associate professor in the Department of Physics and adjunct associate
professor of spirituality in the School of Divinity, St. Louis University, 221 North Grand Boulevard, St. Louis, Missouri 63103. Introduction
This article seeks, by means of principles discussed in an earlier article (Review for Religious, September 1974, p. 1062-99) entitled “God’s Call and Man’s Response” (hereafter GCMR) to find some practical ways to help those entangled in the problems generated by the various kinds of false vocation. No truly novel methods are possible, I think, for dealing with these problems. But a fresh view of them in the context of God’s own activity concerning them may make a more discriminating use of even the standard methods possible. The orientations indicated in the introduction to GCMR hold here also.
Part I of this article develops more or less descriptively the notions of “non-vocation,” “mistaken vocation,” and related categories. An extended treatment is given since, if these situations have often not been recognized for what they are,
that lack of recognition may result from insufficiently concrete and
experiential categories through which to grasp and understand them.
In Part II the complications introduced into all questions of God’s call and of
His will by the taking of vows are considered. Various practical situations are
dealt with. Particularly detailed attention is given to secularization (after
permanent vows) as a possible solution to vocational problems.
The last part considers in greater detail the social harm done to various religious
institutes by failure to face squarely these situations. Some suggestions are
offered on possible solutions and how these might be approached in practice. I
shall be concerned with concrete situations far more than with any purely
theological questions though, given the subject matter, these can never be
lacking. Even so and despite its length, this paper is still far too brief to
allow us to consider any topic exhaustively or even to mention many which are,
nonetheless, of considerable importance. The most notable omissions, perhaps,
are of discernment of spirits and of the ways to actually form a judgment as to
the presence or absence of a divine call. Nor is any attempt made to deal with
all problems growing from spurious vocation. For example, nothing has been said directly about the touchy but closely related topic of “temporary vocation.”
It is obviously impossible to include all the details pertinent to any particular
situation. Common sense and the standard procedures of the Church are presumed to be available except as otherwise indicated. All these matters, on the level of practice, require great delicacy of discernment, tact, and an unsentimental and faithful charity. In no way should what is suggested here be taken as a set of simple formulas capable of direct and immediate application.
The Case of Non-vocation
A. There are people whom, in fact, God has not called to any state of life but who
have, nonetheless, entered seriously upon some way of life as though they had
been called there. They vow themselves to God in this mode of life, yet God has
given them no invitation. This is the situation of “non-vocation.” There are
three elements here: God has not called; the person attempts a particular way
of life; and this, under vow.i
Since not moved by God to any way of life, the person is acting, in this respect,
entirely on his own, independently of grace, perhaps contrary to it. The
motives can be various. In some cases, the person acts with a clear head and
knows well enough what is taking place; for example, a young woman enters the
convent to avoid an obnoxious marriage into which she is being forced by her
family; a young man enters the seminary because of the honor, financial
security, and gentleman-scholar’s life he thinks to obtain as a priest.
In other cases, the motives are obscure and deeply buried, arising from
psychological weaknesses or flaws, or from deeply embedded cultural factors.
Thus, a seminarian may be trying to escape from his mother or, conversely, he
may be seeking to win her love; or the intrinsic dignity of the priesthood may
be sought to compensate for deep humiliations suffered in childhood; or the
convent may seem the only mode of escape from an intolerable family situation
from which brothers and sisters have long since fled.
As an example of cultural factors, consider an attitude that is typical of
American Catholics. Not that we deny the grace of God. We admit our need of
light for our minds and strength for our wills to accomplish whatever it is we
want spiritually, but what we want is determined by ourselves. We do not easily
learn to listen so as to find out what God might be wanting of us. Rather, we
identify, according to temperament, what is reasonable, what is emotionally
satisfying, what others desire of us, and so forth, with the will or call of
God. Ultimately, it is we who decide what we are going to do in God’s service; it
is we who bear the responsibility of asking for the needed grace and for
cooperating properly with it when given and for carrying the whole enterprise
through to its conclusion. In the final analysis, it is God who responds to us,
not we to Him. It is we who are the initiators of good in our lives;
psychological mechanisms explain the bad; and, though we never say so, it is we
who receive the credit for making a success of our lives. The American cultural
ideal of the self-made man who takes the little he has and works with it, with
whatever aid he can get from outside, and strives and struggles perseveringly
until he has successfully done what he desired as his life’s work, is simply
transposed to the spiritual level.
It easily happens, then, that a young person can decide to become a priest or Religious without any least embarrassment at not having heard a call from God. Once he has decided, for whatever reasons, to live such a life, he sees nothing more required except to fill out his application papers and set to work.
The fact that God is not calling the people we have been speaking about does not
mean that He has no will in their regard. He very clearly wills their
repentance or maturation or the working through of their motivation in truth,
with professional aid where needed. That done, He will usually call them, in
what manner and in what directions we shall discuss later.
The Case of Mistaken Vocation
B. The situations, however, which are of primary interest to us here have a quite
different structure: God does indeed call and invite these people to some mode
of life; but they misinterpret His call and, as a result, vow themselves to Him
in a way of life other than that to which He is calling them. These are situations of “mistaken vocation.”ii
There are two broad classes of mistaken vocation which it is of considerable
practical importance to distinguish: the first, in which God’s call does not
have as its objective, directly at least, the choice of a’ specific way of life
at all, but is taken by the person called as if so directed, say, for example,
to the Dominicans; the second, in which God calls to one specific mode of life,
and His call is taken as if to some other specific mode.
No Call to a Specific Way of Life
A common example of the first of these classes results from erroneously
interpreting God’s invitation to an “interior life” as a call, say, to a
religious congregation; and many current vocational problems have no more
complex root than this confounding of a real call towards intimacy with the
Lord at an adult level with a call to some specific state of life.
Thus, ordinarily during adolescence, God begins to send His grace in a perceptible way to a youngster. The latter will already have become acutely conscious of growing up physically. With less reflex awareness he will have been growing also religiously. Religion is no longer just a question of delight in sacred
ceremonies or an attraction towards quiet reflection or a desire to do wondrous
things in strange lands like Father X the missionary. Rather, the adolescent is
becoming more aware of God’s commandments and their obligating power, is more conscious of an active with regard to social justice and “charity,” trying to
do in his life something of what adult Christians “ought to do,” to read some
of the things adult Catholics “ought to read.” But all this has remained
Now begins an interiorization: he begins to savor the greatness of the Christian
heritage or the marvels of God’s works in nature or in history. There comes a certain sweetness in prayer, a realization of how good God is, a certain openness to Him, a sense of awe but not fright in His presence. God begins to make Himself known as personally present, as One who is interested in the young person for himself, not just as a warder-off of evil or a judge of his thoughts, as One who wants to be with him and with whom he deeply desires to remain. He comes to know, perhaps, the joy of being set truly free of his sins by Christ’s pure
love; and he may begin to know God personally, having certain relations with
Jesus and others with Jesus’ Father, now more manifestly his own.
However it takes place, it is something that, from God’s side, is much wanted, even if wholly ordinary, as He stirs the youngster up to desire the sort of
relationship which He would like to have with every Christian adult; for, the “interior life” is simply the inner life of any adult Christian.
The call to interiority is a sign of God’s initiating a more personal relationship
but implies the young person’s need to continue his overall growth. It is an
invitation to incorporate the spiritual more deliberately and consciously into
his life and personal development ‒ the success of which
incorporation is shown by its gradual inversion, so that the spiritual ceases
to be but an element in the young person’s maturation; and his further maturing
is caught up into and forgotten about in his ever developing relations of
knowledge, love, and service of God.
But greatly good as all this is, it need be no more than this. There need as yet be
no least indication of what state God may desire for him. Hence, these varied
graces of prayer or interiority should not be taken, simply as such, as signs
that God is calling this young person to any particular state in life. It is
essential that we allow the youngster to grow up in accord with this call to an
interior life, indeed, insist that he do so, and in no way allow that process
of maturation to be cut short or falsified, as it is only too likely to be if
taken as a “religious vocation.”
The common tendency to jump the gun in these cases seems to be correlative with our own lowering of ideals in the religious life ‒ thinking that any true signs of growth in prayer and closeness to God show an aptitude for the religious state,
or else with a great devaluing of the secular layman’s state, as if a personal
life in and for God was somehow a call away from a secular life. Either
attitude is destructive.
It may be well here to distinguish the situation we have just considered from
another with which it is easily confused: the case of premature response to a
vocation. In connection with non-vocation, we spoke of the person for whom God’s will is simply that he grow up. Clearly, God can will the same thing for a
person He has already called to some state of life. As seen in GCMR, p. 1072, a call by God to a particular state is temporally independent of this willing of maturity. He may call long before, while, or after the growth occurs which He wishes. Conversely, His will for growth is in no way mitigated or satisfied by even the most generous response to His call, whenever, at least, personal maturity is
necessary for implementing the call and reaching its objectives ‒ remember the
long interval of ripening and preparation needed to turn the newly called and
converted Saul into the Apostle Paul.
It is all too easy, then, to think that a call, truly heard, dispenses a youngster
from the pains and struggles of growing up that is required of him before he
enters upon the mode of life to which he is called. The good which God desires
for him can be short-circuited by attempting a mode of life for which, no
matter how truly called, he is not yet ready. For a person rightly to enter any
state of life, he must have matured in the varying manners and to those degrees
that are required by the threshold for that specific state (see GCMR, p. 1093). Otherwise, the life will be too much for him; his ability to live it will depend profoundly on the antecedent soundness of his further growth. It can be a serious error, then, to take the signs of a developing interior life as indications that the person is ready to engage himself actively in accord with his call. The failure to take seriously the threshold requirements of the different religious institutes ‒ or even to work out what these thresholds are in explicit detail ‒ has made this sort of error very common at present.
Mistake in Identifying a Specific Call
2. The second broad class of mistaken vocations (in which an individual is truly called by God to a particular way of life but engages himself in some other, not by refusal of the call but by mistake in identifying it) is perhaps the more important practically. To a limited degree, it has long been recognized; hence, for
example, the provision in each diocese of a vicar for Religious who, among
other duties, is to assist those individuals who might need, for this reason,
to transfer from one Order or congregation to some other.iii
But most of these situations lay largely unrecognized until Vatican II turned its light not so much upon the problems as upon their sources and origins, thus moving towards their radical cures.iv The first such source we have discussed
already in some detail in GCMR, Section III: the loss of perception of the variety and specificity of the different ways of life, both lay potential candidates and by the religious institutes themselves. As there indicated, the Council set in motion the suitable means for remedying this evil.
A second source of mistakes lay in the neglect, since about the 1690s, of the power, depth, and beauty of secular, especially lay, spirituality, in the loss of the very notion, even, of a secular spirituality in any strong sense. Now, at least, it
is once more evident, as a result of the Council, that God calls people to
great intimacy with and outstanding service of Himself entirely within and as
part of a call to a secular layman’s life. The paradoxical effects of this
clarification we shall consider shortly.
A third source, the most deeply rooted perhaps, is a quasi-Lutheran attitude of mind which fails to take adequate account of natural religious growth and development, even when informed by grace. It is the mentality which is overly eager to treat young people as characteristically Christian in all aspects of their being, before they have had time to “recapitulate” the Old Testament. Hence, young Religious or, indeed, charismatically renewed laymen who are instructed and well versed in turning the other cheek before they have learned to experience the fiery anger of the prophets in the presence of social injustice. The principles for treating this disease are only implicit, it would seem, in Vatican II, evident chiefly in its sense of the dynamic nature of religious history and in the firmness of its stand against any supernaturalism which would bypass human growth and development, fallen or redeemed, or reduce the growth process to a
discontinuous transition from Law to Gospel.
Finally, we may put together the various, purely subjective difficulties: hidden psychological needs, fears, and compulsions; immaturity; poor listening to God; only partial hearing of His call; mistaken notions of what a vocation is or how it might be discerned; false or unbalanced theological opinions which obscure the true nature of the call’s objective. The interaction of these subjective factors
with the more objective ones previously mentioned make for the concrete
situations we shall be concerned to deal with and help.
Further Distinction between Mistaken and Non-existent Vocation
3. Before going on, it is worth pondering further the distinction between mistaken and non-existent vocation. The great difference, of course, is the matter of fact (obvious in theory though often very difficult to ascertain in an actual case): in one case God is calling the person ‒ with all that that implies of grace and promise and fidelity (see GCMR, pp. l074, 1084, 1098); in the other case, He is not.
