Sacrificing Religious Life: A Reply to Critics

In my December 31, 2013 Crisis article, Sacrificing Religious Life on the Altar of Egalitarianism, I argued that the decimation of American religious orders is partly self-inflicted.  Vocations directors, counselors, and authors make two mistakes: 1) they treat life in the world and the religious life as if they were equally effective means to growth in holiness, contemplation, and love, and 2) they tell young Catholics to find their vocations by searching their desires. Because religious life includes some tough renunciations, and because young Catholics have been told that life in the world offers equivalent spiritual goods, young Catholics see no reason to desire religious life. Understandably, they desire the option with fewer gratuitous costs. So, guided by the yearning of their hearts, they choose a vocation in the world.  Meanwhile, religious orders shrink and die.

This argument has provoked a number of critics.  I would like to explore some of their objections and offer responses.

The first objection is that I am wrong to claim that religious life is a superior means to Christian perfection.  Religious life is only superior in the sense that it more closely mirrors Christ’s life on earth. But it is no better, and no worse, at making us saints.  This objection seems to wilt when exposed to the light of tradition. Aquinas, representing this tradition, is very clear that religious life is a superior means to holiness—that the evangelical counsels are the perfect “dispositions to perfection” (Summa contra Gentiles 130.3). He says that we need the evangelical counsels in order to destroy the primary roadblocks to charity:

As regards the practice of perfection a man is required to remove from himself whatever may hinder his affections from tending wholly to God, for it is in this that the perfection of charity consists. Such hindrances are of three kinds. First, the attachment to external goods, which is removed by the vow of poverty; secondly, the concupiscence of sensible pleasures, chief among which are venereal pleasures, and these are removed by the vow of continence; thirdly, the inordinateness of the human will, and this is removed by the vow of obedience (Secunda Secundae, Q. 186, art. 7).

Religious life also prevents occasions of sin:

It is evident that the observances of the religious state, while removing the obstacles to perfect charity, remove also the occasions of sin: for instance, it is clear that fasting, watching, obedience, and the like withdraw man from sins of gluttony and lust and all other manner of sins (Secunda Secundae, Q. 189, art. 1).

Religious life opens the way to perfect charity, and it throws up a wall to sin.  According to tradition, it is a manifestly superior means to holiness.  It may seem strange to us twenty-first century Catholics, but the monastic fathers, the great ascetics, and the doctors of the Church, like Aquinas, all appear to agree: “the worldly life does not dispose one to religious perfection, but is more an obstacle thereto,” while “the religious state is a spiritual schooling for the attainment of the perfection of charity” (Secunda Secundae, Q. 189, art. 1).

The second objection to my article comes from Br. Gregory Maria Pine, who criticizes me for eliminating desire from the process of discernment.  He claims that we need desire in the process of discernment because desire is a precondition for action, and because the love that moves us to choose religious life is found “in the God-given desires of our hearts.”

I am inclined to agree with Br. Pine that all action requires desire.  We must desire the evangelical counsels in order to choose them.  We desire them, however, not for their own sake, but as means conducive to something greater.  Just as a martyr can desire death as a means to perfecting his love for Christ, so a religious can desire to sacrifice property, marriage, and his will as a means conducive to holiness, contemplation, and love.  If we can obtain a greater good by giving up a lesser good, then we should desire to give up the lesser good.

Although this logic preserves desire as a necessary precondition for choosing the evangelical counsels, it does not support searching one’s desires as a method of vocational discernment.  In fact, it does the opposite.  According to the above logic of desire, if the good obtained by giving up earthly things is greater than the good of keeping them, then we should desire to give up earthly things.  The Church teaches unequivocally that the spiritual good obtained by giving up property, marriage, and one’s will is greater than the good of keeping these earthly things (Council of Trent, Session 24; Vita Consecrata, 32; Summa contra Gentiles, 130.3).  Therefore, we should all have a strong desire to give up property, marriage, and our wills, in order to live the religious life. This spells trouble for any method of discernment that focuses on desire.  If properly ordered desire is the guide to vocational discernment, then it looks like everyone ends up being called to the religious life.  But not everyone is called.  Thus, it seems that desire should not be the deciding factor in vocational discernment.

This leads to a final objection.  Because my article edges out desire-introspection from the process of discernment, it seems that I leave young Catholics without a viable method of discernment.  In response to this objection, I would like to propose—to reintroduce—a very old method for discernment that has been pilloried and subsequently forgotten over past half-century. Here is the method: if you are able to live religious life, then do it.  Christ himself says, about celibacy for the kingdom, “He who is able to receive this, let him receive it” (Matthew 19:12, my emphasis).  Saint Paul writes, “It is good for a man not to touch a woman…. Are you free of a wife? Then do not look for a wife” (1 Corinthians 7).  Aquinas says, “It is certain that entrance into religion is a greater good, and to doubt about this is to disparage Christ Who gave this counsel.” Therefore, “it need not be a matter of deliberation whether one ought to renounce all that one has, or whether by so doing one may be able to attain to perfection” (Secunda Secundae, Q. 189, art. 10).  To paraphrase Aquinas, just do it.  God is your goal, and religious life is the best road to get you there.  If you can live the religious life, it’s the obvious choice.

So where’s the discernment in all of this? Perhaps the real deliberative work of discernment happens, not by considering your desires, but by considering whether you are capable of living the religious life. Capability is not guaranteed: “it happens sometimes that many cannot do this [the evangelical counsels], nor keep other religious observances” (Secunda Secundae, Q. 189, art. 10).  In fact, because religious life stands above the merely natural, no one has a natural capability to live it.  One becomes capable only by grace.  So each young Catholic must discern whether God has granted him the grace to live religious life.  If God has granted him the grace, then he should choose religious life without a second thought.  Perhaps this is true discernment.  Perhaps this is what we should be hearing from our vocations directors.

