Finding grace in singleness: How being single is still part of the Church

Finding grace in singleness: How being single is still part of the Church

Finding grace in singleness: How being single is still part of the Church

(Credit: Max Pixel.)

For Christians, there are two states of life that are permanent: marriage and vowed religious life. But single people have a baptismal vocation, too – and we all should expect to live out seasons of singleness in some way or other.

[Editor’s Note: Jana Bennett is Associate Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Dayton, a Catholic institution affiliated with the Marianist order.  Aside from teaching and raising her two children, Lucia and Gabriella, she is the associate editor-at-large for a blog, catholicmoraltheology.com, which she started with 17 fellow theologians. Her new book Singleness and the Church: A New Theology of the Single Life comes out on August 15, 2017. As the Church is starting to think harder about non-vowed single life, Charles Camosy spoke to Bennett about the theology surrounding singles.]

Camosy: It seems like lots of singles, women especially, are writing about being single these days. What does your book add to that conversation?

Bennett: There are lots of books about singleness these days. That’s to be expected, since demographically, single adults make up about 48 percent of the U.S. population, and about 35-40 percent of the Christian population, depending on affiliation. More and more young adults are remaining single – sometimes they’re simply waiting to get married later, but sometimes they just don’t see why being married is necessary for them.

Outside the church world, many women are writing about the freedom of being single, and about holding up singleness as a great choice people ought to make, almost in opposition to marriage. There are also a couple of singles writing about experiments with sex and singleness.

Inside the church world, I’d say a lot of books about being single tend toward being self-help books aimed at helping people “cope” with being single – especially when they want to be married but don’t find marriage partners on their doorsteps.

My book is quite a bit different from these. First, most books on singleness focus on being young and never married. But I think for Christians singleness comes in a lot of forms – not just never married, but also dating, engaged, divorced, widowed, and so forth. This book brings together a lot of different ways adults encounter singleness.

Second, I wanted to see what happens when we assume that singleness is important and significant in its own right. My direction comes from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 7, where he famously advises Christians to be as he is – that is, as a single person unattached to wives and husbands.

Yet when we look more closely at that scripture, we can see that Paul addresses quite a diverse crowd of people. He speaks about being never married, divorced, widowed, engaged, and so on, too. And he writes that these ways of being single are also ways Christians are part of the church.

So, following Paul, I decided to explore what gifts single people, in all their variety, might offer to the church. In each chapter, I focus on a different single “state of life”.  Each chapter also draws on the life and writings of a Christian who lived that state of life and who took seriously that all of us are called to a life of discipleship in Jesus’ name. So, for example, Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton is the widow whose writings provide some of the discussion in my chapter on widowhood.

In the book, you use the phrase “impermanent, non-vowed single states of life.” That’s quite a mouthful. What do you mean by that?

For Christians, there are two states of life that are permanent: marriage and vowed religious life. Catholics would say that all of us – married, single, and vowed religious – are bound together in the Body of Christ with the sacrament of baptism. Marriage and vowed religious life provide further distinctions of Christian vocation we have in our baptism.

Some of the special characteristics of both marriage and vowed religious life is that they involve making lifelong vows in the presence of Christian witnesses. While those vows are sometimes broken, the assumption with these permanent states of life is that they last until death. The permanence of those vows and relationships is vitally important because it represents God’s own steadfast love and faithfulness to the entire Christian community.

One of the questions Christians have wondered about is whether the baptismal vocation covers all other “states of life,” or ways that people find themselves living as Christians in the world. In this book, I presume that single people have a baptismal vocation, too. However, I still think there’s more to be said about all these single states of life that isn’t really part of our theological conversation about baptism.

For example, impermanence is an important part of these ways of being single. Never married people and widows might well get remarried or join a religious community – and we assume that that might happen, or it might not. Dating and engagements also are not bound by permanent vows, though we might say those unmarried relationships are examining the possibility of taking some kind of life long vow.

When I began focusing on these impermanent states of life, I saw, of course, that God is also present in those impermanent relationships. God is also there in the particular kinds of questions that people ask when they are experiencing being never married or being divorced or being a single parent. That’s why the holy people that are present in each chapter are so important – because they speak especially to the kinds of gifts singleness offers to the church, even if – and perhaps because – they are  impermanent.

I think we overlook the contributions of single people to the church because they are in more impermanent states of life. That’s part of what I’m aiming to correct in this book.

That discussion brings me to my next question: with all the prayer we hear for people to hear calls to the religious life, how do we make sense of impermanent singleness alongside that call?

Well, first of all, I will say that in my book I encourage people to consider vowed religious life. Religious life is so rich and important for the life of the church – and we probably need a new book on that subject, too!

Yet the incredible importance of vowed religious life doesn’t negate the fact that many people simply experience the impermanent states of singleness as a fact of life. Spouses do die, often unexpectedly; never marrieds do fall in love and consider whether to marry someone; single parents exist in all kinds of ways. (Just a note on single parents: In my book, I note that there are a range of ways that families might become effectively single-parent families – death and divorce are only two ways that happens. Military assignments and a spouse’s long-term absence due to a job would be other ways single parenting occurs.)

So, I think there’s something to be said for considering these impermanent states of life as part of our Christian life together.

You’re a married mom of three. I imagine some people might wonder whether you can have anything at all to say about singleness. How would you respond?

I would respond with three points. The first is simply to say that much of what I say in this book comes from the lives and writing of a variety of single people.  I hope that I have given more voice to single people than to myself.

I also think that if we care about each other as People of God, we ought to find ways to celebrate each other’s lives (as well as call each other out when we aren’t living so well). If only single people write about each other, and only married people write about each other, then we never know the other, and never really see the richness of the whole Church. So, single people sometimes write theologies of marriage, and maybe this married mom can write a bit about singleness.

My third point is just this: Because single states of life are impermanent, I can say that I have already lived through some of the states I write about. I can also admit that I can expect to live other states of singleness as my life carries on. We all should expect to live out seasons of singleness in some way or other.

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