I admit it – I’m a lapsed Catholic. When I was a child, I was very serious about my Catholicism for a while. I tried to get an aunt who hadn’t been to Mass for a very long time to return to the fold and I used to have a May altar every year, with a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary and fresh flowers. I can hardly believe I’m admitting this.
My adulthood has been very different. I’ve had very little interest in religion, and I mostly pay attention only when single people get in touch to tell me their stories of feeling excluded or stigmatized by their own religions and places of worship. (Here’s an example.)
So I was surprised when the current Pope, Pope Francis, seemed so different from many of his predecessors. I like his humility, his greater openness toward gays and lesbians, and his relatively enlightened views on evolution. (The “relatively” qualifier is important; Francis is progressive and enlightened only in comparison to his predecessors and many other leaders in the Catholic church.)
But has he shown any special sensitivity or caring when it comes to the millions of Catholics who are single? In another surprise, I found myself nodding in approval to a column on the topic by Ross Douthat, a New York Times op-ed writer with whom I almost never agree. Douthat argued that the recent synod of bishops on the topic of The Family missed out on an important opportunity:
“That miss starts, in a certain way, with the very title and theme of the synod, and it’s a failure that implicates both the Catholic right and the Catholic left, whose shared focus on explicitly familial and sexual relationships may be crowding out Christian ideas, and Christian models of community and religious life, that the modern world is going to need, perhaps desperately, if current trends in social life persist.”
The trends he has in mind include the rise of single people and of people living alone. He acknowledges that many single people are going to stay single for the long-term. He believes that the preoccupation of the Catholic right with the decline of the two-parent family and of the Catholic left with family diversity both leave unaddressed the demographic revolution represented by the huge numbers of people living single.
Importantly, I think, Douthat reminds us that single Catholics once had an esteemed place in the church. About today’s singles of various stripes (e.g., divorced, always-single, single parents), he notes:
“As directed to these people, the official/orthodox Catholic message often seems to boil down to something like: “Hurry up and find a mate (of the opposite sex) and don’t have sex until you do!” Which represents, to put it mildly, a kind of falling-off from the broad Christian, and particularly Catholic, history of both valorizing the unmarried state, the celibate vocation, and building rich institutions and networks designed to offer non-marital community and care in all kinds of varied forms.”
Douthat makes another argument I have often advanced, that friendships deserve to be more highly valued than they currently are in our society. His interest is in the place of same-sex friendship “across Christian history”:
“This is another non-marital ideal and institution that’s fallen by the wayside in modernity… But it’s a tradition, an inheritance, that more people in our present, increasingly-single situation — straight and gay, celibate and not, religious and not — could benefit from exploring, pondering, adapting.”
Amen to that.