Marriage, as a vocation, is written into our human nature, into our very being. According to the Church, everyone is called to marriage because they are humans who have been created as either male or female.
It is necessary to clear up some confusion about the nature of marriage as a vocation, specifically in relation to celibacy and the priesthood as such. From my experience as a Catholic priest and university chaplain, this is the fundamental misunderstanding most young people encounter while considering a vocation. This confusion can have some serious effects on the ability to properly discern it, be it to priesthood or to marriage.
The word “vocation”has its roots in the Latin word vocare, which means “to call”. A vocation is a calling. The Second Vatican Council clearly stated that we all have a call to holiness. But within that universal call to holiness, there are two main “states of life”—marriage and celibacy for the kingdom. (The main call to celibacy can be further divided into priesthood and consecrated or religious life.) We rightfully say that both states of life are vocations since both calls ultimately find their origin and their end in God. However, though they both come from and lead to God, there is a fundamental difference in how the word ‘vocation’ is applied and understood properly, regarding marriage and celibacy.
What does this mean? Marriage, as a vocation, is written into our human nature, into our very being. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, “The vocation to marriage is written into the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator” (§1603). According to the Church, everyone is called to marriage because they are humans who have been created as either male or female. All men and women ought to have a natural desire for marriage and a natural desire to be a mother or father. This natural vocation to marriage is manifested in these natural human desires.
Yes, every priest and nun, even the Pope, is called to marriage, insofar as they are human beings. Theologically, this can best be understood in what Blessed John Paul II called the “spousal meaning of the body.” This means that the ensouled body, the person, is meant for the gift of self, particularly in marriage. Marriage is something to which every human person is called; it is the “default” vocation for all humans. So marriage, at its most basic level, is a natural vocation, a call written into our very DNA, into the very structure of our being. The married person is called to give himself totally to one person in love, while the celibate is called to give himself to all.
With this understanding, we can therefore say that it is not necessary to “discern” a vocation to marriage per se. As long as you are a man or a woman, you are called to marriage, as a result of the spousal meaning of the body. I often hear young people say they need to date in order to discern if they are called to marriage. This is simply incorrect. You may need to date to see whom exactly you should marry, but not to know if you are called to marriage as a vocation. You know this by the fact that you are a human being, that is, a man or a woman. Marriage is never a vocation that can be eliminated since it is written into our very nature.
Christians believe that Christ took the natural vocation of marriage and elevated it to the level of a sacrament. Vatican II explains that “authentic married love is caught up in divine love” and transformed. In that supernatural reality, man and woman come to represent the love shared between Christ and his Bride, the Church. But this still does not change the fact that one does not need to discern a vocation to marriage. It is presumed that a baptized Catholic will enter into a sacramental marriage. For the Catholic, natural and sacramental marriage ought to exist together. The sacramental marriage builds upon the natural vocation to marriage.
This understanding, that marriage is a vocation written into our human nature, helps us to comprehend how it differs from celibacy as a vocation. Unlike the call to marriage, which is internal, the call to celibacy is external; it comes from outside of our nature. The vocation to celibacy has a purely supernatural basis since it invites us to renounce the natural vocation to marriage for the sake of the kingdom. In addition, Scripture is clear that celibacy must be received and lived as a supernatural grace (cf. Mt 19:11-12). Without this gift, one cannot properly live the vocation of celibacy for the kingdom.
Here is the crucial point. Individuals called to celibacy will experience both calls at the same time: the desire for marriage, written into their nature, and the inclination to renounce marriage, which comes as a supernatural grace. They should also feel the natural desire to be a mother or father. I’ve talked to many young people who have thought that if they were called to celibacy, they wouldn’t feel the desire for marriage and children. Exactly the opposite! The person called to celibacy feels both at the same time, and then is called to renounce the desire for marriage. In fact, if a young man does not have a desire for marriage or the desire to be a father, then he should think twice about becoming a candidate for the priesthood. If he does not desire to be an earthly father, then he cannot become a spiritual father. The existence of such desires is healthy and natural and in no way precludes a possible vocation to celibacy.
Consequently, the person who is discerning a possible vocation should not make a decision according to the relative intensity of his feelings and desires for marriage versus for priesthood or religious life. Again, the simple existence of the desire for marriage or children does not mean he is necessarily called to marriage. They are things everyone should experience. We shouldn’t base such important decisions on the vacillating intensity of our emotions and desires. This is particularly true for a young man whose natural desires for marriage (and sexual union) are normally quite intense in the late teens and early twenties; the very age most young men discern a possible call to celibacy and the priesthood. It’s not that we ignore our feelings, but the process of discernment is a bit more nuanced.
Celibates are not asexual. They do not renounce their sexuality—they remain fully male or female with the normal desires and inclinations that come with being human. This is a renunciation that must be constantly renewed during one’s lifetime, since the desire for marriage never departs, since it is written into our human nature, and since we can never abandon our human nature. This renunciation certainly constitutes part of the cross that the celibate is called to joyfully carry with the help of the grace of Christ.
However, the truth is that the celibate is “married.” We say that the priest is married to the Church. His Bride is the people whom he is called to serve, and to whom he gives himself. The female celibate is married to Christ. In fact, this nuptial theme is prevalent throughout the entire vow or consecration ceremony. This is how the spousal meaning of “body” is fulfilled in celibacy—the total gift of self to Christ and his Church. And through this gift of self, the celibate finds a spiritual fruitfulness. The priest becomes the spiritual father to those whom he serves, and the consecrated woman becomes a mother to her spiritual children. So there is a real sense of fulfillment that comes with authentically living out a call to celibacy.
We know that we are all called to marriage; we don’t discern it, we presume it. Practically, what needs to be discerned is the possibility of a call to celibacy. I normally suggest to those who have signs that they might be called to the priesthood or religious life to focus primarily on the call to celibacy. I encourage them not to ignore their inclinations and desires for marriage and a family, but also to not focus upon them. Over time, if the individuals have discerned properly, and we can be morally certain that they are not called to celibacy, we can safely eliminate that option and encourage them to pursue the vocation of marriage. It can’t be the other way around because we can never eliminate marriage as a vocation since it is written into our nature.