Sunday, February 26, 2017

Consecrated Virginity and Religious Life

An old photo of the clothing ceremony of a Redemptoristine nun.
Although the Redemptorists are a relatively modern religious family
whose nuns do not have a tradition of receiving the consecration of virgins,
their “borrowing” from the spirituality of the ancient Ordo Virginum
is evident in the use of bridal imagery and customs. 
In discussions on consecrated life or of women’s vocations in general, one type of question which often arises is how consecrated virginity is different from the more familiar vocation of women’s religious life. For basic instructional purposes, a quick answer to this question would be: a religious Sister is a woman who professes vows within a religious community, and a consecrated virgin is a woman who has received the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity from a bishop.

But of course, a short answer such as this fails to convey the beautifully nuanced distinctions between the two vocations, and it also overlooks the significant “family resemblances” between consecrated virginity and religious life. This kind of purely technical answer also doesn’t answer some of the more probing usual follow-up questions, such as: Why would a woman opt to become a consecrated virgin when she might have been accepted into a number of vibrant religious communities? Why would the Church re-introduce consecrated virginity as a “new,” separate category when we already have such a rich tradition of women dedicating themselves to God as nuns and Sisters? Or why can’t we just regard today’s religious as fulfilling the role of the early Ordo Virginum in the life of the Church today?

While it is possible to find some simple compare-and-contrast charts online, I think a proper appreciation of both vocations and demands some more in-depth consideration. To that end, in this post we will look at this question in four separate sections dealing with: 1. what consecrated virginity and religious life have in common; 2. elements which are specific to consecrated virginity; 3. elements that are unique to religious life; and finally, 4. a brief consideration of why these distinctions are important in the first place.

We can start by considering first of all…

I. What religious life and consecrated virginity have in common

- A common historical origin. Consecrated virginity is the oldest recognized form of consecrated life in the Church today, arguably dating from Apostolic times. Before the existence of religious life as we understand it today, women who desired to dedicate their lives entirely to Christ would resolve to persevere in a life of perpetual virginity. At some point during the Church’s first few centuries a solemn liturgical ritual for the consecration of virgins was established, which eventually would become our Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity.

Based on various Patristic writings, it seems that the members of the ancient Ordo Virginum lived (or were at least called to live) a relatively contemplative lifestyle focused on prayer, penance, and study. The Church Fathers frequently exhorted consecrated virgins to associate with each other for the sake of mutual support, and often this translated into consecrated virgins sharing residences. Naturally, in a common living situation it is simply to be expected that some sort of practical organization occur, and eventually “Rules” came to be written for houses of consecrated virgins. Such Rule-governed houses for consecrated virgins can rightly be considered some of the earliest precursors to women’s religious life, although this form of living was still different from our modern concept religious life in many key respects.

- The possibility of a dual vocation. Continuing with our historical considerations, we can note that in the Roman Catholic Church the earliest instance of “religious life” according to today’s definition of the term would be the Order of St. Benedict. Originally a hermit, St. Benedict wrote a rule for the fruitful and healthy running of a cenobitic monastery sometime around the year 530 A.D., with his sister St. Scholastica subsequently starting a female branch of the Order. The biographer Pope St. Gregory the Great describes St. Scholastica as “consecrated to God from her earliest youth,” which strongly suggests that she was a consecrated virgin even prior to the beginning of her monastic life. Eventually, western women’s monasticism would evolve from a regular way of life for (presumably) already-consecrated virgins to a vocation where women would receive the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity only after making their final monastic vows.

A Carthusian nun receiving the consecration of virgins

As European civil society became less organized and more chaotic following the final collapse of the Roman Empire, the practice of consecrating virgins living “in the world,” or outside of monasteries, gradually became less and less frequent until it was functionally obsolete. Still, cloistered women’s monastic life continued to flourish during this time, and it remained the venerable custom of some religious Orders, most notably the Benedictines and Carthusians, to offer the privilege of receiving consecration of virgins to their solemnly professed nuns. This custom was maintained up through the time of the second Vatican Council, and remained in place even after the 1970 revision of the Rite of Consecration re-established the non-monastic Order of Virgins.

So to sum up, since the very beginnings of organized monastic life it has always been possible for a woman to be both a religious and a consecrated virgin, and this remains the case today. In those religious communities which maintain the practice of the consecration of virgins, a nun may receive the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity either at the time of her solemn profession of religious vows or at some point afterwards.

And incidentally, because of the essential compatibility of the two vocations, is also at least theoretically possible for an already-consecrated virgin “living in the world” to discern a later vocation to religious life. In this sense, one helpful parallel for understanding the relationship between the consecration of virgins and religious profession might be the relationship between Holy Orders and religious profession for male religious who are also priests. That is, while religious life and priesthood—like religious life and consecrated virginity—are two distinct vocations, it is possible that one may be called to both.

- A shared spiritual heritage. As women’s religious life continued to grow and develop from the time of the early Middle Ages and on through the centuries, many practices originally associated specifically with the Ordo Virginum were “borrowed” by women religious, even within Orders which did not have a tradition of using the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity. Elements such as bridal imagery in profession ceremonies, the formal reception of the veil, and committing oneself to the evangelical counsels in the presence of the local bishop often remained as customs in women’s religious life in general.

While this borrowing is especially evident in cloistered contemplative Orders, echoes of the consecration of virgins can be found even in many modern, non-cloistered “active” women’s religious communities. For example, many active Sisters receive a “wedding” ring at their final profession. Some active communities invite the local bishop to preside as the main celebrant at their profession Masses, even though the presence of the bishop isn’t strictly necessary since it is the religious superior who receives a Sister’s vows. And of course, the veil which is a part of most Sisters’ habits was originally a sign of consecrated virginity.

- Belonging in the same basic category of “consecrated life.”  As a result of Vatican II, the Church saw some developments and clarifications to the theology of consecrated life, particularly in terms of understanding “consecrated life” as an inclusive category. While in the centuries prior to Vatican II the Church tended to use the terms “religious life” and “consecrated life” practically as synonyms, the 1983 revision of the Code of Canon Law acknowledged consecrated life as an umbrella category encompassing a variety of distinct forms.  While “religious life” technically speaking was recognized as one specific form among others, the Code also explicitly acknowledged non-monastic consecrated virginity as a form of consecrated life in its own right in canon 604. Other vocations identified in canon law as forms of consecrated life include secular institutes, societies of apostolic life, and diocesan hermits.

