The word “vocation” has been diluted. Before the sixteenth century, “vocation” had an exclusively sacramental sense. But, as Max Weber points out in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, the Lutheran and Calvinist dissolution of monastic and priestly orders gave rise to its modern sense of “occupation” or “profession.”
What is the difference between them and a vocation? You can quit a job or switch careers. Not so with the priesthood, religious life, or marriage. Tu es sacerdos in aeternum. Quod Deus coniunxit, homo non separet.
Today the Church is facing a vocational crisis of historic proportions. There is both a critical lack of priests and religious and a depressingly high number of unmarried Catholics. In the face of this trial, the response should be to find the root cause and face it with prayer and pastoral ministry.
Instead, Catholics have moved the vocational goalposts. Now we have a third vocation—the “single life.” You can feel this call for as long or as briefly as you like; it’s a convenient theological innovation that fits modern lifestyles perfectly.
I have found it impossible to track down the origins of this vocation. It was an unknown category for most of Church history. There have always been Catholics who do not take vows of either kind, but nobody in the institutional Church would have considered their situation a calling from God. Now, the “vocation to the single life” is plastered on many diocesan websites, promoted in vocation talks, and offered as a consolation prize to unwilling singles.
The expedient elevation of single life to an institutional vocational option, equal to the traditional vocations of marriage and religious life, is only furthering the vocations crisis. And it does a disservice to Catholics discerning their life’s vocation.
Catholic vocations include permanent vows and the witness of the Church. The calling of God is answered, publicly and irrevocably, with a commitment that accords with its solemnity.
The single life, on the other hand, is by nature unstructured and individualistic. The only rules that govern Catholic singles are the same rules that govern all Catholics. The pseudo-monasticism of lay singles communities and the pseudo-vows of certain lay missionary movements betray their unspoken need for institutional commitment.
Would-be monastic orders must offer a distinctive charism, rule, and vows to gain official Church sanction. All married Catholics must, as part of their wedding vows, promise to accept and educate children, and remain faithful to their spouse. Singles, on the other hand, are inherently free to abandon their “vocation” at any time and need not embrace a particular purpose or charism.
While some celebrate this lack of rule and charism, highlighting singles’ extra time for prayer, study, or evangelization, we need to question whether the lack of obligations is actually in accord with the plan of creation. After all, God determined that it was not good for Adam to be alone. And the Church enforces the obligations for a reason.
In her wisdom, the Church ordered both marriage and religious life to be familial and communal. They are permanent in order to establish the individual as an integral member of a family, so that the person’s individual desires and motivations must submit in loving sacrifice to the good of the whole community. Married couples are called to be physically and spiritually father and mother—even those who struggle with infertility, whose fatherhood and motherhood are made manifest by desire and an openness to God. Priests are called to fatherhood over their parishes. Monastics live in community, like a family, even hermits, who are called out from monasteries or eventually establish new ones.
John Paul II reminds us in Familiaris Consortio that the marital sacrament establishes a domestic church: “In this way, while the Christian family is a fruit and sign of the supernatural fecundity of the Church, it stands also as a symbol, witness and participant of the Church’s motherhood.” The “vocations” of singles do not rise to an ecclesiological level. Nor can they participate in the universal priesthood as concretely as the family does. As John Paul adds, “The Christian family too is part of this priestly people which is the Church.”
Priestly and religious vocations are familial; the married vocation is priestly. What about singlehood? It clearly has its place as a temporary state in anticipation of vocational fullness. In the meantime, singles are fully members of the body of Christ, baptized and sustained by the sacraments. They are called to share the gospel and love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. But, in the theological sense, calling this state a “vocation” is misleading and harmful.
There are, in my experience, two types of Catholic singles. There are the willing singles, those who seem to have bought in to the idea that their status is a valid vocation that can be maintained as long as it seems fit. There are also the unwilling, struggling singles. For a long time, I was the latter, and my heart still remembers the bitter burden of this status.
Many unwilling singles, being told they are in a vocation, struggle with feelings of resentment, guilt, and frustration. They do not want to be single. They feel that something is missing. Being single does not feel like a vocation so much as spinning their wheels. If an engaged couple were facing their impending vocation with such feelings, nobody would expect them to go through with it. If a seminarian or novice experienced such angst, their vocations director would suggest that this was not their calling.
Nobody called to marriage or religious life has their vocation forced upon them against their free will and deliberate, active choice. But many unwilling singles feel the need to force themselves to be content because they cannot have the vocation they really want. This is not a vocation, it’s a tragedy—often caused by modern life’s realities such as student debt or mental health. Modern isolation and lack of interest in commitment has robbed many single people of potential spouses. I remember wanting to scream at those who tried to console me in my loneliness that maybe I should stop looking for a spouse because I might be called to single life. Unwilling singles are, through no fault of their own, victims of the vocations crisis.
As for willing singles, too many balk at the wise requirements the Church used to insist upon. Career, personal time, and interests must take a backseat to obedience, self-sacrifice, and stability. Too many willing singles view vocation as a sort of spiritualized profession, namely, the activity they already do, offered to God. But that is not how the Church traditionally defines vocation. This is not to say that we are not called to use our talents, but, ideally, we are to use our talents within our vocation. Our talents are not themselves our vocation.
The attitude that single life is a vocation has stopped many willing singles from the radical commitment of a true vocation. If you are already doing God’s will through your career, there is very little urgency to discover which of the two other vocations you should choose to “limit” yourself. You can take as long as you like, or never commit at all, since you are already living out a vocation equal in measure and stature to the other two.
The Church should pray for its single members. The Church should encourage and love its single members. But the Church must stop touting a new, normative vocation called single life.
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