The National Catholic Review
The meaning of vocation in a secular world

The word vocation, originally used to indicate lives directly consecrated to God through priestly or religious service, has recently come into use in a much broader fashion. To expand vocation to include the whole range of ways that lives can be given to God is a fair and sensible extension. After all, if religious vocation is, as Pope Francis has said, “a response to a call and a call to love,” then the many varieties of Christian life that express themselves as paths to holiness must be equally touched by this sense of calling.

“Love,” St. John Paul II wrote in his 1981 exhortation “The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World,” “is...the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being.” The grandeur of this vision of vocation has allowed for a view of calling that encompasses not only celibacy, consecration and marriage, but also a cascade of related vocations that give themselves to the lived journey of Christian love. And because the concept of vocation is now both broad enough to speak to a variety of lives and still inscribed deeply with the centrality of love, the question of what constitutes a vocation and how different callings ought to be undertaken has grown ever more pertinent.

How to live out one’s vocation is not an insubstantial question, especially since so many categories of life can overlap in a single calling. Further complicating matters is the fact that many ways of living that we might identify as “vocations” also have secular cognates that, for lack of an orientation toward God, provide very little guidance as to what a vocation with an orientation to holiness would look like. The life-affirming vocation to friendship that Eve Tushnet fleshes out in her book Gay and Catholic needs fleshing out precisely because modern secular views of friendship are relatively despairing, rife with mean girls and bromances and other tropes that express more anxiety about the concept of friendship than enthusiasm for it. There is more work to be done in enumerating how Christian vocations are lived, then, than transcribing those things that go by the same names in the world at large.

The trouble is this: when we go about establishing how vocations should be understood and lived by the faithful, are we in many cases merely borrowing from the worst tendencies of secular modern thought? When it comes to an increasingly common mode for understanding vocation—that is, rationality—it seems that some of the more troublesome habits of secular modernity have made substantial headway.

Max Weber, the German sociologist famous for The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, among other works, documents in that book the development of the concept of a “calling” as particular economic demands made use of it. In particular, Weber argues that the uniquely Protestant notion of calling sacralized professional work to such a degree that the rational pursuit of work for monetary gain eventually conferred a spiritual significance on the accumulation of profit. For our purposes, the term of interest here is rational, a word Weber uses often in terms of rationalization, or the process by which traditional ways of thinking about life activities are supplanted by a modernized, capitalist-friendly way of thinking—the rational way.

For Weber, rationalization construes all activities in terms of optimizing outcomes. A popular example of the rationalized way of thinking is the fast food restaurant. All employees are trained in a standardized way to be interchangeable; kitchen equipment is developed for its efficiency, speed and consistency of output; food is selected with an eye to the ideal ratio of price to profit and dosed with salt, sugar and fat to make it a deliciously appealing product. These restaurants run like well-oiled machines. Their purpose, planning and execution are fully rationalized; they exist to generate profit, and every activity is empirically optimized toward that end. At any McDonald’s in the country, one can order a regular meal and be pretty sure about what will be served. If the outcome is different, it is because of a mistake behind the counter, a failure of the well-honed system.

A rationalized outlook may well be appropriate to particular industries. But the rationalized perspective has become so ubiquitous in modern life that we are apt to apply it in peculiar places—with vocation being a prime spot. Consider, for example, the vocation of motherhood.

Profitable Parenting?

On any rack of women’s magazines, a number of issues are ready to inform mothers or moms-to-be on how best to carry out the vocation of motherhood. Their advice does not restrict itself to tones of suggestion: on the contrary, all manner of media venues are constantly engaged in poring over the latest data about parenting, trying to deploy scientific studies to determine how children ought to be mothered. An array of methods are constantly on offer proffering competitive success rates. Some advise on how to pick up and console a crying child; others demarcate elaborate “training” routines to establish infant sleeping patterns; still others claim their parenting regime will boost I.Q.’s and thus, we are to believe, a child’s eventual earning potential. Every parenting choice, no matter how trivial or personal it may appear, can be arranged in terms of impact, far down the line, on a child’s future achievement. Imagined in this way, motherhood is defined mainly in terms of a series of rules and empirically tested techniques for producing a particular kind of child.

