Chapter 3: Comparison of the Two Approaches

In the previous chapter we examined two different ways of approaching the question of vocation, namely the objective way taken by St. Thomas, which is based on the goal of vocation, and the more subjective or personal way taken by St. Ignatius Loyola, which is based on the source of vocation. In this chapter we will compare these two approaches, noting both the advantages, and the possible disadvantages or dangers of each approach.

Advantages of the objective approach

St. Thomas’ approach to vocation has two significant advantages. First, it is more objective, having as its point of departure the objective evaluation of that which is to be chosen, and the factual condition and circumstances of the one who is making a choice. Due to this objectivity, one is less easily misled. When “the will precedes, and the intellect follows,” as happens in the first two times of choosing presented by St. Ignatius, there is a danger of one’s inclination not corresponding to the truth. And since our judgment about what is good is affected by our inclinations,1 this disordered or excessive inclination can lead to a false judgment about what is good. For this reason the official directory lays down the rule that the one to make a choice of a way of life should not have any attachment for an objectively less perfect way.

If it is perceived that he is inclined too much to wealth, and less to poverty, he would not be well disposed, nor would there be hope of a good outcome in the choice. For that affection which turns away from the more perfect way, and turns toward the less perfect, would move the intellect to come up with reasons corresponding to such an affection. And since, as the saying goes, whatever is received is received according to the manner of the receiver, it could easily happen that he would judge to be the will of God, what is in fact his own will.2

On account of this it is recommended that one not begin the time of decision in the spiritual exercises unless one possesses such indifference,3 lest one make a poor choice, and believe it to be the will of God. A good and wise spiritual director can be a safeguard against these dangers, and it is for this reason that St. Ignatius urges constant communication between the one making the exercises and the one giving them.4 Unfortunately, many persons are unable to find such a wise spiritual director.

The objection could be made that in matters such as these one should not be objective, since the relationship between God and a human person, where a vocation takes place, is a personal matter, not an objective one. But this objection overlooks the fact that a person is characterized by his ability to attain objective truth, and to order himself to it. If a love-relationship is to be truly personal, it must also be objective, in the sense of corresponding to the truth of the persons and matters involved. God speaks to the human heart, and seeks a response from it; but he speaks to it as a human heart (which implies a heart that is meant to relate to objective good), and seeks a corresponding response.

Secondly, as regards the vocation that in itself is the higher vocation, namely the vocation to follow the evangelical counsels, this approach more easily gives one certainty.5 It is not difficult to see why this is so. Since it is based on an objective evaluation, one does not need a special combination of factors in order to judge that following the counsels is the better thing to do. Since in themselves they are objectively better, one would need a special reason to say that following them is not the better thing to do. St. Thomas explains:

In things which are certain and determinate, counsel is not required... It is certain that in itself entering religious life is the better good.... Nevertheless if there is some specific impediment, such as bodily weakness or the burden of debts, or something similar, then deliberation is required, and counsel with those whom one hopes will help and not hinder one.6

With the other approach, however, which is based on the personal will of God, one seems to need a special reason to say that it is God’s will for one to choose this way of life. Simply the fact that it is better is not a good reason to do so. Thus in contrast to the usual way of explaining the evangelical counsels as being proposed to man’s free choice,7 von Balthasar, basing himself on the fact that a lover seeks most of all to do the will of his beloved, argues that one who loves God may not simply choose the way of the counsels, but will have to look first for God’s will.

Love does not impose itself and its self-giving on the beloved; it asks for the will and wish of the beloved, which determine the measure of its self-giving... The beloved alone determines, he only makes the choice of what one may give him... True love is ready to go each way, the harder or the easier way. It is ready to go the way of the commandments, or that of the counsels.8

He insists strongly that one may not “anticipate” God’s choice, by entering into the way of the counsels, but must wait until God speaks his will.

While the universal call to perfect Christian love goes out to all, the vocation to the external “state of perfection” is entirely based on the will of God, which chooses one for that state. The distinction of the states that the Lord makes, is determined so much by his choice, that even such as offer themselves to him to be his disciples, who believe themselves ready to follow him wherever he gives, he can turn away and send back into the secular state....

Indifference, as readiness for every manifestation of the divine will, is the expression of a love than which—before the Lord has declared his choice—no love could be thought more perfect. Such indifference, and not an anticipation of God’s choice by an autonomous entering upon the way of the vows, is the best possible attitude at this stage.9

This position, that one needs a special reason to say that it is God’s personal will for one to embrace religious life, is a somewhat natural conclusion of this way of approaching the issue. Nevertheless it is not a necessary conclusion, and in fact does not seem to be wholly in accord with St. Ignatius’ own understanding. St. Ignatius himself says that fewer signs of God’s will are required in order to embrace religious life than to marry: “Greater signs from God are needed for the commandments than for the counsels, inasmuch as Christ our Lord advises the counsels and points out the difficulty in the ownership of property that is possible in the commandments.”10 Again, he says that outside the Spiritual Exercises “we may lawfully and meritoriously urge every one who is probably fit, to choose continence, virginity, the religious life, and all manner of evangelical perfection.”11

The reason why it is not necessary to have special signs of God’s will, is that there exist not only special, but also general indicators of God’s will. Thus Christ’s counsels are general signs of his will for us. And so, if someone is wholly indifferent, and relies solely upon God’s will, he will follow the counsels, unless there are particular reasons not to follow them. In his Treatise on the Love of God, St. Francis de Sales describes how the indifferent heart is inclined to the counsels:

Indifference goes beyond resignation: for it loves nothing except for the love of God’s will... The indifferent heart is as a ball of wax in the hands of its God, ready to receive equally all the impressions of the eternal good-pleasure; it is a heart without choice, equally disposed for everything, having no other object of its will than the will of its God, and it does not place its love in the things that God wills, but in the will of God who wills them. For this reason, when God’s will is in several things, it chooses, at any cost, that thing in which it is most of all. God’s good-pleasure is for marriage and in virginity, but because it is more in virginity, the indifferent heart makes choice of virginity though this must cost it its life, as with St. Paul’s dear spiritual daughter St. Thecla, with St. Cecily, St. Agatha, and a thousand others. God’s will is for the service of the poor and of the rich, but yet somewhat more in serving the poor; the indifferent heart will choose that side. God’s will is in moderation practiced among consolations, and in patience among tribulations: the indifferent heart prefers the latter, as having more of God’s will in it.12

Since there are such general signs of God’s will, it does not necessarily follow, from the fact that one wants signs of God’s will, that one should seek special signs. St. Alphonsus seems to take the same general position as von Balthasar regarding the necessity of signs of God’s will. “Regarding the state to be chosen by an adolescent, let the confessor not presume to determine it for him; but from the signs of his vocation, let him take care to recommend to him that state to which he [the confessor] can prudently judge that he is called by God.”13 However, St. Alphonsus does not require special signs of God’s will for the one who desires to embrace religious life. In his account, two signs are required, which correspond to what St. Thomas requires: a good and firm intention, and the lack of impediments.

Let the confessor test well the vocation of his penitent, asking whether the penitent has some obstacle to it, due to incapacity, poor health, or the need of his parents. And let him especially weigh his purpose, to see if it is right, i.e., in order to unite himself more closely to God, or to amend the falls of his previous life, or to avoid the dangers of the world. But if the primary end is worldly—in order to lead a more agreeable life, or to free himself from relatives of an unfeeling character, or to please his parents, who push him to this—let him beware of permitting him to enter religious life. For in that case, it is not a true vocation, and entering in this way, without a true vocation, will have a bad outcome. But if the end is good, and no obstacle is present, then neither the confessor, nor anyone else, as St. Thomas teaches (Quodlib. 3, art. 14), should or can without grave fault impede him, or attempt to dissuade him from the vocation.14

Here St. Alphonsus is considering the signs from the point of view of the confessor, who is in the position of advising a youth. But on the basis of the same signs, he says that a youth himself can judge that he has a vocation.

