Being Single: State of life, vocation, or both?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 20, 2019 | In Reviews

The number of “singles” in the regions where most of my readers live has increased rapidly over the past half-century. Most of us are aware of some of the reasons for this, but here are a few of them:

  • Delay from prolonged education
  • Reversion to single state because of divorce
  • Distrust of marriage from frequent divorce
  • Emphasis on individual freedom/fulfillment
  • Corresponding selfishness about having children
  • Sexual pleasure widely available outside of marriage
  • Economic pressures in affluent societies
  • Declining “peculiarity” (stigma) of being unmarried
  • Multiple options eclipsing marriage “by default”
  • Prolonged drift before settling on life-commitment
  • For the highly committed, so few soul mates

I am sure there are others but, in affluent societies generally, people are marrying later, less often, and less permanently. This naturally raises new questions, even within the Church, about the single state of life.

Some have argued that while there is obviously a “single state”, there is no “vocation” to the single state—meaning that, while we all start off single, God does not call anyone to remain so unless they are in the priesthood or religious life. I have always disagreed with this claim, and it has by now been thoroughly disproved by developments in the Church regarding various kinds of specifically-recognized vocations to singleness—vocations which are both dedicated and permanent, and do not entail ordination or religious vows.

I suspect most married men and women have awakened one morning to the certainty that they should have been priests or nuns or, at least should have remained single. Usually, this is a temptation—or in a generally happy marriage, of course, merely a bit of black humor. But on very rare occasions, by mutual consent and without detriment to any children, fresh vocations are born out of marriage with the consent of the Church. What interests me here, however, is the growing number of single men and women who are discerning genuine vocations to permanent singleness.

That is, they are being called by God to commit themselves permanently to the single state in order to serve Him as He wishes them to serve, but without switching over to long-established vocational categories like priesthood, religious life, or even any organized form of consecrated life.

Continuous evolution of recognized vocations

Certainly, new categories of vocational and semi-vocational commitment for single men and women have developed over the centuries, from consecrated virgins to third orders to lay communities with specific purposes to secular institutes to roles within Opus Dei. Some of these are open to married persons as well. Religious life itself has taken many forms, from hermits, to wandering “monks”, to monks in cloistered communities with a number of different charisms, to the new mendicant preaching orders in the thirteenth century, and so on.

The changing name of the Vatican office which superintends such developments tells part of the story, as it applies from the early modern era through the last century:

  • 1586: Pope Sixtus V founded the Sacred Congregation for Consultations about Regulars.
  • 1908: Pope St. Pius X changed the name to the Congregation for Religious.
  • 1967: Pope St. Paul VI changed it again to the Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes.
  • 1998: Pope St. John Paul II changed it to the current name, The Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

Readers can get a good sense of what all this means by consulting the overview of the Congregation on the Vatican website. Each name change broadened the scope of the Congregation. It is interesting (though not proof of anything) that each name change was also made by a pope who was later canonized.

We are now a generation past the last name change, surviving in a culture which is characteristic of nothing if not rapid change. I began by citing a huge demographic fact of which I am sure everyone is aware: The rapidly increasing percentage of men and women who are either in the single state their whole lives, or for unusually large portions of their lives. It is hardly surprising, then, that a great deal of thought and even experimentation is going into the question of how to discern when one is actually called to the single state as one’s vocation and, if so, how to understand and structure that vocation.

Today’s needs and developments

It is just here that an important new book makes an immense contribution—written by Luanne D. Zurlo, a woman who has already gone down this vocational path and lived it for many years. The book opens with a foreword by Wojciech Giertych, OP, the Theologian of the Papal Household, who was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI and has been retained by Pope Francis. It is fittingly entitled Single for a Greater Purpose: A Hidden Joy in the Catholic Church.

Zurlo covers the fundamental vocation shared by all Christians; the distinction between vocation and state of life; the spiritual importance of celibacy; the difference between singleness by default and singleness for a greater purpose; discerning the calling; distinctions among consecration, vows and dedicated singles; living the evangelical counsels; the importance of witness; friendships for dedicated singles; relationships with priests; and the joy of the vocation. Appendices offer tips for discernment, sample vows, relevant Bible passages, and reflections from Venerable Madeleine Delbrêl.

Luanne Zurlo writes with deep awareness of historical development, modern challenges and key spiritual, theological and canonical issues. She is very widely-read and includes a select bibliography. But it is not my purpose so much to review this book as to very seriously recommend it to any single person who is wondering whether he or she is single by default or actually called to the vocation of serving God for a greater purpose in the single state.

I offer only one caveat: Zurlo’s book will serve women slightly better than it does men. While she clearly intends to illuminate this vocation for both men and women, her experience is obviously feminine. This significantly colors two things in the book: First, the question of friendships between dedicated singles and priests; second, her tendency in a few places to conceive of dedicated singleness in light of the traditional Catholic emphasis on espousal to Christ, which clearly cannot exhaust the theology and spirituality of a vocation which is also appropriate for men.

Nonetheless, Single for a Greater Purpose is the place to start in learning about the possibilities of this vocation. The book will be of immense help to anyone who wishes to learn more about the whole concept of “vocation”, to grow spiritually in any form of the single state in life, or to discern a possible vocation to dedicated singleness within the Church of Christ.


Luanne D. Zurlo, Single for a Greater Purpose: A Hidden Joy in the Catholic Church: Sophia Institute Press, 2019, 198pp, paper

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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