The Single Life

Many single Catholics know that marriage and family are at the heart of life. Even though Paul advises that the single life is best for those who are called to it (1 Corinthians 7), few are willing to take him up on the offer. However, according to media reports and the U.S. Census Bureau, more American adults are staying single these days, and among them are many Catholics.

Maggie Whelan, a single who is a political and corporate strategy consultant living in the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, but working in Washington, D.C., feels fine about marrying now, but “I have friends who are suicidal because they are 40 plus and not married, and there are no prospects.

“I was engaged and I broke the engagement,” Whelan says. During stints working for the Republican National Committee, the White House, and the Department of Education, “I met tons of people, really interesting people, but self-absorbed. This is a town of big egos.”

It’s also a town with the country’s lowest marriage rate (28 percent).

“I love being single,” she says. “It has huge benefits. I have a nice enough circle of friends, and I don’t lack for an escort. My attitude is: If it’s God’s will for me to be married, I will be.”

The total number of single adults (over 18) in America is 72 million, 42 million of whom have never married. This is double the amount of single adults there were in 1970. One- quarter of all U.S. households are single people. The singleness rate is the highest it’s been in decades, and it’s rising.

“We need to have strong Catholic families, and that will only be accomplished by two solid Catholics meeting each other. So far, that isn’t really happening,” says Anthony Buono, president of Single Catholics Online, based in Princeton, New Jersey. His Web site,, tries to pair orthodox Catholics. “If you don’t meet your future spouse at college,” he says, “you’re looking at your parish and workplace.”

Roughly one-third of the adult population of the United States over the age of 25 is single in a culture that perceives “married with children” as the norm. Other than childless married couples, singles are the country’s fastest-growing demographic group, and in many churches, they make up as much as one-third of the membership.

Who are these singles? In 1991, the City University of New York surveyed nine religious groups, finding that Catholics and Jews had the highest ratio of members who had never married (one out of four). Methodists and Episcopalians had the highest percentage of widows (eleven and ten percent, respectively), and Pentecostals led all groups in the amount of divorced/separated adherents (14 percent). Churches concentrate their resources on the young (and thereby families) for one strategic reason: Survey after survey shows that most conversions come before the age of 18. Thus, the bulk of many churches’ efforts at evangelism goes toward married couples with children, and the bulk of its staff is geared toward the needs of families. Any extra money goes toward hiring of youth ministers. Rare is the church that puts any money toward singles. This leaves singles, mainly the 18-34 age cohort, as the largest unchurched group of all. Many opt out of their churches, feeling they are not needed or wanted.

Catholic singles who are active in their parishes often report little help when it comes to tending to their priorities: first and foremost, finding a mate. It was up to them to attend the right parties or gatherings at which they would perhaps bump into a compatible person. This is a tough assignment, says one Catholic journalist, especially when it comes to finding eligible conservative single Catholics.

“The guys and the women I know have a list,” says Brett Decker, 27, a national political reporter and TV producer at Evans and Novak. “Because they are conservative politically, that cuts out 75 percent of the people our age as candidates. Being Catholic cuts out another 10 percent.”

“Traditional Catholic women are hard to find,” says Ken Wolfe, 25, an aide to Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, especially when part of the requirement is refraining from birth control. And conservatives don’t frequent parties all that much. “The conservatives and traditionalists are a little less social than are the liberals and the moderates,” he says.

The married and the religious orders have their papal advice, but there is very little for the single, except Sons and Daughters of the Light: A Pastoral Plan for Ministry with Young Adults, published in 1997 by the U.S. Catholic Conference. “Young adults” are defined there as people in their late teens, 20s and 30s, leaving out the bulk of the baby boom, the 35-52-year-old range. Singleness gets two paragraphs midway through the document, culminating in this understatement: “Others remain single because they do not find compatible spouses. The experience can be very painful, but it can also lead the single person to a greater level of maturity.”

A few other references to singles pop up in other documents, including the U.S. bishops’ 1992 pastoral on women’s concerns for Church and society. The woman responsible for inserting several paragraphs on the virtue of being single is Susan Muto, executive director of the Epiphany Association in Pittsburgh, whose 1982 book, Celebrating the Single Life: A Spirituality for Single Persons in Today’s World, was one of the few 20th-century guides for single lay Catholics.

“The whole notion of living the single life while in the world is one of the most silent areas of the Church,” she says. “There’s a real dearth of articulation of this question. The assumption is that you’re single by default or in transition.”

In spite of their many prayers, singles often say they are not finding spouses and so are not achieving what they had hoped would be the high point of their life. In short, they are being sidetracked into a calling they do not feel they have.