Editor’s note: The image above entitled “St. Hugo of Grenoble in a Carthusian Refectory” was painted by Francisco de Zurbarán in 1655.


Justin Hannegan is a Benedictine brother at the Abbey of Saint Mary and Saint Louis in Creve Coeur, Missouri. He earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy from the University of Dallas and his Master's degree in philosophy from Northern Illinois University.

  • Lobi

    It’s by no means obvious from “St Thomas Aquinas says so” that “tradition is clear…” In this regard, there are some notable tensions in the traditio, not against JPII’s view in “Consecrated Life”, but certainly in dialogue with St Thomas.

  • elarga

    I am baffled by this new argument. I am surely capable of doing many different things, possibly even living the religious life. But if I don’t want to do one or more of them, I won’t.

  • Therese

    Your arguments are well written. It seems to me that the obstinate will always find a way to reject them.

  • donnellymj

    executive summaries are a great tool in an email with click to whole article
    consider it might well lead to more readership

  • BM

    Excellent article, as was the previous one.

  • hombre111

    Somehow, Br. Justin reminds me of a relatively young priest who lectured all the priests of the diocese at a priests’ retreat for expressing wry cynicism about the celibate vocation. I thought to myself, life is very long, my young friend. Fifteen years later, he began having his own struggles with celibacy, and then he met the love of his life. For the most part, us cynics are still here.

    • Koufax

      Looks like the priest in that situation stopped doing his daily Holy Hour and henceforth started to seek the infinite in the finite.

      • hombre111

        Not sure about that. Could have been part of the problem. But he carried his devils into the priesthood with him. I do know that an hour or more a day in prayer is essential for the spiritual life of a priest.

    • NickD

      “Then he met the love of his life”…

      Did he not meet his true love on his ordination day, his day of marriage to Holy Mother Church?

      • hombre111

        l think this is one of the main differences between a call to the religious life and a call to the diocesan priesthood. Brother Justin knew going in that celibacy was an essential part of his vocation. He was a postulant, and the a novice, all of this under the direction of spiritual directors.
        Diocesan priests don’t follow this path, although I hope modern seminaries do something similar with a better discernment process. First, celibacy is not an essential part of his vocation. It was a “discipline” imposed for a number of reasons, some good, others very short sighted. Can you impose what is essentially a charism, a call from the Spirit? I am convinced that many men have the call to priesthood but not to celibacy. In my generation, men accepted celibacy “because it goes with the territory.” This is manipulation by the Church, forcing somebody to fit into a slot that might not be his. Because he was not called to celibacy, accepting a forced burden is something that (within the reality of human nature) has no real spiritual depth supported by the Spirit. “True love” might come along and reveal the truth to that man.

        Secondly, the analogy of marriage to Holy Mother Church. Show me some faces. Holy Mother Church is a metaphor that quickly become an abstraction. Hard to exchange vows with an abstraction. A nun is a spouse of Christ and a monk has his community, but a diocesan priest is a monk without a monastery. In one of my parishes, I had to travel 52 miles to even see another priest. My series of bishops came from far away, and with one exception, they remained remote from their “brother” priests. As Cardinal Dulles predicted, the sex abuse scandal turned them into our enemies. I have spoken with my bishop for a total of about an hour over nine years, and that is typical. He didn’t even visit me when I was in the hospital for a month, on the very brink of death. Modern bishops follow a business, rather than pastoral model, and our relationship with the diocese resembles that of employer/employee. Having handed over to “Mother Church” our wives and children, we are now expected to pay for our own funerals.

        Third, could my parish be my spouse? Unfortunately that marriage only lasts ten to twelve years, and then it is on to the next spouse. I have really loved some parishes, and suffered in others.

        • slainte

          Fr. Hombre,
          What are the functions of a “spiritual director”? Why might a lay person require one?

          • hombre111

            Good question. In the seminary, spiritual directors are usually assigned to the task. Outside, people can choose any wise and prayerful person with whom to share their spiritual lives. It is a good idea. Spiritual companion might be a better definition. Someone to go with on the journey, who can give encouragement and advice. I think Pope John Paul’s first spiritual director was a layman who introduced him to St. John of the Cross. Another good idea is a prayer partner.

            • slainte

              Thank you for the insight.

        • Koufax

          So many great saints have said that chastity is not a burden for those living their priestly vocation in accordance to the Will of God. St. Josemaria Escriva talked about that often and he’s a great example of one who was living in the joys of chastity. I don’t mean to overlook your history as a pastor, it is that that Church and her Saints show time after time again why the virtue of chastity is a sublime component of religious life.

          • hombre111

            Celibacy had been the hall-mark of some truly great saints, as you say. But we are talking about the difference between a member of a religious order, where a celibate vow is part of the very definition of the vocation, and diocesan priests, who make no celibate vow, but live under a “discipline” imposed by the Church for its own mixed reasons. Some diocesan priests do this very well. But others struggle, because celibacy was never their charism, their call from the Spirit. It requires an honest and exacting spirituality that takes (in my case) years to develop.

            • Clare

              Father, who would foot the bill of the living expenses should priests marry and, of course, bring forth children? I love kids but they’re expensive! I’ve been working since December but I can barely afford myself, can’t afford to support somebody else’s family too (I do tithe, by the way).
              I do understand what you’re saying, Father, but, pragmatically, how would it work?

          • msmischief

            We all of us have our crosses to bear. For some of it, it may be a burden, like any other virtue.

        • Dawn Eden

          Father, you are a very good writer. I hope you do more writing when you have time (though realizing parish priests are short on time).

        • Facile1

          I owe you an apology. I’m sorry. I treated you unkindly.

          • Slainte

            It takes a humble and good person to admit when they have erred; and to then apologize. You are both a humble and good Catholic, Facile.

  • Jimby

    I notice that the vows of poverty and obedience are required precisely due to the absence of wife and family, which check the will and one’s finances in married life in a way that the religious cannot replicate without those vows. Without becoming indelicate, marriage also checks the venal pleasures as well, even within the marital act, if done chastely and considerately.

