Saturday, October 30, 2010

Is single life a vocation?

I recently exhorted a group of young adults to be open to discovering their vocations (see the previous post--it's from a modified homily, actually). I specifically mentioned priesthood, marriage, consecrated religious life.

The next morning I received a very thoughtful, fair, and clear email from a young adult at the Newman Center in which she expressed the following concerns, which my homily had brought up by omission. She wrote (by the way, she gave me permission to use excepts) that I "neglected one other vocational state: Single, just single; i.e., not called to marriage and not called to be a religious brother or sister, or third order whatever."

In her opinion, Catholic singles are the "forgotten vocation."

She went on to explain that, in her view, "the great majority of Catholics view all single people as in tension; i.e., trying to decide whether to choose the married life or to choose the priesthood/religious life."

And more, that "It never occurs to them that a single man or women might not be trying to decide anything. They’ve already chosen to be single."

The bottom line for my friendly and concerned interlocutor seems to be expressed when she writes: "it would be nice if the Catholic community at large, both priests and laity, recognized that the unconsecrated, unattached single life is a legitimate vocation too."

How would you respond to these comments? Can single life be dubbed a "vocation" in the same way as marriage, priesthood, and consecrated life?

Here's three elements of a good response.

1) Baptism is the fundamental "vocation" of each Christian, a consecration to be priest, prophet, and king through union with Christ. It is has a nuptial significance already, oriented as it is to completion (i.e., full initiation) by Holy Communion. From this perspective, there is no such thing as an "unattached" or "single" Christian.

This means priests and consecrated religious are not a special "caste" of those called to holiness and lay people are the lowly second-class citizens called to spiritual mediocrity. Why not? Because they are all baptized, and therefore consecrated to God.

Nonetheless, priesthood and marriage constitute two unique consecrations at the service of Communion in the Church. Far from downplaying baptismal dignity, these actually highlight it in specific ways.

2) To remain unmarried for the Lord is, in some sense, preferable and normative, in a symbolic though not statistical way. Recall that St Paul says in I Cor 34: "An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord's affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit." So in a way my friend is dead right: no one should be shocked at the unmarried status of Christian women, assuming that her virginity helps her to be concerned about the Lord's affairs, i.e., as we would say, living out her baptismal promises.

This "preferable" or "normative" dimension of Christian virginity we see in St Paul does not mean that a majority of Christians are to remain unmarried; rather, it points to the profound and thorough "texture" of baptismal, and in fact all authentic Christian, spirituality. Hey, we belong to the Lord, married or unmarried. Once in awhile I like to remind people of the radicality of Jesus Christ by saying something like, "If you've met Jesus Christ, how can you possibly think about any body else?" It gets the point across...even if it's totally unnuanced. All this being said, I'd gently offer one corrective to my emailing friend:

3) Virginity, to be properly ordered "to the Lord," benefits greatly from, and perhaps is ordered to, an ecclesial form.

I don't want to sell short the spontaneous reactions that my friend received from average Catholics. She wrote: "it would be nice if the Catholic community at large, both priests and laity, recognized that the unconsecrated, unattached single life is a legitimate vocation too."

Would it be nice? Perhaps what causes some hesitation in Catholics in general toward easy recognition that the unattached single life is a vocation is just that--its unattached. Sure, it's "attached" to Jesus, interiorly, spiritually. But as Catholics we are used to (rightly, I think) the invisible becoming visible, the interior becoming exterior. If you are attached to Jesus, you want to show it--and our instinct is to show it (the attachment to Christ) in some form in the Church.

The Church document which addresses this is Vita Consecrata. It says in paragraph 7:

7. It is a source of joy and hope to witness in our time a new flowering of the ancient Order of Virgins, known in Christian communities ever since apostolic times. Consecrated by the diocesan Bishop, these women acquire a particular link with the Church, which they are committed to serve while remaining in the world. Either alone or in association with others, they constitute a special eschatological image of the Heavenly Bride and of the life to come when the Church will at last fully live her love for Christ the Bridegroom.

If priests or lay people raise eyebrows at the validity of "single vocations," perhaps it is because they simply don't see the "witness" aspect, linked as it is to the public, ecclesial consecration of the diocesan Bishop. Note that this allows the single woman to "acquire a particular link with the Church, which they are committed to serve...." This is huge. It resolves the tension, to some degree. Because after all, as Pope JP II reminded us, every man is called to be a husband and father and every woman a wife and mother, physically, spiritually, or both. Everyone is called to love, to "lay down their lives for their friends." This requires commitment; it demands attachment.

Granted, we can always grow in our appreciation for the dignity of any baptized person, and be sensitive to those who feel "left out" of more popularly understood forms of consecration. But I wonder if we also need to remind folks who have discerned an authentic call to permanent virginity outside of priesthood and religious life that the Church has a place which may be for them, and that they are not forgotten: the ancient, and now newly growing, Order of Virgins.


  1. I really enjoyed this post-Thank you! I've thought about this quite a bit as I often hear people refer to the vocation of the single life. While I never want those who feel called to being "single" to feel ostracized, I do think you make a wonderful point about making that internal commitment, external. At the heart of every vocation is the gift of self; being "unattached, single" has no authentic gift of self (through vows). I do hope that your explanation can enlighten!

  2. In "Vita Consecrata," as he described the Order of Virgins, John Paul II was describing a particular form of Consecrated Life. The Order of Virgins include those who are consecrated at the hands of the diocesan Bishop according to the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity for a Woman Living in the World. At the moment of her consecration, the virgin is set aside as a sacred person in the Church, imaging in a particular way the nature of the Church herself as Bride of Christ. She is no longer a lay woman - unless one considers as lay those living all of the other forms of consecrated life (monastic, contemplative, apostolic religious, members of secular institutes, diocesan hermits). I write this just in order to point out the distinctive nature of the Order of Virgins as a true form of Consecrated Life. Most of the forms of Consecrated Life are lived as religious (in community and apart from the world), but some forms of Consecrated Life are authentically lived in the world, and /or authentically lived individually under the diocesan Bishop.

    Intrinsic to the life of the spouse (the Church as Spouse of Christ, the consecrated man or woman, the married man or woman) is the giving of a complete gift of self! Within consecrated virginity, that gift of self is the giving of one's virginity in body, heart, and mind solely to Christ, forever, and the receiving of a consecration of that gift, making it spiritually fruitful in one's life.

    The two specific vocations of the laity include the married, and the dedicated single person. It is important for our Church to recognize and support the dedicated single person - that person who chooses to remain single, perhaps for the sake of a particularly demanding profession, or for the sake of caring for an infirmed or elderly relative. The dedicated single person has not been called to live a form of Consecrated Life, nor has the person been called to the Ordained Life. It is often a most difficult life to live because the person has not received the particular grace of a consecration or vow in order to live the life. Surely, our Church would support such individuals who generously live the dedicated single life.

    For more information on various vocations in the Catholic Church, and how they fit together, a person might visit

    I hope this is helpful!

    Judith M. Stegman, consecrated virgin
    President, United States Association of Consecrated Virgins

  3. I've been told by older and wiser Catholics than myself that not everyone is called to marriage. There are many faithful people who are never able to get married and yet are not called to the priesthood or religious life. I don't think most people choose to be single but find that Christ sees them fit to be. As a single 26 year old female, I have pondered and prayed on this topic for the past few years. Is there truth to what I've been told?