Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Quick Question: Can an Eastern Catholic woman become a consecrated virgin?

Simi Sahu, the first Syro-Malabar consecrated virgin 
in the United States

Short answer: Yes.

Longer answer: Yes, but it’s a little complicated.

Eastern Catholics* have a slightly different system of canon law than Latin (a.k.a. “Roman”) Catholics.** A rough counterpart to our Latin 1983 Code of Canon Law (CIC) is their 1990 Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches. (CCEO)

However, the CCEO is different from the CIC in one very significant way: while the Latin Code of Canon Law governs Latin Catholics in a single flat “layer,” the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches is written in such a way so as to account for the fact that each individual Eastern Church—or what we would technically call Churches “sui iuris”—also has its own proper law specific to that particular Church. The CCEO sets some basic universal norms for all Eastern Churches, but in numerous places it defers to a sui iuris Church’s proper law.

And as some readers may already know, canon 570 in the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches explicitly mentions consecrated virgins, along with hermits and consecrated widows. As this canon states:

“Particular law can establish other kinds of ascetics who imitate eremitical life, belonging or not to an institute of consecrated life. Consecrated virgins and widows who live on their own in the world, having publicly professed chastity, can also come under norms of particular law.”

But as we can see here, this is one instance where the actual details are matter of an individual Church’s proper (i.e. “particular”) law. So in contrast with CIC can. 604, which formally recognizes the Ordo virginum as an established form of consecrated life in the Latin Church throughout the world, CCEO can. 570 merely allows for the possibility of individual sui iuris Churches deciding to have the vocation of consecrated virginity within their own ecclesial community.

So the permission to have consecrated virgins in CCEO can. 570 also comes with the implied caveat that an Eastern sui iuris Church could legitimately decide not to have consecrated virgins, or that an Eastern Church could decline to establish the Ordo virginum within their tradition.

And if a sui iuris Eastern Church did decide to have consecrated virgins, there is another issue to be addressed: i.e., how exactly are these women to be consecrated? For Latin Catholics, the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity, in both its modern and historic forms, is part of our own specific and venerable liturgical tradition. That is, the Rite of Consecration that we know and love today is not simply a generic ritual, but has a distinctively “Latin” and “Roman” character. As the 1970 decree promulgating the Rite of Consecration states: “The rite for the consecration of virgins belongs to the treasures of Roman liturgy.”

Because of this, in my opinion it would not be appropriate for an Eastern Church to simply “borrow” the Latin Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity when consecrating virgins in their own Eastern ecclesial context. (To do so would be akin to, for example, a Latin priest deciding to celebrate the Byzantine Holy Week liturgies in his Latin parish in lieu of the Latin Triduum services and the Easter Vigil.) In order for an Eastern Church to consecrate a virgin within their own community, the competent authorities would need to either: identify a historic Rite of Consecration that developed as part of their own proper liturgical tradition; or develop a new but characteristically Eastern liturgy for the consecration of virgins “from scratch”; or else somehow combine these two approaches—such as, perhaps, adapting something like an ancient liturgy for the institution of early deaconesses and/or ancient forms of female monastic profession.

In all honesty, I am unfortunately not personally familiar enough with the wide world of Eastern Catholicism to know all the details of which sui iuris Churches are making what provisions to establish their own Order of virgins. But certainly, the establishment of the Ordo virginum in individual Eastern Catholic Churches is a fascinating topic!

Still, in the meantime, what should an Eastern woman do if she feels called to consecrated virginity? The obvious first step would be to reach out to her own Eastern bishop to ask about the possibility of consecration within her own Church.

But if her own Eastern Church does not have provisions for consecrated virginity, one other option—especially in places like the United States, which is predominantly Latin but still has a sizable Eastern representation—would be for the woman to contact her local Latin diocese. If both the woman’s Eastern bishop and the relevant Latin bishop agree, she could be consecrated to a life of virginity by the local Latin bishop, for the local Latin diocese, according to the Latin Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity. This would be parallel (cf. CIC can. 17) to scenarios where an Eastern Catholic man is ordained a priest by a Latin bishop and incardinated into a Latin diocese.

Of course, this option is not a “quick fix.” A Eastern woman consecrated in a Latin diocese would need to come to a place in her interior life where she felt she could truly belong to that diocese in a deep spiritual sense. And it could be spiritually, emotionally, and pastorally complicated for some women to essentially have two spiritual homes at the same time—that is, a home within her proper Eastern Church by virtue of her baptism; and a home within a Latin diocese by virtue of her consecration as a virgin. In a case like this, an especially sensitive and careful discernment would be needed on the part of everyone involved.