Sometimes a person balks here: how can one speak of a mistaken vocation if the individual has followed out his supposed vocation in good faith and in accord with God’s will, who has let this happen, if superiors have approved and all the levels of ecclesiastical authority have acted to validate it? I agree that under these
circumstances, the individual has done nothing morally wrong; still, he has
made a mistake because God was actually inviting him to something else. God’s
permitting him to go off in another direction implies no anger at the man nor rejection. God permits the mistake and, in some sense, makes it possible by cooperating with the man who makes it, even as He does with much greater evils.
But if a call truly comes from God, it is other than merely the person called and his circumstances. It is something with its source elsewhere than in creation, and
is independent, in its source, of the person called. In this sense it is objective
‒ I do not wish to say that anyone, including the person called, can examine or
scrutinize it directly in the way in which we can scrutinize some object, or
that others can see it independently of the mind and heart of the person
called. But it does take place, by God’s own intervention, in the real order of
this world. God calls a person to one thing rather than another; thus, mistakes
are possible about that to which the call is directed, as about its other
Further, in the great majority of cases of both non-vocation and of mistaken vocation there will be found a fair amount of self-deception. Obscure psychological fears and cravings can be as active in the one case as in the other, though differing in their thrust and intensity. In non-vocation, they generally constitute the entire motive force; in mistaken vocation, they remain subordinate to God’s grace ‒ they deflect or modify what faith, hope, and love have set in motion. Hence, the role of other factors in the latter case: partial hearing; erroneous theology; incomplete or incorrect facts.
Now, it is true that the mere existence of a mistake is valid evidence for there having been some fault in the will, some affective defect of impatience, over-confidence, carelessness or neglect. Hence, some psychological factors are always at work in interaction with the objective ones. Even if, for example, a young person is directly misinformed about some way of life ‒ say, lied to by one he has every reason to trust ‒ yet if he were listening perfectly, he would recognize the Lord’s call as disagreeing and requiring further investigation or else ‘that the call was unspecific, not as yet complete, in need of further efforts or lapse of time’ (see GCMR, p. 1081-2).
On the other hand, mistakes can easily occur in which this element of affective fault lies far below the level at which human assessment of innocence or guilt can operate. Thus, it proves little or nothing to the point, in a case where this type of
mistake as to vocation is suspected, that the person is much in love with
Christ, desires ardently to serve Him well, and gives himself generously to
meet whatever demands are made upon him. Nor, if a mistake is ascertained, is
there any reason to doubt the person’s good faith, early or late. He may, like
most of us, have some tendency under pressure to cheat a bit, to state things
less openly or directly than he might. But bad faith—no.
Perdurance of the Mistake
4. Some, at this point, object strenuously that, while the initial mistake can be made in good faith, it strains credulity past breaking to pretend that a person could be a Religious for eight or ten years or more and still not be aware of the mistake, not just concretely sensing something wrong; to think that his initial good faith has not long since turned to bad.
I admit that, when dealing with human weakness and sinfulness, no lower bounds can be set. Our capacity for malice and dishonesty is both radical and unlimited. Yet such experience as I have had, directly or vicariously, convinces me that often the mistake perdures for many years in good faith.
Consider a group of Sisters in the technical sense, a group of women who may or may not take simple vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and live in community, but who joined together primarily for the sake of a work ‒ they form an apostolic group, a “pia associatio” aimed at some work among God’s people or to draw others closer to the source of their salvation. And they are not about to be tied down by a lot of regulations on cloister, hours of common prayer, habits, perpetual adoration, and so forth. They have nothing against those things; but they are not for them, since they would interfere with their work, which has a dynamic of its own that cuts athwart a mode of life built on the contemplative style.
Suppose you get women in some numbers into a community of this sort who are called by God to be contemplatives and who would desire nothing better than to have six or eight hours a day at some form of prayer and the rest of the time to clean the chapel or be recollected in other silent occupation around the house. These women will be interiorly at odds with the rest of the group. Note that, by assumption, they are not neurotics; nor are they copping out on a lot of tough work; they are not people who got into this and found the wear and tear of the life too much. It is a question of a genuine mistake: here is a woman who was truly called by God to a contemplative life; somehow she got the idea that it was ‘to be found and nurtured in this congregation’; and because the foundress was holy and said some things about the need to pray and to stay close to the Lord if one is to be effective in the apostolate, she screens out much of the rest and sets to work at the cultivation of a contemplative way of life.
Now, just these contemplatively inclined women will be the most likely, with time, to be put in positions of authority ‒ much at ease with reflection, not enthusiastic for energetic activity outside the community, desirous of regular hours, and able to work smoothly and competently in relative quiet. But of course, as superiors, they will tend to stress those elements of the life which they
regard as essential, and never notice, till conflicts arise, how at odds with
the others they are.
Mistakes in the Opposite Sense
5. Mistakes can occur in the opposite sense as well. There is excellent evidence and in large quantities that God has called many a young person to be a good layman, with a strong and healthy secular spirituality after the model of Vatican II, who mistakenly thought he was being called one way or another to the life of a priest or of a Religious. For such a person it was either the life of the Religious or priest, or the life of the spiritual slob. The great stirring of the Council’s efforts at declericalizing the Church, the strong winds of renewal, charismatic and otherwise, had not yet had their effect.
Mistaken Vocations and Departures from Religious Life
The great number of these mistaken vocations goes a long way towards explaining the not inconsiderable paradox that a Council which took as its chief goal the spiritual renewal of every part of the Church should appear to have been a more potent agent for the dissolution of religious life than all its declared
enemies of the past. It is fewer than fifteen years since Pope John first spoke
of convoking a Council; fewer than ten years since the Council’s decree On the Suitable Renovation of the Religious Life ‒ periods of time short, even in our impatient days, for any sort of fundamental renewal of complex and world-spanning institutions. Yet already in 1965, numerous Religious were leaving their institutes in the name of the “spirit of Vatican II,” and the flood has not yet subsided.
Undoubtedly, some people, drained of spiritual strength by tepidity, left simply because it was now easy to do so. Others left, frustrated by ways of life, largely ossified, which their members seemed, in spite of the Council, unwilling or even unable to revivify in accord with the gospel. In greater numbers, people left under the influence of the many, currently popular, for the most part highly superficial theologies of religious life and ecclesiologies occasioned though not engendered by the Council, modes of thought which would render the religious life void of any fundamental significance to humanity at large or to the Church in
Undoubtedly, too, the Council’s careful noting of the elements of good contained in the cultures of our age, largely antithetical to a life of faith though these cultures are concretely, led the foolish to embrace their values en bloc and without distinction in a casual form of spiritual suicide now commonplace among would-be intellectuals. Largely concomitant with and partly caused by the Council, a social upheaval has occurred with regard to the clergy, though less important in the United States than in many other places. Once the social, intellectual, and political as well as spiritual leader of his people, the priest has now been “reduced” to his proper functions, a role dull and disappointing to many who saw him as the extension in space and time of an earthly and temporal messiah.
More basic, however, than these and similar grounds for departure and largely at the root of them, is the fact of mistaken vocation: great numbers largely at the root of them, is the fact of mistaken vocation: great numbers of Religious (and priests), perhaps even a majority, had been called elsewhere from the beginning and should never have been permitted to enter or to remain, despite their good
faith and generosity.
One of the major achievements of Vatican II was undoubtedly the magnificent vision it gave of the true role of the secular layman in the Church. It opened up the full dignity of his call, the spiritual depth of his mode of life, the spiritual
beauty of his familial relations, the power for Christ of his action in the world. More, it indicated uncompromisingly how many areas of the Church’s activity, long dominated in fact if not in principle by priests or Religious, rightly
belonged to the secular layman. In brief, it is the Church’s own greatest
manifesto against clericalism. Yet strangely, “clerics” (the quotation marks
indicate an extension of the word to include Religious of all types) seem more
intent today than at any time since the late Middle Ages at thrusting
themselves, for whatever reasons, into secular activity and positions of
temporal influence. Clericalism is more vigorous than it has been for
Now, suppose a young man or woman who has already spent several years in, say, a religious Order, drawn despite its strongly contemplative orientation by its equally salient apostolic effectiveness or manifest sense of Christian community. He picks up the documents of Vatican II, reads with ever growing interest of the restoration of the temporal order in Christ, of the secular’s call to perfection, and the like, and suddenly cries out in his inmost being, whether daring to admit it to
himself or not, “But that is what I have wanted all along! That’s my vocation!”
It is neither tepidity nor lack of generosity nor false theology that brings such
a reaction. The tragi-comedy of our day is that he is right.
Those elements in the life which run athwart his true vocation he tends to ignore as some sort of non-understandable, pious riddle or to reject as undue interference with his call to Christianize the secular. With all sincerity, following the call received, he works against such elements as antiquated, as contrary to Vatican II ‒ as indeed they would be in a secular layman’s context ‒ and, therefore, to be eliminated as soon as possible from the institute of which he is a member. To the extent that his efforts run aground, that the desired “reform” is frustrated, and that he experiences directly or vicariously the actuality of the secular life of the Church, he will be “tempted” to leave the Order.
Happy the man in his situation who is free to do so and does! Otherwise, apart from some special mercy of the Lord, there is only destruction ahead: his own, through increasing alienation and misunderstanding and conflict; or that of his institute, through spiritual hemorrhage, as through his influence and of those like him, it abandons one element after another of its spiritual inheritance and true spirit, “updating” in ironic contradiction to Vatican II’s insistence that it
is primarily in fidelity to its original and distinctive spirituality that its service to the Church lies.
The more difficult problems in practice arise when an error concerning vocation is complicated by the taking of vows. Hence, the present topic of how to help those whose vocation is not genuine divides naturally into considerations- touching the aid that one may bring to: (A.) those who have not yet taken permanent vows; (B.) those who are bound by permanent but not solemn vows; (C.) those with solemn vows.
The Case of Those without Permanent Vows
The primary reason for including this group here at all is to have thereby a point of comparison and contrast to the remaining groups, and to develop a few useful
ideas free of the complications which the consideration of the vows would bring
in. Since even temporary vows are, at least in many institutes, meant to be seen as permanent from the point of view of the person who takes them, I explicitly omit any such aspects from this section, since they can be treated, mutatis mutandis, in section B. Thus, I am speaking here only of those as yet without vows or of those whose vows imply nothing more than that they are to be kept during a limited, relatively brief period.
The Case of Non-vocation
1. Consider first the case of non-vocation. In most instances, it is not hard to screen out such a person before entry. It should be a rarity that one ever reaches a novitiate or postulancy. If this is not the case, those who are doing the screening need better training or should be replaced. In any event, there will clearly be missing in all these people those positive indications of a true call which are essential before they can be allowed to bind themselves. That so many in fact have stayed on long years, been admitted to vows, and ordained, is something that will need further discussion in Part III.
The general approach here, despite the wide diversity of possible situations, is fairly clear and uniform. The director seeks to discover for himself the true situation, then to draw it as fully into the open and to as full clarity as is prudently possible with the young person concerned, and to assist him to repentance for whatever faults he may have committed in the process ‒ not, primarily, for particular ones but for such general sinful dispositions as, for example, willful blindness, to which he might half-knowingly have yielded. Then he should be sent away, with whatever follow-up advice or aid may seem suitable, to await, as he matures and works out his inner difficulties, his true call from God.
First Point of Special Difficulty
Two points of special difficulty are worth commenting on. The most common type of non-vocation does not involve deliberate choice ‒ certainly not fully ‒ but is based on psychological motivations well hidden from the person himself. Often, then, the person involved will lack the maturity or psychological freedom or insight to be able to easily face or understand his situation, as light is brought to bear upon it, all the more so if, as is ordinarily the case, he is well below the
As a general practical norm, I think that the sooner such a person is sent away, the better. Certainly, charity and sensitivity to the youngster’s needs and feelings are called for. Simply to turn him out, once one has clear knowledge of his case, without effort. at explanation, with flat or impersonal rejection, saying in effect,
“You’re not up to our standards. You flunk. Get out!” would be a serious failure in charity. But to keep him around until one has worked through with him the problem to the point where he can see and accept his situation may well be even worse. There is no guarantee of success, and he might be there forever. If he is below threshold, the life will work against his maturation or equilibration, not for it. Nor is it charity to let a youngster strike roots where he cannot stay, to make friends with those he will unwittingly injure, to spend what remains of his years of most rapid change, of easiest adaptability, of greatest physical and intellectual vigor in a false situation.
