Thursday, July 29, 2010

Defining Consecrated Life

Some of the questions I receive most frequently, both in real life and in emails, have to do with the difference between consecrated virginity and a private vow of virginity, celibate commitments within lay movements, or membership in a Third Order.*

The short answer to all these questions is that consecrated virginity, like religious life, is a public, canonically recognized state of consecrated life. In contrast, members of lay movements and those who have made private vows—while they might be living a dedicated lifestyle with many similarities to canonically consecrated persons—are not formally considered to have entered into what the Church officially recognizes as “consecrated life.”

This of course does NOT mean that those who have made commitments outside of canonically recognized forms of consecrated are not in fact responding to a genuine call from God, or that they aren’t called to become saints in their own way of life. But it does mean that the fundamental nature of their vocation is different from that of persons who are officially considered to be “consecrated.”

The essential elements of consecrated life

This brings us to the question of how “consecrated life” properly so-called can be identified and defined.

Naturally, questions regarding the technical canonical status of members of lay movements presuppose that the Church already has a well-articulated theology on the precise nature of consecrated life. But in fact, the nature of “consecration” as a state in life is one of the more ambiguous areas of ecclesiology. (This may perhaps be largely because, as the Church understands the consecrated life and its continued growth and development as a more or less direct gift of the Holy Spirit, the institutional Church was laudably reluctant to burden its expressions with an overabundance of regulations.)

However, it would seem that the Church still does maintain that several elements are absolutely constitutive to the consecrated life:

1. Observance of the evangelical counsels

The most obvious essential element of consecrated life is the embracing of the evangelical councils. In Canon Law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the consecrated life is frequently defined as “the state in life which is constituted by the profession of the evangelical counsels.” (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 914)

The evangelical counsels are traditionally held to be, and are described in Canon Law as, poverty, chastity, and obedience. (cf. canons 599-601.) While there is a wide variety among the various forms of consecrated life of acceptable ways in which the counsels of poverty and obedience may be observed on a practical level, a common thread which runs through all forms of consecrated life is the “obligation of perfect continence in celibacy” (can. 599)

And in a sense, celibacy as the common foundation is significant and has particular spiritual value, in that celibacy freely chosen “for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven” not only has the most explicit scriptural roots, but also serves as the original historical foundation for the development of all the subsequent particular forms of consecrated life.

2. A permanent commitment to the evangelical counsels

The Catechism also specifies that it is not only the observance of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but “that it is the profession of these counsels, within a permanent state of life recognized by the Church, which characterizes the life consecrated to God.” (Emphasis in the hard-copy printed original—see also online CCC 915.) It is only by a free and deliberate commitment to the evangelical counsels, made with the intention of permanently undertaking the subsequent obligations, that an individual can be identified as being in a canonically “consecrated” state of life.

But it does not seem that this should be taken to mean that a formula for profession vows explicitly mentioning poverty, chastity, and obedience is strictly necessary in order for an individual to enter into a truly consecrated state. If this were the case, Benedictine monks and nuns, and Dominican nuns and friars, for example, would not be rightly considered “consecrated” since the vow formulae of their respective Orders mention neither poverty nor chastity directly.

Rather, it seems that in requiring the profession of the evangelical councils, Canon Law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church are simply stipulating that all consecrated persons must make a public and permanent commitment to a way of life which is in accord with a radical living of the three named evangelical counsels in a real, even if implicit, sense.

Conversely, any proposed form of consecrated life which would seek to “exempt” itself categorically from observing either poverty, chastity, or obedience in at least some concrete manner, would drastically undermine its status as a true form of canonical consecration.

3. Official recognition by the visible, institutional Church

Finally, one other qualification for a way of life to be properly considered “consecrated” is that it be formally acknowledged by the Church as such. This is indicated by the same paragraph in the Catechism, which states that a consecrated person must profess the evangelical counsels within the context of “a permanent state in life recognized by the Church.” (My emphasis.)

Individuals can not be considered “consecrated” according to Canon Law unless they are officially regarded as being so by the institutional Church, regardless of their subjective level of holiness or the loftiness of ideal to which they aspire.

