Being fascinated by the required college courses in philosophy, I majored in it. Then I went on to law school, graduating a year ago last spring near the top of my class. As I studied law, however, I found the prospect of practicing it less and less appealing. Instead of taking the bar examination, I went to work on a master’s degree in philosophy, which I will complete in May. While my M.A. program does not allow much specialization, in my thesis I am pursuing my interest in the foundations of morality, law, and politics, and have found your work and that of John Finnis helpful.
I would appreciate your advice about my plans for the future. Early in law school, I was engaged to a former college classmate, and we were planning to be married when I finished. She became pregnant, said nothing to me about it, and had our baby aborted. Soon after, she became interested in an older man, and we broke up. The shock led me to go on a retreat, and I went to confession for the first time since grade school. Becoming more serious than I had been about my faith, I started going to Mass and Communion most days and became friendly with the priest who usually says the weekday Mass I attend. One day, after I had confessed to him and we were talking, he asked me if I had ever considered becoming a priest. I hadn’t, but his question started me thinking, and I am more and more drawn to the priesthood. At the same time, I am sure that I have the gifts for scholarly work and teaching in philosophy, and that there is a real need for more Catholics in the area of my interests. Therefore, I am planning to go on for a doctorate, probably in one of the more diversified non-Catholic university departments.
Do you think it would be feasible for me to combine a scholarly career with the priesthood? After looking into the Jesuits, I am not attracted to religious life. But I have talked with the vocation directors of a few dioceses, and found that, while some frown on my idea, others seem more open to it. Do you know which of the larger dioceses would provide the best situation for what I have in mind? Do you have other suggestions?
This questioner must discern his vocation, that is, seek God’s plan for his life. To do this, he should identify his gifts and limitations, and consider all existing opportunities to use them in service to others. He also needs to understand more clearly what would be involved in a commitment to diocesan priesthood or religious life. If one makes such a commitment, all other commitments except faith itself must be subordinated to it. So, the questioner must discern whether he is primarily called to scholarly activity, or to diocesan priesthood or religious life. He should not consider priesthood as a means to a scholarly career. The questioner also should discern whether to seek a doctorate and, if so, where to seek it.
I am always happy to offer advice to someone trying to plan rightly for the future, and your question is especially welcome since few young men today are even thinking about the possibility that they are called to priesthood or religious life.29 You have been on a good path, and I hope what I tell you will help you see where it may be leading.
Suppose I could tell you of a diocese whose vocation director and bishop would welcome your plan to study for the priesthood and also for a doctorate in philosophy, with the prospect of serving on the faculty of the diocesan seminary. Suppose, too, that, after you were ordained, as you completed your doctorate, that bishop died or was transferred to another diocese, and his successor closed the seminary, decided he needed you in the chancery office, and told you to study for a degree in canon law. Would you gladly accept your bishop’s plan, dedicate yourself to working for him on civil and canonical legal problems, and be content to do that five days a week and help out in a parish on weekends? Or suppose the diocese had no such use for your special bent toward scholarship, and your bishop decided he could best use you as an assistant in a parish where few people ever read a book? Would you try to persuade him to let you look elsewhere for an academic appointment? Or would you comply with his wishes only reluctantly, feeling your plan of life had been frustrated?
I am not just calling your attention to a grave risk, inherent in your plan, that you should not ignore—though you will be running that risk if you proceed in your present frame of mind. My point, rather, is to suggest that you take a different approach in thinking about your future.
Your primary focus must not be on your own feelings: you found philosophy fascinating, did not find the practice of law appealing, and are drawn to the priesthood. Such feelings should be taken into account in considering what to do with your life, but your primary focus should be on what God wants. Pray for the Holy Spirit’s help so that you can discern and live out God’s plan: the unique life of faith and good deeds he has prepared for you (see Eph 2.8–10).
