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On Discerning Vocations: How to Think about “States of Life”

A university student once sent to me the following heartfelt letter. He expresses well the thoughts and feelings of many young Catholic men and women his age, who are open to a vocation from the Lord, but struggle with how to think about the whole matter. In my response, I try to clear away some false ideas and present a positive way of understanding “states of life” according to the Church’s teaching.

Hello Dr. K,

I have read a lot, heard a lot, and thought a lot about the concept of “vocation” since childhood. I am very open to a vocation to priesthood or religious life, although uncertain of where the Lord is leading me.

I found Fr. Joseph Bolin’s book Paths of Love helpful in its summary of St. Thomas Aquinas’s understanding of “entering religion” and of St. Ignatius of Loyola’s understanding of discerning and choosing a state of life. What Fr. Bolin says about Aquinas stresses the “objectivist” view: a religious vocation isn’t a little private cell-phone call God gives to an individual, but instead a general call made to everyone that few people accept, by His grace, of course. I appreciate how that smacks the sentimentalist, personal “search your heart of hearts” school right in the back of the head.

Nevertheless, I am still looking for a consistent theology of “vocation.” On one extreme, you have the common tendency by postconciliar theologians to have an egalitarian spirit, such that the universal call to holiness equalizes all vocations and no one of them is “higher” than any other. This claim obviously goes against Sacred Scripture and the Council of Trent, both of which talk about the objective superiority of celibacy.

On the other extreme, Aquinas’s position on “entering religion” seems to set up many difficulties, at least for me. If we are all called to the perfection of charity and holiness, then why is it that some are moved to choose religious life, and others aren’t? It makes it seem that those who marry are essentially “religious life dropouts,” if you will – either that, or God just doesn’t love them as much. The objectivist position of Aquinas seems to conclude that religious life is meant for everyone, although only a few people end up choosing it. How, then, is a person supposed to know whether or not he in particular should enter religious life?

Perhaps I struggle with the diversity of it all. It seems to me that if X is the highest Christian life a person can live – and no one is not invited to living the evangelical counsels – then why shouldn’t everyone be a monk or nun? (I think that a call to the priesthood is a little different, inasmuch as being an ordained minister is not an evangelical counsel, but a certain office to which the Church must raise someone up by ordination, but for the purposes of discernment and choice of a state in life, I think the arguments are largely parallel.)

Now, someone will make the obvious response: “The reason is that if everyone became a monk or nun, there wouldn’t be any families or children.” But that doesn’t seem too convincing to me. First, there’s not even a chance that most Catholics will ever be serious enough in their Faith to think about religious life. Second, even if a huge number become monks and nuns, that would only mean returning to the spiritual health of the Middle Ages, where a large percentage of society was clerical or religious – in other words, a balanced ecclesial body, rather than the bizarrely lopsided Church in which we live today. I understand that the primary good of marriage is the rearing and education of children in the Faith, but what determines whether a man or woman should enter religious life or, instead, enter into a nuptial union, to build up the Body of Christ in that way, fostering future potential vocations among their children? We all know (or know of) families who have given the Church multiple vocations – more, indeed, than would have existed in the world had the parents not married!

The objectivist view is liberating insofar as it does not reserve religious life to a secret, mystical conversation between a person and God. On the other hand, it doesn’t exactly give any good reason for a person to enter into marriage, other than to participate in God’s creative act and have children so that, if all goes well, they may enter the convent someday. Obviously, that’s an oversimplification, but that’s where the objectivist view seems to lead. Am I missing something?

A friend mentioned to me that “religious life may be the most perfect state of life objectively, but someone may be called to seek the perfection of charity in marriage.” My question then becomes, how does one discern which state of life he or she is called to? How does one go about realizing that he or she is called to the perfection of charity in marriage, or in religious life?

Here, the sentimentalist school rubs its hands in glee, as they can now talk about the “discernment of spirits,” thoughts/feelings/desires – and it quickly turns into subjectivism. An objectivist can say, “Let those who can accept it accept it,” but what determines whether a person can accept a life of celibacy or not? Aren’t all things possible with God? If it’s all about personal desires/feelings, what do we make of a saint like St. Teresa of Avila, who praised people who entered religious life not for any attraction they had to it, but because they saw that it was the safest and surest way to heaven?