There is a true vocation whenever the following three things concur. First, a good end, namely, to get away from the dangers of the world, the better to insure eternal salvation, and to unite oneself more closely to God. Secondly, that there is no positive impediment due to poor health, lack of talents, or some necessity on the part of one’s parents, in regard to which matters the subject ought to quiet himself by leaving all to the judgment of the superiors, after having exposed the truth clearly. Thirdly, that the superiors admit him. Now, whenever these three conditions are truly present, the novice ought not to doubt that his vocation was a true one.15

St. Alphonsus here adds a third condition for a true vocation, namely the acceptance by superiors. This official approval is an important aspect of vocation, especially vocation to the consecrated life or to the priesthood. God does not call us to holiness simply as individuals, but as members of the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ. And for this reason, it is the task of the Church to test and to ratify a vocation. Someone may feel called to the priesthood, yet not be accepted by the Church for this sacred position, because of his state or condition—e.g., because he is married, or because he suffers from serious psychological problems. Generally, such a person should humbly accept his situation and this decision of the Church as the will of God. Far from being a rejection of God’s inspiration, this humble obedience to the Church is a sign that his desire was from God, while a refusal to obey would be a sign that his desire was not inspired by God. “When God puts inspirations into a heart, the first he gives is obedience.... Whosoever says he is inspired, and yet refuses to obey his superiors and follow their advice, is an impostor.”16 It is in fact sometimes good and right to persevere in the face of opposition from Church officials, and it can be hard to draw the line between this kind of perseverance and simple disobedience. Yet as a matter of principle, it is important for us to distinguish between a laudable perseverance in the face of opposition, and a wrongful disobedience. To discuss this distinction in detail would take us well beyond the scope of this little work on vocation. But in the end, we must remain obedient to the Church, whatever our vocation may be.

Approval by the Church is not as essential for the vocation to marriage as for the vocation to the consecrated life or the priesthood. Yet also in the vocation to marriage, one must be obedient to the Church. If the Church does not permit a marriage between a certain man and woman, for example, that means that they are not called to that marriage, however they may feel about it. And again, once one has entered into marriage, it is necessary to follow the directives and guidelines of the Church in regard to marriage and the upbringing of children.

Though this ratification of a vocation by the Church is very important, it usually comes as a kind of completion of a vocation, rather than at the beginning of it. Just as it would be unusual for a woman to give her consent to marry a man before he expresses his love for her, so it would be unusual for superiors to give their approval to a vocation before a person actually seeks admission to a religious community or to a seminary. In a few cases it is clear that the Church cannot or will not give its approval, as in the case of a man baptized and raised Roman Catholic, who is validly married, and now desires to be a priest. But in most cases, one first makes a personal discernment and decision regarding vocation, and then seeks approval from the Church. And for this reason, though one should always keep the precepts and directives of the Church in mind, it is the first two elements listed by St. Alphonsus that are most relevant for someone who is seeking his vocation: his heart’s purpose or resolve, and his freedom from impediments.

If to the second condition mentioned by St. Alphonsus, that one be free from impediments, we add that one have whatever positive qualities are needed to make one fit for the way of life, then we have the conditions that the Church gives both as the requirements for entering religious life, and as the signs of vocation to it. Pope Pius XI writes that a priestly vocation is manifested by the combination of a right intention together with the qualities that make someone suited for the priesthood.

This readiness to carry out the sacred duties, [i.e., a vocation] is, as you well know, Venerable Brothers, not established so much by some inner inducement of conscience and sensible feeling, which may sometimes be absent, but rather by the right aim and intention in those who desire the priesthood, joined to those physical qualities and spiritual virtues, which make them suitable for embracing this state of life.17

This same point is repeated later by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, in an instruction on the selection and training of candidates for consecrated life.

In the free acceptance of this counsel [to the religious life] there is discerned the special call from God or the movement of the Holy Spirit, who interiorly enlightens and inspires a person, who has the other qualifications, to pursue the evangelical counsels or to embrace the priesthood. For the divine inspiration required by St. Pius X in a true vocation,18 or that marked attraction for sacred duties mentioned by Pius XI in his encyclical letter, Ad Catholici Sacerdotii,19 is discerned in their right propensity and intention of mind or the choice of their free will (cf. can. 538),20 rather than in an inner urging of conscience and sensible attraction which may be lacking.21

As this point tends to be overlooked or misunderstood, it bears some emphasizing. These conditions are not merely legal requirements for being accepted into religious life, but are authentic signs of the vocation itself—in a certain sense they even constitute the vocation (insofar as they are the things by which God manifests his will and leads someone to a particular state in life). And of these elements, it is the firm will and intention to live a particular state of life (assuming that the choice is legitimate and good in itself) which pertains most properly to the divine vocation. St. Francis de Sales even says that such a firm will is a vocation.

A true vocation is nothing other than 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. This is the best mark one could have to know when a vocation is true.22

This firm will should not be confused with a feeling of wanting to continue pursuing a path; it is rather the voluntary resolve to do so.

When I say “a firm and constant will to serve God,” I do not mean that from the very beginning she would do everything that is necessary in her vocation with such a firmness and constancy of will that she is free of all repugnance, difficulty or distaste in what depends upon her.... Every human person is subject to such passions, changes, and ups and downs.... We must not judge the firmness and constancy of the will for a good that was earlier embraced, on the basis of such emotions and feelings. But we must consider whether among the variety of different feelings the will remains firm to the point of not leaving behind the good that it has embraced. Even if she feels disgusted or very cold in her love for any virtue, she doesn’t on that account stop using the means that are laid down for her to acquire it. So to have the mark of a true vocation, it need not be a sensible constancy, but one that is in the highest part of the spirit, one such as produces effects.23

St. Francis de Sales makes the point repeatedly: for a true vocation, what is necessary is not a multitude of virtues, or a disposition to practices of devotion, but a resolution to work perseveringly towards perfection.

We need not expect that those who enter religious life will be immediately perfect; it is enough for them to tend to perfection, and to embrace the means for growing in perfection. And in order to do this, it is necessary to have this firm and constant will such as I spoke of, to embrace all the means of growing in perfection that are proper to the vocation in which one is called.... If you see that she has this constant will of wanting to serve God and to grow in perfection, you may give her your vote; for if she is willing to receive the helps that our Lord will infallibly give her, she will persevere.... Consider a daughter who has strong passions; she is quick-tempered, she commits many faults; if together with this, she really wants to be healed, and wants people to correct her, mortify her, and give her the proper remedies for her healing, however much taking these things causes her anger and difficulty, you must not refuse her your vote.24

Potential disadvantage of the objective approach—marriage as a vocation

Does this approach to the choice of a state of life allow for marriage as a vocation? On first consideration, it might seem that it does not. For objectively, the consecrated state is the higher state. St. Thomas compares the way of religious life to the other ways as specific to common, inasmuch as the religious life employs special means by which better to attain perfection. “There are two ways of proceeding in the active life: the common way, by means of the commandments; and a specific way, by means of the counsels.”25 Thus a way such as marriage seems simply to coincide with the Christian way itself, which is aimed at the love of God and neighbor, and guided by the commandments. St. Thomas compares this way of life to religious life as the general way to a more specific and better way.

