Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Is Consecrated Virginity a Viable Form of Consecrated Life?

Here is a question from a reader on my last post:

‘The earliest precursors to religious life were the primitive rules (such as the rule of St. Caesarius of Arles) written for communities of consecrated virgins or hermits as means for them to live their original commitments more faithfully.’

This would indicate to me that consecrated virginity lived in the world has something lacking. If the first nuns were consecrated virgins who started to live in community under a rule of life so they would be more faithful to their consecration, what does that say about the modern resurgence of consecrated virgins who live on their own with no one to answer to, no rule of life, doing their own thing? Is this a healthy, viable way to live consecrated life? Can it last, or will it die out like it did in the early centuries of the church?” –Anonymous

I have often received comments and questions very similar to this one in real life (including from a professor at my thesis presentation!), so I’m glad to have the chance to address some of these issues. This particular question actually touches on serveral separate but related points, which I’ll address one-by-one:

1. First of all, the development of new forms of consecrated life does not negate the earlier forms. For example, the advent of non-cloistered, “active” Sisters in the 1600’s does NOT make the more ancient vocation of cloistered, contemplative nuns any less valid or valuable; on an objective theological level you can’t say that active religious life, having evolved out of older forms of religious life, is somehow “more complete” than religious life devoted entirely to contemplation. Both forms of religious life have their own special place within the Church.

With this in mind, I feel that this same dynamic is in place regarding consecrated virginity lived “in the world.” That is, I don’t believe that the development of organized monastic life indicates that consecrated virginity is not a full, distinct vocation in its own right.

I can see how some might want to ask the question of whether or not the millennium-long veritable discontinuation of the practice of consecrating non-monastic virgins* suggests that consecrated virginity lived “in the world” may not actually be a true expression of consecrated life. But, the fact of the matter is that by including consecrated virgins in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, the contemporary Church has indeed recognized the Patristic-era Order of Virgins as legitimate, and not merely as a “provisional,” form of consecrated life.

2. Likewise, consecrated virginity does involve a unique “charism.” That is, consecrated virginity as a state in life does have a very distinct identity in the Church.

For one thing, consecrated virginity lived “in the world” is one of the only forms of consecrated life which involves a direct, continuative bond with the local diocese and the diocesan bishop.

And, reception of the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity is different from the profession of religious vows, in that whereas religious vows are essentially promises one actively makes to God, virginal consecration is a solemn blessing passively received from God through the ministry of the bishop. This might seem like an overly technical distinction, but it does have implications for the spirituality of consecrated virgins.

Also, while I believe that it is highly appropriate for women in all forms of consecrated life to embrace a “bridal” spirituality, consecrated virginity is the only vocation which by its very nature involves a call to a spousal relationship with Christ. Canon Law describes consecrated virgins as being “mystically betrothed to Christ, the Son of God,” but it actually does not use nuptial imagery to describe women religious. (But this does not mean that women’s religious life is somehow anti-spousal, only that spousal imagery is not absolutely essential to the vocation. In theory, it’s possible than a women could have a vocation to religious life without necessarily experiencing a call to be a bride of Christ.)

Finally, consecrated virginity has a particular connection to the early Church and the ancient virgin-martyr saints, and consecrated virgins are commissioned in a special way to pray the Liturgy of the Hours.

3. With regard to the desirability of community life, it’s good to remember that certain customs and practices can be devoutly helpful to individuals as they seek to best live out their vocations, without those practices being therefore intrinsic to a particular vocation.

For example, many Catholic married couples find that saying a daily rosary with their children is helpful in fostering an atmosphere of joyful Christian family life. It’s easy to see how such a practice would greatly assist individuals in living out their vocations to matrimony and parenthood. Perhaps some spouses and parents would even say that they found they personally “needed” their family rosary in order to maintain a decent spiritual life or to remain faithful to the obligations of their state.

However, at the same time you couldn’t say that a family rosary was intrinsic to the sacrament of matrimony or Catholic parenthood, in the sense that the practice of a family rosary isn’t a sacramental or canonical requirement for a valid marriage.

