Busted Halo

Most dating and relationships books, columns and shows won’t go near issues of faith. Author, professor and speaker Dr. Christine B. Whelan assumes faith has some role, and tackles even the toughest questions.

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December 6th, 2010

Catholic Singles

Is there such thing as a vocation to be single in the Church?



Recently, Jill, 29, a long-time Busted Halo reader finishing up her medical school residency, emailed me to ask if there is such a thing as a vocation to be single in the Catholic Church. She’s open to a relationship — indeed, she longs to meet the right man and marry — but because she is busy with work, and struggles with her weight, she’s resigned to being single for a while. As she mused over her situation, she wondered whether God might actually be calling her to be single. She writes:

I sorta-sincerely considered being a nun earlier in my life and felt that wasn’t right for me. I’ve never even remotely considered being single (I’ve considered the possibility I may find myself single in later life, but not out of an active choice or perceived calling). I’m curious if other people pray about that option as much as they would about marriage or the religious life. I can’t recall a priest ever recommending that. And there’s no sacrament for single people!

So do people really say, “I’m meant to be single” for whatever reason, and then go about creating a life for themselves as singles? Does the Catholic Church really encourage that?

— Jill                

At my church in Pittsburgh, among petitions for the parishioners to pray for faithful marriages and a dedicated deaconate, there is a part where we pray for folks to lead an “exemplary single life.” I’d always wondered about this myself. While I’ve written columns about the challenges of being single within the Catholic Church, I was never quite clear on whether there is a particular calling for singles to remain single — but not take holy orders of any kind — to better serve God.

There is a National Catholic Singles Conference , and there are online prayers specifically for the “single vocation” and press releases about events geared toward those embracing a “single lay vocation.” Is being single a vocation?

Being single is a state in life, not a vocation. Being single can be support for your vocation to follow God’s call to you to help others, to do good works, etc., but it is not a vocation in and of itself. — Dr. Theresa Notare, USCCB

I posed this question to Dr. Theresa Notare, Assistant Director of the Natural Family Planning Program at the Secretariat for Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the quick answer is no: Being single is a state in life, not a vocation. Being single can be support for your vocation to follow God’s call to you to help others, to do good works, etc., but it is not a vocation in and of itself.

Marriage, Dr. Notare explains, is an example of a vocation that requires a precise state of life. “Marriage is the vocation that a man and a woman are given by God to form a unique communion of persons in service of love and life. Only a man and a woman can enter marriage — together. One cannot enter into this vocation ‘on your own!’ Obviously, the two people have to meet each other first and then, in getting to know each other, also discern if God is calling them to marry each other,” she says, adding “It is important to remember that a person can ‘hope for’ or ‘be open to’ marriage, but it cannot be lived until one finds his/her spouse-to-be.”

OK. So, if being single isn’t a vocation or a particular calling in the Catholic Church, does that mean that singles are the leftovers and forgotten ones? Not at all, says CatholicMatch.com writer Mary Beth Bonacci. Being single means that God is asking you to follow a different path, one that is uniquely your own.

“God writes straight with crooked lines. He meets us where we are. When we turn our lives over to Him, he creates something beautiful — beyond our wildest expectations,” she says. “As singles, we’re more aware that real fulfillment comes from giving. The absence of built-in gifts in our lives motivates us to move outside of ourselves and to reach out in love to those around us.”

Jill says that it’s this time of the year — around the holidays — that she feels the most acutely alone, “like God has forgotten about me,” and while she knows she’d be fine if she remained single for the rest of her life, “I really hope I meet the right person and fall in love. It’s actually really hard to be single in some ways. And who doesn’t want their own love story?”

Dr. Notare says she’d advise singles like Jill, who have also considered taking vows of celibacy, to develop a mature self-knowledge through prayer as a way to figure out the best path forward. “In other words, know your gifts, emotions, intellectual abilities, interests and deepest sins,” she says. “Also spend time thinking about marriage, vowed celibacy, consecrated life or non-consecrated life. Read, study, talk to knowledgeable people — gather information for personal reflection. Ask yourself, ‘In which of these structures can your gifts be best used?’ Pray about it.”

