An ecclesiastical or religious vocation is the special gift of those who, in the Church of God, follow with a pure intention the ecclesiastical profession of the evangelical counsels. The elements of this vocation are all the interior and exterior helps, the efficacious graces which have led to the taking of the resolution, and all the graces which produce meritorious perseverance.
Ordinarily this vocation is revealed as the result of deliberation according to the principles of reason and faith; in extraordinary cases, by supernatural light so abundantly shed upon the soul as to render deliberation unnecessary. There are two signs of vocation: the one negative, the absence of impediment; the other positive, a firm resolution by the help of God to serve Him in the ecclesiastical or religious state.
If God leaves a free choice to the person called, he leaves none to those whose duty it is to advise; those spiritual directors or confessors who treat lightly a matter of such importance, or do not answer according to the spirit of Christ and the Church, incur a grave responsibility. It is their duty also to discover the germ of a vocation, and develop it by forming the character and encouraging the generosity of the will.
These rules are sufficient for a decision to follow the evangelical counsels, as they may be practised even in the world. But the nature of the ecclesiastical state and the positive constitution of the religious state require some further remarks. Unlike the observance of the evangelical counsels, the ecclesiastical state exists primarily for the good of religious society; and the Church has given the religious state a corporate organization. Those who belong to a religious order not only follow the evangelical counsels for themselves, but are accepted by the Church, more or less officially, to represent in religious society the practice of the rules of perfection; and to offer it to God as a part of public worship. (See RELIGIOUS LIFE; VOWS.) From this it follows that the ecclesiastical profession is not as accessible to all as the religious state; that in order to enter the religious state at the present day, conditions of health, of character, and sometimes of education are required which are not demanded by the evangelical counsels taken in themselves; and that, both for the religious and for the ecclesiastical state, admission by lawful authority is necessary.
At the present day, it is necessary that two wills should concur before a person can enter the religious state; it has always been necessary that two wills should concur before one can enter the ranks of the clergy. The Council of Trent pronounces an anathema on a person who represents as lawful ministers of the Gospel and the sacraments any who have not been regularly ordained and commissioned by ecclesiastical and canonical authority (Sess. XXIII, iii, iv, vii). A vocation which is by many persons called exterior thus comes to be added to the interior vocation; and this exterior vocation is defined as the admission of a candidate in due form by competent authority.
The question of vocation itself so far as the candidate is concerned may be put in these terms: Are you doing a thing which is pleasing to God in offering yourself to the seminary or the novitiate? And the answer depends on the preceding data: yes, if your intention is honest, and if your strength is sufficient for the work. A further question may be put to the candidate for the priesthood: if you do well in desiring to become a priest, would you perhaps do better by becoming a religious? It is to be remarked that the candidate for the priesthood ought already to have the virtues required by his state, while the hope of acquiring them is sufficient for the candidate for the religious life.
The question an ordinary of a diocese or superior of a religious community should meet is: Considering the general interest of the order or the diocese, is it right that I should accept this or that candidate? And although the candidate has done well in offering himself the answer may be in the negative. For God often suggests plans which He does not require or desire to be carried into effect, though He is preparing the reward which He will bestow on the intention and the trial.
The refusal of the ordinary or superior debars the candidate from entering the lists of the clergy or religious. Hence his approval may be said to complete the Divine vocation. Moreover, in this life a person often enters into indissoluble bonds which God desires to see respected after the fact. It remains therefore for the man who has laid himself under such an obligation to accommodate himself to the state in which God, Who will give him the help of His grace, now wishes him to persevere. This is the express teaching of St. Ignatius in his "Spiritual Exercises": With regard to this present will of God, it may be said, at least of priests who do not obtain a dispensation, that sacerdotal ordination confers a vocation upon them. This however does not imply that they have done well in offering themselves for ordination.
This appears to give us ground for the true solution of the recent controversies on the subject of vocation.
