When Pope Francis promulgated the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia in 2016, much of its teaching was widely ignored in favor of what would become years of arguing over a single footnote that potentially opens the sacraments to some Catholics who are civilly remarried after divorce.[1] Conservative Catholics launched arguments that this change was stark enough to constitute an actual threat to the integrity of Catholic doctrine. Many of these concerns were expressed (at least initially) in good faith. However, after the Pope issued a number of clarifications of the document’s intended sense, many refused to accept it, instead either relying on personal interpretations that comported better with their own understandings or simply rejecting Amoris Laetitia entirely.

Similarly, a number of Francis’s off-the-cuff remarks about gay people, starting with “who am I to judge?” very early in his pontificate,[2] have come in for criticism from conservatives in the Church. Likewise, they have been unhappy with his relative lack of emphasis on the “theology of the body,” Pope St. John Paul II’s enormous body of phenomenology-influenced work on theological anthropology. The theology of the body nominally constitutes a development of the doctrine against artificial contraception reaffirmed in Pope St. Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae vitae, but it also covers an enormous range of other subjects, most of them related to relationships between married couples. (I’ve actually known Traditionalists who dislike the theology of the body for—strangely, considering that it’s the theology of a celibate Pope—not paying much attention to celibacy.)[3]

What do the divorced and remarried, gay people, and unmarried adults have in common? As the placement of this essay in the “Loneliness Today” series likely implies, I think these are all populations that are liable to feelings of alienation from their parishes and from the life of the Church. The unifying theme here is an alienation based on sexuality or a relational life (or lack thereof) that is at variance with the widespread Catholic focus on parish life and spiritual care for families made up of married couples and their children.

It wasn’t always like this. Until about fifty or sixty years ago almost no orthodox Catholic would have suggested that inevitably or almost inevitably any given adult would and should end up married. As is well-known, vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life were more robust before then (although as is also well-known today, this entailed the ordination or consecration of many temperamentally unfit and even dangerous people). I once consulted a library copy of the famous pre-Vatican II Baltimore Catechism in which a teenage girl is shown saying to her parents that the nuns and priests at her Catholic school “say that she has a vocation”; the parents are presented as suspect, perhaps even antisocial, for trying to pressure her out of this.

But how does the Church minister to people who aren’t called to the priesthood or consecrated life, and who don’t get married? All of us know many lifelong singles who aren’t priests or religious brothers or sisters. Maybe they’re in the closet (like in the old “confirmed bachelor” euphemism). Maybe they’re not mentally or emotionally stable enough to be good spouses. Maybe they’ve had a failed relationship or a string of failed relationships that put them off the idea of finding love. Maybe they just never found anybody.

There is a vacuum in the traditional Catholic model of vocation when it comes to knowing what to do with these people. In the context of the Catholic community, they are frequently marginalized. Often they are pitied, at best. At worst, they used to be, and sometimes still are, judged very harshly. A recent article by David Brooks in The Atlantic quotes a survey of the general public from 1957 in which “more than half of the respondents said that unmarried people were ‘sick,’ ‘immoral,’ or ‘neurotic.’”[4] Few people today would assume such things about somebody who was simply not married, but I have the suspicion that far more would assume these things of somebody who had never been seriously romantically or sexually involved. Moreover, I’ve also heard certain Catholics still express these assumptions about the unmarried on a couple of occasions. Of course, the suspicion—or reality—of homosexuality makes the scrutiny and judgment worse, as does the possibility—or reality—that somebody is “back to” living a single life after a failed marriage.

In practice, pastors in some parts of the world were already integrating the divorced and remarried into parish life even before Amoris Laetitia, and one does sometimes hear of gay Catholics who are managing to survive and even thrive in atypically supportive parish environments. Moreover, there is a recognition among many priests today that the set of vocational options available in a society is not necessarily static. Thus, in a culture in which more and more adults are never in a position in which they can marry, one finds priests talking more about single life as a vocation in and of itself than one did in the past. The philosophical writings of St. Edith Stein, herself a phenomenologist and an influence on John Paul II’s thought, are often cited on this. Stein did eventually become a nun, but for most of her adult life she was a single laywoman who worked as a philosophy teacher. In one of her essays, she writes:

It may be considered as the direct sign of a special calling when one is pulled out of the course apparently given by birth and upbringing, or one personally hoped and striven for, and then thrown into an entirely different path. This calling is for a personal mission which does not stand firmly outlined in advance, with its track already traced out and clear; rather, it is revealed step by step. And here it may be that the unique strengthening needed for the duties of such a life is found by the woman going her own way rather than in the communal life of consecrated liturgy.[5]

Stein was writing specifically for and about women, but I believe that her teaching on this subject has relevance to single men as well. Stereotypes about women “needing” relationships or marriage more than men do were widespread in Stein’s time. To some extent, these stereotypes are current even today, although numerous studies show that there is now more of a “marriage gap” in men’s life outcomes than in women’s.[6] A sense of mission in singleness is missing for many Catholics. The same could probably be said about mission for gay Catholics and mission for those who have divorced (remarried or otherwise). Parishes and the Church writ large would do well to devote more effort to helping people find that sense.

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[1] This is not to say that people who actually sat down and read Amoris Laetitia only noticed this or were only interested in it. Quite the contrary; I have a secondhand paperback copy of the exhortation with several dog-ears from the previous owner, and the page with the infamous footnote is not among them.

[2] “Press conference of the Holy Father during the flight back (28 July 2013),” Holy See, July 28, 2013, accessed March 3, 2020, https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2013/july/documents/papa-francesco_20130728_gmg-conferenza-stampa.html.

[3] Amoris Laetitia does cite John Paul II over a dozen times, including at least three citations from the theology of the body corpus of teaching.

[4] David Brooks, “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake,” The Atlantic, March 2020.

[5] Edith Stein, “Spirituality of the Christian Woman,” in The Collected Works of Edith Stein, Volume 2, trans. Freda Mary Oben, ed. Lucy Gelber and Romaeus Leuven (Washington: ICS Publications, 1996), 87-128; 125.

[6] See i.e. “Married Men Outearn Single Men (and Women as a Whole), Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, December 25, 2018, accessed March 3, 2020, https://www.stlouisfed.org/on-the-economy/2018/december/married-men-outearn-single-men.

Image: Portrait of Dr. Gachet by Vincent Van Gogh

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Nathan Turowsky went to elementary school in Vermont, high school in New Jersey, and college in Massachusetts, where he now lives. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in social services.

Loneliness Today, Part V: The Uncoupled
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