To the objection that he will feel rejected if he cannot understand the reasons, I would point out that so the Lord treats all of us often. Life is not such that we will always know why this or that dream or desire is shattered or unfulfilled. If one makes clear that being sent away is not a rejection of him personally, not a matter of ill-will or of disinterest in him, the dismissal will help him, even if
painfully, to learn to face an admittedly not wholly comprehensible real and
introduce him to the unsentimental vigor that most humans today badly need.
Less commonly, the difficulty in understanding why his director should think he has no vocation comes from cultural factors as a result of which the young person does not realize that a divine call and, indeed, to this precise institute, is essential before entry. Though there may be some fairly crass ignorance present, he does not ordinarily need the attention of a psychiatrist. His difficulty can
sometimes be met by bringing him to see, as fully as he can, his own current
interior dispositions and then, in a further and separate step, the dispositions called for by the way of life he has chosen to enter. This is worth doing, as a matter of course, with all entrants, but it should be done as early as possible; otherwise the youngsters will have picked up the “right answers” by rote. Both sets of responses should be kept for future reference in written or taped form.
In either of the above situations, the person is likely to profit from further counseling ‒ spiritual direction is not usually his need as yet. But let him obtain it elsewhere or, if need be, in this same community but as a visitor from outside. The sooner the separation, the better.
Second Point of Difficulty
A second point of difficulty occurs with a person who has deliberately put himself in a life to which he knows he has no call. Here the director’s problem will be rather of discovery than of clarification. More common than the quasi-operatic situations mentioned earlier, are those of people who know (or think) that they have an insurmountable impediment (habit of masturbation; homosexual inclinations; insane parent) and yet, for reasons of economic security or psychological pressures, insist upon entering fraudulently, keeping their “impediment” secret and often doing nothing effective to remove or find out more about it in the years that follow.vii
Despite even a very consistent lying and covering up of such a situation, a competent director will quickly spot, if not the precise difficulty, at least clear indications that something is seriously wrong. The hardest case of this sort to detect (where the impediment is purely imaginary and based on the youngster’s having picked up false information) will still, as a situation of perpetual deception and opacity, show its signs before long. Further, as with the other sort of case, positive signs will be lacking, at least in any clarity and specificity. Again,
sending the person away need not wait on a complete untying of the knot; and
charity would urge it as soon as possible since true repentance is more likely
when he is perforce out from under the pressure to maintain his false stance.
Cases of Mistaken Vocation
2. Turning now to cases of mistaken vocation, if there is question merely of a mistake ‒ the threshold has been reached for his present way of life, but he is not where God invited him and invites him still ‒ then it is a matter of bringing his current situation as fully as possible into focus and sending him with encouragement on his way. Even if he is still below threshold for that life to which he is truly called, he can learn from his experience as he waits, aiding himself as he grows by his new-won clarity concerning God’s desires for him.
On the other hand, whatever the type of mistake, if the person falls substantially below the threshold of the particular institute in which he finds himself, much attention should be devoted to assisting his further spiritual and natural development. Since, by supposition, he is well below threshold, most such assistance can be offered effectively only after he has ceased trying to live the Religious life. Yet the institute can always do something for him, after his departure, ranging from prayer for his continued growth in the Lord, if he belonged to a strictly cloistered community which has no means of secular contact, to ongoing education, friendship, and spiritual direction with the more active Orders or congregations.
If, indeed, the young person being sent away has been called to this mode of life from which he is being dismissed, then all such means should be used. Even so, some care is needed that his growth be unimpeded. He should see that God is calling him and be made aware of the risks of falling away from his first response. Yet he should know, too, that he is free; that God, who did not desire this premature entrance, does want him to take that risk and to grow to adulthood (or to the threshold) before attempting to engage himself permanently. Obviously, too, he should be helped to understand why he made the mistake he did about entering, in order to learn from it to avoid others. And he should know that the doors of this institute remain open to him at any time, once he is ready.
The great evil, to avoid at all costs, is the desire to keep him in the institute, to say, “He can grow as well here as elsewhere.” There would be truth in this only if he had entered at the level of the threshold, which is not the case here by supposition. And the further the person is from the threshold, the greater the sin in permitting him or her to remain and the more serious the obligation on others to rectify the situation at the earliest moment possible.
If he was not called to this mode of life, however, he should know that he is leaving for good and know why. If indeed he mistook the call to adult intimacy with a call to religion, it is conceivable that when God does finally call him to a way of life it will be to this one. But it would be a mistake psychologically either to concede the possibility or to advert to it. The doors should be firmly shut behind him. He could as easily be called to an administrative position with General Motors. Any hidden desires on our own part to have him return, while they could in principle proceed from a grace-inspired hope, based on human assessment that he would serve God well with us and aid our institute should God call him here, seem far more likely, save in a great saint, to spring from some tainted source. Why not merely desire that our institute be as well or better served by whomever God does call, and devote our prayers and our longing to that? Otherwise, at best, we would seem to be sighing after mere possibles or to be mistaking this young person, only a symbol of what we rightly desire, for the
Evidently, if he has received a call, but elsewhere, the doors of the institute should not merely be closed but also locked behind him. Here, even more than in the other cases, help and aid should be given, in the measure of the institute’s ability, to help him clarify his situation as fully as compatible with his age and
disposition, before he leaves and after, his situation being more complex,
requiring both growth and a proper response to a true call somewhere else.
Cases of Those with Permanent Vows
B. As soon as one turns to situations the same in all respects as those just considered save for the intervention of permanent vows, one notes that the taking of vows effects a curious decoupling of questions concerning vocation (whether or whither God has called this person) from those concerning the possible modes of practical remedy. By the taking of permanent vows, by the making of permanent promises to God, invitation becomes mostly a thing of the past; God’s direct will is now in the forefront. The flexibility which inheres in a situation of invitation and response is replaced by the solidity and permanence of a covenant.
This recalls again that central and difficult problem of which I made mention at the very end of the previous article (GCMR, p. 1099): if God has not called this person to this state; if, in fact, He does not want him in it at all; if, even, it was a sin of presumption, say, or of cowardice for this person to take vows under these
circumstances, then how can such vows be valid?
Long before we have solved to general satisfaction that thorny and intricate theoretical problem, it has to be dealt with in practice, in people’s lives. The tradition of the Church, however, whether spelled with capital T or small t, stands strongly on the side of a presumption in favor of validity, a presumption, obviously, which may be overturned by the facts of a particular case. The same presumption also seems in far deeper accord than its opposite with the psychological data presently available. When people are honest, they know pretty well how freely they have acted and how fully they have engaged themselves. Hence, whenever conclusive evidence to the contrary is lacking, evidence, that is, of real unfreedom at the time of vows, whether arising from external coercion or inner psychological compulsion, it seems pastorally wiser to assume that such vows were valid.viii
Given, then, a Religious in permanent vows with no vocation or with a mistaken vocation whose vows seem, after due investigation, to have been freely, if wrongly taken, what can we do to assist him?
Evidently, one must be careful to work always from God’s present
call, if any, and present will for him. In many cases, through God’s continuing
goodness, people in these situations have in fact eventually received calls
from Him to the states in which they had earlier vowed themselves. Often, such
a call will have been accepted quietly, without enthusiasm, perhaps, but with a
high degree of free adherence. All kinds of painful problems, especially
emotional kinks and hang-ups of various kinds, may remain from the earlier
period. These can lead to a remarkable humility in the person’s life. So
attractive is this that we can be misled at times into being but slack and halfhearted in our efforts to avoid spurious vocations. When so tempted, let us recall that to seek to force God’s power to do what with His ordinary grace and the powers He gives us by nature we can well do, and should do, ourselves is tempting God.
Possible Solutions When the Person Is at Threshold
1. This frequent gift of vocation in later years points to a key element in many of these problems, too often neglected or passed over lightly at present. According to a well nigh universal patristic tradition, God will call to the religious life anyone who perseveringly and with faith asks Him to. Since the diversity of religious lives was hardly visible in those days, I think that this doctrine can legitimately be extended to obtaining a call to any particular mode of religious life, especially when vows have already been taken therein. The basic argument, crudely put, was that, Christ having invited all His followers to the life of the counsels by public and external call, then, if the internal call was missing, it was
nonetheless available and could be had by prayer. The essential insight of this
reasoning, if updated somewhat, applies with even greater force to the
situations here considered. For those who, whatever their mistakes, are at
threshold level or higher in the institute of their vows, this offers an
effective solution. Repenting of whatever there may have been of fault in their
earlier choices, they accept lucidly and quietly in the Lord their present
condition and vigorously labor by persistent prayer, their own but also that of
their confreres and of members of other institutes, especially contemplatives,
to obtain the blessing of a true call to the way of life in which they have bound themselves. Sooner or later, that prayer will be heard.
Another alternative is sometimes possible where the person is free to transfer to “his own” group, to the place where God is calling him. This is the case spoken of earlier on as being one form of (rectification of) mistaken vocation long publicly
acknowledged by the Church. Thus, though the practical difficulties may be
great, in principle any Religious can move to any other Order or congregation
that will have him.
If, then, a person has mistakenly entered one religious institute rather than another, and if his motivation is now pure and he stands at roughly the threshold level of the institute to which he is transferring, then the problem will be solved by acceptance of God’s continuing call. According to the Code of Canon Law, even solemn vows can be “extinguished” as a result of such a transfer even if to an institute of only simple vows.
The Church has shown, as mentioned earlier, considerable reluctance in practice with regard to such transfers. The reasons are not hard to see. Firstly, there have always existed emotionally unstable people for whom a transfer seems, whenever a problem arises within their own communities or lives, the obvious and only solution. Further, it would be a grave abuse to let a person so move as to extinguish his solemn vows in the manner mentioned in order then to get his newly taken simple vows dispensed. The genuine diversity of types of religious life has, moreover, often been overlooked, especially among those thinking in the categories of the Code, who can regard the change as spiritually non-significant, hence not properly allowable, because the differences may not be as obvious, say, as between the Jesuits and the Trappists. Finally, there is the fact that no such
switch is trivial, even among those of a single religious tradition, for example,
from a more active Benedictine community to a more contemplative one, or vice-versa. There can be enough practical and emotional problems in such a change to make it a statistically poor bet, at least for an older religious. Hence, transfer
should be attempted only after full clarity as to God’s call has been reached.
In many cases of interest today, of course, the person is not free to follow what was his call, for example, if that was a call to marriage and he is now in permanent vows of religion.
Cases When the Person Is Below Threshold
2. If a Religious, on the other hand, is appreciably below the threshold of the state in which he is vowed, the problem becomes much more difficult. People who have spent many years in a way of life to which not only were they not called but to which no call to them has ever come (or, perhaps, come but been refused), whose threshold moreover was for a long time, possibly is even now, over their heads, are almost certainly going to need some highly competent psychiatric help. This should be taken for granted, although how and when to utilize it in each case requires some prudent pondering.
The following alternatives seem available: (a) to help the person transfer to another religious institute, one whose threshold is at approximately his level; (b) to let him remain where he is, but brought to clarity and a special status in that
institute; (c) to have the institute “secularize” him, that is, send him away
with complete dispensations from all obligations save those directly connected
with the priesthood, should such exist.ix
The Case of Transferring to Another Institute
(a.) An example of what is envisaged here: a Jesuit priest in whom no perception of a call has ever been observed but who has long manifested by his inability to grow how far below the threshold of this life he is, transfers to the Trappists. This alternative has in our day nearly fallen from sight.x This is too bad, for it has much to recommend it. Evidently, it requires a certain minimum of cooperation on the part of the troubled Religious; but this cooperation is frequently not terribly hard to obtain, at least at a certain point in the person’s situation as it develops ‒ few people really like to go back on their word to God; most are willing to make some efforts, even if feeble ones, to extricate themselves from such a situation if they have suitable help and support in the process. The element of support is of particular importance in the sort of case we are here
considering. This alternative is particularly effective for those who, though
below threshold, are still fairly normal men or women, not yet badly damaged
psychologically, people with whom a clear and direct discussion of their
problems and aspirations is possible, whatever the weakness of their flesh.
