Overall, Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago (ESI), the fairly recent Instruction from Rome’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Life, was a much-needed document that clarified many aspects of the vocation of consecrated virginity, ranging from lofty elements of its spirituality to more down-to-earth questions such as the need for formation. But regrettably, most of the news coverage from ESI’s publication last year focused on the controversy surrounding ESI paragraph 88, which supposedly suggested that consecrated virgins need not be virgins at all.
Reading this paragraph as a canon lawyer, I believe it is a mistake to interpret ESI 88 in this way. Still, since I occasionally continue to receive questions about ESI 88, I think it might be helpful to have a more in-depth discussion on this point.
Some historical context
When the revised Rite of Consecration to aLife of Virginity was promulgated in 1970, the praenotanda of the Rite indicated that women are eligible for the consecration of virgins if they had: “never married or lived in public or open violation of chastity.”[i] For a time, this somewhat vague wording led some to suppose that, as long as there was no danger of scandal, the Rite perhaps only demanded “spiritual virginity” or “second-chance virginity” (i.e., in which a non-virgin sincerely repents of her past sexual sin and lives a life of fervent chastity from that point forward).
Eventually, at least in the United States, there came to be a more or less general consensus that literal virginity was a key requirement for becoming a consecrated virgin. Or in other words, women who have knowingly and freely engaged in an act of completed sexual intercourse are not eligible, even if they have sincerely repented or have embraced a devotional practice of “secondary virginity.” There were some offical-ish, though not absolutely authoritative, clarifications in this regard, such as letters from Roman Dicasteries addressed to individuals who had written with this question.[ii]
Yet even more than that, I suspect this sensus fideli arose from just plain common sense in reading the pertinent source material. That is, this vocation is referred to verbatim as “the consecration of virgins” and “the Order of Virgins.” Likewise, the Code of Canon Law describes the women who embrace this state in life as “virgins.” (cf. can. 604) Thus, arguably it doesn’t take a great feat of scholarship to conclude that the Church expects that women in this particular state in life to be really virgins in the usual sense of the term.
But even with this fundamental distinction more or less settled, the wording of the eligibility requirements in the praenotanda in the Rite of Consecration still left us with a lot of questions in terms of how to evaluate certain real-life cases and situations. Specifically, it was not clear whether the word “public” in this sense was intended to indicate something along the lines of “widely-known and notorious,” or if it was instead meant to be read in a more restrictive technical sense of “not being a strictly a matter of the internal forum.” Or in other words, would it take an exceptionally well-known lack of chastity for a woman to be disqualified from the consecration of virgins, or would she be ineligible simply if she had committed an unchaste act that was outwardly verifiable by a third party?
Similarly, especially among consecrated virgins themselves, it was often hotly debated whether the phrase “violation of chastity” was meant as a euphemism for the completed act of intercourse, or if it referred to any serious sin against the sixth Commandment. And even if one presumed that a “violation of chastity” encompassed those sins of unchastity which stopped short of “the marital act” itself, there were still a number of questions regarding exactly where and how the line should be drawn when determining which specific sins were grave enough to render an woman ineligible for the consecration of virgins.
What ESI actually says
As was expected for this long-anticipated instruction on the Ordo virginum, Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago does indeed provide some elaboration on the requirement of chastity stated in the Rite’s praenotanda.
ESI 93 briefly, but usefully, clarifies that the “public” violations of chastity mentioned in the praenotanda are those acts which are de facto widely known, as opposed to known by only at least one other person. In a lot of way this clarification is not too surprising, given that a more literal translation of the typical Latin text of the eligibility criterion in question mentions a “…public or manifest” (“publice seu manifeste”) violation of chastity.
“Manifest” in a canonical context means something along the lines of “obvious” or “readily apparent.” When something is manifest in canon law, this generally indicates that it needs little or no investigation to be proven. And so a manifest violation of chastity would be one where there was no reasonable doubt that it occurred.
