Tuesday, July 13, 2010

What Does It Mean to Be “In the World?”

As regular readers of this blog have probably picked up by now, I strongly believe that, in terms of the general pattern of our day-to-day concrete experience, consecrated virgins should strive to live lives that are readily identifiable as being “consecrated.” My opinion is that consecrated virgins should live out their spousal relationship with Christ through a more visible dedication to prayer, service, and simplicity of life.

In other words, I think that consecrated virgins are called to an intensity of Christian witness which goes beyond that proper to a devout, single Catholic lay woman. This is in contrast with the popular conception that consecrated virgins are instead called to a more “hidden” witness within the context of a secular lifestyle.

Often, this idea—i.e., that women consecrated to a life of virginity according to canon 604 are normatively called to “blend in” with the lay faithful, without any conspicuous outward expressions of their consecration, and without undertaking any life-altering obligations other than celibacy—finds as its justification the fact that consecrated virgins are described in the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity as living “in the world.”

But after considering this argument more for some time, I’ve come to my own conclusion that this line of reasoning may not be accurate, and is perhaps based on some unsupported theological or canonical assumptions. Namely, to understand consecrated virginity as ordinarily entailing a more or less “lay” mode of life would seem to be giving the words “in the world” a weight and connotation which the Church does not actually appear to ascribe to them.

Here, it is important to note that within the Church’s authoritative writings the phrase “in the world,” like the word “secular,” is not a univocal term. That is, these words can be used to mean different things in different contexts. (Unlike, for example, terms such as “Coajuter bishop” or “papal enclosure,” which refer to one specific thing regardless of the context in which they are used.)

In some instances he words “secular” and “in the world” are intended to be taken in the strong sense of implying total immersion in, or a close association with, the sphere of temporal affairs. This is certainly the more colloquial usage of the two phrases. For example, in every-day conversation we generally speak of things being “secular” in contrast with those which are wholly dedicated to God as “sacred;” and sometimes religious Sisters refer to their pre-consecrated lives with the expression: “when I was in the world…”

There are also some official, formal contexts in which the Church uses the terms “secular” and “in the world” in this strong sense. In the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium, the Church gives this description of the role and identity of the lay faithful (here specified as those who have neither received Holy Orders nor who have entered into a public state of consecration):

What specifically characterizes the laity is their secular nature. …the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven.” (Lumen Gentium, 31.)

Here, the context makes it obvious that, when in reference to the laity, “in the world” and “secular” should be taken in the strong sense, or “at face value,” so to speak.

Likewise, Canon Law indicates that, when used to describe the special vocation of secular institute members, “in the world” and secular” should also be understood in this strong sense.

For example, canon 710 states that:

A secular institute is 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.”

Canon 713 tells us that:

Ҥ1. Members of these institutes express and exercise their own consecration in apostolic activity, and like leaven they strive to imbue all things with the spirit of the gospel for the strengthening and growth of the Body of Christ.

§2. In the world and from the world, lay members participate in the evangelizing function of the Church whether through the witness of a Christian life and of fidelity toward their own consecration, or through the assistance they offer to order temporal things according to God and to inform the world by the power of the gospel. They also cooperate in the service of the ecclesial community according to their own secular way of life.”

And in canon 714 we read:

Members are to lead their lives in the ordinary conditions of the world according to the norm of the constitutions, whether alone, or in their own families, or in a group living as brothers or sisters.”

However, there is also a more limited meaning to the words “secular” and “in the world.”

Sometimes, in some instances, these terms can be used simply to designate that certain individuals are not technically a part of a religious community, even while these same individuals may have a role in the Church which is more similar to that of religious than it is to that of the laity.

For example, diocesan priests are often said to be “in the world,” and Canon Law describes them as “secular clerics.” Yet at the same time, nobody with an adequate understanding of the Catholic priesthood would argue that the clergy should live a lifestyle that could be called “secular” in the strong sense of the term. (In fact, “secular priest” can sometimes be a confusing term for people, since it sounds so much like an oxymoron!)