It should not be forgotten, in this context, that a Religious priest may relatively easily transfer to the diocesan clergy. Whether any of his vows will or ought to be
dispensed in such case is another matter; often not. Yet a much closer
approximation to secular life is thereby made possible, which can in certain
cases be of considerable assistance. However, some care is needed here, for the
diocesan priest’s threshold is often fairly high in a diocese in which he must
deal with people constantly concerning their spiritual lives and which cannot
afford to let a man withdraw into scholarly reflection and writing, say, or
into chiefly external social action.
It is important to take into account whatever history of call there may be for this Religious. Clearly, transfer would be an inept remedy for premature response. Transfer should also help a person, where possible, to move more in the direction of his most recent call, if any, than in some other. Great skill and prudence are called for in the proper balancing of all the factors. The healthier the person is psychologically, the more likely it is that the call can have the greater influence; if no recent calling has occurred, then it is largely the threshold relation which should govern action, This latter will always be the case in situations of continuing non-vocation. Because of the neurotic or pathological
aspects usually involved in these cases when inveterate, any seeking of God’s
concrete will through retreats and the like may prove extraordinarily difficult
if not truly impossible. Generally, skilled psychiatric help will be called for.
Remaining in the Same Institute
(b.) This approach is often the only one that can be used. When directors and
superiors have for long years failed to take effective action in the type of
case we are considering, very often the person never does receive a call to the
life he is bound to, never does reach threshold, but instead decays and
crumbles spiritually and psychologically. Eventually, of course, age, perhaps
also illness, will make any solution through transfer or secularization
impossible, if even a semblance of charity and justice is to be preserved ‒ this
semblance seems all that is truly desired by some in authority. But, given some
change at higher levels and some effective desire to help these people at last,
can anything be done?
A whole program of action will be called for, usually long, always difficult,
hence often neglected. Since I suspect that harried superiors may, on occasion,
be too close to what seems a totally intractable situation to be able to figure
out how they might proceed, perhaps it will help to sketch out some basic lines
of approach. The goals of the program, while simple, should be clear to whoever
is responsible for its implementation. Perhaps the chief thing to note is that
the goal is composite. The Religious in question is to be helped so far as
possible, but the good, especially the long-range good, of the religious community must also be effectively guarded. Grave reasons of justice and charity may indeed require that these people stay. They may have to live in a community or house of the institute (though this should not be presumed without
investigation) and be provided for, sharing with the others the externals of
the life. But they cannot be allowed, as often happens, to subvert the inner
life of the community, to sap its vigor, to determine what matters shall or
shall not be discussed in public, or to take any part in its governance. Generically, then, the program of action must aim at truth, at repentance, and at public adjustment. Though I distinguish these three elements here, they are not always separable in the concrete.
It is helpful, in the long, often frustrating, difficult effort towards truth, to
keep the goal in mind: that this person come to that truth of his situation
which is the incredible and divine release from an insupportable burden of
tangled and matted falsehoods and half-truths. At last, he knows where he
stands! He is, perhaps for the first time in his life, facing in some fullness
the reality of himself, of his life, and of God, with defenses down. The
darkness is gone. What he does about his situation at this point does not
matter half so much as his recognition of it. Only now does serious and
persevering prayer for a vocation become a real possibility. This would be the
But to bring such a Religious to face, in the Lord, the real truth of his situation
is not easy. Often, in fact, this point is not reached. Even with the best of
good will and competence, a superior or director may find here an obstacle that
cannot be budged. Either from psychological constraints or from his own
freedom, the person may not be able or willing to see or to accept the truth.
The power of God’s grace, however, which can draw us to desire a repentance we
did not wish and to seek the light when we preferred darkness, should not be
forgotten. Thus, the community as a whole, not just the individuals dealing
with the troubled person, is bound to much prayer and penance to obtain for him such grace. This aspect of public adjustment will also be, I think, a key
element in safeguarding the community from this person’s bad influence.
But if the effort to bring the person to full truth is not in the Lord, the result
is too likely to be genuine despair, even suicide. It is in this connection
that the best available psychiatric counseling is to be sought, if not always
for immediate treatment, at least for advice on how to proceed. Under the
circumstances supposed, it will evidently be extremely painful for the person. But much here depends on the manner.
From ignorance or embarrassment or “to get the thing over with,” or as a hidden mode of punishing those who have inconvenienced us, or who knows why, we can be terribly brutal about such matters; and brutality can make people come apart at the seams or withdraw beyond any further possibility of help. Even in far less delicate situations, to come at people head on is more likely to generate panic before such an undisguised display of hostility, especially if sudden and
unexpected, than to do good. It is quite insufficient that what has to be done
here be done with love; a very manifest love is essential, so manifest to the
troubled person, that is, that he cannot doubt it. Such love implies among
other things, a great respect for the person’s own freedom and his own “time.”
This is one great advantage of a good retreat, if the person is still
psychologically capable of making one and you can find a sufficiently skilled
director. For the Lord takes His time with them and brings things up in the
order of what He knows to be their true importance or in which alone they can be handled by this individual ‒ a knowledge, I think, He very rarely shares with
anyone. A superior may well be unable himself to carry through personally
discussions that can lead to truth but may have to handle the matter only via
an emissary, due to his poor relations with the person or inability to make sufficiently manifest his love for him.
The inner moral connection with “metanoia,” that change of heart which is true
repentance, is evident. Lucidity will be gained only insofar as there is an
openness to repentance. To suggest repentance today for anyone but one’s self
is to incur every sort of denunciation for being judgmental, for harshness, for
uncharity. Yet the New Testament, no less than the Old, makes it the foundation
of its message, the condition for perceiving and entering the kingdom, the
reason for the redemption and the mode of apprehending in faith its limits. It
is not without reason that the Council says: “The Church, always, in need of
purification, continually seeks after repentance and renewal” (Lumen gentium,
#8/3). There is no renewal except in virtue of and growing from profound
repentance and genuine penitence. Thus, the effort toward truth should be
accompanied by a quiet and gentle but still genuine call to repentance, a
continual reminder of God’s love for sinners of whatever kind and whatever the “monsters” in the dark chambers of their subconscious.
This call to repentance, however, is not the same as a call to live henceforward a
life of penance. Though penance is in place for all men always, one must keep
in mind that what culpability there is for situations of this sort often rests
rather on perhaps long dead superiors, novice masters, and others than on the
man who must live out the “penance.” In any case, whether he has much to do
penance for personally or little, when it comes to the painful and difficult
aspects of the life he must still live, I think a greater emphasis should be
placed on his sharing the sufferings of Christ for the Church’s good. A
knowledge of Carthusian spirituality with its admirable blending of these two aspects is very helpful: Stat crux dum volvitur orbis terrarum.
The third aim is that of public adjustment. The ill effects on the community of the individuals of whom we are speaking should not be underestimated. Psychological and spiritual decay are highly contagious on close contact and over a long time, but the contagion is not always easily perceptible. Such people,
surprisingly often, set a tone for a whole community by their carpings and
complaints, their slanders and not always petty calumnies. Cutting short such
evil talk by command or punishment is ineffective: it cannot touch most
instances; the person is often not fully responsible; and others in the
community will resist the superior’s action, not understanding its motivation.
Hence, while the details of his conscience obviously remain the person’s own
secret, his status as one who does not belong in heart or by call to the
community must be made known within the community.
Sometimes this is quite automatic, as when the community sets up a fund for him, so that he has a suitable income, and has him live elsewhere, not isolated but yet not taking any direct part in the life of the community, especially in what touches its religious spirit. Others times, the members of the community must be
informed privately that was not called here but is for good reasons remaining
among us. Obviously, if true clarity and conversion have been obtained, this
public adjustment will offer no problem to the Religious in question, and
probably little of it will then be needed. During the search for clarity, the
matter is obviously more delicate.xi Regular prayers and Masses for
this intention should be prescribed for all. Whatever the methods used, there
is an urgent need today to cut through the ever more exaggerated “right to
privacy.” Most rules contain some indication that the Religious gives up his
right to good name and reputation wherever considerations of his spiritual good
make it advisable. In any case, by entering a community, one agrees to whatever
shall prove necessary for the community’s good where this is not incompatible
with one’s own deepest and truest good.
A final note here. Suppose that the situation is clearly one of premature
response to a call to the very way of life in which the person lives. By
supposition, the situation has dragged on, the person still below threshold and
decaying, till secularization is no longer possible. The first two elements of
the above program will still be in place. But for the public adjustment, the
image I find most useful is of a clearing of a space in a woods ‒ make a space
around the person so that he can live with a certain freedom from the normal
restraints of the life and allow him to pause a bit, to catch his breath.
Meantime, help him see what his situation is and why it is as it is, supplying
all along encouragement in great doses (never out of place, I think) and give
him the room to maneuver as well as possible until he finds the strength to
move in the normal framework. What is essential is that the institute take its
responsibility to provide special attention to this person and see that
whatever spiritual and psychological assistance is necessary is in fact given.
Solution by Secularization
(c.) Recall that we are still speaking of the means of helping a Religious who has
taken permanent but not solemn vows in an institute to which he has not been
called and whose threshold lies substantially beyond his present psychological
and spiritual capabilities.xii The third alternative, then, is to
secularize this Religious, in the neutral sense of this word noted above. Quite
apart from grave crime, scandal, and the like, secularization seems to me the
instrument of choice in these situations. It is clear, I think, that retention
of the sort discussed in (b) just above is merely making the best one can of a
bad situation, not an independently desirable alternative.xiii Since, unlike either transfer or retention on modified status, secularization involves, in itself, a complete dispensation from valid vows and a return to secular life and since, further, a suitable transfer would not only honor vows freely taken but meet, at least in part, the problem of the threshold and protect the institute mistakenly entered, a legitimate question can be raised as to why secularization should usually be preferred to transfer.
I should judge that secularization is to be preferred to transfer in direct
proportion to: (1) the degree of doubt that may exist as to the validity of the
person’s permanent vows; (2) the degree of psychological handicap or to be
expected in any carrying through on a permanent commitment; (3) the lack of
visibility of a call to any religious state; (4) the certainty of the problem’s
being one of premature response.
As to (1): The more probable it is that the vows are null, the less reason there
is for holding a person to them or to some quasi equivalent, since an alternative is possible.
As to (2): The greater the psychological warpings, actual or sure to arise, the
less likely it seems that the transfer can be effective ‒ the person falls
increasingly below any threshold. Further, as mentioned earlier, transfer calls
for an ability to discuss the situation with some degree of emotional
equilibrium or, at least, of intellectual clarity and for a true collaboration
Such clarity and collaboration are not easily obtainable in the cases being
considered. Dispense the person from his vows and he will more quickly respond
to psychological therapy, no longer held in a false position, free to wrestle
directly with his real problems, without having to master those coming from
living under what, for him, is a heavy but largely meaningless superstructure.
As to (3): This is deliberately stated negatively. The lack of positive evidence
of a call to any form of religious life militates also against the life lived in the institute of contemplated transfer. To have positive indications of a call to a secular life would, of course, increase the desirability of a “transfer” thither, that is, secularization.
As to (4): The question here is really whether secularization, at least for an
extended period, is preferable to retention. So far as I can judge, it is always better to send away the premature entrant who is still below threshold
unless incapacity, age, or ill health make it impossible for the person to make
his way at all anywhere else. This is not simply for the good of the community,
though that should be paramount. For such a person to remain in the religious
life is to be threatened, at best, with interior disintegration.
The common argument runs, of course: “It is clear that this person was called here. He does seem somewhat immature. But with just a little more good will and grace and hard work, he ought to be able to make the grade. Indeed, he “ought to”; but it is just that additional “little more” that he is incapable of giving. If given adequate psychological counseling (and spiritual direction, as needed), anyone in the situation we are speaking of will mature and “unkink” faster and more healthily outside the Religious state or seminary than in it. First set him free. Then help him all you want to grow further. Secularization is crucial for the youngster’s growth to a point where he can indeed accept the vocation that is his. The sooner he is sent away, the sooner he can return in full vigor. The Religious is not free to leave; but the institute is free to set him free, in a manner analogous to the parents’ right to nullify vows of their children when still minors.
Basic Reason for Preferring Secularization
But the most basic reason for preferring secularization to transfer or retention is
that every one of these cases results from a mistake made by the institute,
through its legitimate representatives, for which the institute is now fully
responsible before God, whether the original mistake was culpable or not. For,
the person who entered, whether without a call or mistaken as to the nature of
his call, was, save in cases of deception, rightly entrusting to the institute
definitive judgment as to his call and suitability for its mode of life.