While these distinctions highlighted the variety of the different expressions of committed evangelical life in the Church, the acknowledgment of “consecrated life” as an inclusive category also served to underscore the fundamental unity of the various forms of consecration. While there are still some overarching theological and canonical gray areas that have yet to be worked out (e.g., in some contexts the exact nature of secular institute members’ consecration still remains somewhat of an open question), the Church has clarified that consecrated virgins and women religious should be regarded as equally “consecrated.”

- Overlap in theological identity. Consequently, given that consecrated virginity and religious life are both rightly considered forms of consecrated life, the Church’s teachings on the essential theological nature and purpose of consecrated life can be understood as applying to consecrated virgins as well as women religious.

For example, both consecrated virginity and religious life involve a call to live as an “eschatological sign,” or a living anticipation of the kind of life all the faithful in heaven will enjoy. Likewise, both vocations are considered to be charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit for the good of the Church as a whole. And membership in the Ordo Virginum, like religious life, is a fully public state of consecrated life, meaning that consecrated virgins as well as women religious are called to a public evangelical witness.

Now moving on to consider the vocation of consecrated virginity specifically, we can reflect those things which are…

II. Unique elements of consecrated virginity

- The call to be a bride of Christ. Consecrated virginity is most fundamentally a call to a spousal relationship with Christ. That is, the call to live as a bride of Christ is a central and non-negotiable aspect of a vocation to the Order of Virgins, and consecrated virgins are the only ones whom canon law explicitly describes as “mystically betrothed to Christ.”

Of course, as was mentioned above, many women’s religious communities that do not use the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity still have a venerable tradition of employing bridal imagery in their profession ceremonies and broader spiritual life. However, on a canonical level bridal spirituality is more or less optional for religious, in the sense that the incorporation of such spiritual imagery is entirely dependent on the specific charism of a particular community. Therefore, it is entirely possible to be a fervent religious, following Christ in the evangelical counsels, without necessarily understanding this as a specifically nuptial call. While a consecrated virgin by definition is called to relate to Christ as her Spouse, a woman religious might legitimately feel called to see her commitment to Christ in other terms—perhaps such as relating to Christ primarily as a friend, brother, or teacher.

(For a more detailed discussion of this concept, see my earlier post: “Who Can Be Called a Bride of Christ?”)

- A vocation only for women. Consecrated virginity is the only vocation in the Catholic Church which is restricted to women. Just as only men are called to Holy Orders and the priesthood, only women can receive solemn consecration to a life of virginity.

This makes consecrated virginity intrinsically different from religious life as a category. Although individual religious communities are either male or female, religious life in general is open to both men and women. Furthermore, in our current canon law, the laws governing religious communities for the most part apply equally to both male and female communities, which indicates that unlike Holy Orders or consecrated virginity, a vocation to religious life per se is not directly connected to one’s gender.

- A requirement of literal virginity. Consecrated virginity is also unique among the various forms of consecrated life recognized by the Church in that it is the only one to have literal virginity as a prerequisite. A religious vow of chastity is future-oriented in that it is a commitment to live in evangelical chastity from that point forward, regardless of whatever sins have been committed and repented from previously. In contrast to this, a candidate for the Ordo Virginum professes her resolve to continue on in the state of virginity in which she has already been persevering throughout the entire course of her life.

- A “passive” rather than “active” consecration. A woman becomes a consecrated virgin when she receives the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity at the hands of a bishop. It is true that a candidate for consecration makes public promises during the course of the Rite, and that in doing so she actively states her resolve to persevere in a life of virginity and service to the Church. Still, the defining element in the consecration of virgins is not the making of these public promises, but rather the reception of the central consecratory prayer. Technically speaking, the consecration of virgins is a solemn constitutive blessing, which makes a virgin a sacred person through no action of her own—similar to the way in which a Church building is made into a sacred place when it is consecrated.

On the other hand, religious are consecrated through their active profession of religious vows. While there is certainly a “passive” dimension in religious profession insofar as a religious’ vows must be received by the competent authority in the Church, religious can be described as essentially consecrating themselves by means of their promises to God.

As a consequence of this dynamic, it is possible for the Church to dispense a religious from her vows in certain rare cases, because the Church has the power to release members of the faithful from the obligation to fulfill promises they have previously made. But since a consecrated virgin is made consecrated not through her own promises but rather through the solemn constitutive blessing of the Rite, it is not possible for the Church to “un-consecrate” her. Therefore, while the Church might be able to release a consecrated virgin from some of the non-essential obligations of her state, her consecration itself is absolutely permanent.

- A special connection to the local Church. As the Rite of Consecration identifies consecrated virgins as the “spiritual daughters” of the diocesan bishop who are admitted to consecrated under his authority; and given that the Rite also envisions consecrated virgins as those who  often “take part in the good works of the diocese”; we can rightly describe consecrated virgins as belonging to their home dioceses in a special way.

While religious undoubtedly contribute a great deal to the dioceses where they are present, a religious’ first and most primary bond is always with her religious Order or community. As a result, an apostolic religious might be sent on mission to any number of places according to the needs of her institute, but a consecrated virgin is free to remain as a more stable presence within a particular local Church.  And while a religious is called specifically to those works of the apostolate which harmonize with her community’s charism, whether or not these apostolic words directly relate to the perceived needs of any particular diocese, a consecrated virgin is able to serve the local Church in whatever ways her bishop discerns is most necessary.

- A special affinity with the early Church.  As noted above, the Ordo Virginum can trace its origin back to Apostolic times, pre-dating the development of religious life by several centuries. Our earliest reference of consecrated virgins as forming a distinct group within the Church goes back to St. Ignatius of Antioch’s greeting to the “ever-virgins called widows” in the Church at Smyrna written around 100 A.D., and there are references to a specific liturgical ritual for the consecration of virgins in the fourth-century writings of St. Ambrose. Our current text of the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity contains several antiphons traditionally attributed to St. Agnes, and the virgin-martyrs listed in the Roman Canon are generally considered to be members of the Ordo Virginum.

Because of this, the spirituality of consecrated virgins today might rightly be called the spirituality of the early virgin-martyrs. While naturally the virgin-martyr saints can and do inspire the spirituality of many women religious as well, religious primarily share in the charism of their own proper founders who lived in later periods of the Church’s history.

III. Unique elements of religious life

Turning now to religious life, we can note that religious life is different from consecrated virginity in that religious life necessarily involves…

- A call to follow the spirituality of a particular founder or foundress. In our modern understanding of religious life, religious are considered the spiritual sons or daughters of a particular founder or foundress. The Church currently speaks of the founders of religious communities as having been granted the charism—i.e., a special gift of grace from God for the good of the Church as a whole—of a foundational spirituality and unique purpose within the Church. When a religious joins her specific Order or congregation, she is accepting a call to share in the specific charism that was originally rooted in a particular time and place with a particular person or group of persons.

