As regular readers of this blog have probably picked up by now, I strongly believe that, in terms of the general pattern of our day-to-day concrete experience, consecrated virgins should strive to live lives that are readily identifiable as being “consecrated.” My opinion is that consecrated virgins should live out their spousal relationship with Christ through a more visible dedication to prayer, service, and simplicity of life.
In other words, I think that consecrated virgins are called to an intensity of Christian witness which goes beyond that proper to a devout, single Catholic lay woman. This is in contrast with the popular conception that consecrated virgins are instead called to a more “hidden” witness within the context of a secular lifestyle.
Often, this idea—i.e., that women consecrated to a life of virginity according to canon 604 are normatively called to “blend in” with the lay faithful, without any conspicuous outward expressions of their consecration, and without undertaking any life-altering obligations other than celibacy—finds as its justification the fact that consecrated virgins are described in the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity as living “in the world.”
But after considering this argument more for some time, I’ve come to my own conclusion that this line of reasoning may not be accurate, and is perhaps based on some unsupported theological or canonical assumptions. Namely, to understand consecrated virginity as ordinarily entailing a more or less “lay” mode of life would seem to be giving the words “in the world” a weight and connotation which the Church does not actually appear to ascribe to them.
Here, it is important to note that within the Church’s authoritative writings the phrase “in the world,” like the word “secular,” is not a univocal term. That is, these words can be used to mean different things in different contexts. (Unlike, for example, terms such as “Coajuter bishop” or “papal enclosure,” which refer to one specific thing regardless of the context in which they are used.)
In some instances he words “secular” and “in the world” are intended to be taken in the strong sense of implying total immersion in, or a close association with, the sphere of temporal affairs. This is certainly the more colloquial usage of the two phrases. For example, in every-day conversation we generally speak of things being “secular” in contrast with those which are wholly dedicated to God as “sacred;” and sometimes religious Sisters refer to their pre-consecrated lives with the expression: “when I was in the world…”
There are also some official, formal contexts in which the Church uses the terms “secular” and “in the world” in this strong sense. In the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium, the Church gives this description of the role and identity of the lay faithful (here specified as those who have neither received Holy Orders nor who have entered into a public state of consecration):
“What specifically characterizes the laity is their secular nature. …the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven.” (Lumen Gentium, 31.)
Here, the context makes it obvious that, when in reference to the laity, “in the world” and “secular” should be taken in the strong sense, or “at face value,” so to speak.
Likewise, Canon Law indicates that, when used to describe the special vocation of secular institute members, “in the world” and secular” should also be understood in this strong sense.
For example, canon 710 states that:
“A secular institute is an institute of consecrated life in which the Christian faithful, living in the world, strive for the perfection of charity and seek to contribute to the sanctification of the world, especially from within.”
Canon 713 tells us that:
“§1. Members of these institutes express and exercise their own consecration in apostolic activity, and like leaven they strive to imbue all things with the spirit of the gospel for the strengthening and growth of the Body of Christ.
§2. In the world and from the world, lay members participate in the evangelizing function of the Church whether through the witness of a Christian life and of fidelity toward their own consecration, or through the assistance they offer to order temporal things according to God and to inform the world by the power of the gospel. They also cooperate in the service of the ecclesial community according to their own secular way of life.”
And in canon 714 we read:
“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.”
However, there is also a more limited meaning to the words “secular” and “in the world.”
Sometimes, in some instances, these terms can be used simply to designate that certain individuals are not technically a part of a religious community, even while these same individuals may have a role in the Church which is more similar to that of religious than it is to that of the laity.
For example, diocesan priests are often said to be “in the world,” and Canon Law describes them as “secular clerics.” Yet at the same time, nobody with an adequate understanding of the Catholic priesthood would argue that the clergy should live a lifestyle that could be called “secular” in the strong sense of the term. (In fact, “secular priest” can sometimes be a confusing term for people, since it sounds so much like an oxymoron!)
Even if we were to set aside for the movement the various theological descriptions of the priesthood as men specially called and chosen to be set apart for the God’s service, it’s possible to demonstrate, even working just from Canon Law, that the Church clearly envisions diocesan priests as living a distinctively “consecrated” lifestyle.
Diocesan priests are solemnly obligated to a life of celibacy (can. 277), obedience to their bishop (can. 273), and to the recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours (can. 276). While all Christians, including laypeople are called to the type of chastity and obedience proper to their state, secular priests are asked to live these with a radicalism that would be inappropriate for most Christians “in the world.”