The commandments taken absolutely, stand to the observance of the commandments with the counsels and the observance of the commandments without the counsels, as a genus to species, just as not-committing adultery stands to not-committing adultery in virginity and not-committing adultery in marriage; and going is common to going by horse and going on foot.26

Thus there does not seem to be a vocation to marriage, as in any way above and beyond, or specifying the general Christian vocation—it is simply possible to live the Christian vocation in marriage. And consistently with this view, St. Thomas does not speak of a vocation to marriage, but only of vocation to conversion or grace (the usual sense in which he speaks of vocation),27 and vocation to the more perfect following of Christ by means of the evangelical counsels.28

Before pursuing this point, we should note that the difficulty does not really arise from taking as one’s point of departure the objective character and value of the ways of life rather than the will of God, but from taking seriously the superiority of the religious state as a better means of conforming oneself to Christ, and attaining perfection in love. If God’s will and call for all of us is our sanctification and perfection, does he not specially favor and call those whom he calls to the religious state, and therefore is this not a “vocation” in a special sense? Von Balthasar, who continually emphasizes that the distinction of states, both in general and for any particular person, has its origin in God’s will, goes so far as to describe the vocation to marriage or the lay-vocation as a “not-being-called” to the evangelical state.

The call to the state of election is a qualified, special, differentiated call, to which no equally qualified call to the secular state corresponds; rather, in comparison with the state of election, the secular state is distinguished by a not-being-called in this qualified sense.

... Because it is the instituting will of the Church’s founder that the state of those who are called out remain a continual minority in comparison with the common state of believers in the world, it is therefore equally his instituting will that the many who are not called to this special state remain in the common secular state. This instituting will, which does not allow one to consider the secular state as a mere negation of the state of election, but makes it into a real state in the realm of salvation and of the church, cannot, however, be construed as a second call of the Lord that is of equal rank with the first. Being placed in the secular state can only be described as a not-being-called to a qualitatively superior mission.29

Pope John Paul II also distinguishes the sense in which there is a vocation to the religious state from the sense in which there is a vocation to marriage. Men and women are naturally ordered to marriage, and in this sense need no special vocation by which they are called to marriage, whereas they are not naturally ordered to the state of consecrated celibacy or virginity, and so need a special grace or calling to embrace this state.30

A man and a woman leave their father and mother and join themselves to their own husband or wife to begin a new family (cf. Gn 2:24). The Book of Genesis presents this vocation of the human creature in the simplest but very significant words. At a certain moment in life, the young person, male or female, perceives this call and becomes aware of it. Of course, it is a different call from a priestly or religious vocation, for which a special invitation on Christ’s part, a personal call to follow him is decisive: “Follow me!” (Mt 4:19)31

Let us now consider the question more precisely from St. Thomas’ point of view. The goal of Christian life is love for God and neighbor. How does this goal relate to vocation? A vocation, or call, is that by which God leads us somewhere. “Vocation or calling implies a certain leading to something.”32 There is “a certain calling into existence through creation.”33 But most properly, God calls us when he leads us to himself. “There is a temporal calling to grace.”34 Now there are various means, both external and internal, by which God leads us to himself. “This calling is either interior, by means of the influx of grace, or is exterior, by means of a preacher’s words.”35 St. Thomas here speaks of vocation insofar as it is that whereby God leads us to grace and to love. Corresponding to this, we can also call grace and love a vocation, or say that we are called to grace and love, insofar as God leads us to it.

There are two ways in which this sense of vocation is extended in regard to states of life: first, when we say that a state of life, such as religious life or marriage, is a vocation; secondly, when we speak of a vocation to a state of life, such as religious life or marriage. The first extension of vocation is made insofar as the states of life are means that God gives us, by which he leads us to grow ever more in love for him, and finally to be perfectly united with him in glory. Thus they are paths through which he leads us to himself. In this way it is integral to the Catholic teaching on marriage to regard it as a Christian vocation. Marriage is unquestionably a means to grow in virtue and in love of God and neighbor, both due to its natural character, and as a sacrament. St. Thomas would therefore without hesitation recognize marriage as a vocation in this sense; he simply does not use vocation to refer to a state of life itself, whether the religious state or the married state.

The second extension of the term vocation is made insofar as God, by means of grace, the infused virtues, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, does not lead and guide us only to the act of love itself, but also to the means by which we act in accordance with love, and grow in love. Thus whenever we are moved to a determinate action or choice by means of these grace-given virtues and gifts of the Spirit, we can say that we are called to that action or choice (though the word “call” tends to be more often used in reference to a more permanent state of life). Therefore when the love of God moves someone to commit himself to a state of life, we can say that he is called to that state of life. On the other hand, when someone is moved by other motives to a state of life, we cannot so properly say that he is called to that state.36

Therefore, if one can be moved by the love of God and neighbor to marriage, and if marriage is a means to grow in love of God and neighbor, then men and women are called to marriage, and marriage is a vocation. But one can marry out of true Christian love, and marriage is a means to grow in that love, and therefore marriage is a vocation, and some men and women are called to marriage. In our own times, Karol Wojtyła argues in this way that marriage is a vocation insofar as it is, as it ought to be, a commitment made out of love.

A vocation always means some principal direction of love of a particular man or woman... The process of self-giving remains most intimately united with spousal love. A person then gives himself to the other person. Therefore, both virginity and marriage understood in a deep personalistic way, are vocations.37

A further distinction should be made in regard to vocation in this sense. One can be moved by the love of God and neighbor to marriage in two ways: first, love of God could demand that one marry, or marriage could be most in accordance with this love; secondly, love of God could in fact be the motivation for one’s marriage, without marriage being the choice most in accordance with this love. In the second way, everyone who loves God, since he loves him above all things, also orders marriage to the love of God, unless his desire or choice of marriage is sinful and disordered. This necessarily follows from the Catholic teaching that marriage is good. And it is true even of those many people who, in the words of St. Ignatius, “choose first to marry, which is a means, and secondarily to serve God our Lord in the married life, which service of God is the end.”38 Even these people at least virtually order their choice to God, and could actually do so. Nonetheless, love of God is not the determining factor in their choice.

Now to choose marriage in this way is not evil, but it is not the best way of choosing marriage. And recognition of this fact lies behind some of the seemingly negative statements about marriage that we may find in the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, statements which might seem to show a lack of esteem for marriage as a holy means for growing in and practicing love of God and neighbor. Many of these negative statements actually originate in a honest recognition of the fact that most people who choose to marry do not do so because they consider it the best means of serving God, but for other motives, and again, that many married persons do not order their whole married life to the love and service of God. We should then not take these statements as denigrating marriage itself, but as criticisms of the material and worldly manner in which many marriages are lived.39

Love of God can also move someone to marriage in a different way, if one sees marriage not only as compatible with and capable of being ordered to the love of God, but as required by or at least most in accordance with this love. It does not necessarily follow from the Catholic teaching that marriage is good, that love of God demands that one marry, or even that marriage is often most in accordance with this love. And on this point, it does seem that St. Thomas, as well as St. Alphonsus and many other Doctors of the Church, considers it rare that marriage is most in accordance with perfect love of God, at least for those people who are capable of chastely abstaining from marriage.40 Speaking about the necessity of perpetual chastity for perfection, St. Thomas remarks that it is presumptuous to suppose that one does not personally need the better means for attaining perfection, namely perfect chastity.

The second way to perfection, by which a man may be more free to devote himself to God, and to cling more perfectly to him, is the observance of perpetual chastity... The way of continence is most necessary for attaining perfection... Abraham had so great spiritual perfection in virtue that his spirit did not fall short of perfect love for God on account either of temporal possessions or of married life. But if another man who does not have the same spiritual virtue strives to attain perfection while retaining riches and entering into marriage, his error in presuming to treat Our Lord’s words as of small account will soon be demonstrated.41

Does this position regarding marriage necessarily follow from the way that St. Thomas considers the ways of life, viz. according to their suitability as means of attaining the Christian goal? No, for though in general life according to the counsels is better than the married life, in particular cases or for particular persons marriage may be better. “Though it may be said in general that for an individual man it is better to practice continence than to enter into marriage, nothing prevents marriage from being better for a particular person.”42 There are a number of reasons that would in particular cases make marriage the best means for someone to live out his vocation to love. First of all, there is the possibility that God will give him evident miraculous signs that lead him to marriage, or in some other way make it evident that he should do so. In such a case, when God’s will is made directly evident, then one can and should follow his will as manifested, even if one would otherwise have made a different judgment about what was best and what God’s will was. (This case corresponds to St. Ignatius’ first time for choosing a state of life.)

