On “Higher” Vocations and the “Marital Paradigm”

Back when Joshua Gonnerman and I were students at Thomas Aquinas College, from 2005-2009, we were in an environment where the combination of geographical remoteness, Dominican community, and school-wide common study meant that any and every sort of intellectual conversation could take place. One would walk into the Commons and (I am perhaps underexaggerating here) and hear conversations abounding about anything, from Roman history according to Tacitus and Suetonius, to the political philosophy of the American Founding Fathers, to the question of how it is that angels may be said to move according to Aquinas.

There were a few “hot topics” every year that tended to repeat themselves, and one of them was the question of vocational order. This arose from a careful distinction Aquinas made in the Summa, but one which, left unclarified by those giving it only a partial reading, tended to give students heartburn. There is an order among the different states of life in the Church, one defined by both the weight of the sacrifice one makes to be in that state, and also by the juridical order of the Church herself. Because one makes a complete sacrifice of oneself, a holocaust, in entering religious life, Aquinas says that (objectively speaking) religious life is the highest form of life. In this he follows St. Paul, who says in 1 Corinthians 7 that he would that all would remain celibate, but that God calls some to marriage. (Of course, the way he puts this is a legendary bone of contention for those attempting to “justify” marriage as a high vocation. I tend to think he vindicated this, though, by his famous “husbands, love your wives” injunction at the beginning of the same chapter.)

This led some (I assume well-meaning) students to say that since religious life (male or female) is the highest vocation, those who get married are somehow those who “couldn’t hack it” in an Order or a monastery or as Diocesan priests. I was of the opinion that this was a perfectly dreadful way of describing the many ways in which God calls us to Himself in love, and said so at the time; but I was a freshman when this was in vogue, and thus was more humored than listened-to. Since then, most of those who at the time advocated such a position have had cause to change their minds. It is true that the religious life is the “highest” vocation. The sacrifice made is the greatest, the life itself is the life of taking Christ as the “one thing necessary,” and the spiritual graces that flow from it are abundant. But this does not make it the “best” vocation in other ways. God did not desire that everyone should be a monk, or He would not have instituted the Sacrament of Matrimony. What God desires for us, though, is the “best” for us. God is the Good and Goodness Himself, all wrapped up in a big metaphysical pastry of Divine simplicity which is beyond our ken. Vocations are not a matter of ambition, but of humility to God’s ambition for us.

At the time, I saw the side I took as standing up for the dignity of marriage. Some people are ordered to union with God through intimacy and procreation with their spouse; and even among those couples, some will not have the gift of procreation, but they are still called to sanctification through their valid marriage. Sanctification is the goal; for some, religious life is the means to sanctification; but if religious life causes us to take pride and leads thereby away from sanctification, it is better to choose against it than to burn. Such is discernment. But what surprises me is that there is a parallel discussion going on in the Church right now arguing that the marital vocation must be the paradigm for the Church, and that one who is not ordered to procreation and spousal intimacy is somehow “deficient” in the same way that, so it was claimed, the married person was deficient from being religious.

Thanks to thinkers like, for example, Christopher West, whose attempts to clarify the real beauty of the Church’s teaching concerning sex have led to the widespread discussion of the marital paradigm as the chief paradigm for sanctification, many have come to the opinion that the intrinsic relation between two heterosexual persons, which is a real picture of the mystery of salvation according to St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 7, is actually a sine qua non for the life of holiness. It goes something like this: if one is ordered in a heterosexual way according to their inclinations, such that they could potentially get married to someone for the sake of loving procreation and intimacy without any impediment, one is well off. If, however, one’s inclination is homosexual, one has to admit one’s fundamental deficiency, view this as a pure negative, and recognize that unless one can “remedy” this situation, one will be fundamentally frustrated as images of the mystery of salvation. Change your inclinations, and you can be like Christ, but until then, you just have to accept that you never will.

This is far from the unanimous view among even those thinkers specializing, like West, in the Theology of the Body. Dawn Eden, for example, notably wrote her dissertation arguing that West’s view of the marital paradigm is oversexualized and dangerously omits entire dimensions of sexual prudence. (Paradoxically, she argues that his attempt to liberate sexuality from its secular chains “ends up promoting an ideal that has the net effect of promoting puritanism.”) Without my going into the particular issues (one can read the dissertation for free, as well as her spoken abstract) Eden points out that in fact the marital paradigm can and does get taken much too far, to the point of damaging our understanding of religious celibacy. Additionally, people who advocate the notion of the marital paradigm as the sine qua non run the risk of making the same mistake West did make at one point, namely, misquoting and misinterpreting the Theology of the Body.

