Being single in the universal Church

There’s both good news and bad news about today’s Catholic singles. 

The good news? 

They’re not living the single life alone. Today, more unconsecrated single Catholics live in America than at any other point in history. 

And the bad news? 

They’re not living the single life alone. Today, more unconsecrated single Catholics live in America than at any other point in history. 

Nope, that’s not a typo. The good news and the bad news are the same.  

Although it may be reassuring, in some ways, that today’s unmarried Catholics have lots of company in the single life, it’s also a problem. Never before have quite so many adults, Catholics or otherwise, delayed marriage quite so late in life. Some delay by choice. Others by chance. But marriage is delayed regardless. And the results are often less than rosy. 

As statistics collected by the National Marriage Project show, the single life is rife with risk factors. For example, single people in general are two to three times more likely to be depressed than their married peers and far more likely to commit suicide. Singles, particularly men, tend to suffer from more health problems than married individuals, as well as die younger. They are also less financially stable, suffer from higher rates of sexually transmitted diseases and are more apt to be the perpetrators (men) or victims (women) of violent crimes. 

Cheery, no? 

Despite that grim statistical picture, however, the single life is not necessarily all gnashing of teeth and weeping. 

There are, as even the most discontented of singles will grudgingly admit, some definite perks to the single life. Most have a type of freedom and time that their married peers don’t, freedom and time that allows them to pursue professional, intellectual, spiritual and recreational opportunities of all sorts. 

There also are plenty of Catholic singles managing to live happy and virtuous lives because of, not in spite of, their singleness. They’re serving God, building up his Kingdom in the world and loving those who cross their path. These singles are going to church, going to confession and not going home from bars with strangers. They’re actually not going home with anyone. They’re both professing and living the Church’s teachings on human sexuality. 

Single struggles

Unfortunately, those singles are the minority, even within the Catholic Church. And for as happy and virtuous as that minority might be, most still have their fair share of struggles with their singleness. 

At the top of most faithful Catholic singles’ list of complaints is their single status itself. Most don’t want to remain unmarried. They want to say “I do.” But finding a spouse who shares their faith and who won’t pressure them to abide by the culture’s sexual norms is something of a trick these days, particularly for women. 

“The men aren’t there,” said Dave Sloan, who helps run the Atlanta-based national singles outreach Singles Serving Orphans, part of Serving God’s Kids, which sponsors missions trips to a Mexican orphanage multiple times each year. “Go to the parish events. There are loads of attractive, appealing, virtuous women and just a handful of guys. It’s a tough situation.” 

Even if a nice Catholic girl or boy is found, however, other problems often get in the way of marriage. Many nice Catholics girls and boys haven’t always been nice Catholic girls and boys. Some have made mistakes in the past that haunt them still.  

Others bear the wounds of past breakups, divorce or misguided notions about career, family, personal responsibility, the meaning of happiness and the ends of marriage. 

“So, many single Catholics today simply have no idea what a healthy, committed Catholic marriage looks like,” said Anastasia Northrop, the founder of the National Catholic Singles Conference. “If you don’t have an example of that, how do you know it’s possible to live it?” 

Whether the wounds and inability to commit are their own or another’s, those problems leave many unmarried Catholics struggling, to varying degrees, with profound loneliness. 

“That loneliness is the key issue for most singles,” Sloan said. “The human person was made to be in a family, a community. We image God, who is a family, and we were made to share our life with others.” 

They also leave many singles asking some big questions about God. 

“Their life isn’t turning out as they expected, so they want to know where God is in their singleness. Did he forget them? Why are they still single? And what do they do about it?” said Catholic Match columnist and “Real Love” (Ignatius Press, $14.95) author Mary Beth Bonacci. 

Not fitting the mold 

For all those reasons and more, the Church sympathizes with singles, both the faithful variety and the less-than-faithful variety. It understands the path they’re on isn’t an easy one. It wants to help. 

It just isn’t sure how. 

That uncertainty is evident in the state of Catholic singles ministry nationwide. 