Secondly, some persons, on account of a special relationship to the common good, can accomplish the most good for the Church by marrying, and so are called to marriage. St. Thomas does not explicitly mention this case, but it is in accordance with his principles. St. Francis de Sales observes:

God does not want each person to observe all the counsels, but only those that are appropriate to the diversity of persons, times, occasions, and abilities, as charity requires.... Perhaps you are a prince, by whose posterity the subjects of your crown should be preserved in peace, and assured against tyranny, sedition, and civil wars; the occasion, therefore, of so great a good, obliges you to beget legitimate successors in a holy marriage.43

Thirdly, some persons are unable to live according to the counsels, either being incapable of really putting their heart into such a life, or for some other reason incapable of living such a life well. They will do better to live a life that they are capable of living, and of putting their heart into living as a way of serving God and neighbor, than to attempt to live a life of which they are not capable, or to which they are not able to give their whole heart.

The evangelical counsels considered in themselves are advantageous for all; but due to some people being poorly disposed, it happens that they are not advantageous for these people, because their heart is not inclined to them. Hence the Lord, in proposing the evangelical counsels, always makes mention of man’s fitness for observing the counsels. For in giving the counsel of perpetual poverty (Mt. 19:21), he begins by saying: “If you would be perfect,” and then adds: “Go, sell all that you have.” Similarly, in giving the counsel of perpetual chastity, when he said: “There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 19:12), he immediately added: “He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.” And similarly the Apostle, after giving the counsel of virginity, says: “I say this for your benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you” (1 Cor. 7:35).44

This third category of persons called to marriage comprises by far the greatest number. There are some who see the beauty of the religious life, and consider living that life themselves, and may even enter for a time, yet who find themselves incapable of putting their heart wholly into such a life—in some cases they may see reasons why they are incapable of doing so, in other cases they may not see the reasons, but simply the fact. There are others who cannot even see the beauty and goodness of religious life in such a way as to be moved to love it; they may acknowledge its goodness in an abstract manner, but not perceive it concretely, in such a way that it draws their heart. While various natural and psychological factors may contribute to this difference between persons, the ultimate cause of the perception of religious life’s beauty and value, and the desire to live it, is from God. Pope John Paul II interprets Christ’s statement, “Not all men [can] grasp45 this saying, but only those to whom it is given,” (Mat 19:11) in reference to this necessary divine enlightenment.

Jesus calls attention to the gift of divine light necessary to “understand” the way of voluntary celibacy. Not all can understand it, in the sense that not all are “able” to grasp its meaning, to accept it, to put it into practice. This gift of light and decision is only granted to some. It is a privilege granted them for the sake of a greater love. We should not be surprised then if many, not understanding the value of consecrated celibacy, are not attracted to it, and often are not even able to appreciate it. This means that there is a diversity of ways, charisms, and functions, as Saint Paul recognized, who spontaneously wished to share his ideal of virginal life with all. Indeed he wrote: “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each,” he adds, “has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another” (1 Cor 7:7).46

There are several mistakes into which we can easily fall when considering this question. One mistake is to think that every person is called to the life according to the counsels, and that if he chooses not to live this way, it is always due either to a lack of love or virtue on his part, to presumption, or to ignorance. In other words, either he does not love God enough to follow the better path, he thinks he is already virtuous enough not to need the help of the evangelical counsels, or he is ignorant that the counsels offer a superior way to grow in the love of God. We might be led to this position by an overly simple understanding of the necessity of the counsels, which are proposed universally as the better means for attaining Christian perfection and serving God. Thus St. Alphonsus says to a woman seeking advice, “If you resolve not to become a religious, I cannot advise you to enter the married state, for St. Paul does not counsel that state to any one, except in case of necessity, which I hope does not exist for you.”47 He seems to take the position that it is only better to marry if one is in fact incapable of being chaste without marriage. St. Thomas as well, perhaps as a result of reacting to those who deny the value of the counsels, may overstate the necessity of the counsels as a means for perfection, when he calls it presumptuous to seek perfection without embracing celibacy. (See above, page 16.)

A second mistake is to think that every person who marries has a vocation to marriage, or that it was the most perfect thing for him to do. In fact, many people choose to marry either without thinking about whether it is the best thing to do, or without caring. “Many choose first to marry, which is a means, and secondarily to serve God our Lord in the married life, which service of God is the end.”48 The renunciation asked by the evangelical counsels is difficult, and because many people are not willing to do all that is necessary in order to follow this path, or are in some other way led astray; “many are called, but few are chosen” (Mt. 22:14).

A third mistake is to make a comparison of marriage and religious life simply on the basis of the existence of diverse vocations—to consider the fact that marriage is better for some people, and they are called to marriage, and that religious life is better for others, and they are called to it—and thereby to conclude that the two ways are basically equally good ways of growing in virtue and in love. It is true that all are called to holiness, and that those who are called to marriage (in the stricter sense of vocation) will do better to marry than to enter religious life. But still, religious life offers to those who are called to it, a better means for attaining holiness. The Second Vatican Council, while remarking that seminarians “ought rightly to acknowledge the duties and dignity of Christian matrimony, which is a sign of the love between Christ and the Church,” goes on to say that they should “recognize the surpassing excellence of virginity consecrated to Christ.”49 Pope Paul VI, too, while noting the importance of promoting the universal call to holiness, warns against losing sight of the superiority of religious life.

It must be admitted that the doctrine of the universal vocation of all the faithful to holiness (regardless of their position or social situation), has been put forth very much in modern times, and indeed rightly so... All these things are happening by the counsel of Divine Providence, and that is why We rejoice over such salutary undertakings.

However, we must be on guard lest, for this very reason, the genuine notion of religious life as it has traditionally flourished in the Church, should become obscured, and youth, when they think about choosing of a way of life, be in some way hindered, due to their not distinctly and clearly perceiving the special function and immutable importance of the religious state within the Church... This state, which receives its proper character from profession of the evangelical vows, is a perfect way of living according to the example and teaching of Jesus Christ. It aims at the growth of charity, and its final perfection. In contrast, the specific ends, advantages and functions proposed in other ways of life, though they are legitimate in themselves, are temporal.50

The Church has always taught that the life according to the evangelical counsels is not only superior in itself, inasmuch as it is a life more like that of Christ himself, but also inasmuch as it is a better way to achieve the goal of Christian life, which is holiness. In Vita Consecrata, Pope John Paul II summarizes this tradition of the Church.

The Church has always seen in the profession of the evangelical counsels a special path to holiness. The very expressions with which it describes it—the school of the Lord’s service, the school of love and holiness, the way or state of perfection—indicate the effectiveness and the wealth of means which are proper to this form of evangelical life, and the particular commitment made by those who embrace it. 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.51

This teaching of the Church, that the counsels are better means for growing in love, is not merely an abstract and speculative truth. It is a practical truth that is very relevant to the question of whether to follow them or not. It is the reason why St. Ignatius says that more evident signs are required in order to conclude that God is calling one to ordinary Christian life in the world, than to conclude that God is calling one to embrace the evangelical counsels.52 Again, one who does not know his vocation, but who could be called to religious life—i.e., could be called if if he is open to it, and disposes himself to receive the call—would do well to pray for this higher calling, and take other steps towards this goal. Again, some clearly see that marriage and religious life are both possible vocations for them, and in such cases the better choice is in general religious life. Von Balthasar gives a good description of some of these situations in which the one who is discerning may find himself.

