What is a Vocation?

The Excellence of the Religious Vocation

Fr. Joseph Bolin

What is a vocation?
Vocation is a free choice
Vocation is an invitation to devote oneself wholeheartedly to love of God and neighbor
The Value of Religious Vocation

Religious life is better in itself

Everyone wants to be happy, and no one wants to be unhappy. Men desire many things for the sake of happiness, but happiness itself they desire for its own sake. Many men desire to be rich or powerful because they think that will make them happy, but no one desires to be happy in order to be rich or powerful. So happiness is the goal, and other things are desirable insofar as they lead to this goal.

Since happiness is our final goal, it is most important for us to know what happiness is, and the means by which we may attain it. One who’s ultimate goal in life was to reach the South Pole would do everything in his power to ensure that he could reach it: obtain maps of the mountains and other obstacles, find the best means of transportation, train himself for the journey, etc. Similarly one who would attain happiness should learn where it is and how to get there.

This is no easy matter. We have but to look at all the different theories about happiness that philosophers have proposed, to see that it is difficult to determine the truth regarding it. Were we on our own, we would be likely to fall into error. But by God’s grace, we are not on our own; our faith tells us where happiness lies and how to reach it. By faith we know that our ultimate happiness lies in heaven, in the vision of God as he is in himself.[1] Here on earth we are but wayfarers, journeying towards that final vision.

Our faith does not merely tell us where our happiness lies, and leave us to find the way to it, but also tells us the way there. There are certain things that our faith tells us are essential for reaching this goal: the commandments, the sacraments, prayer. “If you do not eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life within you.” With respect to these things there is only one right way, on which every person must walk.

There are other things that may be helpful, but are not necessary for reaching this goal: parenthood, the priesthood, religious life, the various professions. With respect to these there are many other ways that lead to the goal.

In this section we look at the premise that religious life in itself is better. First we will establish the fact that it is better, and then explain why it is better, and what that means.

“Religious life” here means any life according to the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty, and obedience. We will first consider chastity, the “determining commitment of the state of consecrated life,”[2] then poverty, obedience, and all three together.

Superiority of Chastity

Christ counsels perpetual chastity in contrast to marriage. But counsel is given in regard to a better good; he would not give this counsel if marriage were better or just as good as perpetual chastity. Therefore perpetual chastity is better than marriage.

The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry.” But he said to them, “Not all men accept this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it.”[3]

St. Paul likewise teaches the superiority of virginity or continence.

To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do.[4]

He who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.[5]

The Fathers, following in the footsteps of Christ and St. Paul, always regard chastity devoted to God as a greater good than marriage.

Ye virgins, be subject to Christ in purity, not counting marriage an abomination, but desiring that which is better, not for the reproach of wedlock, but for the sake of meditating on the law.[6]

… You would find many among us, both men and women, growing old unmarried, in hope of living in closer communion with God.[7]

 “If a wife or husband die, and the widower or widow marry, does he or she commit sin?” “There is no sin in marrying again, but if they remain unmarried, they gain greater honor and glory with the Lord; but if they marry, they do not sin.”[8]

The Church has also constantly taught the excellence of chastity dedicated to God over marriage. We select only a few from the very many passages on the subject; first from the Council of Trent, which defined it as a dogma.

“If anyone says that the married state is to be preferred to the state of virginity or celibacy, and that it is not better and happier to remain in virginity or celibacy than to be joined in matrimony, let him be anathema.”[9]

Pope Pius XII wrote an entire encyclical on virginity and celibacy devoted to God. It is an excellent work for those interested in reading more about it.

32. This doctrine of the excellence of virginity and of celibacy and of their superiority over the married state was, as We have already said, revealed by our Divine Redeemer and by the Apostle of the Gentiles; so too, it was solemnly defined as a dogma of divine faith by the holy council of Trent[10], and explained in the same way by all the holy Fathers and Doctors of the Church. Finally, We and Our Predecessors have often expounded it and earnestly advocated it whenever occasion offered.[11]

After the Second Vatican Council, the Church put a greater emphasis on marriage as a means to holiness. For this reason some have thought that virginity and celibacy should no longer be considered as better than marriage, but as equally good. But the Church never says this, and indeed continues to teach the opposite, that while marriage is a great good, consecrated virginity or celibacy is even greater.

