The real vocations crisis?

February 1, 2007 | 12 comments

Whenever I hear about the vocations crisis, the first thing that always jumps to mind is Archbishop Charles Chaput’s foreword in Christopher West’s The Good News About Sex and Marriage. Using barely more than one page, he makes a compelling case that the real vocations crisis is that of marriage and family life. He writes:

Very few [discussions about the vocations crisis] deal with the most fundamental vocations crisis of all: marriage and family life.

It’s no accident that priests and religious emerge from believing, practicing, loving Catholic families…The love between a husband and wife is the foundation stone upon which every other Christian vocation is built.

If you want to do something about the “vocations crisis”…you can begin right here [referring to West’s book].

This really resonates with me. In particular, in my (admittedly limited) observations of Catholic culture, I’ve noticed a very strong connection between openness to life on the part of the parents and openness to a call to religious life on the part of the children. It makes sense that the two would go hand in hand: if a couple is open to God’s will in terms of weighty issues like family size, they would probably be open to God’s will in terms of their children’s vocations. If, however, a couple carefully plans precisely how many children they will have and when, and closes off the possibility of anything unexpected, they would probably raise their children with a similarly controlling mentality, that they (not God) will decide how their lives will play out.

As an eloquent fellow blogger recently said to me in an email, “If we don’t trust the Lord’s timing with our wombs, when do we trust it?” It seems to me that it’s an uphill battle to try to get lots more priests and religious out of the ranks of the current culture that (even in many Catholic circles) takes it for granted that each person should control the events of their lives with an iron fist, relying very little on Providence.

I think that Archbishop Chaput really hit the nail on the head when he said that the lack of true Catholic marriages is the real vocations crisis, and that we must start there if we hope to increase the ranks of priests and religious.

This opinion, however, is coming from someone very new to Catholic culture. What do you (my Catholic readers in particular) think?

A NOTE ON COMMENTS: In re-reading this post I see that it has high potential for tangents, as anything relating to the priesthood or Catholic teaching on marriage always does. I’m really interesting in the issue of the vocations crisis, so let’s try to stick to that. For those who wonder about the Church’s teaching on contraception, Christopher West’s article here is a pretty good summary, and we had some debates about it back in May here and here.


  1. Renee

    Many people claim that priests could never know what it is like to be married with children. Many priests I know come from large families, in which they do they witness their parent’s marriage but deal with their siblings and their children also.

  2. Milehimama

    My old priest (now retired) actually did know what it was like to be married – he entered the seminary after his wife died and his children were grown!
    I do agree that the most fundamental vocation is Christian married love; however, I’m not sure that is the entire problem.
    It seems to me that the couples who do not contracept and trust God to plan their families, are faithful to the Church’s teaching. I’m not sure if it is “openness to life” or “receptiveness of truth” that has a greater impact on the children’s vocations. After all, a contracepting family obviously does not adhere to Catholic teaching, and only follows those things that are convenient or that they personally agree with, rather than submitting to Apostolic authority.
    Mama Says

  3. Adoro Te Devote

    Couple things:

    The Vocations crisis stems, not only from a lack of actual understanding of our faith, but also from the confusion in gender roles; the fact that men and women are indeed different. We have different roles different but complimentary gifts in this world…we are ALL called not so much to professional lives but to VOCATIONS. There is a HUGE difference between a career and a Vocation.

    Vocations involve dedication to God, no matter what one’s state: Single, Married, Religious, Priest. And within those states, we offer those gifts God gave us naturally. It is in the way we live our lives for God and for others.

    And to bring up what renee said:

    Those who claim priests can’t possibly give advice about marriage are simply rejecting what they themselves don’t understand, even in the midst of it. It’s the same lack of logic that would make someone reject the advice of an Oncologist who had never suffered from cancer. Those are the people who will simply reject a point only because they want to discredit the speaker yet unheard, while willfully and ignoranly embracing what they WANT to believe.

    milehimama…what a great point!

  4. Catholic Mom

    The National Catholic Register just ran an article about the six characteristics of an effective diocese, ie. one that is promoting vocations. I summarized it here. One of the characteristics of a diocese that was successful in developing vocations was having a large number of strong faithful Catholic families from which to draw them.

  5. Mike J

    You have two good issues here: 1-Family and marriage as a vocation. AND 2- What family elements are likely to produce children who will enter religious vocations.

    For the first we all see the desire of people to “make something of themselves” by getting a job. (As if being a stay-at-home parent isn’t a job. Sheesh!) It’s interesting to see reports though about how many young women (and some men) are starting to reject the ‘get job’ mentality in favor of staying home and actually raising the kids they beget. Time will tell where that all goes.

