Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Various Forms of Consecrated Life within the Church

Since starting this blog and becoming a consecrated virgin, I’m often asked—in blog comments, emails, and in real life when I try to explain my vocation to people—about the differences between the various forms of consecrated life within the Church. Often, Catholics are fairly aware that there are different kinds of religious communities, but have a harder time grasping the idea that there are actually other ways of being in a public state of consecrated life which, while being in altogether separate canonical categories from religious life properly so-called, are still just as valid of a “consecrated” witness in the life of the Church.

So, in an attempt to illustrate the richness of the Church’s understanding of consecrated life as it developed over the centuries, here is the basic “story” of the various forms of consecrated life recognized by the Church today. (Long time “Sponsa Christi” readers: please bear with me as I go into yet another explanation of consecrated virginity. I just wouldn’t want to leave consecrated virgins out of a discussion on consecrated life on my own blog! ;-) ):

In its legislature pertaining to consecrated life, the Church refers to five different forms of consecration: the diocesan eremitic life, consecrated virginity, religious life, membership in secular institutes, and membership in societies of apostolic life. All of these forms are outlined in the 1983 Code of Canon Law and are also included in the discussion on consecrated life in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as well as in more pastorally-oriented documents such as the 1996 post-synodal exhortation Vita Consecrata.

Consecrated virginity is the oldest form of consecrated life canonically recognized by the modern Church. (See Code of Canon Law, canon 604; Catechism of the Catholic Church 922 – 924.) The choice of life-long virginity is praised several places in the New Testament, and the greeting to the “virgins called widows” at the conclusion of St. Ignatius of Antioch’s Letter to the Smyrnaeans strongly suggests that women dedicated to a life of virginity were already recognized as a distinct class within the Church of the late first century.

The fourth century in particular witnessed a flowering of this “Order of Virgins,” reflected in many of the Church Fathers’ writings on virginity. St. Ambrose’s work De Virginibus, written in the year 377, gives us some evidence that a solemn liturgical rite for the consecration of virgins existed during this period, although our earliest written copies date back only to seventh and eighth-century sources.

The early consecrated virgins were not nuns or religious Sisters, as religious life properly so-called did not come into existence (at least in the Latin Church) until the sixth century. But with the continued development and growth of monastic religious life in the subsequent centuries, reception of the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity eventually came to be exclusively associated with the solemn profession of vows in a religious Order. And so the practice of consecrating virgins living outside of monasteries gradually fell into disuse.

However, when Sacrosanctum Concilium called for a revision of the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity as a part of the liturgical reforms of the second Vatican Council, the resulting revised rite included versions for both nuns as well as for women living “in the world.” Consequently, in an action perhaps somewhat parallel to the re-institution of the permanent diaconate, the Patristic-era Ordo Virginum was restored to the life of the contemporary Church.

Similarly, recognition of the vocation to the eremitic life in the 1983 Code of Canon Law was presumably also intended as a means of bringing an ancient form of consecrated life into accord with the Church’s modern legislature and theological classifications. (See can. 603; CCC 920 – 921.)

The Church’s earliest hermits, such as St. Anthony of Egypt, were men (or sometimes women) who retreated into the deserts in order to dedicate their lives to Christ in an especially focused way, through a life of constant prayer, solitude, silence, and ascetical discipline. The rise of a specifically eremitical way of life is generally thought to have been a response to the cessation of the official Roman persecutions of Christianity, as the life of a hermit gave the most fervent Christians a way to “lay down their lives” for Christ, without suffering the physical death of actual martyrdom.

While the first hermits apparently developed their way of life under the more or less direct inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit, (see, for example, St. Athanasius’ account St. Anthony’s vocation in his work, The Life of Anthony) eventually systems of eremitical “apprenticeship,” loosely-structured communities designed for fraternal support, or set “rules of life” were developed to ensure a healthy, well-balanced, and spiritual fruitful ascetical lifestyle.

Generally, the early-hermit saints highly esteemed—and they themselves were often highly esteemed by—their local bishops. Yet the consecrated lives of these early hermits seem to have been largely a private endeavor in the sense that they did not seek or require an official “authorization” from the intuitional Church in order to embrace their special vocation. This is in contrast to the consecrated virgins of the same era, whose consecration was formally dependent upon the action of the local bishop.

Additionally, the ancient eremitical life does not seem to have the explicit profession of any kind of permanent commitment as a constitutive element. That is, an individual could be considered a hermit simply insofar as he or she was living a truly dedicated ascetical life.