Without in any way undervaluing human love and marriage—is not the latter, according to faith, the image and sharing of the union of love joining Christ and the Church?[12]  —consecrated chastity evokes this union in a more immediate way and brings that surpassing excellence to which all human love should tend.[13]

The reference to the nuptial union of Christ and the Church gives marriage itself its highest dignity: in particular, the sacrament of matrimony introduces the spouses into the mystery of Christ's union with the Church. However, the profession of virginity or celibacy enables consecrated persons to share more directly in the mystery of this marriage. While conjugal love goes to Christ the Bridegroom through a human union, virginal love goes directly to the person of Christ through an immediate union with him, without intermediaries: a truly complete and decisive spiritual espousal. Thus in the person of those who profess and live consecrated chastity, the Church expresses her union as Bride with Christ the Bridegroom to the greatest extent. For this reason it must be said that the virginal life is found at the heart of the Church.[14]


Similarly, Christ counsels poverty as a way to perfection, and promises a great reward to all who embrace it for his sake.

If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me. …

Every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or fathers or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life.[15]

As they taught the excellence of chastity, so the Fathers and Magisterium of the Church continued to teach the excellence of poverty dedicated to God.

Vigilantius asserts that they who retain the use of their property, and from time to time divide their incomes among the poor, do better than they who sell their possessions and lavish them in one act of charity. To him, not I, but God shall make answer, If thou wilt be perfect, "Go and sell." That which you so extol, is but the second or third grade; which we indeed admit, only remember that what is first is to be set before what is third or second.[16]

13. Religious should diligently practice… that voluntary poverty which is recognized and highly esteemed especially today as an expression of the following of Christ. By it they share in the poverty of Christ who for our sakes became poor, even though He was rich, so that by His poverty we might become rich (cf. 2 Cor. 8:9; Matt. 8:20)[17]


The counsel of obedience is not found as explicitly in the Scriptures. However, it can be drawn out from his statement to the young man, “If you wish to be perfect, go…. And come, follow me.”[18] Evidently those who followed him had to obey him in a way not required of all. They had to obey not just the general laws he laid down for all, but also his commands to them individually.[19]

When Jesus called disciples to follow him, he taught them the need for an obedience devoted to his person. This was not only a question of the common observance of the divine law and the dictates of a true and upright human conscience, but of a much greater commitment. Following Christ meant being willing to do all that he personally commanded and putting oneself under his direction in serving the Gospel for the coming of God's Kingdom (cf. Lk 9:60, 62).

Therefore, in addition to the commitment to celibacy and poverty, with his "Follow me," Jesus also asked for one of obedience, which extended to the disciples his own obedience to the Father in the condition of the Incarnate Word who became the "Servant of Yahweh".[20]

The three evangelical counsels

Now if each of these is good by itself, even more is it good to follow all three counsels: chastity, poverty, and obedience.

That man who by pledging his word to God obliges himself under vow to observe the counsels, does more than free himself from the snares which ordinarily slow men down on the way to holiness – fortune, the cares and duties of marriage, unbridled and limitless liberty – he approaches perfection by a route so direct and so easy that he seems already to have dropped anchor in the harbor of salvation.[21]

Even if by virtue of the clerical state itself, the evangelical counsels are not imposed on ecclesiastics in order that they may be really able to attain this holiness of life, nevertheless, these same counsels are open to them, just as to all the Christian faithful, as the surest way to reach the desired goal of Christian perfection.[22]

Often the following of the evangelical counsels is encompassed under the term “religious life”, and then religious life is said to be the better state of life.

The state of virgins consecrated to Jesus Christ, and who are entirely devoted to his divine love, is of all states the most happy and sublime.

… It is true that, even in the cloister, there are some discontented souls; for even in religion there are some who do not live as religious ought to live. To be a good religious and to be content are one and the same thing; for the happiness of a religious consists in a constant and perfect union of her will with the adorable will of God.

… God alone can content the heart of man. Whoever finds him possesses all things. Hence St. Scholastica said, that if men knew the peace which religious enjoy in retirement, the entire world would become one great convent; and St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi used to say that they would abandon the delights of the world and force their way into religion. Hence, also, St. Laurence Justinian says that “God has designedly concealed the happiness of the religious state, because if it were known all would relinquish the world and fly to religion.”[23]

Many more authorities could be produced to the same effect; religious life, or the way of the counsels, is in itself a better way to perfection. But what does that mean? Does it mean that everyone should be a religious? That a man or woman in religious life is always better than a man or woman not in religious life?