    Also, the St. Thomas quote does nothing beyond offer the vows as means to an end, It does not say that these vows are the sole means to those ends of detachment. In fact, you produce no authoritative evidence beyond your own opinion of the tradition that holds the religious and lay life in comparison.

    Of course we would expect Aquinas to praise the advantages of the religious life, but any good student of St. Thomas would know that to praise one state is not to denigrate another. To think so would be a logical fallacy.

    I’d love to hear a better argument for your position so that a real discussion can begin.

    • Br. Justin Hannegan

      Here is the contrast that Aquinas makes between married life and religious life, spelled out at greater length:

      “The use of the carnal union keeps a soul from giving itself totally to God in two ways. In one way, because of the great intensity of the pleasure involved: from the frequent experience of this pleasure, concupiscence itself is increased. … In the second way, because of the concern which a man must have in providing for his wife and children” (ST II-II, 186, 4).

      “The concupiscence of sensible pleasures, chief among which are venereal pleasures… are removed by the vow of continence” (ST II-II, 186, 7). Plus, “Virginity is directed to the good of the soul in respect of the contemplative life, which consists in thinking ‘on the things of God,’ whereas marriage is directed to the good of the body, namely the bodily increase of the human race, and belongs to the active life, since the man and woman who embrace the married life have to think ‘on the things of the world,’ as the Apostle says (1 Corinthians 7:34). Without doubt therefore virginity is preferable to conjugal continence” (ST II, 152, 4).

      “As regards the practice of perfection a man is required to remove from himself whatever may hinder his affections from tending wholly to God, for it is in this that the perfection of charity consists” (ST II-II, 186, 4).

      According to Aquinas, celibate religious life removes the obstacles found in marriage (sexual concupiscence and worldly concern) which prevent us from attending wholly to God. So it helps us, more than marriage, to develop perfect charity.

      • jimby

        I think that last part is most helpful: celibate religious life “helps us, more than marriage, to develop perfect charity.” I agree, the perfection of charity is made easier by celibate religious life as it contains more helps toward that end.

        I’m less sure that it is, therefore, a “superior means” to perfect charity, except in so far as it is a less arduous means. What does “superior” mean beyond some notion of ease or efficiency–which is important in its own right, don’t misunderstand me–in pursuit of perfect charity?

  • Harman

    Another great piece, Br. Justin! I like at point you made at the end. If you are capable of entering the religious life, than do so! Yes, one can enter the married life and pursue sanctity but the religious life provides one with a greater degree of glory when he/she enters heaven (assuming they lived their vocation the right way).

  • NickD

    I am discerning a vocation to religious life and the priesthood. If I did not know the blessings of consecration and orders, i.e. blessing me and aiding me in my efforts towards holiness, then all of the struggles that that life entails would be empty to me: seeing my friends court and eventually marry spouses; not doing what I want to do with my life; being poor materially. There would be no reason to swear off what the evangelical counsels swear off, especially if that swearing off was, frankly useless. That is why I am thankful that I can read articles such as Fra. Hannegan’s, so that I may be reminded that dying to myself in a most radical way will lead to a radical outpouring of God’s grace.

  • Sr. Theresa Noble

    Br Justin, I understand what you are saying and I agree with much of what you have written in this and in your previous article but I continue to disagree with your assertion that desire should not be a part of discernment (as I pointed out in a post about this that you may have seen:

    If I discerned religious life based on my personal capability for living the vows I would leave. I think most people would do the same because the vows are supernatural, not natural as you point out in your first article. I feel that your criteria for discernment, if relied upon solely, leads to Pelagianism. True, you mention God’s grace being a component but it is hard to make a lifetime commitment regarding a vocation one sincerely feels incapable of living based on the grace he has received thus far and the grace that will come in the future.

    Rather, I prefer to make my discernment based on desire, not necessarily solely my personal desires, because you are right, they will be drowned out in our current context. However, what if we meditated on God’s desires and made our discernment based upon that – and then asked him to unearth and purify our desire to conform our lives to God’s desire for us… I suggest this route instead of the route you propose because I feel it is closer to the loving, spousal relationship that religious life is about.

    But I also recognize and respect that we each will make our discernment with the tools that God has given us, our gender, personalities, and the context of our unique lives. Different things will motivate different people. Thank God for the variety of people He calls to serve His Church! Please pray for me as I continue in my novitiate; you will also be in my prayers.

    • Papist

      Dear Sister,

      With respect, I would say that I think the criteria for discernment Brother Justin has outlined are actually an antidote to Pelagianism, rather than a recipe for it. The Pelagian thing would be to enter the religious life because it agrees with one’s desires, since then one is relying on the strength of one’s own desires to keep the life up, rather than God’s grace. If, on the other hand, one enters the religious life because one seeks the sanctity for which it is a more effective means, one is acknowledging that, of one’s own power, one is not even able to truly desire the religious life, much less to actually live it. By entering the life even though one does not desire it, one is humbly asking God to supply the grace needed for one to live such a life.

      • Sr. Theresa Noble

        Papist, I see your point but I think the key thing that Br Justin’s argument (and yours) ignores is calling. If someone is not called to religious life but they desire sanctity, their will and desire for sanctity – through a form of Pelagianism – could get them through many years of religious life.

        We do not want religious who are not called by God to the life but grit their teeth and bear it because they desire holiness and religious life provides the most effective means to become holy. This happened in the past and I don’t think higher vocation numbers is a good enough reason to go back to this way of thinking. God does the calling, this is why I believe that desire remains a key and important part of discernment.