I like clarity, and yet the Church’s theology of vocation does not seem to possess clarity. In my travels, I have met many people who are stuck in the mud. They are given vocational literature that encourages navel-gazing and searching their desires. In comparison, the objectivist approach is a breath of fresh air. Yet it seems to raise its own anxieties by not providing a framework of discernment as to who should and can choose religious life, without making the religious life-rejecters look like failed persons who could not give themselves entirely over to God. It makes marriage, then, look like a “settle for less” vocation, because the persons could not embrace vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in a religious community. If I get married tomorrow, how do I know that I was not meant to enter religion? And vice versa…

With best regards,

Lost in Discernment

* * *

Dear Lost in Discernment,

You have put your finger on a number of the “vexing questions” that surround this whole matter, and I hope I can shed some light on them – although the reason it is hard to find clarity in the theology of vocation is that there are built-in elements that make for obscurity and complexity, as I will try to explain. But there are also “handles” to hold on to and climb up with, and perhaps my response can give you a handle or two.

It seems to me that the ancients and medievals were a lot more commonsensical in that they just accepted the fact that most men and women wanted to get married, following their inclination as the rational animals God created them to be, and only a few would dare to “put it all on the line” for Christ by leaving behind the three goods that are most prized by human nature: independence or self-determination, material possessions, and a family (spouse and children). There seemed to be no sense of shame in not following the superior life, nor any attempt at equating all states for fear of offending someone. Perhaps this goes hand in hand with a society that was hierarchically structured, marked by enormous and seemingly eternal class distinctions, and comfortable with authority.

In modern times, on the other hand, we are highly emotional and subjective about anything that has to do with life decisions. We tend to view the choices of others as potentially threatening or judgmental toward our own choices. And we are egalitarian to the core. As Tocqueville admitted, democracy will eventually surrender liberty in order to have maximum equality. We would rather be equal slaves than unequal freemen.

So I tend to think that our imbibing “modernity” (whatever exactly that means) has created for us a lot of static, tension, and unease about this question.

In Scripture, it is presented as a fairly plain matter. Our Lord says: “This way is better, and if you can take it, take it.” The principle here is not simply God’s grace, but man’s free choice of a state in life. It’s not the arbitrary phone call, as you put it. Any well catechized Catholic should have in his mind the options, and should pray for light, and do what seems best to him, all things considered. The tradition assures us that any good state in life is worth choosing, and no one sins by not choosing any particular state, although we can and do sin by not fulfilling the obligations of the state we have committed ourselves to.

We overcomplicate the vocational question. Not that it doesn’t have its subtleties, but basically, St. Paul says: “If a man marry, he does well; and if he remain a virgin (for Christ), he does better.” On this basis, St. Thomas in the Summa theologiae says it is enough, for entering religious life, to see that Christ recommends it, that He calls to it whoever is willing to accept it, and that He will give the one who sets out on this path sufficient grace to persevere in it.

Of course, it is presupposed that a man has the basic psychological maturity to make such a commitment – he is not internally so fractured or damaged, let’s say by a terrible family life, or by unnatural passions, that he would seem to be incapable, naturally speaking, of committing to consecrated virginity.[i] But for those who are in good mental and physical health, religious life is something the Lord offers as a free gift to be taken up by whoever wishes to conform more exactly to His life, for the sake of seeking and loving Him more single-mindedly. (For more on this point, see this article.)

I think it’s important to accent the gratuitousness, the excessiveness, of religious life. To enter religion is in every age an act of “holy folly,” as the saints testify: St. Thérèse of Lisieux says that she wants to love Jesus à la folie, “madly,” with an unbounded generosity of love.

Without a doubt, everyone is called by God to perfect his nature and to love Him perfectly. Before the coming of Christ, both of these aspects were fulfilled by marrying and procreating for the kingdom of Israel. After the coming of Christ, a bifurcation is introduced that corresponds to the depth of the mystery of the Incarnation, whereby (in the words of St. Athanasius) “God becomes man so that man might become God.” It is now possible to sanctify ourselves by, in a sense, repudiating and transcending the good of our nature for the good of supernature, but it is no less possible to sanctify the good of nature in holy matrimony, which Christ has elevated to be a grace-filled sign of His spousal union with the Church, His immaculate Bride.

