Still single: The forgotten state of life

Rev. Reid Hennick

Anyone who has prayed the rosary in houses of the Society of St. Pius X has joined in our congregation’s short prayer for vocations. In it we ask the Lord to grant us priests, religious, and—during the foreboding Synod of the Family in 2015—Catholic families as well. One might wonder: is this prayer exhaustive? Does not God provide His Church souls of another sort? In short, is there another vocation besides priesthood, religion, and matrimony?

What if we were to add something like, “O Lord, grant us many holy voluntary celibates living in the world”? If strange and cumbersome, this petition is nonetheless theologically justifiable, praiseworthy even. For there are not three but four principle states of life to which God might call an individual.Cf. Denis Downing, Vocations Explained The single vocation, or non-religious celibacy, is one of them. Accordingly, the Catholic single would do well to explore the hidden treasures of a calling he has yet to embrace. He might be positioned exactly where God wants him.

Perfection in Charity

To better understand the single vocation, however, it is necessary first to unpack the meaning of a vocation. “Vocation” is a word much abused. We take it to mean a divine calling to a particular state of life. Yet what is the nature of this calling? Is it imperative or is it issued with less insistence?

In the New Testament, the use of call or vocation “is restricted to the call of justification”.Richard Butler, Religious Vocation This calling is imperative, demanded of everyone: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Th 4:3).

By contrast, the calling to a particular state of life is perhaps better understood as an invitation. As regards the priesthood, this invitation is extended only to men fitted by nature and grace to take on the responsibilities of alter Christus. Limited by Providence to select souls, this invitation is unique. Hence, to emphasise its extraordinary nature, in her official language, the Church has used “vocation” only with reference to the sacerdotal state. (Richard Butler, Religious Vocation)

As for the other three states of life, the invitation is open to all disciples. As a rule, therefore, no one is bound under pain of sin to pursue a particular state of life. In itself, a state of life is but a means to the end of perfection in charity. Nonetheless, settling on a state of life is undeniably momentous.

It fixes the chief duties each one must accomplish in life, what difficulties and dangers he will be exposed to, the kind of company he must keep, and how, in particular, he must serve God and sanctify his soul. And it fixes these things permanently.
—John Daly, Catechism on the Choice of a State of Life

Thus, it stands to reason that the four states of life are not equally suited to perfection in charity. This is the clear teaching of the Church. A state of life structured around one or more of the evangelical counsels—voluntary celibacy, for instance—better lends itself to holiness than the married state.Cf. Council of Trent, Canon 10 on the Sacrament of Matrimony

A Counsel Ready at Hand

For there are eunuchs, who were born so from their mother’s womb: and there are eunuchs, who were made so by men: and there are eunuchs, who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven. He that can take, let him take it.
—Mt 19:12

The universal character of Our Lord’s invitation here is sufficiently clear. He that can abstain for the rest of his life from sexual pleasure for the love of God, let him take it. Cf. Pius XII, Sacra Virginitas

The early Christians never interpreted this challenge as exclusive, and they responded in droves.

Numbers, very considerable numbers it seems, of men and women had undertaken the celibate life and their prestige in the Christian body was second only to the martyrs whose example had been the great preservative of the Christian morale.
— Richard Butler, Religious Vocation

These continents, it is noteworthy, “did not at first live in communities but in their own homes”.Richard Butler, Religious Vocation This makes sense. Of the three evangelical counsels, perfect chastity is the most accessible and ready at hand because its enactment does not depend on the infrastructure of a religious community, an arrangement that would take centuries to develop. Already, then, we see in the nascent Church the single vocation in full relief!

The Superiority of Celibacy

Let us be clear: it is Our Lord’s counsel that ennobles the single life. It would be far preferable for a Catholic to marry for a good motive than to remain celibate for a motive anything less than supernatural. No matter how magnanimous the natural justification for maintaining celibacy, it pales in comparison to the chief supernatural duty of marriage: to raise “children in such a way as to equip them to live Christian lives and attain that place in Heaven which God has prepared for them.”John Daly, Catechism on the Choice of a State of Life

This applies to selfish justifications all the more. Of those who do not marry “because of exaggerated self-interest or because, as Augustine says, they shun the burdens of marriage or because, like the Pharisees, they proudly flaunt their physical integrity… none of these can claim for themselves the honour of Christian [celibacy]” (Pius XII).

The single vocation is wholly about making oneself available for “the best part” (Lk 10:42). St. Paul ranks the single vocation above the “great sacrament” (Ep 5:32) of matrimony for that very reason; namely, it gives a “power to attend upon the Lord, without impediment” (1 Cor 7:35).

He that is without a wife, is solicitous for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please God. But he that is with a wife, is solicitous for the things of the world, how he may please his wife: and he is divided.
— 1 Cor 7:32–33)

The Apostle here does not reprove spouses on account of their healthy absorption in each other. He is merely noting the inescapable trade-off arising from their state of life, that their hearts are divided between love of God and love of their spouse and beset by gnawing cares, and so, by reason of the duty of their married state they can hardly be free to contemplate the divine… As the Angelic Doctor has it, the use of marriage “keeps the soul from full abandon to the service of God” (Pius XII).

