This portrait of the Emperor Charles V recalls a time when all Christians understood the central importance of his role in Christendom as a model of the role of the laity.
At that time the Empire stretched across much of Europe and across the seas to the New World so that it was of this empire, before all others, that it was first said that the sun never set upon it.
Are the lay and clerical states a form of vocation?
Vocation means calling. God calls us to sanctity. The Catechism teaches:
"All the Faithful, whatever their condition or state... are called by the Lord to that perfection of sanctity...Charity is the soul of holiness to which all are called" [CCC#825-6].
The Catechism then quotes from St Therese of Lisieux, a Doctor of the Church, thus:
"Love, in fact, is the vocation which includes all others".
Clearly some do this better than others and some are called to a higher level than others, whether priest or lay.
Even more clearly, our Lady was called to that vocation, and fulfilled it, far more than any other creature, even including the Angels.
The fact that some have higher vocations than others does not mean that their higher vocation is somehow not a vocation.
Each is called but some are called to a higher level.
That is clear from Sacred Scripture itself:
Multi autem sunt vocati, pauci vero electi [Matt 22:14]
Nisi unicuique sicut divisit Dominus unumquemque sicut vocavit Deus ita ambulet et sic in omnibus ecclesiis doceo[1 Cor 7:17].
Here is what the Catholic Encyclopaedia has to say on the subject:
"And in the celebrated passage 'every one hath his proper gift from God' (1 Corinthians 7:7) St Paul does not intend to indicate any particular profession as a gift of God, but he makes use of a general expression to imply that the unequal dispensation of graces explains the diversity of objects offered for our choice like the diversity of virtues. We agree with Liguori when he declares that whoever, being free from impediment and actuated by a right intention, is received by the superior is called to the religious life".
So - one is "called" to the religious life but "graces are dispensed unequally". Not everyone is offered ALL graces. God can choose Mary to be His mother and not Jane or Hannah.
And even if one is called, and answers, there are nonetheless wise virgins (i.e. good religious) and foolish virgins (i.e. bad religious) [Matt 25:1-11].
The wise ones will certainly be queens in heaven, although clearly not of the rank of our Lady.
Scripture confirms that we shall have "crowns in heaven":
Bonum certamen certavi cursum consummavi fidem servavi; in reliquo reposita est mihi iustitiae corona quam reddet mihi Dominus in illa die iustus iudex non solum autem mihi sed et his qui diligunt adventum eius. [2 Tim 4:7-8].
Kings and queens have crowns. That is the origin of the meaning of the word.
Moreover, nuns are indeed mothers, too, understood spiritually, otherwise what would be the point of their being "Brides of Christ"?
Brides are married and married women have children. That's one of the purposes of marriage.
The spiritual motherhood of nuns is, in a spiritual and mystical sense, an imitation of the motherhood of Mary.
Any religious life, male or female, is, if fulfilled, higher by its nature than the life of a secular cleric.
If that were not so then one would have to ask why some clerics seek to enter religious life.
This is made clear by St Thomas in the Summa II-II, Art.184, Q.8 in which he poses the question:
"Whether parish priests and archdeacons are more perfect than religious?".
"On the contrary, It is stated (XIX, qu. ii, cap. Duce): 'If a man while governing the people in his church under the bishop and leading a secular life is inspired by the Holy Ghost to desire to work out his salvation in a monastery or under some canonical rule, since he is led by a private law, there is no reason why he should be constrained by a public law'. Now a man is not led by the law of the Holy Ghost, which is here called a 'private law', except to something more perfect. Therefore it would seem that religious are more perfect than archdeacons or parish priests".
In De Perfectione Vitae Spiritualis St Thomas repeats this and goes into more detail.
Thus the "vocation" of an abbot, including one who is lay and not clerical, would, in principle, be higher than the vocation of a secular priest.
But what of the secular, unconsecrated lay vocation?
For this we must look back to the days when kings, queens, emperors and empresses were the leading lay figures in Catholic society.
The vocation of emperor or king - or equivalent lay leadership role in a Catholic society - is also a vocation but it is not a religious vocation. It is a very high and dignified lay calling but this must be distinguished, once again, from the vocation to perfection.
Our primary Christian vocation is to perfect sanctity (through faith, hope and charity, by grace). There are degrees of perfection, however. In heaven (if we get there!) we shall all be perfect (which means “complete”) but some will be more perfect than others (e.g. our Lady).
That kind of vocation is to be distinguished from the use of that word to signify a calling – by a worldly superior as much as by God – to an office of dignity and rule.
In that sense, save that it is a lay, not a clerical, role and therefore has not the Sacramental character, the vocation of emperor or king (or its equivalent) is one of dignity and power, temporally, just as the priestly role is, spiritually.
