A single Catholic friend of mine describes her experience belonging to our Catholic parish. When parishioners find out she’s not married, they often direct her to a Catholic dating website or suggest people in the parish she might want to meet. Or, since people experience her as a dedicated lay Catholic who contributes to several of the ministries in my parish, they ask her to add just a couple events or meetings to her calendar—after all, she’s single and “doesn’t have a family.” She tells me that she often feels overlooked.
Catholics often equate the word singleness with religious vocations such as priest, deacon, nun, brother, sister, or monk, even though clergy and religious make up less than 1 percent of the population of Catholics who have never married. While vowed single states of life have been, and continue to be, integral to the church’s ministries, my friend’s own service to her parish sometimes goes ignored.
The general perceptions—that single adults are young, that they must someday want to get married or else they have a religious vocation, and that they have no family—make people like my friend feel excluded. Moreover, these perceptions aren’t the best vision of Catholic adult single life. For example, single adults do have families and obligations. Single adults care for elderly parents or other relatives; some are single parents; and friends and neighbors also pose obligations. The vocations of marriage and religious life are important, but life events don’t always enable people to pursue those vocations. Catholic adult singles nonetheless have an important place in the church.
Forty-six percent of Catholic adults in the United States are single. That group is highly diverse: In addition to vowed religious, single Catholics may be widowed (6.4 percent), never-married (27.7 percent), separated (3.3 percent), or divorced (8.7 percent). All of these single adults also have vital roles in the church and need the church’s care and ministry.
Christian tradition explicitly values lay never-married people in scripture and at many times in history. St. Paul never married but was not connected to institutional religious life. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes, “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am” (1 Cor. 7:8). Paul goes on to say that a benefit of being unmarried is that people can be free of worldly anxieties and stay focused on the Lord.
The church has many contemporary examples of lay never-married Catholics serving God. For example, most of my students are single and many contribute to Catholic life by serving in Jesuit Volunteer Corps or participating in Marianist Lay Communities.
Forty-six percent of Catholic adults in the United States are single.
If the church has such rich examples, why do people such as my friend feel excluded? My friend is older and has a complex set of obligations as the sole caregiver to her elderly parents, but that kind of never-married life is not always acknowledged. Popular media often envisions the never-married as young adults in their 20s who seem free to do whatever they wish—who have not yet built the kinds of human connections that cause anxiety over worldly things. The church, with Paul’s help, sometimes expresses a similar vision of young, carefree never-marrieds.
Yet we should take care to not read into Paul’s words. Paul is not saying that single people do not have anxieties—only that they are ideally “anxious about the affairs of the Lord.” Paul is also not saying that single people should be isolated individuals serving the Lord on their own. Paul himself sees his ministry as intertwined with that of the whole community, as in Acts 20:25–35.
Both my never-married friend and my never-married students need the church to recognize them and their unique service. They need the support of a church that understands that serving the Lord is complex and requires friendship and community.
The church has a long history of ministry to and by widows. Scripture frequently names God’s particular concern for widows. When God gives the law to the Israelites (Exod. 22:21–23), God says, “You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry.” Psalm 68:5 proclaims that God is “Father of orphans and protector of widows.”
In the New Testament, there are some early possible references to an Order of Widows. Paul’s first letter to Timothy (5:3–10) discusses “enrolling widows” in a group that practices hospitality and good works and that perhaps has liturgical functions. Historians have shown that widows often lived in religious communities. Two examples include the community of widows that St. Augustine counseled and little-known St. Rictrude, a seventh-century widow and abbess of a religious community. The 18th-century saint Elizabeth Ann Seton founded her community in part because of her widowhood.
Communities of widows have declined in popularity in the past couple of centuries. The church gives widows less attention for their particular spiritual gifts or for their particular needs in the midst of grief. The decline is perhaps partly because of the relatively greater financial freedom that women experience today. Still, widows (and widowers) describe feeling abandoned by both friends and their church when a spouse dies. The church’s own long tradition of giving care to widows and receiving it from them suggests that we need to remember and celebrate the widows and widowers in our midst with much more attention.