Even if we were to set aside for the movement the various theological descriptions of the priesthood as men specially called and chosen to be set apart for the God’s service, it’s possible to demonstrate, even working just from Canon Law, that the Church clearly envisions diocesan priests as living a distinctively “consecrated” lifestyle.

Diocesan priests are solemnly obligated to a life of celibacy (can. 277), obedience to their bishop (can. 273), and to the recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours (can. 276). While all Christians, including laypeople are called to the type of chastity and obedience proper to their state, secular priests are asked to live these with a radicalism that would be inappropriate for most Christians “in the world.”

Canon Law often states that secular priests are supposed to be completely devoted to the work of the Church (can. 281), to the extent that nothing else in their life should interfere with the exercise of their ministry (cf. can. 278 §3). Additionally, secular priests are also asked to refrain from involvement in political, military, or civil affairs (can. 285-289). This is very different from the vocation of those in secular institutes, or from that of the laity in general, who are specifically and authentically called to exercise a Christian influence in realm of temporal affairs. Further, when canon 284 asks that priests wear clerical garb, this obviously presumes that the Church intends her priests to be recognizable, public representatives of the Church.

So even while diocesan priests are properly considered “secular” clerics who live “in the world,” in this case it is very clear that these designations do NOT mean that they are called to live lives similar to that of devout single laymen.

Now, given that we can acknowledge more than one possible interpretation of what it means to be “secular” and to “live in the world,” the question is how to understand these terms when applied to consecrated virgins.

In my opinion, consecrated virgins living in the world are only “in the world” in the more limited technical sense. That is, consecrated virgins, like diocesan priests, are “in the world” insofar as they are not members of a religious community. This means that, while consecrated virgins obviously from religious Sisters in some fundamental ways (e.g., they do not have cloister regulations or community obligations), at the same time consecrated virgins are still called to live lives that are demonstrably “set apart” for God alone.

I think that this conclusion is evident by the way in which the phrase “in the world” is actually used in the Church’s authoritative writings on consecrated virgins. Typically, when the liturgy and other Church documents refer to consecrated virgins as being “in the world,” this is simply used to distinguish virgins consecrated according to canon 604 from solemnly professed cloistered nuns who received the Rite of Consecration according to the traditional practice of their Order.

And unlike the official literature and Canon Law on secular institutes, there are absolutely NO authoritative documents which suggest that consecrated virgins should be living out their vocation to perpetual virginity in the context of an otherwise lay lifestyle.

The fact that the call to evangelize “in the ordinary conditions of the world” is emphasized so clearly in the Church’s writings on secular institutes proves that the Church is indeed capable of articulating the charism of living the evangelical counsels while intimately involved in the sphere of temporal concerns.

Because of this, the lack of such language in reference to consecrated virgins should really be quite striking. Had the Council Fathers of Vatican II intended the restored Order of Virgins to be distinctively “in the world” in the strong sense of the term, then surely they would have thought to articulate this point unambiguously.

It could perhaps be argued that, because we also lack any authoritative statement forbidding a secular institute-type lifestyle for consecrated virgins, it is still reasonable to understand consecrated virgins as being “in the world” in the strong sense of the term.

However, I think this is also a mistake. Because it cannot be disputed that consecrated virginity is a public state of consecrated life, in the absence of any modifying directive (i.e., a statement that explicitly allows or requires consecrated virgins to adopt a “lay” and strongly secular mode of life) we should presume that consecrated virgins are called to a manner of living which is most similar to that of other public states of consecrated life (such as religious life).

It could be said that the Church’s “default setting” for consecrated life—as well as the Church’s standard for all public states of consecrated life—involves a life lived exclusively for God and the Church in a radical, total, open, visible, and readily obvious manner. Because of this, I think the burden of proof would fall on those who believe that consecrated virginity, as a public state of consecration, would be best lived in a subtle or “part-time” way, or that it would pertain primarily to an individual’s private interior life.