Many a youth, in considering his state, draws near the region of the special call; the call itself does not follow, but he knows that he is not forbidden from drawing ever closer to that region, in which the call may, or even probably will be heard. But he turns aside too soon, and consequently does not hear it... But it can also happen, that he moves into the region of the qualitatively superior call, draws within “calling range” of God, yet the call—by reason of its objective form, and not merely by reason of the imperfect way in which it is heard—allows him the choice to follow it or not to follow it. He sees quite factually: there is the usual way, and I am not forbidden to go along it. Yet this form of call lacks the magnetic attraction with which other forms draw one irresistibly to themselves.53

Advantage of the personal approach

As was said above, the point of departure St. Ignatius takes for considering the choice of a state of life is that of one who wants “to seek and find the divine will as to the management of his life for the salvation of his soul.”54 The attention to the divine will is so important that the one giving the exercises should not try to influence the one making the exercises, even to make a choice that is most excellent in itself, but should “allow the Creator to act immediately with the creature, and the creature with its Creator and Lord.”55

St. Ignatius’ approach to the choice of a state of a life, which puts the question in terms of seeking God’s personal will for us, has the evident and substantial advantage of focusing on God as one with whom we are united in charity, the most proper act of which is to seek that which is pleasing to God.56 Charity is a love of friendship with God. Now what distinguishes the love of friendship from other forms of love, is that “in the love of friendship, the lover is in the beloved insofar as he considers what is good or bad for his friend as good or bad for himself, and considers his friend’s will as his own will.”57 Thus charity does not primarily seek God insofar as he is attainable by and good for us, but seeks God’s own good in himself, and therefore also God’s will, since the proper object of his will is his goodness. In his commentary on John’s Gospel, St. Thomas explains the connection between love and obedience to God’s will.

Since to love someone is to will him good and to desire what he wills, he does not seem truly to love, who does not do the will of his beloved, and does not perform the things he knows that he wills. Therefore he who does not do the will of God, does not seem truly to love him; and therefore Christ says, “He who has my commandments and keeps them, is he who loves me” (Joh 14:21), that is, is he who has true love for me.58

This attitude, of seeking God’s will in all things, is better than the simple desire of attaining our own perfection and happiness. While it is true that God desires our sanctification and our perfection, and therefore to seek perfection is to seek what God seeks, this is not the best way to consider the matter, since love for our own perfection as such is love for ourselves, while love for our perfection as willed by God, is love for God. St. Francis de Sales remarks:

The counsels are indeed given for the benefit of him who is counseled, so that he may be perfect: “If you would be perfect,” said the Saviour, “go sell all that you have, and give it to the poor, and follow me.” But the loving heart does not receive a counsel for its utility, but to conform itself to the desire of him who gives the counsel, and to render him the homage due to his will.59

To the extent that we possess more perfectly this attitude of charity, which seeks God’s will more than its own, we can say with the Apostle St. Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). And St. Paul was even willing for a time (and perhaps altogether) to be separate from Christ, if that were to be pleasing to Christ’s will. “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race” (Rom 9:3). St. John Chrysostom comments on this text of St. Paul:

He means: on this account I am weary, and if I were to be separated from the company about Christ, and to be alienated, not from the love of him—that be far from him, since even all of this he was doing out of love—but from all that enjoyment and glory, I would accept it, provided my Master were not to be blasphemed... I would gladly lose even the kingdom and that unutterable glory, and undergo all necessary sufferings, as considering it the greatest consolation of all, no longer to hear him whom I so long for, so blasphemed.

... “For I could wish that I myself were accursed.” What does the “I myself” mean? It means I who have been a teacher of all, who have gathered together countless good deeds, who am waiting for countless crowns, who desired him so much, as to value his love above all things, who all my days am burning for him, and hold all things of second importance to the love of him. For even being loved by Christ was not the only thing he cared for, but loving him exceedingly also. And this last he cared most for.60

Potential disadvantage of the personal approach—apparently irreparable consequences of missteps in a vocation

If we consider the choice of a state of life as obedience to the will of God who calls us to that state, it seems that not choosing that state of life is direct disobedience to the will of God, and therefore a grave fault. And indeed, St. Ignatius suggests this in his directory dictated to P. Vitoria, where he indicates that sometimes a calling is so evident that one is under obligation to follow it.

Not everyone can be a religious. The Lord says, “He who can take it, let him take it” (Mt 19:12), giving to be understood that there are some who cannot, and that those who can take it, if they want to be perfect, or in a certain sense even if they want simply to be saved, are obliged to take it, for it appears to be a precept inasmuch as he says, “He who can take it, let him take it”—in a case where they judge that they would be unable to keep the law of God our Lord in the world, or where the obviousness of their calling obliges them to follow it.61

Moreover, if we look at some of those who follow St. Ignatius’ approach to vocation and the choice of a state of life, we can see a certain tendency to regard a vocation as involving a grave necessity of following it, and the failure to follow a vocation as a nearly irreparable mistake. We will consider in particular the positions of St. Alphonsus de Liguori, and Hans Urs von Balthasar.

St. Alphonsus

St. Alphonsus de Liguori asserts very emphatically the importance of following one’s vocation; if one does not follow his vocation, it will be possible to live well, but extremely difficult.

To enter into any state of life the divine vocation is necessary. For without this, if it is not impossible, it is at least most difficult to satisfy the obligations of that state and to be saved.62

St. Alphonsus gives two reasons for this. First, God in his providence has provided a certain path by which he desires one to attain salvation, and in which he has provided the means for attaining it. Thus, one who does not follow his vocation is not on the path intended by God, and does not have the means he ought to have for attaining salvation.

It is clear that our eternal salvation depends principally on the choice of our state... In regard to choosing a state, if we want to make sure of our eternal salvation, we must follow the divine vocation, where alone God has prepared efficacious helps to save us... This is exactly the order of predestination described by the same Apostle: “He whom he predestined, he also called; and those whom he called, he also justified... and those he also glorified.”... Upon vocation follows justification, and upon justification follows glorification, namely eternal life. He who places himself outside of this chain of salvation will not be saved. With all the efforts and with everything else that one will do, St. Augustine will say to him: “You run well, but outside of the way,” namely outside of the way through which God will have called you to walk, in order to attain to your salvation. The Lord does not accept the sacrifices offered from one’s own inclination: “For Cain and his offering he had no regard.” Rather, he enjoins great punishment on those who want to turn their backs to their calls, to follow the plans of their own inclination: “Woe to the rebellious children,” says the Lord through Isaiah, “who carry out a plan, but not from me; and who make a league, but not by my spirit!”63

Secondly, one who does not follow his vocation despises God who calls him, and so is in turn punished by God with the loss of his light and grace for living well.

Divine calls to a more perfect life are certainly special and very great graces that God does not give to all. Therefore he has much reason to be indignant with him who slights them. How offended does a prince consider himself, if he calls one of his vassals to serve him more closely and as his favorite in his palace, and he does not obey! And will not God resent it? Ah, only too much does he resent it and utter threats, saying, “Woe to him who strives with his maker!” “Woe” in the Scriptures signifies eternal perdition....

To such as these, as rebels against the divine light (as the Holy Spirit says: “They were rebels against the light; they did not know his ways”), justly has been given the punishment of losing the light; and since they did not want to walk on the way indicated to them by the Lord, they will walk on the way chosen by their own will, without light, and thus they will perish... Therefore, when God calls to a more perfect state, he who does not want to put his eternal salvation in great danger, ought to obey, and obey quickly.64

Nevertheless, St. Alphonsus recognizes that sometimes God in his providence allows someone to choose a way of life without a vocation, for the sake of that person’s own good. At least, he speaks of this possibility as regards a way of life that in itself is better, such as the religious or monastic life.

