Saturday, March 19, 2011

Open Discussion on “Dedication to the Service of the Church”

One of the most controversial topics I write about here on “Sponsa Christi” is what is meant concretely when Canon Law, the Church’s liturgy, and other magisterial documents describe consecrated virgins as being “dedicated to the service of the Church.”

As regular readers know, I believe that the phrase “dedicated to the service of the Church” should be understood as indicating that consecrated virgins are, under ordinary circumstances, expected to be literally dedicated (i.e., “totally given over”) to works which directly and demonstrably further the Church’s mission. Usually, I think this would mean that a consecrated virgin would be involved in some kind of Church-sponsored, or at least Church-related, work on something like a full-time basis.

Since I’ve written on this topic before, I know that there are many people who disagree with me on this—which is perfectly legitimate, since it doesn’t seem that the Church has yet issued an authoritative clarification on exactly how a consecrated virgin’s call to service should affect her day-to-day life.

However, while I respect those who have a different point of view than I do on this, there is still one element of these kinds of responses which strikes me as odd. Namely, I don’t think any of my “opponents” have ever articulated a positive theological argument as to why “dedication to the service of the Church” should be understood as meaning anything other than literal dedication to serving the Church in direct ways.

In other words, while people have often pointed out the ways in which they believe that I am wrong, I haven’t come across anyone here who has given a cogent argument as to why they believe that their differing view is right.

So, I’m trying something a little different in this post!

If you believe that for consecrated virgins, “dedication to the service of the Church” means something other than what I think it means; and if you have a cogent, positive rationale for your position, you are invited to share it here in the comment box.

But first, some ground rules:

1. Be respectful, and please presume my intelligence, education, and good will, as well that of all others here. (No one here believes the things they do because they are intellectually careless or because they somehow harbor a desire to mislead people!)

2. By posting here, you are given me permission to reprint and discuss your comment on this blog (in either this post or in a future post, depending on the volume of the responses I receive). If you have a problem with this, please refrain from participating in this discussion.

3. You must advance a whole, internally consistent interpretation by means of a positive argument. That is, it has to be an interpretation that can stand on its own. (You can’t just point out the areas in which you think that someone else is mistaken.)

4. “Because Cardinal Burke and/or the USAVC said so” is NOT an acceptable argument. If you agree with Card. Burke and/or the USACV, that’s great! But if you want to comment here, you have to be able to: 1.) articulate the precise position of Card. Burke or the USACV; and 2.) give your own arguments as to why you think that Card. Burke and/or the USACV are correct.

5. Comments are moderated, and I reserve the right to delete comments which I feel are off-topic or seriously disrespectful. Also, since my intention in creating this post is to foster wholesome mutual theological discussion, I may delete this entire post if I feel that it’s fostered an unhelpful and overly heated debate.

6. No anonymous commenting. If you have something to say, you have to be willing to sign your name (or at least pseudonym or a screen name) to it!

7. Always pray before posting!

Also, as background, here are some previous posts I’ve written on what I think it means to be “dedicated to the service of the Church”:


Suzanna said...

Dear Sponsa Christi,
in prayer I felt sadness. It was sadness that you got the feeling of being attacked by words or negative argumentation on your topic before. Just one aspect on that before my "positive argumentation". In the variety of themes and fields of argumentation it oftentimes is much harder to keep on line and to follow up a thesis raised in beginning by positive argumentation instead of arguing against certain aspects that seem to put shadow on the rainbow which light in truth is. So do not feel sad and disappointed by all those comments of the past, as they try to move shadowing aspects out of the commentators' sights' they gain on the bright light.

But now let me try to give you some "positive" thoughts about being dedicated to the service in the church.

1. Take our holy mother Mary. In spirituality she is not only virgin but also bride. She embodied the idea of being virgin in compassionate love to Christi and of being bride as image of the church. The church itself is meant to be bride of Christ. Look at what is told about Mary in the bible. Take the painful stations she had to live through and to take as proof of her full humility. Compare with : Luke 2, 19 : "But Mary kept all these things like a secret treasure in her heart. She thought about them over and over." or take : Luke 2,34-36 : 34 Then Simeon blessed them. He said to Mary, Jesus' mother, “This child is going to cause many people in Israel to fall and to rise. God has sent him. But many will speak against him.
35 The thoughts of many hearts will be known. A sword will wound your own soul too.” Mary shared the suffered of her son, the suffering of the church through all times til now but she kept all her knowing, all her love, all her compassion for herself. Only once she revealed her mission : at he wedding of Kana where she told the attendents to do what her son tells them to do. Nonetheless she is the greatest pattern, the most loving of all, the chosen one by the Lord himself as virgin and bride. So wonder if you take her humility, her devotion and her full life - would you say she had ever been "more successful" or "more effectful" if she had lived it in a different way than in loving devotion to her son, the Lord and her bridegroom ?
This is an aspect of being bride AND virgin which is my eyes deserves to be valued when talking about being dedicated to the service of the church.

end of part one of my comment due to limitation of words :

Suzanna said...