To discover this plan, stir up your faith and hope by earnest prayer, and then in their light look at all your gifts, as well as your limitations, and at all existing opportunities to use your gifts in service to others. You do seem to be doing this to some extent, for you say you have been living more devoutly and are convinced that you have the gifts for scholarly work and teaching in philosophy, and you observe that there is a real need for more Catholics where your interests lie. However, you seem not to be thinking about the priesthood and religious life in the same way. While your tentative plan to pursue a doctorate in philosophy in one of the more diversified non-Catholic university departments might comport well with the prospect of a scholarly career, it seems unrelated, at best, to your interest in the priesthood, and apparently you have not yet considered what is characteristic of religious life as distinct from the diocesan priesthood. Then too, you seem not to have taken into account the gifts evidenced by your success in legal studies—finishing near the top of your class. In considering your gifts and limitations, your feelings should come into play only toward the end of prayerful discernment, after you have gathered facts about various options and carefully examined the pros and cons of each.
Appropriate commitment to the ordained priesthood plainly does not absolutely exclude certain other major commitments, such as a serious commitment to scholarship. Indeed, some priests, including a number of canonized saints, have been outstanding scholars. Moreover, both bishops and the superiors of religious institutes need some scholarly priests to fill certain important roles, especially in seminaries and formation programs. However, a priest is not free to pursue his scholarly career just as he pleases, since the priesthood carries with it a sacred duty of obedience, specified by the promise a diocesan priest makes to obey his bishop or by the vow of the religious to obey superiors (see CIC, cc. 273, 601; CCC, 1567). Moreover, a man’s commitment to the ordained priesthood should be primary and his other commitments not only should be coordinated with it but subordinated to it, since ordination consecrates a man to serve the Church by acting in the person of Christ (see CCC, 1548–51). A sign of the primacy the commitment to the ordained priesthood should have in a man’s life is that the Church generally forbids the ordination of men who lack the gift for celibacy (see CCC, 1579, 1599). Though the Church does not regard the ordination of married men as impossible, she considers priestly celibacy fitting partly because it frees men from the duties of marriage and family life so that they can prefer priestly service to everything else (see PO 16). Consequently, the first thing you should try to discern is whether God is calling you to the ordained priesthood, in which scholarly work might play some subordinate role, or to a primary commitment to scholarship and teaching in philosophy.
While you must discern your vocation for yourself, I venture to point out some things for you to think about.
First, that you have begun to think in vocational terms about a possible career in scholarship but speak only of being “drawn to” the priesthood suggests, though it by no means shows, that you are not called to the priesthood. Are you, perhaps, thinking of the priesthood, at least in part, as a means to a scholarly career—a way of obtaining support for your studies and/or a form of life free of burdens and distractions that might impede your professional work? If so, reconsider the possibility of a priestly vocation without regarding it as instrumental to something else. No major commitment—and certainly not that of the priesthood—should be undertaken as instrumental to anything else. Be confident that if you accurately discern your vocation, make the major commitments God is asking of you, and do your best faithfully to fulfill them, he will supply whatever is necessary. Hence, concerns about means never should be allowed to shape discernment about major commitments.
Second, while any commitment you might make to study and teaching should be subordinated if you are called to the ordained priesthood, you certainly should try to identify a form of priestly ministry and life in which you can make good use of all your gifts. Some communities of religious, rather than the diocesan priesthood, offer clear and substantial prospects of utilizing the gifts of people called to the study and teaching of philosophy. But the profound reality of any form of religious life is to be a particular way of responding to Jesus’ challenge to pursue perfect charity by means of vows or other solemn commitments to poverty, chastity, and obedience (see LG 43–44, PC 12–14). So, if you think God wants you to be a priest, you also should try to discern whether he is calling you to be a religious.
If, but only if, that seems to be so, look carefully into many possibilities, including the Dominicans and various Benedictine abbeys. Nor should you rule out of consideration other institutes, including the Jesuits, for though the Society has severe problems, it has not lost its unique charism. No alternative will be entirely free of difficulties, and all need new members who will strive to overcome difficulties in harmony with their founders’ visions.
Third, keep in mind that even an institute that joins a commitment to scholarship with priestly life and service requires all its members to subordinate their scholarly careers to its common apostolate and obliges some to set scholarship aside for a time, or even permanently, to serve as superiors or work in other ways for the institute’s common purpose. If your central calling is to use your gifts to the fullest in the study and teaching of philosophy, you should not become a priest or religious, or make any other commitment that demands that the commitment to scholarship be subordinate to it rather than coordinated with it. It is worth noting, however, that, while incompatible with the ordained priesthood and religious life, a commitment to scholarship subordinated only to the fundamental commitment of faith itself is compatible with consecrated life in a secular institute whose members are free to make full use of their individual gifts in unique, personal apostolates (see CCC, 928–29; CIC, cc. 710, 713, 714, 716).