* For those unfamiliar with the term, Eastern Catholics are Catholics who, while being fully in union with the Pope, worship according to a different liturgical tradition than the “Roman” or Latin Catholics who comprise the majority of the Catholic Church. Often, Eastern Catholicism is connected to a particular geographical area and culture—as just a few examples, Byzantine Catholics are generally of Slavic descent, the Syro-Malabar Church originates in India, an Maronite Church is predominantly Lebanese. Eastern Catholics have their own bishops and are organized into their own dioceses.

** Many people refer to “mainstream” Catholics as “Roman Catholics,” as this largest of sui iuris Churches was founded by St. Peter in Rome, with our liturgical and canon law traditions being broadly influenced by ancient Roman culture. However, often today the preferred term is “Latin Catholic,” as “Roman Catholic” might be seen as downplaying the unity of the Eastern Churches with the Pope, who is Bishop of Rome.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago and Formation, part I: Basic Principles

Image: The consecrated virgin St. Marcellina with her brother, St. Ambrose. St. Marcellina was encouraged by her brother to help guide younger consecrated virgins in the fourth century. 

One of the most noteworthy aspects of
Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago (ESI), the 2018 Instruction on the Ordo virginum, is its outline of the initial formation process for consecrated virgins in paragraphs 74 – 107, along with other references to formation scattered throughout the rest of the text.  

This is an important development, because prior to this none of the Church’s canonical documents on consecrated virginity so much as mentioned the need for formation. So in a very strict technical sense, before ESI it was theoretically possible to argue that the Church didn’t envision any formation at all as being required for would-be consecrated virgins. (Not that I personally would have tried to make this argument, of course!)

Prior to ESI, one would have hoped that reference to parallel situations in canon law (cf. CIC can. 17), ordinary pastoral solicitude, and plain common sense would have indicated the need for some sort of formation for aspiring consecrated virgins. But it is still helpful to have the Church’s vision of formation substantially clarified in ESI—especially since, before this Instruction, educated and well-meaning people could have come to different conclusions on certain points.

I will write a follow-up post on the steps in the process of formation as described in ESI, but I think it’s important to start out by discussing some of the more general questions and principles of formation that ESI articulates. And so what follows are my own thoughts and personal insights, written primarily from my perspective as a canon lawyer, but also from the viewpoint of my vocation as a consecrated virgin.

1. ESI clarifies the nature of this vocation 

In my opinion, the most important contribution ESI makes to our understanding of appropriate formation for consecrated virgins is its clarification of the fundamental nature of the Ordo virginum as, among other things: a visibly public form of consecrated life (cf. ESI 38 and 67) which is inspired by the Evangelical counsels (ESI 27); characteristically rooted in the local diocesan Church (ESI 42); having an essential contemplative dimension (ESI 29) while also being ordered towards apostolate, ministry, and concrete service of the Church (ESI 39); and which is meant as a radical gift of a woman’s whole life (cf. ESI 74).

Although these issues might seem only indirectly related to formation per se, in reality these kinds of clarifications are foundational to any formation program. Without wanting to put too fine a point on it, you can’t form someone for something unless you understand specifically what you are forming them for. Formation for a life of dedicated service as a public representative of the Church in consecrated life will naturally have to be very different, and perhaps much more involved, than the formation required for making something like a simple private commitment to evangelical chastity.

2. ESI envisions formation as a personal work 

ESI further clarifies how the Church envisions formation for the Ordo virginum as an integral and “hands-on” project. That is, a project which certainly involves the aspiring consecrated virgin taking in new information in an intellectual way, but one which can hardly stop there. Any kind of serious formation requires real dialogue, practical discernment, pastoral engagement, and the forming of relationships. Or to put it more straightforwardly, while things like reading lists and information packets can be very helpful as supplemental resources (and are certainly much better than nothing!), the Church via ESI does not see women as being adequately formed for consecrated virginity by simply reading books, articles, or other texts.