Beginning of part 2 of my comment :

2. Take Martha and Mary : Martha is the active one of both sisters. She does the housework, she cares about the needs of the guest, she runs to meet Jesus asking him for help. Mary sits at the feet of Christi listening. WHen Lazarus is sick to death the stays at home while Martha runs to meet Jesus to tell him about the sickness. Would you say one of the two si doing better ? Is one more dedicated to the service for the bridgegroom ? I would say both are needed and again both are reflections of the two sides of the same coin in devotion to Christi and loving him as bride. Active service and contemplative humility. In both there are the powers of the Holy Spirit and in both at completely compassionate and fully devoted heart is needed.

3. Finally I would like just to cite Matthew 6, 5-8 and finishing with the Pater noster :

5 And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.
6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.
8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

As bride and virgin prayer and devotion, service for the needy and the neighbors, compassionate love for Christ the bridgegroom and for the church as His body met in each and every neighbor, we need to rely on the Lord telling where and when to put more emphasis on the dedicated service in the church as active missionaries or when to take the indirect passive looking role of being the window glass for His light to be shining through and being fanned out to a rainbow :

Pater noster qui in caelis es sanctificetur nomen tuum
10 veniat regnum tuum fiat voluntas tua sicut in caelo et in terra
11 panem nostrum supersubstantialem da nobis hodie
12 et dimitte nobis debita nostra sicut et nos dimisimus debitoribus nostris
13 et ne inducas nos in temptationem sed libera nos a malo
14 si enim dimiseritis hominibus peccata eorum dimittet et vobis Pater vester caelestis delicta vestra
15 si autem non dimiseritis hominibus nec Pater vester dimittet peccata vestra

In my eyes the the greatest challenge to us being human here on earth with all our weaknesses and limitations is to love the Lord, Christi and like loving Him our neighbors with heart and soul and never talking about that. Then both ways of doing dedicated service to the church more like Mary as the spiritual mother of the priests and people or more like Martha as serving, active missionaries will be guided by the omnipresent Holy Spirit in His perfection and unmeasurable magnificence.


E. B. said...

I have many thoughts to share, but don't have time to articulate them now. Will comment or write as I am able! Many prayers for you, my dear, as always.

Alice Claire Mansfield said...

At this time I have no comments, only a question. I get the impression from your blog that you feel very strongly that the life of a consecrated virgin should be very much regimented. While such regimentation is appropriate for a religious order or society of some sort, it is not necessary, appropriate or desirable for a consecrated virgin, who is not a member of an order or a society. Our consecration as virgins presupposes that we have the maturity and integrity to live out our vocation in the world in a manner pleasing to the Lord and in keeping with the teachings of the Catholic Church. I respectfully ask why you feel so strongly about regimenting the life of a consecrated virgin.

Rejoicing in Jesus Christ, our Beloved Spouse,
Alice Claire Mansfield
Consecrated Virgin
Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston

Katie said...

I agree that a consecrated virgin should serve the church - I just have a more open definition when it comes to define what "the church" means.

To me, the church is not just the formal, religious institution, but the actual Body of Chist, including Christ Himself. I look at the Gospels to see what Christ did - he healed the sick, fed the hungry, ministered to those in need. Therefore, I can easily see a consecrated virgin being a teacher or a nurse or someone who works in a non-profit organization. Many a religious order is dedicated to service of the community in this way, and I can see a consecrated virgin doing the same thing.

I look at service to others as a means of directly following in the footsteps of Christ, especially when he said in the gospel of Matthew "Whatsover you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto Me." For example, if a consecrated virgin were a social worker, and she worked with needy children, I definitely see that as service to the church, because she is assisting others as Jesus did. She does not have to be directly connected to the institutional church.


Anonymous said...

Dear S.C.

I hope you can understand where I'm coming from-I have been reading through your blog and thus far the overall impression I get is not the impression of a young woman living for Christ by taking up this vocation but rather, a young woman completely taken with the fact that she is consecrated. You seem very egotistic in most of your writings and not very approachable. This concerns me because my sister who is desiring to be a CV like yourself, has also read this blog and I fear is not being presented with the example of humility that someone entering into consecrated life should posses.

I do hope that you can at some point give a different side to your life for us to view that is not so self-centered and more Christ centered-it seems now that everything is YOU and not HIM. I know that higher education can make one puffed up but I regret to inform that there is no place for ego in the consecrated life and if this is what that life leads one to than I will definitely not encourage my sister to officially consecrate herself but rather live in humility and gentleness as she does now and consecrate in her heart for only her Lord to see lest she become boastful.

May age bless you with wisdom and humbleness of heart like our Blessed Mother.

