All Christians have a ‘vocation’ but not everyone is called to the clergy or vows of consecrated life
Q: I have a question about celibacy and the laity. I am a practicing Catholic in my 20s and feel called to a vocation to celibacy, but not as a consecrated religious or priest. Is there such a thing as a celibate vocation for the laity? Does the church recognize this as a vocation?
A: Thank you for your question; it is a good one. To begin with, it would be good to look at what the word vocation means within the Christian tradition. A vocation is a calling to serve and love God and others in and through a specific path. This has been seen traditionally as either being married or being a priest, deacon or consecrated religious. So what about the case of someone who feels called to a celibate vocation but not within the religious or clerical states?
In a general sense, the church recognizes a universal vocation within each of her members: the vocation to holiness. This is something rooted in our baptisms. As the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium put it, “all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity; by this holiness as such a more human manner of living is promoted in this earthly society.”
Primary and secondary vocations
All of us are called to the perfection of Christian charity through our baptisms, and to live that charity through a life dedicated to service. Each of us lives this according to how God calls us.
Your question, however, seems to be whether living out your call to holiness as a celibate layperson would be recognized by the church as a vocation. From my point of view, the answer is both yes and no. It depends on the path you choose.
Emily Stimpson, in her wonderful book The Catholic Girl’s Survival Guide for the Single Years, makes the point that a true vocation, whether it is to the priesthood, to marriage or to vowed consecrated life, always has a nuptial quality to it. One is consecrated or wedded completely to Christ and his church in and through the vocation itself. We are ultimately created to live this nuptial relationship; it’s written into our DNA.
Stimpson describes two forms of vocations, or ways we live out our call to holiness: secondary (the general path or journey that we are on) and primary (how we specifically live our call to holiness, e.g., a religious vocation). I sense that the latter of these two is where your question is aimed when you ask whether a lay celibate state can be called a vocation.
Permanent and spousal dimensions
There are two ways that the celibate state you are referring to could be lived: in an unconsecrated way or in a consecrated way. Given that a primary vocation (marriage, priesthood/diaconate or religious life) is exclusive, lifelong and spousal in nature, living in an unconsecrated celibate state, because it is by nature impermanent and open to change, in my view would not constitute a primary vocation. Being a consecrated lay celibate, on the other hand, could be seen as a primary vocation because through consecration, the permanent and spousal dimensions of a vocation are realized.
There are several ways of living as a consecrated lay celibate that the church recognizes as being primary vocations: through a secular institute, a society of apostolic life or a prelature such as Opus Dei (roughly 20 percent of its members are celibate men and women called numeraries). If you are feeling a call to live as a celibate lay person, I would suggest that you consider doing so as a consecrated person. Not only would you benefit from being part of a community, but you also would be living out your call to holiness in a manner more faithful to the church’s understanding of a primary vocation.
May God’s blessing be with you today and always!
NORTHWEST CATHOLIC - Sept. 2014