The Church might strongly recommend devotional practices such as a family rosary, but she does not strictly demand them. A person can even become a canonized saint without having adopted any specific set of devotional prayers.**

While certainly we can’t regard community life in the same way as we would devotional practices—since community is intrinsic to religious life, societies of apostolic life, and in some sense secular institutes, and as such does contribute in a major way to the theological identity of these forms of consecrated life—my thought is that community life probably functioned in a similar way for the early consecrated virgins (and perhaps could function in a similar way for modern consecrated virgins…but I’ll get to that in my next point).

That is, while some Patristic-era consecrated virgins and the earliest consecrated virgin-nuns did live in community, I think this was simply because they found it to be personally helpful, and NOT because their membership in a community was a determining or fundamental aspect of their vocation. A consecrated virgin is a consecrated virgin regardless of whether or not she lives on her own, with family, or with other consecrated virgins; whereas a woman religious is by definition one who belongs to a religious community.

4. Modern consecrated virginity is not actually anti-community life. While consecrated virgins are free live on their own, they are not required to do so. Although the small number and geographical dispersion of today’s consecrated virgins makes residential community life somewhat of an impractical proposition at the time of this writing, there is nothing to stop a group of modern consecrated virgins from living under the same roof for purposes of mutual support. In fact, some commentators understand the second paragraph of canon 604,*** which explicitly opens the possibility for consecrated virgins to associate, to allow for this specific sort of arrangement.

Naturally, as a matter of prudence, anyone presently seeking to become a consecrated virgin should have the emotional and spiritual resources to be capable of living a consecrated life with only a minimum of external human support. But on a theological (if not a practical) level, a call to consecrated virginity is not identical with a special call to solitude or independence.

5. And, it would seem to be possible to live a truly consecrated life without the benefit of day-to-day community support.

Or at least, the Church seems to think it is. Aside from the restoration of a non-monastic Order of Virgins, the fact that the Church endorses the existence of secular institutes and eremitic life, as well as the fact that she does not mandate that the diocesan clergy should live together, seems to indicate that the Church believes that it is possible to be faithful to a life of celibacy and prayer without necessarily living in a community of like-minded individuals.

We also have the example of numerous saints to further attest to this possibility. For example, St. Genevieve of Paris (my patroness!) was a consecrated virgin in the fifth century. While she lived at about the time when the first true religious Orders were forming, she herself never joined any formally organized community. Yet, throughout almost her entire ninety-year life, she was known as a strikingly exemplary consecrated virgin.

Of course, subjectively an individual woman might feel that she herself would be unable to live a consecrated life outside of a community, and in my opinion this is a legitimate reason for entering religious life instead of becoming a consecrated virgin. But, such cases would not disprove the objective possibility of living a truly consecrated life as a consecrated virgin in the world.

Conversely, it’s also good to keep in mind that, while community life could surely be a great help remaining faithful to one’s vocation, in and of itself it isn’t a fool-proof guarantee that one will live a fervent consecrated life, or even that one will attain to the level of charity required of all Christians. Just simply living in community doesn’t automatically make one a saint!

6. Most importantly, it is a serious mistake to see consecrated virgins as normatively having “no one to answer to, no rule of life, [and] doing their own thing.” I would be the first to agree that this would not make for a “healthy, viable way to live consecrated life.” And if consecrated virginity is understood this way in some places, then my thought is that this is actually an abuse of the Rite of Consecration.

It is true that consecrated virgins do have much more freedom than do most religious in the ways in which they can structure their day-to-day lives. However, it’s totally inimical to the concept of consecrated life in general to enter into a public state of consecration with an attitude of “doing my own thing.” When a person becomes consecrated in a public manner through the Church’s liturgy (versus, for example, dedicating one’s life to God through a private vow of celibacy or virginity), in a very real way he or she no longer “belongs” to oneself, but to God and His Church.

As I see it, if a consecrated virgin is living a life that could rightly be considered “consecrated”—i.e., if she is living out her vocation the way it is ordinarily supposed to be lived—then she should truly be organizing EVERY aspect of her life around her commitment to the Church. As I have mentioned before, this is one major reason why I strongly believe that consecrated virgins should, under normal circumstances, be “dedicated to the service of the Church” in as direct and literal a way as possible.