        • Br. James Dominic

          Sister, preach. This is the exact same point, down to the Pelagianism, that I made in my own initial response to this post (I replied at

        • Papist

          The subject being debated here is not whether one should follow God’s Will for one’s life (since the answer is obviously “yes!”), but rather HOW one discerns what God’s Will is. You say that it is through listening to one’s desires, while Brother Justin says that it is through actually attempting the life and seeing whether one is capable of living it well. So, I don’t think it is fair to say that Brother Justin is ignoring the importance of calling–he just disagrees with you on how one hears it.

          • Sr Marianne Lorraine Trouve

            But people should only attempt it if they first have a desire for it. Much havoc can be wreaked on the live of candidates and the community when people want to “try it out” without having a real aptitude or desire. The experience of any religious community testifies to this.

            • Papist

              I agree that people with absolutely no desire to live the counsels should not attempt the religious life, since it is already clear that they cannot live them. But what if one has an attraction to both the religious life and the married life–a pretty common occurrence, I would imagine, given that marriage is more desirable in itself, but the counsels are more desirable as means to sanctity? One or the other of these desires is going to have to be sacrificed, so how does one choose which one that is?

              Well, how does one choose between ANY two things that you cannot enjoy at the same time? You try one of them, and, if you like it enough to forego the other one, you stick with it.

              Likewise, one doesn’t have to know before entering the religious life that one desires it enough to stay in it, since figuring that out is what the trial period before solemn vows is for. To enter, one only has to desire it enough to give it a try.

    • Br. Justin Hannegan

      Thanks very much for the prayers. I wish you all the best with your Novitiate. As regards perseverance, however, I hope you don’t rely too much on feelings of attraction.

      We have these words of advice from the Sacred Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life: “the divine inspiration required by St. Pius X in a true vocation… is discerned in right propensity and intention of mind or the choice of their free will (cf. can. 538), rather than in an inner urging of conscience and sensible attraction which may be lacking.” Grace acts on the will drawing us to choose religious life, even if the feeling of attraction is not present.

      Also, consider Saint Alphonsus de Liguori’s words to novices on the topic of perseverance: “There is a true vocation whenever the following three things concur: First, a good end, namely, to get away from the dangers of the world, the better to insure eternal salvation, and to unite oneself more closely to God. Secondly, that there is no positive impediment due to poor health, lack of talents, or some necessity on the part of one’s parents, in regard to which matters the subject ought to quiet himself by leaving all to the judgment of the superiors, after having exposed the truth clearly. Thirdly: That the Superiors admit him. Now, whenever these three conditions are truly present, the novice ought not to doubt that his vocation was a true one.” The marks of a true vocation, according to Liguori, need not include feelings of attraction.

      • Ben Dunlap

        Br. Justin, if you have the opportunity I would love to read more on this topic of what the term “vocation” means in light of tradition. This notion of “an inner urging of conscience and sensible attraction” seems to dominate contemporary discussion of the topic and it has never seemed right to me at all, particularly in view of St. Thomas’s opinion.

        On the other hand there is the opinion of the Patrologist, Scripture scholar, and Benedictine abbot Dom John Chapman, who writes in one of his letters (from the very early 1900s) that he thinks that St. Thomas’s view is not suitable to the modern age. He proposes as an alternative something that is hard to distinguish from “an inner urging of conscience and sensible attraction”, but at the same time doesn’t seem quite so simplistic.

        I’m inclined to give his opinion much more respect than a lot of current bloggery because of his experience as a religious superior, his deep familiarity with the Fathers (it was legendary), and his solid grounding in the scholastic theological tradition (which is evident from other letters). As far as I can tell he was a clear and orthodox thinker with both broad and deep learning, to an extent that is rarely seen in any age, much less our own.

        Unfortunately in the letter I’ve read he gives no argument for his opinion, but I wonder if you’re familiar with the history of what might be called “general Catholic opinion” on this topic.

        In any case the question is past the point of immediate relevance for me since I am already married — but I have four children, and God willing more to come, and it seems absolutely crucial for me to have a good understanding of this topic as my children grow older and begin thinking about how they will spend their lives. Even if you could just point to some solid references for further study I’d be very grateful.

  • Mike Smith

    Why do so many people feel threatened and offended by these articles? It’s like they want religious to wear t-shirts that read, “I’m not better than you.”

    I WANT priests and religious to be better than me! I WANT them to be holier than me! They’ve devoted their entire lives to serving God. They SHOULD have a knowledge, wisdom, or holiness that sets them apart. When I talk to a priest about my problems, I want to talk to a PRIEST. If I wanted to talk to a bartender, I’d talk to a bartender.

    Egalitarianism is a byproduct of our lame, feelings-obsessed, everybody-gets-a-trophy culture. Also, the obsessive fears about “clericalism” seem to reflect the envy, insecurities, hidden agendas, and powerlust of egalitarian ideologues. Whenever an
    egalitarian says, “Power to the people,” it’s another way of saying, “Power to

    When I study the Bible and Catholic tradition, I see no evidence that God cares about equality. He favored the Jews as his chosen people. He selects some individuals over others to be prophets, apostles, priests, and visionaries. He makes some angels more powerful than others. The Bible tells children to obey their parents, wives to obey their husbands, slaves to obey their masters, and everyone to obey Christ. God punishes many for the sins of the few. He answers some prayers but not others. Some people have more gifts than others, some souls receive more graces than others, some people suffer more than others, and some people get more chances to repent than others. Even Jesus said from the cross, “Father, why have you forsaken me?”

    Egalitarianism is a revolt against nature. Equality simply DOES NOT EXIST in any real, material, or spiritual sense. Nothing about God, Catholicism, or life is “fair” or “equal” from a human perspective: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.”

    • ColdStanding

      Indeed, equality is a universal concept applied to natural phenomenon used in comparison of accidental characteristics of extended bodies. The life of faith is supernatural. Attempting to reason about the life of faith using natural categories only leads to confusion.