Statistical good news

But I’d also add one more bit of statistical good news for those smart singles who would like to marry: At 29 and finishing up a medical residency, Jill is among the SWANS — a “Strong Woman Achiever, No Spouse” who is actually more likely to get married in the next 10 years than a woman with less education and career success. According to current population survey data that I used in my book Marry Smart, Jill has a 75 percent chance of walking down the aisle in the next decade if marriage is her goal — and that should be good news to take into the holiday season for all singles hoping to meet their match.

Being single may not be an official vocation within the Church, but singles have many gifts to offer in the service of God and others. (Check off the box of single role models in the Church.) Just as the Catholic Church could do a better job providing opportunities for young adults to meet, the Church must continue to take strides to embrace unmarried lay people and help everyone achieve their calling regardless of their state in life.

Want more advice about how to deflect those pestering relatives asking about your love life — and quell your own anxieties about being single this holiday season? Check out some of my previous columns packed with useful tips.

And let me know your thoughts! How have you lived out your calling to do God’s work — in all your life states? If you’re a long-time single Catholic, how do you feel about the Church not recognizing your life state as a vocation? Would you like the Church to acknowledge a specific vocation for singles? Share your comments below!

The Author : Christine B. Whelan
Dr. Christine B. Whelan is an author, professor and speaker. She and her husband, Peter, and their dictator cats, Chairman Meow and Evita Purron, live in Pittsburgh. Her book "Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women" is available in stores or at the Halo Store.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Lea S.

    With all due respect, Dr. Notare is incorrect. There is indeed a vocation for the single life, but it is more difficult to find information about it as it tends to be rare.

    While growing up (I am 25) I attended many retreats given by sisters of the Schoenstatt movement. Some of these were vocation retreats, designed to help young people discern what their calling in life might be. They always included a panel discussion with people from each of the three (yes, three) vocations: single, married, and religious. At the last vocation retreat I attended the single life was represented by a woman in her fifties who talked very frankly about what lead her to her vocation. It was not merely because she couldn’t find anyone interested in her–in fact, she had had a chance to marry but discovered that she was contented with her independence. It’s been a blessed way of life for her and, as it turns out, for her family. When her brother’s wife died, leaving him to raise their children alone, she was easily able to step in and help. She now leads a happy, busy life, and has become very good at woodworking! Her woodworking skills have helped out the sisters at this particular retreat center quite a few times.

    Over the years what I’ve gathered at these retreats is that the single life, as a vocation, is pretty rare but does exist, and that single people are a great help to and blessing for the Church.

  • Stan

    I love how Jackie Francios describes the Ache of Singlehood http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=myIfGdNt1AY
    Check it out.

  • missy

    jill i too understand you fully im 32 never married never had a serious relationship with a man before BUT i dont blame God or feel unwanted or unattractive. i dont think all the good ones are gay or married lol i simply think like i said in my last post that whomever comes into our lives as we are getting involved in church,school,work,etc we have a choice as to whom we meet and where it will go. i strongly believe and pray that you and all of us other singles will find the one someday but untill that time i recommend training aka dating. giving men even outside the faith i know is risky but you never know who’ll you’ll love or meet:) if 2 people love/like each other and wanna be together that is all that matters.no one is gonna burn in hell for loving someone outside the faith. yes it will be harder b/c of the differences but that shouldnt be our only focus people are more than what they believe in.. but untill you meet the one God is gonna give you that is of the faith i strongly recommend that you get out there and see whats in store.

  • missy

    i dont think God has ever or will ever call anyone to be single i think it is simply up to the person if they wanna be or not. God is all about relationships so much so that he asks us to be in a relationship with him but not in a dating/married way. its unhealthy to stay single forever.but also unhealthy to be obsessed with it. i feel God will be happy for you if you are single or not.if thats what you want to live alone then go ahead i surely do not feel at all God desires or calls anyone to be single i think many of us think that when we are getting older and alone and get fearful not knowing the options we have in life. God sets before us many blessings we sometimes dont see.

  • Kate

    I just had to respond to James’ comment on events for singles and the gaping age discrepancy (discrimination?). I have noticed the same thing in my area. Either the singles groups are for those in their 20s to 35, or for those 40 and over. I love that. So, those of us over 35, but not yet 40, have to wander in the proverbial desert until we are “eligible” to join the 40+ group? Surreal.