Proper Discernment

The oft-repeated “do I have a vocation” question is misconstrued. “He that can take, let him take it.” Our Lord demands our sanctification and proposes this counsel as a most promising expedient. Commenting on his own celibacy, St. Paul expresses well the divine predilection for this state: “For I would that all men were even as myself” (1 Co 7:7). The question is better put: since Our Lord is addressing me personally, can I take it?

Summarising the teaching of St. Thomas, Fr Butler responds:

This counsel is given by God to those who ask for it and are willing to work for it. Not all take it because not all have the strength to abstain from marriage, not that any have such a strength of themselves, but by a gift of grace. It is not by natural power that this ability to accept this counsel arises; for if one depended on natural power alone, no one could take it. But, says St Thomas, if this strength is from grace then anyone can; for Christ said: ‘Ask and it shall be given to you’ (Lk 11:9).
— Richard Butler, Religious Vocation

The early Christians understood this. There is no need to subject oneself "to deep self-analysis … and prolonged deliberation over whether or not one has ‘the call’”. (Richard Butler, Religious Vocation)

“Anyone who wishes to live a celibate life for the love of God may do so: the firm desire to do this is a sufficient sign of the divine call”.John Daly, Catechism on the Choice of a State of Life St. Thomas makes bold to say that “no one should delay, or even deliberate over, [this] simple resolve… In fact, he says, don’t seek advice except from those who will encourage you!” (Richard Butler, Religious Vocation)

In a similar vein, St. Jerome imagines the dramatic scenario of a father lying prostrate across the threshold to impede his child from fulfilling this holy resolve. Even so, advises the saint, “step over him and go on”. (Richard Butler, Religious Vocation)

To a child teeming with supernatural generosity, the heavenly Father’s appeal is ever more urgent.

A Reason for Pause

If such advice sounds quixotic, St. Jerome was mindful of facts on the ground. “Let each one study his own powers,” he writes, “whether he can fulfil the precepts of virginal modesty… one’s strength must be considered.”John Daly, Catechism on the Choice of a State of Life The single vocation is inappropriate for those who find perpetual continence excessively burdensome. Pope Pius XII elaborates:

Prior to entering upon this most difficult path, all who by experience know they are too weak in spirit should humbly heed the warning of Paul the Apostle: ‘But if they do not contain themselves, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn.’ (1 Co 7:9) For many, undoubtedly the burden of perpetual continence is a heavier one than they should be persuaded to shoulder.

The tolerance of sexual immorality and exaggerated concern for romantic love “is a regrettable feature of our age, a feature inspiring horror of the opposite.” (Richard Butler, Religious Vocation)

And this hedonistic attitude has compromised the generosity of many otherwise well-meaning Catholic singles. Nevertheless, they would be ill advised to continue thus undecided, perhaps squandering the opportunity to do much good with their lives. Especially should they guard against being influenced by the example of friends to embark on the preliminaries of courtship before being satisfied that they will not regret, in this world or the next, the choice of the married state. (John Daly, Catechism on the Choice of a State of Life).

Forgoing the consolations of marriage does not have to leave one unconsoled. On the contrary, the higher states of life promise the “cheerful giver” consolations heretofore unimagined. (2 Cor 9:7) Were it possible to appraise beforehand the joys derived from living all three counsels, he would likely abandon all and embrace the state of perfection straightaway. Often enough, however, the path to religion is frustrated.

Coming to Terms

The single vocation, then, is “appropriate for those who are held back from the cloister by poor health … by the obligation of supporting needful parents, or by the fact that … approved religious communities are not to be found.” (John Daly, Catechism on the Choice of a State of Life)

Sometimes the barrier to religion lies within, and they are prevented on account of an acute defect of character incompatible with community life. Yet there are always those otherwise capable who choose to remain unmarried while following a career in the world instead, “perhaps under the guidance of a prudent director or the influence of a special grace.” (John Daly, Catechism on the Choice of a State of Life)

In brief, any Catholic single who “wishes to practice the counsel of chastity, but is unable or unwilling to take on one or both of the other” evangelical counsels is a most suitable prospect for the single vocation. (John Daly, Catechism on the Choice of a State of Life).

As ever, the prospect remains at liberty. There are two notes to any vocation: a divine invitation and a human acceptance or response. Because of man’s necessary dependence in every motion, however, God not only invites but also moves the subject to respond. (Cf. Richard Butler, Religious Vocation)

Once His invitation penetrates the heart, the subject experiences an irrepressible attraction. This attraction is decidedly not sentimental; it holds captive only the higher powers of the soul. In this way, God declares His will to the deliberation by causing the subject to feel a growing dislike for the state to which his sensuality hitherto most inclined him. (Cf. Francis Hunolt, Sermon on The Actual Selection of a State of Life).

At last, the previously nondescript invitation is received as a veritable calling. Here is “vocation” in its mystical fullness: the invitee, convinced of his strength from on high, actually pursues the state of life gently arranged for him by Providence. “For it is God who worketh in you, both to will and to accomplish”. (Phil 2:13) And there remains much to accomplish in the forgotten state of life!

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