Because of this, it would be creating a false dichotomy to hold the charismatic nature of the consecrated life (i.e., the aspect of defined by the inspiration towards total self-giving which is imparted directly by the Holy Spirit to consecrated persons) as somehow being opposed to the governing hierarchical nature of the magisterium. These two “poles” of the Church—which are even not without overlap—are profoundly inter-related; the consecrated life is given its visible association with the mission of Christ only through its relationship to the successors of the Apostles.

But, are there “de facto” or “lay” forms of consecrated life?

Yet despite these non-negotiable requirements, it is at times proposed that other radical ways of following Christ should be regarded as being true forms of consecrated life.

Examples of these could include:

- single or married members of the new lay ecclesial movements, such as the Neo-Catechumenal Way, Focolare, Opus Dei, Communion and Liberation, or Regnum Christi;

- dedicated celibate members of these movements (including Opus Dei numeraries and the “consecrated” women of Regnum Christi);

- married or privately-vowed celibate members of secular Third Orders (such as Lay Dominicans, Secular Franciscans, or Secular Discalced Carmelites);

- families associated with the charismatic movement who deliberately live within close proximity to each other so as to enjoy some kind of community life (such as the People of Hope in New Jersey);

- “lay monasteries” comprised of married persons, single persons, and families with children, all living in common;

- “consecrated widows” in the Latin Rite;

- men and women who choose to live an eremitic lifestyle privately, on their own initiative, and without any formal episcopal approval;

- people who commit to a particular way of life associated with an organized apostolic work, such as members of the Catholic Worker, Lamp Ministries, or L’Arche movements;

- individuals who simply profess a private vow of celibacy or virginity, either on their own or under the guidance of a spiritual director.

None of these ways of life are properly considered “consecrated” according to the Church’s technical understanding of the term, because they either lack an appropriately full observance of the evangelical counsels (such as in the case of married members of lay ecclesial movements), or an explicit profession of the counsels (as in the case of L’Arche members or lay hermits), or public recognition from the Church in their chosen was of life (such as those who are privately vowed to a life of celibacy).

Individuals who fit into one of these categories are often referred to, or refer to themselves, as “lay consecrated.” However, used in this context, “lay consecrated” is not a canonical term,** and my own personal opinion is that the use of this phrase should be discouraged for pastoral reasons of not confusing the faithful.

While those who would call themselves “lay consecrated” in the sense indicated above may in fact be living Christian lives that are subjectively as fervent as—or perhaps even more fervent than—that of those who are consecrated according to Canon Law, they nevertheless do not have the same specific place in the Church as those who are in a publicly-recognized state of consecrated life.

What is special about the vocation of consecrated persons?

Publicly consecrated persons have the specific vocation of bearing witness to the absolute primacy of Jesus Christ and to the reality of eternal life.

By freely renouncing marriage and many of the good things associated with earthly life, consecrated persons show the world that Christ alone can satisfy all the longings of the human heart. They also dramatically profess their belief in the Resurrection, and even more basically, in the existence of God—in other words, they “bet their life” that there is more to our existence than the here-and-now material world.

In doing this, consecrated persons are called to serve as a kind of “window” to the supernatural world. Because they live on earth as if they were already in heaven, where the saints “neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels,” (Matthew 22:30) consecrated persons could be said to have the vocation of making heaven tangibly present to us on earth.

Consecrated persons, in their total devotion and self-gift to Christ, are also called to serve as an especially vivid reflection of Christ’s bride the Church. In this way, the prayer of consecrated persons is in a special sense the voice of the Church herself; and the apostolic activity of consecrated persons is in a particular way an expression of the Church’s maternal care for her children.

Could it be possible that a person who is not technically considered “consecrated” might also be able to do these things? The answer is yes…and no.

“Yes,” because of course all Christians are called to be eschatological witnesses to at least some extent. Even the absolute minimum required of a faithful Catholic is enough to orient one’s life dramatically towards the reality of heaven. It could also theoretically happen that an individual was not technically “consecrated,” in the sincerity of his or her devotion, may in actual fact be a more convincing witness than many canonically consecrated persons.

