“It is not good that the man should be alone.”
Being alone is the first thing God pronounces “not good,” after so many proclamations of the goodness of His creation. And yet being alone is an increasingly common condition in American life. The latest Census data found that over a quarter of Americans lived alone, up from 17 percent in 1970. Marriages happen later and less frequently than they used to. Catholic parishes have mostly responded to this change in two ways, neither of which are the most fruitful approaches to ending our solitude.
In one approach, the parish sets up what are basically meet markets for young adults, and tries to marry everybody off a little sooner. I'm deeply sympathetic to this approach – most people should marry, and if a Catholic parish doesn't do a little matchmaking, who will? But this strategy leaves little space in the parish for those who for whatever reason are neither married nor seeking marriage: gay or same-sex attracted parishioners (like me), separated or civilly-divorced Catholics, widows and widowers who aren't interested in remarriage, and anybody else who for any reason does not feel called to marriage. Marriage shouldn't really be our “default setting” for vocational discernment; the early Church was anything but intently focused on pairing up lovebirds or setting up cozy bourgeois households. There are plenty of Christians who are not called to marriage, as a quick flip through a dictionary of saints will show. In many of our parishes today the unmarried are relegated to the Young Adults Ministry until we're in dentures – eternal adolescents in the eyes of our church communities.
But if not marriage, what are people like me called to? Parishes which acknowledge the existence of what we might call long-term unmarried Christians, or Christians not seeking marriage, sometimes try to address our needs by developing the idea of a “vocation to singleness.” This vague vocation is mostly defined by what it's not: It's an attempt to overcome stigma against unmarried Catholics, to relieve pressure to marry, to affirm that being unmarried isn't something you need to offer excuses for.
It's possible that in the future some rich concept of a “vocation to singleness” will be worked out theologically and pastorally. I'm skeptical, though, because “singleness” is inherently defined by a lack of relationship to others. Vocations, by contrast, are typically defined by the type of relationship you have to others: the specific people God is calling you to love, and the ways in which He is calling you to express that love. Vocations serve to link us to one another. Some people do discern a call to sacrifice ordinary human relationships of marriage, kinship, and community life, so that they can place God alone at the center of their lives. We call these people “hermits,” there aren't that many of them, and God generally sends them swarms of people to go and bother them and force them to experience human connectedness rather than remaining in the solitude they might prefer. Very few of us were made to be hermits, and even hermits don't get what they want.
There must be better ways for Catholic parishes to incorporate their unmarried members into relationships and vocations: leading us into love, not loneliness. As usual, the solution to a cultural problem requires the Church to become more Catholic, more attuned to Her history and mission. The Church is the primary family for Christians. Those who are estranged from their families because of the Gospel, Jesus promises, will receive brothers and sisters and mothers and children – and one obvious place we might receive these blessings of family is in the Church.
What this looks like in practice will vary. But I think we often go astray in seeking to create little subgroups within the Church for people whose life stages or paths appear similar: Young Adults over here, Moms over there, Young Women here, Same-Sex Attracted people there. Sometimes it's a huge relief to have a space where you can talk with people who are dealing with broadly similar challenges – I'm not saying any of these ministries are a bad thing in themselves. But we also need to forge friendships across these lines. We need to get to know one another, so that instead of envying one another (married people envy our freedom, while we envy their bonds) we can help carry one another's crosses.
Friendship is one way to bring unmarried Catholics into intimate, loving relationship. Honoring friendship as a form of love would require being willing to sacrifice for our friends and to serve them, as Jonathan sacrificed for David, as Jesus served His friends the apostles.
Kinship is an even closer bond. Many of us grew up knowing “great-aunts” or “great-uncles” who weren't actually blood relatives; they were the best friends of our grandmas and grandpas, and that made them part of the family. In old age, they might share a home with Grandma, and after she died, Grandma's children might care for them, since the old women's friendship created a tie as strong as blood. Or we treated our godparents or godsisters as part of our family, people to whom we owed obligations. Not every unmarried Christian will want the obligations and pressures of kinship, and especially not the pressures of living in a family home. But many single Christians could lead better lives if they were welcomed into the family life of married people.
Family life can have its own forms of loneliness, and even the most loving marriage and bustling houseful of kids will at times be a cross. Bringing single Catholics into friendship and even kinship with married Catholics would relieve some of the pressure on the married ones as well. They'd have someone to turn to when they feel overwhelmed; men, especially, would not be so likely to find that once they got married all their other sources of love and support slowly dropped away. There are obvious ways this arrangement could go wrong or prove challenging. But these problems are problems of close relationships, which I think are generally better than the problems of loneliness—and we don't get a life without any problems at all.
Lay community life is another possible road for unmarried Catholics. The medieval beguinages offered one model of laywomen living together and serving their communities. Christian “intentional communities” offer another model. In these communities, lay adults live together and make decisions together: sometimes only for a season of life, but sometimes as a lifelong commitment. They usually dedicate the community to service to the neediest. This can be a good way to create a kind of halfway space for people who aren't called to embed themselves in a family home, but who also find living by themselves painful or just boring and fruitless.
I live by myself, and although I think living alone is usually not the best route for a Christian, I do think lots of people will still end up doing it, and many of us will probably like it a lot more than we'd like living with our parents, our friends, or our fellow parishioners. But even those of us who live alone need to ask ourselves how we can love others, and be in relationship with others. We might “live alone” in the Census data, but we shouldn't be alone in the Genesis sense.
There are countless ways “single” lay life can be fruitful and life-giving. We're teachers, shelter workers, and hospice volunteers. We're the maid of honor at the wedding or the godfather at the baptismal font. The roles of friend, servant, and godparent are vocations, and they deserve the honor of perhaps more obvious vocations such as spouse, nun, or priest. These are callings which truly entwine our lives together, so that nobody has to be alone.
“Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up. Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone? And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)