The Church recognizes marriage, the priesthood, religious life, and the single lay life as definite states of life. It happens, at times, that in the discussion and discernment of vocations the first three of these four dominate, and the single lay life gets placed on the back burner. Vocation websites have pages dedicated to spouses, clergy, and religious, but many lack comparable resources for single laypersons. This is fair enough, since marriage, priesthood, and religious life are the vocations that most are probably called to anyway. However, the Church should give more attention to the single lay life as a lay vocation, especially given the growing number of unmarried lay Catholics.
Since there are now purportedly more singles in the United States (just over fifty percent) than at any time since such statistics were first official recorded in the 1970s, and since we are facing a Western world with an increasingly anti-religious public square, perhaps the time has come for Catholics to more seriously consider the great potential inherent in the single lay state. What are some of the special characteristics of this state? How can committed single laymen and women serve the building up of Christ’s Body? How can the Church support singles in their struggle to live out their vocation?
Before answering these questions in more detail, a review of the nature of the lay state in general is in order. This will help to not only distinguish the single lay state from marriage, but also to show its fundamental difference from religious life (not all single lay people are reluctant monks or nuns!).
According to the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Church, “What specifically characterizes the laity is their secular nature … the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God…. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven.” While, according to the same document, “It is true that those in holy orders can at times be engaged in secular activities, and even have a secular profession,” the Church’s ordained members “are by reason of their particular vocation especially and professedly ordained to the sacred ministry.” The religious life is also defined by a certain separation from the secular sphere: “Similarly, by their state in life, religious give splendid and striking testimony that the world cannot be transformed and offered to God without the spirit of the beatitudes.”
Though the laity are, by virtue of their baptism, “in the world, but not of the world,” they transcend the secular sphere by actually taking part in its affairs, guided by the Gospel. It is by seeking holiness in the midst of worldly activities that the laity fulfill their vocation as laity. This is because, as the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity states, “Christ’s redemptive work, while essentially concerned with the salvation of men, includes also the renewal of the whole temporal order.” This is why “The laity must take up the renewal of the temporal order as their own special obligation. Led by the light of the Gospel and the mind of the Church and motivated by Christian charity, they must act directly and in a definite way in the temporal sphere.”
These are some defining characteristics of the lay state in general. From there the Church further subdivides the lay state into two categories: the married state and the single lay state. In his Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici, Pope St. John Paul II says that “within the lay state diverse ‘vocations’ are given, that is, there are different paths in the spiritual life and the apostolate which are taken by individual members of the lay faithful. In the field of a ‘commonly shared’ lay vocation ‘special’ lay vocations flourish.” Lumen Gentium, after talking about lay people who give themselves more fully to apostolic labors, states that “A like example, but one given in a different way, is that offered by widows and single people, who are able to make great contributions toward holiness and apostolic endeavor in the Church.” Apostolicam Actuositatem refers to the differences inherent in marriage and the single life when it says that the “plan for the spiritual life of the laity should take its particular character from their married or family state or their single or widowed state” (unless a widow plans on remarrying—in which case she is not really in a ‘state’—her widowed existence can be considered a form of the single lay state).
Clearly, then, the single lay state is a real vocation valuable enough to merit special mention by the Church. Shouldn’t it then be more fully explored in our own age?
What are some special characteristics of the single lay state? A natural one is that the single person is, well, single. And by this we mean actually living a freely chosen, dedicated single life. A single life that is open to the possibility of marriage is not really a state of life, but a transitional period in preparation for a state of life. This essay is not talking about the man or woman who is waiting for Mr. or Mrs. Right. Their single life is a transitional stage. We are talking about those who actually choose to live a single life dedicated to God until death. This means a commitment to celibacy.
Still, as can be gathered from the nature of the lay state in general, despite his or her commitment to celibacy the single lay person is still fundamentally different from the religious, because he or she is still defined by a salvific mission which takes place within the secular sphere. Although both the single layperson and the religious are special signs of the coming reign of God and of the passing of temporal goods, the laity show this in a particularly explicit way by living it within the secular sphere and within plain sight of men and women of the world.
A brief note about lay celibacy in the modern world: unfortunately the current state of marriage has made the single life force itself on people almost by necessity. The difficulty of finding a good spouse is one of the hard realities of today. Yet we should certainly not give up on marriage. Given this challenge, the Church should offer more support so that such singles can live a meaningful, fruitful life.
The single lay state is also characterized by a freedom that is at the same time both healthy and dangerous. Because single laymen and women are free from the (good) distractions of marriage, the priesthood, and religious life, they are free to dedicate themselves entirely to whatever line of work God may be calling them to. This freedom also carries with it a certain danger. Because one does not have the commitments and social support of the priest, religious, or spouse, or the grace of a special sacrament, this freedom is more easily open to abuse and to the possibility of leading a selfish, double life.
What is a Single Person to Do?
We move now to the more practical question of what the single lay person can actually do. Given that the single lay person does not have the commitments of the priest, religious, husband or wife means that a huge window of opportunity is opened to a variety of special tasks.
Many lay saints and other singles used the freedom of their state to dedicate themselves wholly to their line of work. St. Giuseppe Moscati spent his life serving people through his medical practice. Blessed Carlos Manuel Rodriguez was heavily engaged in the lay apostolate. C.S. Lewis did not get married until old age, so most of his life was spent as a single layperson. We are well aware of the fruits of his single life as an academic and writer through his many classic books. Many of the world’s greatest composers were single, even if this was not always by their free choice. Even some of the world’s most beloved fictional characters were single people leading fulfilling lives. One thinks, for example, of Bilbo Baggins or Sherlock Holmes.
Much can be done, but this does not obliterate the fact that the single lay state carries with it its own particular challenges. As mentioned above, priests, religious, and married couples have community support, a more or less established schedule (or at least a day filled with things that must be done), and (in the case of priests and married couples) sacramental grace.
The single lay state does not come ready-made with such aids. There is no sacrament to go along with it. The single lay person may not have a community of support on hand, or a structured religious life. As we alluded to before, the single lay state, in a sense, is the most dangerous vocation, and because of the lack of accountability and ready-made structure there are many more opportunities for falling into sinful bad habits. That is why it is critical that the single lay person establish a support system.
Because the single lay person, unless part of a society of some sort, does not have a ready-made prayer and liturgical schedule, establishing a structured prayer life and frequent participation at Mass should be among the top priorities.
He or she also needs a community to turn to. Good Catholic friends are really something of a necessity in this case. The single person can attach him or herself to a parish community, a Catholic community at school, or even join a third order or lay society. Unless the lay person really discerns a call to be a hermit, then this social dimension is critical, or he or she risks falling into unaccountable isolation and eventually being swallowed up in it. Dioceses and parishes should be welcoming to such individuals who are dependent on them as a source of strength and encouragement. A good spiritual director is also a must in order to weave around the numerous pitfalls accompanying such a state.
The single lay life offers great potential for the future of the Church. In this age of singles, the Church should tap into the riches such a vocation presents, and discerning men and women should include it alongside other states of life as a real possibility for serving Christ in the world.
Editor’s note: In the image above appears St. Giuseppe Moscati (r) and Blessed Carlos Manuel Rodriquez.