There are Four Vocations

In Star Trek: The Next Generation there is an episode where Captain Picard has been captured and is being tortured. In order to break his will, he is shown four bright lights, told that there are five lights, and severely punished every time he says the correct number. American culture sometimes feels like that with vocations, though instead of insisting that there are five it insists that there is only one: marriage.

One is an especially unfortunate number of vocations for our culture to have settled on since a single choice is no choice at all. Marriage thus becomes prescriptive and considering the very idea of vocation appears strange, if not outright mentally ill. Shoehorning all people into marriage also damages marriage, which might fairly be said to be splitting at the seams. The high rate of divorces generally and annulments within catholic culture testify to a great many people whose vocation was not marriage—or if it was, having thoroughly misunderstood what marriage was—going through the motions of marriage mostly because they thought that they were supposed to in order to be human. (Fornication carries so few consequences in American culture that going through the motions of marriage cannot be for gratification of sexual desires.)

There are four vocations—marriage, committed single, consecrated religious, and holy orders (priesthood/diaconate)—because people are not all the same. In America we tend to look at this backwards: the person first, then the vocation to fit the person, just like you pick a job based on whether you like horses more than bridges, or cooking food more than both, etc. A more accurate way to look at it is that the vocation is part of the person, and therefore their personality is suited to their vocation. (It is more accurate because the “being” in “human being” is really a verb, like “running” or “swimming”, though really the only distinction between verbs and nouns is that verbs are relatively short-lived actions and nouns are very long lived actions. God’s name is not “The Thing” but “I am”, and so far as we exist we are all made in the image of God.)

Trying to cram people into the wrong vocation will necessarily hurt the people thus crammed. The proper definition of sin is “privation of form”, or slightly more intelligibly to those not familiar with scholastic philosophy, “diminishment of being”. We can all see what is meant if you consider the loss to a pianist of having his hands mangled in an accident. He simply ceases to be a pianist at all. He might be or become many other good things, of course. He might become a great piano teacher. He might fall back on the degree he got in college of astrophysics and do excellent work examining the stars. He might concentrate on managing investments for family and friends which he had been doing in his spare time. He may become a much better man than ever he would have been as a pianist, but none the less he who once was a pianist is no longer; in that regard he is now less than he once was. His being has been diminished.

By analogy, sin diminishes a person too. Human beings were given language to enable us to tell the truth. To use language to tell a lie makes us less, because now we cannot be trusted and all our words convey less truth than they used to. So it goes with all sin; it is to make ourselves less than the fullness of what we are supposed to be. That God saves us means that this diminishment may not always be permanent, and it may not always be catastrophic, certainly it will not destroy us if we turn away from it and embrace God’s gift of salvation.

I think this analysis makes it obvious why a person being crammed into the wrong vocation diminishes them; it doesn’t destroy them and it certainly will provide many opportunities to practice the virtue of patience, but it will result in their life not being all that it could have been. But we must be clear that this does not mean that a person so crammed will grow new abilities and personality traits; they will have to make do as best they can with a personality which was adapted to something else. Swimming might here be a good analogy; the human body can swim, and some people can swim much better than others, but the human body is not made for swimming, and the fastest of us are slow compared to very average fish. A man who should have been a celibate priest might make a good husband and father, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have made a better priest. The reverse is of course true, too, but that mistake is well understood within our current culture.

To some degree I think that part of the problem in understanding this is the degree to which catholics have acculturated to the predominantly protestant culture of America. In the aftermath of JFK, catholics went from being distrusted and hated to being accepted, and this caused many of the problems which are always associated with comfort. Chief among those problems is laziness. Comfortable people become very reluctant to hold onto difficult truths, and that people are not all the same is a difficult truth to hold onto.