Although I believe we can indeed regard the Ordo Virginum as having a distinctive spirituality of its own, consecrated virginity was not literally “founded“ in the same way as a religious family, but rather developed organically along with the infant Church. Therefore, we might say that a consecrated virgin is called to a more universal or even “generic” vocation than a religious Sister would be.  

- The following of a rule and constitutions. Just as religious are called to follow in the footsteps of a particular founder, they also commit to following a particular rule and constitutions (with constitutions being a more concrete interpretation of a Rule’s broader spiritual vision). In fact, the very term “religious” comes from a Latin word meaning “to bind,” as religious freely bind themselves to observe a Rule.

We might think of a Rule as being somewhat like an instruction book for growing in holiness. As a consequence, religious life as a vocation is much more oriented towards the guidance and personal spiritual benefit of the individual religious than membership in the Ordo Virginum would be.

That is, a stated purpose of many religious communities, and an implicit mission of all of them, is to provide actively for the sanctification of their members. While it is certainly to be hoped that the reception of Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity would contribute to a newly-consecrated virgin’s personal holiness, the Ordo Virginum as a state is not fundamentally ordered to the same kind of personal spiritual assistance as religious life according to a Rule would be.

- Community life. Religious life is also, by its very nature, a call to live in community with other religious. Community life for religious is not only the shared vision and purpose that comes about from belonging to an intentional group, but it also includes the day-to-day sharing of a truly common life lived under the same roof. Because of this, religious give a unique witness to the value of fraternal charity.

I do think it’s important to note that consecrated virginity is certainly not anti-community, as consecrated virgins are part of the larger community which is their diocese. Consecrated virgins also can and do form associations, and they are even free even to share residences with other consecrated virgins if they wish. Still, unlike women religious, a consecrated virgin is consecrated as an individual and is not required to observe any form of common life.

- A more radical and explicit call to poverty and obedience. Community life also allows religious to observe the evangelical counsels of poverty and obedience in a much more concrete way than most consecrated virgins are able to do.

While a consecrated virgin is called to live in a spirit of evangelical obedience in terms of accepting the guidance of her bishop, a bishop will not have exactly the same role in her daily life as the community superior of a woman religious. This allows religious to live out the virtue of obedience in a much more intense and immediate way.

Likewise, while a consecrated virgin is called to observe the virtue of evangelical poverty through a simple way of life, consecrated virgins are capable of owning personal property and administering their own financial resources. This is very different the religious vow of poverty, which obligates a woman religious to hold all material goods in common with her Sisters in community, and which therefore for most intents and purposes prevents her from owning anything herself. Sharing all good in common also gives individual religious a level of freedom from material concerns which is meant to foster an interior prayerful serenity, whereas consecrated virgins (like the laity and secular clergy) need to be proactive in all the mundane tasks involved in prudently providing for their own practical needs.

- Separation from the world. Religious life has its roots in the eremitic monasticism of the Desert Fathers, and this heritage rightly influences, to at least a certain extent, all forms of religious life today, from cloistered contemplative life to the most active apostolic communities.

The Church’s earliest monks and nuns “left the world” by retreating to deserted places, which often meant literal deserts. This was for the very pragmatic purpose of freeing themselves from the distractions of day-to-day life in human society for the sake of being free to focus on spiritual things. Yet, this iconic “fuga mundi” also had a more symbolic dimension of renouncing all things for the love of God.

Eventually, literal deserts were replaced by the metaphorical “desert” of the architectural enclosure of a monastery building. With the advent of apostolic women’s communities, various community customs and practices (such as restricted home visits, keeping silence at certain times, carefully selection in media consumption, always leaving the convent with a companion, etc.) came to act as a sort of substitute for the strict cloister observed by nuns.  Even today, while many apostolic religious have a great deal of engagement with human society outside of their community, religious are always called to maintain at least a core spirituality of separation from the world.

While I would argue that, in keeping with our vocation to be eschatological signs, consecrated virgins are called to embody a profound sense of detachment from even the good things of this world, virgins consecrated according to canon 604 are not called to the same concrete and radical separation from the world that religious are. This naturally gives consecrated virgins a greater freedom to relate to the ordinary faithful in their diocese, but it also means that they have to contend with many of the same temptations and distractions as anyone else who “lives in the world.”

IV. Why is all this important?

So what should we take away from these distinctions?

First of all, I believe that a failure to appreciate the ways in which religious life is different from consecrated virginity can cause unnecessary spiritual difficulties for women religious. For example, it would be wrong for a nun or Sister who was not a virgin to suffer from a crisis of conscience in this regard, since she should be at peace knowing that God is pleased with her resolve to life in chastity from the moment of her profession forward.

Expecting women’s religious life to fulfill the role of the Order of Virgins also has the potential to hinder women religious from fulfilling their charism in even practical ways. Many examples of this can be found in the history of the Church in the United States, when at certain points women religious were often expected to abandon the work for which they were founded in order to attend to what the local bishop determined as the more pressing needs of the diocese. Often this took the form of, for instance, a teaching community adding nursing to their apostolate; but at times even solemnly-professed cloistered nuns were pressured to abandon their fully contemplative life in order to engage in an active apostolate. While consecrated virgins might legitimately be at a diocesan bishop’s disposal in this regard, the charism of a religious community generally has certain restrictions which cannot be disregarded without putting the very identity of the community at risk.

Similarly, wrongly conflating the two vocations could conceivably lead to the imposition upon consecrated virgins of certain characteristic obligations of religious life (i.e., those obligations to which consecrated virgins are not necessarily called), such as making it a strict requirement for consecrated virgins to live in community or compelling consecrated virgins to adopt the spirituality of a particular religious Order.

But conversely, there is also, in my opinion, a real danger that a less-than-fully informed understanding of the relationship between religious life and the Order of Virgins could lead to consecrated virginity being mistakenly understood as a sort of “watered down” version of religious life. Without an appropriate understanding of the distinctive dignity of consecrated virginity, it can be easy to overlook the lofty goals to which consecrated virgins are indeed called by virtue of their vocation.