What, really, are we to make of the marital paradigm? While this is not to speak for the other authors on this blog, whose opinions I do not know, I will say that I personally consider it a valid and good insight. I am a fan of the Theology of the Body, and people like Michael Waldstein, Dawn Eden and David Schindler show that there are different opinions on how one might weigh the importance of this marital paradigm. While I admit its importance, however, its importance is fundamentally as a sign, and a sign points to a deeper reality without being that deeper reality itself. Marriage is a sign, and there is no more powerful refutation of the idea that marriage is final for salvation than Our Lord’s own declaration that those in heaven “neither marry nor are given in marriage.”

Marriage will pass away, as hard as that is for us to think about; we do in fact admit this in the vows, when we say “until death do us part.” Death does end marriage, which is meant to be a sign intrinsic to this life of the real glory of the next, namely, our super-sexual union with God, so much above sex that sex is only a shadow. And God does not need us to be heterosexually attracted to give us Himself, since, though we call Him ‘He’ in Scripture’s own mode of pedagogy, “in Christ there is no male or female.” Finally the union we have will not be bound by natural considerations governing a finite sign. Were this not the case, salvation would not be salvation, the perfect reception of the vision of God.

Matrimony is a powerful way to bring us to God, and a visible manifestation of the deep grace that arises from the union of Christ to His Church in the Incarnation. It renders visible by its signification the reality that is still deeper. But it itself is only a signification, and God does not call everyone to that signification. Nor is the case that He demands the teleology which is manifested in marriage of those who are not called to marriage! Is a eunuch incapable of salvation, because he is incapable of procreation? Obviously not. Is a barren woman somehow barred from the love of the God Who gave Rachel children? Far from it. Could it be that there is some other sort of vocation inherent in single life which itself provides a unique image of the relationship between Christ and His Church that even marriage cannot be expected to provide?

To be clear: in arguing that the marital union between a man and a woman is not the ultimate paradigm of salvation, I am not saying that same-sex unions would be an acceptable sign of this ultimate reality. Only the union of a man with a woman can be the sign God created marriage to be. For everyone, however, regardless of their sexual inclinations, sanctification ultimately means relinquishing the physical union of bodies for a spiritual union with Christ and with His Body, the Church Triumphant. Nor is this to deny, as Dante’s heretics did, the real resurrection of the body, but only to remind us that the body itself has a higher purpose, which is to see God, a union to which the ecstasy of sex only points, as Pope Benedict XVI noted in his discussion of eros in Deus Caritas Est.

The vocation of the celibate single person is, I think, a vocation to that spiritual friendship, that foretaste of the union with God in this life by which Christians evidence their Christianity; a friendship which takes the thought of Aristotle and distends it into a Thomistic infinity; a friendship with all of the members of the Body of Christ through the mystery of the Incarnation. I think that we at this blog are in the right place, and I think that this is a powerful sign of something missing today. (What a paradox, that those who may have seen close friendships damaged by the declaration that they were “gay,” are now in the unique position of trying to redeem friendship in the Body of Christ!) It is only by restoring a notion of friendship that is not caught up in the hangover of Enlightenment abstractions, like Rousseau’s idea of “loving humanity but hating particular human beings”, that we can truly love with the love of God, Who deigned to give us His Son, Who through the Incarnation became man, an embodied being, a particular, so that each and every one of us could love without reserve.

Tom SundaramTom Sundaram is a Master’s student at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, with a background in the study of the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition.

2 thoughts on “On “Higher” Vocations and the “Marital Paradigm”

  1. I love this quote from this blog:
    “Death does end marriage, which is meant to be a sign intrinsic to this life of the real glory of the next, namely, our super-sexual union with God, so much above sex that sex is only a shadow.”

    How sweet that will be! May we have just a taste of this super-sexual love in the body of Christ, even now.

  2. Pingback: Vocation Roundup | Spiritual Friendship

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