Now, it is easy to be misled because “tolerance” is a common catchword, and we’re asked to be tolerant of seemingly everything. But these are all superficial differences which are accepted, and they are accepted precisely because they are superficial. Pretending that everyone is basically the same is much easier than loving people who are different, which is why one of the immediate actions of “tolerance” is to angrily call all discussion of difference bigotry. It may possible be that much of the “tolerance” we see is the overcompensation of self-loathing bigots, but much of it is that this “toleration” consists primarily of pretending that there are no differences. To discuss real differences is to shatter this illusion, and since they have no metaphysical system in which (real) difference is not defect, this has no other interpretation to them.

There is another problem which our culture has that tends to deny any of the celibate vocations, and (unsurprisingly) it is derived from an essentially secular origin. The basic principle is that a person must have a committed sexual partner in order to be a full human being. It’s a crazy idea, and one might be tempted to think that it comes from watching far too many romantic comedies, but in fact I think it derives from the belief in an imminent soul made up of the accumulation of a person’s experiences, rather than a transcendent soul which pre-exists but changes with experiences. The former is the only real metaphysical possibility absent an intelligent creator, hence its prevalence in our largely secular culture. An imminent soul has no inherent value, however. It can only be valued if known, and it can only be known with a very great investment in time, and that very great investment in time will only be made if a person is loved, but they can’t be loved before they are known and so something must attract another person prior to knowledge and the only two candidates are desperation which would take anybody, and sexual attraction which is at least a little selective. Desperation is of no value because it is entirely focused on the self, not the other, which is why it will take anyone. Hence sexual attraction is the only option for a worthwhile life. And hence celibate vocations are a form of suicide, and why parents might discourage their children from throwing their lives away in that manner. In the best case, these might be noble sacrifices, like being an organ donor or the soldier who jumps on a grenade to save his fellows, but still, one hopes that the noble soul who sacrifices himself will be someone else’s child.

Accordingly, I think that the first thing we must do to help everyone get into their proper vocations is to attack the idea of homogeneity. Sex is nice and all, but massively overvalued, so to get it into its right proportion in human life, I think that we need to undermine the idea that sex is something which makes a human life whole. It’s a powerful and very animating idea, which is why I think relatively little headway will be made while it is still dominant. It’s not a very sensible idea of stated directly, however, so I think it is vulnerable to mockery. And I think that there is merit to Saint Thomas More’s saying that the devil, being a proud spirit, cannot endure to be mocked.

I think that this is also very important for recovering an authentic understanding of the vocation of marriage. Far too many people go into marriage looking to get something out of it, rather than looking at it as a way to pour themselves out like a libation. Marriage and raising children have their enjoyable parts, to be sure, but the idea that marriage is some sort of odd hybrid between entertainment and psychotherapy is very destructive to human happiness. Children are wonderful to watch and play with, but it is proper they will take a great deal from one that they will never give back, and they will in their youthful ignorance cause a great deal of suffering which will form a heavy cross to carry. Pretending that marriage is something which will help to carry crosses, rather than something which will fashion them and load them onto one’s back, is to set people up for disappointment and misery. It is true that husband and wife will help each other, but they will also be one of the biggest sources of the other one’s problems. This does not mean that husband and wife will inevitably quarrel—though so far I’ve never heard of husband and wife who haven’t—but that the two are signing up to do something very difficult together, and the magnitude of problems are always proportional to the magnitude of the undertaking from which they arise. Marriage is a thing which should be viewed like enlisting in the army during a war, not like booking a Caribbean vacation.

Though it should be noted that most soldiers survive going to war, whereas marriage has a 50% mortality rate.

One thought on “There are Four Vocations

  1. Gribblers

    Hey Mr. Lansdown,

    Thank you for the great blog post! We enjoyed especially this quote:”Marriage is a thing which should be viewed like enlisting in the army during a war, not like booking a caribbean vacation.
    Though it should be noted that most soldiers survive going to war, whereas marriage has a 50% mortality rate.” That hits it right on the head concerning the problems with the vocation of marriage.


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