Thus, just as the office of pope is the highest dignity in the clerical vocation, so that of emperor is the highest dignity in the lay vocation.
There is some coalescence since the Pope clearly also has some temporal power and the Emperor always had some power over matters spiritual for example in the appointment of bishops and a power of veto over the election of a pope.
Interestingly, it has been the custom since early times for the Emperor to be made a cleric by the Pope - at first a sub-deacon but, from the time of Emperor Charles V, a deacon. Nevertheless, the role of Emperor was always regarded as a primarily lay role by the Church.
Similarly, since at least the time of barbarian invasions when the Roman imperial power had been eclipsed, the popes have also had temporal, secular power, first in the city of Rome (which, however, still technically remained the temporal seat of power of the emperors) and then, after the donations of Pepin and Charlemagne, over the Pontifical States in central Italy. Nevertheless, the role of the Pope is, as we know, a primarily spiritual role.
This kind of “vocation” is distinguished from that of the vocation to perfection but it is, nonetheless, a vocation since the office-holder is, indeed, called to it (by election) in each case.
The role of emperor reflects the role of Christ the King which is one of the 3 roles of a Christian, they being Prophet (or teacher), Priest and King.
All of us, lay and clerical, must fulfil these roles.
We can do that as a layman (there is a priesthood of all the faithful which is wider than the ministerial priesthood) or as a cleric (a cleric chiefly rules spiritually but also has some temporal power which is a kingly role).
The Emperor symbolically exemplifies in his person, role and vocation the summit of the layman’s fulfilment of the role of Christ the King. He symbolises the Social Reign of Christ the King upon the earth.
The use of the word "vocation" has more than one sense. In the sense of a calling to perfection, the priesthood is not the highest vocation.
In the sense of a calling to an office, which connotes dignity and power, the priesthood is the higher but in a spiritual, rather than a temporal, sense.
However, the spiritual is higher than the temporal but here we speak generically.
Within each office there are higher and lower roles.
For the spiritual, the highest office is that of the Pope and for the temporal it is that of the Emperor. Each is the Vicar of Christ in his own sphere, spiritual and temporal.
The Pope is higher than the Emperor spiritually and vice-versa temporally.
However, since the spiritual is higher than the temporal, a papal excommunication, if just and right, ought to be obeyed above an imperial rescript.
However, if the papal injunction were unjust or trespassed unjustly upon the imperial power, then the imperial rescript, if just, was to be preferred.
Moreover, an illegal or immoral order of the Pope can justly be resisted, as Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln, did - in the name of the Papacy and the proper use of papal power - when he refused a rich canonry in his Cathedral to the nephew of the reigning pope who had insisted on it out of nepotism.
Finally, a diagram might assist appreciation and understanding of the various roles in the Church:
Thus one can see that there are 2 separate axes forming a cross (appropriately): one axis is religious/secular and the other axis is lay/clerical.
One might be a secular cleric or a religious one. Equally one might be a religious layman or a secular layman. It was not just the lay brothers who were not clerics in a monastery. Traditionally, most choir monks were not priests or, often enough, even clerics.
Most people today are in the first quartile - the secular laity.
The idea that there must be a wall of separation between the secular laity, on the one hand, and the religious and clerical, on the other is as un-Catholic as a "wall of separation" between Church and State in a Catholic society.
But this has become common in our time.
The result is that it is a common occurrence for people to confuse the clerical with the religious and the lay with the secular whereas they are not the same at all.
Thus the expression "lay clerk", sometimes used to describe a layman acting in clerical roles like acolytes, is technically a misnomer. It is like saying something is both black and white at the same time. But it is an understandable misnomer.
The Blessed Virgin and Queen of Heaven fulfilled the highest vocation most fully and became, by God's power and grace, the highest of all creatures, higher even than the Angels themselves, the very Seraphim and Cherubim and certainly higher than any cleric, priest, archbishop, cardinal or pope. She is higher in heaven than the Apostles - higher than either St Peter or St Paul, and that by a very long way.
She is the most perfect of all models of the Christian life, followed some distance below, by those other laymen, her husband, St Joseph, and her cousin, St John the Baptist.
St John the Baptist came from the priestly line of Levi (his father, Zachary, being a priest of the Temple) but John himself was not a priest, either of the Old or the New Covenant.
St Joseph came of the line of Judah, the line of kings, and was, himself, tradition tells us, the true Prince of Judah and King of Israel, and his divine foster-Son was thus also, by inheritance and succession, the true King of the Jews, both in the flesh (through both His parents) and spiritually, as the Son of God.
The clericalists among us would do well to remember all of this!