17 November 2010

On Esteeming the Lay State and the Multiplication of Vows

[[Dear Sister Laurel, why do you think lay people feel a need to make private vows rather than living their Baptismal consecration more fully? You seem to suggest there is a failure here and that private vows are being made without good enough reasons, as when you refer to substantive reasons being needed to justify more vows.]]

Good question, but complex too and one I can only start to answer. I think the reasons are several so let me point out some I am aware of.

First, there is the "objective superiority" language of Thomas which has mainly been misunderstood by non-Thomists (and some "neo-Thomists" as well), and which is largely beyond reach now in our time and culture. (It is not a matter of translating words but instead of translating language as a whole: mindsets, philosophical categories, etc and often this is simply impossible to accomplish for any but true experts in scholastic thought.) Because Thomas (et al) spoke of vocations to "states of perfection" in terms of "objective superiority" we naturally translate this into the dichotomous or competitive language of superiority/inferiority, better/worse, special/ordinary, higher/lower, perfection/imperfection and so forth. But, as far as I can see, Thomas eschewed language of better/worse, inferiority, imperfection, or higher/lower better than those who followed him and failed to understand him as well as they might have. Even so this language is no longer helpful and has entered our culture and especially our church in ways which make it hard to properly or adequately esteem either the lay state, and within that, the married state or dedicated single life. We truly need to find ways to esteem the gifts which these are, and especially the ways in which they witness to God's love and reveal God to the world, which do not buy into the "this-worldly" competitive language. Similarly we need to find ways to esteem the gifts of consecrated life, priesthood, etc without buying into all-too-worldly concepts and language of competitiveness and status (in the common sense of that term).

Secondly, I think that there is simply too little personal reflection on what is entailed in Baptism/Confirmation and the commitments made there by the laity themselves. The institutional Church tries to make up for (or better, perhaps, encourage) this in homilies, adult faith formation, the commissioning of ministers, the sprinkling rite and renewal of baptismal promises done at various points throughout the Church year at Mass but the responsibility for reflection and expression here falls directly on the laity. In the main this failure to reflect adequately is due to a failure to implement Vatican II as thoroughly as it required. Part of this means that Baptism is still seen mainly as something done to babies which washes away sin rather than ALSO and even primarily being an act of consecration which should be ratified throughout one's life in decisions every bit as momentous as those flowing from religious vows, ordination, and entrance into the ordained or consecrated states.

Sometimes I receive emails from people thinking about making private vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Occasionally these are from married persons who feel something driving them to do this. When we explore what is going on it almost always comes down to two things: 1) they have not reflected at all on what their baptismal promises (or consecration more generally!) requires of them NOW, and 2) they have not done anything similar with their marriage vows. Once they engage in this kind of reflection and find ways to renew and specify the meaning of these vows in the present moment there is rarely a need for additional vows. After all, the evangelical counsels are meant to be entered into in some form or expression by every Christian. Working out within the context of a marriage how poverty, chastity (chaste love), and obedience (a faithful hearkening to the Word and Presence of God in our lives) are to be exercised by both persons is a necessary exercise. What must be remembered though is that Religious vows are specifications of baptismal vows, and I would suggest that marriage vows are also specifications of baptismal vows. They oblige us to reflect on this foundational commitment and to specify it further in our lives.

It may not be realized by most people, but religious vows are not made and then set aside as wholly understood or exhaustively entered into on the day of profession. (Though neither do I mean they are only half-heartedly or partially entered into on this occasion!) What I mean is that vows are not only contracts or covenants which bind legally or morally; they are doorways through which one enters the world (and the Kingdom) in a new way, from a new perspective, with a new mind and heart. One spends an entire lifetime exploring what they mean and oblige to; one spends an entire lifetime conforming oneself (or being conformed) to these. Obedience at temporary profession may look very different than it looks 25 years later. It may look very different to the superior than it does to the postulant. Poverty and chastity (or conversatio morum and stability) are similar and their shape changes as the person matures spiritually and personally. Thus religious or consecrated men and women regularly renew their vows (or other commitments) publicly (in community), and they do so privately much more frequently than that. (In truth every day is a lived reflection on these vows.) Baptismal vows are the framework for living a life of discipleship and if we have not reflected on our baptismal or marriage vows for some time, we may have failed to reflect seriously on the framework or shape discipleship is meant to take in our own lives.

Thirdly then, I think we need to provide liturgical options for the renewal of baptismal and other commitments. The Easter Liturgy is wonderful for this, the rite of sprinkling and renewal of vows which stems from this and continues throughout the church year, especially when it attends Baptisms of new members, can be helpful, but it must not simply become pro forma or routine. One reason people may fail to take these commitments seriously is because individual parishes do not do so either. Today, for instance, we have parishes which fulfill the directives and honor the teaching of the Church on baptism by requiring significant preparation on the part of families and godparents. They understand the theology of baptism and treat initiation into the faith community as something of great dignity. However, we also have parishes which "make it as easy as possible" despite knowing that once baptized the child will never be seen in the church again except perhaps for the occasional wedding or funeral. We are caught between two paradigms or theologies of baptism, the first which focused almost solely on the washing away of original sin, and the second which adopts the richer vision of baptism as the Sacrament which makes of the person part of the People of God, the LAOS, from which we get the theology of the lay state. The first paradigm and acquiescence to pressure to "just baptize the kid or I will find someone who will" is a source of our failure to regard adequately vocations to the lay state because it itself fails to regard initiation into the People (laos) of God adequately.

Baptism is not a right. It is a privilege. Belonging to the People of God is a gift and privilege --- though one we ordinarily do not exclude people from. Being a member of the Body of Christ is a gift and privilege with corresponding rights and obligations. We must, as a church, give full and consistent voice to this message across the board. Insofar as this means rejecting the older paradigm of baptism and its rather mechanical approach to original sin as inadequate, we must do that --- not just intellectually but in all of our pastoral praxis. Otherwise we give double messages and people come away thinking baptism (and entrance into the lay state) are merely received passively while implying no real change in our humanity (forgetting we become a New Creation!) or ongoing maturing commitment and personal engagement. In other words, we give the impression that except for washing away the stain of original sin when we were infants (whatever THAT means to us really) they are just not all that big a deal. The result is we mistakenly come to believe it is only through OTHER VOWS, entrance into OTHER states which are solely associated with adulthood and active and mature commitment that we reach the fullness of the Christian vocation.

I have to cut this off at this point. I hope this helps as a beginning answer (for there are certainly other reasons I have not mentioned). If it raises more questions or leaves confusion, please get back to me.