That is, in order to receive the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity, must one be a virgin in the literal sense of the term (i.e., one who has never freely and knowingly engaged in sexual relations), as opposed to simply feeling capable of adopting a “virginal” spirituality? Can a “second-chance virgin” or a “renewed virgin” become consecrated under canon 604? Or is the vocation of consecrated virginity really restricted to those who have never made even a single “bad decision?”
The short answer to this question is “yes,” an aspiring consecrated virgin should truly be virginal. However, since such a short, blunt statement can sometimes raise more problems than it solves, I’ll try to explain it in fuller and more nuanced way.
The Church’s official statement and its implications
The Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity—our only authoritative source for this issue—would seem to specify literal virginity as a requirement when it states in its introduction that a woman intending to enter this particular form of consecrated life must “have never been married or lived in public or flagrant violation of chastity” (“ut numquam nuptias celebraverint neque publice seu manifeste in statu castitati contrario vixerint”).*
Thus, the Rite is direct and unambiguous in stating that consecrated virginity is not a possibility for widows, nor for women who have reconciled with the Church after living in a notorious or highly visible state of unchastity (such as premarital cohabitation).
There is also very clear implication that women who have been victims of violence or abuse may still be consecrated as virgins, since in itself victimhood constitutes neither a violation of chastity nor a sin. This is consistent with the Church’s traditional understanding of virginity as an essentially moral and spiritual reality, rather than as a primarily biological one.
Where things can get confusing
Unfortunately, the particularly wording of the Rite on this matter is often experienced as being too vague to provide clear guidelines for other types of situations.
For example, I’ve heard it proposed a number of times that a woman who might have lost her physical virginity through a single, secret “mistake” as a teenage should still be able to receive the Rite of Consecration. The reasoning behind this suggestion is that, since moral indiscretions of this sort may be fairly hidden and unknown by the great majority of people, this does not constitute a “public or flagrant” violation of chastity.
However, at least in the United States, it’s generally understood and accepted that candidates for consecrated virginity should be virgins in actual fact.
But, in the interest of being as fair and accurate as possible, I do have to point out that at present it MIGHT perhaps still be possible to try to articulate an academic argument that the Rite of Consecration may not truly require its candidates to be literal virgins. The only instance of authoritative, formal clarification on this matter of which I am aware is a letter sent by the Congregation for Divine Worship sent to the then-Archbishop Burke confirming Burke’s interpretation of the Rite as requiring literal virginity. However, I only heard about this via a brief reference in a recorded talk from the 2008 International Pilgrimage of consecrated virgins in Rome, and I have never seen a published copy of this letter. Although I hasten to add that I do believe that this letter does exist—I’m just a little uncomfortable citing a source I’ve only heard about second- or third-hand.
If the Church truly were to have refrained from issuing a formal clarification of what is meant by “public or flagrant violation of chastity,” then right now it would still permissible for theologians and canon lawyers to entertain a variety of opinions. (Albeit with all the pastoral concerns attached to this particular question, I think it would be perhaps more advisable for even ivory-tower academic types to err on the side of caution and presume a more strict interpretation of the Rite. My thought is that is would be better not to consecrate a woman who might later find out that should could have received the Rite after all; than it would be to consecrated a woman who might in the future learn that she actually had not been eligible for consecrated virginity in the first place.)
Still, I would like to stress that on a practical level, the requirement of literal virginity is regarded as a more or less settled question among American consecrated virgins and those who work with them.
Justifying a “stricter” interpretation
Even considering the issue of the Rite’s prerequisite of literal virginity as a closed discussion, it can still be helpful to reflect on the reasons for a particular interpretation.
One rationale given for this stricter interpretation of the Rite of Consecration as requiring literal virginity is that the loss of one’s virginity never results from an act which is wholly and entirely secret. I.e., there is always at least one other person who is aware of what occurred and can attest to it. Thus, anyone who is not a literal virgin has been in an “public or flagrant violation of chastity” at some point.**
Another justification for a strict interpretation is plain common-sense with regard to the need for integrity. In other words, it doesn’t seem reasonable that the Church would, as a matter of policy, encourage woman to embrace a way of life ordered around the central charism of virginity, or regularly allow them to present themselves publically as virgins, if she didn’t have the expectation that they would be virgins in spirit and in truth.
If the Church was prepared to do this, it would effectively empty the word “virginity” of its meaning and significance—perhaps in a dynamic reminiscent of the way in which some mainline Protestant theologians have come to argue that the Gospels’ identification of Mary as a virgin simply means that she was something along the lines of “an exceptionally pure young woman.”
Likewise, as far as the candidates themselves are concerned, it’s hard to imagine (or at least it’s hard for me to imagine) how a woman could offer her virginity as a gift to God if her virginity is something which she no longer has.***
This is not to say that a non-virgin can’t offer herself to God in some other way, but only that a non-virgin can’t offer herself to God specifically by means of dedicating her virginity to Him. Trying to argue otherwise would be like saying that a woman could place her marriage under the protection of Our Lady even if she wasn’t married, or that a man could offer up his priestly ministry for the good of the souls in Purgatory even if he didn’t happen to be ordained.
Finally, at times I have seen some people give an explanation for the Rite’s requirement of literal virginity by drawing from the principles of sacramental theology. According to this line of reasoning, literal virginity is necessary to receive the Rite of Consecration validly because a virginal woman is the proper “matter” for the “form” contained in the Rite.****
But while this last explanation does make sense to me on one level, I personally would be hesitant to propose it as the rationale behind the candidate prerequisites listed in the Rite of Consecration. Although there may be some situations where it is appropriate to use sacramental terminology in reference to non-Sacraments, as far as I know the Church herself has never authoritatively described the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity in terms of matter and form. (Additionally, I’m not sure that the Church ever considers individual human persons per se as “matter,” even when discussing the matter and form involved in the actual seven Sacraments.) This application of sacramental theology to the Rite of Consecration is an interesting idea, but at the same time it’s one I wouldn’t feel comfortable endorsing, simply because to me this seems like it would be going a few steps farther then the Church actually does at present.
