending how most Roman Catholic dogmas, doctrines, and practices are explicit or implicit in Scripture. I have done so, and continue to do so. I have been active in the pro-life movement. I have debated atheists on the existence of God. I have explained the Trinity to Muslims. I have invited friends involved in the New Age or Buddhism to explore the ancient wisdom and beauty of Catholicism.

Within the household of faith, I encourage Catholic friends struggling with addictions or doubts to find the answers in the teachings of the Church. I volunteer in my parish, and I pray the lauds and vespers of Liturgy of the Hours daily, participate in Mass regularly, and try to witness to Christ in my words and deeds. The gospel informs my business decisions at work. I go to Confession monthly, and pray the Rosary. My arguments in all of my essays or articles critiquing Church teaching have been based entirely on sources traditionalists acknowledge as authoritative. I am not an anti-Catholic bigot throwing rocks at the Church from outside. I am a brother in the Lord trying to help the Church. Paul was not afraid to confront Peter when he felt our first Pope was wrong (cf. Galatians 2:11). I honestly believe that the Church's current teaching regarding women's ordination is incoherent at best, and bordering on the immoral and heretical at worst.

Yet, there are even more personal reasons I question the teaching of the Church on the ordination of women. I am 38 years old. I painfully struggled almost my entire life to try to decide whether to be ordained a priest or get married. I went into formation for the priesthood for six years. Because I feel a strong desire to be a priest, I begged and pleaded with God to grant me the gift of celibacy while I was in formation, and I frequented the sacraments regularly. I participated in the Eucharist daily, Reconciliation weekly or more often. I spent hours in meditation, fasting, and other forms of mortification of the senses. I immersed myself deeply in theological study as well as my supervised ministries. On the advice of some priests, I tried journaling, art and poetry to sublimate my desire for marriage. I even sought counseling from a priest-psychologist, as well as spiritual directors to try to live the celibate vocation. However, I do not believe celibacy is, or ever was my vocation.

The desire for a life-long partner, an intimate friend, and for children kept coming back to me in prayer. Many people mistakenly think those who claim to feel a dual calling to priesthood and marriage are simply sex starved. This is not the case. It is relatively easy to be celibate on any given day, and married men do it frequently. The committment to celibacy is not just about giving up sex. It is about not having a helpmate and life-partner with whom you can share your life.

I was especially heartbroken while praying the daily Psalms in the Liturgy of the Hours, where so many hymns speak to the goodness of married life and children. I wanted to have a friend I could rely on through the course of life, and I wanted to have a concrete person to whom I could daily show Christian love. I wanted to learn from a woman how women see the world. I wanted the opportunity to know the love of God the Father by being a father myself. I wanted to witness to the love Christ has for the church through the sacrament of matrimony. What I am describing is a strong and persistent desire to serve the Church by performing the ministry of building a domestic church. Yet, because I also felt called to ministerial priesthood, I was lead to believe this desire must be denied.

I tried to see the denial of these desires as a participation in the cross of Christ. However, the cross was thrust upon Jesus. He even prayed that that horrendous hour could be removed. Meanwhile, forsaking marriage was self-inflicted sacrifice that seemed to have no inherent purpose. The arguments that I would be made more available to others seemed contradicted by commitment to the rules of religious life. Nor did I feel that celibacy, per se, was adding to my prayer life.

When I told my superiors I was leaving formation, they asked me to reconsider. In other words, there was external feedback from the priestly formation staff, and those I ministered with that I seemed to have a genuine calling to the priesthood. There are even some unique psychological aspects to my profile that match other priests and seminarians. For example, now that nearly all candidates for priesthood undergo psychological testing prior to entry in formation, I know that I have an abnormally high m/f score on the MMPI. This is a very common trait to seminarians and priests. I was nearly a straight "A" student in theological studies. I did well with supervised ministry. I have been told often that I would be a good priest. So, it would seem that the Church was affirming my desire to be an ordained ministerial priest, coupled with my own strong and persistent desire to be a priest.

