That’s the question a good many unmarried Catholics have about their single state in life. And its answer is one upon which Catholics of good faith sometimes disagree.

Those who argue that it’s not a vocation point to the magisterial writings of the Church, including the Catechism of the Catholic Church, noting that nowhere will you find any mention of a “single vocation.” Those who take the opposite point of view make reference to the large numbers of singles living in the world and say it must be a vocation, that people are living it right before our eyes.

What gives? Why the disconnect? And who’s right?

Meaning of vocation

Answering those questions first requires we get precise about our terms. When the Church talks about the word “vocation,” what does it mean?

Sometimes it means the journey or the path we’re on — the journey to holiness. To holiness, God calls each and every member of the human race. That’s why this path is commonly referred to as the “universal vocation.”

Then there is what we do on the path. That’s our “secondary vocation.” It encompasses 9-to-5 occupations (butchers, bakers and candlestick makers), as well as apostolic activities (volunteering at crisis pregnancy centers, running parish youth groups, visiting shut-ins, etc.). It also can encompass the bearing of certain trials or living out of certain situations. Think, for example, of oft-used terms such as “the vocation to suffering” or “the feminine vocation.” Those, like the vocation to teaching or ministering to teenagers, fall into the category of secondary vocations.

The final meaning of “vocation” has to do with how, as adults, we travel down the path to God. That “how” is called our “primary vocation.” Traditionally, the Church has identified three of these: holy orders, marriage and consecrated life. Each of those primary vocations is defined by the gift of self. The priest gives himself to Christ’s Church. Married people give themselves to a husband or wife. And consecrated people give themselves directly to God: They start living now the relationship all are called to live in eternity.

In the case of each primary vocation, that gift of self is not a transitory or temporary thing. It’s not given one day and taken back the next. Rather, the central relationship of each is spousal. It’s exclusive, total and enduring. When the gift of self is made to God, enduring is a “for all eternity” kind of enduring. When the gift of self is made to another person, it’s just an “until death to us part” kind of enduring. Nevertheless, the idea is the same: You fully and freely give yourself to another, and through that giving you pursue your universal vocation, holiness.

You also could say that through one spousal relationship you prepare yourself for another spousal relationship, the spousal relationship God calls you to enter into with himself. When considered in that light, a primary vocation isn’t just “how” you journey to holiness. It’s with whom you make the journey.

So, where in all that does the much talked about “single vocation” fit?

Although it’s increasingly equated with the vocations of marriage, priesthood and consecrated life, unconsecrated singlehood doesn’t seem to quite jibe with the traditional definition of “primary vocation.”

Remember, primary vocations are exclusive and enduring. Once you give yourself to another — God, the Church, a husband or wife — you can’t give yourself to anyone else. Ever. At least not without the intervention of death or a tribunal.

Missing the call

Yet that’s not the case for unconsecrated singlehood. It’s a state in life that’s generally transitory and always, at least technically, easy to exit. In other words, you don’t have to get a tribunal’s permission to cease being single. You are supposed to cease being single. You are supposed to enter into a spousal relationship with someone — the Church, God or another person.

In theory, that all makes sense. In reality, however, it gets a bit sticky. After all, what about men and women who never marry? Or those who don’t feel called to marriage, the priesthood or a religious order?

First, it’s important to remember that a person doesn’t have to be a religious in order to live the consecrated vocation. It’s the norm, but it’s not a prerequisite. So, if people don’t feel called to marriage, holy orders or a religious order, it might just mean they’re called to live the consecrated vocation in the world as a consecrated single, having solemnly vowed the entirety of their life, exclusively and enduringly, to God.

It’s also important to remember that, unfortunately, there is such a thing as a missed vocation.

Everybody has a primary vocation. But not everyone will necessarily enter into the vocation to which God calls them. Sometimes that happens because of illness or accident — because of the tragic realities of life in a fallen world. Other times it happens because of the misuse of free will.

Although God might make someone for a particular vocation and call him or her to it, he never forces anyone to answer that call. Which is why, when enough people won’t answer, you have vocational crises — a shortage of priests, a shortage of nuns, a surplus of singles.

Of course, not all those singles are refusing to answer God’s call. Many of those called to marriage would happily do so. But it’s not entirely up to them. Theirs is a vocation that takes two capable and willing partners to enter. And when those capable and willing partners are in short supply, that means some men and women, through no fault of their own, will “miss” their vocation or enter into it later than they would like.

It stinks. But it happens.

Embracing opportunities

For that reason, however, all unconsecrated singles should strive to see their single years, for as long as they last, as an integral part of their secondary vocation. Spouse or no, all Catholics are on that journey toward holiness, and whether they’re single for a little while or for a long while, the lack of a spouse does indeed afford them opportunities — of both suffering and service — that marriage, the priesthood and consecrated life might not. Leading the single life, for as long as it lasts, is definitely something you do on the path to holiness. It is very much a secondary vocation.

Recognizing that is what makes unchosen, unwanted, unconsecrated singlehood bearable. Likewise, embracing the opportunities it presents is perhaps the best of all possible aids for singles in their journey to the eternal spousal union for which we all were made.

And no one disagrees about that. 

Read more: "Being single in the universal church"