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Called to Greatness: Vocation and Dignity

Editor's note:
This essay was crafted in response to the following prompt: How should American Catholics move forward in their witness to the truths of marriage and family? What elements of this movement are most integral to its success? To view Ron Belgau's response, click here.

Why are we losing the culture wars on family? One simple reason is that for years, young people have been told that our (natural-law, Judeo-Christian) vision of marriage is cruel.

That charge has been internalized. Many LGBT people my age don’t call us cruel for political advantage, or out of trained melodrama; they really believe it. Their belief doesn’t make our message cruel, but it makes their experience one of real pain. And pastorally, that’s what counts.

One thing we can do for these brothers and sisters of ours is to remind them of what they can do for us—of what we need them to do. For while fear of loneliness may give many LGBT youth pause about our ethic (a topic for another essay), I suspect a second common fear is of ennui or despair: the dread of being Christians “consigned” to singleness, with nothing positive demanded of them, by the Church or the wider culture.

That is, behind the LGBT cry for dignity may be the sense that social standing comes from being needed by the community, which comes from having publicly recognized responsibilities—which nowadays only marriage seems to offer.

In one way, we all can sympathize. We all suffer the ultimate indignity of mortality—of being disposable to a harsh universe. Here the Gospel alone provides an adequate answer: We’ve been made necessary—by divine adoption—to God’s designs for the cosmos. This is the astonishing good news that people alienated by our moral vision need to hear.

The Church has a name for the shape that this “adoptive” necessity takes in each life: vocation. If we want to answer the cry for dignity, then, we should teach people the Church’s exhilarating truths of personal vocation: of what Christ needs from them.

This will mean getting past the four-entrée vocational menu I was once taught: priesthood, religious life, marriage, and “single blessedness” (which I always heard as “… other”). Our vocations encompass not just the broadest outlines but all the “good works” that “God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).

Is Christian marriage not in your future? Then your vocation includes the art, adventure, service, ministry or music or writing you are called to pursue. It includes the deep and fulfilling relationships that make real and prosaic demands on you, and any of a thousand other ways you can add to the world’s sums of beauty and love.

Moreover, because nothing escapes God’s providence, the contours of your call can be traced by your crosses as well as your talents. Even your greatest hardships (of desire or identity or otherwise) are permitted in love, for an increase in love.

And because God made you free and irreplaceable, you can make real contributions to the Kingdom that no one else can. God is so generous that His grace enables you to add crucial raw material to His Kingdom. When Christ returns, He will join a new heavens to an earth forever marked by the “good fruits of [your] nature and enterprise,” as the Second Vatican Council teaches. The Kingdom will eternally be different for your contributions in Christ, which He needs, as a man among us, just as truly as He needed Joseph’s apprenticeship or Mary’s care. And if you make those contributions faithfully to the end, you will, in the Council’s evocative understatement, “find them again,” but now “freed from stain, burnished and transfigured” in that new Kingdom.

Finally, because our world is fallen, your call, whatever else it involves, will require your readiness at any hour to die for fidelity to it, as Christ died for His.

*                    *                    *

The Gospel, in short, calls us to a heroism of infinite consequence, offering more full-blooded variety than any bourgeois vision of respectability. Young people who hear it in full will be roused from adolescent solipsism and drawn into God’s arena. The charge that Christianity is cramped and cruel will become increasingly ridiculous.

A natural place to teach these truths is in confirmation class. After all, in confirmation Christ gives us the Holy Spirit, who enables our unique service and witness. Moreover, reminding young people of the Church’s audacious teaching on vocation can help win them over (or back) just when they’re most tempted to see her moral vision as cruel.

For that daring doctrine shows that “single blessedness” as well as marriage or consecrated life can point to our final union in Christ—marriage to its bodily realism, and celibacy to its all-inclusiveness. It shows that there’s no “normal” vocation for those who “can,” with back-up plans for the rest, but unique calls to us each, willed in love from the world’s foundation. And it reveals that our deepest status marker is not single or married, gay or straight, member of this or that household; but son or daughter of God, made in His image, destined for His household and the glory of His Kingdom.


Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • NDaniels

    You assume that it is not possible to overcome same-sex sexual attraction.
    or any other form of disordered sexual attraction.

    All persons have the ability to learn how to develop healthy and Holy friendships and relationships that are respectful of themselves and others in private as well as in public. Never underestimate the value of a Loving friendship. Cherish those friendships and relationships you make along the way, but never allow them to become a means to an end. In all things, Authentic Love will always serve the inherent personal and relational Dignity of the human person, and be ordered towards the Good of all persons.

    • Dylan

      He has not necessarily made that assumption, in fact. There is anecdotal evidence that some have overcome their attraction; but I am personally and intimately familiar with faithful Catholics who have not been able, despite their disinterested friendships with me and others. Those people need care, too, without being accused that they just don’t want to change.