      What unites us, or should, is the faith, which is supernatural. Every faith-filled Christian in a state of grace receives the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Two things to keep in mind: a) the Spirit blows where it will – meaning it distributes and makes fruitful it’s gifts according to His mysterious wisdom b) it is different gifts but the same Spirit – meaning that the important thing to consider is not a comparison as to whom has what gift and a ranking of one gift over another but to recognize that the Spirit is fruitful within you by noting the action of the Holy Spirit in your productive gift. Catholics (ought to be!) are united by supernatural action not natural action.

  • Tony

    I am a layman and have never doubted that the religious life is the greater and nearer way. I understand quite well that holiness is to be sought in every walk of life, and that God does not call everyone to the same life — but then, I have absolutely no problem accepting the evident fact that although God grants us sufficient grace for our salvation, He is under no obligation to give us all equivalent grace, if that is even conceivable. Jesus seems to suggest that even though we on earth mistake greatness, there will be greater and lesser in the Kingdom of God. Such is His will. I don’t want it any other way.
    Let priests live up to their high calling.

  • Tony

    It may also be helpful to distinguish between what we wish, and what we desire or give our wills to. The wish is transient, often conditional; the volition is something else. The crucial question is not, then, “What do I wish to do?” but “What is God asking me to do?” Then we pray that we will have the strength to will what God asks, and then to love it.

  • Papist

    Thank you, Brother, for this excellent article–it has been very encouraging to me in my own discernment (or rather, attempting) of the religious life. By the way, are you familiar with Father Richard Butler’s book “Religious Life: An Unnecessary Mystery”? He says pretty much exactly what you’re saying, and he backs it up with Scripture and the Fathers in addition to Aquinas.

  • Thomas Pulickal

    Very interesting insights. The final thought about discernment being the process by which one determines whether God has given him the charism for consecration seems compelling and I think if it were widely accepted would change a lot and yield more vocations. If God has given this gift, any person eager to serve God and others would be happy and grateful and excited to live it out.

    But is charism the same as human ability? From other religions we know that there are many people who CAN take such vows. Does this imply the supernatural charism? Does it imply that there is a gifted, extraordinary generosity of heart? I do not think so. So discernment of the gift is not equivalent to plain ‘ability’ and all of this has to be understood in the right sense.

    Fr Hombre, suppose some Pope had arbitrarily decided one day, From now on we want only to ordain to the priesthood those who have the charism to live celibately. Subsequently if people with the charism were ordained, it does not cease to be a supernatural charism for them due to the absence of a vow. This ‘arbitrary’ decision only effectively limits those who should enter the priesthood (just like other rules), it should not act as a continuing burden for those who already discerned that they have the grace to live celibately. That’s why a big part of discernment to the priesthood is whether one has the grace to live celibately. If one already discerned this, he would not presumably be too interested in whether the Pope changed the ‘arbitrary’ rule since it should not affect him.

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  • Sr Marianne Lorraine Trouve

    Br Justin, you didn’t respond to the objections that can be
    made to your position through the TOB perspective taught by Pope John Paul, which
    I mentioned previously. However, put that aside for the moment. The real difficulty with your whole
    position is that you are viewing religious life only as a path to holiness by
    the practice of the counsels. Yes, they are that, but religious life is not just
    a privileged way to holiness through greater personal asceticism. Religious
    life has a context in the whole Church, and needs to be seen in view of

    Thus, von Balthasar:
    “To live according to the counsels is far less a means of
    attaining the personal goal of the individual who strives for ‘perfection’ than
    an expression of what the Church must be and do in purity if it is to receive
    as perfectly as possible . . . what has been promised it.” (The Christian State
    of Life, Ignatius, p. 278.)

    An article on this topic by Fr Janusz Ihnatowicz goes into this question in detail. He points out that in the ecclesiology of Vatican II, consecrated life is a true charism in the strict biblical sense of the word. “It springs not from the decision of some to seek holiness by ‘the narrower path,’ though seeking holiness is an essential element of this vocation, but in God’s raising some from among the people for the sake of the Church.”

    Further, “If Christ proposes the way of the counsels to all the faithful, it is difficult to avoid the
    conclusion that choosing not to embrace it is, at the very least, a sign of lesser zeal. A lay person, simply by remaining lay, fails somehow to seek perfection; an idea not uncommon among monastic writers, but firmly rejected by the Magisterium.” (he refers to Pius XI, Rerum
    Omnium, 1923. )

    Pius XI said – in 1923 – “His [St Francis de Sales’] task was to give the lie to a prejudice which in his lifetime was deeply rooted and has not been destroyed even today, that the ideal of genuine sanctity held up
    for our imitation by the Church is impossible of attainment or, at best, is so difficult that it surpasses the capabilities of the great majority of the faithful and is, therefore, to be thought of as the exclusive possession of a
    few great souls. St. Francis likewise disproved the false idea that holiness was so hedged around by annoyances and
    hardships that it is inadaptable to a life lived outside cloister walls.”

    Fr Janusz’ article is here:

    It’s well worth reading the whole thing because he lays out a very sound theology of consecrated life, built on
    Church teaching, that shows how it absolutely must be viewed not simply as a way to personal holiness but as an essential part of the Church’s mission and nature as the universal sacrament of salvation.

    • Br. Justin Hannegan

      Thanks for pointing to Fr. Ihnatowicz’s article. I’ll have to take a look at it.

  • Anthony Sistrom

    The source of this misunderstanding of desire for God is the
    nouvelle theologie of Henri de Lubac which was exposed
    by Professor Lawrence Feingold in his Natural Desire to See

    God according to St. Thomas Aquinas.

    • Br. James Dominic

      I know Dr. Feingold, and I doubt he would agree these are similar issues. We don’t have a natural desire to see God’s essence, but that is not a claim about there being a desire for religious vocations. It’s not about a “natural” desire for religious vocations – as I would not think there would be – but about whether desires are part of discernment. I argue that the only true sign of a religious vocation is the interior impulse of grace, the voice of the Holy Spirit. Without that, you’re just going through the motions in joining religious life.

