Does consecrated life trump marriage? Can the married change their minds?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 11, 2020

In the wake of unusual vocations of married persons to the consecrated life, there is always speculation about the superiority of a consecrated single vocation, as compared with marriage, or of virginity over marriage generally. Some have gone so far as to argue that the “higher” calling to a form of consecrated life justifies breaking up a sacramental marriage to accommodate a “new vocation” of either the husband or the wife. This question was raised again last month after I explored the strange vocation of the Servant of God Rose Hawthorne, who set aside her husband’s will, with ecclesiastical permission, in order to undertake a special service to the poor who were suffering from cancer (Ecclesiastical judgment: Saints who left spouse or children for consecrated life?).

In fact, in the article in First Things which got me started on Rose Hawthorne, Patricia Snow suggested that the consecrated life can trump marriage in this way, a point of view which makes it considerably easier to read holiness back into every decision Rose Hawthorne ever made. This is one reason I expressed the following hagiographical caution: “People are sometimes far more holy near the end of their vocation than they are at the beginning, so a certain course of action could begin badly.” In this case, Rose’s husband died with plenty of time left for her to grow in grace.

In a Quick Hits piece a week later, I mentioned some other vocations which were unusual in this regard, and I have three more to offer here—supplied once again by helpful readers. But then I want to slay the vocational dragon I mentioned above. The question is this: Granted that the consecrated life is to be understood in some sense as a higher vocation than marriage, does that permit it to trump an existing marriage if a husband or wife feels called to this higher vocation?

Three more cases

Brian Micke wrote to tell me about two future saints who left their spouses. In the tenth century, Saint Pietro Orseolo, OSB Cam. was originally the Doge of Venice (“doge” is a variant of the French and Latin words for duke). He abdicated in the middle of the night, left his wife and family, went away with St. Romuald, and at length became a hermit in southern France. It isn’t difficult to see the imperfections which attended this new beginning, however sincere.

Then in the fifteenth century, Saint Nicholas of Flue, who later became the patron of Switzerland, left his wife and ten children with her permission to build a hermitage at Ranft. Brian reports that he was surrounded by his wife and children when he died. This is certainly peculiar, but it raises relatively minor questions, one of which is why his wife so readily let him off the leash!

Judith Smith reported on Blessed Cornelia Connelly, a nineteenth century American Episcopalian who converted to Catholicism partly to please her husband, Pierce, an Episcopalian priest. When Pierce decided to become a Catholic priest to work for the reevangelization of England, Cornelia agreed to become a nun. One son was sent to boarding school, and two younger children remained with her in England as she helped to start a new order of sisters.

Pierce did not last as a Catholic priest, so he changed his mind and opposed Cornelia’s final vows, which she made anyway. So Pierce took all the children away to Italy and, in anti-Catholic England, easily won a judgment of abandonment against Cornelia, claiming that her convent was a brothel. At length, Pierce returned to Episcopalianism, teaching the children to blame everything on their mother. Cornelia, having now lost all her children, remained faithful to her religious vows.

That Cornelia followed the advice of her spiritual director is in her favor, but not definitively so. I would emphasize that Cornelia was a nineteenth-century wife, attempting in part to be obedient to her husband. Surely she was more sinned against than sinning. But I reiterate that few of us begin our vocations with the degree of wisdom and holiness we will have in the end. That growth is part of the vocational process, even when we sincerely embrace a vocation under ambiguous circumstances—or successive vocations with ecclesiastical approval.

Does consecrated life trump marriage?

As Catholics, most of us have learned from our youth that the priesthood and the consecrated life are “higher” vocations than marriage. This is certainly true, but it can also be very misleading. In the order of grace, the priesthood is manifestly the highest possible calling, enabling a unique conformity to Christ in His sacrificially salvific mission. But even the consecrated single state in general is “higher” in the sense that St. Paul describes, when he says that those who are married must in some sense divide their attention between the Lord and their spouse, while those who remain single can concentrate exclusively on the Lord’s service (cf. 1 Cor 7, esp. vv. 32-34). We might put it this way: The person who consecrates himself to God in the single state is embracing a vocation which is defined by radical commitment to Christ alone. This is what makes it “higher”.