This principle is evident throughout ESI’s section on formation. For instance, ESI 92 requires “the Bishop, the Delegate [for consecrated virgins] and the consecrated women who participate in the service of formation” to become acquainted with aspirants and candidates for consecrated virginity in a direct way as individual people, so as to more fully understand their strengths, weaknesses, and overall aptitude for this vocation. As ESI 98 goes on to tell us: “The obligation of the Bishop, the Delegate, and the consecrated women who collaborate in the service of formation will therefore consist in ensuring that the candidate receives a systematic introduction to the charism and to the features of this form of life, in accompanying her while she intensifies and deepens her spiritual life, and in observing how she harmonizes and arranges her lifestyle in docility to the action of the Spirit.” In a similar vein, ESI 94 speaks of an aspiring consecrated virgin having regular meetings and communication with the above-mentioned formation team. And even earlier on in the Instruction, we are told that: “Consecrated women take an active part in formation initiatives, in agreement with the Bishop. They collaborate as far as possible in the formation of aspirants and candidates for consecration.” (ESI 45)

The importance of accompaniment is a theme that runs throughout this Instruction, even in sections that do not discuss formation specifically. In my view, this serves as a salutary reminder to us that, although consecrated virginity is an induvial vocation (in the sense that this vocation is not dependent on membership in an organized institute), as Pope Francis notes, ultimately “nobody is saved alone”* and thus nobody can truly be formed in consecrated life alone. Consecrated virginity is integrally woven into the fabric of the broader Church, which is a interdependent community and a spiritual family.

3. ESI dictates a comprehensive approach 

Another striking feature of ESI’s discussion on formation is how formation is envisioned as a process for fostering the development of the whole person. While ESI undoubtedly conveys the necessity of spiritual formation, it does not present formation in the Ordo virginum as being simply a matter of adopting a new spirituality or more intense prayer life.

For example, ESI 87 refers to the importance of human formation, noting that formators should be attentive to an aspirant’s or candidate’s “realistic self-knowledge,” her “capacity to establish healthy, serene and generous relationships with [both] men and women,” her professional development, and her responsible use of “goods, of social media and of her free time.”

ESI also indicates that intellectual formation is a requirement for aspiring consecrated virgins. This is particularly clear in ESI 102, which states: “When her practical circumstances and her personal abilities allow, the candidate will be encouraged to attend courses of study at theological colleges, institutes of religious science or similar institutions. In no case should an adequate theological preparation in the areas of biblical studies, liturgy, spirituality, ecclesiology, and moral theology be omitted.”

This shows us that a call to consecrated virginity is not meant merely as a private interior change, but is intended as a vocation which encompasses a woman’s entire life and all the dimensions of her personality.

4. ESI provides a formation timetable 

Prior to ESI, there was no universal consensus regarding exactly how long discernment and initial formation for consecrated virginity should last, or how this time period should proceed. I personally have heard of cases where, on the one hand, a woman first expressing her interest in the Ordo virginum was consecrated a mere few months later; and on the other, where a woman remained in a vague and unstructured “discernment” period that lasted for the better part of ten years. I am of the opinion that neither of these situations were just or fair to the women involved. Yet as much as I hate to admit it, prior to 2018 both of these scenarios were technically permissible since before the Instruction was published the length and manner of formation fell into what was a near total lacuna, or an almost complete gap in the law.

But now, thankfully, the Church has given us a canonical framework for how formation for consecrated virginity should proceed. In a nutshell, it is now a requirement that potential consecrated virgins have a “preparatory period,” which I think in English we could also call an “aspirancy,” which should last from one to two years. (ESI 92). This is to be followed by what ESI calls the “formation program,” but which as an English speaker I would call a “candidacy,” lasting two or three years. (ESI 97)**

Even though ESI speaks of the need to personalize formation to the individual, (ESI 77) it is still important to observe the timeline of formation which the Church presents to us in ESI. This is a matter of both prudence and justice.

It’s a matter of prudence, because among other concerns, a too-short formation period could lead to women being consecrated before they’re truly ready. Or conversely, a formation period that is too long could undermine the need for a candidate to make a confident decision with respect to her vocation.

Adherence to a defined formation timeframe is also a matter of justice, because a lack of clarity on when a candidate’s consecration may occur is, essentially, a lack of clarity whether her consecration is even likely to happen at all. This denies the candidate her right to discern seriously and make firm decisions about the overall the course of her life. For instance, loosely-organized “formation” that drags on for many years without a clear goal or direction, and which might eventually end with the bishop deciding against consecration, deprives the woman of the time she might have used more fruitfully in discerning other forms of consecrate life, or even marriage and family life.

5. ESI addresses the question of age 

As I mentioned in an earlier post, ESI’s clarification on the appropriate age for discerning a vocation to consecrated virginity is significant, because it affects our understanding of the essential nature of this vocation. That is, is this a call that a young woman can embrace and then build her life around, or is a vocation meant for only for older women who have a proven history and established lifestyle?