With so much focus on the impact of parenting decisions (especially those made during a child’s infancy), it is not surprising that this rationalized view of motherhood has bled into the interpretation of vocation. You can now purchase books intended to teach not only how and why to breastfeed—in terms of health, I.Q. and all the usual benefits—but also how breastfeeding defines your spiritual journey in motherhood. If you were thinking of taking your baby out for a walk in a stroller—that, too, has been ruled unconscionable, a threat to future learning and intellectual development; baby-wearing (in a sling or other such baby carrier), on the other hand, has received the spiritual stamp of approval.

Though the movement is by no means complete, it appears that vocation—being at a moment of development—is just as susceptible to tinting by secular modern attitudes to rationalized parenting as the Protestant notion of calling once was to rationalized capitalism. And indeed, the two tendencies are not totally different. With so much concern about optimal learning, I.Q. scores and intellectual development, it seems rationalized theories of parenting tend toward attempts to produce children who will be especially competitive in our current marketplace.

After all, that is what rationalization is all about: making products. But children are not mass produced items that can be stamped out ready made for competition onto the conveyer belt of life. Nor are mothers and fathers instruments that can or should be tightly honed toward that purpose. It is entirely fair to want one’s child to be healthy and happy—but it is equally imperative to realize that there is no single set of parenting choices that will work for every child. Further, adherence to rigid standards of parenting can produce all the angst for new mothers and infants that these revolutionary techniques are supposedly structured to prevent. Russell Saunders, a pediatrician and an opinion writer for Salon and The Daily Beast, has written extensively on the shame and scorn heaped on new mothers who find themselves unable to nurse as much or long as they would like. If, as some studies suggest, moms who suffer from anxiety have a harder time connecting with their infants, then shaming over perceived “failures” to parent correctly is a terrible risk even by the lights of the zealously data-reliant.

Moreover, motherhood as a vocation is not about a call to optimal child production; no mother is ordered by divine decree to raise her children so that they will be sharp competitors in capitalist economies. Rationalization is about outcome-oriented rules and strictures, but the call to love leads us outside of the order imposed by worldly assessments of success and failure. As the philosopher Charles Taylor writes,

The network of agape puts first the gut-driven response to [the] person. This can’t be reduced to a general rule. Because we can’t live up to this, we need rules.... It’s not that we could just abolish them. But modern liberal civilization fetishizes them. We think we have to find the RIGHT system of rules, norms, and then follow them through unfailingly. We can’t see any more the way these rules fit badly our world of enfleshed human beings.

Vocations are primarily relational; they are modes of living that bring us together in authentic community, and orient our lives toward God. They should, therefore, be ruled by love itself—which is impossible to hash out into matrices of rules. If a mother cannot breastfeed her child, she is in no danger of failing in her vocation so long as she nourishes her baby with love and care in the best way she can. The same is true of all of the vocations now developing to guide people into lives lived toward holiness: there is no one set of guidelines for each life lived in love. Instead of coming to understand our many vocations in terms of success, failure or optimization, we should seek to understand them as engagements with others in the spirit of love. It is only with love as first priority that the full array of human diversity finds its perfect arrangement, in a variety of different lives all lived on the same path to God.

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig is a doctoral candidate in religion, politics and philosophy at Brown University. She earned a master’s degree in Christian theology from the University of Cambridge as a Marshall Scholar and has published in The Atlantic, The Boston Review and First Things.


Mike Evans | 12/29/2014 - 2:36pm

My wife was/is a great mother. She realized early on that housework and diapers were not her calling. Instead she continued her employment as a forensic chemist in a state crime lab. We hired a series of housekeeper/baby sitters throughout her 32 years with kids still at home. Our kids got the benefit of two moms! And the family got the benefit of both parents utilizing their talents and education and contributing to a better economic life.

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