Called to Singlehood?

A single girl questions the existence of the single “vocation.”

I’m taking a class on John Paul II’s apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Vocation and Dignity of Women). And it’s been fascinating.

This class is, as one would expect, comprised entirely of women. (What is it about men that they don’t want to sit around a classroom on a weekday afternoon, gabbing about the nature of womanhood?) Yesterday, we were discussing chapter six, which is entitled “Motherhood – Virginity: Two Dimensions of Women’s Vocation.” As we read along, it became clear that the Holy Father wasn’t referring to virginity simply as “the state of never having had sex,” but rather in the context of consecrated virginity – a woman who consecrates herself completely to Christ as a spouse.

The chapter opens with this statement. “We must now focus our meditation on virginity and motherhood as two particular dimensions of the fulfillment of the female personality.” That same paragraph closes by referring to “these two paths in the vocation of women.”

Hands immediately began shooting up. “Well, those are only two of the three vocations. What about the vocation to the single life?” They have, as I have, been seeing more and more references in spiritual literature to the “vocation” to the single life. Entire books are being written about it. Discussion groups are dissecting it. Unmarried men and women are immersing themselves deeply in prayer, trying to discern it. 

But there’s one problem. As far as Church teaching is concerned, it doesn’t exist.

Hold on! Are you saying God doesn’t want anybody to remain unmarried unless they’re priests or nuns?

Of course I’m not. There may be specific individuals whom God, In His infinite wisdom, wishes to remain single but unconsecrated. Many others will remain single for reasons beyond their control. If they turn that singleness over to God, He will no doubt bring tremendous good out of it. A particular single person may be infinitely happier or holier than a particular married person.

But none of that raises unconsecrated singleness to the level of a “vocation.”
Why not? Traditionally, “vocation” has been understood to indicate a call from God – and a subsequent public vow -- to completely give oneself and one’s life to someone (or Someone, as the case may be.) As the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes says, man finds himself only in a sincere gift of himself. And just plain old singleness doesn’t do that. Not that single people can’t be giving people. In fact, unmarried people are often among the most giving, generous people I know. But we haven’t taken a vow or formally given our lives to someone – and that, in the strictest sense, is the definition of a vocation.

What about teachers, youth ministers and others who consider that type of work a “vocation”? It may be, in the sense of being work God has called them to. Some may even forego marriage in order to give themselves completely to their students. But it’s still not a vow, not a complete self-gift. A teacher or youth minister can quit, or retire, or be promoted. It’s not a “life sentence.”

Nevertheless, several people in the class were righteously indignant. Interestingly, it was the married people who were upset on behalf of us single folk. The unmarried women there, like single people I’ve met elsewhere, were nodding and saying, ”This makes sense. My life doesn’t feel like a vocation in this way.” 

In the document, John Paul II refers to the “naturally spousal predisposition on women.” I’ve experienced this, and so have the other women in the class. We want to give ourselves. We want to belong to someone – not in the sense of property, but in the sense of mutual self-gift. The Holy Father says that consecrated virginity, like marriage, fulfills that spousal predisposition. 

So what about those of us who remain in this “no man’s land” – consecrated neither to God nor spouse? Some may be called to marriage, but due to the rampant immorality of today’s world have been either temporarily or permanently unable to find a suitable spouse. Others may desire marriage but experience personal problems that render them unable to enter into sacramental marriage. Still others may be called to consecrated celibacy, but haven’t heard or responded to the call.

Regardless, I know that all human persons find fulfillment through a sincere gift of self. For those of us who are unmarried, opportunities for that gift of self may not present themselves as often. But they’re the key to our happiness for the time we remain unmarried. We can – and must --participate in vocation analogously. We will find real fulfillment only by giving generously of ourselves -- to our families, our friends, to those we encounter in ministry, and to God. 

God loves every person deeply and personally. That goes for those who have resolved their life’s vocation, as well as those of us who haven’t. Single people are not second-class citizens of the Church. We just, for whatever reason, haven’t settled into a vocation.

I see no need, therefore, to condescend to us and make up a “new” vocation for us. We prefer to deal with the truth.