In a few choice locales, it’s thriving. 

Where singles in general and Catholic singles in particular are in great supply — cities such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. — events for unmarried Catholics can be found most any night of the week. Happy hours, Theology on Tap, service projects, Bible studies and book clubs are all there for those willing to take advantage of them. Those events provide opportunities for spiritual formation, opportunities for singles to help the less fortunate, and opportunities for meeting potential mates. 

There also are events on the national level, like Northrop’s National Catholic Singles Conference, now in its seventh year, and Sloan’s Singles Serving Orphans mission trips, as well as online communities such as Catholic Match and Ave Maria Singles

Once you get outside the major cities and away from the national scene, however, you have to start looking harder for thriving singles ministries. A lot harder. 

According to Sloan, in recent years most Catholic dioceses have scaled back their outreach to singles and young adults, eliminating young adult ministers or reducing their positions to part time. Tough financial times account for some of those decisions, but Sloan believes something else is at work. 

“The challenges singles face are grave and overwhelming,” he told OSV. “They’re also entirely new. The Church hasn’t figured out how to respond to them, and so the challenge is easier not to face.” 

It’s not just dioceses struggling to confront that challenge, however. Parishes struggle, too. 

“When people find themselves single later than they thought they would be, their instinct often is to go to God,” Bonacci said. “But when they do, what they find are parish structures built around families, and they don’t know how to break in. 

“It’s not a bad thing for parishes to be concerned about families,” she added. “Families need all the help they can get. But parishes need to find ways to incorporate those who don’t fit into the family programming mold — sacramental prep, Catholic schools and catechetical programs.” 

Hard to pin down

No one (or almost no one) questions that. But the dilemma remains: How? 

“It’s a hard demographic to pin down,” said Christopher Chapman, associate director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. “You’ve got Catholic singles who are 25, and you’ve got Catholic singles who are 55. The 25-year-olds don’t want to socialize with the 55-year-olds, and the 55-year-olds don’t want to socialize with the 25-year-olds.” 

There’s also widely varying levels of formation and perceived needs among Catholic singles, he said. 

“You’ve got serious Catholics who went to devout Catholic schools, and you’ve got lapsed Catholics who don’t know their faith. You’ve got Catholics who hear about a Bible study and think, ‘That’s exactly what I want.’ And you’ve got Catholics who think ‘That’s exactly what I don’t want.’ The unifying need that attracts married Catholic to events — namely their children’s sacramental prep and education — isn’t there. 

“Even when you get a successful program going, it only lasts so long,” he continued. “Unmarried Catholics meet, get married, and the energy dies out.” 

Finally, Chapman told OSV, simply reaching single Catholics is a very different proposition than reaching their married peers. 

“Fewer go to Church. They don’t have kids in the schools. And they don’t read the diocesan paper,” he said. “They’re everywhere, but nowhere.”

Less ‘churchy’ events 

For those reasons, the growing consensus among those involved in singles ministry is that a multi-pronged approach, which encompasses evangelization, formation, socialization and opportunities for service, needs to be taken. 

In Bonacci’s Denver-area parish, they’re attempting an end run around the diverse age range by hosting events for singles that are more substantive than social. After the teaching is over, people still socialize, but they tend to break off into age-appropriate groups. 

“There is a social need,” Bonacci said. “We just think it’s better served by letting them find each other through deeper things.” 

In Atlanta, Sloan has seen service projects and events that are less “churchy” in nature draw single Catholics in and connect them to other single Catholics, as well as provide them with the resources they need for healing and formation. He also said that other dioceses, such as Los Angeles, have had success with Catholic Underground — a “concert-meets-coffee house” style evening that features Eucharistic adoration. 

Taking charge 

Where those types of programs don’t exist, Northrop urges singles to stop waiting for the hierarchical Church to act. 

“We’re adults,” she said. “We need to take responsibility. So, if someone is single and wishes their parish offered more, they should start something.” 

