What is a Vocation?

According to St. Thomas Aquinas


Joseph Bolin

Aquinas and vocation

St. Thomas Aquinas does not say much about vocation: he doesn't even use the term “vocation” very often, and only in a very few places does he talk directly about what a vocation is. Nevertheless from what he says about the call to enter religious life, together with the few direct statements about vocation in general, we can derive a solid understanding of vocation in general, both to religious life and to marriage.

The call to religious life

Though St. Thomas doesn't say what a vocation is in general, he speaks in several places about making the choice to enter religious life, which is one particular vocation. In the Summa Theologiae, at the very end of the treatise on the states of life, St. Thomas asks the question “whether it is praiseworthy for someone to enter religious life without long deliberation, and having taken counsel from many people.”1 He answers “yes,” with the following argument. Long deliberation is required for great and doubtful things, but not for things which are certain and determined. Now we can consider religious life in itself, or we can consider it in relation to an individual’s ability to live religious life. Since Christ counseled religious life, it is certain that considered in itself it is better to enter it.2 And since those who enter religious life look for the ability to live it not from themselves, but from God, there is also no reason in general for doubt concerning one’s ability to live that life. If someone has specific obstacles, such as bodily weakness, great debts, or similar things, then deliberation is required, and counsel from people who can be expected to help and not to hinder him. St. Thomas notes that even in this case long deliberation is not necessary. He adds that counsel may also be taken as to the manner of entering, and which religious order one should enter.

The idea of vocation is not entirely absent from this account. St. Thomas does explain that one is truly discerning a vocation, the work of God, in this process. It is God who enlightens one's eyes to understand the value and beauty of religious life, and moves one's heart to choose it.

Nevertheless St. Thomas does not place the idea of vocation at the heart of his consideration. Rather, the primary question is, “Is it good?” St. Thomas puts the question this way not because vocation is unimportant, but because it is secondary. A vocation is a means God uses to lead us to something good, so the most important thing is not the vocation itself, but the good to which he wants to lead us. In general, the vocation to holiness is subordinate to holiness; in particular, the vocation to religious life is subordinate to the religious life as a specific way of living the Christian life, and the vocation to marriage is subordinate to marriage as a specific way of living the Christian life.

What is vocation in general

The goal of Christian life is love for God and neighbor. How does this goal relate to vocation? A vocation, or call, is that by which God leads us somewhere. “Vocation or calling implies a certain leading to something.”3 There is “a certain calling into existence through creation.”4 But most properly, God calls us when he leads us to himself. “There is a temporal calling to grace.”5 Now there are various means, both external and internal, by which God leads us to himself. “This calling is either interior, by means of the influx of grace, or is exterior, by means of a preacher’s words.”6 St. Thomas here speaks of vocation insofar as it is that whereby God leads us to grace and to love. Corresponding to this, we can also call grace and love a vocation, or say that we are called to grace and love, insofar as God leads us to it.

Two Vocations: Religious Life and Marriage

There are two ways in which this sense of vocation is extended in regard to states of life: first, when we say that a state of life, such as religious life or marriage, is a vocation; secondly, when we speak of a vocation to a state of life, such as religious life or marriage. The first extension of vocation is made insofar as the states of life are means that God gives us, by which he leads us to grow ever more in love for him, and finally to be perfectly united with him in glory. Thus they are paths through which he leads us to himself. In this way it is integral to the Catholic teaching on marriage to regard it as a Christian vocation. Marriage is unquestionably a means to grow in virtue and in love of God and neighbor, both due to its natural character, and as a sacrament. St. Thomas would therefore without hesitation recognize marriage as a vocation in this sense, though he does not actually use vocation to refer to a state of life itself, whether the religious state or the married state.

The second extension of the term vocation is made insofar as God, by means of grace, the infused virtues, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, does not lead and guide us only to the act of love itself, but also to the means by which we act in accordance with love, and grow in love. Thus whenever we are moved to a determinate action or choice by means of these grace-given virtues and gifts of the Spirit, we can say that we are called to that action or choice (though the word “call” tends to be more often used in reference to a more permanent state of life). Therefore when the love of God moves someone to commit himself to a state of life, we can say that he is called to that state of life. On the other hand, when someone is moved by other motives to a state of life, we cannot so properly say that he is called to that state.

Therefore, if one can be moved by the love of God and neighbor to marriage, and if marriage is a means to grow in love of God and neighbor, then men and women are called to marriage, and marriage is a vocation. But one can marry out of true Christian love, and marriage is a means to grow in that love, and therefore marriage is a vocation, and some men and women are called to marriage. In our own times, Karol Wojtyła argues in this way that marriage is a vocation insofar as it is, as it ought to be, a commitment made out of love.