But there are three important caveats to consider. First, the motives for entering upon a particular way of life can be very mixed, as can the degree of commitment. In and of itself, this decision does not tell us anything about the person’s holiness. In the end we will be judged not by the “vocation” we happen to “be in” but by our conformity to Christ.

Second, it is the essence and meaning of “a vocation” that it is the way of life to which God has called us. Not all receive the same call. Our first vocational responsibility is to do our best to discern what God is calling us to do and to be. Sometimes, however, we enter into ways of life to which we are not called. Happily, God is flexible, and will often make our choice His own, allowing us to grow rapidly closer to Him. Not all “vocations” begin wisely or well. Nonetheless, there is great spiritual value in the discernment and deliberate acceptance of the call.

Third, when it comes to vocations which demand formal promises or vows, a new desire for a “higher vocation” does not override the commitment to the “lower vocation”. To make this concrete: A desire to be a priest or a nun does not negate our marriage vows, nor does it dissolve the sacramental bond among the couple and Christ which is created in matrimony. The Church can suspend the normal requirements of that bond authoritatively, even for insufficient reasons, and she can give permission to the married to make formal spiritual commitments ordinarily reserved for the unmarried even when such commitments seem to undermine or denigrate the Sacrament of Matrimony. She has that authority over her own sacraments and her own institutional norms. But such decisions, like all human judgments, are subject to abuse.

Peculiar cases and bad decisions notwithstanding, it is the normal judgment of the Church that husbands and wives cannot separate to enter consecrated life unless they (a) are free from responsibility for any children; and (b) are in mutual agreement concerning this decision. This is so true, in fact, that a departure from the rule must be presumed to have a significant extenuating circumstance (of which we may not be aware); and if it does not, it is right to entertain not just the possibility but the likelihood of an abuse.

Closing the case

I repeat that it is a specious argument to maintain that the Church’s recognition of a hierarchy of vocations—which is determined in accordance with their objective spiritual excellence—justifies the abandonment of one vowed vocation in order to take up another. This can never be done without sin apart from the intervening judgment of the Church. And there have certainly been cases in which, while one may sincerely follow such a judgment with a clear conscience, that judgment has been humanly flawed. Perhaps this will be clearer if I mention the similar imperfections associated with ecclesiastical decisions of marital nullity as a more common case in point.

Finally, I wish also to repeat a warning against what I will call “the hagiographical fallacy”. We typically grow in holiness despite many missteps, rather than because we do not make any. It is impermissible in a biographer to take up the life of a canonized saint in such a way that he assumes every decision his subject ever made must have been a holy decision arising from a perfect understanding of God’s will. This is not what drove St. Francis when he stole from his father to assist the poor. And it is unlikely to have been what has driven any canonized saint single-handedly to abandon his marriage vows.

If it is not true that the road to holiness is littered with poor judgment and sorry sins, then, knowing ourselves as we do, every hope that any of us can become a saint must be false. After all, even zeal can be spiritually dangerous. It is one of many steps in holiness to know not only when we must increase our zeal, but also when we must restrain it. That is precisely why we cover a multitude of sins when we seek sincerely and accept wholeheartedly the potentially imperfect judgment of the Church—in the matters over which she has been given authority by the Son of God.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: pc0508262962 - Feb. 13, 2020 5:06 AM ET USA

    It would probably be worth quoting the Council of Trent here: "If any one saith, that the marriage state is to be placed above the state of virginity, or of celibacy, and that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity, or in celibacy, than to be united in matrimony; let him be anathema." [Session 24, Canon X]

  • Posted by: jan02 - Feb. 11, 2020 11:52 PM ET USA

    Seems I read that the experienced desire to become a monastic when in a married state, or vice versa, is almost always a temptation that, when entertained, can lead to increasing unhappiness and dissatisfaction with one's life. This is an example of one of the occasions that may arise in a person's life that makes having a good spiritual director a great gift from God!