Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
Word on the street is that author Emily Stimpson has a new singles column here at the Register. I'm thrilled to hear it. I plan on reading everything she writes on the subject because I think that Catholic singles have a crucial role to play in modern culture. In fact, I've recently become convinced that the world needs to hear their voices now more than ever. Here's why:
I recently wrote a post over at my personal blog about Catholic teaching and homosexuality, in which I recounted a conversation from a dinner I recently had with a friend and his partner. I've received hundreds of passionate replies, both from those who agree and those who disagree, but none have been more intense than those who wrote me to rail against the idea of people with same-sex attraction abstaining from sexual activity. To paraphrase from multiple emails, the typical response went something like this:
You should be ashamed of yourself for belonging to a religion that would tell gay people that they can't engage in sexual activity with the people they love. How could it be anything but cruel for your Church to doom homosexuals to lives of celibacy? It's terrible that you would suggest that an entire group of people should spend their whole lives in loneliness.
The source of anger behind these notes seemed to center around that last word: Loneliness. Almost without exception, these folks equated a life without sex to a life without love. They imagined that if someone were to follow the moral doctrines as laid out by the Catholic Church and give up homosexual sex to live chastely, he or she would be signing up for an isolated, sad existence. The notes that sit in my inbox are a written form of the reactions that Dr. John Haas got when he advocated for chastity to a group of college students: After he was pelted paper wads and pencils and jeered off the stage, a university vice president responded with sympathy toward the unruly students, asking, "How do you expect people to live without sex?"
I think that that question is at the very center of the red-hot cauldron of the modern cultural clashes on this issue. The Catholic Church preaches a design for human sexuality that means that plenty of people would have to go for long periods without engaging in any sexual activity -- for some people, their whole lives. The world reacts to this news in horror, echoing the words of the university vice president and the people who have been emailing me after my post:
How do you expect people to live without sex?!
It's easy for people in the secular world to imagine the chaste single life as lonely misery, because, very often, they don't know anyone who is doing such a thing. I believe that if they could get a glimpse into the life of the average practicing Catholic who happens to be single, they would see something totally different than they expect. They would see someone who is surrounded by life through his friendships, through his parish community, perhaps through his role as godparent. They would see someone whose life is inextricably connected with the lives of others through the Body of Christ. They would see someone whose source of joy is not sex or anything else in the material world, but Christ himself. In fact, I think that if anyone were to do an honest comparison of the Catholic single life to the worldly single life, one would seem distinctly more lonely than the other -- and it wouldn't be the Catholic one.
In a recent must-read interview here at the Register, Father Paul Check pointed out that a person seeking intimacy by going outside of God's plan for human sexuality will not ultimately find what he's looking for; such actions would be a "self-defeating search for joy." Father Check continued, highlighting the connection between chastity and self-sacrificial love:
We need to help people understand that chastity is part of the Good News. It’s that simple. Chastity is the virtue that liberates man from selfishness, so he can fulfill his natural desires for human intimacy and love.
These wise words remind me of an insightful remark Father James Brent, O.P. made in a 2009 interview about his vocation to the priesthood. When talking about the issue of celibacy, he pointed out any true sense of intimacy must ultimately be rooted in God. He wrote:
I'm not sure when I realized it, but celibacy is not the same as being alone. Celibacy is being alone with God. And being with God makes all the difference in whether one really finds love in this world. That goes for the married and unmarried alike. Unless one is somehow with God, even the very best of spouses can never slake the thirst for love.
This is what secular culture is missing when it reacts in horror to the Catholic idea of the chaste single life: Sexual activity is not a requirement for experiencing intimacy and love. In fact, as Father Check explains in his interview, the boundaries the Church places on human sexuality are boundaries of love, meant to ensure mutual respect and self-giving. It is when we violate them, not when we follow them, that we end up on a path that is sure to end in loneliness.
The more I think about this, the more I think that single Catholics are going to play an increasingly important role in the evangelization of modern culture. The truth about human sexuality is counter-cultural to an extent that the average person immersed in a secular worldview is going to find it hard to believe; and while we can share the truth in words, and that's important, nothing speaks the truth more powerfully than the poetry of a real human life. Let's keep all single Catholics in our prayers, because as the world continues to preach the message that people who aren't married must engage in promiscuous behavior in order to be happy, it is our single brothers and sisters who offer the most powerful counter-argument, through the simple witness of their lives.