A vocation always means some principal direction of love of a particular man or woman... The process of self-giving remains most intimately united with spousal love. A person then gives himself to the other person. Therefore, both virginity and marriage understood in a deep personalistic way, are vocations.7

A further distinction should be made in regard to vocation in this sense. One can be moved by the love of God and neighbor to marriage in two ways: first, love of God could demand that one marry, or marriage could be most in accordance with this love; secondly, love of God could in fact be the motivation for one’s marriage, without marriage being the choice most in accordance with this love. In the second way, everyone who loves God, since he loves him above all things, also orders marriage to the love of God, unless his desire or choice of marriage is sinful and disordered. This necessarily follows from the Catholic teaching that marriage is good. And it is true even of those many people who, in the words of St. Ignatius, “choose first to marry, which is a means, and secondarily to serve God our Lord in the married life, which service of God is the end.”8 Even these people at least virtually order their choice to God, and could actually do so. Nonetheless, love of God is not the determining factor in their choice.

Now to choose marriage in this way is not evil, but it is not the best way of choosing marriage. And recognition of this fact lies behind some of the seemingly negative statements about marriage that we may find in the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, statements which might seem to show a lack of esteem for marriage as a holy means for growing in and practicing love of God and neighbor. Many of these negative statements actually originate in a honest recognition of the fact that most people who choose to marry do not do so because they consider it the best means of serving God, but for other motives, and again, that many married persons do not order their whole married life to the love and service of God. We should then not take these statements as denigrating marriage itself, but as criticisms of the material and worldly manner in which many marriages are lived.9

Love of God can also move someone to marriage in a different way, if one sees marriage not only as compatible with and capable of being ordered to the love of God, but as required by or at least most in accordance with this love. It does not necessarily follow from the Catholic teaching that marriage is good, that love of God demands that one marry, or even that marriage is often most in accordance with this love. And on this point, it does seem that St. Thomas, as well as St. Alphonsus and many other Doctors of the Church, considers it rare that marriage is most in accordance with perfect love of God, at least for those people who are capable of chastely abstaining from marriage. Speaking about the necessity of perpetual chastity for perfection, St. Thomas remarks that it is presumptuous to suppose that one does not personally need the better means for attaining perfection, namely perfect chastity.

The second way to perfection, by which a man may be more free to devote himself to God, and to cling more perfectly to him, is the observance of perpetual chastity... The way of continence is most necessary for attaining perfection... Abraham had so great spiritual perfection in virtue that his spirit did not fall short of perfect love for God on account either of temporal possessions or of married life. But if another man who does not have the same spiritual virtue strives to attain perfection while retaining riches and entering into marriage, his error in presuming to treat Our Lord’s words as of small account will soon be demonstrated.10

Does this position regarding marriage necessarily follow from the way that St. Thomas considers the ways of life, viz. according to their suitability as means of attaining the Christian goal? No, for though in general life according to the counsels is better than the married life, in particular cases or for particular persons marriage may be better. “Though it may be said in general that for an individual man it is better to practice continence than to enter into marriage, nothing prevents marriage from being better for a particular person.”11 There are a number of reasons that would in particular cases make marriage the best means for someone to live out his vocation to love. First of all, there is the possibility that God will give him evident miraculous signs that lead him to marriage, or in some other way make it evident that he should do so. In such a case, when God’s will is made directly evident, then one can and should follow his will as manifested, even if one would otherwise have made a different judgment about what was best and what God’s will was.

Secondly, some persons, on account of a special relationship to the common good, can accomplish the most good for the Church by marrying, and so are called to marriage. St. Thomas does not explicitly mention this case, but it is in accordance with his principles. St. Francis de Sales observes:

God does not want each person to observe all the counsels, but only those that are appropriate to the diversity of persons, times, occasions, and abilities, as charity requires.... Perhaps you are a prince, by whose posterity the subjects of your crown should be preserved in peace, and assured against tyranny, sedition, and civil wars; the occasion, therefore, of so great a good, obliges you to beget legitimate successors in a holy marriage.12

Thirdly, some persons are unable to live according to the counsels, either being incapable of really putting their heart into such a life, or for some other reason incapable of living such a life well. They will do better to live a life that they are capable of living, and of putting their heart into living as a way of serving God and neighbor, than to attempt to live a life of which they are not capable, or to which they are not able to give their whole heart.