Prior to ESI, the only time a Church document mentioned the age with respect to the Ordo virginum was in the praenotanda of the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity, which includes the stated requirement that candidates: “by their age, prudence, and universally approved character…give assurance of perseverance in a life of chastity dedicated to the service of the Church and of their neighbor.” But this is general enough to admit several different interpretations. For instance, it could be read as something along the lines of: “Don’t consecrate a teenager!” Yet others had interpreted this to mean that consecrated virginity was meant as a sort of “second half of life” vocation, for women who were at least thirty-five years old, or even much older.***

But ESI 82 helpfully clarifies that consecrated virginity is indeed a vocation that young women are invited to discern. It states that the “hard” lower age limit for entering formation is eighteen; with a “soft” or merely customary lower age limit for actually receiving consecration being twenty-five years of age. Or as ESI itself puts it: “In no case can the preparatory period begin before the age of eighteen years,” and “Ordinarily consecration is not celebrated before the candidate has reached her twenty-fifth birthday.”

This same paragraph also states that “for admission to consecration the usual age for marriage in the region must be taken into account.” Interestingly, this line includes a footnote drawing a parallel with canon 1072 in the Code of Canon Law, in which pastors are directed to dissuade youths from marrying before the age which is accepted as normal in their own cultural context.

In my reading of ESI 82, I understand these passages as indicating that while nobody under the age of majority can embark on a formal path of formation for the Ordo virginum, it may still be possible in some cases for a woman under the age of twenty-five to receive the consecration of virgins. For example, if an exceptionally mature eighteen-year-old woman begins a five-year formation program and completes it fruitfully, her bishop may legitimately decide to consecrated her at the age of twenty-three, as opposed to asking her to wait an additional two years in a formational limbo not described or envisioned by ESI.

ESI also does not specify an upper age limit. From a technical canonical perspective this is not surprising, since religious life and other forms of consecrated life also don’t have a universally prescribed upper age limit for new vocations. But, just as individual religious communities can set their own upper age limits, I personally think it may be helpful for individual dioceses to consider adopting an upper age limit for discerning consecrated virginity in their own policies or proper diocesan law (even if it’s well understood that exceptions to a stated age limit could be possible on a case-by-case basis). Among other things, a stated upper age limit for consecration in the Ordo virginum helps communicate the idea that consecrated virginity truly is meant as a radical offering of one’s whole life, that it should be a woman’s “first choice” vocation, and that it presupposes an openness to formation and a willingness to take on significant new commitments.

6. ESI emphasizes respect for the internal forum 

Finally, ESI makes explicit what could have always been inferred about formation for consecrated virginity: namely, that the distinction between the internal and external forum must always be respected.

To give some background, when the Church speaks of the internal versus external forum, this indicates the distinction between a person’s private interior life and their outward observable actions and behavior. As a illustration, a person’s attendance at a particular Mass is a matter of the external forum, as this can be easily noted by anyone else who happened to be present; but on the other hand, his or her interior attentiveness and spiritual experience while at that Mass are matters of the internal forum.

The Church’s law has always sought to maintain a strict boundary between the external and internal forum in order to protect the privacy and freedom of conscience of all the faithful, and to properly reverence the sacred relationship between God and an individual soul. This general principle finds its most obvious expression in the absolute inviolability of the seal of Confession. But it is also evident in ecclesial laws strongly discouraging, for example, clerical religious superiors from hearing the sacramental confessions of their subjects, (cf. CIC can. 630) or in the prohibition on rectors of seminaries serving as spiritual director to the students under their care. (cf. CIC can. 240 §2) The general idea in these latter examples is that an authority figure in the Church, who is empowered to make serious decisions about one’s future (such as whether or not someone will be ordained or determining where someone will be assigned), should not be influenced in their decision by the purely personal spiritual matters of their subjects, which are legitimately private.

As in some of my above-mentioned points, I think a working knowledge of the Church’s practices regarding the protection of the internal forum in parallel situations could easily have led one to conclude that aspiring consecrated virgins should likewise enjoy reasonable boundaries between the internal and external forum. So in that sense, this aspect of ESI is one of its least novel concepts.

Nevertheless, ESI references the need to respect the internal forum in several places. For example, ESI 53 states: “Regarding pastoral collaboration in the external forum, those entrusted with these responsibilities [i.e., responsibilities related to the formation of aspiring consecrated virgins] will not establish a spiritual accompaniment relationship with aspirants, candidates, or consecrated women. They know that their personal dialogue with each one is to be used specifically for listening, challenge, and review of progress.”

Similarly, under the heading of “The practice of spiritual accompaniment,”**** ESI 79 tells us: “To ensure the [aspiring consecrated virgin’s] freedom in the area of manifestation of conscience, the Delegate for the pastoral care of the Ordo virginum and the consecrated women who participate in the service of formation offer this service in the external forum. They do not establish relationships of spiritual accompaniment with the aspirants, candidates or consecrated women. They abstain from asking for information or advice about the aspirants, candidates or consecrated women from their directors, spiritual accompaniers, and confessors.”