More basically, old heads do not grow on young shoulders, The youngster who comes is responsible indeed for telling the truth as best he knows how about his inner life and history and also for having investigated carefully the natures of the
institutes of interest to him, Yet it is impossible for him to gauge precisely the threshold of a community or to know just how he stands in relation to that
threshold. And, after all, “No man is a prudent judge in his own cause.” What judgment can any young person make, on his own, concerning the requirements for living properly an unknown mode of life? His responsibility is to respond to the movements of God’s grace as best he can. It is the task of interviewers, novice masters and other spiritual guides, and superiors to make the decisions as to the genuinity of his call and suitability for the life.
It is to them that the Church has entrusted the final say on accepting or sending
away the candidate, on admitting to vows or not, and the like. If, then,
culpably or not, these men make the wrong decision, all the more is it their
grave responsibility to rectify their error to whatever extent this is still
possible. Ultimately, then, the institute is responsible for the situation; it
bears the primary responsibility for rectifying it; and this rectification
should be as radical and as complete as possible, due account always being
taken of the present call and will of God, not simply seeking to return to the state
of things before the person’s first entrance or taking of vows.
But, apart from simple non-vocation, more is involved than mere mistake. In cases of mistaken vocation of the second kind (see above, I, B, 2), God has Himself called this person elsewhere. If He is still calling him, then, though He does not wish the vowed individual to back off from his mistaken commitment, yet there seems no good reason to think that He does not wish the institute to set
the person free to follow His call to him. Once the institute realizes the
situation, it is resisting God if it does not do all it can to bring about full
In cases of mistaken vocation of the first kind, though no such opposition to God’s call occurs, at least directly, yet the institute runs serious risk of blocking
or gravely hindering the psychological and spiritual maturation process which
God wills for this individual ‒ to say nothing of his hearing a true call when
it comes ‒ for the sake of a good whose chances of success are at best difficult to estimate, even were there better grounds for confidence than the institute’s antecedent series of errors. It is well to remember, too, whatever the type of mistaken or non-vocation, that a human life and destiny are at stake in each case. For an institute knowingly to let its own mistake continue uncorrected, to let a person spend his best days floundering in a mode of life not chosen for him by God and which he is unable to live well, while he wants to serve God well, is a serious crime of degradation of and contempt for the person. And, after all, if
secularization has traditionally been possible, it is that God, and the Church
acting in His name, wants this possibility to be open; we have no right to close it off except for conclusive reasons.
Consider, in contrast, St. Paul’s, “To peace has God called us.” Given as the ground for dissolving a valid though merely natural marriage, should the same reason not have some weight, at least, for this other dissolution? Admittedly, the natural marriage is not a covenant in the sense that Christian marriage is nor analogous to the religious vows. But I am not here arguing from that analogy; rather, the question is of the reasons for which the Church, through the religious
institute and its officials, is to exercise its already conceded power to
dissolve. The question of peace is important precisely because the person has
given up all freedom to alter his condition himself save by an internal growth
which his condition makes, if not impossible, so difficult that it can rarely
be conceived as a healthy and, therefore, truly peaceful process (“peace” here
being not a leisurely, lackadaisical attitude but the vigorous tranquility of a dynamic setting in order).
Inhibiting Fear of Making a Mistake
The factor that most inhibits serious consideration of secularization in the minds
of superiors and spiritual directors is, I think, the definite risk of sending away someone who is truly capable of honoring his vows and profiting thereby, even if he is less than generous at the moment. Such risks are real. Yet the principle indicated above in the discussion of premature response, (II, B, 2, (c), (4)) can be extended to all these cases: in case of doubt, send the person away with full dispensation. A fortiori does this hold if the person has much contact with those outside the community or is likely to play a governing or advisory or other influential role, for example, teacher of theology, within the community.
For suppose the institute does mistakenly secularize a person whom God has truly called to that way of life and who is able, if he wishes, to live it well. This
person can always come back later and ask for reconsideration, once his own
dispositions are better or he has better evidence of being at threshold. Or he
may be able to apply to some similar institute, if there is one. But in any
event, there is nothing to prevent him from living a good, even a saintly
Christian life, serving God and his neighbor within the Church as a not-so-secular priest or layman. On the other hand, if God has not called him and he is still well below threshold, then, if he is retained, he will be headed towards real
disaster, for himself, at least, and for the many others whom he misdirects,
scandalizes, or whose spirit he pulls down persistently. Neither aged nor ill,
his troubled spirit will breed nothing but trouble around it ‒ unnecessarily.
Obviously, God in His mercy may prevent such evil and even draw good from the situation; but to bank on that when the proper action lies at hand is the sin of tempting God; and to judge from the present situation in the Church, very often God does not intervene.
Hence, there is no parity, no balance between the two possible mistakes. A mistake of “severity” merely prevents a greater good; a mistake of “laxity” brings about an ever widening propagation of spiritual harm. Just as vocation, at the first entrance and during novitiate, if it is doubtful, should be regarded by the institute as nonexistent, so here. If there is a real doubt as to whether a person should be secularized, this is a certain argument that he should be; and the more
apostolic the group and the higher their threshold, the more important is it for all that the doubt be resolved in favor of secularization.
The Holy See has repeatedly made explicit, in regard to ordination, that a grave
obligation exists not to propose a man for ordination unless and until there is
clear and positive evidence of full suitability. If, then, there are positive
grounds for doubt, the case is certain: charity requires refusal of ordination
for as long as the doubt exists. But the living of many forms of Religious life
calls for at least equal grace and qualifications. It then, dismissal is
possible, the presumption should always be: If there is genuine doubt,
At times, however, one senses an attitude of horror towards secularization as if
it were a sort of spiritual euthanasia or, if not that, to be at least in total
contradiction to our Lord’s injunction to let wheat and cockle grow together
until the harvest. Well, for the person himself to break his covenant may be a
sort of spiritual suicide, though always open to repentance. But in what way
does the institute’s dissolving of an inappropriate bond deprive the individual
of any means of salvation? Its whole purpose is to make that salvation more
secure, to make his growth less trammeled. Secularization is not analogous even
to excommunication ‒ which is not intended as uprooting but as chastising
leading to repentance ‒ nor is laicization, however regrettable either may be.
One occasionally runs into the cruder error that secularization involves a sort of elitism. “By what right,” people will say, “may ‘we’ kick ‘them’ out as being less worthy and less suitable?” Such a question misses the entire point. There is no “kicking out” in question; there is no “we” or “they.” The whole effort is to acknowledge the demands of charity, often of justice, to help those in a false position to be set free, internally and externally, to serve God in greater closeness to what He desires for them.
Who Is to Initiate Secularization?
A further question concerning secularization of major practical importance is:
who is to initiate the secularization proceedings? Though I realize that my
position here is in opposition to much current practice, I would hold that the
person who ought to be secularized is not the one to initiate, even formally,
the process as such.
Firstly, the duty to initiate the correction rests primarily upon those responsible for making the authoritative mistakes that began the problem. The obligation to
initiate secularization would seem to reside where the sole power to secularize
and where the sole competence to decide the use of that power reside.
Secondly, it is precisely the young Religious’ immaturity or his lack of fundamental ability to live this life which make it necessary to send him away. These same qualities make it next to impossible for him to face squarely on his own and to deal responsibly with so difficult and psychologically distressing a matter, especially when those set over him have several times judged in the opposite sense. Nor, did he so face it, would he have the competence rightly to judge of it. Thus, for example, the real problem will often be completely different than he experiences it; for example, many think a problem of masturbation to be
basically one of impurity, whereas it is more likely to be one rather of self-pity, social isolation, or frustration.
Thirdly, by supposition his vows are valid and permanent or, if not so in God’s eyes, at least appear so to the individual at the most basic level of his self. For him, then, to ask for dispensation is itself to renege on his vows, at least in any
institute, for example, the religious Orders, in which the vows are meant to
engage God’s fidelity, as we have already discussed in GCMR, pages 1098-9. For, such permanent vows of religion are neither mutable promises to do this always or never to do that nor even abiding promises of the same, but are covenants in which not only God’s fidelity but that exigence for our own fidelity which constitutes that essential element of our being which we call our “honor” are both deliberately engaged. If the person is convinced that he did so pledge his honor, if there is even a solid probability that he is subconsciously so convinced, the institute has no right in either charity or justice to make him act in violation of that conviction. To use coercion or even persuasion to lead another to violate what he sees as his covenant with God is, I should think, a sin of scandalizing little ones, excused, perhaps, only by the unreflectiveness of our times and a widespread but abusive practice to the contrary.
It is sometimes pleaded, as an extenuating factor for such insistence by
authority, that requiring such requests for secularization from the individual
before any process is begun is a purely external and juridical formality and,
so, cannot stain a conscience. Yet, formality or not, if it is indeed a necessary first step, a condition without which nothing else will happen, it is hard to see how the troubled Religious can escape the realization that, but for his request, the covenant would stand. His conscience will be wounded, for he has interiorly ratified an action which does not merely indicate the problems he is facing and ask for a solution but which starts the precise process of abrogation of the covenant-relation as the desired solution and which involves his official statement of that desire and intent.
To urge this sort of taking of the initiative on one who has, as in so many of
these cases, an “overly developed” or “overly active” conscience which sees sin
everywhere, who may be in religion just because of fear of what God might do to
him otherwise, is to run the risk of making him sense, deep down and
ineradicably, that he has gone back on his word ‒ a far worse thing, for a man
at least, than any amount of unchastity or disobedience or squandering of the
community’s money. He has lost not merely his virtue but his honor, and that in
the deepest sense. He has been unfaithful at precisely the point where the
maximum of fidelity was required of him. It is the “mere formality” of asking
for a breaking and rupturing of the covenant, not simply a sinning against it.
That is a very dangerous thing to ask anyone to do, no matter how clear it may
be that God does not want the relationship to continue but that he should be
set free and leave.
To plead “conventional language,” analogous to that in which the child tells the
traveling salesman, “My mother isn’t home now,” or a corresponding kind of
mental reservation would seem to push such contrivances from their already
somewhat dubious Christian status into real abuse. For a chief ostensible
reason for requiring such formal petitions is precisely to stand in courts of law,
to prevent the person secularized from bringing civil suits for damages against
the institute by showing, in his own hand, that he initiated the process of
secularization. Now, no court will accept such a document if it is only to be
seen as pure formality, as “conventional language,” as concealing a mental
reservation. It seems much closer to forcing Socrates once again ‘and in more
serious matter to be his own executioner, for the sake of the convenience or
the squeamishness of some in authority, a practice on the part of authority of
which Christian moralists have consistently taken a rather dim view.
On the other hand, can there be any real difficulty in getting a lawyer to set up documentation to meet the same eventuality more honestly? A rough example: “I accept fully your decision in this matter, whatever it be. If you decide on whatever grounds to secularize me, I accept the secularization if not, I accept transfer or retention under what conditions seem best to you and your advisors.” This is, also, less likely to be broken in court by evidence brought in to show coercion and unfair persuasion, precisely because it states the truth, clearly saying what the situation was. Perhaps the commonest, if not the strongest argument urged against the approach suggested here is that one must wait to let the person make his own decision, that to send him away when he has not yet asked for dispensation of his own free will is to cut short his chances of ever making an adult choice.
The chief error there, of course, is thinking that any decision to leave or to stay
could be the individual’s own. His vows bind him never to decide to leave. Any
decision on his part to stay is personally redundant and, with respect to the
institute, not his to make.
The argument is psychologically fallacious as well. For one thing, the person is very likely to be aware, at least dimly or subconsciously, of these restrictions on
his freedom of choice. To inveigle him into a decision against his conscience,
whether well-formed or ill, is hardly a good way to assist his adult decision-making. The very fact that the institute let him take vows and stay this long with such poor results grounds little confidence that it is competent to judge the matter or that it offers very helpful surroundings for growth. Sometimes, too, it is the superior, not the subject, who has to learn to accept the responsibility for making decisions that affect other people’s lives.
Finally, it is God who created the world in its natural order and in the structures of its activity. That is the framework in which people will spontaneously grow
most easily in their natural powers and capacities, if by His grace and the
cooperation of the institute they can do so without sin or harm to even a false
or exaggerated conscience. But we have no right to presume that, above the
ordinary manner of nature, they will grow while in that religious state for
which they have not the grace which alone can make it possible for them.
