Thursday, December 16, 2010

Consecrated Virginity versus Private Vows

(Image: St. Catherine of Siena, a great saint who is popularly called a “consecrated virgin living in the world,” but who was actually a third-Order Dominican who professed a private vow of virginity.)

Some of the kinds of questions I’m asked most frequently, whether through email or in real life, have to do with the differences between the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity and the profession of a private vow of virginity.

Often, consecrated virginity and private vows are identified with each other—or sometimes even considered to be the same thing! However, on a theological and canonical level, reception of the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity is very different from the profession of a private vow.

Consecrated virginity, like religious life, is a public state of consecration; whereas a private vow of virginity (or celibate chastity) is, by its very nature, private.

But what does this actually mean?

Basically, a state of consecration is “public” when it is recognized as being so by the proper authority in the institutional Church (for a consecrated virgin, this would be the bishop of her diocese; for a nun or religious Sister, this would be the legitimate major superior of her community). If a commitment to celibacy or virginity is NOT officially recognized in this way, then it is considered “private” or personal.

Perhaps in contrast with the more colloquial usage of these two terms, “public” and “private” commitments to perpetual virginity have less to do with how many people witness or are aware of such a commitment, as it does with whether or not that commitment was formally accepted in the name of the Church. For example, a consecrated virgin who had only the bishop present at her consecration (or a religious whose profession of vows was attended by only her superior and the required two witnesses) would still be a publically consecrated person. However, even if a woman were to make a private vow of virginity in front of hundreds of people, with her picture and her story printed in the diocesan newspaper, this would not make her private vow into a public one according to the way in which the Church uses these two terms.

Yet with all this being said, it’s also worth noting that in almost all circumstances the Church usually does intend public vows or consecrations to be “public” in the more common sense of the word. I.e., the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity and the Rite of Religious Profession both explicitly state that the faithful should be invited to attend both these rituals, and publicly consecrated persons are for the most part expected to be open about their special identity within the Church.

Conversely, those who have made private vows are generally advised not to present themselves as though they were publically consecrated persons, which in many cases can mean that they are discreet about their commitment to the evangelical counsels.

In other words, we could say that entrance into a public state of consecrated life not only involves God and the person to be consecrated, but also the Church’s magisterium and the entire visible body of Christ. But on the other hand, a private vow is essentially a matter which is for the most part between God and the individual soul.

Understanding the nature of liturgy and public consecration

From my point of view, one helpful way of understanding the difference between public and private commitments to the evangelical counsels is to reflect on the similar difference between public and private forms of prayer—that is, between the Church’s liturgy and personal devotions.

In the Catholic Church, the Divine Office, the Mass, the Sacraments, and other rites (such as the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity, the rite for the consecration of a Church, the blessing of an Abbot or Abbess, ect.) are all considered liturgy. By definition, liturgy is the public, official prayer of the Church. This means that those who are engaged in praying the Church’s liturgy aren’t speaking to God in their own name as much as they are speaking to God on behalf of the Church herself. They pray, not in their own voice, but with the voice of the Church.

For instance, even while it is certainly to be hoped that Catholics who recite the Liturgy of the Hours will interiorize the psalms, canticles, and other prayer to the point where they can be said truly to “make them their own,” the Liturgy of the Hours isn’t intended as a reflection of the interior state of any one individual.

Likewise, the holy sacrifice of the Mass isn’t “about” the particular spiritual life of any one priest or parish, which is why the prayers and rubrics can’t be changed by anyone except the Holy See—even if there was a situation where an individual priest sincerely felt that an alteration to prayers of the Mass would make the liturgy subjectively more “meaningful” to his particular community.

In contrast to this, private or devotional prayers are prayers wherein we do speak to God in our own name, in our on voice, and on our own initiative. Private prayer is any prayer which is not an official prayer of the Church, and this category includes everything from silent meditative or contemplative mental prayer, to highly structured devotions such as the Rosary or the Divine Mercy chaplet.

Unlike liturgy, which is intended as a formal corporate praise of God (and which, in the case of the Sacraments, is something which makes Christ present to us in a primarily objective way), private prayer can and should be reflective of, or tailored to, our personal interior life.

For example, all Catholics are required to attend Mass at least once a week whether or not they find it emotionally fulfilling, and they can benefit spiritually from the reception of the Sacraments regardless of whether or not they feel any sensible consolation in them. But Catholics in general are NOT required to participate in devotional prayers which they don’t subjectively experience as being personally helpful.