To be more specific, confusion regarding the differences between consecrated virginity and religious life can lead to wrongly allowing certain concessions for consecrated virgins—that is, “concessions” which might be perfectly acceptable for religious, but which would cut at the heart of a vocation to the Ordo Virginum. Examples of this could include encouraging struggling consecrated virgins to seek a “dispensation from their vows”; advising non-virgins to discern a vocation to consecrated virginity; suggesting that select private devotional prayers could take the place of some or all of the Liturgy of the Hours for a consecrated virgin; guiding a consecrated virgin to find her primary spiritual “home” within a lay ecclesial movement rather than within her parish and diocese; or de-emphasizing the importance of a nuptial spirituality in a life of consecrated virginity.

But on the other hand, while it is important to understand the ways in which consecrated virginity and religious life are distinct from each other, I would also propose that it’s equally critical to keep in mind the deep affinity that actually does exist between to the two forms of consecrated life. That is, regarding the Order of Virgins and religious life as two entirely unrelated entities can cause us to lose out on a great deal of spiritual richness and theological insight, which could prevent all of us consecrated women from living out our respective vocations to the fullest.

For example, the spousal call of consecrated virgins represents, in at least an analogical way, the goal of total union with Christ towards to which all the observances of religious life are ultimately directed. Even if not every woman religious will personally experience the grace of relating to Christ in explicitly spousal terms, this does not mean that religious should automatically dismiss traditional bridal imagery as outdated sentimentalism. Rather, I would say that refection on religious life’s overlapping history with the Ordo Virginum can provide nourishing food for thought for Sisters in all kinds of communities.

Likewise, while consecrated virginity is much less structured than religious life, it is crucial not to fall into the mistaken assumption that consecrated virgins are therefore somehow not called to devote themselves quite as radically to the Lord as women religious are. We should keep in mind that, when lived properly, the consecration of virgins should require just as much of a complete self-gift as the profession of religious vows. While consecrated virgins (and those responsible for their formation and guidance) should be careful to avoid attempts to fit themselves into the “mold” of religious life, with careful discernment the lives of fervent women religious can still be very instructive to those of us called to consecrated virginity. At a time in history when the restored Ordo Virginum is still very much “finding itself” in terms of practical lived expressions in day-to-day life, we consecrated virgins should not be afraid to look to our Sisters in religious life for inspiration in living out a life informed by the evangelical counsels. 

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

My Writing in Other Places

Unfortunately, I’ve been letting the blog slide a quite bit lately (though I do hope to have some new posts up soon.) Part of the reason for the lack of posts here is that I’ve been busy with other writing projects. Here are some articles of mine, which I think will be of special interest to “Sponsa Christi” readers, that have recently been published in other places:

The Oldest Form of Consecrated Life Is Also the Newest,and It’s Growing! (February 11, 2016, on Aleteia.org) – Some of my reflections on the recent international symposium for the Ordo Virginum held in Rome to celebrate of the closing of the Year of Consecrated Life.

In Lieu of Female Deacons, a Proposal (November 11, 2015 in Crisis Magazine) – Wherein I opine that, rather than spending time and resources discussing the possibility of instituting some sort of female diaconate, it might be more fruitful if the Church focused instead on promoting and supporting the Ordo Virginum, as consecrated virgins could easily fulfill many of the perceived pastoral needs which tend to prompt discussion of women deacons.

The Vocation of Consecrated Virginity (February 18, 2015 for Leonie’s Longing) – Some information and advice for former religious Sisters who may be considering becoming consecrated virgins.

For more frequent links and short updates, you can also check the facebook page I created for this blog.


Sunday, July 26, 2015

Consecrated Virginity versus Secular Institutes

It’s already well-known to readers of this blog that, as the Order of Virgins is a form of consecrated life which has been only fairly recently re-introduced into the life of the modern Church, there are still a lot of open questions regarding the more concrete aspects of how this vocation is to be lived out. For instance, we might ask: what is the life of a consecrated virgin supposed to “look like?” How does she present herself in public? What sort of formation should she have had? How is her relationship with her bishop and her diocese supposed to function? And what exactly does it mean for her to be “dedicated to the service of the Church?”

One way that canonists often try to resolve these kinds of ambiguities is by looking for parallel situations in the Church. When we find ourselves needing to contend with gaps in the Church’s law—whether the lacunae pertain to consecrated virginity specifically, or to any other challengingly vague circumstance in the life of the Church—we can begin to address these gaps by considering other approved ways of life (or circumstances with adequate legislation) which are fundamentally similar in some important respect. Then once we have identified how the Church approaches these better-understood situations, we can adapt and apply the rules governing those situations to the circumstances which are still in question.   

To this end, I’ve noticed many commentators tend to assume that secular institutes provide the closest parallel to the Order of Virgins, based primarily on the fact that both secular institute members and consecrated virgins “live in the world.”* However, I believe that looking at secular institutes as the interpretive key for understanding the revived Order of Virgins is a mistake, for several reasons:

1. The Church is still somewhat unclear on the canonical and theological nature of secular institutes

One reason why I believe secular institutes really do not provide a good model for understanding consecrated virginity is because, at this point in time, there is still a lot about secular institutes which the Church can’t yet fully categorize or articulate.

The Church does give us a basic working definition of secular institutes in canon 710 of the Code of Canon Law. Here, a secular institute is identified as: “…an institute of consecrated life in which the Christian faithful, living in the world, strive for the perfection of charity and seek to contribute to the sanctification of the world, especially from within.”

We know that, like religious, secular institute members make a profession to observe the evangelical counsels (cf. can. 723 §1). But unlike religious, the vows of secular institute members are not considered “public.” Secular institute members are also similar to religious in the sense that they are consecrated specifically as part of a particular community with its own founder and charism. Yet in contrast with religious, they usually do not share a household or live together. Secular institute members are often described by the Church as called to be a “leaven in the world,” (cf. CCC  929) and as such they generally work in secular jobs and refrain from adopting any special dress, titles, or customs which would outwardly distinguish them as consecrated persons.

However, even in light of these basics, there is still a great deal of variety among the different secular institutes. For example, secular institutes can vary widely in how they understand the practice of “discretion.” Some institutes encourage their members to share their special ecclesial identity openly whenever it could be pastorally helpful (at least one secular institute even has special identifying dress which members wear in some circumstances), while other institutes have the tradition of keeping their members’ vocation much more hidden. Some secular institutes have a very strong emphasis on the “secularity” and specifically “lay” character of their vocation, while other institutes were at least originally founded with the intention of their members living what was essentially a modified form of religious life. In many secular institutes, the members may only see each other once or twice each year; but on the other hand, some secular institutes do allow for or encourage a certain level of common life among their members.