You will answer me: “How can I be content, if I was not called to this state?” But what does it matter if at the beginning you were not called? Although you did not become a nun by divine vocation, it is nevertheless certain that God permitted that for your welfare; and if he did not call you then, at the present time he certainly calls you to belong completely to him.65

St. Alphonsus is not very demanding in regard to the signs of a vocation to religious life, however. As noted above, he considers a good intention, the lack of obstacles, and acceptance by superiors as sufficient signs of vocation.66

Von Balthasar

Von Balthasar similarly stresses the necessity of following one’s call, even though that to which one is called is not an “obligation.” The call is an expression of God’s personal choice, proceeding from his infinite love, and so to reject the call is to fail in love. Indeed, it seems at times that the less obligation God imposes of following his will, the more necessary it is to follow it.

The more love reveals itself in the call, the less therefore this call can arm itself with its own sanctions, the more it is the expression of the defenseless, indeed the help-seeking love of God, which can offer no other argument for following it than the hope that the needs of love will be understood, then the more compelling it is—if he who is addressed is a lover—for him to give the needed answer.67

Von Balthasar recognizes at least the possibility that a call from God may give a person complete freedom to follow it or not. But at least in most cases, he considers it a pressing necessity of love to follow God’s call, and a grave failure in love, not to follow it.

There are perhaps calls that are scarcely anything more than a permission to go one way or the other. Such calls—supposing that there are such—may be ignored without fault... But as soon as one leaves behind these lowest ranking forms of vocation, and considers the cases that indeed according to the tradition are the most numerous, those in which God declares his personal choice to the soul, then other laws come into play, the laws of love. One must be very careful here with the maxim that only “precepts” bind under pain of sin, that one can heedlessly set aside wishes, invitations, whisperings of God’s love. Does not God want to offer his best, perhaps his most important gifts more by asking than by demanding? And would not rejecting them mean injuring, perhaps rendering impossible the decisive plans of God’s love?68

A vocation is a personal call from God, and therefore unique. One who does not follow his vocation cannot have another of his own choosing, but remains without a vocation in the proper sense.

We already said earlier that when one rejects the mission God had in mind for him, God does not give him another in its place. For missions are personal, and God does not speak the word that he saved for one man, indiscriminately to another....

Since the moment of the identity between the divine and the human “yes” should be the center that gives meaning to the life of the one called, this life, because that moment does not occur, necessarily remains unfulfilled, empty, a longing that has nothing more to wait for, like the life of an abandoned young woman, whose whole future has already passed her by.69

The harm done is nearly irreparable. Even if one repents, and confesses his failure, the loss and the damage done by the rejection of the call remains.

The fundamental “No” with which they once responded to their mission, even if confessed as a sin and forgiven, remains as an emptiness in their soul, and leads them to many a fault that otherwise would have remained undone.70

The consequences are most serious even in the case of one who almost unconsciously, and with little fault on his part turned away from his call.

When the rejection lay on the border of the unconscious and therefore of blamelessness, then it can become the life of a man, which for him himself remains inexplicably unfulfilled. He is haunted by misfortune. He would, perhaps, like to marry, but the engagement miscarries; the girl refuses, without his understanding why. He tries again later, it again fails. His undertakings do not blossom. Either he gets no children, or death takes them from him. He doesn’t succeed as others do, to gain a foothold and to establish himself in life without worries. A disquiet fills him, more laid upon him by fortune than deriving from his character. Among the men of the world he remains a stranger and feels like one. People will not explain to him the true reason for his unsettled state, so as not to deprive him of hope. Perhaps God will have pity on him, and grant him peace.71

Von Balthasar here is speaking primarily of what he calls the “qualitatively superior” call, the call to the life of the evangelical counsels. However, the reasons he gives for the importance of following the call are: (1) the personal character of the call; (2) the inner need of love to respond to love. Therefore, if the call to the lay state, the call to marriage, is a personal call (even if on his account, it must be described as a “not-being-called” in a higher way), and asks for a response of love, then the same consequences will follow for one who does not follow a vocation to marriage or some other lay vocation; his life also will remain empty and unfulfilled.

Explanation of this grave necessity

In both St. Alphonsus and von Balthasar, the urgent necessity of following a vocation and the dire consequences of failing to do so, are based upon what we might call the “personalistic” approach to vocation. The idea in each case seems to be that God has one personal plan for each individual, in which alone he would find his fulfillment, salvation, and happiness. St. Alphonsus states: “If we want to make sure of our eternal salvation, we must follow the divine vocation, where alone God prepares for us the efficacious means for us to save ourselves.”72 Von Balthasar likewise says:

Would not rejecting them mean injuring, perhaps rendering impossible the decisive plans of God’s love? ... When one rejects the mission that God had in mind for him, God does not give him another in its place. For missions are personal, and God does not speak the word that he saved for this man, indiscriminately to another man.73

Consequently, one who fails to follow a vocation is practically speaking unable to be fulfilled and happy. And according to St. Alphonsus, it seems, he will find it difficult even to be saved.

The punishment of the disobedient will begin already during his lifetime, when he will always be restless; for Job says, “Who has resisted him and had peace?” Hence he will be deprived of the abundant and efficacious helps for living well. Therefore the Theologian Habert wrote: “Not without great difficulties will he be able to look out for his salvation.” With great difficulty will he be saved, being forever like a member out of its proper place, so that only with great difficulty will he be able to live well... Therefore he concludes that “although absolutely speaking he could be saved, he will with difficulty enter the way, and lay hold of the means of salvation.”... Therefore, when God calls to a more perfect state, he who does not want to put his eternal salvation in great danger ought to obey, and obey quickly.74

Though von Balthasar insists that we can never despair of the salvation of such persons,75 he has similar dire things to say about the consequences of rejecting a divine calling.

A hundred times would they have thrown the silver pieces into the temple, but their repentance does not make what happened not have happened. They are “cut off” as an example for all the others, that these may not become proud, but stand in awe (Rom 11:19–20). That they are cut off and burn, does not mean that they are going to be ultimately lost, just that they have played out their role on earth...

They who perhaps thought, in place of the divine mission, to exercise a meaningful role in the world and a corresponding influence as a lay apostle, see gradually how their life dries up and—what for them is the worst, and the punishment—sinks into meaninglessness... Had God destined them for the lay state, they would have borne, in the place meant for them, the hidden but living fruit that God expected of them. But as it is, their life is wasted, and they consume themselves in unfruitful criticism, especially of the Church, without contributing to its betterment.76

The second reason for this strong position seems to be that God speaks his plan personally to the one called, as a kind of love proposal—and so to reject this plan is to turn away from God’s most intimate offer of love. St. Alphonsus says: “Divine calls to a more perfect life are certainly special and very great graces that God does not give to all. Therefore he has much reason to be indignant with him who slights them.”77 And von Balthasar, in some measure criticizing the traditional concept or understanding of “counsels,” says that the less obligatory God’s proposal is, the more urgent is the need to follow it.

The word “counsel” is not wholly adequate to convey God’s personal love that lies in the invitation to personal discipleship.... God’s predilection, by which he calls a man, and offers him the grace of receiving insight into and participation in the deeper mysteries of the divine love, is affected in a different way by the discourtesy of a rejection than if one transgressed what one considered a formal “law.” But that means at the same time, that the transformation of the call from a predominantly commanding tone to a predominantly inviting tone, may in no way be interpreted as a weakening of its urgency. On the contrary, the more love reveals itself in the call, the less therefore this call can arm itself with its own sanctions.... then when he who is addressed is a lover, the more urgent for him is the needed answer.78

It does not necessarily follow that when God’s loving proposal is rejected, God will not continue for long to pursue such an intimate love. However, normally this seems to be the natural conclusion of this way of thinking. St. Alphonsus states that one should obey a call quickly, since God’s enlightenment will not remain.