One important concrete consequence of this newly-articulated principle is that there now must be some sort of formation director—either in-house from among the diocesan staff, or another qualified person brought in from the “outside” whom the diocese commissions for this task—for aspiring consecrated virgins and candidates. That is, while spiritual directors have an important role, the entirety of formation cannot be delegated to a woman’s spiritual director. If this were to happen, this would lead to one of two unacceptable options: either 1. The spiritual director would have to violate confidentiality, leading to a conflict of fora; or 2. The diocesan bishop would be completely in the dark about the candidate’s progress in formation or suitability for consecration.

A practical pastoral note…

Looking at all this, it might be tempting for discerners and aspiring consecrated virgins to compare, with a critical eye, how their diocese’s formation program measures up to everything described in Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago. And conversely, bishops and diocesan staff responsible for the Ordo virginum might feel dauted by the scope of the task at hand!

And so it might make sense to close by reminding all of my readers that, especially with such a “new” vocation, at the end of the day we all have to do the best we can with what we have. Certainly, some elements of ESI (e.g., respecting the privacy of the internal forum) can and should be implemented immediately. But other aspects (such as the development of a theological curriculum or robust program of human formation) are necessarily going to take some time. And this time of “growing pains” is going to be a reality no matter how many people devote their best efforts to this worthy project, and regardless of the resources devoted to it. In fact, I have often mused that it will probably take an entire “generation” of consecrated virgins to develop, from our collective studies and lived experience, all the details of truly effective practical formation programs.

In the meantime, we all keep doing what we can to serve the women who, in God’s providential plan, come to us. Every step we take can be a step forward, and we trust the Holy Spirit to guide us in the beautiful work of nurturing new vocations.


 * cf. Fratelli tutti, 32

** I think we can use the terms “aspirancy” and “candidacy” to refer to periods of formation, because ESI refers to women in the “preparatory period” as “aspirants,” and to those in the “formation program” as candidates.

*** On a more whimsical personal note, when I was discerning my own vocation in the 2000s, for whatever reason thirty-five was often cited (or rather, mis-cited) as the lower age limit for consecrated virginity. Obviously, in my case it was clarified that thirty-five was simply a suggested lower age recommended by some bishops. But on my actual thirty-fifth birthday—by which point I had already been consecrated for eleven years!—I remember thinking: Huh, I’m finally “old enough” to be a consecrated virgin now!

**** ESI frequently speaks of “spiritual accompaniment.” I understand this as being more or less the same thing as what I would normally call “spiritual direction.”

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Quick Question – Are consecrated virgins “laywomen”?

Short answer: No.

Longer answer: It depends on what exactly you mean by “lay.”

In various Church documents, the words “lay” and “laity” are used to mean slightly different things in different contexts.

In one sense of the term, “laity” can refer to anyone who isn’t clergy, i.e. those who have not received the sacrament of Holy Orders as a bishop, priest, or deacon.* In this sense, even a strictly cloistered nun with solemn vows would be considered “lay,” because she hasn’t been ordained. (And also in this sense, the phrase “laywoman” would be redundant, since women cannot receive Holy Orders and thus are always categorically “lay.”)

This use of the word “laity” is often seen in questions related to the governance of the Church and the administration of the sacraments. For instance, a “lay judge” in a marriage tribunal is simply a non-ordained canon lawyer appointed to the office of Judge, whether that person be a religious Sister, a married father of three, a single unmarried woman, etc.

The other sense of the term “lay” refers to those members of the faithful** who are not ordained and also are not in any public state of consecrated life recognized by the Church.*** In a lot of ways, this is the more robust and more popularly used sense of the word. We see the Church referring to the laity in this strong sense in documents specifically describing the role of the lay faithful, such as Christifideles laici. We also see this sense of the term “lay” in the way that the government of the universal Church is organized. I.e., the Vatican Dicastery for the Laity, Family, and Life serves and oversees issues related to the laity who are not in consecrated life; whereas issues pertaining to non-ordained religious are handled by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

Because consecrated virginity is a public state of consecrated life, consecrated virgins are not laypeople in this latter, stronger sense of the term. Members of the Ordo virginum are in the very same general category as nuns and religious Sisters, meaning that consecrated virgins are only “lay” insofar as they are not ordained.