Similarly, to assume that consecrated virgins are called to live a secular institute-type lifestyle would seem to show a misunderstanding of the Rite of Consecration’s place in history. Consecrated virginity is a truly ancient vocation, one which pre-dates religious life by several centuries. Yet in contrast, secular institutes are a distinctly twentieth-century development.

Even while it could rightly be said that secular institutes were in some sense anticipated by the various lay fraternities of the Middle Ages, or by the early Ursulines in the sixteenth century, the existence of secular institutes as such was not formally acknowledged by the Church until 1947. Likewise, the idea of living the evangelical counsels in a discreet way, as a “hidden leaven” in the world of temporal affairs, with the object of imbuing those temporal affairs with Christian values, was not given serious theological consideration until fairly recently in the history of the Church.

And so my own thought is that, if were we to assume that consecrated virgins are normally called to life and mission similar to that of secular institute members, them we would be inappropriately superimposing a very modern ideal onto a Patristic-era form of consecrated life.


Anonymous said...

Dear Sponsa Christ,

I suggest that you look up the lifestyle of another category of men in Holy Orders, permanent deacons. They are ordained and yet most are married and live very fully in the world. There are plenty of authoritative documents which indicate how their lifestyle is to be lived.

A reader.

Anonymous said...

Can you talk about what living a "consecrated" rather than "lay" lifestyle means for you? Aside from consecrated celibacy, of course.

Sponsa Christi said...

“A reader” (Anonymous #1):

It is true that married men can be Ordained as permanent deacons (although once Ordained, deacons can’t marry or re-marry). It is also true that permanent deacons hold secular jobs more often than not, and that Canon Law explicitly allows them to do this.

But, I don’t think this can be used as an argument in favor of consecrated virginity being understood as normatively involving a secular lifestyle, because (despite some speculations about possible overlap between the early Order of Virgins and a primitive female diaconate) on a theological level consecrated virginity and the permanent diaconate occupy fundamentally different roles within the Church.

The main premise of this post is that: 1. because the Church ordinarily expects publicly consecrated persons to live a lifestyle distinct from that of laypeople; and 2. because consecrated virgins are publicly consecrated persons; then it would follow that consecrated virgins are not called to what could be called a “lay” lifestyle.

If there was an explicit indication in an authoritative document that consecrated virgins are in fact called to live as a “hidden leaven” in the midst of civic society, then the situation would be different. However, I don’t believe that the categorization of consecrated virgins as “living in the world” can appropriately be taken as this kind of explicit indication.

The permanent diaconate actually doesn’t factor into this particular discussion at all, since married permanent deacons—while they have indeed received the Sacrament of Holy Order and thus are truly members of the clergy—are not considered by the Church to be consecrated persons. (Consecrated life per se, and Holy Orders per se, are two separate, distinct vocations).

Canonically, I don’t think that diocesan priests are technically considered to be consecrated persons, either. Still, I used the diocesan priesthood as an example because it does demonstrate that that the words “secular” and “in the world” can be used to describe certain vocations, WITHOUT those vocations necessarily involving a call to a mode of life that could be called “secular” in the strong sense of the word.

Sponsa Christi said...

Anonymous #2:

Speaking non-technically (and kind of off the top of my head), when I refer to a “lay” or “secular” mode of life, I mean a lifestyle that—while following the commandments, the teachings of the Church, and involving an appropriate amount of prayer—is lived fully amidst the sphere of temporal affairs. People called to a lay/secular way of life have the vocation of bringing Christian values to all sectors of civic society, especially those which would be inaccessible to those with more visible roles within the Church.

In contrast, when I refer to a “consecrated” lifestyle, I mean a way of life that is focused more exclusively on God and the Church; which can be readily identified as being exclusively focused on God and the Church; and which involves a more radical observance of the evangelical counsels than is possible or advisable for most laypeople.

When I say that I believe consecrated virgins should adopt a “consecrated” mode of life, I basically mean that I think we as consecrated virgins should plan EVERY aspect of our lives around our commitment to the Church, and to do this in a demonstrable and readily observable way (even if this involves making sacrifices, changing careers, or otherwise encountering substantial inconveniences in order to do so).

