An error regarding vocations has become common among Catholics. Specifically, people have begun claiming there exists a call to the single life apart from a religious vocation. While there is no evidence of this “new” vocation in the Magisterium of the Church, it has persisted in its growth and usage due to the increasing number of unmarried Catholics and single adults that exist in society today.
In her article, “There Is No Vocation to the ‘Single Life,” Mary Cuff describes two groups of singles: willing and unwilling. The willing single, fine with their status, continues in it for as long as they see fit. The unwilling single, however, struggles with this condition and does not desire to be single. Most likely, it would be presumed, the latter person has not discerned a vocation to the religious life either.
I, too, was an unwilling single. I met and married my husband at the age of 42. Recognizing that something bigger was going on, I realized that the large number of single adults, inclusive of myself, were suffering from an anomaly known as “prolonged singleness,” rather than the establishment of a new vocation.
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Prolonged singleness is when a person is single beyond the point one wants or desires to be and/or longer than God created us to remain so.
Due to the delay of marriage for education and/or financial reasons, the pervasiveness of premarital sex, and the breakdown of male-female relationships, prolonged singleness is becoming more prevalent among individuals in the younger generations. Previously, most older singles usually struggled to sustain a relationship that moved toward the altar due to interpersonal or past relationship issues. Now, prolonged singleness is established as a modern phenomenon.
I believe we, as the Church, can offer singles hope and help rather than a false sense of vocation that does not genuinely exist. The answer begins by looking to the teachings of the Church for true answers regarding marriage and singleness.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) tells us in §1603:
“The intimate community of life and love which constitutes the married state has been established by the Creator and endowed by him with its own proper laws. …God himself is the author of marriage.” The vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator. Marriage is not a purely human institution despite the many variations it may have undergone through the centuries in different cultures, social structures, and spiritual attitudes. These differences should not cause us to forget its common and permanent characteristics. Although the dignity of this institution is not transparent everywhere with the same clarity, some sense of the greatness of the matrimonial union exists in all cultures. “The well-being of the individual person and of both human and Christian society is closely bound up with the healthy state of conjugal and family life.” (emphasis added)
Thus, men and women are born with the vocation to marriage inscribed in their hearts from God. This aligns with the Genesis creation account wherein God created man and woman within a primordial state of marriage:
Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.’ God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them. The LORD God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a suitable partner for him.’ (Genesis 1:26a-27, 2:18)
God created man and woman in this primordial state of marriage prior to the first sin of disobedience committed by our original parents, Adam and Eve. Therefore, this calling to marriage is written into the very nature of all humans, just like the Catechism states, as it was part of God’s creative design for man.
Then original sin entered, and nothing was left untouched. Not marriage and not our vocation to marry.
We see Jesus address the issue of singleness in the Gospel of Matthew. While curing the great multitudes and being tested by some Pharisees regarding the Mosaic law on divorce, Jesus explained that Moses allowed the Israelites to divorce due to the hardness of their hearts. From the beginning of creation, however, God did not intend for this to be so (Matthew 19:4-9).
Upon hearing this, it was the disciples—not the Pharisees—who became quite frightened and viewed singleness as the better option. In response, Jesus articulates the three acceptable single states now that we are living in a fallen world:
His disciples said to him, ‘If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.’ He answered, ‘Not all can accept this word, but only those to whom that is granted. Some are incapable of marriage because they are born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.’ (Matthew 19:10-12)
Thus, Jesus advised His disciples that singleness is only for those who are called to it. And this calling to the celibate life is when you forsake the “great good of marriage,” for the kingdom of heaven:
From the very beginning of the Church there have been men and women who have renounced the great good of marriage to follow the Lamb wherever he goes, to be intent on the things of the Lord, to seek to please him, and to go out to meet the Bridegroom who is coming. Christ himself has invited certain persons to follow him in his way of life, of which he remains the model. (CCC §1618)
Jesus is quite specific in His response to His disciples: Fear of commitment and/or the standard of indissolubility of the marital relationship is not ample grounds to avoid marriage. Not all can accept the single life except those to whom it is granted…if you can undertake it, then you should do so. Why is it so hard to accept the single life? Because it means a celibate life and greater liberty for service of God and His kingdom. (See Haydock’s Commentary, Matthew 19:11.)
Jesus confirms that this is the only reason one would willingly forsake the vocation to marriage that has been “written in the very nature of man and woman as they come from the hand of the Creator” (CCC §1603). This is quite different than the cohort of adults we see today living in prolonged singleness, whether by choice or not.
The first and second categories of singleness that Jesus referenced are truly a result of living in a fallen world: people who are incapable of marriage because they were either born so or were made so by others. Neither condition existed in the beginning, and both are a result of sin entering the world.
Prolonged singleness, for those who desire a spouse and believe they are called to marriage, is a painful trial. This is not a vocation to singleness as some folks now mistakenly say. It is a condition brought on by the actions of others, as stated by Jesus. It may also include one’s response to the sin perpetrated against him or her or it could be the culture of the society the person is living in. All these variables, plus others, can merge to keep a person single.
The good news is that, with the help of Jesus Christ, prolonged singleness can be overcome. A good place to start is by offering singles the fullness of truth that is part of the Gospel and our heritage as Catholics, which is that God can take a life beyond salvation. God can help all of us with so many areas of our lives, even helping singles to get married. After all, He is the author of marriage and it reflects His image to the world around us.
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