The religious life (or priestly celibacy) is precisely something over and beyond what is native to us and what God inclines us to as rational animals [ii]. Hence, it cannot be put on the balance scale with marriage and family; it’s comparing apples and oranges. If “state” were said univocally of both of these, religious life would always win out, and marriage would always be a regrettable concession to human weakness or a lack of faith or something like that. Instead, marriage and family are, so to speak, the “default position,” whereby the kingdom of Christ is to be built up in this world, and the religious life is a voluntary self-immolation, whereby one chooses here and now to live, as far as possible, the life of the world to come [iii].

These two ways are not opposed to one another, but practically speaking, they are divergent in their sphere of activity: marriage is necessarily immersed in the affairs of this world, especially as one’s family grows; celibacy or consecrated virginity is designed to open up as much time and space as possible to the pursuit of the unum necessarium, the one and only thing ultimately needed by all of us. One could put it this way: while every Catholic is called to a deep spiritual life and indeed to the perfection of charity, which rests on a serious commitment to daily prayer, it cannot be a surprise to anyone that marriage and family make it difficult to find exclusive time for the Lord, such that fathers and mothers must fight to carve out and safeguard that time – but it is a veritable catastrophe if priests, monks, or nuns are spending so much time on worldly affairs that they are neglecting prayer, which is the very substance of their life. The former difficulty is only to be expected; the latter is a contradiction of the vocation as such. All this is spelled out remarkably clearly in 1 Corinthians 7.

I find it helpful how John Paul II in Vita Consecrata presents these two ways of life as complementary, so much so that neither would be intelligible (in Christian terms) without the other. If we moderns err, it is that we are too naturalistic, too quick to assume that we cannot live without the goods of nature. The same problem can be seen in the liturgical reform’s abolition of fasting and abstinence, and in every other way in which Christianity in the West has capitulated to materialism and hedonism. This is why we are desperately short of priestly and religious vocations, which, in turn, is a major cause of the languor of the Church.

Historians have claimed that in the Middle Ages, up to 2% of the population were in monasteries, and 1 out of 40 men was a cleric. Just think of the sheer numbers of clergy of all ranks and ministries, and consecrated offerers of the opus Dei this would amount to! It explains the well known historical facts about the golden age of monasticism, when Europe was covered from one end to the other with thousands of monasteries. No wonder we are crashing and burning: Catholic men and women are simply not taking seriously the primacy and ultimacy of the kingdom of God. If a sizeable minority does not live out this primacy and ultimacy, the rest of us will not actually believe it. In this sense, the clergy and religious are carrying the rest of the Church on their shoulders. Infidelity, sloth, and lack of generosity in responding to the Lord’s call become a catch-22: by not seeing the witness, fewer people respond, and when fewer people respond, little or no witness is given.

The saying “one state is good, the other is better” is true as long as one understands that there is also that qualitative difference between the states, such that they are not comparable on the same terms. I suppose the next question would be, why wouldn’t everyone choose what is qualitatively better? But is this not the mystery of self-gift? Why (while we’re at it) should a person get married, when this will necessarily entail all manner of self-sacrifice and hard work? Why should anyone do anything that is good, better, or best [iv]? Whatever we do, provided it be good, God will multiply the good as he multiplied the loaves and fishes, and use it for the perfection of the universe and the glory of His Name. There is no Christian form of life that is without trials, sufferings, and defeats – or without joys, consolations, and victories.

I do think, finally, that we have to make room for the mystery of God’s Providence and for the corresponding trust we should yield up to Him in the circumstances in which we find ourselves at a given moment in life. To take an obvious example, people often stumble into marriage rather than thinking through their decisions with a long-term perspective. They end up making lots of mistakes and find the going very tough. How many divorces or estrangements are caused by people who, in human terms, “made a mistake” but did not have the maturity to accept the situation and work through it, no matter what the cost? Yet if they persevere in prayer, God will write straight with their crooked lines, and what He makes out of their marriage will be a right and true and good thing. This marriage, this family, by keeping faith and surmounting its struggles, will indeed give glory to God and build His kingdom of charity.