When I say that I believe consecrated virgins are not ordinarily called to a lay or secular mode of life, I mean that I think we are NOT called to express our vocation through things like being a “hidden” Christian witness in the context of a secular career. It also means that I think we as consecrated virgins should build our life around our vocation, instead of striving to integrate our vocation into an already-full life.

I hope this helps clarify some of my terms. (If not, I may write a regular post on this in the future.)

Braut des Lammes said...

Exactly the way I see it. Thank you for this great posting (again!). Would you mind me translating this occasionally?

Sponsa Christi said...

Braut des Lammes:

Please feel free to translate whatever you want.

Also, belated congratulations for celebrating your first anniversary! :-)

Anonymous said...

This is Anonymous #2 again.

It would be helpful, I think, for you to discuss the practical realities of following Poverty as a Consecrated Virgin. I would also be very interested to read more of your thoughts on work and consecration; you mention "sacrificing" career for the sake of consecration, but if the work you do is also as the result of vocation, then advancing in your work also serves your consecration -- or so it seems to me. In other words, I am confused by this idea (which seems operative in your writing as well as in the writing of many religious) that devotion to a specific kind of work is prohibitive of consecration, or that the consecrated must always be ready to give up or change their work for the sake of their consecration.

Braut des Lammes said...

Thank you very much :))

Anonymous said...

Dear Sponsa Christi,

If consecrated virgins are to live a life that is readily identifiable as consecrated, what about their appearance? Should they wear some kind of habit, or at least have a dress code? While some consecrated virgins I know dress very simply and appropriately, others follow the fashions including make-up, jewelry, even immodest styles, or sloppy jeans and T-shirts.


Sponsa Christi said...

Anonymous #2:

Thanks for checking back in. I think I will write a regular post about my thoughts on how consecrated virgins are called to live out poverty and obedience in a practical way.

In the meantime, to clarify what I mean by “sacrificing” a career—I certainly don’t mean that consecrated virgins should give up their interests or hide their gifts and talents when these could be used in the service of the Church. What I do mean is that insofar as consecrated virgin has dreams or professional goals, these should all be explicitly related to serving the Church directly.

In other words, a consecrated virgin should have needs of God’s people as her first priority, as opposed to being primarily concerned with her personal fulfillment.

For example, if a consecrated virgin was passionate about teaching, she shouldn’t give up teaching just for the sake of giving something up, especially if the Catholic schools in her diocese need teachers. However, I think in a situation like this, such a consecrated virgin should choose to teach in a Catholic school, even though she knew she would be able to make a much higher salary and have more opportunities for professional advancement if she switched to teaching in a public or non-Catholic private school.


You must have read my mind! I’m actually in the process of writing a post on how consecrated virgins should dress. So stay tuned!

Anonymous said...

When a consecrated virgin is trying to decide between equivalent employment, the only difference being service to the church at the cost of $/prestige, I do agree with you that she should sacrifice the latter for the sake of the former. But what if a consecrated virgin found herself trying to decide between teaching in a Catholic secondary school and employment at a secular University? If she were attracted to the University for the sake of a higher salary and more prestige, that would be certainly be a problem -- it's difficult to imagine a vocation to fame or wealth -- but what if she chose to teach at the University because that's where she would have the time and resources to conduct research? Even if her research didn't directly support the Church as such, if she felt called to be a researcher wouldn't she have a responsibility to take the University position?

Looking forward to your upcoming post on dress!

-Anonymous 2

Sponsa Christi said...

Anonymous 2:

Thanks for another great comment. By the way, you really should think about adopting a snappier screen name! ;-)

Even in the hypothetical situation you described, (and while acknowledging that in real life situations these kinds of questions can have different nuances that need to be taken into account) I still think the consecrated virgin in question should, under ordinary circumstances, opt to work in the Catholic high school instead of the secular university.

My reasoning for this is that, because consecrated virginity is a public state of consecrated life and not a private devotional commitment, a consecrated virgin’s life really needs to be “about” the Church in an explicit, concrete, and demonstrable way—which I think would generally mean serving in a way that was directly connected with the Church if this was at all possible.