  • Krystyn

    Jill – I was particularly interested in your second post. I’m glad that the Holy Spirit used me for the glory of God. I will pray for you.

    I understand what it is to feel stuck – believe me. Opening my heart is still an ongoing process and thankfully God is supremely patient.

    I admire your courage to get up and try again. I lately heard the homily of a Cardinal on his 80th birthday – he reminded me (and all those present) that what matters to God is that we keep trying. We are human – failure is part of our nature, thanks to original sin. But if we embrace humility and keep trying, there is no limit to God’s goodness & love for us.

    The goal is heaven. The vocation is God’s – it’s His gift to us. We have to be willing to risk receiving it because God is full of surprises and sometimes His sense of humor can just knock you on your rear.

    Merry Christmas to all! Let us pray for each other and continue to adventure into life with a deep sense of love, self-giving and HOPE.

  • Jill

    Hi all –
    I’m the Jill who asked the question. I’m glad to know that so many of you also remember hearing priests and other religious persons refer to singleness as a vocation – that was pretty standard for me growing up in Catholic grade and high school. My question sorta stemmed from a sense of “well when do people decide that’s their calling” versus continue to keep part of their heart open in case they meet the right person? And for the record, I don’t think I’m destined to loneliness just because I’m turning 30, but when you’ve never been in a relationship it gets harder and harder to picture it happening. I don’t think I’m called to be single, I was just wondering the perspective of those that do.

    Krystyn you raise a good point – am I just scared? I hope I’d have a few more years before someone would look at me and say I “have” to make a decision. But from my perspective, I feel stuck. I’ve been open to the call to become religious and I haven’t heard it. I can’t make Mr. Right appear out of thin air no matter how hard I try, so what if he just never comes around? Or lives in Siberia, which I don’t ever plan on visiting? I’m sure some single people are selfish, but I think a lot of really quite sad in feeling truly that “God has forgotten about me.”

    I definitely agree with James that the Church really struggles with making older singles feel comfortable and using their unique gifts effectively. I too have noted the multitude of activities for married couples and the prayers we offer up every week for their struggles. Marriage is certainly one of the hardest things I can think of entering into. I would argue I have a profound need for some of those prayers to for some of the things I struggle with in “still being single,” including, especially as a woman, feeling like I don’t fit into the Catholic expectation of nurturing mother figure.

    Since reading some of the past columns that Christine linked to, I have gotten my butt out more recently and I guess am going to just try and enjoy being single rather than just being single. This may only last another week or so, but I’ll give it a shot!

    Thanks to all for your input. This was profoundly helpful and interesting to me!

  • Brian

    Isn’t our primary vocation as a baptized child of God? In that moment we are claimed by Christ to enter into his ministry as priest prophet and king. I think we begin living out our vocational lives at this very instant, when God absolves and claims us as members of his holy family. I also agree with an earlier post that all the catechesis on vocations that I received in Catholic grade school, high School and college all discussed the importance of some people being called to live the simple life. I suppose I should do some digging to back that up.

  • Helen Lee

    I’m a little bit torn on this issue. On the one hand, something is only a vocation insofar as it is freely and actively chosen. That is, a person lives out their vocation when they hear the call of God and answer that call. This is why, in considering the validity of marriages, marriage tribunals always look very closely at the steps leading up to the marriage. Was it a planned event, where everyone knew what they were getting in to? Or was it a drunken mistake in Vegas? Was it free of outside pressures? Or was it a shotgun wedding?

    Similarly, single life cannot be a “vocation” if it is just the state one happens to find oneself in after many years of fruitless searching. It is not a vocation unless the individual has felt the call of God, and chosen to answer it deliberately. Furthermore, one would have to enter into single life with every intention of permanently remaining single in order for this to be considered a vocation. But this is tricky because, as there are no vows associated with being single (key), the only thing tying the individual to this state should “the one” come along is something that holds as much weight as a New Year’s Resolution.