Reality being what it is, there is no “alternative universe” in which anyone is (or was supposed to be) something other than he is. Our sanctification will either happen along the path to which we have committed ourselves by our promises – be they baptismal, matrimonial, religious, or priestly – or it will not happen at all.

We can be certain of this: God will pull some people towards priesthood or religious life – some He will pull primarily through their desires or sentiments, others along a more intellectual path – and if they follow that pull, they will find out from others, from their superiors, whether in fact they are called to it or not. Young people testing their vocations are not the only ones who get to decide; they entrust themselves to others who are in a position to say yes or no. In a way, it is like dating and expecting either a proposal of marriage or a (hopefully courteous) parting of the ways.

We can also be certain of this: the devil will do all that he can to prevent Catholics from surrendering themselves to the Lord in any stable, fruitful, approved way of life. His anti-kingdom thrives on instability, sterility, and lawlessness. Hence, the way of life he is most opposed to is the monastic, which is founded on radical stabilitas loci (commitment to one place and one community for life), the absolute priority of the opus Dei or liturgical worship of God (than which nothing Christians can ever do is more spiritually potent), and on a rule that all must follow (which allows for the lifelong growth of humility, obedience, charity, and all the virtues).

The most important thing young Catholics can do is to explore priestly life and religious life in an earnest way, by visiting several religious communities or seminaries and seeing whether or not this life seems to be “clicking” with them. For it does have to click experientially and personally; we cannot force it to click. The communities or seminaries one looks into and visits should be the very best, which generally means the most traditional; there is no point in wasting time on postconciliar mediocrity, incoherence, and dysfunction.[v] Religious communities, orders, and dioceses that have not rediscovered and recommitted themselves to traditional spirituality, theology, and liturgy are dying and will go the way of all flesh. For those discerning a vocation to contemplative religious life, an exclusive commitment to the usus antiquior is the sine qua non.

A guided retreat can often be the key to a peaceful discernment – for example, undertaking the Spiritual Exercises with a retreat master who knows what he’s doing, and in the context of the traditional liturgy. The Exercises were designed precisely to help people strip away impediments and open up to the Holy Spirit. As much as we may be nervous about the charismatic subjectivism endemic to our age, we really do want the Holy Spirit guiding us! Thanks be to God that there are ways of seeking His aid that do not get bogged down in emotionalism, but try to find the center of the person and speak to the whole man in recollection.

Let us keep one another in prayer.

In Domino,

Dr. Kwasniewski

[i] In our day especially, it is crucial to emphasize that no man should be allowed to enter religious life or the seminary if he is lacking the natural inclination to marriage and family life. John Cardinal O’Connor of New York used to say the only men he wanted to ordain were those who, had not God called them to be priests, would be happy husbands and fathers. You cannot renounce for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven that to which you are not naturally attracted. Grace presupposes nature.

[ii] Authors of consummate orthodoxy have applied the word “vocation” to marriage by analogy with the call to the religious life. But properly speaking, there is no calling to marriage; we are inclined to it by our God-given nature and affections. When it comes to forsaking marriage to cling to God alone, however, Our Lord must call a man or a woman out of the world, out of the natural order. The sense of vocare is to summon a person forth from the life normally suited to him, with an invitation to something exceeding it.

[iii] From another point of view, responding to God’s extravagant love by choosing Him alone as our portion is the most reasonable and proper response to His love and to the grace of Christ that we could make. While a religious vocation does involve a real crucifying of natural desires, a real death, at a deeper level it allows one’s nature to flourish more fully than it could have done outside religious life.

[iv] The choice to pray more, to fast, to missionize, to offer up sufferings, to adopt a devotion for Advent or Lent – all these things are choices of what is better, in a situation where there is no strict obligation to do them. Practically speaking, we cannot do them all, since we have other obligations, but why would we not strive to choose more than we are currently choosing? That is a question on which we should examine our consciences.

[v] In a follow-up article, I will argue that men who are considering the priesthood should prioritize orders or communities that use exclusively the traditional Latin liturgy.


For those who are discerning religious life or the priesthood, I recommend Fr. William Doyle’s 1913 pamphlet Vocations, which is one of the best and most inspiring reads on the subject that I have ever come across.

I also recommend this powerful article: “Your Vocation Is Not About You.”

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