When God calls to a more perfect state, he who does not want to put his eternal salvation in great danger ought to obey, and obey quickly. Otherwise he will hear himself reproached by Jesus Christ as he reproached that youth, who, invited to follow him, said: “I will follow you Lord, but let me first take leave of those who are at home.” And Jesus answered him, that he was not fit for paradise: “No one putting his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” The lights of God are passing, not permanent. Hence St. Thomas Aquinas says that vocations to a more perfect life should be followed as quickly as possible.79

Von Balthasar says that generally God does not indefinitely pursue one who neglects his call, and that he does not give a second call to one who refuses the first.

Neither here nor in the vocation itself are there universally valid norms: every way is a new, unrepeatable love story... And yet the case of the rich young man is surely the more frequent case: God makes his invitation once, perhaps several times, but finally lets go of the soul that repudiates God’s friendship. With that, the episode of God’s courtship with this life is essentially at an end; not that we should despair of the salvation of this man, since he is constantly offered sufficient grace to save himself, but indeed, the chance to become a chosen friend of God is spoiled forever. God does not twice give a special, privileged mission; he can certainly wait until the man finally makes up his mind for the decisive choice, but if the choice is negative, then repentance will no longer help.80

This position taken by St. Alphonsus and von Balthasar, as well as by others who adopt the same approach, is a somewhat natural conclusion of their way of approaching the question of vocation. However, it is not a necessary conclusion, and in fact is based on an implicitly anthropomorphic view of God’s dealings with us. As regards the first point, God’s personal plan for each of us, it is true that God knows and loves each man in all his personality and particularity. God deals personally with each man, and each man has his specific place in divine providence—“all things work for good for those who love God” (Rom 8:28)—yet at the same time, God is infinite and eternal, and sees all things simultaneously. So also his providence includes all things, even our sins and mistakes. God does not make plans merely on the basis of present conditions, as we do, so that his plans could be frustrated by men’s consequent refusal to follow God’s commands or invitations. All of men’s choices were included in his plan from eternity. For example, if a man is called to religious life, but like the rich young man in the gospel, he is unwilling to give something up, and he falls in love with a woman and marries her, his choice and his marriage were in God’s providential plan from the beginning. And God for his part will provide the graces the man needs to live marriage well. If the marriage is especially difficult, it will be because of circumstances or because he was not suited for that marriage, not because God spitefully denies him the grace he needs in the married state, because he wanted him to choose another state of life. To take another example, if a Christian woman marries a non-Christian man unwisely and without being called to such a marriage, and has great difficulty in living a Christian life in this marriage, she does not have difficulty because God denies her grace due to her having chosen the marriage without a vocation to it, but due to the character of the persons and the marriage itself.

As regards the second point, that God’s love proposal is not continued indefinitely, it is true that as regards specific callings, God does not normally continue to call someone indefinitely. Usually he stops when the person becomes deaf to the call, or an obstacle intervenes—for example, when someone called to celibacy marries, God no longer calls him to celibacy. But as regards his calling men to union with himself, God never ceases to call anyone as long as they are in this life. For God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4), and wills their sanctification (cf. 1 Th 4:3). “All the faithful, whatever their condition or state, are called by the Lord, each in his own way, to that perfect holiness whereby the Father Himself is perfect.”81 All the faithful, whether they entered into their state through a divine vocation, or by neglecting their vocation, are called not only to salvation, but to perfect holiness.

All this is not to say that the choice of a state of life is not a very serious matter, and of decisive importance. It is only to say that the reason for its particular importance lies not so much on God’s part, as on the part of the state itself—the fact that it is permanent, and that it affects all aspects of one’s life. Though one cannot thwart God’s plan, and one is never abandoned by God, and is always given grace to attain holiness, the state of life itself remains. Hence, if one is poorly suited to that state, one will have more difficulty in fulfilling its duties and in making spiritual progress than if one were in a state to which one was well suited.

Moreover, to the degree that one perceives more surely and concretely the good to be accomplished in embracing a state of life, the more responsible one may be for failing to do so. Thus Pope John Paul II, though he points out that Christ did not condemn the rich young man who refused Christ’s call to follow him,82 notes the serious consequences that the failure to follow a call may entail.

This, in fact, is a vocation: a proposal, an invitation, or rather a concern to bring the Savior to the world of today, which needs him so much. A refusal would mean not only rejecting the Lord’s word, but also abandoning many of our brothers and sisters in horror, in meaninglessness, or in the frustration of their most secret and noble aspirations, to which they neither know how to nor are able to respond alone.83

The saying of St. Ignatius, that there are cases in which the vocation is so manifest that one is “under obligation to follow it,”84 might be interpreted on the basis of this principle. In other words, if the possibility of doing great spiritual good for others is experienced not merely as a possibility, but as a concrete and definite proposal made immediately by God, then one may well be obliged to seek to do this good—as in general one is obliged to help a fellowman in immediate danger of his life or of grave spiritual harm.

1ST I-II 9:2.

2Directorium Definitive Approbatum, n. 171, Directoria, 689.

3Directoria Ignatiana Autographa, nn. 7 & 17, Directoria, 70 & 74–76; Directorium Definitive Approbatum, nn. 171 & 173, Directoria, 689 & 691–93.

4Directoria Ignatiana Autographa, nn. 5 & 19, Directoria, 70 & 76; Directory dictated to Vitoria, n. 11, Directoria, 96; Directorium Definitive Approbatum, nn. 52 & 55, Directoria, 601 & 603.

5For a more extensive treatment of this issue, see Fr. Richard Butler’s book on religious vocation: Religious Vocation: An Unnecessary Mystery (Rockford: Tan Books, 2005).

6ST II-II 189:10 (emphasis added).

7St. Basil, Epistola 173, PG 32, 647; St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Matthew, 62 & 63, PG 58, 600 & 605; Pope Pius XI, Casti Connubii, n.8, AAS 22 (1930), 542.

8Von Balthasar, Christlicher Stand, 42.

9Ibid., 130–31.

10Directoria Ignatiana Autographa, n. 9, Directoria, 72.

11Exercitia Spiritualia, n. 15.

12St. Francis de Sales, Treatise on the Love of God, Book 9, Ch. 4.

13St. Alphonsus, Praxis Confessarii, Ch. 7, n. 92, in Theologia Moralis, Vol. 4, 578.

14Ibid., 578–79.

15St. Alphonsus de Liguori, “Conforto a' novizi per la perseveranza nella loro vocazione,” Opere Ascetiche, in Opere di S. Alfonso Maria de Liguori, Vol. 4 (Torino: Marietti, 1880), 439.

16St. Francis de Sales, Treatise on the Love of God, Book 8, Ch. 13.

17Pope Pius XI, Ad Catholici Sacerdotii, n. 70, AAS 28 (1936), 40. See also the declaration of the Holy See in regard to the Lahitton’s work La Vocation Sacerdotale, AAS 4 (1912), 485.

18St. Pius X, Apostolic letter, Cum primum, 4 Aug., 1913, in AAS, 5 (1913)–388; Ench. de Stat. Perf., n. 279, p. 331.

19Pius XI, Encyc. Ad Catholici Sacerdotii, AAS 28, (1936)–39; Ench. de Stat. Perf., n. 367, p. 510.

20In the 1917 Code of Canon Law—the corresponding canon in the 1983 code is canon 597. (Ed.)