But perhaps more significant to my point here, the Church’s writings on secular institutes are often confusing, or even seemingly self-contradictory. For example, the Church describes secular institutes as being institutes of consecrated life, with the subsequent implication that members of secular institutes are thus truly consecrated. The Church also describes consecrated life as being a different state from that of laity (cf. can. 588 §1). However, in canon 711, secular institute membership is described as something which “does not change the member’s proper canonical condition among the people of God, whether lay or clerical.” So it would seem to be currently a bit of conundrum as to how secular institute members can be truly consecrated, and truly lay (i.e., not having changed their canonical condition to “consecrated”) at the same time!

A similar confusing gap in the Church’s understanding of secular institutes is the question of precisely what kind of vows secular institute members make.** Secular institutes are distinct from religious institutes in that their vows are not public. And since their vows are not public, then it would seem to follow logically that their vows would therefore have to be considered private. One characteristic of private vows per se is that they are a personal initiative, and not something officially received in the name of the Church. Yet it would seem that secular institute members’ vows are indeed received in the name of the Church when they are received by the moderator of their institute. Some commentators have tried to resolve this inconsistency by calling secular institute members’ vows “semi-public”—but this is also problematic, since “semi-public vows” are not a concept which is actually mentioned anywhere in our current canon law.

Naturally, since secular institutes are a newer form of consecrated life, it is understandable that there are still questions which have yet to be resolved, and so these observations of mine are certainly not meant to undermine the life and vocation of current secular institute members.  However, it does still stand to reason that all these unanswered questions would make secular institutes a less-than-helpful interpretive key for other forms of consecrated life.

2. Secular institutes have many fundamental differences from consecrated virginity

Even apart from the above-mentioned ambiguities, when we consider what we actually do know about secular institutes, it becomes clear that secular institutes are structurally, fundamentally different from the Order of Virgins.

For one thing, as was just noted, secular institute members’ profession of the evangelical counsels is private (or at least less-than-fully public), whereas consecrated virginity is very much a public state of consecrated life. In fact, we could go so far as to say that a woman enters into the Order of Virgins in the most public way possible, via a liturgical ritual to which all the faithful are to be invited. This element alone carries implications which make secular institutes inappropriate a parallel for understanding the Order of Virgins.

Another very significant canonical difference is that consecrated virginity is a non-institutional form of consecrated life, in the sense that virgins are consecrated as individuals rather specifically as members of a special group or community. A consecrated virgin remains under the direct authority of her bishop, and her only “institutional” affiliation within the Church is her connection to her diocese. Likewise, consecrated virgins do not have a special call to follow the charismatic spirituality of any particular founder or foundress.

In contrast, secular institutes are by definition institutional. One becomes consecrated as a secular institute member specifically by joining a community which is a secular institute. A secular institute member has his or her profession of the evangelical counsels received by the moderator (the word used in lieu of “superior” for secular institutes) of their institute, and the concrete ways in which they observe the counsels is determined by the constitution, customs, and spirituality, of their particular institute. And like religious—but unlike consecrated virgins—secular institute members are called to live out the unique charism handed down to them from the founder or foundress of their institute.

Additionally, there are many essential elements of the vocation to consecrated virginity which the Church does not ascribe to secular institutes, and vice-versa. For example, only consecrated virgins are explicitly identified as “brides of Christ.” While bridal spirituality is absolutely central to the vocation of a consecrated virgin, it would seem to be, at most, optional for a woman secular institute member.

On the other hand, while secular institute members are given a specific mission “to order temporal things according to God and to inform the world by the power of the gospel,” (can. 713 §2) and are explicitly directed to “lead their lives in the ordinary conditions of the world,” (can. 714) this sort of language and “leaven” imagery is never used in magisterial documents to describe the Order of Virgins. In fact, consecrated virgins are arguably given the very opposite vocation of serving as an “eschatological sign of the world to come” (cf. the praenotanda of the Rite of Consecration).

3. The issue of anachronism

There is an issue of anachronism. Today’s Order of Virgins was intended as a revival of an ancient Patristic form of consecrated life, (cf. Vita Consecrata, 7) whereas secular institutes are almost overwhelmingly a twentieth-century development.

Secular institutes are the newest form of consecrated life in the Church. While it could be argued that various earlier associations in the Church history served as precursors to today’s secular institutes (the earliest Ursuline Sisters and French Daughters of the Heart of Mary are often cited as examples of this), secular institutes as such were not formally recognized and endorsed by the Church until 1947, when Pope Pius XII promulgated the Apostolic Constitution Provida Mater Ecclesia. What’s more, the central defining charism of secular institutes—i.e., an apostolic mission to order the sphere of temporal affairs in accord with Christian values—is very recent development in the life of the Church. It was virtually unheard of before the twentieth century to have a distinctive spirituality ordered specifically around the call to be “leaven in the world.” (That is, prior to the twentieth century, it’s difficult to find any examples of the Church promoting “ordinary Christian life in the world” as a vocation to be embraced through a special, recognized form of dedicated evangelical life. “Leaven” imagery, being scriptural in origin, was of course still used before the modern era. However, this tended to be a description of Christian life in general, rather than as a distinctive charism in its own right.)

Of course, the “newness” of secular institutes should not be automatically written off as a bad thing. It is very reasonable to believe that the Holy Spirit would inspire a new form of consecrated life to meet the specific needs of the modern world, just as different forms of religious and consecrated life were inspired at different points in the Church’s history to meet the needs of the Church and human society as a whole.***

However, this newness does make secular institutes an unhelpful parallel for understanding consecrated virginity, which was meant as a restoration of the ancient, Patristic-era Order of Virgins. To say that consecrated virgins should look to secular institutes for guidance in understanding consecrated virginity would be to anachronistically superimpose a distinctively modern charism onto what is really an ancient vocation.

One other point…

To address one final point, I’ve occasionally seen it argued that, because secular institute members are at least officially permitted to receive the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity,**** we can deduce that secular institute members and consecrated virgins “living in the world” are meant to be living similar ways of life. Or in other words, because a vocation to consecrated virginity and a vocation to a secular institute can theoretically co-exist in the same person (just as a nun in certain religious Orders could have a twofold vocation to religious life and to consecrated virginity), we should therefore assume that the Church intended non-monastic consecrated virgins to a live fully secular lifestyle in the strongest sense of the term. According to this train of thought, since a secular institute member can supposedly live out her distinctly secular vocation even after receiving the consecration of virgins, it must thereby follow that consecrated virginity isn’t something which could conflict or overshadow this call to a strongly secular way of life.

The first observation I have here is that, even after researching this topic fairly extensively, I am not aware of any actual documented cases of a particular secular institute encouraging its members to seek the consecration of virgins. So to being with, it would seem that the issue of a woman needing to harmonize her twin vocations to consecrated virginity and secular institute membership is a primarily hypothetical one at this point in time.