But, is it appropriate to require literal virginity?
Even if we take it for granted that reception of the Rite does indeed require literal virginity, I’m aware that some would still object to the idea of the Church expecting consecrated virgins to be literal virgins. Often, this is because they feel that this reduces women to their bodies, or that it places an unhelpful emphasis on women’s sexuality, as opposed to valuing them as multi-dimensional, whole persons. (Incidentally, this is often cited as the reason why many Catholics—I think including some consecrated virgins—are uncomfortable using the word “virgin” as part of the name of this vocation, despite the fact that “consecrated virginity” is the technically correct term for this form of consecrated life.)
However, I think it would be incorrect to say that the Church’s esteem for virginity is overly focused on a woman’s body to the exclusion of valuing her heart, mind, and soul.
This is because, as I mentioned above, I believe that the Church sees virginity as a primarily moral and spiritual state of being.
To be a virgin means to have a heart which is “new,” whole, and undivided. A virginal woman who marries is able to give her whole heart to her husband with a certain type of depth that goes beyond what is possible for a non-virgin. On an even more profound level, a woman who is consecrated to God as a virgin is able to offer her entire self to Christ in an especially radical, absolute, and complete way. A consecrated virgin not only gives Christ her love, but she gives Him her whole heart for her whole life. She is His and His alone.
A virginal body is the outward sign of this special kind of interior purity. Physical virginity is not the totality of what it means to be a virgin (at least in the full theological sense of having a vocation to a life of virginity), as a simple absence of experience doesn’t automatically make for an undivided heart.
Yet, this outward sign is still necessary and intrinsic to virginity as a state of being. Even while it could be argued that a non-virgin or a “renewed virgin” might, through a new life of virtue and penance, come to the point of feeling able to embrace a sort of “virginal” spirituality, I have a hard time imagining how this could be quite the same thing as the virginal spirituality of a literal virgin. As the Church has always acknowledged, our bodies and souls are interconnected, and what we do with out bodies can permanently affect our souls.
Some have also voiced concern that maintaining literal virginity as a requirement for receiving the Rite of Consecration undermines belief in the efficacy of the Sacrament of Penance (or the Sacrament of Baptism, in the case of those who convert after formerly having lived an unchaste life). That is, if we believe that in the Sacraments of Penance and Baptism we are truly forgiven of our sins, then it would also follow that after confessing and sincerely repenting from sins of unchastity, the lack of virtue in one’s past life would no longer be of any account in either God’s eyes or the eyes of the Church.
But, while the Church does continually emphasize the availability of God’s mercy and pardon to all who seek it, forgiveness from sin is not the same thing as never having sinned in the first place. For example, even while Baptism does truly free us from original sin, being Baptized does not mean that our conception becomes retroactively immaculate.
All actions have consequences, and being forgiven for a sin does not always take away the effects of our wrong choices. In particular, the Church teaches that “the martial act” has a special, tremendous significance always and in every case. Although our culture is somewhat in denial of this fact, losing one’s virginity—even in just a single, perhaps relatively hidden act—is enough to alter the course of one’s life on even a purely natural level. For example, a woman has the potential to become a mother even if she engages in “the marital act” only once in her life. Given this, it’s hardly unreasonable to suppose that the deliberate preservation of one’s literal virginity might enable a woman to live out a uniquely precious spirituality.
Of course, this is absolutely NOT to say that a non-virgin isn’t called to be a saint, or that non-virgins can’t be consecrated to God in another form of consecrated life, or even that a non-virgin couldn’t be called to some kind of spousal relationship with Christ. This is only saying that today’s consecrated virgins—like the virgins described in Revelation 14:3-4, who sing to the Lamb a totally new song, which no one else can sing—are called to offer God their hearts in a particularly unique and special way through the consecration of their virginity.
*This line is taken from the general introduction to the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity, which unfortunately isn’t included in the pdf copy of the Rite that I usually link here. But if you check in vol. II of the “Rites” book (published in 1991 by The Liturgical Press in Collegeville, MN), you can find it on page 158.
** The then-Archbishop Burke gave this explanation at the U.S. Association of Consecrated Virgins information conference I attended in August 2008.
*** Cardinal Burke also makes this point in the USACV “information packet.”
**** As background to this one point, the “form” of a Sacrament can be roughly defined as the appropriate prayers and rituals used in that Sacrament’s conferral. “Matter” is the tangible, physical material used. E.g., in the Eucharist, the “form” is the consecratory Eucharistic prayer of the Mass, and the “matter” is the bread and wine that is to become the Body and Blood of Christ. If either the matter or form are not what they should be, then the Sacrament is invalid (which basically means that the Sacrament “didn’t work”). This is why, for example, a priest can’t consecrate cookies and milk at Mass—cookies and milk simply cannot become the body and blood of Christ, because this is the incorrect matter for the Sacrament of the Eucharist.
Due to the delicate nature of this topic, the comment box is open, but will be strictly moderated for this post. If you are having personal difficulties in your discernment with this issue, I strongly encourage you NOT to consult the Internet, but instead talk to a good spiritual director, your confessor, or whoever is primarily responsible for working with consecrated virgins in your diocese.