Recently in her blog, “Notes From Stillsong Hermitage” diocesan hermit Sr. Laurel O’Neal has written several posts with the aim of articulating on the nature of consecrated virginity as a distinctly “secular” vocation. (There are many posts in her series on this, but for some examples see here, here, here, and here.)
Without meaning to spark off a huge inter-blog debate, I do think it would be good for me to respond in at least a general way to Sr. Laurel’s series of posts on consecrated virgins, especially since “Sponsa Christi” was quoted or alluded to in several places.
In a nutshell, my view on the “secularity” of consecrated virginity as a vocation is: I very strongly believe that consecrated virgins are NOT called to a secular way of life, in the sense that we would normally use the word “secular.” That is, I think that consecrated virgins should adopt a way of life that is distinctively “consecrated,” or “set apart” for God alone in demonstrable and concrete ways. Because consecrated virginity is a public state of consecrated life (just as religious life is), consecrated virgins should order their lives around Christ and His Church in a more exclusive, explicit, and radical way than would be proper or possible for the vast majority of the laity.
To put it in more tangible terms, a consecrated virgin’s lifestyle should not be one which could be easily mistaken for that of a devout single laywoman. Rather, it should be informed by the Evangelical Counsels to a greater degree than that to which all the baptized are already called. Consequently, as I’ve written before, I believe that it’s most appropriate for consecrated virgins to have (whenever it is at all possible in any way whatsoever) serious commitments to the direct and full-time service of the Church; to the recitation of the Divine Office and participation in the Church’s liturgical life; to a lifestyle of true evangelical simplicity; to life-long service in fulfilling the spiritual and pastoral needs of her home diocese; and to a real accountability towards her bishop. As consecrated virgins, our reception of the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity should have major, significant—and therefore, plainly noticeable!—consequences not only in the quiet recesses of our souls, but also in the shape and quality of our day-to-day exterior lives. Consecrated virgins could perhaps be described as “secular” in a limited and more technical sense of the term, in reference to the fact that consecrated virginity is a different form of consecrated life than religious life properly so-called. (Much in the same way as diocesan priests are called “secular” simply because they are not a part of a religious Order.) Although even here I do want to point out that: 1. In their English translations, neither Canon Law nor the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity ever actually use the word “secular” in referring to consecrated virgins; and 2. very often before the second Vatican Council, and even sometimes in more recent documents, the Church uses the word “religious” in a looser way to refer to all forms of consecrated life inclusively, so in some contexts even referring to consecrated virgins as “religious” would not seem to be wholly inappropriate.
And, one thing to keep in mind is that “secular” is not a univocal term. I.e., it can be used to mean different things in different contexts. The limited, technical sense of the word “secular”—which I believe is the sense used when describing the vocation of consecrated virgins or the secular clergy— is different from the way we would use it in common speech.
A stronger, more robust (and at the same time, more colloquial) definition of “secular”—which the Church does employ in other contexts, such as when speaking of the vocation of the laity or of those in secular institutes—would probably be something along the lines of “full participation and engagement in the world of temporal affairs”; or in a negative* sense: “not exclusively set aside for God’s own use in a direct and explicit way.” While the majority of baptized Catholics are called to a secular lifestyle in this strong sense of the term, I don’t believe that this is the case for consecrated virgins. In other words, consecrated virgins are called to be openly and consistently identified with the Church; not only with the Church as the somewhat more abstract concept of the communion of the People of God, but also with the Church as the visible institution which Christ Himself founded.** Therefore, every area of consecrated virgins’ lives should revolve unambiguously around the direct service of the Church and intimacy with God in prayer. Given this, consecrated virgins would therefore NOT ordinarily be called to be Christian witnesses in politics, purely civil affairs, the secular professional world, or the business or financial community. They would also not be called under normal circumstances to be a “hidden leaven,” or to live out their consecration in a more subtle or less than fully public way.
I don’t think it would be possible for me to respond to every point Sr. Laurel makes in her series on consecrated virgins, especially since it seems that we may disagree on some very fundamental philosophical and ecclesiological premises (such as the inter-relationship between a person’s identity and his or her concrete actions and choices, the nature of the Church as an institution, the role of the hierarchy in relationship to the Church’s charismatic dimension, and the objective theological superiority of consecrated life).
Still, having briefly shared my basic point of view on the question of whether or not consecrated virginity is a truly “secular” vocation, there are four main points which I would like to make in response to Sr. Laurel’s series of posts: 1. There are actually no clear indications that the Church envisions consecrated virgins as being called to a secular vocation in the strong sense of the term… …which remains the case despite the numerous and wide-spread assumptions to the contrary. If you read the actual authoritative liturgical and magisterial documents pertaining to consecrated virginity on their own, apart from whatever non-authoritative commentaries you might have encountered (such as the USACV website or widely read journal articles such as this one by Sr.Sharon Holland, IHM), I think it would be highly unlikely that you would come away with the impression that consecrated virgins are supposed to be “secular” in the strong sense of the term.