Two points have been made the subjects of controversy in the consideration of vocation to the ecclesiastical state: how does Divine Providence make its decrees known to men? How does that Providence reconcile its decrees with liberty of human action in the choice of a state of life? Cassian explains very clearly the different kinds of vocation to the monastic life, in his "Collatio, III: De tribus abrenuntiationibus", iii, iv, v (P.L., XLIX, 560-64). The Fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries inculcate very strongly the practice of virginity, and endeavour to answer the text, "He that can take, let him take it" (Matthew 19:12), which would seem to limit the application of the counsel. Saint Benedict admitted young children presented by their parents to his order; and the canonical axiom "Monachum aut paterna devotio aut propria professio facit" (c. 3, xx, q. 1), "A man becomes a monk either by parental consecration or by personal profession", an axiom that was received in the Western Church from the sixth to the eleventh century, shows to what extent the religious life was considered open and to be recommended as a rule to all. A letter of St. Gregory the Great and another of St. Bernard insist on the dangers incurred by those who have decided to embrace the religious life and still remain in the world. The necessity of a special call for embracing the priesthood or the monastic life is not treated by St. Thomas, but the reality of a Divine call to higher states of life is clearly expressed in the sixteenth century, notably in the "Spiritual Exercises" of St. Ignatius. Francisco Suárez worked out a complete theory of vocation (De religione, tr. VII, I-V, viii). Independently of a natural progress which brings new matters into discussion, two causes combined to raise the controversy on this point, viz. the abuse of forced vocations, and a mysticism which is closely related to Jansenism. In former times it was the custom for noble families to place their younger sons in the seminary or some monastery without considering the tastes or qualifications of the candidates, and it is not difficult to see how disastrous this kind of recruiting was to the sacerdotal and religious life. A reaction set in against this abuse, and young men were expected, instead of following the choice of their parents, a choice often dictated by purely human considerations, to wait for a special call from God before entering the seminary or the cloister. At the same time, a semi-Quietism in France led people to believe that a man ought to defer his action until he was conscious of a special Divine impulse, a sort of Divine message revealing to him what he ought to do. If a person, in order to practice virtue, was bound to make an inward examination of himself at every moment, how much more necessary to listen for the voice of God before entering upon the sublime path of the priesthood or monastic life? God was supposed to speak by an attraction, which it was dangerous to anticipate: and thus arose the famous theory which identified vocation with Divine attraction; without attraction there was no vocation; with attraction, there was a vocation which was, so to speak, obligatory, as there was so much danger in disobedience. Though theoretically free, the choice of a state was practically necessary: "Those who are not called", says Scavini (Theol. moral., 14th ed., I, i, n. 473), "cannot enter the religious state: those who are called must enter it; or what would be the use of the call?" Other writers, such as Gury (II, n. 148-50), after having stated that it is a grace fault to enter the religious state when conscious of not having been called, correct themselves in a remarkable manner by adding, "unless they have a firm resolution to fulfill the duties of their state".
For the general conduct of life, we know that God, while guiding man, leaves him free to act, that all good actions are graces of God, and at the same time free acts, that the happiness of heaven will be the reward of good life and still the effect of a gratuitous predestination. We are bound to serve God always, and we know that, besides the acts commanded by Him, there are acts which He blesses without making them obligatory, and that among good acts there are some which are better than others. We derive our knowledge of the will of God, that will which demands our obedience, which approves some of our acts, and esteems some more highly than others, from Holy Scripture and Tradition, by making use of the two-fold light which God has bestowed upon us, faith and reason. Following the general law, "do good and avoid evil", although we can avoid all that is evil, we cannot do all that is good. To accomplish the designs of God we are called upon to do all the good that we are capable and all that we have the opportunity of doing; and the greater the good, the more special our capability, the more extraordinary the opportunity, so much the more clearly will reason enlightened by faith tell us that God wishes us to accomplish that good. In the general law of doing good, and in the facilities given us to do it, we read a general, or it may be even a special, invitation of God to do it, an invitation which is pressing in proportion to the excellence of the good, but which nevertheless we are not bound to accept unless we discover some duty of justice or charity. Often, too, we have to hesitate in our choice between two incompatible deeds or courses of action. It is a difficulty that arises even when our decision is to influence the rest of our lives as, for instance, should we have to decide whether to emigrate or to remain in our own country. God also may help our choice by interior movements, whether we are conscious of them or not, by inclinations leading us to this or that course of action, or by the counsels of a friend with whom we are providentially brought into contact; or He may even clearly reveal to us His will, or his preference. But this is an exceptional case; ordinarily the inward feeling keeps and confirms our decision, but it is only a secondary motive, and the principal part belongs to sound reason judging according to the teachings of faith. "They have Moses and the prophets", said Christ in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:29), and we have no need for any one to rise from the dead to teach us our duty. According to this simple exposition, it seems clear that each good action of ours pleases God, that moreover He specially desires to see us perform certain actions, but that negligences and omissions in either sphere do not generally cause a permanent divergence from our right path. This rule is true even in the case of acts whose results seem manifold and far-reaching. Otherwise, God would be bound to make known to us clearly both His own will and the consequences of our negligence. But the offers of Divine Providence are several or even many, though one may be more pressing than the other; and since every good action is performed by the help of a supernatural grace which precedes and accompanies it, and since with an efficacious grace we would have done the good we have failed to accomplish, we may say, of every good that we do, that we had the vocation to do it, and of every good that we omit, either that we had not the vocation to do it, or, if we were wrong in omitting to do it, that we paid no heed to the vocation. This is true of faith itself. We believe, because we have received an efficacious vocation to believe, which those who live without faith have not received or have rejected when their unbelief is their own fault.