21Religiosorum Institutio, Instruction on the Careful Selection And Training Of Candidates For The States Of Perfection And Sacred Orders, Sacred Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life, February 2, 1961, in Canon Law Digest, Bouscaren & O’Connor, Volume 5, Milwaukee, Bruce Publishing Company, 1963, n. 22, p. 465.

22St. Francis de Sales, “Les vrays entretiens spirituels,” Entr. 16; Œuvres de S. François de Sales, Vol. 6, 312.

23Ibid., 312–13.

24Ibid., 322, 323, 326.

25St. Thomas Aquinas, In Psalmos, part 24, n. 4.

26Quodlibetale 5, q. 10, a. 1.

27See, for example, In I Sent. d. 41, q. 1, a. 2, ad 3; In IV Sent. d. 17, q. 1, a. 1, qa. 2; De Veritate 6:1; Super Ep. Ad Romanos, Cap. 8, Lec. 6; Cap. 11, Lec. 4; Super Evangelium Johannis, Cap. 1, Lec. 6; Cap. 20, Lec. 3; Super ad Galatas, Cap. 1, Lec. 4.

28Besides the texts where St. Thomas treats of Christ’s calling of the disciples: ST II-II 189:10; Contra Doctrinam Retrahentium, Ch. 9; Contra Impugnantes, Part 2, Ch. 6, ad 13.

29Von Balthasar, Christlicher Stand, 116 & 133.

30The state of celibacy can be chosen for natural motivations. A philosopher might choose this state for the sake of pursuing truth, or a doctor for the sake of his patients. The choice of celibacy for reasons like this can be justified, and even praiseworthy. (See SCG 3, n. 136; Karol Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility, 256) However, the state of celibacy embraced for such motivations is not yet the evangelical celibacy or virginity that pertains to the consecrated state.

31Pope John Paul II, Homily of December 15, 1994.

32In I Sent. d. 41, q. 1, a. 2, ad 3.




36This seems to be the import of St. Ignatius’ note on divine vocation. “If one has not made his election duly and ordinately and without disordered tendencies... It does not appear that this election is a divine vocation, as being an election out of order and awry... for every divine vocation is always pure and clear, without mixture of flesh, or of any other inordinate tendency.” Exercitia Spiritualia, n. 172.

37Love and Responsibility, 256; cf. Pope John Paul II, General Audience of August 18, 1982.

38Exercitia Spiritualia, n. 169.

39One sometimes encounters a certain polemic in recent authors, directed against nearly the entire tradition of the Church, and convicting it of entirely failing to recognize the holiness of the human body and of marriage. One might get the impression that from the earliest times of the Church (including even the inspired Apostle Paul) until Pope John Paul II, no one in the Church really understood marriage, or had any appreciation for it as a holy Christian way of life. But though it is true that the earlier doctors of the Church made certain excesses and sometimes lacked certain insights, this sweeping dismissal of the Christian tradition is quite unjustified.

40 St. Augustine, De Bono Conjugali, n. 10, PL 40, 381; St. Jerome, Adversus Jovinianum, Bk. I, n. 9, PL 23, 233; St. Gregory the Great, Regulae Pastoralis Liber, Part III, Ch. 27, PL 77, 103–4; St. John Chrysostom, De Virginitate, n. 19 & 25, PG 48, 547 & 550, and Homily 19 on 1 Corinthians, PG 61, 153–54; St. Alphonsus, “Counsels to a young woman in doubt as to what state to choose” (see below, p. 19). The Fathers and Doctors generally cite St. Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians in support of their position: “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” (1 Cor 7:8–9).

42St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 136.

43St. Francis de Sales, Treatise on the Love of God, Bk. 8, Ch. 6.

44ST I-II 108:4 ad 1.

45The Revised Standard Version translates the text as, “can receive this.” The word used in Greek is χωροûσιν, in Latin capiunt, in Italian comprendere. All of these words can have the sense either of containing or having capacity for something, or of understanding it. We have translated it as “can grasp” in order to show this twofold possible meaning.

46Pope John Paul II, General Audience, November 16, 1994.

47St. Alphonsus, “Counsels to a young woman in doubt as to what state to choose” pp. 391–92.

48Exercitia Spiritualia, n. 169.

49Vatican Council II, Optatam Totius, n. 10.

50Pope Paul VI, Address to the General Chapters of Religious Orders and Congregations, May 23, 1964.

51Pope John Paul II, Vita Consecrata, n. 35.

52Directoria Ignatiana Autographa, n. 9, p. 72; see above, page 4.

53Von Balthasar, Christlicher Stand, 353.

54Exercitia Spiritualia, n. 1.

55Exercitia Spiritualia, n. 15.

56Cf. In III Sent. d. 29, Explanation of Lombard’s Text.

57ST I-II 28:2.

58St. Thomas Aquinas, Super Evangelium Johannis, Ch. 14, Lec. 5.

59St. Francis de Sales, Treatise on the Love of God, Bk. 8, Ch. 6.

60Chrysostom, Homily 16 on the Epistle to the Romans, PG 60, 551–52.

61Directorium Patri Vitoria Dicatum, n. 21, Directoria, p. 101.

62St. Alphonsus, Selva de materie predicabili, Ch. 10, Opere di S. Alfonso Maria de Liguori, Vol. 3 (Torino: Marietti, 1880), 78.

63St. Alphonsus, “Counsels Concerning a Religious Vocation,” Ch. 1, pp. 396–97; see Theologia Moralis, Vol. 2, Bk. IV, Ch. 1, n. 78, edited by P. Leonardi Gaudé (Rome: Typographia Vaticana, 1907), 506–8.

64St. Alphonsus, “Counsels Concerning a Religious Vocation,” Ch. 1, pp. 397–98.

65The True Spouse of Jesus Christ, Ch. 24, n. 8.

66See page 5.

67Von Balthasar, Christlicher Stand, 352.

68Ibid., 407.

69Ibid., 408 & 410.

70Ibid., 412.

71Ibid., 410.

72St. Alphonsus, “Counsels Concerning a Religious Vocation,” Ch. 1, p. 396.

73Von Balthasar, Christlicher Stand, 407–8.

74St. Alphonsus, “Counsels Concerning a Religious Vocation,” Ch. 1, pp. 397–98.

75See von Balthasar, Christlicher Stand, 354–55 & 410–11.

76Von Balthasar, Christlicher Stand, 410–412.

77St. Alphonsus, “Counsels Concerning a Religious Vocation,” Ch. 1, p. 397.

78Von Balthasar, Christlicher Stand, 352.

79St. Alphonsus, “Counsels Concerning a Religious Vocation,” Ch. 1, p. 398. St. Alphonsus may actually be quoting St. Thomas out of context. In ST II-II 189:3, St. Thomas says that a person “is bound to enter as soon as possible.” However, he is there speaking about someone who made a vow to enter religious life. In general, St. Thomas does not think it necessary to delay entering a religious community, if one has no impediments, but he does not say that one is obliged to enter immediately, nor does he exclude the possibility of there sometimes being good reasons for delaying.

80Von Balthasar, Christlicher Stand, 354–55.

81Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium, Ch. 2, n. 11.

82General Audience, October 12, 1994.

83Pope John Paul II, Homily, December 20, 1981; cf. Pastores Dabo Vobis, n. 36.

84Directorium Patri Vitoria Dicatum, n. 21, Directoria, p. 101. See above, page 25.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Two Approaches to Vocation
Chapter 1: Principles of Christian Life
Chapter 2: Aquinas and Ignatius
Chapter 3: Comparison of Aquinas and Ignatius
Chapter 4: Pope John Paul II on Vocation
Chapter 4, Part II: Pope Benedict XVI on vocation
Chapter 5: Conclusions for Vocation Discernment