Someone might object that, though the commitment to marriage and parenthood often is as demanding as the priesthood or religious life, a man need only coordinate his roles as husband and father with his profession or other work, not subordinate his career to his family. Unlike marriage and family life, however, the ordained priesthood is a profession, though not merely that; ordination consecrates a man—sets him apart—precisely for priestly service to all who need his ministry. And unlike both marriage and consecrated life in a secular institute, religious life subordinates to an institute’s common mission its members’ commitments to a profession or other work, which must be carried out cooperatively in obedience to superiors. Marriage and parenthood, by contrast, usually require a man to engage in other work and plainly are compatible with his carrying on a professional career shaped by his own gifts and his work’s exigencies; in pursuing their careers, married women, too, enjoy freedom that religious women surrender to their institute’s common apostolate (see LCL, 623–26).
Fourth, your sense of being drawn to the priesthood may have been generated not only by the salutary effect of the termination of your engagement—namely, that it occasioned your repentance and more devout life—but by its painful emotional consequences, which may be making the thought of marriage unattractive or even repugnant and moving you not to risk another romantic relationship. If such mixed motives may be at work, you perhaps need to deal with the psychological trauma you suffered when your fiancée aborted your baby.30 Then too, take care to appreciate the dignity of both marriage and celibacy. Marriage is intrinsically good; it is a basic human good (see LCL, 555–69). Moreover, though some Christians receive the grace to become good and holy without marrying, marriage is part of the fulfillment natural to human persons. That is why Jesus, even while highly commending celibacy or virginity for the kingdom’s sake, compares this condition with that of one who is a eunuch due to castration or a birth defect (see Mt 19.12). Nevertheless, so worthy is it to consecrate one’s life to the kingdom in priestly service or vowed religion that the forgoing of fulfillment in marriage incidental to that consecration is reasonable, just as is the martyr’s laying down of his or her life in bearing faithful witness to God’s truth and love. Only those who see the matter in this way fully appreciate the dignity of celibacy or virginity for the kingdom’s sake, and only they can make and live out the necessary commitment without ever denigrating, even subtly, the natural and sacramental dignity of marriage and parenthood.
Fifth, if your central calling is to study and teach philosophy, you should carry out your plan to go on for a doctorate. But whether to pursue it in a non-Catholic university department is a matter for further discernment. Will that be the best way to develop your talents so that you can use them well in effective service? In considering this question, take into account the witness you will be able to give, not only if you eventually become a scholar and teacher, but even in the course of your studies. Ask yourself, too, whether a Catholic university’s department might benefit from your contribution as a student and an alumnus.
Finally, be confident that God will lead you according to his plan, provided you are honest and fully ready to respond to his call. Bear in mind, too, that God’s plan for your life will not be unveiled all at once. Suppose, for example, that after much fact gathering, prayer, and reflection it seems clear to you that God is calling you to be a Dominican priest. Then, of course, you should apply for admission into that order. But it could in fact be your calling to spend only some years in studies and formation with the Dominicans. A calling to religious life is verified only when candidates are allowed to make their final vows; a calling to priesthood is verified only when a candidate is invited to receive orders and is ordained.
The same is true of other possible aspects of one’s vocation: a calling to scholarship is verified by the granting of a necessary degree and academic appointment; a calling to married life is verified by another’s acceptance and mutual consent to marriage; and so on. Faithfully responding to God’s calling very often does not bring one to the goal one was aiming at. No matter what you discern and undertake, the Lord may wish you to stretch out your hands and take up an unexpected cross. Always be ready, if that should happen, to follow where you never wished to go. Only then will your feelings about what you might do with your life be shaped by the Christian meekness that merits the blessing of inheriting the earth (see Mt 5.5; CMP, 637–39).
29. In volume four I hope to deal with many questions involved in and underlying this reply, and here only sketch out lines of thought that will be developed there and, perhaps, corrected in some respects.
30. See Vincent M. Rue and Cynthia Tellefsen, “The Effects of Abortion on Men,” Ethics and Medics, 21:4 (Apr. 1996): 3–4.