    That said, I do think there are some people called to single, celibate life. I’ve often considered the possibility (not necessarily for myself) of one committing to celibacy in solidarity with a particular group (namely gay people, who are asked to remain celibate). I think this possibility is really interesting, but I’ve never actually heard of it being done. There are people who may be willing and able and even called to be celibate, who do not necessarily feel called to religious life (maybe they feel they have been given certain talents from God that they are meant to pursue outside of religious life).

    The closest thing I can find that meets this description is the Consecrated Virgin (which draws from Judaic tradition and has been around since the inception of the Church), who publicly lives a life of virginity, but independent of a religious order. They live “in the world” as opposed to a religious who lives apart from the world. However it seems to be limited to women.

    That said, there’s plenty of room in the New Testament for unordained celibacy. In fact, celibacy is held as an ideal, and remained such an ideal for the first several hundred years of Christianity.

    I would caution all those considering this single “vocation” to really examine themselves. If you are able to accept the marriage vocation (this would include a healthy sex drive and the capacity to commit to another), but reject it because you are tired of searching, or because of selfish reasons (you need more time for your career, you don’t think you’re ready to settle down, you don’t want to be put in a cage), then your single-ness is not a vocation; it’s a rejection of God’s call – “He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.”

  • James

    Intentionally or not, the church makes sure that singles older than, say, 35 are not supposed to be that way. They set up events that are for “single Catholics ages 18 to 32” or whatever the span they prefer, and they set up events for married people, but there are few retreats or other events for simply anybody. To attend many things, you have to be single below a certain age, or married, or you’re not supposed to come. I’ve known middle-aged single people who crash World Youth Day because they are demographically categorized out of most events the church and the parishes hold.

    You hear all your life that “being single is also a vocation” or that if it’s God’s will it must be some kind of religious state. However, nobody can ever explain how being a single layperson can be of service to God. You wind up with the impression that Catholics say this just to keep single people from feeling like losers.

    What they don’t seem to realize is that single people can be of special service to the church and to humanity largely because being single frees up their time. Secondly, without a family to worry about, single people can take many types of risks in the service of God and humanity that others are not free to take.

  • Krystyn

    I am not yet convinced that a vocation to the single life exists in the Church. There is certainly no sin inherent in living the single life. However, especially in my recent review of some of the varied works of the late Holy Father John Paul II, he teaches that we can only fully live our humanity through self-giving. Certainly single people can give freely of themselves in many ways. However, I believe that in our culture fear and selfishness often enter into even the most seemingly innocent activities.

    Is it that one truly feels a call to live as a single person or is there the fear of failure in giving oneself to another person or in giving oneself fully to Christ and His Church?

    Certainly we are all called to be saints – to be heroes and heroines of virtue. Must we not sometimes leap into unchartered territory? Must we not relinquish all of our own plans to allow Christ to be fully at work in us? If one can feel truly that he or she is totally open to the will of God and has not had the experience of being called to the married or religious life, then perhaps it is safe to assume a calling to the single life. And certainly I can only rely on my own experience.

    Being called only to live the gift of each day so as to glorify and serve God alone, I am still unaware of my own vocation. God in His Goodness has shown me many of my weaknesses and defects, which He asks me to yield to Him as well. I choose to move forward without knowing His will for me. And choosing to do so does not require me to “decide” my vocation. I desire to always be open to what God wills for my life. There are no timelines with God – no due dates. A vocation is an unexpected gift that is given when God knows we are most open to accepting it.

    I invite my fellow young Catholics not to shut the door on any vocation. Today’s state of life can pass as quickly as day passes into night. Let us be vigilant, for we know now the day nor the hour when the Lord shall call us into a particular path of service.

  • Brandon

    I don’t know by what authority Dr. Notare says that the single life is not a vocation but I don’t think that is official church teaching. Everything I have ever heard about vocations have included religous life (priests, sisters,brothers, etc.), married life, and single life. People can have a vocation to any of these things. There is no specific sacrament to the single life but the same can be said for sisters or brothers.
    I would agree however that the Church needs to do more for single Catholics and to recognize the gifts that single people bring.

  • sandie

    I agree that singleness should be considered a vocation.If there are many gifts that come with being single but then it is boldly declared a non-vocation, its like saying no matter what you do if you are single you have not done much with your life.That makes life very difficult and conficting for a single person that has genuinely looked into themselves and found they are not called to the other vocations or that they can simply not find the right partner to enter into a marriage covenant with(because that happens :-)).

