Is there a vocation to bachelorhood?

It depends on what one means by “vocation”.  People who speak of a vocation to the single life mean to say that God has a particular plan for each individual, and this includes people who are not called to be married, to be priests, or to be religious.  I don’t have an objection to this.  In fact, this use of the word “vocation” is its most common contemporary meaning.  However, making “vocation” mean “particular life path toward which one is called by God” makes it a less interesting word than it can be.  It is at once too general in meaning and too specific in application.  “Particular life path” is so general, very little can be said about “vocation” that would cover all instances.  And God’s particular path for me presumably includes not just being married, but being married to a particular woman, living in a particular place, working a particular job, and so forth.  If all these are part of my vocation, I lose the sense of marriage having any privileged place in ordering my life.

It used to be that when Catholics spoke of “vocation”, they meant the priesthood and religious orders.  (Protestants used “vocation” to mean “line of work”, as in “vocational training”.  They took this as a sign of having done a better job sanctifying lay life, and we took it as a sign of them being silly heretics.)  Everyone most certainly did not have one of these vocations.  Even today, when we pray for vocations, we’re not asking God to help our young men and women find each other (but please do, Lord!).  Here vocation clearly means a consecration to God.  The man or woman called by God takes a vow to forsake secular life to dedicate him or herself entirely to His service and worship.  The vow was necessarily understood to be lifelong.

Given this understanding of vocation, it was easy to see how marriage for the laity is analogous to holy orders for the priesthood.  In marriage, we once again have a sacrament centered on a lifelong vow.  The celibacy of the clergy in the Latin Rite makes the correspondence even tighter.  One has only one life to dispose, so one only gets to choose one vocation.  One or the other thing, or both, could not be understood to be life-disposing.  Hence, the celibacy of the clergy served to elevate marriage.

The analogy between marriage, the priesthood, and the religious life is so close (much closer than any analogy between the priesthood and secular careers), it makes sense to identify them as three members of a type.  Hence my usual use of the word “vocation” for “sacramental life-structuring vow.”  This seems to me to be a real essence; there is much one can say about such a thing without needing to be more specific.

By this definition, being a bachelor is not a vocation.  There’s no vow, no sacrament, and no fixed positive duties.  Suppose a man gets it into his head that God is “calling” him to “the single life”.  (We’ll take him to be a man because the survey shows I only have two female readers.)  I suppose this happens a lot, mostly to guys who don’t think they’d make good priests and who haven’t had luck finding a girlfriend.  Nothing wrong with wondering about God’s plans.  Now suppose he meets the girl of this dreams, everything he ever wanted in a woman, and she’s desperately in love with him and eager to bear and homeschool a dozen good Catholic children by him.  Should our hypothetical fellow turn down marriage with this girl because of his “vocation to singleness”?  Should he not rather consider that his excellent good fortune is a sign that God is in fact not calling him to “the single life” but to matrimony?

Notice that if a man meets the girl of his dreams and decides to up and change his idea of God’s calling for him…and he happens to already be a priest, a monk, or the husband of another woman, we would call this an obvious self-serving rationalization for betraying his vow.  The existence of a vow makes the cases very different.

One could equally well think of cases where our hypothetical man might decide that he really does have a calling to be a priest or monk after previously thinking that God just wanted him to be a bachelor.  Why shouldn’t he pursue this new idea?  There’s no vow for him to break.

That being said, I’ll repeat that God does have plans of some sort, and opportunities for holiness of some sort, for those who never marry, join the priesthood, or join the religious life.  It may also be the case that there are more than three vocations in my restricted meaning of the word, and that the Church has yet to recognize some of them.  If they do exist, a man living one of these other vocations would currently be categorized as a bachelor.  Nevertheless, bachelorhood per se would not be his vocation in either meaning of the word.  “The single life” has a purely negative meaning, and when the Church lists it among the vocations, I think she’s just using it as a blanket term for “other”.

9 Responses

  1. […] Is there a vocation to bachelorhood? […]

  2. @Bonald – Thanks, I found this a clarifying post. It demonstrates one of the valuable functions of philosophy.

  3. […] wonders: Is there a vocation to bachelorhood? Not if it’s an alterable state, it’s not. Excellent […]

  4. Reblogged this on Philosophies of a Disenchanted Scholar and commented:
    I won’t believe MGTOWs are serious until they swear off women legally.

  5. Bingo. Man seems destined, by nature, to live in a community of self-giving love and to be bound to that community by a freely-given vow, in imitation of the new and eternal covenant. Perpetual bachelorhood avoids moral commitment and hence moral responsibility: to remain in it by choice is to remain in the situation of a child. And we’re called to put off childish things at some point.

  6. That’s a good point about community. The vow is always public, not just a secret between me and God, but fixing my social station. Other vocations, if they exist, won’t fully come into their own until they’re recognized.

  7. All very interesting to consider. Certainly resonated with much of it. When thinking about singleness or marriage, I associate sacrificial commitments with both.

    Thinking of “vocation” as “sacramental life-structuring vow” is certainly helpful.

    Often I try to pray something like, “Lord, I am yours as a single person today,” but I don’t necessarily know what that means for the rest of my life. Even though I have not discerned whether my singleness is temporary or permanent, I currently have a life-structuring vow to prioritize God above all else. I see it as a permanent commitment regardless of religious life or marriage. The way I think of it, mostly, right now, I don’t know any men who want to pray, “Lord, we are yours as a couple today”, and thus by default, I am single. I don’t know if that is a vocation?

    Perhaps my current “call to singleness” (if that is what this is) is temporary, but will give me important discipline for permanent vocation? Or maybe at some point, I will realize is it permanent. With that realization, I would probably seek religious life. But not due to “relationship failure”, just due to finally recognizing & submitting to this calling of singleness.

    It does make sense that I should be actively discerning the vocation of singleness or marriage, and that putting off some life-structuring commitment would cause some problems in terms of my focus and growth within commitment.

    Anyway, thanks.

  8. Hello Amy. I think this is the right attitude to have. Your thoughts also illustrate well the similarities and differences between the single state and married/religious.

  9. […] celibacy and marital indissolubility spring from the same source in the Catholic imagination–the romance of life-disposing sacred vows.  One can consistently affirm one without the […]

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