      • NDaniels

        Charity requires that when addressing same-sex sexual attraction, one not omit the fact that it is possible to overcome a same-sex sexual attraction.
        All of us have disordered inclinations, of various types and degrees, some more difficult to overcome than others, some more deeply seeded than others. God desires that we desire to overcome our disordered inclinations and become transformed through Salvational Love, God’s Gift of Grace and Mercy.
        Whether or not someone has or is in the process of learning how to develop Loving friendships that are respectful of themselves and others, how does identifying oneself or someone else according to sexual desire/inclination/orientation, respect our Dignity as human persons?

        • Dylan

          These are not points I can disagree with. They’re just not relevant to the article or to my comment. I understand you have deep confidence that everyone can overcome his sinful desires, but, as we all know (or should know) through the experience of our own concupiscience, those who cannot remain a phenomenon to be loved. This article means to explore how the particular group known variably as gay, homosexual or SSA may be loved, and how they themselves may love, but you seem to have missed those big points.

          • NDaniels

            Love is ordered to the inherent personal and relational Dignity of the persons existing in a relationship of Love. (The Ordered Communion of Perfect Love, The Blessed Trinity)
            The Truth of Love Is denied the moment we reorder man according to sexual desire/inclination/orientation.
            As the mother of a daughter who developed a same-sex sexual attraction as the result of the perfect storm, it is because I Love my daughter, as I Love all my children, that I continue to Pray that she, like all my children, sees herself as God Created her to be, a young lady, worthy of being treated with Dignity and respect in private as well as in public.
            Never underestimate the value of a Loving friendship.

  • Jim Russell

    ****That is, behind the LGBT cry for dignity may be the sense that social standing comes from being needed by the community, which comes from having publicly recognized responsibilities—which nowadays only marriage seems to offer.****

    I’m not sure that I understand this assertion clearly–is the assertion that the secular “community” only seems to offer “marriage” as a locus for “publicly recognized responsibilities,” or that the “Church” is doing so? If the assertion is that the Church (as in Catholic Church) does so, I would have to disagree. In the Church, every person, married or not, and regardless of whom one is sexually attracted to, possesses publicly recognized responsibilities….

    • Sherif Girgis

      I agree, Jim. In fact, my main point is that in the Church, everyone does have recognized responsibilities, rooted in our vocations, which are rooted in our baptism. It’s in the culture that the opposite impression reigns–though it was also part of my point that as Catholics we sometimes forget what the Church teaches about this and take too many cues on it from the culture.

  • Fantastico

    Thank you for this article. I have watched some of your presentations to Anscombe societies, etc. on Youtube, so I understand that your leanings would be very conservative and traditional, to say the least. However, this is the first time I have read a positive pastoral framework for gay Catholics (and anyone who does not think marriage is for them) articulated from a conservative, Christian position in a tone that is not condescending. For once, I am not reading a list of “no” and “do not.” Most conservatively inclined articles are busy steeling their faithful by stirring up fear of the gays, etc., with their fingers in their ears, while indifferently singing the praises of the married life for all. Then they wonder why gay couples are seeking civil marriage rights.

    It took me years of searching and reading, and filtering through the often deeply uncharitable portrayals of gay men and women by Christian writers, to realise that it is possible to be legitimately unmarried. Stepping inside a Church or reading through a parish newsletter nowadays, it is easy to assume that marriage is, in effect, the only valid state of life for any self-respecting Catholic. For instance, my own local church basically centers its community activities around couples and families. In this regard, I still don’t know where and how I fit in. The Church (Catholic and others) does itself no favors when it silently equates “faithfully Catholic” with “married.” By implication, if one is not married, preferably with a large family, then one is not quite fulfilling the job description for “Catholic”. While I am sure this is not be the message the Church intends to present, to someone like me it can seem that way. The unmarried state seems to be second best.

    Obviously, remaining unmarried is nothing new. But in our marriage saturated twenty-first century, the institution, whether civil or sacramental, is associated with a measure of “respectability” that the unmarried state unfortunately lacks. Yet even in my grandparents’ day, which is not so long ago, not every family member felt obliged to be married. But they were no less part of the family, because family was flexible enough to make room for them. Today, family has become a shriveled and rigid nuclear unit, and civil marriage, conversely, has had to become more flexible.

    Finally, this is the first time I have read an article where gay Christian men and women are not referred to as a distancing, remote “they,” but rather as “you.” Because when I sit in the pews on Sunday, or listen to the homily, or go to Confession, or receive Communion, I am not a “they” far beyond the walls. It has been invigorating to read an article that applies to me where I am not referred to in the third person, for once, but in a pronoun that is addressed directly to me. I appreciate being to be spoken to, rather than spoken about. Thank you.