The modern diocesan eremitic life envisioned in the most recent Code of Canon Law retains the major identifying elements of the original ancient eremitic life, in that it calls modern hermits to a consecrated life dedicated to solitude, prayer, and penance, but apart from any association with a particular religious community. (Although many religious Orders, such as the Carthusians and Carmelites, have a strong eremitical emphasis as a part of their spirituality; and while other Orders, such as the Franciscans and some Benedictines, have provisions in their Rule for members who feel called to live as hermits after many years of community life; individuals in these cases would be properly classified as religious, and not as canonical hermits.) But, the eremitical life described in canon 603 is more in accord with modern definitions and practical means for guidance of the consecrated life, as it requires that the hermit write a rule, remain under the direction of the local Ordinary, and profess definitive vows.

Religious life is the most familiar form of consecrated life, encompassing a variety of different forms, from strictly-cloistered monks and nuns to religious dedicated to active works of charity. (See can. 607 – 709; CCC 925 – 927.) The defining characteristics of religious life are: a life lived in community under the authority of a superior; the following of the special “charism” or spirituality of a particular founder or foundress; adherence to a specific rule of life and set of constitutions; publicly vowing to observe the evangelical councils; and a certain separation from the world in accord with the character of a particular institute.

The earliest precursors to religious life were the primitive rules (such as the rule of St. Caesarius of Arles) written for communities of consecrated virgins or hermits as means for them to live their original commitments more faithfully. However, the first example of true religious life—that is, communal consecrated life which includes a founder, a rule, a distinct spirituality, and perpetual vows—in the western Church would be the Order of St. Benedict, established around the year 530.

As St. Benedict himself was originally a hermit who founded his community primarily for the purpose of mutual support and guidance among other contemplative hermits or monks, the Benedictine Order was established to enable its monks (and soon after, its female nuns as well) to praise God continually by means of a balanced life of prayer and work. Likewise, generally the religious Orders founded prior to the second millennium were contemplative, or (at least de jure) dedicated to prayer alone.

The Middle Ages saw the development of the mendicant Orders, such as the Dominicans and the Franciscans. In these new Orders, the male braches were dedicated to preaching and apostolic works in addition to leading a quasi-monastic lifestyle. The female mendicants continued to live the life of enclosed contemplative nuns, although their monastic life was given a new “apostolic” focus. For example, the nuns of the Dominican Order were founded for the express purpose of spiritually supporting the friars in their preaching and educational apostolates. The Franciscan Poor Clares obtained permission to subsist solely on donations and the works of their own labors, instead of relying on landed endowments as did the nuns of older Orders.

During the counter-Reformation era, new missionary Orders, such as the Jesuits, came into being. And within the next few centuries, the Church witnesses the flowering of religious congregations, such as St. Vincent de Paul’s Daughters of Charity, which were dedicated primarily to active good works and sought to ameliorate in a direct manner the sufferings of the poor, the sick, the ignorant, and the misfortunate.

Although the “active,” or apostolic, congregations could be either male or female, the vast majority of these new communities were comprised of women religious. But because these religious Sisters lived consecrated lives very different from that of cloistered nuns, the Church would only allow them to profess simple, and not solemn, religious vows. Consequently, Sisters in apostolic congregations were not considered canonical “religious” until the year 1901.* However, congregations dedicated to works of charity now make up the majority of the number of religious institutes throughout the world. (For instance, all of the women’s religious communites which make up the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious or the Leadership Conference of Women Religious fall into this category.)

Societies of apostolic life are communities in which the members share life in common and are dedicated to a shared apostolic purpose, but in which the members do not profess religious vows. (See can. 731 – 755; CCC 930.) Since the counter-Reformation era, different societies of apostolic life were founded for a variety of reasons, each having their own specific mode of community life.

One well-known society of apostolic life is the Oratorians of St. Philip Neri, which is comprised of secular priests who exercise their ministry solely within the context of an autonomous local community or “Oratory.” Other famous societies of apostolic life include the Mill Hill Missionaries and Maryknoll missionary Fathers, which are both priestly societies dedicated to foreign missionary work. In cases such as these, members of societies of apostolic life are secular priests (i.e., priests not professing religious vows) who are typically incardinated in the institute of their society, as opposed to a diocese.

Although many societies of apostolic life have the practice of some form of definitive commitment, such as promises or oaths, because they do not require vows per se the individual members are generally not considered to be “consecrated” in a formal canonical sense. However, societies of apostolic life mirror the structure and organization of religious institutes, and were founded for reasons similar to those of many apostolic religious congregations, and so are therefore (in my opinion, anyway) appropriately categorized along side true institutes of consecrated life.