But more substantially, to me this line of reasoning also seems to be based on some not-yet-justified assumptions. Namely, how do we know that secular institute membership should be the “dominant” spirituality in a woman who is called to both vocations? Why should we think of consecrated virginity as merely a possible facet of a vocation to secular institute membership, rather than the other way around? Instead, might it possibly make more sense to think of secular institute membership as being more like a secondary support to a “primary” vocation to consecrated virginity?

To look at one potential parallel on this, we do have examples of diocesan or secular priests (i.e., priests “living in the world”) who are also secular institute members. In a few cases, these priest-secular institute members are actually incardinated into their institute. However, most of the time, priests who are members of secular institutes are diocesan priests who are incardinated into their diocese in the normal way. While they share in the spirituality and limited community life of their institute, these priests still owe their primary obedience to their bishop, and remain dedicated to priestly ministry in their dioceses.

Even if they belong to a secular institute which includes lay members, such priests still fulfill their specifically priestly obligations, and continue to dress and present themselves publicly as priests. That is, such priests do not strive to live as laypeople, even though most secular institutes put a heavy emphasis on “lay spirituality.” Secular institute membership among the clergy is seen as an affirmation and support of their priesthood, rather than a negation of the “specialness” of their priestly vocation.

Similarly, I think the theoretical possibility of female secular institute members becoming consecrated virgins might say more about the nature of secular institutes than it does about the nature of consecrated virginity. And so I would go so far as to argue that—insofar as consecrated virginity and secular institute membership aren’t de jure incompatible—consecrated virgins who are members of secular institutes should see consecrated virginity as their principal vocation, and should give this primary vocation pride of place in terms of the way they order their exterior lives.

notes:

* For example, Sr. Sharon Holland, IHM makes this very point in her famous article “Consecrated Virgins for Today’s Church.”

** And to make this even more confusing, some secular institutes profess the evangelical counsels not through vows, but rather through some other “sacred bond”—i.e., a commitment which is technically something other than a vow per se.

*** Earlier examples of different forms of consecrated life developing in order to respond prophetically to the needs of the Church and contemporary society could include: organized monasticism arising just in time to preserve western culture and learning after the fall of the Roman empire, or the foundation of the mendicant Orders in the Middle Ages serving to bring renewal to the comfortably-established medieval Church.

**** Sr. Sharon Holland also discusses this in “Consecrated Virgins for Today’s Church.”



Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Feast of St. Mary Magdalen

 A blessed feast of St. Mary Magdalen to all my sisters in Christ around the world!

Although there is a long-standing tradition in the Latin Church of regarding her as a penitent sinner, I still find St. Mary Magdalen to be an especially meaningful saint for me in my life as a consecrated virgin.

The Gospel accounts portray St. Mary Magdalen as one of Christ’s closest follows. She was one of the small handful of Jesus’ friends who remained with Him during His passion and death on the cross, and she was privileged to be the first disciple to announce the good news of the Resurrection.

The Church expresses the depth of St. Mary Magdalen’s love for Christ in the almost bridal overtones in the liturgy for her feast day. For example, one of the antiphons for Lauds (Morning Prayer) reads:

“My heart burns within me; I long to see my Lord; I look for him, but I cannot find where they have put him, alleluia.”

But perhaps most strikingly, one of the options for the first reading at today’s Mass is taken from the Song of Songs (and this is one of the very few instances where the Song of Songs is included in the lectionary):
On my bed at night I sought himwhom my soul loves—I sought him but I did not find him.“Let me rise then and go about the city,through the streets and squares;Let me seek him whom my soul loves.”I sought him but I did not find him.The watchmen found me,as they made their rounds in the city:“Him whom my soul loves—have you seen him?”Hardly had I left themwhen I found him whom my soul loves. (Songof Songs 3:1-4a)

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Who Can Be Called a Bride of Christ?

Whenever I’m asked what is the most central element of a vocation to consecrated virginity, without hesitation I always answer: the call to be a bride of Christ. All other aspects of this vocation revolve around this core identity and specific form of self-gift. The centrality of this vocation’s spousal element is clearly stated in both the Code of Canon Law as well as in the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity itself. It’s also very evident in the personal vocations stories of most consecrated virgins.

However, I’ve found that sometimes people are still confused by the spousal dimension of consecrated virginity, perhaps owing to the fact that this sort of bridal imagery has so often been associated with nuns and religious Sisters. For example, at times some Catholics will assume that only women religious can be “real brides of Christ.” In other cases, I’ve heard it argued that the Church intended to discourage the use of bridal spirituality altogether among consecrated women in general after Vatican II. Much more rarely, I’ve even encountered some consecrated virgins who have maintained (quite mistakenly, in my opinion) that it would be wrong for women religious who have not received the Rite of Consecration to identify themselves brides of Christ, based on the notion that only consecrated virgins have the right to regard themselves this way.

Given the potential for misunderstandings, I thought it would be good to have a discussion about what it means to be a bride of Christ, who is called to this role within the Church, and the ways in which such a special vocation might be received.

Some preliminary clarifications

But before anything else, let’s be clear on exactly what we’re talking about. The Church uses the term “bride of Christ” to describe a number of different (albeit often overlapping or inter-related) concepts.

First and foremost, the title “bride of Christ” belongs to the Church herself in the fullest and truest sense. We know this is true from a wide number of scriptural references, and also from the Church’s constant theological tradition. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it: “The Church is the Bride of Christ: he loved her and handed himself over for her. He has purified her by his blood and made her the fruitful mother of all God's children.” (CCC 808)

Because the Church is also the people of God, formed from the countless number of baptized members, I believe we can say that all of the faithful—both on collective and individual levels—share in the Church’s “brideship.” Therefore, I don’t think it would be wrong to say that there is a certain sense in which each and every baptized Christian is called to be a “bride,” insofar as they are incorporated into the body of Christ’s bride, the Church.

We can also speak of Christ as the true Bridegroom of each individual soul, since He is ultimately the source of all fulfillment for every human heart. This is why spousal or bridal imagery is regularly employed in a metaphorical or analogical way by theologians who write about the spiritual life. Some good examples of this can be found in the writings of St. John of the Cross or St. Bernard of Clairvaux. In the Carmelite tradition especially, the expression “mystical marriage” is used almost as a technical term to describe the most advanced stages of contemplative prayer.

