Vocations to the Priesthood III: The Double Vocations Crisis

Vocations to the Priesthood III: The Double Vocations Crisis July 7, 2014

I was catching up on my reading and I found a fascinating article in America Magazine by Fr. Michael Heintz on the two vocations of marriage and the priesthood.   Having been reminded by a commentators to my earlier posts on vocations to the priesthood that it is one of several vocations, this essay was very timely.   Towards the end of his article, the author draws a connection between the lack of priestly vocations and the crisis in traditional marriage.  I do not have time to reflect more deeply on this, but I did want to share an extensive quote with everyone and get your thoughts on what he writes.

In conversations with young men discerning about a vocation to the priesthood, I used to think it was enough to ask the rather basic question, “Do you think you could live the life?” I soon realized that this question is insufficient. It is not enough just to live the life, to go through the motions and do what is asked. The celibate life must be embraced and lived with joy. Unhappy, disgruntled or edgy clerics are hardly a draw, and it is unsurprising that a young person may be less inclined even to consider such a life on the basis of encounters with such sullen celibates. At the same time, those considering marriage see how many marital relationships struggle or are fractured, and this no doubt has some influence on their apprehensions about entering marriage. As we worry about the declining numbers of priests and religious in the past several decades (a trend that may indeed be changing) and the challenges facing marriage as an institution, we should recognize that both married life and priestly life suffer from the same cultural malady: the fear of sustained commitments. The crisis (if indeed it is such) is not principally a matter of the “burden” celibacy imposes any more than it is about the “demands” of marriage and children. In short, both require self-emptying love, and it is precisely the permanence of that commitment—marriage or celibacy—that is so intimidating. On the one hand, seminaries and novitiates today encounter some who might be characterized as hyper-intentional, seemingly professional “discerners”—those who stew and ponder, moving from one community or diocese to another, apparently awaiting a kind of clarity simply not possible this side of the veil and who freight every decision with almost cosmic significance, paralyzed atop the fence of ambivalence. On the other hand, there is the pastoral challenge facing the church of the significant number of couples cohabiting prior to marriage (a phenomenon better understood as evidence of fear than simply a capitulation to concupiscence). Both are symptoms of a cultural aversion to commitment and reveal the genuine vulnerabilities at the heart of any meaningful gift of self, the former veiled as piety and the latter as, well, practice.

"If I am only now scaring you, I need to bring my A game. :-)"

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  • Julia Smucker

    I just read the full article, which is beautifully grounded in the universal call to holiness and its basis in Catholic tradition. This struck me because it speaks to a critique that I’ve sometimes heard Mennonites make unfairly of monasticism, in the charge that it means holiness is reserved for a spiritual elite. Interestingly, he makes a good case that those called to marital vows have as much to teach those called to religious vows about holy living as vice-versa.

  • Agellius

    “[W]e should recognize that both married life and priestly life suffer from the same cultural malady: the fear of sustained commitments.”

    I think it’s an astute insight, that the decline in marriage and in priestly vocations are related. But I don’t think it’s as easy as blaming people’s fear of commitment on the culture. The Church is supposed to influence culture and not be blown about by cultural shifts. The failure of Catholics to be able to commit to either marriage or priesthood, I think is mainly caused by the Church’s failure to teach its own teachings in the face of cultural opposition.

    Similar to the way in which Christians in general undermined their own arguments against gay marriage by approving of birth control and no-fault divorce, making marriage, in practice, sterile and temporary; the Church, while it hasn’t approved these things explicitly, also hasn’t exactly been a voice crying out in the wilderness against them. The Church’s failure to strenuously oppose the culture leaves Catholics to follow the culture by default.