However, consecrated virgins (at least those “living in the world”) are considered “secular,” another word which can have shifting nuances in meaning depending on the context. My own interpretation of the word “secular” when applied to the vocation of consecrated virginity is as essentially a synonym for “living in the world.” That is, it simply distinguishes us from those cloistered nuns who may also receive the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity, and indicates that we are not “religious” in the strict sense of being professed members of a religious institute. In this way, consecrated virgins are “secular” in the same way that diocesan priests are called “secular clergy.”

Of course, being secular in even this somewhat restricted sense of the term still has some practical and spiritual consequences. Consecrated virgins, like secular priests, can own and mange their own property, for example. Also, all religious communities require some level of “cloister,” or obligation of presence within one’s own religious house. By not having this obligation, consecrated virgins and secular clergy can in some ways be more immediately present to the faithful at large.

Nevertheless, I don’t think that this specific usage of the word “secular” means that the Church envisions consecrated virgins (or secular priests) as having lifestyles that are indistinguishable from the majority of the secular lay faithful. Even while members of the Ordo virginum are not “religious” technically speaking, and even if our Evangelical life won’t look exactly the same as those who live in convents and monasteries, consecrated virgins are still called to live the Evangelical Counsels in a radical way. (cf. the 2018 Instruction Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago, 27)


* See the Code of Canon Law, canon 207, §1: “By divine institution, there are among the Christian faithful in the Church sacred ministers who in law are also called clerics; the other members of the Christian faithful are called lay persons.”

** Incidentally, the word “faithful” refers to all Catholics—and in some contexts, to all baptized Christians, whether Catholic or non-Catholic—regardless of their state in life.

*** For instance, see the Vatican II document Lumen gentium in its section of the laity, especially LG 31: “The term laity is here understood to mean all the faithful except those in holy orders and those in the state of religious life specially approved by the Church. […]” Note that before the new Code of Canon Law was published in 1983, the word “religious” was often used in Church documents in an inclusive way referring to all recognized forms of consecrated life, not just membership in a religious institute.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Pope Francis on Spiritual Motherhood

Icon of Mary, Mother of the Church, overlooking St. Peter's square
“The consecrated woman is a mother, she must be a mother, not a ‘spinster!’ Excuse me for speaking like this, but motherhood in the consecrated life is important, this fruitfulness! May this joy of spiritual fecundity motivate your life; be mothers, as a figure of Mary, Mother, and of Mother Church. It is impossible to understand Mary without her motherhood; it is impossible to understand the Church apart from her motherhood and you are icons of Mary and the Church.”

 – Pope Francis’ address to religious superiors, May 8, 2013.  (Full text here.)

Monday, May 25, 2020

Letter to a Newly Consecrated Virgin

Dear sister in Christ,

Maybe we know each other in real life, or maybe we’ve only “met” over the internet, or maybe you’ve just stumbled upon this blog. We may have corresponded over many years, or we may have just exchanged one or two emails, or perhaps you don’t know me at all. Whatever the case may be, if you are a newly-consecrated virgin, I first of all send my warm and heartfelt congratulations. I hope your consecrated life brings you many years of joy and happiness, crowned with an eternal reward!

I know it’s usually presumptuous to offer unasked-for advice, but I remember when I was in your shoes—that is, newly consecrated and happy about it, but still trying to “find my feet” in a new vocation—and I think it would have helped me to have had some more honest insights about the lived reality of life as a consecrated virgin. My own thoughts at this point may or may not resonate with you, but after living more than a decade of consecrated life myself, hopefully I’ll still have something helpful to share.

And so here are some of the things I wish an “older sister” would have said to me all those years ago:

1. This is just the beginning of a new life.

Your consecration may have in some ways felt like a culmination, or like a conclusion of some sort, but it wasn’t; it was only the very beginning of a new life. This might be a bit more readily obvious to those of us who were consecrated in our twenties or thirties (though even for us younger ones, there still might have been a sense of “finally, I’m done discerning my vocation!”). But I think this is true for newly-consecrated virgins of all ages.

Consecrated virginity is unique among forms of consecrated life in that presumes that we have already been living an exceptionally chaste life for a number of years. Or really, it presumes that our entire lives have been virtuous in this way. Yet our consecration isn’t meant as a reward-like recognition or acknowledgment of this. Rather, as the Rite of Consecration tells us, it’s a call to continue living this life of virtue “with a new grace and [consecrated] to God by a new title.” In our consecration, the natural virtue of chastity, which even the classical pagans valued, takes on a new supernatural dimension as an eschatological sign of Christ’s love for the Church. And in addition to the universal call to holiness we received at baptism, in our consecration we are embracing a new, special, and privileged call to be a bride of Christ in a radical and more literal way.

