Is the single life a vocation? To answer that, we need to be clear about what we mean by both “the single life” and “vocation.”
Since the time of the Apostles, the Church has always valued the free choice of celibacy, or remaining unmarried “for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 19:12) Early Church Fathers recorded how both men and women would choose to sacrifice the great good of marriage in order to focus more exclusively on loving and serving the Lord. Over the course of the Church’s history, such a choice came to be more formally recognized in various established forms of consecrated life, from the ancient Order of Virgins to the later evolution of organized religious communities, up through the development of modern forms of dedication such as membership in secular institutes. In addition, it is also possible to devote oneself wholly to the Lord through a purely private commitment, as many saints throughout the Church’s history have done.
Still, most contemporary considerations of “the single life” are not discussing recognized forms of consecrated life (nor even necessarily informal, de facto forms of consecration such as private vows), but are rather speaking about an unmarried lay life not involving any deliberate commitments. In this case, the question is: can simply remaining unmarried be rightly considered a vocation?
The word vocation literally means “calling,” and in a Catholic context a vocation is a call from God. However, this word is nuanced and can mean a number of different things.
Perhaps the most frequent use of the term “vocation” is in reference to a call from God to do something relatively unusual, such as entering the priesthood or consecrated life. At times, too, a vocation can mean a unique inspiration or mission from God, such as founding a new religious community. In a similar sense, an individual might experience a special, personal call from God to remain single for some greater purpose, such as a greater freedom to engage in evangelical activity or works of mercy. Yet we could consider this kind of special personal call to remain single to be similar enough to consecrated life that it might not relate to our normal concept of what “the single life” is in general.
In some cases, we might use also the word “vocation” to mean the concrete action that God is asking of us in our particular circumstances. It may be that because of an individual’s specific life situation, remaining single and uncommitted may be a kind of “vocation,” insofar as it is the prudent response that God actually wills. For example, a person with overwhelming family responsibilities might legitimately discern that God is calling him or her to remain single for at least the time being. The same might be said of those struggling with illness or other personal issues.
On the other hand, the word “vocation” is sometimes used as shorthand for one’s state in life. “State in life” is a descriptive term which refers to our specific role and responsibilities within the Christian community. An individual’s state of life can describe their marital status in terms of being married, unmarried, or widowed. It might also describe whether they are lay, ordained, or consecrated. Naturally, “lay single” is indeed a state in life.
Yet often the word “vocation” can refer to entrance into a new state in life which involves a permanent commitment, and which consequently demands embracing all the responsibilities this entails. For instance, married couples make commitments to each other and are responsible for caring for whatever children may result from their union; and a priest makes promises to his bishop and takes on a number of obligations relating to his ministry. In this sense, it would be difficult to consider the uncommitted single life a vocation, since it would be an obvious contradiction in terms to classify remaining uncommitted as a form of commitment.
This might prompt the question: should we encourage people to discern a vocation to the uncommitted lay single life in the same way that we might encourage young people to discern a vocation to priesthood or consecrated life or to be open to the vocation of marriage? It would seem that the answer is a clear “no,” since the Church teaches that true human flourishing can only come about through dedicated, self-sacrificial love. As was stated in the Vatican II document Gaudium et spes: “man…cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” (GS 24) In light of this, it would not make sense to guide young people towards a life of deliberate non-commitment.
But even with all this being said, on a pastoral level it is crucial to keep in mind that uncommitted single people can never be regarded as anything less than full members of the Church. In any discussion of vocation, the most important thing to remember is that it is baptism which is the primary vocation of all Christians. Even while uncommitted singlehood itself might not be a vocation in the normal sense of the word, single Catholics are still called to holiness and the fullness of Christian life.
Jenna M. Cooper is a consecrated virgin of the Archdiocese of New York. She completed a licentiate in canon law at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in 2014.