How to Initiate Secularization
If, then, the individual is not to be permitted to ask for dispensation and free
departure, how can the process get started? In response, it seems to me that
the individual is obligated and, indeed, seriously obligated to make known his
situation to his spiritual director and superiors. If he has failed to do so
before or if those to whom he has spoken have done nothing helpful, there is
still time, and the obligation is no less great as the failure becomes more
dangerous. To put it negatively, I see no problem whatever in the person’s “taking the initiative,” if by that is meant merely that he manifest to those who bear responsibility for his spiritual welfare just how bad his situation is. There
is no reneging on vows in a simple declaration of truth.
It too often happens that the first real manifestation is made only at a time of
crisis ‒ for, this is one of the marks of gross immaturity, that a person does
not open up to those charged with his welfare but keeps everything stored up
inside himself lest “they use it against me” or think badly of him, or else
opens the matter up only with those he knows will see things just as he does.
The first effort, then, will have to be to get to know the person, past as well
as present, as fully as possible while also seeking to bring him to true indifference in the matter (for a mere declaration of willingness to honor his vows does not settle the matter) and to a genuine interior freedom. If genuine, he will be in contact with the full reality of his situation including all the commitments and engagements he has made. Ultimately he can say, in full truth, “So far as I can see, this is not the life for me. God does not seem to have called me to it, nor is there any sign He is so calling me now. There are many indications that He was not pleased with my entering and staying and taking vows. If it were my decision, I’d leave. But it is not in my hands. I took my vows in freedom ‒ imperfect but adequate. I’m quite willing to honor my commitment and stay forever, if that is really God’s will for me as manifested through the decision of you, my superiors; though if the decision is, ‘Stay,’ I may well feel obligated to seek to have the whole matter reviewed by higher superiors.”
It is, then, up to the institute itself to look at his evidence, to check into his past history, to have him examined psychologically and spiritually by others than those he has been dealing with all along, especially if there is any least doubt about their motivation, competence, or judgment concerning this particular person. Certainly, the institute may not simply take a person on his own terms since, as a result of emotional upsets and constraints, he can easily have the picture all distorted and involuntarily misrepresented. He may be quite capable of living the life if he really wants to. This is not rare, for example, in a sudden, sharp crisis, provoked by the piling up, all at one time, of grave difficulties; yet given adequate help, he can recover his balance and live the life well. If so, he
should be told to remain and have the matter carefully explained to him. This
is crucial; the knowledge of the necessity of making a go of it, knowing that
there is no other way out, is probably the strongest motivation for making a go
of it, as is very often quite obvious in marriage.
It is necessary, through other sources than the Religious himself, to ascertain
what has really happened in the past and whether he is truly incapable or
simply not willing to live the life. This judgment as to capability to live at
or rise to the threshold is a place where sound psychiatry and clinical
psychology can make a distinctive contribution. At the least, they can offer
sound advice and some otherwise not easily obtainable evidence.xv If
no convincing evidence turns up of a call by God, early or late, to this life,
nor moral certitude of the possibility of making something good out of it, and
if there is substantial evidence to the contrary, then the person should be
sent away as soon as possible.
Other Remarks on Procedure
A few other fairly obvious remarks as to procedure:
(i) The institute has always an obligation to step in and begin a full
investigation as soon as it is evident that someone is in difficulty, even if
he has said nothing about it to anyone.
(ii) Since secularization is not, at least of itself, punitive, the person should
depart without shame or dishonor. Indeed, since it is his good that is being
sought, he should go, so far as possible, with true consolation from the Lord
and such counsel, prayers, and other aid from the institute as seems called
for, and with every ground for abiding affection and charity towards those with
whom he spent so many years of his life.
(iii) The machinery for this sort of release from vows is not always, so I am told,
well set up to accord with the basic principle which is to govern its use. This
principle, stated rather generally, would be that the more demanding and difficult the threshold, especially as to the supernatural endowments of the entrants, and the higher the specificity of the institute, the greater the freedom and the initiative of the institute to secularize should be. For, given human
ignorance and weakness, mistakes will occur, the more easily and the graver in
their consequences as the spiritual requisites are higher at the start, when
the person is necessarily less well known, and the more profoundly doctrinal
and directly spiritual the institute’s mode of apostolic engagement.
There is a certain “non-reciprocity” here, by which the individual, ordinarily, is bound to remain with the institute but the institute is not bound to keep him. It is clearly the individual’s good that is most helped by such non-reciprocity. For
thus he is enabled to commit himself to God in this way of life as soon as
positive grounds exist, sufficient for moral certitude, of his call and fitness; yet he can still be set free, without sin on his own part, if some mistake has been made or, even, if his own laxness renders him unsuited for continuance in the life. What is strange today is to see this same non-reciprocity being demanded also for sacramental marriage at the very time that it is under attack among Religious, even in its chief proponent, the Society of Jesus. For this was one of the most original and significant insights of Ignatius Loyola, a far greater advance, in my judgment, than merely extending the time for and intensifying the preparation for vows: that the Society of Jesus, with the very high threshold it has, should also, given suitable cause, have the power of sending away (and dispensing from non-solemn vows) on the Order’s own initiative any of its members at any time in their lives.xvi Manifestly, greater reason and more solid proof were required as the person had been longer in the life and more intimately attached to it by successively more stringent bonds, whether these be vows or not (Ignatius lists some six degrees of closeness of incorporation).xvii
In any case, the precise structures at law will perforce vary from one institute
to another. Institutes of high threshold should see to it that proportionate
power of dismissal rest with them. Even if no such structures are obtainable,
they have still the right to approach the Holy See to ask for each such desired
secularization. And a healthy climate and understanding of such cases will lead
Rome to respond more favorably.
If someone comes wanting to be dispensed, charity requires working with him as
long as may prove possible until he no longer wants it, that is, until he is
willing to abide as completely as he can with the decision finality to be
reached by the competent authorities, having made as many manifestations as may be needed to higher superiors, other spiritual guides, psychiatrists, and so
forth. But as soon as he is thus willing, all efforts should be undertaken to
have superiors dispense him and send him away unless clear evidence turns up of his real suitability. At all times, the person has to be helped to get to or
remain in a position where he is consciously honoring his word.
I know of one person to whom no one was able to break through. In no way could he be brought even to consider indifference. He was going to be secularized and laicized, and that was that. No matter what one talked about with him ‒ work, personal affairs, spiritual matters, or whatever ‒ after three or four minutes he would break it off and say, “I don’t want to discuss all this; I want to be laicized; I’m going to get married,” though in fact he had no woman in mind. In such a case, all you can do is to go ahead and fill out the papers from Rome. There is no way to prevent a person from demanding dispensation; ultimately; the matter is up to him. One can and ought to support his secularization, when asked by the competent authorities, for, clearly, he will do far more harm than good to the Church and those around him if he remains. Yet even so, it should be settled, in my judgment, as far as possible on the grounds, “You can’t resign; you’re fired.” Even if he has taken the initiative, we should seek to take it back from him, in hopes, however distant, that he can reach somehow that middle ground of balance and of openness to God’s will from which alone a solid growth can take place.
Admittedly, much current practice works against taking one’s obligations toward God this seriously. All concerned should do whatever they can to remedy abuse in this domain and to convince those able to determine policy that it is an abuse,
however well motivated. In the meantime, we can work with each person in such a way that it is clear to him, whatever letters and forms he must write or fill
out, that it is we, in the name of the institute, who are taking the real
initiative, wherever this is possible.
Cases of Those with Solemn Vows
C. In this section we consider what help can be given to those bound by solemn
vows in a religious Order. Much of what has been said already, with fairly
obvious modifications, can be applied here. The chief difference, of course, is
that the Order has no power to dispense from solemn vows even when it is able
to send the Religious away definitively.
Since the promulgation of the Code of Canon Law in 1918, it is true, the Church has ceased to recognize any totally indissoluble vows of religion. Thus, either the
ancient tradition of religious life as a marriage to Christ is denied or every
kind of Christian marriage is rendered dissoluble by the Church. The effort to
make the latter alternative prevail is the better publicized at present, but
the former has, in practice at least, been widely accepted in recent years, not
without a good bit of genuine scandal of the ordinary faithful.
My own surmise is that the Code’s provisions here were adopted without any deliberate intent to abolish the religious Orders as forms of Christian life. The failure to realize that this had in principle been done by the radical nature of the changes introduced by the Code was due to preoccupation with the urgent practical problems of the immediate postwar period, of the Depression, and of World War II, coupled with the lack of any visible practical consequences until the recent flood of departures began. There are now at least rumors circulating that this unsatisfactory situation is soon to be rectified. It is said most commonly that the reform will entrust to each institute the detailed specification of the
nature of its vows and also of whatever authority of dispensation the Church
may exercise over them, so that, in the case of the Orders, the Holy See would
never intervene to dispense from vows, and solemn vows would be fully indissoluble once again.
In the light of all this and of the call of Vatican II to return to the spirit and
original objectives of the founders of religious Orders ‒ all of whom, I
believe, saw strictly indissoluble vows as fundamental to their institute ‒ I
shall treat the problems of Religious with solemn vows without further
consideration of the possibility of dispensation by the Holy See, a matter in
any case best left to those who alone have power in such affairs. The only
situation that seems really to call for special comment here is that of a Religious
in solemn vows, called originally to some kind of secular life, and who is
living just that sort of life, spiritually speaking, in his Order.xviii Superiors complain that there is nothing they can do in such a case, nothing at least that will not stir up a hornet’s nest, hopelessly dividing the community. He is not living the life properly, but he is not committing any crimes and may indeed be outstanding in the secular virtues. Suffice it to say here ‒ I will return to other aspects in Part III ‒ that what can be done, and ought to be done, is very straightforward: require, in virtue of his vow of obedience wherever necessary, that he live as a Religious of that Order should and abandon his secular mode. This will fairly quickly bring about a clarification of just what his situation is; as always, such clarity and lucidity are the central and crucial elements in any manner of helping. For those neurotic people who cannot hear of anything involving pain and difficulty without interpreting it as punishment or entrapment, it is important to make clear, by actions even more than by words, that there is no such intent in this process.
Once a suitable clarity has been reached, two lines of approach are available. The
person may seek a closer approximation to the type of secular life to which he
was called, whether by transfer to the diocesan clergy, if he is a priest, or to some other institute (preferably, in my opinion, without “extinction” of the solemnity, that is, indissolubility, of his vows) or, less desirably, by living outside the communities of his own Order, as I believe Erasmus did. This could,
depending on circumstances, go as far as complete secularization though without
dispensation from vows. Professional canonists would have to work out the
details of transferring, for example, the right to command under obedience to
the local bishop, and so forth. The chief difficulty with these approaches is that rarely can they take sensitive and full account of the extent of the commitment by vow to the way of life itself, which as in marriage implies a particular partner and not just a set of vows hovering in the abstract waiting for any suitable place to alight. Hence, the odor of legalism too often detected here and the risk of a real infidelity hidden beneath the legal dressings. On the other hand, by any of these, the Order is well protected from loss of spirit.
But, I believe, far and away a better solution is to use the light and clarity
gained to help the Religious to repentance for whatever his contribution to the
bad situation may have been, to live the life in fidelity and suffering ‒ as so
many must do in unfortunate marriages and to pray perseveringly for a true
call to this way of life, so that they are able not merely to honor the basic
commitments of their vows, which God’s ordinary grace makes possible always,
but also to enter into the spirit of their institute and to achieve, by their
very difficulties, a greater openness for divine union.
So far, we have considered the effects of spurious vocation upon the individual
affected and the obligations resting upon the representatives of his institute
to assist him. We are now in a position to examine the social effects of spurious
vocations upon the institute itself, wherever these unfortunate situations are
not assiduously and continually straightened out.