The evangelical counsels considered in themselves are advantageous for all; but due to some people being poorly disposed, it happens that they are not advantageous for these people, because their heart is not inclined to them. Hence the Lord, in proposing the evangelical counsels, always makes mention of man’s fitness for observing the counsels. For in giving the counsel of perpetual poverty (Mt. 19:21), he begins by saying: “If you would be perfect,” and then adds: “Go, sell all that you have.” Similarly, in giving the counsel of perpetual chastity, when he said: “There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 19:12), he immediately added: “He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.” And similarly the Apostle, after giving the counsel of virginity, says: “I say this for your benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you” (1 Cor. 7:35).13

This third category of persons called to marriage comprises by far the greatest number. There are some who see the beauty of the religious life, and consider living that life themselves, and may even enter for a time, yet who find themselves incapable of putting their heart wholly into such a life—in some cases they may see reasons why they are incapable of doing so, in other cases they may not see the reasons, but simply the fact. There are others who cannot even see the beauty and goodness of religious life in such a way as to be moved to love it; they may acknowledge its goodness in an abstract manner, but not perceive it concretely, in such a way that it draws their heart. While various natural and psychological factors may contribute to this difference between persons, the ultimate cause of the perception of religious life’s beauty and value, and the desire to live it, is from God. Pope John Paul II interprets Christ’s statement, “Not all men [can] grasp this saying, but only those to whom it is given,” (Mat 19:11) in reference to this necessary divine enlightenment.

Jesus calls attention to the gift of divine light necessary to “understand” the way of voluntary celibacy. Not all can understand it, in the sense that not all are “able” to grasp its meaning, to accept it, to put it into practice. This gift of light and decision is only granted to some. It is a privilege granted them for the sake of a greater love. We should not be surprised then if many, not understanding the value of consecrated celibacy, are not attracted to it, and often are not even able to appreciate it. This means that there is a diversity of ways, charisms, and functions, as Saint Paul recognized, who spontaneously wished to share his ideal of virginal life with all. Indeed he wrote: “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each,” he adds, “has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another” (1 Cor 7:7).14

Marriage may be a true and positive vocation

There are several mistakes into which we can easily fall when considering this question. One mistake is to think that every person is called to the life according to the counsels, and that if he chooses not to live this way, it is always due either to a lack of love or virtue on his part, to presumption, or to ignorance. In other words, either he does not love God enough to follow the better path, he thinks he is already virtuous enough not to need the help of the evangelical counsels, or he is ignorant that the counsels offer a superior way to grow in the love of God. We might be led to this position by an overly simple understanding of the necessity of the counsels, which are proposed universally as the better means for attaining Christian perfection and serving God. Thus St. Alphonsus says to a woman seeking advice, “If you resolve not to become a religious, I cannot advise you to enter the married state, for St. Paul does not counsel that state to any one, except in case of necessity, which I hope does not exist for you.”15 He seems to take the position that it is only better to marry if one is in fact incapable of being chaste without marriage. St. Thomas as well, perhaps as a result of reacting to those who deny the value of the counsels, may overstate the necessity of the counsels as a means for perfection, when he calls it presumptuous to seek perfection without embracing celibacy.

Some marry without seeing in it a call from God

A second mistake is to think that every person who marries has a vocation to marriage, or that it was the most perfect thing for him to do. In fact, many people choose to marry either without thinking about whether it is the best thing to do, or without caring. “Many choose first to marry, which is a means, and secondarily to serve God our Lord in the married life, which service of God is the end.”16 The renunciation asked by the evangelical counsels is difficult, and because many people are not willing to do all that is necessary in order to follow this path, or are in some other way led astray; “many are called, but few are chosen” (Mt. 22:14).

Religious life is the higher calling

A third mistake is to make a comparison of marriage and religious life simply on the basis of the existence of diverse vocations—to consider the fact that marriage is better for some people, and they are called to marriage, and that religious life is better for others, and they are called to it—and thereby to conclude that the two ways are basically equally good ways of growing in virtue and in love. It is true that all are called to holiness, and that those who are called to marriage (in the stricter sense of vocation) will do better to marry than to enter religious life. But still, religious life offers to those who are called to it, a better means for attaining holiness. The Second Vatican Council, while remarking that seminarians “ought rightly to acknowledge the duties and dignity of Christian matrimony, which is a sign of the love between Christ and the Church,” goes on to say that they should “recognize the surpassing excellence of virginity consecrated to Christ.”17 Pope Paul VI, too, while noting the importance of promoting the universal call to holiness, warns against losing sight of the superiority of religious life.

It must be admitted that the doctrine of the universal vocation of all the faithful to holiness (regardless of their position or social situation), has been put forth very much in modern times, and indeed rightly so... All these things are happening by the counsel of Divine Providence, and that is why We rejoice over such salutary undertakings.

However, we must be on guard lest, for this very reason, the genuine notion of religious life as it has traditionally flourished in the Church, should become obscured, and youth, when they think about choosing of a way of life, be in some way hindered, due to their not distinctly and clearly perceiving the special function and immutable importance of the religious state within the Church... This state, which receives its proper character from profession of the evangelical vows, is a perfect way of living according to the example and teaching of Jesus Christ. It aims at the growth of charity, and its final perfection. In contrast, the specific ends, advantages and functions proposed in other ways of life, though they are legitimate in themselves, are temporal.18

The Church has always taught that the life according to the evangelical counsels is not only superior in itself, inasmuch as it is a life more like that of Christ himself, but also inasmuch as it is a better way to achieve the goal of Christian life, which is holiness. In Vita Consecrata, Pope John Paul II summarizes this tradition of the Church.