Also, in many cases devotional prayers, since they are considered private or non-liturgical prayers, can be freely modified according to the particular spiritual needs of the people in a given situation. (This is one reason why there are so many minor variations of how to say the Rosary.) And of course, if we’re engaging in something like silent meditation or making a Holy Hour, most of the time we should try to share with the Lord those things which truly are in our own hearts, instead of to make our conversation with Christ fit a pre-fabricated pious formula.

But even though private devotions aren’t the Church’s official prayer, this doesn’t mean that they are not worthwhile or valuable with respect to our relationship with God. While the Church doesn’t mandate set devotional prayers, she does encourage them insofar as they assist the faithful in developing a more fervent and affective prayer life, or in fostering a greater understanding of certain Christian mysteries (such as the Pascal mystery or the mystery of the Incarnation).

Because of this, private prayer should not be looked down upon as being somehow “not real prayer” because of its non-liturgical character. Whether we’re praying in the name of His Church or on our own behalf, God hears and appreciates all of our petitions, our efforts to adore or thank Him, and our acts of repentance. To further illustrate this point, it would be absurd to suppose that God would ignore a cry for help from one of His children simply because the request wasn’t included in the general intercessions of the Mass, or that God would fail to be pleased by a spontaneous act of praise.

Yet at the same time, it’s important that we respect the special nature and dignity of liturgical prayer. When we participate in Mass, the Sacraments, the Divine Office, or any other liturgical ritual, it’s important that we be aware of the fact that we are involved in something much larger than ourselves. While certainly we should be as personally, interiorly engaged in liturgy as is possible for us in our own circumstances and stage of spiritual maturity, liturgical prayer is something fundamentally outside of ourselves.

Therefore, in liturgical situations, we should strive to conform ourselves to the Church’s prayers, as opposed to regarding our individual spiritual needs as the standards to which the Church should cater.

For example, the Sacrament of Baptism is a call to a new life in Christ which comes from an authority external to us. It is NOT our way to express the feelings of renewal which we have had from a conversion experience. This is not to say that these feelings need to be altogether ignored (certainly, one should take the time to thank God for His gift of consolation in this instance), but only that the Church’s public prayers are neither the appropriate vehicle nor the appropriate context for such self-expression.

Likewise, public states of consecrated life—which are inherently liturgical—should never be seen as pertaining solely to the interior life of an individual. A vocation to a canonical form of consecrated life originates from God and is first perceived by the individual soul, but it is confirmed and mediated by the authority of the visible, institutional Church.

This is not the case with a private vow of celibacy or virginity. A woman who makes a private vow of virginity may in all likelihood be responding to a genuine inspiration of the Holy Spirit; however, this importation would be considered and entirely private, personal, and interior matter, which the institutional Church will not take upon herself to confirm formally.

Discerning a vocation to consecrated virginity versus private vows

Like devotional prayers, private vows are considered personal responses to individual spiritual needs. Because of this, the Church does not impose any obligations (besides those to which all the baptized are bound) upon the privately vowed, since private vows pertain only to the individual soul’s interior relationship with God. While the Church looks favorably on the practice of professing private vows insofar as it helps certain members of the faithful to grow in holiness, the Church does not consider the privately-vowed to be “consecrated” according to Canon Law.

This does NOT mean that a private vow is any less “real” than a public form of consecration; a private vow can in many cases be on, a subjective level, as much (or more!) of a self-gift to God as the self-offering which occurs during the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity. A private vow of perpetual virginity is still a serious promise made to God, which should not be taken lightly.

On the other hand, a vocation to consecrated virginity (or religious life, or any public state of life within the Church) can never be simply “between Jesus and me.” A consecrated virgin is consecrated through the ministry of the Church by means of a public prayer of the Church. Her vocation doesn’t “belong” to her as much as it belongs to the entire people of God.

As a result, a consecrated virgin is called to bear an especially radical Christian witness, to represent the Church in a more explicit way, and to be more directly and intimately involved in furthering the Church’s mission. Because of the public nature of her vocation to consecrated life, she needs to go “above and beyond” the common baptismal consecration to Christ.

With this in mind, in my OPINION, generally speaking a woman may have a vocation to consecrated virginity if she:

- feels a definite, specific call to live and be known as a spouse of Christ with an explicitly “bridal” spirituality;
- feels called to a life of public witness, and is willing and able to be open about her vocation at all times and with everyone she meets;
- feels a special attraction to the Liturgy of the Hours, and is willing and able to recite the Divine Office every day;
- feels called to live a demonstrably “consecrated” lifestyle, and is willing and able to live in the spirit of evangelical poverty and obedience;
- feels called to devote her life to work which directly advances the Church’s mission;
- feels special spiritual bond with the local Church, and is willing and able to spend her life at the service of God’s people within the diocese where she is to be consecrated;
- is emotionally well-balanced, in good mental health, and has adequate social skills (i.e., she could have lived community);
- is willing and able to learn and to be open to formation.