Catholics sometimes avoid thinking or talking about divorce; church teaching against divorce makes such a conversation seem impossible. Yet there is a strong scriptural basis for concern about divorce. When the Pharisees ask Jesus whether it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife, Jesus’ response is, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery” (Matt. 19:8b–9). Notice that Jesus links Moses’ law to being hard-hearted. The man’s divorce of his wife (only men could initiate divorce back then) can be equated to refusal to display God’s own steadfast love.
Jesus’ reminder about steadfast love needs to be part of our contemporary conversations about divorce. We live in an era of frequent divorce, when people feel guilty about getting a divorce and as if they must leave the church. As Christian spirituality author Lauren Winner says, “In Christianity there’s this script of, you do the right things and you will not come to that place of despair, and something is wrong with you if you do.”
Catholics should also consider widows and widowers, military spouses, spouses of those who are incarcerated, and parents who work double shifts or alternate shifts as single parents.
Yet those who are divorced remain in need of Christian community. Consider that divorced women are more likely to experience financial destitution, like their widowed counterparts. Divorced people report higher rates of anxiety, stress, and depression than the population as a whole.
In his apostolic exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), Pope Francis reminds us all—divorced or not—that “Seeing things with the eyes of Christ inspires the Church’s pastoral care for the faithful who are . . . divorced and remarried. Following this divine pedagogy, the Church turns with love to those who participate in her life in an imperfect manner: she seeks the grace of conversion for them.” Those who are divorced should also have a strong role in being witnesses of God’s love. Pope Francis says that the church “encourages them to do good, to take loving care of each other and to serve the community in which they live and work.”
Single parents comprise another overlooked group of single adults. Scripture about widows frequently includes references to orphans. In early Jewish and Christian communities, being an orphan did not necessarily mean having neither parent alive: It could also mean children who no longer had fathers as heads of households, whether by widowhood or divorce. Secure households tended to be led by fathers who could provide food, shelter, and means for employment. Single mothers had nearly an insurmountable task of raising children and were often destitute, so widows and orphans—the ones living in poverty—needed Christian community.
Parenting solo remains difficult, though not always for the financial reasons of earlier forebears. As Pope Francis writes in Amoris Laetitia: “If a single mother has to raise a child by herself and needs to leave the child alone at home while she goes to work, the child can grow up exposed to all kind of risks and obstacles to personal growth. In such difficult situations of need, the Church must be particularly concerned to offer understanding, comfort and acceptance.”
Catholics should also consider widows and widowers, military spouses, spouses of those who are incarcerated, and parents who work double shifts or alternate shifts as single parents. Each of these has particular concerns and would benefit from the “understanding, comfort and acceptance” that doesn’t always shine forth when parish life is devoted to two-parent families.
Church as family
St. Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians that a marriage between a man and a woman is like the marriage between Christ and the church. Paul reminds us that the church itself comprises a marriage, and therefore it is a family of many people (which would include those who are single).
Family does not only mean the nuclear family that we in the United States most often think about as family.
Pope Francis expands on this in Amoris Laetitia: “The Church is a family of families, constantly enriched by the lives of all those domestic churches.” Family, he reminds us, does not only mean the nuclear family that we in the United States most often think about as family. It also means the “wider family”—aunts, uncles, and in-laws as well as friends and community members.
As we consider both the gifts and needs of all Catholics, including those who are single, we must remember that we are a family to each other. Married people are therefore called to “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. [Married people] should also embrace ‘even those who have made shipwreck of their lives.’ ” Likewise, those who are never married, widowed, divorced, or single parents are called to witness to God’s steadfast love.
The question for all of us—whether we are single or married—is to consider how much we are living out the gospel. Do we provide “love and support” to our whole church family?
This article also appears in the January issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 86, No. 1, pages 21-23). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.