Because it is cumbersome constantly to speak about “religious life” and “other ways of life”, in this discussion we will take one particular way of life, marriage, and talk about religious life and marriage. These are also the alternatives most often considered when someone is thinking about his “vocation”.

On the one hand, simply the fact that religious life is better than marriage does not imply that it is better for every single person. We can make the general statement that steak is more nourishing than juice, but it does not follow that steak is more nourishing for every person. If someone is so allergic to it that it makes him sick, it is not nourishing for him at all. Similarly the fact that religious life is better than marriage does not imply that every person in religious life is better than every married person. On the other hand, religious life being better cannot simply mean that it is better for some people, e.g. those called to religious life. If we said that religious life is better than marriage because it is better for some people, on the same grounds we could say that marriage is better than religious life because it is better for some people. If the statement “religious life is a better way of life than marriage” really means something, there has to be more to it than that.

If we consider it abstractly, there are two ways we might be able to say that religious life is better than marriage; in one way with respect to quantity, in another way with respect to quality. With respect to quantity, we would say that religious life is better than marriage because it is better in general, that is, for most people. With respect to quality, we would say that religious life is better than marriage because religious life is much better for at least some people than marriage is for anyone, or almost anyone. (Cases of extraordinary circumstances being excepted.)

If religious life is better with respect to quality, in other words, if it offers to at least some people much more of an opportunity to attain great holiness than marriage offers to most people, we should expect more of the people who follow the counsels to become saints than the people who do not follow them. And this is certainly the case, for even though relatively few have followed the counsels, the majority of the saints have been among those who followed them.

The Church has always seen in the profession of the evangelical counsels a special path to holiness… It is not by chance that there have been so many consecrated persons down the centuries who have left behind eloquent testimonies of holiness and have undertaken particularly generous and demanding works of evangelization and service.[24]

...Religious communities are called to the duty of perfection, clearly expressed by Christ in his conversation with the young man: "If you wish to be perfect" (Mt 19:21).

Later, down the centuries, the Church's tradition has given a doctrinal and practical expression to these words. The state of perfection is not only theory. It is life. And it is precisely life that confirms the truth of Christ's words: do not the majority of canonized saints come from religious Orders or Congregations?[25]

But is religious life also better in general, that is, for most people? Or is it only better for a few who have been specially favored by God? There are many things in the above texts to suggest that it is better for most people. Christ says, “He who is able to accept this, let him accept it.” St. Paul similarly says, “it is well for them to remain single as I do, but if they cannot be continent, let them marry,” only restricting his advice to be single from those who are unable to do so properly. Blessed Pope John XXIII says that these counsels are open to all the Christian faithful as the surest way to reach the desired goal of Christian perfection. The saints St. Alphonsus cites also seem to indicate that basically everyone could be happiest in religious life.

If men knew the peace which religious enjoy in retirement, the entire world would become one great convent… they would abandon the delights of the world and force their way into religion… God has designedly concealed the happiness of the religious state, because if it were known all would relinquish the world and fly to religion.

There is, then, much evidence to suggest that religious life is better for people in general. But to investigate this question more carefully, we should look at the reasons for the excellence of religious life, to see whether they apply only to a few people, or to most. After that we will have to consider whether most people are able to live religious life, since if someone can’t live religious life, it is not better for him to do so.

The reasons for the excellence of religious life

“If you would be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” In light of these words of our Lord, religious life has always been recognized as a “way of perfection”. Being a “way of perfection” does not mean that it is a way for those who are perfect, but for those who “would be perfect,” a way for people to become perfect, a means to help them towards perfection. Why is this? How does the practice of the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty, and obedience help men in their efforts towards perfection?

Christian perfection consists essentially in charity, which unites us to God. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”[26] The other commandments are for the sake of charity, either prescribing things that follow from charity, as “Honor your father and your mother,”[27] or prohibiting things that are contrary to charity, as “You shall not kill.”[28]

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. The commandments, "You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet," and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.[29]

So charity is the goal, and the other commandments are means to reach this goal. They are not optional means, things that make it a little easier to preserve charity. They are necessary means. If we do not keep the commandments, we do not truly love God or neighbor, at least not with supernatural love. St. John goes so far as to say, “This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments.”[30]

Besides the commandments, other means are provided for the sake of charity, namely counsels. Chief among these are the three evangelical counsels, namely chastity, poverty, and obedience. As counsels, in contrast to commandments, they are not necessary means; we can have charity without them. But while they are not necessary, they are still helpful for increasing and preserving charity.

