Ok, I am winging it a bit here, I skipped this class when I did my Catholic Theology degree because it was taught by a Balthasarian. I would not be surprised to hear that the terminological distinctions I want to make here are no good because the Magisterium has picked different ones (or even that they are just no good) but here goes…

I have the feeling that there is a lot of unhelpful and equivocal use of terms on this whole ‘vocation’ and ‘state of life’ discussion. I think it is very significant that St Thomas does not even bother to discuss the idea that the Priesthood, Marriage or the Religious Life require any kind of special Divine call. I think the fact that this idea seems to have developed during the Baroque period tainted by Nominalism (I’m just reciting Pinckaers’s line here) is a bad sign. I am not sure Marriage or even Priesthood are vocations in the same sense as consecration or in a sense different in kind from Carpenter or Godmother (except that they enjoy the dignity of a sacrament). I think there are probably two proper senses of ‘vocation’ the first has four aspects the second is quite simple. I suspect only marriage and consecration are authentic ‘states of life’ a concept not to be confused with ‘vocation’.

What is a ‘vocation’. In a vocation we are called. It thus contains the idea of a summons to a different life from that which is the norm. In this primary sense vocation refers to (1) the elevation of man to a supernatural end and (2) the efficacious grace by which some men are infallibly conducted to that end. It also refers (3) to the mode of life created by the three evangelical counsels which is reflective of supernatural confidence in God’s promised aid to attain the supernatural end and which ought to be characteristic of all Christians. It refers finally (4) to the state of life (consecration) of those who permanently repudiate all those goods that are not intrinsically necessary for the attainment of the supernatural end.

At least in terms of generic category, that’s it. However, there is also the question of the way in which vocation in these four senses is to be realised. This is partly a matter of reason but everyone who is in a state of grace is also equipped with the seven gifts of the Spirit precisely because the resources of reason, even reinforced by the infused virtues, are morally inadequate to efficaciously cooperate with providence to attain to the supernatural end. Thus the supernatural notion of vocation also applies to each individual’s life decisions. Thus in this second sense each individual has a separate vocation.

All of this seems to have got mixed up with the question of a state of life. There are only really two stable states of life marriage and consecration. It is a misfortune not to attain to either of them and if to the latter to do so without vows. There is no point being coy about this an adopting a silly late twentieth century ‘all must have prizes’ attitude. However, this does not mean God could not have willed (and not just by his permissive will) a given individual to live a life which per accidens does not entail entering into one of these two stable (and so objectively superior) states of life. Marriage is also a sacrament but in this sense it is a ‘vocation’ through being a part of the individual’s specific vocation. It is not ‘a vocation’ in the first sense because it is just doing what comes naturally in a Christian way. It is the Sacramentum Magnum because it has been constituted as a natural symbol of all four aspects of vocation in the first sense (i.e. of the union of Christ and the Church). This is why consecration exceeds marriage as the reality exceeds the sign. Ordination is a vocation qua life task (sense two) but not in the first sense and it is compatible with both or neither state of life. A cleric can be married (good) consecrated (better) or neither (a misfortune) so ordination is not really a state of life but is only a ‘vocation’ though being a part of the individual’s specific vocation in this second sense. That is to say, by being part of that task for which God has made each individual hypothetically necessary.

This second sense of ‘vocation’ is the one Newman famously describes…

God was all-complete, all-blessed in Himself, but it was His will to create a world for His glory. He is Almighty, and might have done all things Himself, but it has been His will to bring about His purposes by the beings He has created. We are all created to His glory–we are created to do His will. I am created to do something or to be something for which no one else is created; I have a place in God’s counsels, in God’s world, which no one else has; whether I be rich or poor, despised or esteemed by man, God knows me and calls me by my name.

God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission–I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes, as necessary in my place as an Archangel in his–if indeed, I fail, He can raise another, as He could make the stones children of Abraham. Yet I have a part in this great work: I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling.

Therefore I will trust Him. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be necessary causes of some great end, which is quite beyond us. He does nothing in vain; He may prolong my life, He may shorten it; He knows what He is about. He may take my friends, He may throw me among strangers, He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide the future from me–still He knows what He is about.

O my God, I give myself to Thee. I trust Thee wholly. Thou art wiser than I–more loving to me than I myself. Deign to fulfill Thy high purposes in me whatever they be; work in and through me. I am born to serve Thee, to be Thine, to be Thy instrument. Let me be Thy blind instrument. I ask not to see, I ask not to know–I ask simply to be used.