Of course, we do need good Catholics in all fields of legitimate human endeavor, but my understanding is that to “evangelize the world from within” (which is what I presume someone who felt called to academic research in a secular field would strive to do) is the proper vocation of the lay faithful, and not publicly consecrated persons.

Additionally, I strongly believe that consecrated virginity should be a consecrated virgin’s “first” or primary vocation. This would mean that a consecrated virgin should make career decisions around her vocation to consecrated life, instead of trying to fit her consecrated life around her career.

Given all this, my own OPINION is that a talented woman who feels a strong call to be a researcher in a non-Church related area, while at the same time feeling called to a spousal relationship with Christ, probably does not have a vocation to be a consecrated virgin, but should instead consider joining a secular institute or making a life-long private vow of virginity. (Quick thought: examples like these—which I know do in fact have a basis in many real-life cases—make me wonder if the Church needs someone to found a women’s secular institute with the charism of a specifically “bridal” spirituality.)

If the woman in your hypothetical was already a consecrated virgin, and not simply a woman still discerning her vocation, then I would point out that our own subjective sense of being called to something is only one element to consider when trying to figure out what God actually DOES want of us. Other factors to keep in mind are the traditional teachings of the Church, the magisterium’s authoritative interpretation of that tradition, and the judgment of whatever ecclesiastical superiors we might have. (E.g., we know that a woman who may sincerely feel a strong call to the priesthood does not truly have a priestly vocation in actual fact, because this goes against millennia of Church teaching and contradicts authoritative statements by recent Popes.)

So…if the woman in question was truly called to be a consecrated virgin; and if my understanding of the Church’s pertinent teachings on consecrated life is correct; then it would follow that the woman in your example was not truly called by God to opt for a secular university position over a position at a Catholic school, no matter how strongly she might interiorly feel otherwise.

But just to add a disclaimer—this represents my attempt to work out the issue in an objective theological way, and so I am NOT trying to comment on the personal holiness or sincerity of individual consecrated virgins. Even if some consecrated virgins might disagree with me here, I would not assume that they aren’t living out their vocation according to their conscience and to the best of their abitlity.

Maria said...

"I’ve come to my own conclusion that this line of reasoning may not be accurate",

always dangerous...

Sponsa Christi said...


The line of reasoning that I’m calling into question here is NOT one which has been authoritatively defined by the Church in any way. The question of what exactly it means for consecrated virgins to be “in the world” is one area where it is at present perfectly legitimate for Catholics to have different opinions.

In fact, the reason why I stress that these are MY thoughts and MY opinions is that I don’t want anyone to think that I’m officially speaking with the voice of the Church on this issue. While I believe that my interpretation is the one most consistent with Church teaching, my interpretation in and of itself is not the same thing as authoritative Catholic doctrine.

Also, whenever I write on “controversial” topics such as this one, it’s almost always after having discussed the issues with several knowable people (such as priests, seminary professors, Canon layers, theologians—including a current member of International Theological Commission—and even a few bishops.) I also bring my thoughts to my Archbishop’s delegate for consecrated virgins (my de facto “superior”), who has been very supportive of my research and writing on consecrated virginity, and who has frequently encouraged me to write about my thoughts and opinions on this blog.

Anyway, what I guess I’m trying to say is that I do make every effort to “think with the Church.”

Mariabosco said...

Thank you for this post... I'm only just reading this article but I strongly agree with your views on this subject. I have always felt something seemed amiss with the way canon 604 has been represented and needing to be way out in left field of immersion in the secular life ("of the world"). I've always wondered, if that is so where do the people fall who don't feel called to canon 603 hermit, yet feel called to be "set apart" in a certain way..
Thank you so much for sharing your gifts of writing, wisdom and canon law knowledge. Do you have any later articles on this subject since this was written? Blessings lm

Sponsa Christi said...


Thanks for your comment! I did write another,later post on related issues here: http://sponsa-christi.blogspot.com/2011/11/secular-vocation.html

I may also write more on this in the future.