The holiness of the Church is fostered in a special way by the observance of the counsels proposed in the Gospel by Our Lord to His disciples. An eminent position among these is held by virginity or the celibate state… This perfect continency, out of desire for the kingdom of heaven, has always been held in particular honor in the Church. The reason for this was and is that perfect continency for the love of God is an incentive to charity, and is certainly a particular source of spiritual fecundity in the world.[31]

How do these counsels help us to grow in charity? By removing the delight that can be legitimately taken in earthly things, these counsels enable us to love God more. By removing the anxiety that arises in regard to these things, they enable us to attend to the things of God. Recall the parable of the sower, and the seed which fell among thorns, which is “he who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the delight in riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.”[32] The cares and delights of the world will not always choke the word and prevent it from bearing fruit. But even when they do not, they can still hinder it from growing as well it as it otherwise would. Thus taking away these cares and delights provides a more favorable state for the growth of the word. Finally, the evangelical counsels help us to give ourselves more perfectly to God.

There are then three basic ways in which these counsels help us towards the perfection of charity. They help us to restrain our attachments to earthly things, they help us to be attentive to the things of the God, and they give us a way to more fully give ourselves to God. We will consider each of these ways in turn.

Freedom from attachment to worldly things 

First, the evangelical counsels free our hearts for a greater love of God, and our neighbor for the sake of God. For by these three counsels we give up the things of this world, which can become obstacles to our love for God.

The things of this world are in themselves good. “God saw everything that he had made, and behold it was very good.”[33] Because they are good, we naturally love them, and there is nothing wrong with that. It would be wrong for us to love these things for their own sake, to make them our final goal. To make our ultimate aim to amass as much wealth as possible is incompatible with love for God. "No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”[34] About this kind of love St. John says, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world.”[35]

But even when we do not make the things of this world our final goal, they can still hinder our love for God. Because our human heart is so limited, the use of these things, though good, can make it harder to grow in love for God. Giving up these things, therefore, frees us for a greater love of God.

Now the things of this world are threefold; there are external goods, goods of the body, and goods of the soul. These are given up in a fundamental way by chastity, poverty, and obedience. By poverty one gives up one’s external goods; by chastity the greatest good of the body, which is found in the love between man and woman; and by obedience the goods of the soul. Thus, while these three counsels are not the only counsels, they are the most radical, and in a certain way contain many of the others, which involve giving up these goods only partly, or only for a time. For example, if someone gives alms, he gives up a part of his possessions; if someone abstains from sexual relations for a time to devote himself to prayer, he gives up sexual intercourse for a time.[36]

We can discover the bases of the economy of Redemption by reading the words of the first letter of St. John: "Do not love the world or the things in the world. If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever." (1 Jn 2:15-17)

Religious profession places in the heart of each one of you, dear brothers and sisters, the love of the Father: that love which is in the heart of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of the world. It is love which embraces the world and everything in it that comes from the Father, and which at the same time tends to overcome in the world everything that "does not come from the Father." It tends therefore to conquer the threefold lust. "The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life" are hidden within man as the inheritance of original sin, as a result of which the relationship with the world, created by God and given to man to be ruled by him, was disfigured in the human heart in various ways. 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"…

Against the background of the phrases taken from the first letter of St. John, it is not difficult to see the fundamental importance of the three evangelical counsels in the whole economy of Redemption. Evangelical chastity helps us to transform in our interior life everything that has its sources in the lust of the flesh; evangelical poverty, everything that finds its source in the lust of the eyes; and evangelical obedience enables us to transform in a radical way that which in the human heart arises from the pride of life.[37]

Freedom from anxiety over worldly things

Secondly, these three counsels take a man’s care and anxiety away from worldly things, allowing him to have undivided devotion to the Lord. For as man’s desires, so his cares are found especially in three things: external things, the care of which is taken away by poverty; a spouse and children, the care for whom is taken away by continence; and his own actions, the care of which is taken away by obedience.[38] Thus St. Paul says that it is better to be unmarried in order to be free from anxieties.