  • Marisa

    Nothing unholy about singlehood… it worked for Jesus!

  • Beth

    Those who find themselves single are constantly challenged to think beyond the stereotypes and myths that exist in our society (that marriage is ‚Äúnormal‚Äù and life begins when you walk down the aisle.) I think when we embrace the single life, we discover a deep sense of freedom, fulfilling relationships, unique opportunities for work and service, and ample space for God. Although the church may not recognize the single life as a Vocation (with a capital-V), there is much to be gained by living out our single years with a sense of vocation (lowercase-v). How are we responding to God’s call and living out that call with a sense of purpose, commitment, and prayer? I’ve been giving these questions about the single life a lot of thought, and I’ve actually started writing a book about it. You can read more here:
    http://onesinglelife.wordpress.com/ Thanks Christine for inviting us to think about this!

  • Steve

    Absolutely there is a vocation to be single. I am a hermit, and that is almost always a single person. To be single is not a sin, and never let anyone tell you, or imply that it is. Offer yourself to God “as you are,” not as society thinks you should be.

  • Margaret

    Christine delivered a tough answer with an upbeat voice, yet I felt crushed at the end of the column. The answer strikes me as archaic thinking or semantic foolery.
    I stand with Lynn and Vickie in their sense that there’s more to this question than what the Church has offered thus far!

  • Christine

    I hear you, ladies! Thanks for your comments, and here’s to making this a topic of more discussion within the Church.

  • Vickie

    I agree with Lynn. And I am sure that there are many Church leaders who agree with Lynn and me. As briefly defined in the Catechism, a vocation is a calling in this life and after. “God created the human person to love and serve him” No where in this definition does it say God created the couple (married, religious, or priest) to serve him, but he created a human being, an individual, a person, to serve him. And we can serve him as a married, religious, consecrated, ordained and single person. There are many reasons a person could be single – by choice, or by circumstances. There could be a delay in marriage to pursue an education or career; a person may be divorced or separated; still dating or waiting for the right partner; or in some urban communities, there are 2-3 women for every man, and thus for these women marriage may not be an option. “Singleness” is a topic, I feel, that makes Catholic Church uneasy, primarily because it hasn’t developed a good working theology for its unmarried members and because more people remain single longer or for life than in previous decades. Hopefully, in the future, especially with the increasing numbers of single people within its membership, the Church will meet and develop a compassionate and realistic statement for how a single person can best live her or his vocation as just that: single.

  • Lynn

    I do think the church should acknowledge singleness as a vocation. I am sure God calls some people to that path and the church should definitely recognize that.

    • http://twitter.com/kccatechist Greg Araujo

      I think he calls them to be single within in the orders. I been reading some of the previous posts and it seems many are not willing to commit to a religious vocation because they are too tied to the secular world. It reminds me of the rich man that wished to know how to enter the kingdom of God, yet when he found out he would have lose all his worldly possessions he went away sad. The religious orders need good people now and we shouldn’t deny the just and loving God who wishes us to follow him.

      • Patty

        I highly recommend joining a third order I am 46 and single in San Francisco and I find it there is a shortage of single Catholic man in San Francisco however I don’t want to move away because all my friends relatives are here so I decided and I’m in discernment to join the third order most likely I will join the Franciscans that gives you a sense of community and it also gives you a sense of direction I highly recommend it

      • Weeorphan

        I’m 72 and have been committed to chaste celibacy since the age of 22. I challenge anyone to affirm mine is not a vocation, in sacrificial devotions possibly dwarfing the avowed.

        It seems to me the real reason the Church has failed to acknowledge the single vocation is mostly economic. Priests, monks and nuns are valuable assets of free, talented labor; while married folks supply new (eventually due-paying) members. Follow the money for answers.

        The single-state laity is not contracted in a tangible, countable way through vows, or with marriage/birth certificates. It’s a serious flaw of the Church … not recognizing its devoted, long-term single laity, but a fact of life.Lament how Church is a business, but get over it.

        Put your shoulders to the wheel. Be assured God compensates in ways not worldly seen, but inward felt.

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