13 November 2010

"Different, Not Better"?

[[Sister, it sounds like you believe vocations to the consecrated life are better than those which are not. I know you say "different, not better" but if the rights and responsibilities are greater then doesn't that indicate the vocation is better too? I am trying to understand how distinguishing between initiation into the consecrated state is not better than remaining in the lay state. I am also trying to see how what you say is not a subtle demeaning of the lay state.]]

It is really a shame that the language of superiority and inferiority has had to take such a hold in regard to these discussions --- something that has happened throughout the history of the Church. We are still suffering from its effects. It is possible to find religious men and women and priests who affirm that the consecrated or ordained states are better or higher than the lay state because of Aquinas' analysis of the objective superiority of such vocations), but this is not what I hold nor, I think, is it what Thomas held. (My own impression when I hear this reference to "better" is that they have completely misunderstood the import of the Thomistic language here.) In any case I think that Thomas' language is almost impossible to accurately adopt today given the strongly ingrained impulse we have towards egalitarianism and our allergy to the language of superiority/inferiority -- no matter how it is nuanced -- so I prefer to speak of "different, not better" and I mean this sincerely.

The Dignity of Baptismal Consecration and the Universal Call to Holiness

When we speak of God calling some people to the lay state, some to the ordained state, others to the consecrated state, do we really want to say that he calls some to a better or "higher" vocation than others? I don't think so. Because someone is given and accepts a different set of rights and responsibilities than another do we want to suggest those rights and responsibilities are better than those of another person? I definitely don't think so. It is possible to esteem people and the vocations they have been called to without buying into the superiority/inferiority game (which again I don't think Thomas was doing himself.) It is also, therefore, possible to differentiate vocations with regard to rights, responsibilities or state without demeaning other vocations. In what I have written I have sincerely tried to do this, and in fact, my objections to "half-way" or middle states was rooted in the recognition that speaking or thinking this way fails in precisely this regard.

Why is it as soon as people feel called to an intensification of their baptismal commitment they almost automatically think in terms of requiring consecration, vows, special dress, titles, etc which supposedly do not make them lay any longer? Why not instead undertake reflection on the baptismal commitment and vows themselves and find ways to specify them in every day life? (I would note that liturgically we try to do this with the sprinkling rite where we renew our baptismal vows or with the commissioning of ministers, but the question is why isn't this truly effective?) Why is it reflection on the lay vocation is even yet generally done by priests and religious? Why is it the insistence of Vatican II on the place of the laity in the universal call to holiness has not taken hold as fully or effectively as it might have or was desired by the Council Fathers? I think in all of these ways and others we see the effect of a Church that has indeed treated the lay vocation as second or third class. The sense of needing to be called to consecrated or ordained life to really "give oneself" to God in a full and meaningful way is a left-over bit of this ecclesiastical world-view which is symptomatic of a deep-seated sense of inferiority on the part of laity generally.

Combating the Sense of Lay Inferiority: Religious Lay Aside the Habit

One of the most important reasons many religious men and women gave up the habit was to encourage the laity (and here I mean laity in the vocational sense of those in the lay state) to assume the dignity of these vocations. Religious women especially saw themselves as part of the laity (in the hierarchical rather than vocational sense of that term) and let go of dress which distinguished them in ways which contributed to the superiority/inferiority divide which was assumed so strongly before and immediately after Vatican II. The intention was not to demean or deny their own sense of belonging to the consecrated state or the dignity of that (though they are accused of this today, sometimes by the very laity meant to benefit from the act of relinquishing the habit), but to enhance the laity's sense of being called to the same kind of vocational dignity. The accent here was on affirming the universal call to holiness and encouraging those in the lay state to see themselves in terms of this very great dignity and call. Thus, religious sacrificed the signs of vocational distinction for the greater solidarity of baptismal or hierarchical equality.

I believe in some ways this was effective and broke down barriers to ministry, etc. Certainly it assisted people in valuing lay life and imagining or actually seeing themselves as genuinely called by God both to holiness and to ministry in ways similar to those called to consecrated life. In many ways the visual and emotional divide which not only distinguished but alienated and exacerbated the destructive "special vs ordinary" or "superior vs inferior" dichotomies was minimized. In other ways though it was ineffective or even counterproductive. The Church as a whole lost the sense of the presence of the vocation to the consecrated state and the divide between religious and lay was transferred over time to become (to mention one way only) the divide between "true religious" vs "quasi religious", for instance. It lost the sense that "lay" has two senses in the church and left us with the hierarchical sense alone. It also may have contributed to the sense that initiation into the consecrated state comes merely with dedication of oneself via vows of any sort beyond baptism, and obscured the distinction (not inequality!) between ecclesial and non-ecclesial vocations.

The point is that religious women generally have been at the forefront of insisting on the universal call to holiness and the very great dignity of ALL vocations and vocational states. I am not automatically placing myself in this company, but I do agree with the theology that both informs these efforts and motivated the Council Fathers at Vatican II. What all these people have seen and do see today is that Baptism and what happens there is of tremendous import and dignity. To become adopted Daughters and Sons of God when we were not these before is an almost unimaginable gift worthy of immeasurable esteem. To live and minister in the name of Christ is of similar import. To be consecrated in the Sacrament of initiation and made a part of the very Body of Christ should not be minimized or treated as a 2nd or 3rd class vocation. It is not!

I personally wear a habit, and I do so for a number of reasons which I believe are well-founded. However, there are also several reasons which would lead me to drop its use in short order. This issue of esteeming the lay state and minimizing the superior/inferior and special/ordinary divides is one of them. If I really thought the wearing of the habit at this point in time was contributing significantly to the inability of lay people to take the vocation to the lay state seriously or to believe they had to enter the consecrated state to really give themselves to God, I would likely need in conscious to let go of it. One reason I do not is because I have seen its relinquishment also create a kind of gap or lacunae in understanding the difference between consecration and dedication, or between ecclesial and non-ecclesial vocations. The sacrifice women religious made in order to bring home the Vatican II message of a universal call to holiness was a significant one but at the same time it was not completely helpful.

Different, Not Better: The Body of Christ has Many Members with Many Functions

Even so, the bottom line here is that we are told, and asked to believe, that the Body of Christ has many parts with different functions. An eye should not wish (or try) to be a hand, a hand should not wish (or try) to be a foot, etc. Nor, of course, should the eye be treated as "better" than the hand, etc. They are distinct realities and have different functions, different gifts, but each is important to the functioning of the whole and none is better than the other. The rights and responsibilities of the eye are different than those of the hand, but different here does not mean better. The pastor of my parish has different rights and responsibilities than I do, but this certainly does not mean his vocation is better than mine. Similarly the mother across the street from the church has different rights and responsibilities than I do, but this does not mean that either of our vocations is better than the other's. A lay hermit has different rights and responsibilities than I do, but again, that does not mean either vocation is better than the other. I think you see what I am trying to say with all this!