Are these general views applicable to the choice of a state of life? or is that choice governed by special rules? The solution of this question involves that of the vocation itself. The special rules are to be found in Holy Scripture and Tradition. In Holy Scripture we read those general counsels of self-denial which all Christians are called upon to follow during their lives, while they are the object of a more complete application in a state which for that very reason may be called a state of perfection. Efficacious grace, notably that of perfect continence, is not given to all. "All men take not this word, but they to whom it is given. . . . He that can take, let him take it" (Matthew 19:11, 12). Catholic interpreters, however, basing their conclusion on the Fathers of the Church, are at one in saying that God bestows this gift either on all that pray for it as they should, or at any rate on the generality of those who dispose themselves to receive it (see Beelen, Kanbenbauer, on this passage). But the choice is left free. St. Paul, speaking of the same Christian, says "he that giveth his virgin in marriage, doth well; and he that giveth her not, doth better" (1 Corinthians 7:38). On the other hand, he must be guided by sound reason: "But if they do not contain themselves, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to be burnt" (1 Corinthians 7:9). Moreover, the Apostle gives this general advice to his disciple Timothy: "I will therefore that the younger [widows] should marry" (1 Timothy 5:14). And yet, whatever his profession or condition, man is not abandoned by Providence: "As the Lord has distributed to every one, as God hath called every one, so let him walk" (1 Corinthians 7:17). Holy Scripture therefore applies to the profession of every man the general principles laid down above. Nor is there any trace of an exception in the Fathers of the Church: they insist on the general application of the evangelical counsels, and on the importance of following them without delay; and on the other hand, they declare that the choice is free, without danger of incurring the loss of God's favour. They wish, however, that the choice should be prudently and reasonably exercised. See St. Basil, "On virginity", n. 55, 56; "Constit. monast.", xx; Ep. CLXXII; "Exhortation to renounce the world", n. 1 (P.G., XXX, 779-82; XXXI, 626, 1394; XXXII, 647-49); St. Gregory Nazianzen, "Against Julian", 1st discourse, n. 99; disc. 37, alias 31 on St. Matthew, XIX, xi (P.G., XXXV, 634; XXXVI, 298); St. John Chrysostom, "On virginity"; "On penitence", Hom. VI, n. 3: On St. Matthew 19 (P.G., XLVIII, 533 sqq.; XLIX, 318; LVIII, 600, 605); St. Cyprian, "De habitu virginum", xxiii (P.L., IV, 463); St. Ambrose, "De viduis", xii, xiii (P.L., XVI, 256, 259); St. Jerome Ep. CXXIII alias XI to Ageruchia; "De monogamia"; "Against Jovinian", I; On St. Matthew, XIX, xi, xii (P.L., XXII, 1048; XXIII, 227, 228; XXVI, 135, 136); St. Augustine, "De bono coniugali", x; "De sancta virginitate", xxx (P.L., XL, 381, 412); St. Bernard, "De præcepto et dispensatione", i (P.L., CLXXXII, 862). These texts are examined in Vermeersch, "De vocatione religiosa et sacertodali", taken from the second volume of the same author's "De religiosis institutis et personis" suppl. 3. In comparison with such numerous and distinct declarations, two or three insignificant passages [St. Gregory, Ep. LXV (P.L., LXXVII, 603; St. Bernard, Ep. CVII, CVIII (P.L., CLXXXII, 242 sqq., 249 sqq.)], of which the last two date only from the twelfth century, and are capable of another explanation, cannot be seriously quoted as representing vocation as practically obligatory. Neither St. Thomas, "Summa theologica", I-II, Q. cviii, art. 4; II-II, Q. clxxxix, opusc. 