Most priests engage in specific ministries that suit their particular talents and gifts. These ministries are a way of expressing Christian love through their priestly vocation. One priest may work with lepers. Another may operate a homeless shelter. Another is a teacher. Many are involved in parishes, and within the parish, they may have a special ministry such as visiting the sick in a hospital. Priests make choices about how they will serve and who they will serve based on their desires and personal gifts.

If married priests were permitted, part of the ministry of such a priest is to spouse and children, who need ministry as much as anyone else. Family is not a distraction from ministry. It is a ministry. Furthermore, a married priest may be connected to married laity in ways a celibate priest are not. Many Catholics acknowledge that married priest might make good marriage counselors. If we had married priests, it would not take away from what celibate priests do, but it would add a missing dimension to Catholic priestly ministry.

I only married two years ago (in the Church). I left formation before ordination. A side of me toyed with the idea of going forward with ordination and asking for dispensation and laicization later. The feeling that I am supposed to be a priest was that strong. I found myself compromising my celibacy as the struggle continued over the course of six years. In the end, I decided not to play games with the laws of the Church. Continuing to form personal integrity was more important than going through the motions of the ordination ceremony. I also came to realize that I could better tell my story as a lay person than as an employee of the Church.

Since leaving formation, I have demonstrated leadership ability rising through five promotions in leadership at work in the secular world in a five-year period. My current leader in the work place score me highest in performance appraisals for integrity, honesty, commitment, and the ability to build trust in a team and motivate teams to get projects done on time and on budget. Again, there are outward signs that I would be a good priest in the sense of a priest functioning as leader and administrator with integrity.

I dated my wife for 5 years prior to marriage. We dated for so long because I was agonizing over the fact that marriage means denying priesthood. I thank God for my wife's patience with me. If you are curious, we were chaste during this five-year period. Yet, despite the five-years of further agony, I knew from experience that I cannot live celibately.

During the six years that I spent in priestly formation, I was slipping into depression, and struggling more and more with lustful thoughts and temptations. My family noticed at times that my face was pale, my weight went up and down, and even my thought patterns were getting distorted. For example, I was beginning to feel that God demands heroic sacrifice of all people - projection of the pain I was feeling as a celibate. The Scriptures about picking up your cross or denying your family seemed to speak to necessary self denial in the Gospel that would literally kill the spirit. I was beginning to believe that any and all desire is wrong. I could not understand why others did not see this message in the Gospel. I was becoming scrupulous, though only my confessor could see this change occurring. This is not what the Church should want her priests to feel. I suspect that some of the cruelty exhibited by some religious officials in history is prompted by such distorted views of grace.

What I could not see because of the pain I was enduring in celibacy was that the Scriptures about picking up your cross or denying your family were not intended to force people to give up those things through which they experience God's love. Grace builds on nature. In Christ, perfect love cast out all fear (c.f. 1 John 4:18). It is in love of people that we come to love God, and love has its own pains that make up our crosses and call us to proper self-denial for a higher good. God sends us our participation in Christ's cross. We do not need to inflict the cross on ourselves.

Eventually, I had to ask myself why it was sinful for me to want a life long partner? Why would it be sinful for me to want children? Why would it be sinful to want to experience the love of God in the love of a woman?

The obvious answer is that it is not sinful.

Some conservatives may be asking why I am comparing these desires for marriage to sin. What I am trying to say is that there are only really three options here. If I have a strong and persistent desire to do something I am qualified to do, there must be an origin of that desire. If the desire is coming from God, the desire is an indicator of my vocation. If the desire is not coming from God, then either I am simply mistaken, or the desire comes from the devil tempting me away from my vocation. If I am simply mistaken, there would be indicators of the mistake. The feeling would pass or there would be clear demonstrable evidence that I am mistaken, such as if I had a desire to play in the NBA at five feet six inches. If the desire is from Satan tempting me away from my vocation, then the desire is sinful. Thus, if we are to accept the position of Rome, we must conclude that I was either mistaken or I have sinned.

I have a desire to be a priest, and a capacity for ministry that was being recognized by the Church. Yet, I also had a desire to be married, and have actually married. Where or from whom did these two apparently contradictory desires originate?