The Church has always seen in the profession of the evangelical counsels a special path to holiness. The very expressions with which it describes it—the school of the Lord’s service, the school of love and holiness, the way or state of perfection—indicate the effectiveness and the wealth of means which are proper to this form of evangelical life, and the particular commitment made by those who embrace it. It is not by chance that there have been so many consecrated persons down the centuries who have left behind eloquent testimonies of holiness and have undertaken particularly generous and demanding works of evangelization and service.19

This teaching of the Church, that the counsels are better means for growing in love, is not merely an abstract and speculative truth. It is a practical truth that is very relevant to the question of whether to follow them or not. It is the reason why St. Ignatius says that more evident signs are required in order to conclude that God is calling one to ordinary Christian life in the world, than to conclude that God is calling one to embrace the evangelical counsels.20 Again, one who does not know his vocation, but who could be called to religious life—i.e., could be called if if he is open to it, and disposes himself to receive the call—would do well to pray for this higher calling, and take other steps towards this goal. Again, some clearly see that marriage and religious life are both possible vocations for them, and in such cases the better choice is in general religious life. Von Balthasar gives a good description of some of these situations in which the one who is discerning may find himself.

Many a youth, in considering his state, draws near the region of the special call; the call itself does not follow, but he knows that he is not forbidden from drawing ever closer to that region, in which the call may, or even probably will be heard. But he turns aside too soon, and consequently does not hear it... But it can also happen, that he moves into the region of the qualitatively superior call, draws within “calling range” of God, yet the call—by reason of its objective form, and not merely by reason of the imperfect way in which it is heard—allows him the choice to follow it or not to follow it. He sees quite factually: there is the usual way, and I am not forbidden to go along it. Yet this form of call lacks the magnetic attraction with which other forms draw one irresistibly to themselves.21

In summary, if we consider Aquinas's understanding carefully, we find that religious life and marriage are both vocations. Some do indeed enter marriage without a vocation to it, just as some enter religious life without a vocation to it. And yet both religious life and marriage are true vocations when the motivation or reason why a person makes the choice to marry or to enter religious life, is the love of God and neighbor: when they do so because they love with the holy love of charity, and in order to fulfill this love more perfectly.

1ST II-II 189:10.

2The term “religious life” does not come from Christ himself, but Christ did establish this form of life, and gave the three counsels of chastity, poverty, and obedience, upon which religious life is based. See Pope John Paul II, Redemptionis Donum, n. 3, as well as his General Audience of December 7, 1994.

3In I Sent. d. 41, q. 1, a. 2, ad 3.




7Love and Responsibility, 256; cf. Pope John Paul II, General Audience of August 18, 1982.

8Exercitia Spiritualia, n. 169.

9One sometimes encounters a certain polemic in recent authors, directed against nearly the entire tradition of the Church, and convicting it of entirely failing to recognize the holiness of the human body and of marriage. One might get the impression that from the earliest times of the Church (including even the inspired Apostle Paul) until Pope John Paul II, no one in the Church really understood marriage, or had any appreciation for it as a holy Christian way of life. But though it is true that the earlier doctors of the Church made certain excesses and sometimes lacked certain insights, this sweeping dismissal of the Christian tradition is quite unjustified.

10 St. Thomas Aquinas, On the Perfection of the Spiritual Life, Ch. 9.

11St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 136.

12St. Francis de Sales, Treatise on the Love of God, Bk. 8, Ch. 6.

13ST I-II 108:4 ad 1.

14Pope John Paul II, General Audience, November 16, 1994.

15St. Alphonsus, “Counsels to a young woman in doubt as to what state to choose” pp. 391–92.

16Exercitia Spiritualia, n. 169.

17Vatican Council II, Optatam Totius, n. 10.

18Pope Paul VI, Address to the General Chapters of Religious Orders and Congregations, May 23, 1964.

19Pope John Paul II, Vita Consecrata, n. 35.

20Directoria Ignatiana Autographa, n. 9, p. 72.

21Von Balthasar, Christlicher Stand, 353.

Texts of Aquinas on religious vocation

Religious Vocation: An Unnecessary Mystery by Richard Butler explains religious vocation in light of the teaching of Aquinas.

What is a Vocation: Discerning a Religious Vocation

Paths of Love: The Discernment of Vocation According to Aquinas, Ignatius, and Pope John Paul II

Back to books and articles on Vocation