Thursday, April 23, 2009

Callings, Revisited

Blogger's Note: That last post on my other blog garnered some interesting comments, both on- and off-line. Hope this one does, too.

It occurred to me on my commute this morning that there is one aspect of the priestly vocation versus the married vocation that I failed to explore: The possibility of answering one calling, only to hear another years or even decades later.

I know of at least two former Catholic priests who have chosen to leave the priesthood and get married. To the best of my knowledge, one left the Catholic Church and may now be a Protestant minister; the other is the head of one of the most Catholic families I know back home in Michigan.

I know of precisely zero married men who have chosen to leave their marriage to become priests. In neither case do I know what the "rules" are — how one "undoes" one sacramental vow and undertakes a new one, or even if it's possible, within the Catholic Church. I suppose one might do it regardless and seek forgiveness in some way, perhaps.

What is of more interest to me is that it is easier for people to imagine a celibate priest discerning a call to marriage later in life than to imagine a married man discerning a call to the celibate life of a priest. The romantic-triangle buddy comedy Keeping the Faith includes a great scene between a young priest, played by Edward Norton, who is contemplating turning his back on his vows over a girl, and an old priest who declares that falling in love every so often is part of the gig — and just like in marriage, you make a choice to stay faithful to your vows. The scene seems funny, wise, and true.

But why not the other way? I can imagine the possibility of years or even decades of celibacy were I to outlive my wife. (Perhaps even celibacy by my own choice ...) But another calling now? While I'm here, with this other half of me? It's unfathomable.

The question becomes, why is it unfathomable for me to imagine falling so in love with the Church that I would want to leave my married vocation, but it's not unfathomable for me to imagine a priest falling so in love with a woman that he would want to leave the Church? If you knew a man in former situation, would you not think it strange, or even outrageous? But in the latter situation? I suspect most people might be sympathetic.

I wonder if it's not the case that have we been so immersed in popular understandings of sexuality — especially male sexuality — that continence seems unnatural and celibacy, next to impossible. In such a world, it's difficult to imagine anyone who had experienced marital intimacy ever choosing celibacy.

But the discussion returns to a question posed in the last post: Would you leave your spouse if a tragic accident made it necessary for you to spend the rest of your days celibate? Would you stay married and cheat?

If you can imagine one, you can imagine the other. And if you can't imagine a love for God deep enough to forsake all others, perhaps you simply aren't called.


J. Thorp said...

I posted this one on my personal blog, too -- interesting response already!

Joshua 24:15 said...

I know a very faithful priest in a nearby parish who "was" married. I presume his marriage was annulled so that it wasn't ever sacramental, if I understand the process correctly. So, in some way he first discerned marriage and later discerned the priesthood. However, I'm pretty certain he didn't leave his wife for the Church, that is there was a gap of time between annulment and ordination.

Joshua 24:15 said...

Also, in certain circumstances the Church allows married priests, I believe certain Protestant pastors can be ordained in the Church, even while married. Either the Eastern Church, or the Orthodox churches, or both? allow married priests too.
And, I believe Catholic deacons (married at the time of ordination) are expected to remain celibate if widowed.

J. Thorp said...

I could spend a lot of time exploring the "rules and regs" -- but mostly I'm interested in why we perceive this two callings so differently. I've had some very interesting offline exchanges that we'll have to discuss sometimes.

Joshua 24:15 said...

I guess most of us (meaning the overwhelming fraction of men for whom sacramental marriage is our calling) can't seem to imagine life without the wonderful benefits of our vocation. Since husbands outnumber priests we probably feel like "our view" is "the prevailing view." I imagine someone has done a study on both callings, and those that switch. It would be an interesting thing to read.

Rich B said...

Perhaps it is harder to image the giving up the vocation of husband and father for the priestly vocation because it requires greater sacrifice and has less immediate gratification. He can't walk into his kids room at night while they are sleeping and be reminded of the wonderful gifts he has been given.

He dedicates his life to service, obedience, chastity, poverty. It is a beautiful, amazing calling, but challenging.

As Joshua said, we have an example of a priest close by who did give up family life, converted to the Church and became a priest.

J. Thorp said...

I suspect we all know the same one ...