On the other hand, my thought is that simply making a life-long, private vow of virginity would be a better course of action for a woman who:

- feels called to live as a spouse of Christ, but in a subtle, more “under the radar”-type way;
- OR feels that her own individual call to be a bride of Christ is meant to be a essentially a personal matter between herself and the Lord, and thus something which should involve only a very minimal degree of formal structure or official recognition;
- OR feels a special call to “evangelize the world from within” as a “hidden leaven” in the midst of secular society;
- OR feels called to offer her heart entirely to Christ, while at the same time using her gifts to strive for excellence within a purely secular career;
- OR feels that her primary vocation (i.e., that around which she is to order her life and base all her major decisions) is to some particular apostolic work, and therefore sees a spousal relationship with Christ as a somewhat “secondary” vocation, but who still desires to offer herself to Christ in a way that excludes human marriage;
- OR feels that her primary vocation, or at least a majorly significant component of her call to be a bride of Christ, is membership the secular third Order of a religious community (quick fact: St. Catherine of Siena actually was NOT a consecrated virgin, but was instead a lay third-Order Dominican who made a private vow of perpetual virginity).

Because private vows are, in essence, a wholly personal and individual response to the love of God, there are as many ways to live out a private vow of virginity as there are souls who are called to profess one.
And as a side note: since the profession of a private vow can legitimately be viewed as being primarily oriented towards the personal consolation of an individual soul, a woman can make a private vow of virginity in whatever way is most helpful to her. For example, a woman could promise her virginity to God when she’s alone in her room and without telling anyone; OR she could make a private vow in a Church, while wearing wedding dress, with all her family and friends as witnesses, and then celebrate with a party afterwards.

So even while consecrated virginity is often misunderstood as being something like a more elaborate or an “official” private vow, nothing could be further from the truth. Consecrated virgins must be consecrated by a bishop according to the specific liturgical rite approved by the Church, and I believe that in their subsequent consecrated lives they are obligated to place the good of the Church even above some of their subjective affective spiritual needs.

And finally, my thought is that the Church has a right to expect certain things from her consecrated virgins (such as intercessory prayer, a life of service, and a specifically “consecrated” witness); whereas the only thing the Church can ask of a privately-vowed woman is that she, along with the rest of the baptized, continue to grow in holiness.


Hannah said...

Thank you for writing this post. I thought your analogy between Consecrated Virginity and Liturgical prayer versus a private vow and private prayer was really clear and made a lot of sense. Your list of signs of a call to Consecrated Virginity versus a private vow were really helpful to me. I'm still discerning (and definitely need to get to finding a spiritual director), but if I am called to celibacy, I think it is in the form of a private vow. The best way I know how to witness is to not hide that I'm a serious Catholic, while still outperforming most of the students in the department, being funny without making vulgar jokes, and wearing cool and (not but; cool is not opposed to modest) modest and not being someone who puts "Christian" on their Facebook profile, but goes to the frat parties and gets drunk. This is certainly more subtle than that of a consecrated virgin.

Anonymous said...

I have a question about working for the Church to directly advance her mission. Please don't take this the wrong way, but not all of us live in the Archdiocese of New York, where there are numerous Catholic institutions. What about women who live in small, or even large, rural dioceses. These dioceses tend to be poorer, without a lot of resources and with few Catholic Institutions. In my diocese, for instance, there is not a single Catholic healhcare facility. Would a consecrated virgin who was a nurse have to go to another diocese to work in a Catholic sponsored hospital? Or should she quit nursing to become a teacher in one of the few Catholic schools in the diocese, even though she has neither the interest or ability to be a good teacher?

Thank you for your posts. They are interesting and give a lot of food for thought.


Shana said...

"Curious" above has a good question, one I sort of brought up in a previous email. As you know one diocese that I'd consider for Consecrated Virginity would be Ogdensburg along with the Archdiocese of New York. Ogdensburg on the one hand being the most rural in the state with perhaps less employment opportunities compared with the Archdiocese, the most urban. It's an interesting question about how service to the Church would look different in a rural vs. urban diocese. Of course we could discuss this matter in our "come and see" coming up! Haha.

Anonymous said...