Additionally, our categories consecrated life shouldn’t be used to constrain the Holy Spirit. If a well-balanced, non-consecrated layperson truly felt called—and had no incompatible obligations—to honor God through an ascetic lifestyle more directly focused on the next world than on this present one, absolutely nothing in the Church’s teaching or tradition would support us discouraging him or her from this!

However, in another very important sense, people who are not technically “consecrated” really cannot take on the role of canonically consecrated persons.

Canonically consecrated persons are given their vocation by the Church herself. That is, a persons in public states of consecrated life have not only had their interior “call” verified and confirmed by the institutional Church; but has also, in a real way, been given a “mandate” or commission by the Church to bear a very specific kind of Christian witness to the world.

Consequently, consecrated persons are able to serve as representatives of the Church in a manner not possible for persons who are not canonically consecrated. In this, they are also able to act as “icons” of the Church as the bride of Christ, and to make eschatological realties present in a uniquely concrete way. In entering into a canonical form of consecrated life, and individual is able to set him or herself aside for God alone in a dramatically more concrete and demonstrable fashion that can an individual who remains technically a lay person.

Finally, some points to keep in mind…

While keeping in mind that the relatively new phenomena of lay ecclesial movements and other “new forms of consecrated life” require a great deal of prudence and discernment on the part of all those involved, in addition to that of the magisterium, it is still good to remember that the Church does have a tradition of attaining sanctity through a private observance of the evangelical councils. Many saints, such as Catherine of Siena, Joan of Arc, Gemma Galgani, Bl. Kateri Tekakwitha, and Bl. Frederic Ozanam (founder of the St. Vincent de Paul Society), never formally entered religious life but rather chose to remain celibate “for the sake of the Kingdom” simply through a private vow or promise.

In celebrating their lives and commemorating their feast days, the Church seems to regard these saints as having been wholly given over to God in a notably distinct manner, even if they did not lead a life that was formally considered “consecrated.” Because of this, it would be reasonable to conclude that individuals today who are not, strictly speaking, in a state of consecrated life may still be able to live out something like a “spirituality of consecration” by truly—if only interiorly or subjectively—setting themselves aside for God alone.

Yet at the same time, a genuine call to “de facto” consecrated life would seem to be relatively rare, and difficult to discern accurately. For this reason, it remains important to maintain the distinction between a praiseworthy life of a private dedication to the evangelical counsels, and the states of consecrated life officially recognized by the Church.


* People also often ask me about consecrated virginity versus secular institutes. But for the sake of not making this post any more confusing than it has to be, in this discussion I’m sort of “bracketing off” the entire question of secular institutes.

Secular institutes are a notoriously “gray” area in determining what constitutes canonical consecration. On the one hand, the Church recognizes and legislates the existence of secular institutes, which would seem to make them a canonical form of consecrated life. But on the other hand, secular institute members profess private vows, which would seem to imply that the Church does not formally recognize their commitment to the evangelical counsels in a way proper to canonical forms of consecrated life. Additionally, can. 711 indicates that secular institute membership doesn’t chance an individual’s canonical status.

** Although in another context, “lay consecrated” might be considered a canonical term when used to indicate canonically consecrated persons who have not received the sacrament of Holy Orders. In this sense, all persons in consecrated life who are not bishops, priests, or deacons would be considered “lay consecrated,” including religious brothers, consecrated virgins, cloistered nuns, and Sisters in apostolic religious congregations.


Moniales said...

The photo is that of the Dominican Nuns in West Springfield Ma in their OLD choir before they built their new monastery in the 50's!

Maria said...

Irrespective of efforts to delineate and demarcate one from another, we have a joint mission:

933 Whether their witness is public, as in the religious state, or less public, or even secret, Christ's coming remains for all those consecrated both the origin and rising sun of their life:

For the People of God has here no lasting city, . . . [and this state] reveals more clearly to all believers the heavenly goods which are already present in this age, witnessing to the new and eternal life which we have acquired through the redemptive work of Christ and preluding our future resurrection and the glory of the heavenly kingdom.476