The Meaning of Vocation

This is the sixth in a series of posts looking at my Catholic Faith, and how it relates to my life and my sexuality. Click to see the firstsecond,  third, fourth , and fifth installments.

In many Catholic circles today, vocation is often considered to be a calling either to marriage or to the priesthood or religious life. Growing up, I considered my vocation to be a calling to one of these ways of life. I either had a celibate vocation as a priest or religious, or I had a vocation to marriage with a woman.

I dated for a while, both in high school and in college. I dated women whom I found interesting, exciting, and beautiful. I never seriously considered how my attractions to women differed from other men until somewhat late into my college years. For me, men dating women was a good societal, religious, and human norm that was based upon mutual respect and discernment of a possible life spent together.

I don’t consider being gay as being incompatible with being married to a woman, but, contrary to some Christians, I do not believe that marriage with someone of the opposite sex should be considered as a “solution” to “being gay.” In a recent post, Jeremy Erickson wrote:

A lot of Christian counsel [for those who are same-sex-attracted] is for everyone to get married to someone of the opposite sex. (Joshua Gonnerman has addressed some issues with promoting this message in “Homosexuality and false hope.”) I do want to acknowledge that I know several same-sex attracted people who are genuinely in love with their opposite-sex spouses and are honoring God in their marriages. However, such marriages can also be dangerous, particularly if the non-straight spouse hides his or her sexuality until after the wedding. This kind of dishonesty undermines the intimacy and openness that is essential to marital union. Another potential difficulty is that sex within the marriage might be difficult and/or infrequent and might not provide the relief of sexual urges that Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 7.

For men and women who are gay and decide to marry a member of the opposite sex, it is good to be conscious of your actual desires and to not place the success of marriage in terms of orientation change. Change may be possible for some, but it is not inevitable for anyone, and a life should not be structured upon a hope for this change. Rather, one should marry another person because of a particular desire for and commitment to that person. Further, one should recognize that the validity of the marriage (and the corresponding responsibilities towards it) is not dependent upon such change. Even if that change does not occur, all parties involved still have a responsibility towards that marriage.

Melinda Selyms, a self-identified lesbian, is committed to her husband in marriage, but this marriage requires self-knowledge for both parties involved. Melinda has written, “I am not attracted to men, I am in love with a man.” Marriage should never be simply a means for “curing” same-sex-attraction; rather, it should based upon an honest, faithful and loving commitment, for better or for worse. Same-sex-attraction may just be one of the many things that are “for worse,” but for couples who are open and honest, it can also be a part of the “for better.”

There are also some who believe that all gay men and women have, due to their same-sex-attraction, a vocation to lifelong celibacy in the single life. They see it in terms of simple logic: if gay, then vocation to single life. One might ask such people whether they hold the corollary view: if straight, then vocation to marriage. They treat vocation as something that can be reduced to simple syllogism, requiring little or no discernment.

But I can hardly conceive of a vocation stemming solely (or even primarily) from syllogism. I can hardly see a human life reduced to logic. As Newman has put it, “Logicians are more set upon concluding rightly, than on right conclusions.” A Christian could select passages from the Catechism and form them into a logical sequence, but this sequence does not guarantee a good way of life for a Christian. You could state that a gay man cannot have gay sex and that, thus, he cannot have the sex he may desire. But to state this as the primary focus of the man’s vocation would be to miss the whole point. Gay men aren’t fated to celibacy any more than straight men are fated to marriage. Eve Tushnet reveals the emptiness in such logical fundamentalism in showing us that “you can’t have a vocation of not-gay-marrying and not-having-sex. You can’t have a vocation of No.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “the dignity of the human person is rooted in his creation in the image and likeness of God; it is fulfilled in his vocation to divine beatitude” (1700). Thus, vocation begins with what is like God, not with what is unlike God. Vocation is realized insofar as one “does, or does not, conform to the good promised by God,” not simply insofar as one avoids an evil. We do not avoid evil simply to avoid evil; rather, we avoid evil so that we may pursue a good. Man’s vocation must always begin with a good, with something to pursue, with something to realize. If we only discuss vocation in terms of what is evil, what is to be avoided, what is not to be realized, then we will miss the whole point.

A vocation to lifelong celibacy can, thus, never truly be a “default.” It must consist of vocatus, a “calling out” to something good. A vocation is not simply a condemning of the evil, the untrue, the ugly; it is an unveiling of the good, the true, and the beautiful. A vocation to celibacy is a calling into something, not just a calling away from something. Celibacy is much less about giving up and much more about opening up. And it is not only a good for gay men and women to discern a possible life of celibacy; it is a good for all men and women to discern a possible calling to this life.

Further, vocation can never simply be treated as “his vocation” or “her vocation.” The Catechism also states, “The human person needs to live in society. Society is not for him an extraneous addition but a requirement of his nature. Through the exchange with others, mutual service and dialogue with his brethren, man develops his potential; he thus responds to his vocation” (1879).

Vocation is never lived alone, even on a human level. It is always lived in relation to others, and thus the vocation of each becomes also the vocation of all. The Church’s calling of one man to celibacy is also the calling of the whole Church to that man’s celibacy. Insofar as we are able, we have a calling to aid each other in the pursuit of vocation. The vocation of each is the vocation of all.

Thus, if the Church does have a calling for gay men and women to a life of celibacy, the Church also has a responsibility to aid these men and women in building such a life. When I say “the Church,” I do not just mean Bishops and priests. I mean the men and women sitting in the pews every Sunday. I mean you and me.

Chris DamianChris Damian recently graduated from the University of Notre Dame and is currently pursuing degrees in Law and Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas.

7 thoughts on “The Meaning of Vocation

  1. Great post. I feel that the vocation to celibacy is not expounded enough upon in the church. There’s also the issue that being out and celibate in church can be harder that out and dissident. Something I feel is missing from this blog though is practical advice to people who struggle with ssa. What does being out and a practicing Catholic look like? What do you do when you feel attracted to a friend? What kind of discussions are ok with other gay Christian friends? The philosophical musing is great but the day to day is where our lives change.

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