Of course your consecration day itself will always be important in your memory. But I think you’ll find that if you live your vocation well, over the years the emotional and spiritual weight of the day will start to feel very secondary to the many years of fidelity you will have offered the Lord. In fact, I think there may be even greater joy in perseverance. Each passing year of your consecrated life becomes a self-gift you offer to your divine Spouse, a gift which is just as precious as that first self-offering you made on your consecration day.

2. Your life is different now.

Even if prior to consecration you were sincerely striving to “live the life of a consecrated virgin,” and even if your exterior life looks the same, the fact of the matter is that your life is different now. And so are you!

This isn’t talked about as much as it probably should be, and my impression is that many newly-consecrated virgins often feel a bit unsettled post-consecration without really knowing why. But I think this is due to the “growing pains” involve in adjusting to a new identity. It takes time to adjust to a new identity, but I believe that in most cases this struggle is normal and healthy. I actually think I would be more worried about a new consecrated virgin who didn’t struggle at all with this, because it would make me wonder if she was fully processing what had happened to her spiritually or if she was fully grasping the weight of what she had committed to.

On an interior level, among other things, you may find yourself being drawn to a greater spirit of simplicity or evangelical poverty—that is, a more profound detachment from worldly things. This is really a great grace!

Don’t resist this grace, even if it might conflict with your idea of what life as a consecrated virgin is supposed to be like. Maybe let go of some ideas, such as the thought that you’ll be something like “a normal woman living in the world like anybody else.”  Naturally, you probably will blend in a little better than a nun or fully habited Sister would, and the hope is that people will see you as approachable. But the consecration will make you different from laywomen, as well making you a bit weird from a worldly perspective. But let your “weirdness” unfold naturally according to the inspirations and providential circumstances the Lord sends you, so that this weirdness can serve His purposes.

There will also be some practical adjustments involved in assuming your new vocation, which may seem subtle from an outside point of view, but which will still require some careful discernment on your part. You are a public representative of the Church now, and we can rightly say you are now an icon of the Church, or an “image of the Church as Bride” (i.e., an “Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago”). To a significant extent, everything you now do should be an expression of what the Church would do. E.g., when you are kind and fair, even in the small interactions of daily life, this is a reflection of the Church as loving and just. Our sins are of course our own and nobody else’s, but the other side of this coin is that our lack of kindness, patience, courage, or any other virtue has the potential to reflect badly on the Church in the eyes of others. And in general, when you have entered a public state of consecrated life, the faithful will expect more of you…as they are indeed fully entitled to do.

Because of this, it may be necessary to re-evaluate certain aspects of your life. For example, you may find you need to be more reserved in some ways, or more selective about whom you let into your circle of close personal friends. There might be some social invitations that, while not sinful, you will need to gracefully turn down. Or on the other hand, you might also find you need to be more friendly or even “pastoral” to people you otherwise wouldn’t have talked to! You may even discern it’s necessary to start dressing or introducing yourself differently.

It can be a bit daunting at first, but be patient with yourself as you do this hard work of discernment. (And obviously keep in conversation with your bishop, spiritual director, and trusted mentors as you do this!)

3. Know that you’re still being formed.

At this point in history, it can more or less be taken for granted that a newly-consecrated virgin today (at least in the United States) will not have had a perfect formation experience. This makes sense when you consider how relatively recently the Ordo virginum was revived as its own distinct state in life.  Even in a best-case scenario, with an attentive bishop motivated to provide a decent structured formation program, as a contemporary Church we simply don’t have enough collective lived experience to provide formation that is perfectly comprehensive for all aspiring consecrated virgins everywhere. That is, it’s likely going to take us a while longer to figure out exactly what the specific formation needs of consecrated virgins are, along with the best practical ways to address these needs. (Though as a point of reference, consider that it wasn’t until the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century that the Church adopted the first versions of our modern seminary system for the formation of priests!)

Although this does put us at an obvious disadvantage, I think much of the disadvantage of having had a less-than-perfect formation experience can be mitigated by simply being aware of and accepting the reality of the situation. Being aware of our areas for potential or needed growth can help us take care to make up for what is lacking, and “knowing what you don’t know” is crucial for avoiding mistakes that our possible blind spots may cause.

Also keep in mind that the Holy Spirit is the best of all formators, and He will help us in the ways we need, but only if we are truly docile and open to Him.

And alluding to my earlier point, receiving the concretion itself is a highly formative event. No amount of prior study can compare to the experience of actually being consecrated. So even if you were blessed enough to have had an excellent formation program, know that post-consecration you are still being formed by both your lived experience of consecrated life and by the graces you received in your consecration. God willing, each passing year as a consecrated virgin will make you an ever more fitting spouse of Christ.