However, ESI’s commentary on this aspect of candidates’ eligibility for the vocation is most fully—and, as it were, most controversially—set out in paragraph 88. Since the question at hand is very context-dependent, I’m quoting ESI 88 in full here, but highlighting the controversial lines in bold:
88. In vocational guidance and when there is need to describe the characteristics of this vocation and the requirements for admission to consecration, the condition of virginity will be presented starting with the rich symbolism of its biblical foundations, within the framework of an anthropological vision solidly based on Christian revelation. On this basis the different dimensions, physical, psychological and spiritual, are integrated and considered in their dynamic connection to the lived history of the person and in openness to the unceasing action of divine grace that directs, guides and invigorates her on the path of holiness.
As a treasure of inestimable value that God pours into clay vessels (cf. 2 Cor 4:7), this vocation is truly an undeserved gift. It encounters the person in her actual humanity, always in need of redemption and yearning for the full meaning of her existence. It finds its origin and dynamic center in the grace of God, who unceasingly acts with the tenderness and the strength of his merciful love in the often complex and sometimes contradictory events of human life, helping the person to grasp her uniqueness and the unity of her being, enabling her to make a total gift of self. In this context it should be kept in mind that the call to give witness to the Church’s virginal, spousal and fruitful love for Christ is not reducible to the symbol of physical integrity. Thus to have kept her body in perfect continence or to have practiced the virtue of chastity in an exemplary way, while of great importance with regard to the discernment, are not essential prerequisites in the absence of which admittance to consecration is not possible.
The discernment therefore requires good judgement and insight, and it must be carried out individually. Each aspirant and candidate is called to examine her own vocation with regard to her own personal history, in honesty and authenticity before God, and with the help of spiritual accompaniment.
Once again, I’ll point out that this paragraph discusses many things other than the “dividing line” of what makes woman eligible for the consecration of virgins. Namely, ESI 88 begins by highlighting the value of virginity and its centrality to this vocation, and concludes by strongly emphasizes the importance of individual discernment.
How this should be interpreted?
And so, we can see that ESI 88 is actually communicating quite of bit of very nuanced and valuable information. Unlike the clarifications ESI gives us on other issues, we can’t reduce ESI 88 to a simple soundbite or yes-or-no answer.
But in my professional opinion as a canonist, I think the practical bottom line here is: for women whose virginity is questionable—with “questionable” meaning: “there really is a sincere question here”—their eligibility for the consecration of virgins is to be carefully discerned on an individual basis.
Practically speaking, this means that victims or rape or abuse, or conversely, women who may have repented of sinful sexual acts that stopped short of intercourse, are not automatically prohibited from discerning this vocation. On the other hand, this also doesn’t mean that they are to be automatically admitted to the Order of Virgins, either! Rather, it means that the Church does not exclude them from an honest and realistic conversation about the possibility that they might be called to this state in life.
So what ESI 88 is not saying is: “virginity is no longer required for consecrated virgins.” First of all, as per my point above, if a woman can be readily described as a non-virgin, then her virginity is no longer “questionable” or a gray area. That is, it’s clear that a non-virgin is not a virgin, full stop. The virginity of an obvious non-virgin is no longer questionable, because that “question” is already fully answered in the negative. A woman who has no need of discerning whether or not she is a literal virgin because she already knows with certainty that she is not one is clearly not an individual whose situation ESI 88 was intended to describe.
Likewise, the reaffirmation of the eligibility requirements as originally phrased in the Rite in ESI 84 already sets a fairly high standard even by itself. While having “never married or lived in public or open violation of chastity” isn’t absolutely comprehensive, it seems generally unlikely that a woman who was unquestionably not a virgin would also somehow measure up to this standard. Granted, scenarios where something like this might be the case are not impossible and do happen. Yet it’s still important to note that, unlike what some of the more provocative headlines and media talking points would suggest, ESI 88 is not suddenly opening the Ordo virginum to obvious non-virgins or to women have repented from lifestyles of manifest sexual sin.
But more importantly in my mind, it is clear from the wording of this very paragraph, let alone the context of the rest of the document, that the Church still sees virginity as a foundational element of the spirituality of this vocation. ESI 88 begins by stating that “when there is need to describe the characteristics of this vocation and the requirements for admission to consecration,” the appropriate way to respond is by presenting and referring to “the condition of virginity” in light of the “rich symbolism of its biblical foundations.” Here, ESI 88 tells us that virginity with all its meaning and significance must be presented as the key for discernment. Since virginity is specifically named as the fundamental reference point for discerning eligibility, it doesn’t make sense to argue that ESI 88 is somehow doing away with the requirement of virginity altogether.