Polarizations When There Is Basic Unity
An obvious place to start is with the polarizations, tensions, and conflicts
evident in many congregations and orders at present. Dissension, however, is
not attributable, of itself, to problems of vocation, but can arise from a
number of quite different factors. It can come, as has happened more than once
in history, from laxity on the part of some and strictness on the part of
others, even if most are truly called, at threshold, and so forth, as in some
of the early Franciscan struggles or in the Carmelites at the time of John of
Conflicts are also generated, even among saints, by divergent views on practical matters. Recall Paul and Barnabas quarreling about John Mark, or Paul and Peter at odds over table-fellowship. Perhaps a mode of this is found today in the not uncommon case of “renewal blues”: between those who declare, some sadly, some with joy, “This is no longer the group that I entered.” The remark is usually
true enough in that the organization has changed quite drastically in
externals. Whether its inner spirit has changed is a further question. Thus,
without necessity of genuine vocational difference, there can be real conflict,
some thinking that what the group used to be is what it ought to be, others
thinking that only if it is no longer what it used to be can it become what it
was meant to be.
There is also a sort of genuine and solid vocational diversity within any institute.
For God, having created each person with different talents and temperament,
calls each, within the framework of the one, basic vocation, to different
activity and insight for the building up of this “organ” of the Body of Christ.
The resultant interrelated functionings and complementary contributions may be marked in the very structure of the institute, as with “grades” in the Society
of Jesus, or only concretely in people’s different capabilities and ministries.
This diversity gives rise to tension and, given our perduring ignorance and
sinfulness, even sharp conflict at times. The very fact that one person sees
certain things far more clearly than others see them burdens the seer with, at
best, slowly communicable knowledge. The man-of-action, in turn, wonders about the “sluggishness” or “indecision” of the others. And so on.
In all such types of dispute, a search for consensus through community meetings, group dynamics, Better World Retreats, workshops, and the like can be of great profit; and the use of some such means is essential if unity is to be
preserved. But there is a unity to preserve; there is a foundation in reality for solid agreement at the level of the dispute, since there is complete
agreement at the more basic level of vocation, a full sharing of the same call
from the Lord.
When Basic Unity Is Lacking
It is just this basic unity of call and of objective that is missing in institutes
which have been careless about false vocations Though the members are all one
at the level of the faith (though even this is, too often, not true), they have no ground for community of life at any further spiritual level though, of course, the natural grounds for friendship and communal life may flourish for a time. Conflicts in this context trace to basic divergences in vocation and represent genuine discord. These conflicts need not involve any particular laxity on the part of either group (see I.B.4 above). People trying to live as one are in fact being called by God to two or more quite disparate ways of life, necessarily interfering with some others’ full following of God’s call by seeking to follow their own. At least one group will be substantially out of harmony with the institute, though often without explicit advertence to that fact.
The commoner situation, of course, is what is politely called that is, a general
mixture: people called to the institute, of all degrees of tepidity and fervor;
those there in response to a mistake as to their true call; and an often
sizable number who have never had a call to anything except, perhaps, to
Lack of Basic Unity and Presence of Mistaken Vocations
In situations colored chiefly by cases of mistaken vocation in the strong sense,
discord is the most obvious characteristic. Orders and congregations are being
torn apart by conflicts among those unwilling or unable to face their diversity
honestly. Whatever the members of the community are called to, to this institute
or elsewhere, the force of their life, their fullest and most developed
response of love and service to God through self engagement, is somehow at
stake. This is extremely threatening, to all parties, probably, to some extent
though more so to those who are in the wrong place. Genuine discussion, which
really touches the question of basic unity, tends to exacerbate the antagonisms
and reactions of defense as it becomes clear that some do not find the center of their life where others do, or not in recognizably the same manner, although they had given themselves as companions to one another on that basis.
Hence, those who are out of place will (as indicated for particular cases in Part I
above) be laboring vigorously to have the institute “renewed” and “modernized,”
by which they mean, in fact, changed into that mode of life to which God has
called them. They will, or at least should, be strenuously resisted by those whom God called to the original form of the institute. These may be as vigorous
as the others in working for certain restructurings and up-datings, to remedy
abuses and brush off the accidental accretions of “temporary” changes, long
since become permanent, but, “inconsistently” and confusingly for the others,
they will not budge on what they see as essential but which are as abusive and
outdated as any others in the minds of those mistakenly present.
Because a certain spontaneous separation of those not called there occurs over the years and because younger Religious who are truly called will ordinarily lack
that depth of knowledge of their institute which would enable them to understand the interactions between the legal structures and the spiritual vitality
of individuals or to grasp the functioning of elements of the life which seem to the uninformed eye wholly superfluous if not harmful, the discord can easily
take on the aspect of a conflict between young and old.
This tendency to divide along other lines than of vocation, even though vocation is the issue, is more extensive than indicated by this one example. Wherever there are large-sized groups in fundamental disaccord within an institute, especially where there are many of no vocation, who will be profoundly threatened by the whole matter, tensions mount in all directions as the discordant groups pull apart. But such tensions produce “jagged” splits, which do not follow the natural lines of cleavage generated by God’s action. Instead, the real issue gets all mixed up with very human passions and psychological disturbances, hardly a situation in which any sort of discernment, even just a using of one’s head, is possible. Thus, such splits occur and yet the problems are unresolved, since each fragment still contains people of different vocational status. Separation is obviously the answer; yet this sort of separation is not, but
only one that is carefully and voluntarily planned for and chosen.
Lack of Basic Unity and the Presence of Non-vocations
But mistaken vocations of this sort are not the only problem, socially speaking,
nor even the most dangerous, jarring and startling though the strife they stir
up may be. If uncomplicated by other problems, they can be relatively easily
resolved, even as in the case of an individual. But the usual situation is the “pluralistic” one, where every sort of mistake and immaturity and inadequacy to threshold have been, even if with the greatest reluctance, allowed or tolerated.
As may be inferred from what has already been said about the harm done to those straitened people themselves, the overall social effect is one of decay of the institute, of degeneration and frittering disintegration ‒ a far piece from the glories of renewal. Two closely related phenomena seem to form the central element in this decline: the lowering and distortion of the threshold; the loss of specificity of the spirituality of the institute.xix
Lowering and Distortion of the Threshold
A good part of the process of decay is fairly obvious just on the grounds of the
psychological threshold. If those who are moving along in the institute are
immature or psychologically damaged, whether called or not, but more so if not,
then one begins to find people of all ages in those communities who have
interiorly buckled under the effort required and have regressed to some earlier
level of maturity or who, while steadily growing at last, have not yet come
near to catching up with the calendar.
The sad consequence of this is that these people eventually wind up in positions of considerable influence as superiors, spiritual directors, professors of
theology, and the like, partly by accident, partly because the institute is short of manpower, often by their own efforts. Too insecure to allow God to do with them what He pleases in terms of call, so they will not wait for His action as to their works or positions or “careers.” Thus, even some major superiors are not only not at what Eriksen calls the integrative level ‒ they have not yet arrived at “generativity,” that level at which, being able to love others, whether loved in return or not, people are psychologically ready and mature enough to accept responsibility for the lives of others and, like St. Paul, can rebuke and even punish, as charity may require, though loving more, in this way, they are loved the less by those they love.
So one finds the person in authority who acts “by the book,” an evenhanded
treatment of all uniformly and without concern or even thought for individual
differences and differing spiritual needs. More commonly these days, one sees
those in authority (often exactly the same people) who are engagingly
permissive and “individually concerned” so long as, again, a direct and
genuinely personal confrontation with others is avoided. Under either sort of
regime, subjects who are immature will be encouraged by the circumstance to
remain so. Long years after high school, then, one finds Religious still
struggling with elementary “identity” or “intimacy.” And often these are the
spiritual fathers and retreat directors of those coming up, hoping to learn how
to deal with their own problems from what they discover in those they would
claim to guide. The blind lead the blind, and the ditches are still not filled.
Further, those who enter, even though truly called, still have many facets of that call which they can only learn by living it under wise direction. Instead,
inexperienced in the spiritual life, the young Religious will hear, from the
first, divergent interpretations and understandings of the life. Their concrete
picture of the life will be composed only partly of what their founder and the
Church put there; the rest is filled in with their own attitudes and half-conscious
assumptions. Aware of the many opinions and attitudes within their group, they
will come to regard unity in spirituality as unimportant, losing, before they know of its existence, the basis of spiritual community, save at the generic level of the total Christian community. Those without a call will patch together what they can that seems helpful but are little likely to find what will help them out of their bad situation.
Perhaps the commonest source of difficulty in practice is that one admits those who are well below threshold or retains those who retrogress below it in hopes of
nursing them along. The effect of this is simply to lower and distort the
threshold. But the threshold is merely the institute itself seen from the
perspective of its dynamics of formation for those who enter (see the detailed
discussion of this in GCMR, pp. 1093-4). To lower or distort the threshold is to downgrade or distort the inner spirit of the institute.
It is not possible, of course, to limit the downgrading of a communal life to its
effects on the single individual by himself. To the extent that it is truly
communal, it is necessarily downgraded for many. The tone and the typical
activity of each stage of formation, of each style of apostolate, is shifted a bit in this one direction. Also, precedents are set. Others are admitted no worse than this one… and, often, no better.
Loss of An Institute’s Specificity
Specificity suffers, of course, from any lowering of the threshold, but it suffers more, perhaps, from the presence of those who still have no call and so are
necessarily restless, always open to something else. The lower the degree of
specificity of what was a highly specific mode of life and spirituality, drawn
into existence by the power of our Lord through His Spirit, the more vocations
are being lost in a very profound sense: calls from God of this specific type are no longer being heard in the Church or, if heard, have no institutional locus, “no place to go.” The institute sinks into the quicksand of its own irresponsibility ‒ even if it has thousands of members, its particular charism and function in the Church is being allowed to disappear. But an organ of the Church that is no longer serving the Body is Within a short step of beginning to damage the Body by letting its own sickness infect others, its own disquiet show itself through that aberrant doctrine and behavior which do not reflect new insight but only the inner discomforts of those who can thus ease to some extent their misery.
What then? If there are true differences as to vocation within a single institute,
some of its members being called by God in one direction, some in others, some
suffering the lack of any call or frustrated by a threshold too for them, then any real effort at consensus, any real laboring to bring everyone to basic
agreement ‒ save as to the fact and nature of their basic incompatibility ‒ seems
gravely sinful, not perhaps in subjective conscience but objectively. It is a
direct refusal to accept what God’s grace is calling people to; it attempts to
form a unity that is flatly contrary to His will, seeking to make all go in one
direction where He is clearly asking them to go in several. To insist upon or
attempt to force consensus in such situations is a type of coercion which,
insofar as it is “successful,” can only be destructive. To work at this sort of
contrived consensus is merely to skin over the sores, letting them fester all
the more deeply. Refusing the one truth we are called upon to see, we render
phony all other efforts at healing. Such consensus-seeking blocks out God’s
light by suppressing the truth and refuses God’s love because He desires to
heal our wounds, even if by surgery. Totally different is the common effort to
work through the other kinds of conflict, where all parties work on the basis
of genuinely common ground to become what they desire and are desired by God to be. (Here, too, of course, malice and freely chosen ignorance can enter in. If
they do, they must be faced and regarded as such; but often we can help one
another out of such ill will through appeals to that which is best in each, his
love of Christ in accord with our common call.)
Thus, the fact of false vocation strongly affects the means that can be used for
renewal. Those means that help towards manifestation of a fundamental, already
existing consensus are highly desirable, even essential, where all have been
similarly called. But in an institute where God is calling people to more than
one way of life or where many have no call at all, the first, undertaking must
be to resolve that discordance by separation, division, or splitting,
individually or collectively. Sad to say, in many groups today, the drive for
consensus is being vigorously furthered precisely to avoid having to look at
and delve into such threatening questions. Yet such divisions not only help the
individuals involved, but are a great good for the Church, permitting new
growths and modifications which can meet new needs without loss of function in
older and still necessary organs. Franciscans (black and brown) and Capuchins,
Calced and Discalced Carmelites, Cistercians and Trappists, and in our own days
the Little Brothers and Sisters of Jesus and the hermits of the Sahara, the
Sisters of Loretto and the Missionaries of Charity all attest and bear witness
to ‘the vivifying power of God’s grace when allowed to lead individuals or
groups away from their life together in response to His call.
As already remarked, if there are appreciable numbers of spurious vocations in an institute, any division which comes just because people finally explode tears apart both people and institutions and does next to nothing to meet the vocational problem itself due to the jaggedness of the tear. But divisions can also be planned and carefully worked for. The precise manner of preparing for separation in accord with the calls God has given (or not given) depends on the actual situation. Still, a few remarks can be made which have a certain generality of application.
Remarks on Planning for Separation
The fundamental aims are the same here, I think, as when helping individuals: calm lucidity, genuine repentance, public adjustment. But how bring these about in a whole institute?