“God doesn’t always drop a person in your lap,” Buono says. “I see people with their eyes welling up in tears because they can’t fulfill the family calling they received. People take the singleness vocation by default. Although the call is for strong families, the Church offers nothing specific for singles. The Church helps existing Catholic families, but we’re missing a basic building block.”

Often, being in a Church that emphasizes baptisms, childbearing, and even the marriage feast of the Lamb adds to the pain. In spite of well-meaning advice to emulate Mother Teresa, singles instinctively know something’s missing; after all, singleness is not a one-time loss, like missing an airplane connection. It is a lifelong loss: no wedding day (with the accompanying gifts, wedding dress, and photos for decades to come), no sex, no children, no spouse as a companion to guard against loneliness, and no social standing as a married person.

“There’s nothing more debilitating than to define singleness in the terms of ‘I’m not married,’” Muto says. “There is . . . the notion of single by choice, which is a true response to God and not just because you are widowed or separated or did not find the right person. But this is a choice. It is truly a call from God, but you don’t have ceremonies to celebrate it. Mothers don’t put their daughters’ picture in the paper with the proud announcement that they’ve chosen to be single.”

Single Catholic women often report the same thing: Churches are full of women and empty of men. Somewhere in this game of musical chairs, women always seem to be left standing. There are, of course, the exceptions. One is Joan Andrews . Bell, the noted Catholic pro-life activist who yearned for marriage and children, yet spent much of her 30s in and out of jail. She married at the age of 43 to Chris Bell, a man ten years younger than she. “I’m very much at peace with how I may marry or I may not,” Mary Beth Bonacci, a Phoenix-based writer on chastity and singles issues, says. However, she recently published a magazine article, “35 Candles and Still Defiant,” about the travails of the single woman. She says, “I hate it when people say, ‘You’re 35 and not married yet? You’re so beautiful and you’re not married?’ It is the assumption that no one has asked. They don’t understand it really is a choice, because there are people around who are offering. It’s not for the lack of offers; it’s for the lack of the right offers. This man is going to be the father of my children.”

For single women like her, there are few guidelines, due to the recentness of the phenomenon of large numbers of people remaining single into their 30s and 40s. Until the 20th century, people had two vocations: the celibate life in a religious order or marriage. The single life was seen as a transition between childhood and either of the two tracks. Things began to change in the 1950s, when people such as Catholic journalist and sociologist Dorothy Dohen chose “consecrated virginity” as a way to serve Christ without having to take the vows of a nun. The thought was that when a woman consecrates her body to Christ, she is not renouncing marriage; rather, she is announcing her own marriage with Christ.

“Singleness is not a failed vocation,” says Janet Smith, a philosophy professor at the University of Dallas who has never married. “It’s just not as clearly or sharply defined as the other two. There’s always this uncertain openness to it someday, something could hit you over the head and you could be married. You don’t make a vow to it, as your status could change. You have a date in time when you become a religious. You have a date when you become married. You don’t have a date when you become single.”

“Single people need spiritual support,” Bonacci adds. “Most women’s groups are built exclusively around motherhood. I don’t begrudge them that but there also needs to be groups for professional single women for spiritual support. Promise Keepers says a lot about fatherhood but there needs to be groups for single men.”

Her model is Rich Mullins, a contemporary Christian composer and recording artist who died in 1997 in a car accident at the age of 42. He was to convert to Catholicism only a week after the accident. Shortly before he died, he was asked if he struggled with never having married.

“Sure I struggle,” he said. “I put an ‘x’ on the wall every night before I go to bed. I’m keeping score. When I get to heaven, I figure God’s going to owe me big time and then I’m going to be a very busy boy.” Then he became serious and added, “I think you need to read the Bible, and you’ll see that Paul and, well, Jesus were celibate for a reason.”

Fortunately for the single person, great classical writers such as Teresa of Avila (The Interior Castle), Bernard of Clairvaux (in his essays on the Song of Songs), and Hadewijch (a 13th-century Belgian mystic) describe how to put all loves aside to reach for the love Jesus offers; a real comfort to the single person who must learn—at least for now—how to do without married human love. Men are encouraged to relate to Jesus, even more closely than to a brother. Women are shown how to relate to Christ as a husband, eager to provide better intimacy than a human husband can give. Retreats—or weekends away—are of great help; as Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity testify, celibacy is much easier when intertwined with prayer and an intense relationship with the Lord.

“People can see in their singleness an invitation to deeper intimacy with Christ,” Muto says. “People find themselves taken over and taken up in God in a special way. Suddenly, you’re moving out of the pain of loneliness into the joy of solitude. The paradox is that you’re with Him.”


  • Julia Duin

    At the time this article was published, Julia Duin was the culture page editor for the Washington Times.

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