Single Life Is More Fundamental for Christianity Than Both Married and Religious Life

The question of single life and its place within the Church has once again become significant of late. Not only are men and women marrying later in life, but many people are finding that quite virtuous pursuits of career or service have not allotted them the time to invest in finding a partner. Online dating options alone cannot overcome the loneliness that is structured into the economic and social autonomy of most adults. Various youth and church groups, while well intentioned, are seriously ill-equipped to address all the challenges of singlehood.

The complexity and challenges of the larger cultural and social matrix is important to keep in mind when considering any understanding of the single life. Here, the challenges of modernity assert themselves rather aggressively for our context is characterized in particular by forgetting. This seems an outlandish claim in a world saturated with information. But if we understand this correctly, it means that modernity is particularly skilled at forgetting the ideas, people, events, and history that shape its current perspective and reality. In the name of progress and process, we tend to forget all those things that shape how we understand the future itself and how those things change our very expectation of what the future will look like.

Catholicism has a very deep and ancient belief in the world’s telos, its ultimate end and future; but that is distinct from modernity’s idea of time as process. A telos is an end that illuminates the entire path. You might say the difference between telos and process is fundamentally pedagogical. With a telos, the entire path is redeemed and validated as a movement that presupposes, values, and remembers what came before. We know how to walk ahead because of the lessons the past has taught us. A telos can teach us how our past still has meaning because that past must be absorbed into our journey towards the telos.

It is an odd thing that a culture inherently distrustful of any idea of telos fully embraces process. A process marginalizes the past, it forgets it, because it maximizes results. Processes are intentionally reductive in scope—a certain set of actions are prescribed to facilitate a particular result. The rigidity of the process is accepted because it assures the quality of the result. Assembly lines only care about the assembly insofar as it assures the coherence of the end product, credit applications operate off a predetermined set of impersonal assessments in order to minimize risk, security processes poke and prod because of the claim to protect the public, etc. In fact, it is almost always the case that processes care very little about the prior steps and determine their value exclusively by the end result. Processes forget what occurred before because mistakes cannot be absorbed into the value of the result. This is a particular form of technological reason that plagues public discourse. It is the presupposition that results and values are the same. We think that caring about test results is the same as caring about education. We think that caring about gun laws is the same as caring about the media and social structures that facilitate gun violence. This technological reasoning is what grounds and perpetuates the forgetting that is so pervasive today.

Admittedly, we have appeared to journey far away from the topic of single life in the Church. However, the Church must always be aware of how she is enmeshed in culture and how some of that culture can subtly manipulate her thinking. Again, context matters. The Church has always held that consecrated life is an objectively higher form of life and a deepened appreciation of the single life in no way seeks to supplant that. But there nevertheless remains the risk that we too become tempted by technological reason wherein we do not care about formation and pedagogy, we care about certain processes insofar as they produce vocations. We are tempted to think that the Church is structured by a technological reason that values results—a certain amount of vocations to religious life, a certain number of diocesan priests, and the rest in marriage. Deviations from this tempt us to think that the process of the Church and Catholic faith has gone wrong.

And yet the rise in the number of single people in the Church, foreshadowed by the rise of secular institutes in the 20th century, and affirmed at the Second Vatican Council, points beyond some failure of the Church’s processes. What if this rise actually says something? What if this is actually willed by God? Perhaps the single life rises to prominence in a process-obsessed age in order to remind the Church of the personal formation that always occurs in any state of life. Perhaps single people remind the Church that married and religious states cannot forget the personal formation and pedagogy that must always precede and ground these other vocations.

Let me be more clear. A state of life like marriage, religious life, the priesthood, or chaste single life has a level of stability. Unsurprisingly, St. Thomas Aquinas is helpful here. He writes, “State, properly speaking, denotes a kind of position, whereby a thing is disposed with a certain immobility in a manner according with its nature” (ST II-II.183.1). The married state is the “immobility” of marital fidelity wherein a person is disposed to the raising of children in accordance with our interpersonal, sexual nature. The religious state is the “immobility” of the vows or promises wherein a person is disposed to more perfectly imitate Jesus Christ according to human nature as created in the image of God. But this appears to be where the challenge arises. What is the immobility of single life? What is the disposition? If a person just finds oneself as an adult to be single, whether chosen or not, there appears to be no special stability or disposition here. There is no single spirituality of the single life, no disposition of commitment to a religious community or spouse.

