By J.E. Sigler
If you are one of those women who feels that her departure from the religious life means that God has rejected her from “the heart of the Church” and relegated her to “second-class holiness” in the world, you need to keep reading.
For a graduate course in the philosophy and theology of work, vocation, and calling, I am reading a wonderful volume called The Disciples’ Call: Theologies of Vocation from Scripture to the Present Day, edited by Father Christopher Jamison, OSB. The book is a collection of essays compiled from a conference of vocation directors and religious formators in the UK several years ago. It is a strikingly modern look at issues of critical import in calling and vocation today, and it is refreshingly frank in its discussion of “the hard questions” the Church is currently dealing with in this area.
What I find particularly interesting about this book are the two completely different, conflicting even, views of vocation that are constantly emerging in it. On the one hand, there’s the Thomistic view; on the other, the Ignatian. What’s the difference?
First, let’s review what we already know: All Christians are called to holiness. By our baptisms, we are all consecrated to the Lord and required to live out some form of poverty, chastity (though not necessarily celibacy), and obedience (to God and, if married, to our spouse; if religious, to our superior and sisters; if ordained, to our bishop; etc.). On this point, all Catholics, even Saints Thomas and Ignatius, agree. The two views of vocation emerge when we ask: In addition to this first call to holiness that we all share, is there a second, additional call to a particular vocation?
St. Thomas says that there is not, and what logically follows from this is that the religious life is one response to the universal Christian call to holiness. It is a choice each individual makes, her personal response to the call God makes to everyone. But to St. Thomas, religious life is always the surer (i.e., the easier) path to perfect charity and salvation, and so, he argues, all who feel even slightly inclined to it ought to at least try it. St. Thomas believes that, basically, nearly everyone is capable of living the religious life, and since it is the most perfect (meaning, again, the easiest!) way to fulfill the original, and only, call to holiness shared by all Christians, we ought all to give it a go.
On this view, a lack of perseverance in the religious life is truly a failure to achieve “the better way,” and to return to the world is really to return to something “less than perfection.”
However, St. Ignatius says there is a second call to a particular vocation, in addition to the universal Christian call to holiness. And so, on his view, one ought to wait for this call before embarking upon any vowed state in life. St. Ignatius agrees with St. Thomas that the religious life is objectively a better path to holiness, in the sense that it makes the attainment of holiness easier, but subjectively, the religious life may not be the better path for a particular individual. And so he concludes that all Church-approved vocations ought to be given consideration by each person.
On this view, a lack of perseverance in the religious life is not necessarily a failure to achieve “the better way,” but more likely simply a sign that one was not “built” (by God) for that life (at least not permanently). And a return to the world is not a return to something “less than perfection,” but to one’s real (permanent, God-given) vocation.
As Father Joseph Bolin, in chapter four of The Disciples’ Call, points out, the Thomistic view is the traditional view of vocation and the one most often implied in historic recruitment materials to the religious life: “God is calling you, daring you to follow Him. Are you generous enough?” (p. 74). But this view places all the onus for perseverance on the individual’s will, and as Father Bolin sees it, this is a severe weakness of the Thomistic view: True, such an approach will increase vocations to religious life, and likely capture all, or at least most, of those “true” religious vocations, i.e., people who really are called to the religious life. But it also has the effect of capturing a lot of people who are not suited to the religious life by guilting or inspiring them to embark upon “the (objectively) surer path to perfect charity and salvation,” even if that path is not subjectively the surer one for them. The consequences of these “false positives” are potentially very dangerous, and well known to us.
“The Thomistic approach… will cause people who consider religious life, perhaps enter for a time, and then cease pursuing this vocation to have a negative self-image, perhaps to give up Christian life altogether, or at any rate to be satisfied with mediocrity in living the Christian vocation. For, if the will to embrace and follow the religious life as a way to love God is all that is necessary for a vocation, then leaving the religious life would seem to indicate a lack of love, an unreadiness to serve God without reservation. This lends itself to the practical conclusion that if one is not capable of attaining holiness in the easier and better way, there is really no hope of becoming holy in the lay state” (p. 80).
Of course, Father Bolin argues that this conclusion is patently false.
Many of us are familiar with these two views of vocation. But what, at least in my experience, many people do not realize is that we often conflate the two perspectives. And this, I believe, is where vocational distress begins.
Think about it: You probably felt that you had a second call to the religious life, an Ignatian assumption, as St. Thomas says there is only one call. But when you returned to the world, you may have felt, as many women do, that you somehow “failed” in or had been rejected from “the perfect way” and so are “less than,” a distinctly Thomistic assumption, as Ignatius does not hang the perseverance in religious life entirely on the individual’s will. On the one hand, you may have assumed that people are either built for the religious life, or they are not (Ignatian), and that those who are built for it love more, or are destined for more holiness (Thomistic).
But to collapse these two views is both wrong and harmful. Remember: St. Ignatius requires a second call, but he also strongly emphasizes the subjectiveness of the call to holiness, i.e., that there is a better path to holiness for each
individual person, and this path is not necessarily the religious life. On Ignatius’ view, some people are built for religious life, and others are not, and both are best suited to attain holiness in the ways God made them for. St. Thomas, on the other hand, emphasizes the objective superiority of the religious life, for all or at least most, but his view also entails that the choice of religious life is just one way to respond to the universal Christian call to holiness that we all share. Whether a person responds to that call by committing to the evangelical counsels, marriage vows, or whatever else, she’s still got the same call everybody else does: “The difference between those entering consecrated life and those who do not is not a difference in the degree of their love, but a difference in the ways they choose to grow in love” (Frather Bolin, p. 81).
Personally, I am an Ignatian when it comes to discernment. Whatever you are, I hope that you can see how both views provide consolation for the woman who has returned to the world, provided you keep them straight: Either you have a second call to something other than religious life, and following that call is the best possible way for you to attain holiness. Or else you have the exact same call as religious sisters, and the degree of holiness you attain out here in the world will depend entirely upon how hard you work at it!