I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband.[39]

These reasons may seem negative, and in a way they are. However, they must be understood in a positive light; there is no point in giving things up unless one is seeking something better. For example, there is nothing good in itself about remaining unmarried. It would even be bad to remain single so as to be free to spend all one’s time in partying and self-indulgence. In order for it to be truly meaningful, one who refrains from giving his love to a human spouse must do so in order to give it more fully to God, and to all of his fellows on earth.

Total offering to God

Thirdly, by these three counsels, especially when confirmed by vow, one offers all he has to God; his exterior goods by poverty, his body by chastity, and his soul by obedience.[40] This reason is not independent of the previous two; indeed, it is only valid because of them. We cannot give up just anything good, and have it be an offering to God. Committing suicide, for example, is not making an offering of our lives to God. So it is first of all necessary that what we give up be something we can legitimately give up. But more than this, it is necessary for it to be given up for something better, something that helps us to draw near to God. It is only because the evangelical counsels in themselves provide the best means to draw near to God that by them we can make a total gift of ourselves to God.

This total gift of oneself to God, when accepted and confirmed by the Church, is a true consecration of the person to God.

Your vocation, dear brothers and sisters, has led you to religious profession, whereby you have been consecrated to God through the ministry of the Church, and have been at the same time incorporated into your religious family. Hence, the Church thinks of you, above all, as persons who are "consecrated": consecrated to God in Jesus Christ as His exclusive possession…

Religious profession creates a new bond between the person and the One and Triune God, in Jesus Christ. This bond develops on the foundation of the original bond that is contained in the Sacrament of Baptism. Religious profession "is deeply rooted in baptismal consecration and is a fuller expression of it." (25) In this way religious profession, in its constitutive content, becomes a new consecration: the consecration and giving of the human person to God, loved above all else. The commitment undertaken by means of the vows to practice the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience, according to the determinations proper to each religious family as laid down in the constitutions, is the expression of a total consecration to God and, at the same time, the means that leads to its achievement.

In thus giving oneself to God, one also makes God more directly the object of his thoughts and desires; he more explicitly takes God as his “chosen portion”.[41] This total self giving to God so as to possess him in turn is very much like marriage. When a man and a woman fall in love, he desires to give himself entirely to her, and to have her entirely as his own, and she likewise desires to give herself entirely to him, and to have him entirely as her own. So one who falls in love with God, desires to give himself entirely to him, and to have him as his own. Of course, God cannot be one’s own, one cannot possess him, in the same way as a woman can possess a man, and a man a woman! Nevertheless, the Church has always seen a very real likeness between consecrated virginity and marriage. Throughout Christian history, the virgin consecrated to God was called the bride of God; so also breaking one’s vows was considered a kind of adultery. St. Ambrose even defines a consecrated virgin in this way: “A virgin is one who marries God.”[42]

These reasons are certainly not exhaustive, but they are the most fundamental. There are other reasons for consecrated and religious life that are in some ways more important than these, but they are based upon these three reasons. For example, the profession of the evangelical counsels is “a sign which can and ought to attract all the members of the Church to an effective and prompt fulfillment of the duties of their Christian vocation.”[43] But this is because the religious “intends, by the profession of the evangelical counsels in the Church, to free himself from those obstacles, which might draw him away from the fervor of charity and the perfection of divine worship.”[44]

Now, on the one hand, these counsels of chastity, poverty, and obedience, being means to greater Christian charity, are to be subordinate to it. Thus charity may sometimes demand that one not follow them, and then one should not do so.

God does not desire that each and every man should observe all the counsels, but only such counsels as are suitable according to differences in persons, times, occasions, and abilities, as charity requires. It is charity, as queen of all virtues, all commandments, and all counsels, in short of all Christian laws and works, that gives all of them their rank, order, season, and value.

When your father or mother actually needs your help in order to live, it is no time to practice the counsel of retirement to a monastery. Charity requires that you actually put into execution its command to honor, serve, aid, and relieve your father or mother. You are a prince and by your line subjects of your crown are to be kept in peace and safe from tyranny, sedition, and civil war. Need for so great a good obligates you to beget lawful successors in holy marriage… Is your health weak, uncertain, and in need of great care? If so, do not voluntarily undertake actual poverty, since charity forbids it to you. Charity not only does not permit fathers of families to sell all things so as to give to the poor; it also commands them to accumulate honestly what is needed for the education and support of wife, children, and servants.[45]

On the other hand, these reasons for following the evangelical counsels do not apply only to a few specific men, but apply generally to men in their fallen condition. In general, to the degree that we use earthly things, it is harder to “rise above them”, to set our hearts on God alone. Similarly, to the degree that we are involved in these things, it is harder to raise our minds to God. “Man is established between the things of this world and spiritual goods, in which eternal happiness consists, so that to the degree he adheres more to one of them, so much does he recede more from the other, and conversely.”[46] Thus religious life is not better only for a select few, but is generally better. That is why Christ invites all to receive chastity who are able and promises the hundredfold reward to “every one who has left father or mother etc.,” and why John XXIII says that the counsels are open to all of the faithful as the surest road to Christian perfection.