A note on some popular terminology
At this point, it might be good to address one potential point of confusion, which is the term “physical virginity.” Among English-speaking consecrated virgins, this term tends to be used as shorthand for something like: “really a virgin in the true sense of the term, as opposed to the merely ‘spiritual virginity’ of a repentant non-virgin.”
However, I find the term “physical virginity” to problematic in discussions like this, since it ignores the distinction between what I’ll call “literal virginity” versus a strictly biological virginity. While a woman is biologically virginal if her body has never experienced sexual intercourse in any way, shape, or form; she can rightly be called a literal virgin if she has never engaged in sexual intercourse with full knowledge and freedom.
This is important, because the Church traditionally understands virginity as a moral and spiritual state as opposed to a medical or simply biological one. That is, a woman is a virgin is she intends and has resolved to remain chaste and continent before marriage; or in the case of dedicated or consecrated virginity, if she is resolved to remain chaste while forsaking the potential for legitimate intimacy with a mortal husband, for the sake offering herself more wholly to God. As such, the Church regards virtuous rape victims as truly and fully virgins, regardless of whatever traumatic violation their bodies may have experienced.[iii]
Of course, physiological bodily integrity is not totally irrelevant to the virtue of virginity, but we should understand a biologically virginal body as being only a fitting sign of the spiritual reality of a truly virginal soul. Therefore, as ESI 88 points out, we can and should appreciate the sign-value of bodily wholeness without incorrectly reducing the entire concept of “virginity” to this mere sign.
Also too, there is a sense in which any literal virginity—i.e. the moral state of virginity, with or without bodily “intactness”—is also a kind of “physical virginity,” since a woman’s free choice and perseverance in a life of virginity makes her body consecrated and holy, regardless of what might have happened to her body against her will. As St. Augustine notes: “the sanctity of the soul remains even when the body is violated, the sanctity of the body is not lost; and that, in like manner, the sanctity of the body is lost when the sanctity of the soul is violated, though the body itself remains intact.” (City of God, BookI, chapter 18)
So, in some contexts it might be accurate to speak of “physical virginity” when we are referring to virginity as something like a resolve to persevere in virginal chastity that is manifested by one’s concrete choices. But at the same time, the term “physical virginity” is often used in a way that would seem to be synonymous with “biological virginity,” and we should be mindful that this can add an inaccurate or confusing note to discussions such as this one.
Why ESI 88 makes sense
Turning back to ESI 88 specifically, speaking personally, like many others I at first found the vague wording of ESI 88 to be a bit frustrating. But the more I considered it, the more I realized that ESI 88 probably handled the question of this specific eligibility requirement in the most sensible way possible. I believe this is the case for a few reasons.
First of all, as was suggested above, defining virginity can be surprisingly difficult, even aside from the relatively clear-cut distinction between moral/literal virginity and strictly biological virginity. This is evident especially in the fact that our current canon law we have no straightforward definition of what precisely constitutes “virginity” in even a simple material sense.[iv] As in, even in scenarios of where we can presume the woman’s full knowledge and consent to grave sins of unchastity, we don’t have any clearly established canonical line demarcating the indelicate details of exactly “how far is too far.”
For example, it does seem clear that willful completed intercourse would establish an individual as having lost his or her virginity in any scenario, but what about cases where a couple did almost everything, but stopped just short of the marital act itself? Or a case where a woman had lived in a sexually active lesbian relationship? In many such cases, knowledgeable people could have different reasonable opinions on whether or in what sense the women in such cases were truly “virgins”—or at least “virgins” in a robust sense of the term, i.e. in a way that was compatible with the overall vision of the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity. Even if it could be argued that such women were virgins in a legalistically strict sense, the appropriateness of women in such situations dedicating themselves to the Lord via a public commitment to virginity per se remains seriously questionable.
Things get even more complicated when you throw questions of full knowledge and free will into the mix. For instance, can a fourteen-year-old victim of statuary rape, who thought she consented at the time, rightly be thought of as having lost her virginity? Or what about an adult woman who engaged in frequent oral sex, but did so with the distinct thought that by refraining from intercourse she was thereby retaining her “technical virginity”? Does such an intention to remain a virgin modify the spiritual impact of acts that many would see as incompatible with virginity? And how much weight does one give to certain psychological states (for example, drunkenness) that may have negatively impacted, but not necessarily totally destroyed, one’s sense of personal freedom in making sexual choices?
