Like my colleague, Conor Kelly, I found Kerry Danner’s article, “Saying No to an Economy that Kills” to be a persuasive discussion of the ways that Catholic colleges and universities fail to live up to their mission. That the brunt of that failure is placed on the shoulders of vulnerable employees, adjunct and contingent faculty, makes it a scandal.

I wanted to respond to this article in part because I was one of the “lucky” ones among my peers: within a year of completing my PhD, I had a tenure-track position at a Catholic university. And now, two years later, I’ve decided to leave that position — and academia — behind. I had two reasons for making that decision this past May, both of which I think help to further the conversation that Danner’s article begins: vocation, and the economic tidal wave labeled “COVID-19” that is about to hit higher education.

On the first point: Danner first engages vocation through her appeals to Laborem exercens and it’s theology of work. Work, John Paul II writes, is “a defining characteristic of humanity,” in which we “participate in the creative activity of God” (Danner, 30; LE 4, 24-27). Because of this participatory component, it is the humans performing the labor that make work valuable, not the capital it may produce. Danner emphasizes the growth and formation that our work should offer, to become ever close to God. She doesn’t use the term vocation with reference to LE, but John Paul II does invoke the term at two significant places: when discussing the conflict between labor and capital, he states that work “constitutes one of the fundamental dimensions of his earthly existence and of his vocation” (LE 11). The only second time the term appears is when John Paul II is quoting Gaudium et spes, while speaking to how human work should reflect the values of the divine will.

There is a lot of weight on this term in Catholic theology — perhaps more weight than it can really bear. In its most formal sense, vocation is the call to priestly, religious, or married life; in LE, the term is probably best understood as invoking the universal call to holiness from Lumen gentium, and asking that human work be something that pulls us towards God. And certainly, as Danner rightly notes, a great many people who pursue academic theology (and arguably academic work more broadly) do so in the pursuit of meaning-making, formation, maybe even holiness (Danner, 40). The problem, as Danner points out, is that vocation is easy to exploit. She mentions the men and women religious who did most of the labor in founding our Catholic universities — people under vows of both poverty and obedience — which set precedents that don’t fit for the mostly lay, married faculty of today’s universities. 

I think this criticism can be carried further than Danner takes it. Her main claim with respect to vocation seems to be that it enables universities to hold faculty to “professional standards” without offering the material support (wages) to achieve that. This seems to accept that vocation is in and of itself not a problem, so long as institutions properly care for the professionals pursuing it.

However, if  we widen the picture a bit to beyond higher ed (admittedly moving beyond Danner’s original audience), I think the problems with the language of vocation and work run deeper. I do not think it is a coincidence that many of the most thankless, underpaid tasks in our society are often cast with the air of noble vocation: social work, teaching, healthcare. Doctors might seem to contradict the trend (with the assumption — not always true — that they are well-paid), but Danner already brings up that comparison in discussing the ways even medical school exploits vocation (Danner, 41). And many in healthcare are actually very much underpaid, especially direct care workers. We gloss these positions with the term “vocation” precisely to justify the sacrifices they have to make without holding our economic structures accountable for how a lack of resources exponentially increases those sacrifices.

Perhaps it is a mistake to take the Buechner quote (vocation is “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”) and apply it to paid labor, when it so readily becomes the scaffolding of injustice. In fact our human work is much broader than paid labor, and so are the means by which we pursue vocations. 

So, I am no longer sure that vocation is a helpful term at all when applied to paid labor — and I say that as someone who is educated as a lay ecclesial minister, who pursued one vocation-laden role (tenure-track theology professor) and am leaving it for, well, a ministry role. When I informed my department that I was leaving, I told them it was a case of “discerning my vocation,” and that’s true insofar as I had realized my deep dissatisfaction with the position and the institution in which I worked. What I left unsaid was that I was tired of feeling my “vocation” laid as a weight upon me, squeezing blood from a stone as I (a “lucky!?” one) was underpaid and under-resourced. And most of all, I was tired of having to call myself lucky, to be grateful precisely because it could be so much worse if I were one of the adjuncts that my former institution, as many others, so readily exploits.

This brings me to my second, shorter point: COVID-19 is revealing the fragilities of our universities in an unprecedented way — and still, we are seeing vocation leveraged against faculty (contingent and otherwise) and staff who express concerns about teaching face to face and plans to reopen campus. We are also are seeing vocation leveraged against educators outside of higher ed as primary and secondary schools plan to open. Just this weekend, it came out that Canisius College is eliminating faculty, both tenured and not, primarily in the humanities. The upheaval at Canisius — which closely resembles similar actions at the University of Akron (a public university) calls into question not only how we use vocation for persons, but how we use vocation for institutions. If Canisius — a Jesuit school, with a long commitment to a liberal arts education — removes the liberal arts from its core, does it still fulfill the “vocation” of a Jesuit school (this was at least part of the reason why the Jesuits withdrew their affiliation from the former Wheeling Jesuit University last year)?

Despite expressing skepticism about the value of vocation with respect to paid labor, perhaps there is a use for it in institutional settings. Rather than exploiting contingent and adjunct faculty, vocation ought to be a call sign that demands change in our Catholic institutions. Only when institutions live up to vocation can employees embrace their own vocations and calls to holiness.