I do hesitate to say that consecrated virgins should have a “Rule of Life” per se. My main objection to this is that the following of a set, specific Rule would seem to be an element uniquely proper to religious life and diocesan hermits (similar to the way in which following the spirituality of a specific founder of foundress is a constitutive aspect of religious life, but not consecrated virginity).****

Yet at the same time, if a consecrated virgin made it a priority to:

- attend daily Mass if it was at all humanly possible;
- pray the Liturgy of the Hours;
- work for the Church full-time in so far as she was capable, or otherwise to devote a comparable amount of time to volunteer service in the Church;
- make time for private prayer, spiritual reading, and studying the faith;
- live a demonstrably simple lifestyle;
- and to engage in some type of appropriate penance or sacrifices;

…then it would seem to me these commitments would serve the same purpose as a Rule, in that they would ensure that the consecrated virgin was living a life readily identifiable as being “consecrated.”

Finally, consecrated virgins do have someone (besides the Lord!) to “answer to”—their bishop. This is evident in the general introduction to the Rite of Consecration, which states that it for the bishop to determine the conditions under which women living in the world are to undertake a life of consecrated virginity.

Of course, consecrated virgins don’t vow obedience in the same way that nuns and Sisters do; which, among other things, means that the bishop would not be nearly as involved in the smaller, mundane decisions of every-day life. For example, the bishop obviously would not determine things like what time precisely to say Vespers, where to go grocery shopping, how often one could visit family and friends, ect. Nor would a consecrated virgin need her bishop’s approval to engage in the many smaller acts of charity that present themselves over the course of the day. E.g., a consecrated virgin would not need to be “commissioned” to do something like bring food to a sick parishioner or to check in regularly on an elderly neighbor.

However, this does NOT mean that the evangelical counsel of obedience has no place in the life a consecrated virgin! The bishop should, either personally or through a delegate (like a Vicar for Religious or Episcopal Delegate for Consecrated Life) be aware and approve of the general shape of a consecrated virgin’s consecrated life.

Likewise, my belief is that all of a consecrated virgin’s serious decisions—such as where to go to school, what job to take, whether or not to engage in a major project like writing a book or starting a charitable organization—should be mutually discerned by the consecrated virgin and her bishop or the bishop’s representative. Additionally, a consecrated virgin should be completely open to her bishop’s suggestions as to how she could best serve the needs of her diocese, or his requests for a particular form of service to the local Church, even if these go against the consecrated virgin’s own personal preferences or inclinations.

So in a nutshell, consecrated virginity lived “in the world” is a true and valid vocation, which subsequently should entail the same level of commitment, self-sacrifice, and responsibility as any public state of consecrated life within the Church. Any woman hoping to become a consecrated virgin in today’s world should sincerely intend to offer her life to Christ and His Church with as much totality as a strictly-cloistered nun offers hers—that is, an aspiring consecrated virgin should truly strive to give everything.

While it’s understandable that consecrated virginity may not yet be fully and appropriately understood by many Catholics, I think that it would have disastrously negative spiritual consequences for both individual consecrated virgins as well as for the wider Church if consecrated virginity were to be regarded as something like a less demanding “alternative” to
religious life.


* Although incidentally, the conferral of the solemn virginal consecration on women living outside of religious communities was not officially forbidden until the year 1926—less then fifty years before the promulgation of the revised Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity, which contained a form intended explicitly for women “living in the world.”

** Of course, this is referring to specific devotional practices (e.g., the brown scapular, various Fatima devotions, the Divine Mercy chaplet, the St. Louis de Montfort Consecration to Mary, ect.), and not to the liturgy, sacraments, or to prayer in general. These latter things, in contrast with what we would call “devotional prayers,” are truly indispensable for living a good and fruitful Catholic life!

***Canon 604 §2 reads: “In order to observe their own resolution more faithfully and to perform by mutual assistance service to the Church in harmony with their proper state, virgins can be associated together.”

**** But I would see no problem if some consecrated virgins found it personally helpful to write, with the help of her spiritual director or bishop, her own informal private “rule” or “plan of life” to serve as a basic set of guidelines for the daily living out of her vocation. But a situation would be much different from a consecrated virgin attempting to do something like follow the Rule of Saint Augustine or Benedict; or from enshrining an official rule as a major component of the spirituality of consecrated virginity in general.

No comments: