Tuesday, March 2, 2010

“Dedicated to the Service of the Church”: Responses to Comments, Part II

In continuing my project to respond to all the comments (see my first set of responses here) I received on my December 13 post, “What Does it Mean to Be ‘Dedicated to the Service of the Church?’,” here is the comment I received from the first “anonymous” (which I have edited slightly for the sake of brevity; see the full comment at the bottom of its respective post):

“A fascinating post! Being a part of a religious community, one is limited by the directives of that community. Being ‘in the world’ gives one the opportunity to use one’s gifts to meet the needs of the world as one encounters the world. […] So when you say a consecrated virgin should have an occupation connected to the church—I agree—but I can easily see a consecrated virgin in the following occupations:

As a doctor—especially if the person accepts a modest income and dedicated a good deal of their practice to the poor and the underserved; as a teacher—again helping children who are in need of an education and in need of a Christian roll model; as a director of a non-profit organization that helps people who are homeless or poor or abused; [or] as a hospice worker, bringing comfort to the dying.

Sometimes, being affiliated with a church is not the best way to evangelize and reach the people who, as Christ said, were most in need of a physician. Sometimes the people most in need of the Good News don’t come to church at all.

So I think that—depending on one’s gifts—if a consecrated virgin worked directly with the church in a church ministry, that is wonderful. Those of us who are in the church will benefit greatly from her gifts—many of us in the church need to witness the beautiful model of sacrifice that consecrated virginity is. But I also feel that if a consecrated virgin found a way to bring the message of Christ to those she encountered, especially if her work were dedicated to being a servant of those in need, (Matt. 25: 31-46) like Christ poured himself out to be a servant—that is excellent as well.”

Dear Anonymous #1,

Many belated thanks for taking the time to write such a thoughtful comment! I agree with a lot of the things you mention here, but there are some important places where I think I would need to disagree, or at least make some distinctions.

First, I think you are correct in pointing out that, in terms of the ways in which individuals could serve the Church, they could be in some sense “limited” by the type of religious community they may join.

Speaking here with women’s religious life in the United States as my main point of reference and comparison, generally “active” communities have a specific apostolate or type of apostolate as part of their charism (i.e., their foundational spiritual identity).

For example, the Dominican Sisters of Mary see education and teaching as their own proper expression of Dominican spirituality, and the Little Sisters of the Poor were founded for the express purpose of caring for the impoverished elderly. The congregation of the Parish Visitors of Mary Immaculate exists to bring lapsed or wandering Catholics back to the faith, and while they accomplish this through a variety of ways (such as teaching CCD classes, running sacramental preparation courses for “over aged” children, ect.), they have a long-standing tradition of going door-to-door in search of the “straying sheep.” And although the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal are not committed to any one specifc kind of work, they are exclusively dedicated to serving the underprivileged in poor neighborhoods.

Likewise, contemplative communities ordinarily have prayer as their only “work,” and often their prayer has a particular intercessory or apostolic focus—e.g., Discalced Carmelites pray for the diocesan clergy, Dominican nuns pray for the Dominican friars, and Passionist nuns pray for a greater spread of devotion to the Passion of Christ.

If a religious community were to abandon its own specific apostolate, in many respects it would change the fundamental identity of that community. Because of this, the Church speaks very strongly in several places about the need for each community to act in accord with their foundational charism. Even if a proposed new apostolate were to be more in accord with the actual needs of the diocese in which a particular community was located, the Church still requires that bishops respect the community’s foundational charism in all its traditional expressions.*

However, this is not the case for consecrated virgins, who are simply called to be “dedicated to the service of the Church” in a more generic sense, and not necesarily to any one particular type of apostolic work. A vocation to consecrated virginity lived “in the world” does not automatically entail a specific call to something like teaching or nursing in the same way that a vocation to a teaching or nursing religious congregation would.

And so even presuming that I’m correct when I argue that consecrated virgins should be dedicated to the service of the Church in a full-time and direct manner, this would still give an individual consecrated virgin a great deal of freedom, both to discern how she could best serve the Church according to her own particular talents and abilities, as well as to discern (hopefully with the help of her bishop) how her work could best respond to the areas of her diocese’s greatest need.

For a more concrete illustration of this:

One religious community that Catholic New Yorkers are all very proud of is the Sisters of Life. Founded by a late Cardinal Archbishop of New York for the purpose of working and praying for pro-life causes, the majority of their houses are still located in the metropolitan area, and as of right now they are still a community of diocesan right—which, in a nutshell, means that they have a very deep and direct connection with the Archdiocese of New York.

However, just because the Sisters of Life are for the most part situated in New York, and just because they are dependant upon New York’s Archbishop in a special way, it does not necessarily follow that their charism could be defined as: “meeting the general pastoral needs of this one particular local Church.” Even if Archbishop Dolan prayerfully decided that what New York really needed were religious Sisters who would teach in Catholic grade schools, this alone would not make it appropriate for the Sisters of Life to change their apostolate. (Yet conversely, because the Sisters of Life have pro-life work as an essential part of their charism, they can fulfill this aspect of their vocation just as well in any diocese in the world.)

But a consecrated virgin, on the other hand, does have the “charism” of being dedicated to her home diocese specifically. So in the hypothetical case mentioned above, if the Archbishop of New York saw a need for teachers in the local Catholic schools, a New York consecrated virgin would be free to take on an educational apostolate in response to that need. And if several years later the Archbishop felt that it would be important to have more catechists in the Archdiocese, new consecrated virgins could take on this apostolate (or previously consecrated virgins could change the field in which they serve). Yet in this case, the consecrated virgins who were catechists—or even those consecrated virgins who served the Church in an altogether different type of work—would be living the “charism” of consecrated virginity just as fully as the consecrated virgins who were school teachers.

But as for your next point, it is important to keep in mind that consecrated virgins aren’t just called to be merely “dedicated to service,” but are instead called to be dedicated specifically “to the service of the CHURCH.”

Because of this, I do believe that, with all other things being equal, it would be preferable for a consecrated virgin to work in some type of Church-sponsored institution. But I would also maintain—albeit in a qualified way—that a consecrated virgin could be truly “dedicated to the service of the Church” even if she were not working directly under the formal auspices of her diocese.

To begin with, sometimes the question of whether or not one works “officially” for the Church is more of a technicality than anything else. For instance, if I were to dedicate my life exclusively to solitary prayer and penance; or spend all my time creating liturgical art for Churches; or if I were to fund and operate my own soup kitchen; I might not be “working for the Church” in the sense that my archdiocese would not consider me to be offically an employee. Yet at the same time, it would be difficult to argue that these things would not constitute direct service to the Church.

As an actual historical example of this dynamic, the early Daughters of Charity, because they did not observe papal enclosure or profess solemn vows, were not initially considered to be true “religious” when they were founded in the seventeenth century. Instead, they were basically regarded as lay women who happened to live a common life and who professed the evangelical counsels privately. Yet, they were well-known for their self-sacrifice and generosity in serving the poor where they found them. So although the first Daughters of Charity therefore did not serve the poor with anything like an official mandate from the Church, they were still totally devoted to serving their neighbor out of love for Christ.

Similarly, since Christ calls His disciples to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, cloth the naked, welcome the stranger, and to visit the sick and imprisoned, anyone who spends themselves in the corporal works of mercy out of love for Christ would, in this sense, be fulfilling the Church’s mission in a real way.

Reasoning along these same lines, I think that a consecrated virgin could be truly serving the Church even if she worked in a non-Catholic, or even non-religious, charitable institution (that is, provided that that same institution did not embrace values or practice anything that was incompatible with the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church regarding faith or morals).

Likewise, in theory a consecrated virgin could also be “dedicated to the service of the Church” even from within what we would normally consider a secular career—IF she was demonstrably and sacrificially committed to doing charitable work as her primary occupation. Your idea of a medical doctor working for a low income in an impoverished area would a perfect example of this. Other examples might include a lawyer dedicated to advocacy work for the poor or disabled, a teacher who worked with special-needs children and their families, or an accountant who worked primarily with non-profit charitable organizations.

But, I don’t think the situation would be the same if, for instance, a consecrated virgin was working as a medical doctor in a wealthy suburb for a usual doctor’s salary. There is a distinction that has to be made between, on the one hand, simply bringing one’s Christian values to the secular work world or glorifying God by means of professional excellence; and on the other, dedicating one’s entire life in a total, radical, direct, explicit, and exclusive way to the furthering of the Church’s mission.

The former description of “service” is the obligation of all Christians, and, insofar as it can be considered a specific “call” within the Church, is actually the proper vocation of the laity.** But it seems to me that consecrated people—by virtue of their being “consecrated,” or specially “set apart” for the things of God in a way that goes beyond that of all the baptized—are called to the latter definition of service to the Church.

Finally, when you say that: “Sometimes, being affiliated with a church is not the best way to evangelize and reach the people who, as Christ said, were most in need of a physician…” I would have to disagree on the grounds that, in baptism ALL Catholics are affiliated with the Church!

But taking your statement more in the spirit in which I think you meant it, I would tentatively lean towards agreeing that sometimes a more subtle or hidden Christian witness might be most effective in certain circumstances. While I strongly believe that bold expressions of Christianity are something very much needed by the Church today, I think you make a good point when you mention that “…sometimes the people most in need of the Good News don’t come to church at all.” I can also see how someone uncertain or even totally lacking in their faith might be initially “put off,” or feel somewhat frightened or “judged,” by a priest or religious, or by someone whose special consecration in the Church was obvious.

However, when relating these issues to consecrated virgins, the question is not so much: “What is the best means of evangelization in general?” as much as it is: “What kind of witness is most appropriate for consecrated virgins according to their own proper state in life?”

I would answer that, because consecrated virginity is a PUBLIC state of consecrated life within the Church, that it would be most appropriate for a consecrated virgin to serve the Church and to bear Christian witness in a more visible and obvious way.

This is not to say that I don’t believe anyone is called to be “unseen leaven in the world,” or to evangelize in a subtle way—only that I don’t think this is the true vocation of consecrated virgins. For women (and men as well) who feel drawn specifically to a “hidden” apostolate, the Church does recognize this type of call in the vocation of membership in a Secular Institute.

Or, if a woman feels called to a spousal relationship with Christ within the context of a lay lifestyle and with a minimum of formal exterior structure, she is free to make a private vow of virginity. In fact, I think that a private vow might be the best and most theologically consistent option for women who sense a vocation to a life of dedicated virginity, but who feel called neither to be “set apart” from the lay faithful nor to change their exterior occupations in any dramatic way.

Ultimately, all Christians are called to serve the Church in ways which harmonize with their various states in life, and everyone without exception is called to holiness. But precisely because of this, in order for consecrated virginity to have any special meaning as a vocation, consecrated virgins would have to be called to a level dedication to Christ and the Church which goes beyond one’s baptismal obligations. The Church sees consecrated virginity as a call to be “more closely united” to God;*** however, one cannot actually fulfill this call by simply resolving to observe those things to which all Christians are already bound.


* For examples, see the 2004
Directory for the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops (Apostolorum Successores), par. 100:

“While zealously defending the common discipline of religious institutes, even with regard to individual members, the Bishop should himself respect and require others to respect the rightful autonomy of institutes of consecrated life and societies of apostolic life, without interfering in their life and government and without claiming to be the authoritative interpreter of their original charisms.”

** See the
Code of Canon Law, canon 225:

Ҥ1. Since, like all the Christian faithful, lay persons are designated by God for the apostolate through baptism and confirmation, they are bound by the general obligation and possess the right as individuals, or joined in associations, to work so that the divine message of salvation is made known and accepted by all persons everywhere in the world. This obligation is even more compelling in those circumstances in which only through them can people hear the gospel and know Christ.

§2. According to each one’s own condition, they are also bound by a particular duty to imbue and perfect the order of temporal affairs with the spirit of the gospel and thus to give witness to Christ, especially in carrying out these same affairs and in exercising secular functions.”

*** Cf. the suggested homily in the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity.


Moniales said...

The lives of cloistered nuns is not "limited" in fact, the life embraces all that Christ loves!

In our Dominican way of life we are called to first be free for God alone. We are also called to be in the heart of the Order of Preachers, praying for the mission of the Order which is preaching and the salvation of souls which is hardly limited as it places us deeply within the heart of the Church.

Many contemplative nuns will tell you that they were attracted to this life because the active life is not "enough".

The vocation of a contemplative nun is not about doing but about being.

Sponsa Christi said...


In this post, I was certainly NOT trying to say that cloistered religious life, or any other form of religious life, was limited in terms of its scope, purpose, value for the Church, or “effectiveness.” I was using the word “limited” to refer solely to the practical dimensions of the apostolate.

My understanding is that individual religious communities are necessarily “limited” in what kind of apostolates they can have, in the sense that they can’t do absolutely everything while still retaining a clear sense of their own proper charism.

E.g., cloistered nuns are usually “limited” to an apostolate of prayer. But this is only to say that a full-time commitment to formal prayer is not the same thing as an apostolate of teaching or nursing—and NOT that prayer as an apostolate is “limited” in its significance or in the amount of good it can do.