4. You’ll have share in the cross in a new way.

The Church describes even natural human marriage as “a partnership of the whole of life.” (CIC canon 1055 §1) Spouses are called to share everything, including all their joys and sorrows. This is true also for those of us who have Christ as our spouse. In a mysterious way that words can’t quite describe, your consecration will give you a new and more intimate window into Christ’s suffering and passion.

This is not just pious sentiment. In my own experience and having talked with numerous consecrated virgins over the years, it seems to be quite common that new consecrated virgins will encounter some sort of new and extraordinary—and at times even uncanny—suffering shortly following their consecration. This might be the result of exterior life circumstances, a purely interior spiritual trial, or some combination of these.

Of course, suffering by definition is never pleasant, and I certainly wouldn’t wish it on anyone, much less my sisters in the Ordo virginum. But if there is a consolation in this, to me when a newly consecrated virgin does encounter some sort of unexpected trial, paradoxically I’m inclined to see this as a positive sign in her vocation. That is, it can be a sign that her consecration really “worked,” and that Jesus took her at her word when she said “yes” to His call to a life of greater union with Him.

The old saying that God can never be outdone in generosity is certainly true. And for the sake of a healthy spirituality in consecrated life it’s important to remember that while God at times permits suffering for a greater good, He does not actively desire us to be in pain—and in fact, it’s God’s will to bring us to a place where “He will wipe every tear from [our] eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain.” (Revelation 21:4)

But for those of us who have committed to remaining with Jesus “wherever He goes,” (cf. Revelation 14:4) we can look on it as a privilege when He invites us to remain with Him so personally in His darkest but most triumphant hour.

5. Your happiness, even in this life, will depend on your generosity.

Finally, perhaps the most important thing to understand about living out a vocation to consecrated virginity is that there really are no half-measures. A consecrated virgin either gives the Lord absolutely everything, thereby receiving everything (and more!) from Him in return; or else her life becomes empty, silly, and fruitless.

I think this point is worth spelling out, because a common misconception among women first discerning this vocation is that consecrated virginity is sort of a way to have one’s cake and eat it, too—as in, a way to nominally “give everything to God” while still maintaining all of one’s worldly interests and activities as usual, or as a way to receive the graces and honors of consecrated life in the Church without having to make the often painful sacrifices inherent in joining a religious community.

This fundamental misunderstanding of our vocation is insidious because it contains a small grain of truth. For example, consecrated virgins generally don’t have a moment equivalent to crossing the threshold of an enclosure like a postulant in a cloistered monastery does, nor do consecrated virgins typically make a point to limit contact with family and friends or restrict their communication with “the world.”

Yet readily apparent or not, consecrated virginity still demands a radical shift in perspective and attitude from “worldly” orientation to one deeply informed by the Evangelical counsels. This is not just something the Church specifically asks of us—although she does (see ESI 27)—but it’s something built into the very nature of our commitment.

Marriage natural parenthood are so deeply inscribed in the human heart that the act of altogether renouncing these things leaves a void. The idea in consecrated virginity, or even consecrated celibacy in general, is that we allow Christ to superabundantly fill this void. But the catch is that He can only do this is He is the only one we allow to fulfill us in this way.

If we try to fill the void with other human things, even other intrinsically good human things, inevitably such things will come to be seen and understood as trivial in the at least the big picture. Devoting ourselves to things other than Jesus Christ and His body, the Church is what will leave us a the sad and gloomy old maids that Pope Francis warns against (cf. his May 8, 2013 address to Superiors General) instead of the radiant brides of Christ and spiritual mothers that we are called to be.

Obviously, as a newly-consecrated virgin you are far past the question of discerning your state in life, and thus beyond the concerns and misperceptions of those who are first inquiring. But sometimes, in the midst of the fatigue that can come about in the day-to-day life of a consecrated person, it can be easy to forget about the joy of a total self-gift. When God seems silent or the Church seems unsupportive, it can be tempting to grasp at consolation wherever we can find it, even in the passing things of this world. But we need to remember, as the Prophet Isaiah wrote: “Why spend your money for what is not bread; your wages for what does not satisfy?” (Isaiah 55:2)

In all circumstances of life, including the challenging ones, the surest way to happiness is to turn your heart ever more intently towards your Divine Spouse.

Our holy sister St. Agnes was said to have gone to her martyrdom more joyfully than most people go to their weddings. If we imitate the single-hearted intensity with which St. Agnes gave herself to the Lord, I am certain that we will also share in her deep and astonishing joy.

With love, in Christ,

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Thoughts on Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago, Paragraph 88

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. 2Cor 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: (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.