Discerning Marriage as Natural Vocation

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.

 

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avatar About Fr. Bryce Sibley

Fr. Bryce Sibley is a priest of the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana. He was ordained in the year 2000, and received his STL from the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome in 2001. He is currently serving as pastor and chaplain of Our Lady of Wisdom Church and Catholic Student Center on the Campus of the University of Louisiana-Lafayette.

Comments

  1. avatar Maria says:

    Thank you Father! What you wrote here is exactly what I needed to hear!
    I’m an almost 23-year old girl whose been discerning a call to religious/consecrated life for over a year now. Although I’ve only mentioned it to my spiritual director a few months ago cause I wasn’t sure if it was real… What’s been bothering is my strong desire to be a mother, I love kids and have been wrestling with the idea of not having any of my own. But I also feel very attracted to becoming a Bride of Christ. It’s been difficult reconciling them. Thank you again! God Bless!

    • avatar Drew Neven says:

      Maria, I am speaking as a protestant father of a large family. We just adopted 2 children from Ethiopia. While visiting there my wife and I got to see the Mother Teresa AIDS orphange in Addis Ababa. I was moved, in a way I have never been before, seeing what the sisters there did for so many children. If my family disappeared tomorrow I would be there to help care for these beautiful children. What this world need is people like you to make these children your own. Follow Him!

  2. avatar Melida Olivier says:

    Thank you Father!
    Great article for understanding the “spousal meaning of the body”! The contribution of Pope John Paul the Great was truly GREAT!
    It is also a great article for understanding “sacramental marriage” as a VOCATION too! I have been married to my husband John for over 20 years. At the same time, I have seen families, relatives and friends, struggle through the pains of divorce.
    “Sacramental marriage” needs to be seen as a VOCATION too! We do not hear this enough! Perhaps we can all pray and proclaim this more!

  3. avatar Lisa says:

    Excellent article- the one thing it doesn’t address is the question or possibility of some people being called to single life (not consecrated), or never entering a vocation/state in life. This too has been the subject of much debate that I would appreciate having some light shed on. Any possibility of that, Father? (Not for myself, just as an academic curiosity.)

  4. avatar brent says:

    Very interesting, and very well said. I believe the key word here is discernment, or keenness of judgement – however you want to put it. Too many times in life people base their decisions purely on emotion, or a reaction to an emotion, rather than possibly basing a decision on principle, and the foundations of those principles. Emotions and passions change, principle does not.

  5. avatar Christopher Higginbotham says:

    Good article. I was told the exact same thing when I was discerning. Many may find this disturbing, but while have found she whom I was supposed to marry, I have actually lost most of the desire that I used to have for fathering children. I don’t know if it is due to a lack of support from family, the church, and society, or of it is because of the economy. All I know is that I am unwilling to go out of my way to avoid fathering children, but I am also unwilling to go out of my way to father hem either. If we have children, I will be the best father I can be. If not, if we never have children or are completely unable to conceive, I’m fine with that too.

  6. Your article describes clearly how celibacy for the kingdom is a spousal life, a calling to self-giving love. Your statement that marriage does not need to be discerned isn’t quite on the mark. Hans Ur Von Balthasar speaks that we each receive the grace of personal mission, a center of gravity that draws us, a vocation that we must recognize and respond to. Russell Shaw, in his work on personal vocation speaks that we each receive a three part vocation, a call to follow the demands of Baptism, a call to a particular state in life (celibacy or marriage or generous singlehood), and a call to a particular application of the state in life through particular abilities or charisms. We each receive an in-bred call to communion as males or as females but not every one receives the drawing center of gravity into marriage. Your language that marriage is natural and celibacy is supernatural seems to imply a hierarchy of supernatural significance. JPII in Theology of the Body speaks that marriage partners are called to find in their mutual gift to each other, the nucleus of their gift is a call to personal union with God that they facilitate for each other. Marriage is to be a supernatural witness to the world of life-giving fruitfulness and communion.

  7. avatar Skye says:

    Fr Bryce, your words pertain to the great majority who choose to be either married or live the celibate life. But what about those people who do not choose their life. For example I am aware of many people with disabilities who cannot choose to marry – celibacy is theirs whether they choose it or not. I also know many single people who cannot find a partner for whatever reason that is – life circumstances etc. I am interested to know what you would say to the person who by ‘default’ lives a celibate life because no other is open to him/her. That is, what of the person who would like to be married in all that this means in its Catholic sense – and there are many many who would like to be – and health, circumstances and tragedies of various kinds preclude them ever being married. Though they would very much like to be – do they just accept that they are ‘rejected’ from the vocation that they feel called to? Is their vocation a ‘non choice’ , or a resignation to a situation not of their own choosing? People in this situation often feel as if they have been forgotten by God as they do not fall in to the main vocation paths of ‘married’ or ‘celibate’ life. They do not choose, they simply become accustomed to a situation. What do you say to these?

    • avatar Cynth says:

      Hi Skye,
      Let me chime in for just a second. I totally agree with Mary Gannon Kaufmann’s comment above yours (I think added later), and have been living what she has called “generous singlehood” for many years. I was in an invalid marriage once, but I haven’t found a suitable mate. It is a cross on the one hand, but a blessing in regard to allowing me to focus on Christ the way St.Paul describes in 1 Cor 7:34. That verse specifies “The virgin — indeed, any unmarried woman . . .” I don’t have a call to the religious vocation and am too old to join a group even if I wanted to do so.. So I appreciate your questions and concern very much. But honestly, I never feel forgotten by God, and my lay friends do not reject me or treat me like a non-vocation. They have an appreciation for my life as a single woman that is definitely not affirmed in any way by articles like Father Sibley’s (though he makes some good points about married/religious vocations). I know a lot of single Catholic adults with vibrant faith lives who are active in the community. The Church does not yet have a developed theology to deal with us and our rightful place in the Church, but the Lord is very active in and through many of us, so we’re not waiting for any statements from above to validate us. We can’t wait. We’re real people in this real situation now. It hurts very much when our place in the Church is invalidated (unintentionally, I’m sure) by some of its leaders, but God’s grace is sufficient and we will carry on with the joy of the Lord. I look forward to the day when the Holy Spirit unpacks the theological truths about us, but until that time in salvation history arrives all we can say to well-meaning people like Fr. S is, “Thanks for saying yes to your vocation, and God bless.”

  8. avatar Skye says:

    The questions asked above were not rhetorical but sincerely asked.

  9. avatar Skye says:

    Thank you Cynth for your thoughtful and generous answer to my post. Actually I agree wholeheartedly with what you say – and believe there is a richness in the single Catholic life which is simply unknown and not thought about. It is a vocation but not referred to by the majority of priests. It is perhaps thought of as ‘unimaginable tragedy’ by married people. In my post I was trying to highlight the fact that the visible ‘vowed’ marriage or the visible ‘vowed’ priestly or religious life – are not the only vocations in this world. There are so many whose single lives are spiritually rich and do not fit into the mindset and expectations of others. Perhaps single people do not make visible vows. But they are spouses, in a sense, of the truth and the moral life. I wish some acknowledgment of this were made but perhaps it is built into the single life to suffer to some extent the misunderstanding of others, even well meaning Catholics. Once again thank you for your insightful and caring response.

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