In fact, the only thing I can think of which could possible give anyone the idea that consecrated virgins are called to live secular lifestyles is the phrase “living in the world.” Yet, this term is still rather ambiguous—in my opinion, much too ambiguous to be the final word in such an important question.
In the Rite itself, the phrase “living in the world” is used only once: to distinguish between the version of the Rite which is to be used for professed cloistered contemplative nuns, and the version which is intended for non-monastic consecrated virgins. The only other instance where this phrase is used is in the Catechism of the Catholic Church—once again, as a way to identify the two categories of women who may receive the Rite of Consecration. (Canon Law actually does NOT use the phrase “living in the world” to decribe consecrated virgins.)
Given this, my thought is that when speaking about consecrated virgins the Church understands the phrase “living in the world” as primarily a technical designation, and not as a blueprint for consecrated virgins’ way of life.
To be sure, I don’t think that “living in the world” is totally without practical and spiritual significance for those called to this category of consecrated virginity. However, I do think that many (if not most) commentators tend to give this one phrase more weight than it actually seems to merit, and to jump to conclusions when it comes to “filling in the blanks” about what concrete expressions the designation “living in the world” should have in the lifestyle of consecrated virgins.
Further, not only do the Rite of Consecration, Canon Law, and the other authoritative magisterial documents which mention consecrated virginity refrain from stating anywhere that consecrated virgins are called to a secular way of life in the strong sense of the term, but they also include passages which suggest exactly the opposite.
For example, the introduction to the Rite of Consecration states that consecrated virgins are to: “…spend their time in works of penance and of mercy, in apostolic activity, and in prayer, according to their state in life [i.e., according to their newly-attained state of being publically consecrated] and their spiritual gifts.”
What this does not say that consecrated virgins should only spend part of their time in these activities, or that they should do these things insofar as their professional work schedule allows, or that it might be nice if a consecrated virgin did these things if she had personal feelings of being called to do them. Likewise, canon 604 of course describes consecrated virgins as “dedicated to the service of the Church,” in similar wording used in canon 281 when it describes secular priests as being dedicated—i.e., “totally given over” to their ministry. This point is echoed in the Rite’s suggested homily, where the virgin-to-be-consecrated is exhorted to “…Never forget that you are given over entirely to the service of the Church and of all your brothers and sisters.”
Also, one formula for the presentation of the veil reads:
Receive this veil,
by which you are to show
that you have been chosen from other women
to be dedicated to the service of Christ
and of his body, which is the Church.
As I see it, this is a very clear indication that consecrated virgins are in fact expected to live their lives as women “set apart.”
In all these examples, the focus on concrete service and prayer, combined with the emphases on the completeness and entirety of a consecrated virgin’s self-offering and her role as one “set apart” for God, very strongly suggests a visibly and distinctly “consecrated” lifestyle rather than a strongly secular one.
Finally, if we were to consider consecrated virgins as being called to a “consecrated secularity” similar to that which Sr. Laurel describes (which to me seems to indicate a way of life and spirituality very similar to that of secular institute members, or to that of women who have made private vows of virginity), then this would actually be somewhat of a historical anachronism.
The consecrated virgins who lived during the time of the Church Fathers were basically proto-nuns, and likewise religious life properly so-called in may respects grew directly out of the vocation of consecrated virginity. So it would be exceedingly difficult to argue that the early consecrated virgins saw themselves as being truly “secular.”
Now, I do NOT think this means that we should ignore the distinctions between consecrated virginity per se and religious life technically speaking. Nor do I think that recognizing the significance of this historical reality should automatically lead to consecrated virgins inappropriately trying to live as “quasi-religious”*** instead of embracing their own unique charism as consecrated virgins.
But at the same time, I think this also should prevent us from trying to superimpose a very modern charism (secular institutes and “consecrated secularity” are almost overwhelmingly a twentieth-century development in the life of the Church) onto what is really an ancient vocation.
2. In and of itself, a perceived pastoral need does not necessarily affect the foundational theology of a particular vocation or state in life. One of Sr. Laurel’s main theses regarding the proposed “secularity” of consecrated virginity as a vocation is that the Church is in need of a specifically secular witness on the part of consecrated persons.
Whether or not there actually is such a pastoral need in the Church today (and I personally would tend to think that there is not), this kind of premise is actually kind of irrelevant to the question of whether or not consecrated virgins should live strongly secular lifestyles.