Clearly, the more one tries to draw a theoretical line, the more difficult and sensitive the questions become.
My point here is not to propose answers to such questions, but rather to point out how near impossible it is to come up with a canonical definition of virginity that would adequately address all hypothetically possible cases. Any attempt by canonists to do this would not only have to be exceedingly detailed and extensive, but also quite graphic. And it’s likely that such an attempt still probably would not address all potential scenarios.
Given this, I think ESI’s approach to these eligibility questions is actually the most helpful and appropriate one. And indeed, it may very well be the only one that is realistically possible. ESI puts the onus on personal discernment in individual cases, while still underscoring certain principles and re-stating some general hard boundary lines (e.g., an aspiring consecrated virgin can never have been married or have lived in manifest unchastity).
Discernment is not a cop-out
I suspect that one reason why ESI in general, and ESI 88 in particular, were not always popularly well-received initially was because many commentators interpreted this emphasis on personal discernment to be sort of loophole or cop-out; or as sort of a winking way, stemming from a laxity or lack of zeal, to allow for non-virgins to be consecrated.
Yet when understood properly, real discernment is nothing like this! Personal discernment in general is not only a serious spiritual undertaking, but is also an essential part of Christian life. Many saints in the Church’s history have written at length about discernment, its necessity, and how to discern serious life choices properly.
What’s more, in terms of discerning one’s basic eligibility for consecrated virginity, ESI and the Church presume that the question will be approached in good faith and with common sense. That is, ESI was written with the overall expectation that women aspiring to become consecrated virgins are at least fundamentally seeking to love the Lord and follow His will for their lives—as opposed to expecting, for instance, that women considering this vocation will be mostly something like legalistic connivers intent only on having their own way, etc.
The value of ESI 88
One reason we can all appreciate ESI 88 is because, if nothing else, it at least answers a frequently asked practical question. Whether or not we ourselves would have written ESI 88 in exactly the same way, this clarity is still helpful in real-life pastoral situations.
But I also think ESI 88 has the potential to be helpful on a deeper level, since it has the potential to promote a healthier understanding of the Ordo virginum’s central charism of virginity.
Underscoring the essentially moral and spiritual nature of virginity is a good witness to the dignity of women in general. That is, it supports the truth that women have intrinsic worth and moral agency; that women’s identities are determined by the choices we freely make for our lives, rather than what may or may not have be done to us without our consent; and that the Church never sees us as “damaged goods” (or “used gum,” or whatever other denigrating terms may have been used to describe non-virgins.)
And for us consecrated virgins, I think it’s helpful to keep in mind that virginity as such, while a crucial element of our charism and spirituality, is ultimately only the starting point for a truly consecrated way of life. Our call is not simply to virginity by itself, but a life of virginity that is dedicated to prayer, service, and Christian witness.
[i] In the typical Latin edition of the Rite of Consecration—i.e., the “master copy” from which all translations are made—this is written as: “…ut numquam nuptias celebraverint neque publice seu manifeste in statu castitati contrario vixerint.”
[ii] For example, the USACV website makes reference to a letter Raymond Card. Burke received from the Congregation for Divine Worship in April of 2007 which gave an answer to this effect: https://consecratedvirgins.org/discernment (accessed October 12, 2019)
[iii] As one reference, St. Augustine discusses this somewhat at length in Book 1, chapters 16-18 of City of God.
[iv] I have read and heard that some older canonical commentaries, though not the law itself, have endeavored to give a exact definition of material virginity in the context of some very particular technical questions in marriage law (namely, questions of marital invalidity pertaining to “error of quality of person” when virginity was the quality “directly and principally intended). From what I understand, they generally tended to indicated completed intercourse as the canonical dividing line between virgins and non-virgins. But, right now I don’t have a specific source I can cite—though readers who do have a handy source are welcome to submit one! Also, I think it is important to point out that commentaries on marriage law in the now obsolete 1917 Code of Canon Law aren’t always going to be directly applicable to questions relating to the post-Vatican II Ordo virginum.