With a focus on the Catholic man's vocation of biological and spiritual fatherhood, it is easy to overlook the suffering of the single man, especially in relation to a sense of purpose or calling.
Here, we hope to provide a set of resources on the topic, based on articles and subsequent responses posted on the Catholic Man UK facebook members' group in May 2020.
The key articles are as follows (and some responses to them will be posted further down this article):
Fr Pius Collins, Chaplain to Catholic Man UK: I want to start by saying that I do not believe that the 'single life' is a vocation per se, and I think the first article fails in clarity of thought and engaging with Catholic theology (as well as canon law, but that can be forgiven).
I will highlight the following reasons (amongst many others):
1) Failure of definition. The author contrasts the "single life" with priesthood and religious life, and seems to include members of secular institutes in the rank of 'singles', which is odd. He also fails to distinguish between those who are single and preparing for a particular state of life (priesthood or religious life, for instance), those who find themselves as single against their desire, and those who commit themselves to being single for some natural or supernatural reason.
2) Stability. The author writes, "A state of life like marriage, religious life, the priesthood, or chaste single life has a level of stability". The 'single life', as he sees it, has no stability except that which is created by the individual, who can (legitimately) change his mind and seek to pursue another way of life. He states that some single people make a commitment to single life, "This may not be vowed or recognised by a religious community or episcopate, but that does not necessarily derogate from its stability or validity." Yes it does. The fact is that in marriage, religious life (and as a consecrated virgin, hermit or other states of life) one is accountable to somebody else and one is called (and blessed) by the Church, as the locus of the vocation. The absence of this from the 'single life' necessarily challenges it's stability and validity as a vocation
3) The single life as "natural" or "fundamental". This seems to be simply playing with words, and only makes sense in the context of the article because of the original failure of definition. To compare the "single life" of a child to a widow is absurd. The 'single life' always precedes priesthood, religious life or marriage and so that period is (as the author says) radically important. Is that the same as one who chooses never to pursue priesthood, religious life or marriage? The author starts by distinguishing telos from process (borrowing, it seems, from Pope Benedict and OHF Augustine amongst others), but he fundamentally fails to see that difference within the 'single life' or account for it.
I want to finish by adding that none of this means that the 'single life' (however defined) cannot be a means of sanctification (and therefore getting to Heaven), or that single people cannot serve the World and the Church in fantastic ways (some of which the author lists). It is to say that the 'single life' in itself is not the means of sanctification, because it is not a state of life, but the absence of a state of life (properly conceived).
Fr Toby Lees: I think it's helpful to think of vocations within vocations. There is a universal call to holiness, everyone has this, no one is excluded from this call to sanctity.
But there are also particular vocations, most paradigmatically religious life, which is a supernatural calling of celibacy for the sake of the kingdom. There is also marriage which though a natural good has been elevated to a a sacrament by Christ. It lacks some of the permanence of religious life though as it is ended by death in this life. There are also consecrated virgins, living in the secular world.
However, being single does not fit into these categories easily as for most it is not experienced as a calling, witnessed to by the fact that most do not choose to make this state permanent, i.e. they still hope to meet someone or at least would like to keep options open.
In my opinion, too often rather than acknowledge the pain and suffering of wanting to marry but not meeting someone suitable there has been a kind, but misguided, desire to comfort by suggesting that God must be calling them to be single.
I don't think this helps deal with the problem that Catholic Man UK tries to address, which is a need to form virtuous men strong in the faith who will make good husbands and who are lacking in number in the contemporary Church. Being sad at not being married is not a sin and it's not a sign of God's distance, and so we don't need to call it a vocation to try and soothe.
Ferdi McDermott, Head Master, Chavagnes (author of the third article): my thoughts are based on my own convictions, borne of 25 years' experience of this path, as well as what I have understood from my reading of church history, Scripture and magisterial documents. I have been a Benedictine oblate for twenty-plus years, and we have a canonically approved institute here in Chavagnes, based on this way of thinking, which we set up in 2009. Ups and downs, sure. But it works.