Canon Law often states that secular priests are supposed to be completely devoted to the work of the Church (can. 281), to the extent that nothing else in their life should interfere with the exercise of their ministry (cf. can. 278 §3). Additionally, secular priests are also asked to refrain from involvement in political, military, or civil affairs (can. 285-289). This is very different from the vocation of those in secular institutes, or from that of the laity in general, who are specifically and authentically called to exercise a Christian influence in realm of temporal affairs. Further, when canon 284 asks that priests wear clerical garb, this obviously presumes that the Church intends her priests to be recognizable, public representatives of the Church.
So even while diocesan priests are properly considered “secular” clerics who live “in the world,” in this case it is very clear that these designations do NOT mean that they are called to live lives similar to that of devout single laymen.
Now, given that we can acknowledge more than one possible interpretation of what it means to be “secular” and to “live in the world,” the question is how to understand these terms when applied to consecrated virgins.
In my opinion, consecrated virgins living in the world are only “in the world” in the more limited technical sense. That is, consecrated virgins, like diocesan priests, are “in the world” insofar as they are not members of a religious community. This means that, while consecrated virgins obviously from religious Sisters in some fundamental ways (e.g., they do not have cloister regulations or community obligations), at the same time consecrated virgins are still called to live lives that are demonstrably “set apart” for God alone.
I think that this conclusion is evident by the way in which the phrase “in the world” is actually used in the Church’s authoritative writings on consecrated virgins. Typically, when the liturgy and other Church documents refer to consecrated virgins as being “in the world,” this is simply used to distinguish virgins consecrated according to canon 604 from solemnly professed cloistered nuns who received the Rite of Consecration according to the traditional practice of their Order.
And unlike the official literature and Canon Law on secular institutes, there are absolutely NO authoritative documents which suggest that consecrated virgins should be living out their vocation to perpetual virginity in the context of an otherwise lay lifestyle.
The fact that the call to evangelize “in the ordinary conditions of the world” is emphasized so clearly in the Church’s writings on secular institutes proves that the Church is indeed capable of articulating the charism of living the evangelical counsels while intimately involved in the sphere of temporal concerns.
Because of this, the lack of such language in reference to consecrated virgins should really be quite striking. Had the Council Fathers of Vatican II intended the restored Order of Virgins to be distinctively “in the world” in the strong sense of the term, then surely they would have thought to articulate this point unambiguously.
It could perhaps be argued that, because we also lack any authoritative statement forbidding a secular institute-type lifestyle for consecrated virgins, it is still reasonable to understand consecrated virgins as being “in the world” in the strong sense of the term.
However, I think this is also a mistake. Because it cannot be disputed that consecrated virginity is a public state of consecrated life, in the absence of any modifying directive (i.e., a statement that explicitly allows or requires consecrated virgins to adopt a “lay” and strongly secular mode of life) we should presume that consecrated virgins are called to a manner of living which is most similar to that of other public states of consecrated life (such as religious life).
It could be said that the Church’s “default setting” for consecrated life—as well as the Church’s standard for all public states of consecrated life—involves a life lived exclusively for God and the Church in a radical, total, open, visible, and readily obvious manner. Because of this, I think the burden of proof would fall on those who believe that consecrated virginity, as a public state of consecration, would be best lived in a subtle or “part-time” way, or that it would pertain primarily to an individual’s private interior life.
Similarly, to assume that consecrated virgins are called to live a secular institute-type lifestyle would seem to show a misunderstanding of the Rite of Consecration’s place in history. Consecrated virginity is a truly ancient vocation, one which pre-dates religious life by several centuries. Yet in contrast, secular institutes are a distinctly twentieth-century development.
Even while it could rightly be said that secular institutes were in some sense anticipated by the various lay fraternities of the Middle Ages, or by the early Ursulines in the sixteenth century, the existence of secular institutes as such was not formally acknowledged by the Church until 1947. Likewise, the idea of living the evangelical counsels in a discreet way, as a “hidden leaven” in the world of temporal affairs, with the object of imbuing those temporal affairs with Christian values, was not given serious theological consideration until fairly recently in the history of the Church.
And so my own thought is that, if were we to assume that consecrated virgins are normally called to life and mission similar to that of secular institute members, them we would be inappropriately superimposing a very modern ideal onto a Patristic-era form of consecrated life.