    • Sherif Girgis

      Wonderful to know– thank you!

  • Peter Junipero Hannah

    I appreciate the author’s intentions here, which in the main I’m on board with: the critical Christian witness to our culture today is emphasizing the dignity and high vocation of the Christian. But I see a couple theological problems with the article ( I speak here as a Dominican priest, to put my cards on the table)

    (1) God actually doesn’t need us. He doesn’t need our contribution to His plan. It may seem a harsh thing to say, but He is perfectly happy, and can bring heaven and earth to fruition, apart from our cooperation or obedience. And actually…we need him, as it were, not to need us. It is the condition of his love and grace being purely gratuitous. We have the privilege of contributing to this plan if we respond to His call. And–make no mistake–it is a high calling; that part is correct and healthy to emphasize.

    (2) So far as I am aware, Church documents only use the word “vocation” in respect to marriage and priesthood/religious/consecrated life. There is no such thing, in this sense, as a “vocation” to be single, to be an artist, adventurer, writer, etc. These may be beautiful and worthy ways to contribute to the common good and live out our call to holiness. But–I’m speaking somewhat off the cuff here–it seems the distinguishing feature of a vocation properly speaking is to bind oneself by a solemn vow to another, God, a bishop, religious community, or spouse. One can speak, I think, of a general vocation to holiness that all Christians have in virtue of baptism, but to try to imbue with special divine meaning particular professions, or life-choices, is a slight but I would argue not prudent or theologically sound move.

    • Sherif Girgis

      Thanks, Fr. Hannah. On (1), of course God, as God, doesn’t need us, as creatures. I wrote rather that God has freely chosen to “need” us “by adoption,” which is like what Pope Benedict said in His installation homily (“Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.”) I also said that Christ, *as a man,* needs us to fulfill his mission for the world until the end of time. And I think that’s a clear implication of the Incarnation and Christ’s all-encompassing mission. *As a man,* engaged in a joint project, He needs the contributions of the others–His mother for food to reach maturity to begin His mission of evangelization, His apostles to continue it, and us by extension to do the same.

      On (2), I suppose one can use the word in several senses, but the Church uses it more broadly than you suggest. The Catechism speaks of the vocation of all humanity, of the vocation of the laity in particular, and of each baptized individual’s “unique” vocation, which of course includes single people. All three usages (I haven’t tried an exhaustive search) are broader than the one you’ve singled out. Of course, the crucial point isn’t linguistic, but substantive: that (i) God has a will, an active preference, for how our lives go even beyond the taking and fulfillment of the marital, priestly, or religious vows you mention, which (ii) one should discern in prayer, and which (iii) God wills to contribute somehow to the raw material for the Kingdom (on which, see Gaudium et Spes 38-39). And that vocation in this sense that encompasses all the morally significant elements in a person’s life (iv) is shaped partly by one’s crosses, as John Paul said, speaking of elements of vocation in a 1981 homily: “And I am thinking also of other situations: for example, of the husband who is left a widower, of the spouse who is abandoned, of the orphan. I am thinking of the condition of the sick; the old, infirm and lonely; and of the poor.”

      • Peter Junipero Hannah

        Sherif, your clarifications are helpful, and I don’t want to emphasize the finer points on which I disagree without acknowledging again the broad and important point on which I completely agree: that the Christian vocation has immense dignity and all persons, irrespective of specific state in life, personality, orientation, etc., are called to it.

        That said, to each of your points:

        (1) I suppose this one is a matter of emphasis (as in most things theological). While it’s true that one can abstract the human nature of Christ and in this sense say he became dependent on human beings–and by extension on us and our latter-day vocations–for the mission of the Kingdom, this can be misleading also. For Christ’s human nature was never in practice separated from his divine. To apply it to the case, even when the Lord is nursing at the Virgin’s breast, it is he also who is supplying her the grace to do so for him. And, absolutely speaking, it could have been done without her. Again it’s a matter of emphasis, for one can legitimately, as you say, assert that “as a man” he chose to become dependent, and “by adoption” God wills to associate us with his work of redemption. I’m just leery of two things here: (a) a very modern dualism which would make God a “joint partner” or kind of business associate with whom we collaborate, him depending on us to make good on our duties, without which his Kingdom can’t advance—there’s an obvious anthropomorphism of God there, as well as an incipient Pelagianism; and (b) falling prey to the other (very modern) temptation to see God as needing us, simpliciter; i.e. Process Theology. The practical act of preaching and explaining the faith does not always allow theological precision (one of my Dominican confreres says one is allowed two material heresies per homily!), and I’m not saying you would assert any of the errors I’ve mentioned, but prudentially one has to be careful in how one communicates God’s “need” for us. I think it’s much safer to say something like: “God invites and calls you to a high vocation” leaving off altogether the question of need. Of the two statements taken simply, “God doesn’t need us” is less liable to be misunderstood—especially to contemporary people—than “God needs us.”