Some men and women may make a commitment to the single life. This may not be vowed or recognized by a religious community or episcopate, but that does not necessarily derogate from its stability or validity. Second, and more importantly, that one exists in the state of a single person even if in the mode of “until” is still rooted in the disposition towards our baptismal vocation. The importance of the witness to the living and resurrected Jesus Christ who animates all real charity was identified by the Council Fathers in their Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity. They write:

For the Christian vocation by its very nature is also a vocation to the apostolate. No part of the structure of a living body is merely passive but has a share in the functions as well as life of the body: so, too, in the body of Christ, which is the Church, “the whole body . . . in keeping with the proper activity of each part, derives its increase from its own internal development” (Eph. 4:16) (Apostolicam Actuositatem, §2).

Because the “natural” position of the human person in adulthood is single (i.e. one is single before religious or married life), single life can be seen as the foundation of consecrated, priesthood, and married life. Single people are not outliers or attached patches awkwardly stitched on to the neat quilt of the Church—they are the fabric itself. Single people are the sacramental of personal formation, the living witness to that core command inherent in our Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist. A person never leaves the “single life” behind but finds it presupposed in holy orders and matrimony.

Single people as reminder and memory take on particularly significant effect when we consider how radically religious and married life always come back to the foundation of the person that must be shaped and molded to those states of life. A religious will have to deal with sexuality, with love, with lust, with the need for touch. But more specifically, he or she will have to learn that sex is never about sex in order to become aware of the deeper emotional and physical desires that animate sexuality. Religious life might help a man or woman to do that, but it should be presupposed that this is already occurring in the single life. Married people will have to deal with hate, with feeling alone, with stubbornness, with selfishness before self-giving, with a disturbing and frequent impulse to escape. Married life might help a person to do that but, again, it should already be presupposed in the single life.

I would like to push this point about single life somewhat further and offer it quite seriously not as something comforting or “nice” but as something very real and pressing. In a culture that has forgotten its Christian foundation, single people are the greatest reminder to living the Christian reality of baptismal vocation in the world. They are the living connection between the values that saturate our culture but appear untethered from their Christian roots. Single people demonstrate that basic and deepest level of faith and formation that is at the core of any life worth living, single or otherwise. Again, the Council Fathers espied this very issue:

Since, in our own times, new problems are arising and very serious errors are circulating which tend to undermine the foundations of religion, the moral order, and human society itself, this sacred synod earnestly exhorts laymeneach according to his own gifts of intelligence and learningto be more diligent in doing what they can to explain, defend, and properly apply Christian principles to the problems of our era in accordance with the mind of the Church (AA §6).

Single people have the virtue of being available in a way that married and religious cannot. They are an incarnated witness to Christian values that cannot help but deepen and enrich the world encountered in their work, service, and relationships. In a period of rapid flux and shifts in popular culture, the availability of the single life might be exactly the thing required for a Church that has so much being asked of it and so few resources to respond.

To say that single people can witness in a way that married and religious cannot is something to be taken very seriously today. At the risk of a lack of charity, and while clearly friendships with religious and married couples are invaluable, it is nevertheless the case that exhortations to fidelity and hope are sometimes hard to understand apart from the benefits that marriage and priesthood grant. It is all well and good to have dinner together, but single people still go home to an empty bed. Career and ministry are wonderful, but single people still do not receive the admiration, respect, and deference that a priest or religious receives from the larger community (although they might be asking when that is supposed to actually happen). There should be no naïveté about the myriad challenges that attend all states of life but, from the perspective of singlehood, it is hard not to see just the benefits of the others.

Yet this challenge is also the source of an enormous opportunity to witness. The unique witness that single people offer to the world is that a Christian life is worth living all by itself. They witness to a type of meaning and depth that Christian faith imbues fundamentally into all life, not just in marriage, religious communities, or priesthood. The challenges of single life are so fundamentally human, so deeply connected to our most basic desires for intimacy and acceptance, that embracing those challenges in faith and charity is a radical opportunity for solidarity with others who are also isolated and suffering. Because it is so fundamental, it speaks all the more powerfully across division and dismissal. This is, in so many ways, the core of evangelization: to witness to Jesus Christ in love and fidelity through a radical availability of compassion and service.

Instead of appreciating and looking towards the dynamism and plurality of the lives of single people, what often occurs is that they become occasions for pity because they have not “achieved” the success of marriage or religious life. And yet behind that lurks an impulse to complacency and self-satisfaction. Perhaps the reason that single people make others uncomfortable is because they are disruptive reminders of the foundational core of Christianity that is continual conversion, a core which the stability of religious or married states can mask. Maybe we get uncomfortable and “don’t know what to do with” single people because we want to forget that we are all called to conversion, to a singular responsibility of witness before the Lord, to a continual conversion that can occur passively in the fluctuations of married and religious life but must also coordinate with an active growth and acceptance. The state of married and religious life provides a foundation for the active life. However, these states are not the attainment of an end as if the single life was just part of the process to be forgotten in an achievement of vows. Instead, the religious and married states are just a particular, unique, specific flourishing of what should already be happening in the single life anyway.

