A Crisis in the Single Life


“Some of us will have a path to holiness through a vowed vocation. But due to fallen human nature, not all of us will.”


We speak a lot about a crisis of vocations, the crisis in the priesthood, and a crisis in married life. At their roots, these are all simply crises in holiness. In addition to these, there is a crisis in the single life.

This is not to say I believe the “single life,” (apart from a consecrated single life) is a vocation. There was a recent article lamenting the rise of the “single life” as a vocation. The author posited that “the attitude that single life is a vocation has stopped many willing singles from the radical commitment of a true vocation.”

While I agree with some of what the author posits, I think this is an over-simplification which misses most of the reasons we have a plethora of single people in the word today. The young Catholics I know that take the idea of a vocational call seriously are often hurting and lonely (as she admits she herself was). They have heard successful discernment held up as the ultimate recipe for happiness and now find themselves lost as they keep searching. They feel like they’re on a big treasure hunt from God, and if they just pray hard enough and cry enough, maybe He’ll send them a letter with the solution: priesthood? religious life? marriage? And then the next treasure hunt will commence – diocesan? Which order? “Are you my future spouse?”

The author is correct that traditionally the single life has not been viewed as a vocation because it is not a vowed life. She points out that the single life is unstructured, and without vows, it can be abandoned at any time. This isn’t a vocation in the traditional sense. She assesses that this vocation is often “offered as a consolation prize to unwilling singles,” and I agree.

So why do I believe we have a crisis in the single life? Because we haven’t taught people how to live it well. I’m not encouraging people to seek out the single life as a vocation. But like it or not, due to fallen human nature and the presence of sin in the world, not everyone is going to end up in a vowed vocation for their entire lives. The author posits that “unwilling singles are, through no fault of their own, victims of the vocations crisis.” But the solution isn’t to preach against the single life.

Some will avoid commitment, as she points out. But it’s not because the Church has been preaching the single life as a vocation. It’s because my generation lives in fear of marriages ending in divorce and spousal abuse. We’ve seen the mistakes of our parents and are fearful of bringing children into the world to be wounded as we were. We struggle to find fellow faithful Catholics. The culture wars of the last century have left generations wounded and missing in action. The effect of pornography on my generation and marriage is too much to go into in this short post, but we can no longer fool ourselves into thinking that good Catholics aren’t affected.

In many Catholic circles, “vocation” is held up as the goal. If you want to be holy, you’d better figure out that puzzle from God. There is pressure to discern your vocation before you miss the boat. What if God is calling you to the priesthood and you miss the call? What if you don’t figure out that He has chosen you from all eternity to be a religious sister? Is there still a chance to be holy?

There’s a sense on many campuses that if you graduate without a ring by Spring, you’ll never find a spouse in the fallen world outside of the Catholic bubble. Sadly, this may be correct. (Where is a good Catholic spouse to be found? Tinder?) But this sentiment can lead to engagements of desperation and rushed marriages… that eventually end up in divorce. Again, we can no longer fool ourselves into thinking good Catholics aren’t affected.

Most of the young Catholics I know are not relishing the “single life vocation,” but are living it for a number of other reasons. We need to help these people grow in what is all of our vocations… holiness.

Is it better to get married to a spouse that doesn’t have the same values or worldview, or to remain single? What about those Catholics among us who can’t marry because of a previous marriage? What about homosexual Catholics trying to live according to God’s law? Like it or not, not everyone is going to end up in a vowed vocation the rest of their lives.

There’s a crisis in the single life. It’s not that we need more singles. It’s that we are not helping people live lives of holiness. We tell homosexual Catholics that they must be celibate. We tell divorced Catholics they can’t marry again. But then we don’t give them the tools and support to live these sacrificial lives. We tell young adult Catholics that they shouldn’t have premarital sex before marriage, they shouldn’t contracept after marriage, and they should find a spouse that shares these values… and then we criticize them when they can’t find a spouse or are reluctant to commit to marriage?

How are we helping people live holy lives outside of vowed vocations? Everyone is going to be single at some point in their lives. If we only focus on holiness through the lens of the priesthood, consecrated life, or marriage, we’re missing the bigger point. I have a vocation, despite my lack of vows. It’s a vocation to holiness.

I don’t often write about being a single Catholic. To be honest, it’s a minefield at times. If I write about the struggles of loneliness, I’ll be told “marriage is lonely too,” or “be grateful you have time to shower without little kids needing you.” If I write about seeking holiness in the single life, I’ll be criticized for not living a life of sacrificed commitment.

But you know what I realized many years ago? My holiness doesn’t depend on a big puzzle that God has laid out for me regarding one particular call. I have aged out of the age requirements for the novitiate of many religious orders, and I don’t spend my days searching for a husband. Instead, I hope I spend my days trying to be holy. That’s the vocation in front of me. Holiness.

God desires us to be with Him forever in heaven. He desires our holiness. Some of us will have a path to holiness through a vowed vocation. But due to fallen human nature, not all of us will. Thankfully, that’s not necessarily a recipe for a lack of happiness or holiness.

Pray that men and women have the courage to embrace the supernatural calls to priesthood and religious life. Pray for an increase in virtue and chastity that can lead to healthy and holy marriages. And pray for all people to answer the universal call to holiness, each day, in the variety of ways God calls them.


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About the Author

Joannie Watson

Joan Watson was born and raised in Lafayette, Indiana, but college and graduate school took her to Virginia, Ohio, and Rome. After graduating from Christendom College with a B.A. in History and Franciscan University with a M.A. in Theology, she moved to Nashville, Tennessee to be part of the explosion of Catholic culture in the middle of the Bible Belt.

She has been blessed to work for Dr. Scott Hahn at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia at Aquinas College. She is presently the Director of Adult Formation for the Diocese of Nashville. She also serves as the Associate Editor of Integrated Catholic Life.

When she’s not testing the culinary exploits of new restaurants or catching up on the latest BBC miniseries, she’s FaceTiming with her eight nephews and nieces and enjoying her role as coolest aunt. She likes gelato, bourbon, and the color orange.

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