As Pope John Paul II affirmed in his 1996 apostolic exhortation Vita Consecrata (Consecrated Life), “Christian tradition has always spoken of the objective superiority of the consecrated life” (no. 18).
In today’s world, there is a built-in suspicion of any and all claims to objective truth. But in this particular case, even some faithful Catholics have difficulty accepting the truth that consecrated life, and also the sacred priesthood, are objectively higher callings than vocations to marriage or to the single life.
At the same time, Vatican II rightly emphasized the “universal call to holiness” of all baptized Christians. In other words, we’re all called to be saints, and we all therefore have a vital role to play in the Church’s mission. In that sense, all the baptized are “equal” and play a vital role in building up the Church.
So we need to balance, on the one hand, the “objective superiority” of consecrated life, and on the other hand, the “subjective superiority” of being faithful to our personal vocation in Christ, whatever it may be.
As a long-standing, diehard Kansas City Chiefs fan, I need to trot out my Will Shields analogy:
We all know that the quarterback is objectively the most important position in football. Quarterbacks handle the ball on every play. They are typically acclaimed when the team wins, and they are blamed when the team loses. Ask Matt Cassel. They make the most money, and they get to do most of the commercials, especially when they’re “6′5″ with laser-rocket arms” like Peyton Manning.
Meanwhile, offensive linemen do much of the grunt work in relative obscurity. They’re rarely noticed except when they commit a penalty or the defensive lineman they’re suppose to block crushes the quarterback.
Will Shields, a long-time offensive lineman for the Chiefs, retired a few years ago. He was named to the Pro Bowl about a dozen times (after awhile I lost count), and one day he will be enshrined among pro football’s elite in the Hall of Fame, having achieved a level of greatness on and off the field that very few quarterbacks have achieved. In fact, this year he is a semi-finalist for this honor, in his first year of eligibility.
In a real sense, he embraced his calling and used his gifts appropriately and well. Surely if he insisted on being a quarterback at 300+ pounds, he would never have had anywhere near the same level of success. The offensive line was his particular path to football immortality, and he fully embraced it.
Similarly, the “superior” vocation for any given individual is the one that the Lord has chosen for us. Fidelity to our own calling and gifts is our road to sanctity. We need to emphasize the personal vocation in Christ given to each and every Catholic at their Baptism, yet without denying the objective beauty, desirability, and yes, “superiority” of a life fully consecrated to Our Lord.
Together as a Church we have to come to a proper balance on all this, as the Church has many members, but is truly one Body.