Thus, when someone is fit for religious life, in the absence of specific reasons to think otherwise it can be assumed that it would be better for him if he chose it; and one should not hesitate to encourage him to do so. St. Thomas says, “those who bring others to religious life not only do not sin, but earn a great reward,”[47] adding only that they must not do it by force, bribes, or lies. Many other saints give similar advice.

28. Go on in your course, and run with perseverance, in order that ye may obtain; and by pattern of life, and discourse of exhortation, carry away with you into this same your course, whomsoever ye shall have had power.[48]

Outside the Exercises, we can lawfully and with merit influence every one who is probably fit, to choose continence, virginity, the religious life and all manner of evangelical perfection.[49]

Of course, it is necessary for someone to choose religious life for these reasons. If one were to choose religious life because one despised marriage, that would be a very bad reason, which has been condemned numerous times by the Church, e.g., “If any one shall remain virgin, or observe continence, abstaining from marriage because he abhors it, and not on account of the beauty and holiness of virginity itself, let him be anathema.”[50] Again, to choose religious life in order to be assured of a means of support, while not so bad as the previous reason, is an insufficient motive for choosing religious life. It is necessary to have a supernatural motive. In reference to perpetual celibacy, Christ says, “there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” Similarly one must choose religious life “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.”

2. Christ, in his statement, points out especially its finality. He says that the way of continence, to which his own life bore witness, not only exists and not only is it possible, but it is particularly efficacious and important for "the Kingdom of Heaven."… If Christ in his statement points out, before all else, the supernatural finality of that continence, he does so, not only in an objective sense. but also in a sense explicitly subjective-that is to say, he indicates the necessity of a motivation that corresponds adequately and fully to the objective finality implied by the expression "for the Kingdom". [51]


It is clear, then, that religious life is better in general. However, people sometimes talk about this excellence of religious life in such a way as to make it completely irrelevant. They say that religious life is indeed better in itself and in general, but that what is better in general is not important, only what is better for oneself, or only that to which one is called. If someone is called to marriage, then following God’s will by marrying, is just as good as for another person to follow God’s will by entering religious life. Therefore, they conclude, the excellence of religious life does not provide a motive to choose it.

However, there is a serious problem with this argument, namely that it is opposed to the intention of those who teach the superiority of religious life. For example, when St. Paul says, “He who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better,” he intends to give a motive for remaining unmarried. If the superiority of religious life were in no way a reason for choosing it, this superiority would be of merely speculative interest, and would not be offered in order to make people desire religious life. So there must be something not quite right about this argument.

Yet the argument is not entirely off-track. It is certainly true that we should make our choices based upon what is good in our particular circumstances. The mistake lies in too completely separating what is good in particular circumstances from what is good in general. In fact, we cannot determine what is good in particular circumstances without reference to what is good in itself, or in general. So the true conclusion to be drawn is not that the superiority of religious life does not provide a motive to choose it, but that it does not always provide a sufficient motive to choose it; circumstances may make something else better in a particular case.

Let us consider an analogous example. In general, driving a car is a quicker way to get somewhere than walking. However, if someone can take a much shorter route on foot than in a car, as by walking up a flight of stairs rather than driving 900 yards, he will reach his destination quicker by walking than by driving. Again, if someone can’t use the car, because he doesn’t know how to drive, or because he must go through twelve inches of mud, he will not reach his destination quicker in the car; in fact, he will not reach it at all. So in particular circumstances, walking may be quicker than driving. Nevertheless one cannot ignore the fact that the car is “in itself” a quicker means of travel; otherwise one would have no reason to drive the car down a highway rather than walk down it.

So given that religious life is better in general, what are the circumstances that would make another way of life better? There are two basic ways this can happen, and they correspond to the two examples with the car. First, there may be a special good that can only be attained by another way of life. Second, someone may be unable to attain the good of religious life, either because he cannot live it at all, or while being able to live it, still cannot live it well and fruitfully.