  • Br. James Dominic

    Br. Justin,
    I wanted to let you know that I have posted two responses to your article now. The most recent is here: I ask you to take a look at it. As I’m here in St. Louis at the Dominican priory, I’d be happy to speak with you at your leisure and I’d positively be delighted to invite you to dinner if you can come. Let me know.

    • Br. Justin Hannegan

      Thanks for the kind invitation. I am afraid that, as monks, we cannot accept dinner invitations. However, if you would like to come and visit the abbey, you would be most welcome. Dinners throughout the week are in silence, but on Sundays we have Latin Vespers with benediction at 5:30 followed by dinner with talking. Please feel free to join us.

  • Preaching Friars

    For a Thomistic rebuttal, please see

    • Br. Justin Hannegan

      Brother, I can’t agree that this rebuttal is in fact Thomistic.

  • Br. Justin

    Here are some sources to indicate that desire-introspection should not be our primary method for discernment:

    Pius X on priestly vocations (but this can also apply to religious vocations): “the condition to which the Ordinary should look, and which is called a priestly vocation, by no means consists, at all events necessarily and as a general rule, in some interior aspiration of the subject or in impulses of the Holy Spirit to receive the priesthood… but, on the contrary, nothing more is required in the candidate that he may rightly be invited by the bishop, than a right intention together with a fitness based on those gifts of nature and grace, and confirmed by that goodness of life and sufficiency of learning…” (“Holy See’s Judgment on Cardinal Lahitton’s work on Priestly Vocation.”)

    Saint St. Thérèse of Lisieux: “I am very happy, my dear little sister, that you do not feel a sensible attraction to come to the Carmel; that is a treat from Jesus, who wants to receive a gift from you. He knows that it is much sweeter to give than to receive. We have only the brief moment of our life to give to the good God.” (LT 169, August 19, 1894.)

    Saint Teresa of Avila: “Though I did not succeed to incline my will to being a nun, I saw that this was the best and safest state, and so, little by little, I determined to force myself to embrace it…. When I took the habit, the Lord soon made me understand how greatly he favors those who use force with themselves in serving him.” (Autobiography, Ch. 3–4.)

    Saint Alphonsus de Liguori: “There is a true vocation whenever the following three things concur: First, a good end, namely, to get away from the dangers of the world, the better to insure eternal salvation, and to unite oneself more closely to God. Secondly, that there is no positive impediment due to poor health, lack of talents, or some necessity on the part of one’s parents, in regard to which matters the subject ought to quiet himself by leaving all to the judgment of the superiors, after having exposed the truth clearly. Thirdly: That the Superiors admit him. Now, whenever these three conditions are truly present, the novice ought not to doubt that his vocation was a true one.” (“Exhortation to novices to persevere in their vocation,”Opere Ascetiche.)

    Pius XI: “A vocation is, as you well know, Venerable Brothers, not established so much by some inner inducement of conscience and sensible feeling, which may sometimes be absent, but rather by the right aim and intention in those who desire the priesthood, together with those physical qualities and spiritual virtues which make them suitable for embracing this state of life.” (Ad Catholici Sacerdotii, n. 70, AAS 28 (1936), 40.)

    The Sacred Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life repeats Pius XI: “In the free acceptance of this counsel [to the religious life] there is discerned the special call from God or the movement of the Holy Spirit, who interiorly enlightens and inspires a person, who has the other qualifications, to pursue the evangelical counsels or to embrace the priesthood. For the divine inspiration required by St. Pius X in a true vocation, or that marked attraction for sacred duties mentioned by Pius XI in his encyclical letter, Ad Catholici Sacerdotii, is discerned in their right propensity and intention of mind or the choice of their free will (cf. can. 538), rather than in an inner urging of conscience and sensible attraction which may be lacking.” (Religiosorum Institutio, Instruction on the Careful Selection And Training Of Candidates For The States Of Perfection And Sacred Orders, Sacred Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life, February 2, 1961.)

    Suarez: “It is to be assumed that everyone – prescinding from obstacles – is per se a fit subject for entering religious life, for everyone is per se capable of the Christian perfection which is the goal of the religious life, and consequently the Counsels of perfection are addressed to all … there is no reason why we should always expect an extraordinary grace or calling of the Holy Ghost before we deliberate or consult others about this state of life. Although one does not feel any attraction or desire for the religious life, if one had any thoughts or interior movements in regard either to the dangers of the world or the excellence of the religious state, this is a beginning of a vocation.” (de Relig., tr. 7, lib. 5, c. 4.)

    St. Ignatius Loyola: “we can lawfully and meritoriously urge every one who is probably fit, to choose continence, virginity, the religious life, and all manner of evangelical perfection.” (Exercitia Spiritualia, n. 15, pp. 152–54.) Of course, Aquinas says the same in II-II 189:9.

    Desire-introspection is either criticized or conspicuously absent in all of these discussions of vocational discernment. The reason? Perhaps it is harmful. As Richard Butler (a Dominican from the Central Province) wrote:

    “We have to sympathize with the perplexed young soul, pondering an eternal future and seeking a safer route, who is vaguely instructed: “My dear friend, in your heart of hearts, ask yourself if God is not calling you.” The anxious reader of such advice is sent out on a scavenger hunt for a divine communication. His search is bound to be futile. He is not not sure, and neither am I, exactly what one’s “heart of hearts” is. He does not know where to look, or, for that matter, what to look for. What is this “call?” How do you get it? And how do you know when you have it?” (“Religious Vocation: An Unnecessary Mystery”.)

    Thanks, papist, for pointing us to Butler’s book.

    • Br. James Dominic

      Br. Justin, if I may, I’d offer one last response with some detail. I will be sure to set up an appointment for dinner at the Abbey after this. However, I think you are misreading these claims by prior spiritual authors and I want to offer you and the readers some considerations on these quotes.