17 alias 3, nor Francisco Suárez "De religione", tr. VII, V, IV, n. i, 7, and viii; nor Bellarmine "De monachis", Controv. II; nor Passerini, "De hominum statibus" in Q. CLXXXIX, art. 10, thinks of placing the choice of a state of life in a category apart. And thus we arrive at conclusions which agree with those of Cornelius à Lapide in his commentary on the seventh chapter of I Corinthians, and which recommend themselves by their very simplicity. States of life are freely chosen and at the same time providentially given by God. The higher the state of life the more clearly do we find the positive action of Providence in the choice. In the case of most men, no Divine decree, logically anterior to the knowledge of their free actions, assigns to them this or that particular profession. The path of the evangelical counsels is in itself, open to all, and preferable for all, but without being directly or indirectly obligatory. In exceptional cases the obligation may exist as the consequence of a vow or of a Divine order, or of the improbability (which is very rare) of otherwise finding salvation. More frequently reasons of prudence, arising from the character and habits of the persons concerned, make it unadvisable that he should choose what is in itself the best part, or duties of filial piety or justice may make it impossible. For the reasons given above we cannot accept the definition of Lessius; "Vocation is an affection, an inward force which makes a man feel impelled to enter the religious state, or some other state of life" (De statu vitæ deligendo, n. 56). This feeling is not necessary, and is not to be trusted without reserve, though it may help to decide the kind of order which would best suit us. Nor can we admit the principle adopted by St. Alphonsus: that God determines for every man his state of life (On the choice of a state of life). Cornelius à Lapide, on whose authority St. Alphonsus incorrectly grounds his argument, says, on the contrary, that God often refrains from indicating any preference but that which results from the unequal excellence on honourable conditions. And in the celebrated passage "every one hath his proper gift from God" (1 Corinthians 7:7) St. Paul does not intend to indicate any particular profession as a gift of God, but he makes use of a general expression to imply that the unequal dispensation of graces explains the diversity of objects offered for our choice like the diversity of virtues. We agree with Liguori when he declares that whoever, being free from impediment and actuated by a right intention, is received by the superior is called to the religious life. See also St. Francis of Sales, Epistle 742 (Paris, ed. 1833). The rigourist influences to which St. Alphonsus was subjected in his youth explain the severity which led him to say that a person's eternal salvation chiefly depended on this choice of a state of life conformable to the Divine election. If this were the case, God, who is infinitely good, would make His will known to every man in a way which could not be misunderstood.
The opinion advocated in this article is corroborated by the favourable decision of the Commission of Cardinals (20 June, 1912), appointed to examine the work of Canon Joseph Lahitton, La vocation sacerdotale (Paris, 1909); the decision of the cardinals has been fully approved by the pope. SLATER, Manual of Moral Theology (New York, 1909); BERTHIER, a mission of La Salette, has laid down rule similar to the above in his book, Des états de la vie chrétienne et de la vocation d'après les Docteurs de l'Église et les théologiens (4th ed., Paris, 1897); Eng. tr. Christian Life and Vocation (New York, 1879); DAMANET, Choice of a State of Life (Dublin, 1880). As an instance of excessive severity see HABERT, Theol. dogmat. et mor.: De sacramento ordinis, Pt. 3, 1, sec. 2. Articles in favour of vocation by attraction have appeared in Revue pratique et apologétique, X; see loc. cit., XII, 558, for list of publications in reply to LAHITTON.
APA citation. (1912). Ecclesiastical and Religious Vocation. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15498a.htm
MLA citation. "Ecclesiastical and Religious Vocation." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15498a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Bobie Jo M. Bilz.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is feedback732 at newadvent.org. (To help fight spam, this address might change occasionally.) Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.