Secular institutes are the newest form of consecrated life in the Church. (See can. 710 – 730; CCC 928 – 929; and also the website for the United States Conference of Secular Institutes.) While some preliminary steps were taken towards the development of secular institutes as early as the latter part of the nineteenth century, and while they were in some sense anticipated by the various kinds of lay fraternities that had existed in the Church since the high Middle Ages, secular institutes as such were only formally recognized by the Church in the year 1947, with the Apostolic Constitution Provida Mater Ecclesia.

The specific vocation of members of secular institutes is to live a life fully engaged in the temporal affairs of the world, while observing a private commitment to the evangelical councils in as radical a fashion as their fully secular status permits. Through this way of life, members of secular institutes aim to act as “leaven” in the world, bearing a deep Christian witness in areas of society which would normally be inaccessible to those with more public, visible roles in the Church.

While members of secular institutes do profess the evangelical councils through “vows or other sacred bonds,” they do never do so openly. Many institutes have customs of discretion on the part of their members regarding their incorporation into the institute. Canon 714 further adds that: “Members are to lead their lives in the ordinary conditions of the world according to the norm of the constitutions, whether alone, or in their own families, or in a group living as brothers or sisters.”

Largely because of the unambiguously non-public character of this vocation, and in a situation somewhat similar to that of societies of apostolic life, there is some debate as to what degree, if any, members of secular institutes may properly be considered to be “consecrated.” Another common argument for the technical non-consecrated status of secular institutes is found in canon 711, which states: “The consecration of a member of a secular institute does not change the member’s proper canonical condition among the people of God, whether lay or clerical, with due regard for the prescripts of the law which refer to institutes of consecrated life.”

Additionally, although Provida Mater Ecclesia is typically held to have established secular institutes as a recognized state in life, the actual document focuses less on the nature, purpose, and ecclesial significance of secular institutes as it does on the necessity for the development of guidelines in order to prevent intentional or unintentional abuses. That is, it does not seem totally clear that the Church actually intended to recognize secular institutes as being properly institutes of consecrated life.

But despite this, the self-understanding of secular institute members is that they are called to live out their vows to poverty, chastity, and obedience in just as much of a full and true sense as do religious, only in a different manner and from within a different sphere.** And so because secular institutes do present themselves as a means of offering God and the Church a complete gift of self, it would seem appropriate to categorize secular institutes among the forms of consecrated life, at least in a general sense for the purposes of this post.

*More information on this point can be found in the essay collection, The Foundations of Religious Life: Revisiting the Vision, by the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious.
**N.b.: While it might in some contexts be reasonable to question whether the “ordinary” or “non-special” nature of a secular institute-lifestyle might lend itself to a lax or “soft” observance of the counsels, when considering this issue it would be important to distinguish between human weakness and failure in attaining an ideal versus intrinsic problems with the ideal itself.


Pachyderm said...

J, this is one of the best, and most succinct, summaries of the wonderful variety of ways that we can give our lives to God. Thank you! Some of the forms are slightly different in the Anglican Church, but the same general variety is there - although I'm not sure if there are consecrated virgins. I'd be interested if you'd found anything on this in your studies.

Sr Therese

Anonymous said...


"The earliest precursors to religious life were the primitive rules (such as the rule of St. Caesarius of Arles) written for communities of consecrated virgins or hermits as means for them to live their original commitments more faithfully."

This would indicate to me that consecrated virginity lived in the world has something lacking. If the first nuns were consecrated virgins who started to live in community under a rule of life so they would be more faithful to their consecration, what does that say about the modern resurgence of consecrated virgins who live on their own with no one to answer to, no rule of life, doing their own thing? Is this a healthy, viable way to live consecrated life? Can it last, or will it die out like it did in the early centuries of the church?

Becky said...

I use your website when explaining the various forms of consecrated life to high school girls (I teach Theo 12 at a 9-12 all-girls Catholic HS.

It is extremely helpful & I thank you! Few of our girls have ever interacted with a sister or nun let alone a consecrated virgin.

Anonymous said...

I would be interested also in the answer given to the question posed by "Anonymous" i.e. "what does this say about the modern resurgence of consecrated virgins who live on their own with no one to answer to, no rule of life, doing their own thing?"
I am very surprised to read that such applies. That one is consecrated to virginity and one keeps this vow and that this is all that applies to the state in life of consecrated virginity.

Kay said...

Although in general the information is quite good it is not quite accurate. I live the secular institute lifestyle and my institute profess PUBLIC VOWS of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience.

Anonymous said...

The Brooklyn diocese includes the secular institutes in the celebrations of World Day of Consecrated Life on Feb. 2.