    Now to the second. I think that the main element in the home that is likely to yield future clergy or monastics is the “realness” of the faith as lived out by the parents. That plus showing genuine respect to the clergy.

    The difficulty of getting enough priests has been alluded to here. With some trepidation, I set forth the theory that this is in part (I repeat “in part”) due to the required celibacy for priests in the RCC. The EOC does not have a problem finding enough priests, and to the best of my knowledge it never has. ‘Tis food for thought anyway.

  6. melanie b

    I think Archbishop Chaput is exactly right.

    The vocation to the priesthood is intimately linked to the vocation of marriage. The priest stands in persona Christi and Christ’s relationship to his Church is that of bridegroom to bride.

    In a culture where the understanding of marriage has been eroded to the point where the institution is meaningless for many people, is it any wonder that there is a crisis in the vocation to the priesthood as well?

    I’ve heard the story of the only son who tells his parents he wants to be a priest and they are upset because there will be no one to carry on the family name. But why are they in that position in the first place? Perhaps they refused to welcome the other sons God sent them. Certainly couples who have elevated their own desires above a willingness to be open to God’s will are going to be less open to hearing God’s will for their children.

    Even more to the point though, is something I heard recently in a homily by Fr. Philip. He said that plenty of men are being called, just that few are answering the call. Our society tells us our own will is paramount. If parents have never taught their children, both by word and deed, to listen to God’s call and to follow it even if it means setting aside their own plans, then how are their children to learn such obedience?

    Finally in answer to mike j, celibacy is only a barrier to vocations in as much as men’s willingness to embrace God’s will for them, especially his will when it comes to sex and marriage, is a problem. God wills all of us to be chaste and if we are not called to marriage, then that means celibacy. Contrary to popular opinion, people can survive quite well without sex. Again, it all comes back to being open to God’s will.

  7. lyrl

    I think the issue may simply be that most Catholics in developed countries disagree with the Church on major issues like contraception. That very disagreement is likely to deter people from becoming priests – who wants to be the representative of a system they do not wholly and entirely embrace? The rightness or wrongness of the different side of the contraception issue may not matter – just that there is disagreement between the official Church stance of the beliefs of most of its First-world members.

  8. Milehimama

    I do not buy the “celibacy contributes to the vocations crisis” argument.
    First, the EOC is a different culture – and many of their traditional values are still intact. When was the last time you heard of a debate in the EOC regarding the ordination of openly gay clergy? How many publicly professing Orthodox Catholics think embryonic stem cell research is a great idea?
    Celibacy has never been considered an obstacle to the preisthood before – it’s just a scapegoat now.
    I am not convinced that there are vast squadrons of men, who would love to answer the Divine call to the preisthood… and the only thing holding them back is their girlfriend.
    I think the real crisis is that young people are never encouraged to seek out their true vocation to begin with. When was the last time you heard someone ask a little girl if she was going to be a nun when she grew up?
    As Melanie B. noted, we are ALL called to a celibate life outside of marriage. Yet, there are no shortages of young people choosing to be single and career minded. People ARE choosing a (supposedly) celibate lifestyle, just one that pleases themselves, rather than one of service in Christ’s church.
    I think the question of a servant’s attitude and actually MEANING it when one prays “Thy will be done” strike closer to the heart of the issue than celibacy.

  9. Tony

    Part of the problem is with the contracepting culture (even *GASP* within the Catholic Church).

    Part of the idea is the consideration of children as your personal posessions, instead of the gifts from God that they are. Look at how cavalierly people deal with the raw materials of creation with IVF clinics, sperm banks, etc.

    If you decided to have two children, and you have their lives mapped out for them before they’re born, you can’t bear the thought of one of them (or God forbid both of them) entering the priesthood or religious life. You will generally influence them away from that vocation.

    However if you have the attitude that children are a gift from God, and accept those children God decided to give you, you are less likely to be posessive of those children and rejoice in the decision of one or more (or even all to become religious).

    It’s one thing to pray to God that He give us more priests, and it’s another thing to pray to God that he give your child a vocation to the priesthood or religious life.

    If we are serious about more vocations, we definitely need to be doing this. We can’t look to our diocese for vocations, we need to look to our own families for vocations and begin nurturing them when the children are very small.

    If we, as Catholics, start behaving with a spirit of generosity (even with our own children), God will bless us with more vocations than we can handle and a new and more vibrant church.

  10. SteveG

    Let’s keep in mind that the crises of which we speak is mostly prevalent in modern Western culture. In many parts of the developing world, they have so many men coming to the priesthood that they are unsure how to handle the influx. So it seems that the crisis is particularly tied to something deeper in our culture.

