Callings, Revisited

Blogger’s Note: That last post 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.

2 thoughts on “Callings, Revisited

  1. I am clearly no expert on any of this. I wonder, though, if what makes it hard to imagine has more to do with the way in which, in choosing a family, you've tied your lives to others whose lives would be changed drastically by your choice. I can far better imagine the hurt breaking a marriage vow would cause a spouse or on children than the hurt leaving the priesthood would cause the Church. And so the calling would have to be so much stronger. Maybe.

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  2. I think there's great truth to that, Jacqui — the love between husband and wife is very tangible, sometimes nameable, even! The love between a priest and his bride, the Church, seems harder to wrap your arms around …

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