Any religious priest (as opposed to diocesan priest) knows that the demands of fraternal life can be just as time consuming, and emotionally draining on ministry as the demands of traditional family. Every priest, including the diocesan clergy, probably knows that there are times when having a family might benefit ministry. The demand of celibacy on the presbyterate is recognized by Rome to be a discipline, rather than a doctrine to be definitively held. At some point in my last two years of formation, I began to ask myself if it were possible that my desire for marriage were a vocation just as validly coming from God as my desire and vocation to the priesthood?

Do the two apparently contradictory desires in my heart originate from God, rather than one of them being mistaken or sinful?

According to theology, such a thing is possible. If this is so, why does the Church hierarchy not recognize that?

I have classmates that thrived in celibacy and were happy and obviously called to celibacy. Some of them chose not to be priests, yet they remained celibate Friars in a Franciscan Order. These people may have had a passing desire to marry on a rare occassion, but they admit that even if there was no mandatory celibacy disciplines, they simply would not choose to marry. As hard as it may be for married laity to understand, the vocation to celibacy is not about self-denial for those who called to it. I am not denying the celibate vocation or its value to the Church.

Jeremiah, Elijah, John the Baptist, Paul and Jesus were all celibate. I came to the conclusion eventually that some men are called to celibacy, while others are called to priesthood. While the two callings can overlap, there is nothing in tradition that says they must overlap. Indeed there were married priest for over 1,100 years in the Latin rite, and there are still married priests in Eastern rites. As an American, I am forbidden to change rites, and the Eastern Rite in America is forced to observe celibacy. So, if I am called to married priesthood, like our Eastern brothers, how do I live that vocation in the West?

I recognized my priestly vocation early in life. I even went on retreats at the ages of eleven, twelve, and thirteen years old to discern the possibility of attending high school seminary. I played priest as a child. Yet, I hesitated until the age of 23 to enter formation because I also wanted to be married. Until I was 28, I had mistaken the desire to be married as a sort of temptation. But why would Satan tempt me to receive a sacrament? Why would Satan tempt me to love another person enough to commit my life to them?

So this is the question I put to the conservatives and traditionalists: by what external and objective criterion do you judge that a person's desire is not coming from God?

In some cases it seems obvious to me. A desire that comes and goes, like my wanting to be a policeman for about a week at age six, is not coming from God. A sinful desire, such as committing adultery does not come from God. Likewise, I saw men asked to leave the formation program because they could not control their anger, or they were substance abusers, or they were discovered to suffer from a neurobiological disorder that hindered their capacity to be good ministers. These situations make sense to me. In such cases, we are not speaking in broad generalities and analogies. We are pointing to specific objective criteria that apply to a specific person and can be demonstrable to everyone who has a stake in the outcome of the decision.

However, I do not personally understand how the Church came to the conclusion that either my desire for marriage does not come from God, or my desire for priesthood does not come from God. The experience of the Church's denial of one of my vocations affords me empathy for the women who cannot understand how the Church decided her desire for ministerial priesthood did not come from God.

I still want to be a priest, though I am married in the Church. The two desires will not simply "go away". I wanted to be a priest since at least age six. I also always wanted to be married, since my earliest memories from around age four. I was too young at those ages to see a contradiction, and God has not removed the two desires from my heart in over 30 years. Indeed, he has made both desires grow stronger and surer.

What I am trying to describe to the reader is that "vocation" is not something you can dictate from outside of a person. True, you can confirm it from outside. Likewise, you can exclude someone for obvious reasons - but I believe that these reasons should be similar to reasons you would exclude someone from being hired in a secular company: The person's skill sets do match the job functions! It is not that that priesthood is "just a job". However, the reasoning used to exclude someone should be objective in a similar manner to when a person is denied a job. It should be the type of reasoning that would hold up in court, even if the Church is not subject to civil courts.

Peace and Blessing!

Readers may contact me at jcecil3@attglobal.net


posted by Jcecil3 2:51 PM

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