Some of our readers know I’ve been working recently on the topic of singleness – yes, even as a married Catholic lay woman. My new book is Singleness and the Church: A New Theology of Single Life.
Singleness, for me, doesn’t primarily mean religious vocations – though that’s usually what Catholic audiences hear when I tell them about my topic. Singleness is partly religious vocation (which I specifically discuss in terms of vowed religious life), but my book is mostly about all the other ways Catholics are single these days: divorced, widowed, cohabitating, engaged, single parent, and so forth.
I think the church has often ignored these states of singleness to its detriment, and against scriptural witness. I think about St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, where his exhortation to “Be as he is” in chapter 7 is linked to a variety of states of singleness, including engagements, divorce, being never married, being widowed, and so forth. (Of course, the particular contexts of these states of life in ancient near eastern culture is distinctive from those states of life today – yet still the point is that St. Paul is naming a host of ways that Christians live in unmarried ways). I think we would do well to consider a range of single states of life in the context of Christian life. I do this in my book by considering the works of a variety of Christians down through the centuries who have lived these states of life and who have also contributed significant writing on what it means to live a Christian life. (Dorothy Day is one of these.)
Moreover, one of the benefits of Pope Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia is the fact that it doesn’t wholly focus on marriage and family. That said, it’d be great to have a specific exhortation to consider single states of life.
Pope Francis calls all of us to consider particular situations of singleness. For example, in section 197:
This larger family [of friends and members of the broader community] should provide love
and support to teenage mothers, children without
parents, single mothers left to raise children,
persons with disabilities needing particular affection
and closeness, young people struggling
with addiction, the unmarried, separated or widowed
who are alone, and the elderly and infirm
who lack the support of their children. It should
also embrace “even those who have made shipwreck
of their lives”.
My hope is to make one small contribution to how Christians might think differently about singleness and its importance in church life. I think this is imperative for us Christians as we seek to be the Body of Christ. (See my interview with Crux here.)
Reading a selections from chapter V of “Lumen Genitum” this evening for an upcoming class, I was struck by a kind of perfect example of the Church’s approach to singleness. After about half a paragraph detailing how married couples express their call to holiness within their particular vocation, there’s a single sentence: “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.” And then moves on to other topics.
My wife and I were well into our thirties when we found each other, and we’ve often noted how the Church doesn’t really seem to know what to do with single adults. One thing we’ve talked about is that it really should be looked upon as a vocation in its own right — maybe not a permanent vocation such as Holy Orders or Marriage (though in some cases it could be). But I think a person who is not at peace with being single is not necessarily going to be able to make good decisions about other vocational callings. It’s definitely a much-needed ministry.