      The basic principle is that one has to make the distinction, which I did in my recent post, between attraction of love and that of sensibility or “natural” inclination. It is the former, the attraction of supernatural love and consequent effects in the soul, that are the signs of a vocation – not the latter. So, sensible attraction refers to natural inclination. St. Ignatius gives rules for discerning between these clearly and safely, which is the criteria a good vocation director or spiritual director will use. I would refer to the method for making an election on vocation: St. Ignatius does not discount external signs, but these should be a vehicle by which, through mature and rational deliberation, we attend to how God is calling us interiorly, and often also through the exterior sign, to a state of perfection. It is not as if there are only or chiefly external motives, and it is clear that the interior inspiration (understood as rational love, not sensibility) that motivates us, in keeping with the rules for discernment. Without that interior inspiration, there is simply speaking no vocation. To rely on exterior physical ability as the only criteria is seriously misguided (even if God in His Providence allows some to enter religious life without having made a good initial decision based on the interior impulse, we should not rely on the extraordinary Providence of God). All of the quotes cited make and rely on this critical distinction.

      Next, I’d like to specifically situate your quotes in their contexts and show how they demonstrate my point:

      The first omits critical parts of the quote. It is about what an Ordinary should look for, not the candidate. The Ordinary cannot only look for interior inspiration, as I actually quoted St. Thomas in saying. However, interior inspiration is necessary as a gift of grace for actually being called to and persevering in religious life or the priesthood. Exterior signs are necessary, but not a sufficient condition, to discern a vocation. So, one can’t authentically be called if one lacks the health, for example, to fulfill the duties of the state or it is against the faith, etc. One also must note that, while it has authority, this quote is not infallible but a statement of approval by a congregation. It is not general principles of discernment, and so must be read in light of spiritual theology.

      The second is answered by my distinction above. St. Therese in “Story of a Soul” describes her attraction to Carmel as not a sensible attraction, but: “I longer to imitate [the saints] and felt stirred by the same inspiration which moved them,” etc. It is the movement of love, properly understood, which is rational and not sensible. God attracts the imperfect first sensibly, leading them to greater renunciation, and so often people might come to religious life first because of a sensible attraction. Then, and always, He moves with interior and spiritual attraction – even in the dark night (John of the Cross, Ascent, II, 17; Dark Night II, 12 & 13). It is the latter we must try to discern and pay attention to – no true vocation happens without that.

      The third relies on a similar distinction. It is again apparent from the omitted context. Theresa notes, first, “through the impression made on my heart by the words of God both heard and read, and by the good conversation of my uncle, I came to understand the truth I had heard in my childhood…” (III, 6) – namely, an interior inspiration of love drew her to religious life – and, second, it is important to note that she confesses that her motivations were faulty in some respect because they did not proceed from pure love, “I was more influenced by servile fear, I think, than by love, to enter religion” (III, 7). This is why she gives a full counsel in the next chapter that opposes the two in inspiration to make any discernment decision: “…if I were a person who had to advise anybody, I would never counsel any one, to whom good inspirations from time to time may come, to resist them through fear of the difficulty of carrying them into effect…” (IV, 3). So we rightly shouldn’t look at sensible fear or attraction, but we must examine spiritual love and its movements.

      The fourth quote from St. Alphonsus is also taken out of context. If we look at the chapter from the Counsels concerning Religious Vocation, he both clearly indicates one needs a light or inspiration from the Holy Ghost in the rational will (quoting St. Thomas as I did on the interior voice of the Spirit) and then quotes St. Francis de Sales about this very clearly: “To have a sign of a true vocation, it is not necessary that our constancy be sensible, it suffices if it be in the superior part of our soul. …But it is necessary to correspond with the first movement of the inspiration, and to cultivate it, and then not to grow weary if disgust or coldness should come on; for if one acts thus, God will not fail to make all succeed to his glory.” He ends by counseling that those who lack such an inspiration need to be ejected from the Order by the formators, otherwise by entering without this love of God, one cannot persevere. It is very helpful to read the full dialogue he has in that small book, as it is very clear on the difference between inspiration of the Spirit and sensible attraction or repulsion.

      The fifth relies on a similar distinction between sensible attraction and attraction of rational love confirmed as authentic by exterior mortification.

      The sixth precisely confirms my point. Sensible attractions may be signs of, but are not necessary for, the presence of interior inspiration. But it is a complete mistake to focus exclusively on exterior signs understood as pure capacity to undertake the office as the key to making a vocation decision. Without the interior inspiration, it would be a horrible mistake.

      The seventh, again, relies on the understanding that rational love is inclined and moved by considerations external. So, reading a book about the saints and being moved by it to really consider religious life is a first sign of that interior inspiration. (I was unable to find the subsequent part of that quote to look for context of the rest, although the first is in caput IV). This quote leaves open the sure signs of the vocation, and does not confirm the view that it is merely physical capacity that makes for a sign of a vocation. One needs sure and definite interior inspiration, apart from an extraordinary revelation (by which we mean a vision or inspired certainty of vocation), to embrace religious vocations.

      The eighth is very much taken out of context, so much that it proves the contrary. Ignatius says that we might urge everyone who seems suitable, outside the Exercises, to consider the better choice of a religious vocation, he makes precisely the opposite point about the essence of discerning a vocation. Namely, “it is more opportune… that the Creator… should communicate Himself to the faithful soul in search for the will of God, as He inflames her in His love…, disposing her toward the way in which she will be better able to serve Him….”

      The final quote is from a religious who was dissatisfied with his state in life and felt confused during the days after the Council. I have nothing but sympathy with him and I wholeheartedly agree in fighting against the view that we have merely natural calls and the vagueness of that discernment advice. But we must not make the serious error in reaction that vocation is a purely external thing disposed on physical ability. It is a gift of grace and can only come from interior movements of the Spirit. These are not merely sensible attractions, although they often manifest as such, nor are they extraordinary phenomenon. Rather, each and every religious call involves necessarily an interior movement of love in the rational part of the soul that comes from God. Without that, discerned according to the sense of (for example) Ignatius’ rules, you aren’t being called to a vocation.