Granted, in many ways pastoral issues can be important to take into account when making decisions on certain very practical matters. (E.g., if consecrated virgins wearing veils full-time would truly confuse and scandalize the faithful in a particular local Church, then it would be prudent and appropriate for the diocesan bishop to ask the consecrated virgins in his diocese not to wear them, even if wearing a veil is a completely practice on a theological level.) However, in most cases, determinations about how a vocation should be lived should be based only on the objective theology of that state in life. (E.g., Even if a bishop thought it would greatly benefit his diocese to consecrate men as virgins, he would be unable to do so, because this is totally against the nature of consecrated virginity as a feminine vocation.)
So even if the Church truly needed consecrated virgins to be more secular, this alone would not change or retroactively influence the mind of the Church when she established the consecration of virgins in her first centuries. Even if we can’t precisely articulate it right now, consecrated virginity is what it is an objective way—external, pastoral considerations would not change its fundamental, essential nature (even if they might legitimately affect some of its more practical expressions).
If consecrated virginity is indeed a vocation which calls one to be more “consecrated” than “secular,” no amount of pastoral need is going to change this fact. Such a pressing pastoral need might lead to an increase in vocations to secular institutes or to lay movements like Opus Dei (or perhaps even to new kinds of vocations developing within the Church), but it would not change or affect the essential theological nature of consecrated virginity. 3. Saying that consecrated virgins are not called to a strongly secular vocation does NOT undermine the call of the laity.
In her series, Sr. Laurel also expresses concern that if consecrated virgins were to be asked to live a more demonstrably “consecrated” lifestyle, this would undermine the call of the laity by reinforcing the erroneous notion that non-clergy and non-consecrated persons are something like “second class citizens” within the Church.
As I understand it, Sr. Laurel’s reasoning on this matter is based on the premise that: if consecrated virgins are asked or seek to avoid a secular- or lay-lifestyle, then this must manifest a belief that the call of the laity is something deficient, lacking, or perhaps even less-than-pure or otherwise “bad.” Therefore, consecrated virgins should not avoid living like laypeople, because their openness to a strongly secular way of life would show that the call of the laity is something which is intrinsically good.
Since this more or less a pastoral (rather than a strictly doctrinal or canonical) issue, everything I said in the previous section naturally applies here. Still, I want to stress that I do NOT think that an emphasis on consecrated virgins’ publically consecrated status undermines an appreciation of the call of the laity in any way—on the contrary, I believe it affirms and safeguards it.
The vocation of the laity is to witness to Christ in every-day life, and to infuse the world of temporal affairs with the spirit of the Gospel. If this is also essentially the vocation of consecrated virgins, then consecrated virginity as a vocation would be almost a redundancy in the Church, and thus it wouldn’t make sense for the Church to have consecrated virgins in the first place.
But more importantly, I think that if we understand consecrated virgins as having virtually the same role in the Church as the laity, then this school of thought would actually be what undermines the vocation of lay people.
What message does it convey to the laity when we describe consecrated virgins as being called to more or less the same thing as they are—only that consecrated virgins live out this vocation with more gifts of grace from God because they are allowed to receive a special rite?
And doesn’t this line of reasoning also suggest that lay people aren’t quite as capable of being a Christian witness in the secular world as consecrated virgins supposedly are? Or that, unlike the laity at large, the consecrated virgins are the ones who are really serious about being a “leaven in the world?”
In either case, to me it seems like it would be most respectful to the dignity of the lay vocation if we regard it as something that truly is proper to the laity (as in, unique to them)—and not something which consecrated virgins also do, only to a more exceptional degree.
4. There is nothing about a more “consecrated” lifestyle which prevents consecrated virgins from being true “apostles” and witness to the Gospel.
Sr. Laurel also argues that an emphasis on “consecration” at the expense of “secularity” hinders consecrated virgins from their true vocation as “apostles,” or witnesses to the Gospel.
But if we were seriously going to argue that a distinctively “consecrated” way of life makes consecrated virgins less capable of being “apostles,” then we would also have to maintain that women religious are also bear less of an apostolic witness than the Catholic laity. (In which case it would follow that religious life would be sort of a step down or away from one’s obligation to bear witness to the Gospel—and does anyone here really want to argue that?) On the other hand, I really do think that we consecrated virgins are most convincing as Christian witnesses when we live a distinctively “consecrated” way of life. When we as consecrated virgins live as women demonstrably “set apart” for God’s purposes, we bear witness to the fact that God’s goodness transcends that of all created things. We proclaim the primacy of Christ in a world which “is passing away”; we testify to the fact that Christ alone is the fulfillment of all time and history; and we show the world that God alone can satisfy the human heart.
However, I think that this particular type of witness is a lot less striking when consecrated virgins come across to others as being fully committed to and engaged in the world of temporal affairs. To me, it seems like it would prompt the question: if consecrated virgins have supposedly chosen Christ above all things, why do they still seem so attached to the things of this world?