Some examples of the first: the king St. Francis de Sales speaks about, who must marry and raise heirs for the sake of peace; the soldier St. John Vianney advises; St. Norbert’s advice to the noble, St. Bernard on the other hand. It does not seem to be possible to prove directly whether there are few or many such cases. However, if there were very many such cases, the saints could not give, as they do give, a general recommendation of religious life to those capable and fit for it. Thus it appears that such cases are at least relatively rare, and one would need positive evidence for their existence. In other words, the mere possibility that there might be some great good one could accomplish outside religious life would not be a sufficient reason to refrain from entering. One would need positive evidence that such a great good could be accomplished.

[1]    Cf. Jn 17:3

[2]    General Audience, November 16, 1994

[3]    Mt 19:12.

[4]    1 Cor. 7:8

[5]    1 Cor. 7:38

[6]    St. Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Philadelphians (Syriac version) Ch IV

[7]    Athenagoras, A plea for the Christians, Chap. XXXIII, volume II, p. 146

[8]    The Pastor of Hermas, book II, Chap. IV, p. 22

[9]    Canons on the Sacrament of Matrimony, Can. 10, in Enchiridion Symbolorum, Henry Denzinger, Herder, 1976, n. 1810 (my translation)

[10]  Ibid.

[11]  Encyclical Letter Sacra Virginitas, Pius XII, March 25, 1954, The National Catholic Welfare Conference, p. 11

[12]  Cf. Gaudium et spes, 48, AAS, 58, 1966, pp. 1067-1069; cf. Eph 5:25, 32.

[13]  Paul VI, Apostolic Exhortation, June 29, 1971

[14]  Catechesis on consecrated life by John Paul II, November 23, 1994, John Paul II Speaks to Religious, pp. 209-210

[15]  Mt 19:21, 29  (Emphasis added)

[16]  Jerome cont. Vigilant. 15

[17]  Perfectae Caritatis

[18]  Cf. I-II 108-4 ad 3, also Redemptionis Donum, John Paul II

[19]  Cf. II-II 186-5 Sed Contra, also Redemptionis Donum

[20]  John Paul II, December 7, 1994, John Paul II Speaks to Religious, Vol VIII, p. 218

[21]  Apostolic Letter Unigenitus Dei Filius, Pius XI, March 19, 1924, to the Superiors General of religious Orders and of other Congregations for men, in The States of Perfection, The Daughters of St. Paul, 1967, n. 378

[22]  Encyclical Letter Sacerdotii Nostri Primordia, Pope John XXIII, August 1, 1959, A.A.S. (Acta Apostolicae Sedis) 51 (1959) p. 551 (my translation)

[23]  St. Alphonsus de Ligouri, The True Spouse of Jesus Christ, pp. 24, 50, 51

[24]  Vita Consecrata, n. 35, Pope John Paul II

[25]  Homily for the opening Mass of the Synod of bishops on the consecrated life, given by John Paul II on October 2, 1994, in John Paul II Speaks to Religious, Vol VIII, pp. 164-165.

[26]  Mt 22:37-40

[27]  Dt 5:16

[28]  Dt 5:17

[29]  Rom 13:8-10

[30]  1 John 5:3 (Emphasis added)

[31]  Lumen Gentium, Chapter V

[32]  Mt 13:22

[33]  Gen 1:31

[34]  Mt 6:24

[35]  1 John 2:15-16

[36]  Cf. ST I-II 108-4

[37]  Redemptionis Donum

[38]  Cf. ST II-II

[39]  1 Cor. 7:32-34

[40]  This last fact is the reason why this life is ‘consecrated’ life. These three reasons are given by St. Thomas in II-II 186-7.

[41]  Ps 16:5

[42]  Most properly God is said to be wedded to the Church, which is the bride of Christ, and here there is exclusivity. God unites himself to the Church alone inasmuch as the union of any individual person with God is by being in some way a member of the Church.

[43]  Perfectae Caritatis

[44]  Ibid.

[45]  On the Love of God, St. Francis de Sales, Book 8, Chapter 6

[46]  ST I-II 108 a4, corpus

[47]  II-II 189 a9

[48]  On the Good of Widowhood, St. Augustine, NPNF Vol. III, p. 453

[49]  Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius

[50]  Council of Ancyra

[51]  General Audience, March 31, 1982

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