Dear Curious,

Your comment is both interesting and practical. From what I know about the appropriate preparation for consecrated virginity in the church, these are the points which should be discussed with the Bishop of the diocese during the discernment and preparation process because it concerns the authentic living of the vocation for the entire life of an individual who is precious in God’s sight and is co operating with God’s plan to be united with Jesus Christ to be dedicated to serve His church family.

In this spirit of love for Christ’s family, I personally don’t think it is essential for a consecrated virgin to serve only according to her qualifications or full-time . From what I have seen in some consecrated virgins around the globe and in history , this consecration seems to create a new gift or talents through the work of the Holy Spirit based on the needs of the church. If we avoid a very cerebral interpretation of this vocation – and try to discern the Spirit’s calling of the consecrated virgin to some particular service or services, your question might be answered.

Well -Wisher

Sponsa Christi said...

Hannah: I’m so glad you found this post helpful.

This is just a suggestion, but in your discernment you might want to check out secular institutes. Secular institute members are basically laypeople who make private vows to observe the evangelical counsels, and who associate regularly for the purpose of prayer, formation, and mutual support. Unlike consecrated virgins or religious, the vocation of secular institute members is to bear a Christian witness while remaining fully engaged in the world of secular and temporal affairs, with an emphasis on evangelization through professional excellence and ordinary daily interactions.

Each secular institute has its own spirituality and charism. Two well-established women’s secular institutes in the United States are Caritas Christi (, and the Blessed Trinity Missionary Institute (

Curious: I’m in the middle of writing a full-length post to answer your question. So stay tuned!

Karen said...

Thank you for writing this post.

I would like to make a private vow of virginity before making my Consecration Virginity vows and was wondering if there are any private vow prayers that are already written out that I can pray and what would you suggest of what one can do to live their private vows.

Thank You and God Bless You!

Anna said...

Thanks for bringing up secular institutes. I am discerning this vocation and am sometimes frustrated that secular institutes are usually so little spoken of in the Church.

You probably know much more about canon law than I do, but I would like to clarify that even if vows in secular institutes are not technically 'public' they do involve a rather different sort of commitment from private vows in the usual sense (even though of course the latter may be just as seriously intended and just as fervently lived by the person making the vow). For example, members of SIs (of pontifical right) who have made perpetual vows can only be dispensed by the Holy See if they decide to leave the institute, like religious who leave their congregations. OTOH, as you note in your newest post, a person who e. g. has made a private vow of virginity can be dispensed from it by her parish priest.

Max Marie, OFS said...

Wonderful! Thank you for this.

His Princess Bride said...

Secular institutes do not make “private vows” they may be different canonically than a religious or a consecrated virgin but still not private. We are fully lay and fully consecrated. Some like to use the term to make it easier semi public vows because we don’t enter into the religious state but we are still equal in consecration to religious.

Sponsa Christi said...

"His Princess Bride": You're right that secular institutes aren't "private vows" in the sense of which I'm speaking of private vows here. (When I wrote this post years ago, I actually wasn't intending to comment on secular institutes at all!)

And of course, you're also correct that the consecration of secular institute members is not less than religious consecration. Still, the exact nature of secular institute members' vows is not entirely clear. Such vows would seem to have a public dimension in that they are received by a legitimate authority in the Church (as opposed to being a purely personal commitment made on one's own initiative); but at the same time secular institute vows are specifically identified as NOT being public, which is often expressed practically in customs relating to discretion, etc. "Semi-public" would seem to be a good word to describe them, but this isn't a term used in any kind of official canonical context. So, on a strict technical level, the exact nature of vows in a secular institute is somewhat of an open academic question.

But, while these sorts of questions are interesting and important, the most important thing for people with vocations to secular institutes is to live out their vocation and charism fully. The lived reality of a call and the vibrant witness of secular institute members is--at the end of the day--a much better way to understand secular institutes than nailing own exact canonical definitions.

Megan Dunbar said...

Are there any good resources on private vows and discernment? What are some youtubers/bloggers,etc. who have done so who share their life? Is this still seen as the same/similar importance to a cv?

Sponsa Christi said...

Hi Megan,

Private vows can be as individual as the people who make them, so they don't have exactly the same place in the Church as public states of consecrated life (in the sense that public forms of consecrated life each have their own clearly-defined nature and mission, with the publicly-consecrated also having certain specific obligations to the Church). For this reason as well, there aren't as many resources out there on making an living a private vow.

Honestly, one of the best resources right now may be simply the stories of those saints who have made private vows. But one modern book I can recommend is: "Single for a Greater Purpose" by Luanne Zurlo.