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.
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.
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.