“Bridehood” as special call

All of the above-mentioned ways of being a bride of Christ apply in a general way to all of the faithful. For instance, our participation in the brideship of the Church can be thought of as a universal, “automatic” consequence of baptism. And on a more personally specific level, even while the spiritual phenomenon of mystical marriage might be a rare occurrence in actual reality, this kind of call to complete union with God is God’s intended destiny for all His children. That is, it’s not a state He wants to reserve only for a chosen few, but is rather the culmination of each and every Christian vocation.

But in addition to these more general ways of using bridal imagery, I think we can also speak of a call to be a bride of Christ in a more restricted, special “vocational” sense—i.e., the sense in which some women are called to live as a bride of Christ in a much more radical way, as their state in life.

Since Apostolic times, there have always been some Christian women who  felt called to renounce the possibility of an earthly marriage in order to dedicate themselves Christ in as complete and total a way as they could. Or in other words, they were offering Christ all the love and devotion that they would have otherwise given to an earthly husband and children. In relation to the rest of the baptized faithful, such women can rightfully be considered espoused to Christ in a more radical, concrete, and literal sense. They could be appropriately regarded as being “brides of Christ” in a special way, as their spirituality and way of life is, for fairly obvious reasons, not something to which the baptized in general are all called.

For example, men categorically are not called to be “brides of Christ” in this particular sense, since this kind of more-or-less literal “bridehood” is an essentially feminine reality. That is, a man in his masculine nature is not able to relate to Christ as his Bridegroom in the same strong sense as a woman can in her femininity. Similarly, a married woman cannot take Christ as her spouse in this same direct way, since she has already committed herself to a mortal husband.


“Brides of Christ” from a historical perspective

Historically, the Church first formally acknowledged this special call to live as a bride of Christ through the consecration of virgins. From all appearances, in the Church’s first few centuries, the call to be a consecrated virgin was considered one and the same with call to be Christ’s bride. However, in subsequent centuries, as the Roman persecution of Christians subsided, other forms of consecrated life in the Church began to develop. This included the earliest versions of what we today would know as “religious life,” or a vowed consecrated life lived in community according to a specific Rule and a particular foundational spirituality.

Although religious life properly so-called was (and is) distinct from consecrated virginity per se, some of the first precursors to women’s religious life were communities of already-consecrated virgins who chose to live together in order to receive mutual support in living out their vocation. But with the rise of organized monastic life in late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages, laywomen would enter monasteries and then subsequently receive the consecration of virgins at a later point, often in conjunction with their solemn profession of religious vows.

Because of this, the consecration of virgins came to be closely associated with religious life for women. Many ritual or liturgical elements which originally pertained specifically to the consecration of virgins—such as the reception of the veil, or committing one’s life to Christ in the presence of the local bishop—later became more strongly identified with women’s religious life, especially as the custom of consecrating non-monastic virgins was gradually falling out of practice.

Even while the newer medieval women’s religious Orders (e.g., the Poor Clares and Dominican nuns) did not continue the custom of bestowing the consecration of virgins upon their solemnly professed nuns, they continued to identify with the title “spouse of Christ.” Likewise, once the more modern congregations of active Sisters began to develop, the traditional use of “bridal” imagery continued to be a common theme in the spirituality and theology of women’s religious life. 

Towards the mid-twentieth century, it was to the point that, rightly or wrongly, the call to be a bride of Christ was considered more or less synonymous with the call for a woman to become a religious—especially since non-religious consecrated virgins had become little more than a distant memory in life of the Church at the time.

After Vatican II

Although the Second Vatican Council certainly did not introduce any true doctrinal changes, it did clarify several theological points related to the Church’s own inner structure and nature.  Because of this, after the Council the Church began to approach many elements of her theology on consecrated life from a somewhat different (or perhaps we could say a renewed) point of view. That is, the Church sought to promote a fuller understanding of the history, fundamental nature, and the original inspirations behind the various expressions of consecrated life.

This renewed perspective would later be reflected in the Church’s legislation, especially in the new Code of Canon Law which was to be promulgated several years later in 1983. It would also be evident in many magisterial documents, such as John Paul II’s 1991 post-synodal exhortation Vita Consecrata, as well as in many of the revised liturgical rites.

Concretely, some of the results of this renewal were:

- the 1970 revision of the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity, which also effected the re-establishment of the ancient Order of Virgins as a recognized form of consecrated life in its own right;

- religious life being recognized as a vocation which is essentially the same for both men and women (unlike the earlier 1917 Code of Canon Law, the canons on religious life in the post-Vatican II Code make virtually no distinctions between men’s and women’s institutes);

- the expression “consecrated life” no longer being considered a strict synonym for “religious life”—it was clarified that “consecrated life” is an umbrella term encompassing a wide variety of forms, with religious life properly so-called being just one particular expression among others.

The question at hand

So, if consecrated virginity is the vocation which is explicitly identified with the call to be a bride of Christ, and if religious life per se is understood as something different from consecrated virginity, is it still appropriate for religious Sisters and nuns who aren’t consecrated virgins to call themselves brides of Christ?

I think the answer here would have to be a qualified “yes and no.” That is, a general “yes” for most practical purposes, and a more limited “no” when we’re dealing with precise technical theological and canonical issues.

To start with the “no” part of the answer, it can be noted that consecrated virgins are the only ones whom the Church’s law describes as being “mystically espoused to Christ” (“Christo Dei Filio mystice desponsantur,” cf. can. 604). And as is clear from even a cursory reading of the Rite of Consecration, consecrated virginity as a vocation is directly ordered around the call to be a bride of Christ. That is, the call to be a bride of Christ is absolutely essential to the call to become a consecrated virgin; the vocation cannot be understood apart from this central call. A spousal call is not just a non-negotiable element of consecrated virginity, but it is also its single most defining element.

On the other hand, canon law never once identifies the call to be a bride of Christ with religious vows as such. Religious life, for both men and women, is not understood as being fundamentally a literal spousal relationship with Jesus. Rather, it is an approved way of life centered around following Christ more closely through vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. In contrast with consecrated virginity, the basic concept of religious life can be grasped without referencing a call to be a bride of Christ.

This difference can be seen not only in the Church’s law, but also in the two vocations’ respective liturgies. In the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity, nearly every single prayer explicitly references the spousal dimension of this vocation. In comparison, the “generic” liturgy that the Church provides for profession in women’s religious community contains relatively few bridal references. And when the Rite of Religious Profession for Women does allude to bridal spirituality, these bridal references tend to be much more abstract and general in their tone (so abstract, in fact, that virtually all of these references could reasonably be applied to all Christians in our common baptismal consecration).