It should go without saying that just because some people are called to renounce worldly things, it doesn’t necessarily follow that all of these things are therefore bad in and of themselves. I do believe that there is a role in the Church for those who feel called bear witness to the essential goodness of all of God’s creation, including the goodness of many passing temporal goods. But once again, I think this is the call of the laity, especially the laity who are married and who have children.
What’s more, I really don’t think it would make sense for consecrated virgins to try to be a witness to the goodness of earthly life. Consecrated virgins publically renounce human marriage and natural motherhood, which are arguably some of the greatest and most precious earthly goods. Making the profound sacrifice of such great goods, only to occupy ourselves with the much lesser earthly goods of a professional career, involvement in civil politics, etc., to me seems to be sending a rather confused and inconsistent message.
5. A strongly secular lifestyle isn’t good for consecrated virgins, or for consecrated virginity as a vocation. Admittedly, this is my own opinion, albeit a thoroughly well-considered one. And, once again, concerns such as this, which are more pastoral in nature, don’t necessarily affect the objective theology of a state in life.
But, coming towards the conclusion of this post, I still think that it would be appropriate for us to take into account some of what I see as the “dangers” of emphasizing consecrated virgins’ proposed “secular” identity.
First of all, saying that consecrated virgins are called to be publically consecrated persons, but at the same time are called to be fully secular, puts candidates and newly-consecrated virgins in a confusing situation as far as interiorizing their vocation is concerned. As I see it, this is asking consecrated virgins to base their identity on the combination of two mutually exclusive concepts—something that could be defined as an impossible developmental task! It can also lead to a lot of painful rumination on whether or not receiving the Rite of Consecration actually “means anything,” and this ambiguity makes it a lot harder to bear up under the inevitable misunderstandings newly-consecrated virgins will encounter.
I know a lot of people say that this is “creative tension.” However, we should remember that tension is not always in every case creative—it can also be highly, highly destructive. Determining whether or not a particular point of tension is creative or destructive takes an uncanny amount of insight and discernment, and is often only seen clearly in hindsight (and this is true for people of all ages—the chronologically young don’t have a monopoly on the need for discernment). So I don’t think we should be too quick to assume that the “tension” which many newly consecrated virgins experience when trying to reconcile the “consecrated” and supposedly “secular” aspects of their vocation is a good or healthy thing.
Also, considering problems that could possibly arise in sort of the opposite direction (and I know I’m going to generate pages of negative comments for saying this, but I’m saying it anyway because I honestly believe that it needs to be said), I think that we should be realistic and frank about the possibility that “secularity” could at some point come to mean “laxity.”
Speaking in purely hypothetical terms (and thus not, NOT, NOT in reference to any individual consecrated virgin--and I am fully aware that there may be many consecrated virgins who disagree with me who are much holier than I am), it’s easy to imagine how a supposed “secular” identity could be used to rationalize a consecrated virgin’s less-than-convincing witness to the Gospel.
For example, maybe a consecrated virgin maintains a much higher standard of living than she really needs to, wearing expensive cloths, taking nice vacations, and frequenting fancy restaurants and other entertainments…this could be justified as a need to “be professional” and to keep up with her secular lay colleagues.
Or, maybe it could happen that as her “first fervor” or “honeymoon period” starts to fade, a consecrated virgin finds herself drifting away from her commitment to prayer. “Being called to a secular life” could offer a plausible sounding excuse for skipping daily Mass (perhaps as “…too inconvenient with my work schedule.”), giving up large portions of the Divine Office (maybe since “I’m secular, and so I must not be strictly required to say it, and I haven’t been finding it personally helpful lately…”), or for skimping on private prayer (“…I visit Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament as recreation, and I haven’t had much time for recreation lately—after all, I hold down a full-time job!”)
* By “negative” I of course don’t mean negative in the moral sense of “bad” or “evil.” To come to a more in-depth understanding, I’m just trying to consider secularity according to what it is not, in addition to considerations on what it is.
** But at the same time, I do want to point out that it’s not good to maintain too strict a division between an understanding of the Church as “the people of God” and an understanding of the Church as a visible institution—this is setting up a false dichotomy.
*** Although there are things which, although some commentators might call them “quasi-religious” which are actually proper to consecrated life in general, and thus appropriate if not necessary for consecrated virgins. Examples of this might include a commitment to a truly simple way of life or a basic level of accountability to some external authority figure.
Examples of things which might be “quasi-religious” in a way that was truly inappropriate for consecrated virgins could be things like: a focus on one specific type of apostolic work; a intensely characteristic devotion to a particular “founder,” saint, or specific kind or set of devotional prayers; or a deep sense of commitment to the following a detailed “Rule” or horarium (i.e., a devotion to a specific schedule which became a central element to one’s interior life.)