To be married or religious is not the fulfillment of a process but a particular instantiation of a witness to our baptismal vows that always presupposes the proper formation of the single life. We cannot forget that. Our culture values freedom from, not freedom for. It understands what people cannot do, not what they are empowered to do. This occurs most obviously when non-Catholics confront the weirdness of single people who will not have sex until marriage. These single people are not understood to have a greater freedom for imitation of and service to Christ, they are understood as tragic because some innate capacity for sexual intimacy is not being realized. This type of secular reasoning can infect the thought of Christians as well. Single people are not married, not in religious life, not able to fulfill the correct “process” of Catholicism. Why do we not see, instead, that singlehood is rooted in a powerful potentiality—the potential to bear witness to baptismal vocation through a wide diversity of ministries and service?

The issue and challenge of single people and their formation is not a question about process but about pedagogy, what the Church is teaching all its members. If we cannot help facilitate adults to live out the most basic witness to Christ, the foundation presupposed in any other vocation, then we should not be surprised when the formation of our religious falls short. If single people cannot find a place and thrive in the Church, there is no reason to think that vocations will have any substantial quality. A hundred well-formed Christians in whatever state will, in every single circumstance without exception, be a more powerful witness to Christ than a hundred random religious or priests.

Writing this article as a single man means that I bring certain sensitivities to this reflection—concerns about my Christian brothers and the challenges of isolation, pornography, indifference, laziness, social incompetency, etc. that seem to specifically (although not uniquely) weigh on us. But with that being said, I would still like to acknowledge that single Christian women are in a particularly challenging spot. First, the number of charismatic and faithful women religious orders wherein women could live the virtues of faith, hope, and love have been winnowed substantially. I do not think we can expect to return to pre-Vatican II levels of religious and I acknowledge that there are many growing women religious orders who witness powerfully to Jesus Christ and his Church. But the fact remains that many Catholics today have never met a women religious, and, thus, even if there is a desire to explore religious life, it can be a challenging path. Second, men oftentimes get a pass for singlehood from social forces that chalk it up to career, “inadequate” prospects, or some mythical appeal of bachelorhood. It is incredibly humbling to see how rarely women are granted escapes from scrutiny; despite the rather obvious scarcity of competent Catholic men and the vibrant contributions that single women make to public life (indeed, in many places it is relied upon). It is entirely unproductive to try to determine who has it worse (pain is, after all, not a competition), but I think it reasonable to consider that single women face more challenges even as they may have a few more resources (greater social connection seems a prominent one). There is no consolation to offer other than the knowledge that the challenges of singlehood, if embraced in honesty and fidelity to Christ, will unfailingly lead to a richer and deeper relationship with Jesus Christ.

The single life constitutes the deepest yet quietest part of the Church’s life, much like the thirty years of silence before Christ’s public ministry. Christ’s ministry is a fruit of those silent thirty years that are always presupposed. They are quiet, but they are not forgotten. If Christ was truly man, he had to go through some form of education and formation. The personal sanctity of Joseph and Mary becomes so prevalent here as they, like all parents, provide the primary formation of the child Jesus. We often treat Christ’s preaching as various fruits we can select at the grocery store and forget the whole family ecology from which those fruits grew. Single life is like those silent thirty years wherein we come to maturity. Perhaps a greater appreciation of the single life can help us return to the failures of our own formation and maturity in order to better witness to Jesus Christ and his Church.

Editorial Note: Throughout the month of November, Church Life Journal will explore the Catholic imagination as an imagination of sanctification. By sanctified imagination, we mean the imagination which highlights the core narrative of the Paschal mystery, as radiantly incarnate in the saints. We seek to reflect on the manifold ways Christ becomes all-in-all through the men and women of his mystical body, the Church. As our authors explore the various dimensions of the sanctified imagination (please click the link for a list of the posts), we invite you to think along with us. Today’s post is part of a sub-series, which explores the diverse states of life within the Church.

You should not miss the following article from the latter series:


Featured Image: Titian, A Man with a Quilted Sleeve (Self-Portrait), 1510; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Michael Altenburger

Michael Altenburger is a University of Notre Dame Ph.D. in Systematic Theology.

Read more by Michael Altenburger