Different religious communities typically have their own proper customs, liturgies, and vow formulae for profession. Some communities do choose to employ abundant bridal imagery in their vow ceremonies, while other communities opt not to include any sort of nuptial language at all in their profession liturgies. That is, individual religious communities are free to emphasize or de-emphasize spousal imagery according to their own unique spirituality and charism. The fact that communities have this sort of freedom would seem to suggest that while a call to identify as a spouse of Christ can harmonize with a religious vocation, it would not seem to be absolutely essential to religious life as an overall category.

Additionally, in a handful of cloistered communities, nuns not only make religious profession, but also receive the consecration of virgins. Since the Church has these two different rituals which are both permitted to be received by the same person, it would follow that these two liturgies are meant attain different ends. Since we know that the consecration of virgins is explicitly intended as a betrothal to Christ, we can therefore gather that religious profession in and of itself must have something other than espousal with Christ as its direct object.

So to sum it up a bit roughly, bridal imagery is more or less optional for religious, but is absolutely necessary for consecrated virgins. Therefore, it might be right to say that consecrated virgins are brides of Christ in a special strong sense, insofar as they are the only ones who are officially recognized as brides of Christ as a direct consequence of their particular vocation.

However…

But now we move on the “yes” part of the answer. Even while consecrated virgins may be the only “canonical” spouses of Christ, it would be wrong to ignore the Church’s venerable and extensive custom of using bridal imagery in reference to professed religious women. We also have the witness of countless faithful women religious—whether they be great mystics of the Church like St. Teresa of Avila or the more ordinary Sister serving at the local school or parish—who have experienced their calling and vocation in a distinctly spousal way. Additionally, we should remember that many canonized lay women, such as St. Kateri Teckawitha and St. Catherine of Siena, saw themselves as responding to a very real call to be a bride of Christ through the making of a private vow.

Yet if we’ve already established that it is specifically the consecration of virgins, as opposed to religious vows or any other kind of commitment, which formally marks a woman as a bride of Christ, how could we then consider non-members of the Order of Virgins as being brides of Christ as well? Wouldn’t this seem a bit inconsistent? Or could we even reasonably ask whether or not calling all consecrated women “brides of Christ” runs the risk of emptying the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity of its meaning and significance?

Perhaps the key here is to frame the questions properly by making some more nuanced distinctions. In particular, it would seem that we can distinguish between: 1. the objective theological reality of being interiorly called to relate to Christ as one’s spouse; and 2. the Church’s public, canonical recognition of this. While of course there is certainly significant overlap between these two concepts, it might be helpful if we could recognize that they are nevertheless slightly different things. Working from this premise, it would be reasonable to conclude that actually living as a bride of Christ may perhaps be something which can happen even apart from officially receiving the title “Sponsa Christi.”

To this end, perhaps it is possible to resolve the apparent conflict over who can be called a bride of Christ by acknowledging the grace to relate to Christ as a spouse as a charism, with the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity being the Church’s way of strengthening and confirming that charism.

What is a charism?

A charism is a spiritual gift, granted directly by God to an individual for the benefit of the wider Church. Scripture often speaks of charisms (for example, see 1 Corinthians 12:4, 7), as does the Catechism of the Catholic Church (cf. CCC 798 – 801). Since Vatican II, the Church has also used the word “charism” to describe the foundational spirituality of a religious family—a terminology which expresses that idea that the inspiration which prompted the start of a religious family is a grace initially granted as a gift to the community’s founder, and then carried on as an inheritance by the community’s vowed members down through time.

A defining characteristic of a charism is that it is truly a supernatural gift. I.e., it is not something which can come about through human effort or achievement. It therefore results in something which is quite above our natural human capabilities. The call to be a bride of Christ certainly fits this description. Not all women have this calling, and the spiritual capacity to see Christ as one’s spouse is not something that a woman can attain simply by desiring it. Rather, it is something that comes directly from God.

Like all gifts, I think this bridal charism is something which needs to be definitely accepted by the women to whom it is granted. Naturally, I would think that an acceptance of this bridal charism would have to take the form of some sort of definite resolution to renounce earthly marriage. Of course, for some women, their acceptance of this the charism of takes the form receiving the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity. But since it would seem that God grants this charism to individual women in a wide variety of circumstances, it is reasonable to suppose that many women’s acceptance of this spousal charism may come through an exclusive commitment to Christ made by means of religious profession. Other women may accept this charism in a more hidden way through the making of a private vow.

I think we can consider the consecration of virgins to be an especially privileged way of accepting and living out the charism to be a bride of Christ, since it is through only the consecration of virgins that the Church confirms this specific charism explicitly. This is a notable difference from religious profession, in which the Church confirmations a call to live a more generally evangelical way of life in the context of a particular religious community. It is even more different from a private vow, which is simply a personal response to the Lord which doesn’t involve the Church’s formal confirmation in any official sense.

But while the Church tells us authoritatively through the consecration of virgins who is a bride of Christ, we should keep in mind that she does not thereby tell us definitely who is not one. We can say with certainty that consecrated virgins are indeed called to be brides of Christ. But on the other hand, even though a woman religious (or a woman with a private vow of virginity) may not have this same kind of direct confirmation of a bridal call, this does not mean that she has not been granted this charism in actual fact. We need to have a certain humility in remembering that God calls whomever He wills according to His good pleasure, and that from an outsider’s point of view we don’t always have the clearest insight into the graces God has wrought in a particular soul.

The upshot

So what are the practical consequences to all of this?

First of all, I think we as a Church should treasure the distinctive spousal vocation of the Order of Virgins, as it’s ultimately meant as a gift for the entire Church.

We should also respect the spirituality of women religious who understand their own vocation in bridal terms. Even if bridal spirituality isn’t absolutely essential to religious life, it can still be beautiful and very fitting in this context. Many religious communities do consider bridal imagery as part of their foundational spirituality, so we might think of bridal spirituality a sort of “charism within a charism” in these instances.

But on the other hand, we also shouldn’t negatively judge women religious who for whatever reason do not identify with bridal imagery. We should keep in mind that a woman can live out the essential elements of religious life—i.e., an evangelical life of prayer, service, community, and public witness—in a full and fervent way, even if she best relates to Christ in a way other than as His bride.


If a woman discerning a vocation to consecrated life feels most strongly drawn to a spousal relationship with Christ (rather than feeling primarily attracted to community life or the mission of a particular religious family) then it might be good for her at least to investigate consecrated virginity. But if a discerner realizes that Order of Virgins is not where she is called, she shouldn’t feel that she therefore cannot be a spouse of Christ in any sense.