Getting It into the Open
There is much debate whether these things should be brought up in public, even when abstractly considered. Could it help, for example, to bring up in a community meeting the possibility that a fair number of the people there do not belong there? I incline to those who would say yes to this, but only with the proviso that the discussion of these problems could be kept at the level of theory
only. Even so, it could terrify some; perhaps, in some degree, all. But, at
least, it gets the matter out of the darkness, out where it can be looked at
and talked about, where assumptions and presuppositions can be debated. When
later the topic becomes more concrete, people will not be taken Wholly by
surprise. They can even begin to work their way through it a bit on their own.
It is no longer untouchable, unmentionable.
It will be a sort of dying, but of the sort, I think, that Jesus urged upon us.
But, like any death, it is going to stir our denials of all, then fierce anger,
bargaining, and great depression, and then, at last, serene acceptance of the
truth. As with death, there is no point in arguing the matter, once it becomes
concrete. Then one can only help the person to live through the situation and
support him in his struggling.
Others argue no, it is too bruising, too damaging. If it is brought out into the open it just stimulates the building of enormous walls of resistance and immures
people behind stronger defenses than ever.
One trouble with this latter argument is that it is never supplemented by effective proposals as to how else to deal with the problem; for it must be dealt with. Further, it must be worked through individually with each person so far as the central portion of the struggle is concerned. But if the problem is worked on
solely with individuals and not socially and publicly addressed, then there
seems no conceivable way around the problem that every director runs into again and again: the community as a whole is unprepared for what needs to be done, they fail to understand it, they resist it as soon as one or two have begun to
face it, and build up very active defenses, forcing everything to a halt. It is
hard to see how they could do otherwise. For they have no effective concepts or
thought structures, or else very inadequate ones, for trying to deal with such
serious and painful problems. Public discussion has the virtue of helping those
who are not psychologically impaired to the categories in which to begin to
make sense of their own and others’ problems.
High-level and Individual-level Discussion
I should guess that, to obtain lucidity, the problem must first be officially and
publicly admitted at the highest levels of government of the institute. Some
sort of public discussion of the situation and of apparently useful
possibilities of approach would be carried out at that same level, and expert
help brought in for suggestions. But then the problem would be remanded somehow to the local level, whatever further work may continue at the higher, so that individuals can be helped, by whatever social means seem suitable in the light of the high1evel discussions as well as by the standard ways of helping individuals.
I do not think that this individual-level effort might ever be skipped or treated
negligently, however much has to be handled at other levels. For, ultimately,
the whole problem is just that of many individuals who are presently elsewhere
than God would have them. Especially for those of no vocation or those whose
only call was to Christian adulthood, the prospects of separation and division
will be terribly threatening; only much individual charity and support is going
to make it tolerable and, finally, fruitful for their lives.
I should think, too, that some sort of overall statement of the possibilities
should be made very early, so that even the most threatened can see that there
will be no ejection of some by others, that none will be unprovided for.
Especially must the old and sick be taken care of; neither materially nor
spiritually can they be neglected or deserted, whether during preparation for
the separation or afterwards. In most cases, even so, the process is likely to
be very hard for them.
But in my judgment this should not prevent the question of vocation from being
raised. So long as the person is compos mentis, it seems essential for his growth and peace of soul to face the truth of his situation ‒ it is not something, after all, with which he is wholly unacquainted. Only so will he be able to deal with it and come to solid, practical judgments. The social effort is to enable each person to live with his own and others’ situations, in peace and repentance, and to serve God in the best way still open for him in the days that remain for his earthly service of his Lord. To refuse this duty of charity is like refusing to discuss the need of the last sacraments with a dying person. It is small charity to let a person
go to his grave and to his God all muddled up and perhaps in bad faith, still
not facing the truth of what lies at the center of his life if, on prudent judgment, it is still possible to help him at all.
Working Together Toward the Separation
Obviously, the atmosphere should be one wholly free of recrimination. If any of our analysis is correct, there is more than enough to repent of on all hands; no
one is in a position to throw the stone. Official acceptance by the institute
of the basic responsibility for its mistakes would be a good first step to
clear the air. All must come to see that it is a bad situation and seek to
change it together. The moment the question of separation is raised,
unfortunately, hackles rise: “Who are they to decide who is a good Trappistine,
a good Vincentian, a good BVM?” But that is clearly a false question. The real
question is, “How can we work together to help all of us live according to our
real calls or situations before God, without obscuring things by pretending?”
If the truth is what we have assumed it to be here, those without vocation
will, with assistance, see it as well as anyone else, unless they are
psychologically too ill to function. Then they must be told, while continuing
to be helped. But, under no conditions should there be set up some group whose
task would be, all armed with criteria and standards, to eliminate and expel
those who do not fit their norms.
The Matter of Timing
What of timing? The public broaching of the subject, I think, should occur as soon as can be arranged. But that done, with the clear intimation to all that things are seriously underway, then my own surmise would be that the less of a prescribed timetable there is, the better. When individuals or groups are ready to separate, the common good would suggest that this not be permitted till it is fairly clear that the others, at least of those who will be directly affected by the division in question, are also adequately prepared for it. On the other hand, long delays and dilly-dallying can hardly be allowed without making the situation worse for everyone. As soon as it is clear that all can swim or that there are lifeguards enough to care for those who cannot as yet, then the best way into the cold water is to jump.
Prayer for a Christian Separation
None of the above efforts, nor any others, can be fruitful unless done in the Lord,
in His manner, for His love, according to His will. If acting in such fashion
can be so hard in easier circumstances, all the more will we have to call upon
His grace in today’s tangles of difficulties. Hence, the principal “method” of
working for a truly Christian separation must always remain that of prayer,
especially the whole Church’s prayer in the Mass and penance. Since our
problems are social, so should be much of our penance and prayer; and we should ask our friends for their Masses and prayers, often much better than our own.
With His grace, then, we will be able to subject our personal opinions to His truth. By close union with Him we can avoid discouragement, even if it seems that He would indeed have our institute dissolve like salt in water (see GCMR, p. 1095). Easy though it is ‒ as some of the above pages may indicate ‒ to slide into grimness if one attends more to the evils present than to the greatness of God’s love, yet if we stand close to Him upon the cross, He will show us the cure for that too: how to love one another in His own truth. If we surrender ourselves to Him, His Spirit will lead us and we will have nothing to fear in any separations He asks of us.
Let us pray, then, and offer ourselves with Him daily at Mass that whatever
separation is needed come about with His peace and quiet charity, with no more
drama than when brothers and sisters leave home for college, jobs, and
marriage, loving each other as always, even when not much taken with their
in-laws. lf it seems wholly natural and right to us that diversity of vocation
should separate the members of a family and lead them in different directions,
we should he neither shocked nor surprised that we, who have been so close to
one another till now in our institute should, by God’s call, correcting our
mistakes, have yet to walk such different roads and move so far apart in space
and mode of life, though remaining close in affection. If God brings forth good
for those who love Him even out of our sins, to which His response was Christ,
He will not be less concerned to draw good from the mistakes we have made in
our efforts to serve Him.
i Only vowed engagements are considered since only these offer a serious problem practically. If the person has not committed himself by vow, he is not, ordinarily, obligated to continue the way of life chosen. Whenever his situation is clarified, he may simply leave and start to live as God wills for him at the time.
ii The above elements constitute a definition of “mistaken vocation” as we shall be using the term. As we shall see before long, there are other types of mistakes that can be made with regard to vocation which are not included in “mistaken vocation,” for example, “premature response.”
iii The proverbial difficulty of effecting such a transfer is not without its reasons which we will consider shortly.
iv The pain and harm resulting from these problems were, of course, evident; but the categories for dealing with them and making them visible and theologically graspable had been too badly melted down over the centuries and blunted to be of use.
v In much current discussion, questions of vocation become insoluble since the call is seen as if with only two components: the sincerity and good faith of the individual and the (permissive) will of God.
vi It will be taken for granted here and in all that follows that suitable psychological counseling, or psychiatric help when needed, will be begun as so0n as possible. Such psychological assistance, however, should never be permitted to delay dismissal, still less to avoid it.
vii Such duplicity can also render vows invalid so that much of what is said here will apply no matter how far along they have gone, save for the complications of the priesthood. Obviously, a canonist should be consulted to know what sort of evidence is needed for action in the external forum and what sort of steps to take. Usually there will also be rather serious psychological problems which call for psychiatric care.
viii One must, of course, have expended considerable effort to gather and assess all the available evidence. This pastoral assumption is only meant to avoid theological disputation and resultant inaction; ii cannot be used to avoid the hard labor of discovering the facts. The aid of skilled directors, psychologists, and/or psychiatrists is needed. The spiritual notes, if available, of the Religious
himself should be sought and his memory jogged, as also the memories of his
classmates, friends, directors, and superiors, for recollections from that
period-assuming that he gives whatever permissions may be needed. Nor should
his intervening history be neglected. A certain deliberateness in the process need not ordinarily be hurtful if the time is spent in continually recalling the man to his fundamental self.
ix “Dismissal” seems the only word we have in English for such a separation which does not necessarily imply, in common language at least, a personal antipathy, rejection, or punitive element which any technical term such as
“secularization” seems automatically to inject. Unfortunately, “dismissal,”
when used with regard to those whose vows are permanent, is taken by many to
imply full canonical trials with antecedent warnings, records of
incorrigibility, and the like, What has happened, I believe, is that the
canonical “dimissio”‒ better translated in this context by “expulsion”‒ was
replaced by its English cognate, this being, thus, so restricted as to make of it a purely technical term, leaving us no generic, common-language word at all.
Rather than risk confusing things further, I shall conform to such usage in this article–but under protest, with the insistence that “secularize,” at least, be taken as purely factual and emotionally neutral.
x There was a time when it was a common method. It was, seemingly, the preferred method of St. Francis Xavier who permitted return of Jesuits to secular states only because this other possibility was not generally open to them in the scattered Christian settlements of Asia.
xi Care must be taken to prevent the busybodies and the gossips from doing harm; some orders under obedience to these people and some salutary punishments (themselves public) could go far to dampen in that line.
xii The judgment that someone is not at threshold should not be based simply on the statements of the person himself, but requires the sort of probative evidence needed for moral certitude, Pressed hard enough by circumstances, most Religious might seem, for a time, unable to live the life. I will discuss this in more detail later.
xiii Retention as a positive solution (cf. II, B. l) depends on the person’s being more or less at the threshold of his institute.
xiv If the person will not be sent away, then indeed he should be allowed to present his case: if need be, to use the canonical form of trial; to have the psychologists and the psychiatrists brought in; and the like.
xv Of course, any number of attitudes which militate directly against all that interests us in this area flourish among present-day psychologists, men for whom, often, freedom is meaningless, where a celibate life is automatically seen as harmful to anyone, where a vow of obedience is necessarily stultifying of maturity and growth. But if one can a psychologist who properly respects and takes account practically of the value and role of human liberty, he should be consulted in all these cases.
xvi Today, the Code requires a canonical trial for those bound by solemn vows in the Society of Jesus; and some form of trial is, I believe, required, outside the Society, for all with final vows. The canonical trial is needed primarily to protect people against overly severe or arbitrary action, to safeguard the Religious trying to live the rule in a lax community or, on occasion, to silence others of the
community who resent and oppose the move to dismiss. The trial has also a
coercive aspect as the only way an institute can force secularization upon the
xvii Canonical trials are out of place ordinarily in our present context. But a canonical requirement as to ascertaining the facts of a case by some sort of panel would seem advantageous so long as it is composed of people competent in the spirituality of that institute, especially as to its threshold, and in clinical psychology or psychiatry. One man, also, should be charged with assembling evidence concerning the person’s previous history.
xviii It is the interior quality of his activity and choices that is in question here. All
sorts of reasons, excellent from an order’s spiritual viewpoint, can call, in
particular circumstances, for an externally “secular” life style.
xix Just as all kinds of dissension arise which are only distantly, if at all, related to
problems of call, so, even more, are there factors of decay and decline of an
institute which are not provoked by vocational problems. Likewise, all modes of
long-standing dissension or of untreated decay, whatever their source, will
seriously damage the institute by generating, among other things, serious
problems for both the personal and the communal (or authoritative) discernment of God’s call. Space precludes treating these interesting topics here.