        (2) I’d be interested in the spot or place where the Catechism speaks of an individual’s “unique” vocation. A quick search myself of the Catechism, and of Gaudium et Spes and Lumen Gentium yields three basic categories of vocation, the first two of which are substantially the ones I mentioned in my initial comment: (1) a narrower sense: marriage or religious life/priesthood/consecrated life; and (2) a wider sense: the Christian vocation to holiness and, ultimately, beatitude; and (3) a general “vocation of man” to, e.g., subdue the earth, contribute to the common good, etc. Nowhere I found is a vocation to be single, or to a more specified professional career as artist, doctor, etc., mentioned. It may seem a slight quibble, but there is an important difference, I’d say, between saying that “God called this person to be single writer” and “God called this to person holiness in virtue of his/her baptism and faith, and writing is the way he/she in prudence, through prayer, and prompted and led by the Spirit, chose to live out the vocation to holiness.” The universal call/vocation to holiness no doubt entails a call to “sanctify the temporal order,” which takes on multitudinous specific expressions. But it seems more in line with the full span of tradition, and the documents themselves, to reserve a proper sense of “vocation” as it applies to concrete individuals to something like: “a state of life with objectively defined obligations arising from vows taken to give oneself to another.” I think that would cover sense (1) and (2) that I mentioned. Sense (3), since it applies to humanity in general, is obviously a broader and I think categorically different use. The reason I’m sensitive on the proper distinctions here—and perhaps my Domincian training will come out here—is that much of 20th century theology, and Vatican II’s documents (though I would not accuse the latter of fundamental theological error) seem to confuse the orders of nature and grace, wanting to imbue all of nature with some special divine presence. That is a much larger issue, of course, but it plays into I think this concept of “vocation.”

  • tb03

    I wanted to speak up and clarify a common misunderstanding
    about why gays want marriage equality. Too frequently I see conservative Christians reduce gays and gay marriage as motivated by personal sexual desire while ignoring more factual personal accounts of those fighting for marriage equality. In a way this is smart politics. It’s tough to minimize the right of dignity when also openly discussing gay families with children who are fighting to make their families safer and more secure by recognizing both parents as parents. It’s kinda hard to explain that conservatives are doing this for children by supporting public policies that actually HURT children by the hundreds of thousands. It’s difficult to explain why a gay couple, one with terminal cancer, are simply seeking sexual satisfaction by fighting for marriage equality. Instead, we get articles like the one recently posted in Public Discourse connecting marriage equality to sexual freedoms that can lead to pedophilia. This article was pure anecdotal rumor without mention of the conference attended, date or names of speakers so they can defend themselves
    Yeah, that happened two days ago! We have Catholic bishops still passing Regnerus’ study (which was funded by The Witherspoon Institute, Public Discourse also is Witherspoon, Girgis works for Witherspoon, see a connection?) as legit in an brief to SCOTUS even though it’s officially getting a stake in the heart by Cheng and Powell
    These are just two recent examples of striking at the dignity of same sex couples, and I could go on and on. So, if someone calls “traditional marriage” supporters cruel it’s for good reason. They “really believe it” because it’s really believable. With all due respect, outrage over supposed “melodrama” of marriage equality supporters can only be willful obtuseness.

    I understand this is a Catholic website and the article is directed at Christians, and if gay Catholics wish to remain celibate no one is usurping their autonomy to do so. But to accurately answer the question of “How should American Catholics move forward in their witness to the truths of marriage and family?” especially in the context of same sex marriage, you must honestly try to understand why gays are seeking marriage equality. Gay people have the right to safety, life and dignity, and that necessitates marriage equality. To reject their hope and humanity as expressed through their family you are making them second class citizens, and that is unacceptable even if you see married gays as morally inferior.
    What gays are not doing in fighting for civil marriage rights is asking
    for individual or religious acceptance. Do you really think we care about personal opinions especially when our family is at stake? Religious recognition is irrelevant in civil marriage. We are also not trying to change some fabled “definition of marriage”. We can’t, there isn’t one
    So the whole patronizing pat on the head saying “You’re not going to
    play on the baseball team, but you can be the bat boy! Don’t be disappointed, think how clean you’ll keep your uniform. That’ll be so
    inspiring!” falls flat with most gay people.

  • gary47290

    Gergis’s argument will not stand under non-religious analysis. If there is a reason for opposite sex marriage only, he fails to justify it.

  • OBJ15

    Appreciate the author’s charitable tone. Overall an excellent piece.