Along those same lines, Chapman noted, Catholics should stop thinking of “singles ministry” as something the priest or the bishop is called to do and start thinking of it as something they are called to do. 

“The programmatic way is not always the best way,” he said. “More often, the best things come out of personal influence. Ultimately, this seems to be the proper province of laypeople who are in the world, living and working next to single people. We all have to make a conscious effort to form fellowship across lines of age or state in life. 

“Families are the domestic Church,” Chapman said. “Any time a couple invites a single person out to dinner because they think he might be lonely or offers to set him up on a blind date, that is the Church reaching out to single people.” 

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor and author of the forthcoming book from Emmaus Road Press, “The Catholic Girlfriend’s Survival Guide for the Single Years: The Nuts and Bolts of Staying Sane and Happy While Waiting for Mr. Right.”

Testimonials from Catholic singles

Terry McKeegan

Age: 35, City: New York City

The best thing about being single is … the flexibility, particularly in terms of my job. I travel a lot, often on short notice, and couldn’t do that quite so easily with a family. 

The worst thing about being single is … not having a partner to talk to and offer support. Friends are great, but they’re no substitute for the companionship and help of a spouse. Not having someone to help you deal with the basic details of managing your life or talk to about the deeper things going on can wear on you. 

The biggest misconception about the single life is … that there’s something wrong with being selective and careful about whom you marry. People dismiss the idea of being picky, but these days it’s so necessary. I have plenty of friends my age that have been married and divorced. And these are Catholic couples, practicing, Mass-going Catholics. No, careful and selective are good things. 

I wish the Church would … talk more about the vocation of marriage. Marriage is under attack in our culture, and people need more help understanding it in order to enter into it and live it. It would also be helpful if the Church encouraged guys to step up more, to ask girls out and commit to a relationship instead of staying stuck in strange circles of ambiguity. Guys need some help understanding what is and is not proper behavior.

Theresa Wichert

Age: 33, City: Centralia, Wash. 

The best thing about being single is … the freedom. I love my freedom. I love being able to drop everything and go at the drop of a hat without having to worry about checking with anyone or dealing with getting kids in and out of the car. 

The worst thing about being single is … not having a comrade in arms to share your life with, to look out for you, support you spiritually and kill bugs and spiders. 

The most unexpected thing about being single is … how hard it is to meet guys who share your faith and your values. There aren’t a lot of good Catholic guys in my area, and while I’ve tried dating Protestants, it just doesn’t work. It makes the relationship so much harder. I want to marry someone who is going to build up my Catholic faith, not be an obstacle to it. 

The biggest misconception about the single life is … that there’s something wrong with you because you’re single. The thing is, for a lot of us, being single is at least something of a choice. We’re not hooking up with guys in bars or going out with just anyone. We want to be with guys who can be good Catholic husbands. And those guys are hard to find. Having standards like that doesn’t mean something’s wrong with you. It means something’s right. 

Anna Franzonello

Age:29, City: Washington, D.C.

The best thing about being single right now is … the gift of time I’ve been given. I don’t have unlimited time. I work a lot and have a big family that I’m always trying to spend time with. But when I do have free time, it’s my own. I can do with it what I want. My older sisters who have a bunch of kids can’t say the same. 

The worst thing about being single is … the uncertainty. Single isn’t the end game for me. So planning for the future — making decisions about school, work, loans, and things like that — is hard. It’s frustrating to not know quite what I’m planning for or when marriage is going to come along.

The biggest misconceptions about the single life are … that single people tend to be sad, selfish and have unlimited time. Even though being single is not the “ideal” for most of us, it’s not an all-consuming thought. Also, the tendency toward being selfish is a “human” problem, not just one for singles. Many single people I know are very generous. Finally, while we have the gift of time, it’s not endless time. We have work, obligations, and commitments, too. 

I wish the Church would … have a ministry for mothers of adult singles that gives them something to focus on besides the fact that their daughters aren’t married yet. (Joking, Mom.)

Read more: "Is the unconsecrated single life a vocation?"