    On that score, I think Abp. Chaput is correct to note that the vocation crisis is tied to the crises in marriage. I also think that the commenters here are right to point to the acceptance of contraception as part of the cause of the breakdown in marriage.

    These answers however leave me asking ‘so what is the cause for the acceptance of contraception. What is the root cause of these problems?’

    I certainly don’t think I have the answer, and suspect that there are more than one, but one thing that I’ve been pondering as being at the heart of these problems is a loss of the sense of the sacred in our life. I further think that loss of the sense of the sacred is due to the extent to which we’ve insulated ourselves from ‘real’ life.

    At one point I was friends with a wonderful, holy, African priest from Kenya. He would often tell me about his life in his home country. It was thrilling to listen to him and learn about all he and the people around him had been through. His day to day life was almost ‘adventurous.’

    On reflection, I think what struck me was how very close death and danger always seemed for him/them. This ranged from literally being shot at and hunted for being in the wrong tribe, to things as basic as figuring out how to get enough food and water for those for whom they were caring.

    Life for them was very…real.

    In his part of the world, and many others, they experience life in what I presume is a very different way. In many parts of the world, when it is cold, the cold can be deadly. When it is hot, the heat can be deadly. When the delivery of food goes missing, it can mean severe hunger and danger.

    For us, the deadly cold or heat is held at bay with the push of a button. For us, even the poorest of us, the idea of real hunger is something that we likely will never experience. And it goes far beyond these basics. It touches health, pain, death, and almost anything we can think of.

    We have drugs that stop our headaches; we have pain medicine that makes even the most horrific disease less horrific. We can ease peoples’ suffering even as they die. The list of how modern conveniences have changed our interaction with the world could go on for pages and pages.

    I realize that these are generalizations and that great suffering still does exist, but I am trying to look at cultural generalities that account for the mentality that leads to the problems under discussion. In that regard I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that by any historical standard, we live an extremely luxurious life. We live a life so cushy that we have effectively insulated ourselves from much of the real hardship of life.

    So what’s my point in all this? The point is that I think that in large part it is this insulation from the hardships of life that has allowed us to lose some of the sense of how sacred it is. We’ve lost the sense of how sacred food is, how sacred the blessings we have are. We have lost the sense of how sacred existence is.

    Not so for my African priest friend and his neighbors. Death and danger were always near to them, and it seemed to give him a wide eyed wonder, a sense of awe, a sense of the sacred in nearly everything done, everything touched.

    Let me be clear here. I am NOT saying that these wonderful modern conveniences are evil (leave that kind of thinking to the Gnostic minded). But instead of looking at them and giving great thanks to God that he has given man the capacity to achieve such things, we begin to take them for granted and become desensitized to many aspects of life.

    Stripped of this sense of the sacred, having insulated ourselves and controlled our environment to such an extent that we begin to think of ourselves as little gods; we begin to think that we can control everything. We begin to think nothing of controlling how and when we bear children. After all if we can push a button, or pop a pill to keep heat, cold, hunger, and pain at bay, why not do the same with regards to babies.

    In such a culture is born a contraceptive mentality (probably the desire for which predates moderns by a good bit) coupled with the ability to make it happen. After all, having a baby is nothing special. It’s just another function that we can tinker with, control, and manipulate.

    It’s my thought that it is this loss of the sense of the sacred that has fostered the contraceptive mentality (and so much more), which has indeed helped damage marriage, which indeed has hurt priestly vocations, and which is one of the root causes of many of our spiritual ills.

    If we could live our lives as my priest friend and his neighbors did, we could have a profound affect on those around us. I know that his way of embracing life with that sense of sacredness changed me in a profound way.

  11. Kevin

    I think that we often put the cart before the horse. Why do we pray for vocations to the priesthood and religious life in church, and fail to pray for vocations to the life of a faithful baptized Catholic?

    Take a look at who is sitting in the pews at church? How many single men aged 18-34 are there? If your parish is at all like mine, the answer will be two or fewer. From where, then, will vocations to the priesthood come, if we can’t even get young men to live out their vocation to worship God? And the situation with regard to young women is not much better.

    I think that is what we need to be praying for.


  12. nfpworks

    Just found this post whilst searching for a quote from AB Chaput on contraception as cancerous to our society. I couldn't agree with you and AB Chaput more! In fact, once I gave a talk on the connection between holy family life, NFP & Vocations to a (half-sleeping octagenarian) Serra Club. You'll like this quote from the new AB Carlson:

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