      I am not writing all this because I think this is very helpful information for those discerning. In addition, it clarifies that language about interior calls and attractions that vocation directors are apt to use. We shouldn’t be too quick to judge these vocation directors, vague they may be, but should be willing to interpret their remarks in charity. Supplementation is, I grant, necessary in some cases, but most of them clearly embrace the classical doctrine on spiritual calls.

      • Br. James Dominic

        A typo that is rather obvious – in the end of the post, it should read, “I am writing all this because I think this is very helpful information.”

      • Sr Marianne Lorraine Trouve

        Thank you, Br James, for adding this info which is very helpful. I was also thinking that the experience of the saints bears out that they don’t just go by some rational procedure without an interior attraction. while they went through a process, they often had an intense experience of the Spirit that either confirmed or set them on the road to their vocation. It was often a life-changing experience, for example,
        St Edith Stein–“This is truth!” after reading the life of Teresa of Avila (Edith wasn’t Catholic yet)
        St Louise de Marillac: “On the feast of Pentecost during Holy Mass or while I was praying in the church, my mind was completely freed from all doubt…” (ie. doubt about her vocation)
        St. Marguerite Bourgeoys had an experience on the feast of the Rosary when she saw a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and it changed her greatly.
        Bl. James Alberione, as a 16 year old seminarian spent 4 hours of prayer on the night that divided the 19th and 20th centuries, and in that prayer received a charismatic call that became the foundation of his call as a priest and founder of several religious institutes.
        I could go on. It’s not that everyone has to experience a dramatic call, but certainly the Spirit works through prayer and changes our inner desires, shaping them so that we want to follow Jesus more closely.

  • ObiJuan

    The best road, the only road, to heaven is one’s personal vocation, whatever that may be. It is nonsense to think that marriage involves no renunciation, or that marriage is simply a default vocation for those who didn’t receive the supernatural grace of apostolic celibacy. It is true that a hierarchy exists. But in terms of personal sanctity, the hierarchy is irrelevant. What matters is God’s will, his personal calling, for each one. Why would one want anything else?

    • dove1

      I think you’ve hit the right and balanced view…just discern well, work at it, and you’ll get there! I think so. No one is right to the exclusion of others…we are all different, have different gifts. As a parent, I can attest that there are trials in it!

  • Harold

    Right, so how is this argument not Pelagian?

    • dove1

      I don’t see it. And if we are not judged on our actions, then on what? Things done to learn, practice and build hope, faith and love enhance those things in us.

  • wonder

    I can’t believe people think this is a good column. There are people who experience the closeness of God and through it realize that God must be close to everyone. And, there are people for whom awareness of the closeness of God becomes the motivation for arguing over who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. In the comment section of the previous column the author puzzles over the question of why married people (who he completely misunderstands) are denied “the path” of holiness. Amazing. Celibacy is not the means to salvation, Jesus is. As far as I know, married people and single lay people are just as baptized and are just as fully members of Christ as celibate religious. The author’s desire to understand what makes religious life distinct is understandable, and some of what he says can be excused because of youth. However, I certainly hope his views do not reflect what he is learning in formation. The author can consider himself a good Christian the day he is happy when he realizes that he may have to give up everything for Christ and still be the last in the kingdom of heaven.

    • dove1

      Wonder, a bit full of yourself and your self-proclaimed “answers”! “Loving” denigration and insult is what I see from you. Shooting for “least” might be a good idea for you. Hope to see you there! Meanwhile, keep looking!

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  • dove1

    I agree with Jesus and St Paul, and pretty much, the writer. Distractions and vanity are multiplied in the married life. Better, if you can, to live without these. However, to pray for those you love – wife, children, etc. is a holy thing…. Sure, any vocation can lead to Heaven, but like most things, you find that for which you are looking! Be sincere and honest, love God first in all, and find Him! (At least, that is my hope!) God Bless!

  • defiant12314

    what about those of us who WANTED to be Priests / Religious but were shown the door for spurious reasons, what are WE supposed to do ? Caught in a hell between the Consecrated life and the world.

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  • Br. Justin,

    Thanks so much for your blog postings as I think this is such a worthy topic of discussion. I myself read over your original post every night for a week while I was discerning with the Oblates of the Virgin Mary in Boston. After three years of discernment with the Oblates, based primarily on a profound moment of prayer on Jan. 16th which was followed by a silent thirty day retreat I discerned that God is not calling me to the priesthood and/or religious life. I have detailed my experience of discernment in my blog . I make reference to your blog as part of my discernment process and I believe the Holy Spirit is most certainly at work in your writings.

    I too believe that “considering whether you are capable of living the religious life” is primary to discernment. However, that does not preclude someone who could live religious life, from having a call elsewhere if they listen attentively to God’s voice. I could’ve lived a happy life as a priest with the Oblates but as you’ll see in my blog I had numerous experiences that led me to believe that God was calling me to something else. As unusual as it may sound I would’ve felt disobedient to God if I were to stay in religious life. We must believe that God can in fact communicate with us specifically about our call in life. Just like the Gerasene demoniac who was healed by Christ and wanted nothing else but to follow Him, God can send us in a different direction. But first we must be listening attentively to His voice. Yes, prayer is not exactly like the dialogue we have with another person but God can in fact speak to us if we faithfully enter into conversation with Him with great diligence, care and love. I believe my experience of discernment serves as testament to that belief.

    Thanks again for your powerful witness and for your thoughtful blogs. It certainly has meant a lot to me. Hopefully you’ll have the opportunity to read about my experience and should you have any thoughts, I’d love to hear from you. Know that you will be in my prayers.

    God bless,
    Josh Kingdon