Mary M.

Elizabeth said...

Dear Mary,

I'm not sure how you came to the conclusion that the writing here is self-centered. I have been reading faithfully since before our hostess was consecrated - and still I have only a vague idea of her personal life. - and that is right and proper, since this blog is not her personal diary. Nor does she need to make it into one to show us "another side" of her life.

There are many different kinds of Catholic blogs you can find on the internet.

Some of them are journals, revealing the emotions and personal lives of their authors. Some of them have "pop"-type of content - saint of the day - useful apologetics, etc. Some of them are devotional.

... and some of them have a scholarly bent. This is one of those blogs. Our hostess has studied theology at the masters level - probably she will get her doctorate.

The language is not especially accessible. The style is discursive. Strictly logical analysis may be applied. But that is not egoism. That is how scholars are trained to write. You may find it unapproachable. But higher education is something to be grateful for, not ashamed of.

Shana said...

Thank you Elizabeth, you said well what I was going to say.

Anonymous said...

I agree with what Elizabeth has written.This kind of blog is also needed to understand the emerging identity of the ancient but now new vocation .

It is good to have a [w]holistic approach : including the physical, intellectual,emotional,spiritual, social,ecclesial dimensions of this vocation.

I admire Jenna's courage in her [re]search for truth.

Anna J said...

Dear Jenna,

I passionately disagree with restricting the understanding of what we mean by the Church in this context. Since Christ is Lord of all creation, I believe that He has an especial desire that His brides should venture far and wide, into the highways and byways,(first and foremost in prayer, but not excluding the possibility of action), and also in hidden ways, to help Him to transform creation into His spouse, the Church. We are His hands, His feet, His voice, His heart. We belong everywhere, with Him. All creation is our home in which to render humble service; each as their particular gifts allow. Yes, I do firmly believe that there is also a strong diocesan dimension to the vocation, but the two are not mutually exclusive. I think that the challenge is to live this vocation well interiorly. I think that the external form may vary enormously from person to person, diocese to diocese, country to country - and it's such early days too, in terms of the vocation's revival.

I need to add that I'm not formally a consecrated virgin. My path has been far from easy. But I still have a passionate view of the vocation. All this is just my viewpoint.

God bless,

Anonymous said...

This comment might be too general, so if it is, I understand if it is not posted. One thing I have noticed in this blog (and, I may be wrong, I've not ready every entry, or every comment) is that I've never noticed you (I mean, the blog author) say, "That's an interesting idea. I haven't thought of that before," etc., when someone else makes a point or insight that doesn't match your own opinion.

I do think you are very clear where things are your own opinion, and I do get the impression that you in fact want a dialogue with others who don't always agree with you.

I think sometimes others get the impression that you are heavy handed in your approach, or another way it has been expresses is that you are *young*, because at times there seems a lack of reflection on your part.

I don't mean a lack of analysis! You certainly analyze everything in sight. And I do say "seems a lack of reflection" because I don't know that there is an *actual* lack. I think you probably do consider other people's input, but that consideration doesn't necessarily come across in many of your comments & blog posts.

I have a very similar mind to yours. I am quick, analytical, slice away at all things from all angles, etc. Often when someone makes an objection, I see five steps ahead to what I already think, and I already know why I disagree, etc. So I can understand your frame of thinking.

At the same time, one thing I've learned (and, I've got a good decade on you, in this respect, in terms of life experience) is that even though I sometimes think I see five steps ahead of what someone else is thinking, really, at times I am only seeing five steps ahead of what I think that person is thinking.

The crux of the issue is whether in fact I have "stood within" another person's approach or not. Sometimes those five steps ahead are simply my own interpretation of what another thinks, without actually entering into another viewpoint at all.

Just some thoughts. Sometimes you come across as explaining your own view from 50 angles without actually demonstrating that you've internalized another way of seeing something. (This is not to say you haven't internalized another way of seeing something, just that perhaps at times that doesn't come across.)

As for some of the other points regarding consecrated virginity. I see a fundamental tension between the desire that consecrated virgins dress similarly to each other, in some publicly identifiable fashion, and also that they work "for the Church" in a way that is narrowly understood. Mentally, picturing a CV leaving her home, wearing her garb that identifies her to the world as set apart, and then going to her job in the bosom of the Church seems a little odd as a set ideal for all CVs.

I don't agree with your interpretations of service of the Church. I am much more akin to Mother Theresa's serving Christ in the poorest of the poor, particularly the spiritually poorest of the poor. In our current depraved culture, the spiritually poorest of the poor make up a great slab of our culture. Serving them in emergency rooms, law offices, libraries, counseling centers, schools, etc., is serving Christ and His Holy Face directly and immediately.

Mother Teresa went out into the gutters to serve the Church. She picked up broken bodies and bathed them, and in bathing them, bathed Christ.

Anonymous said...

[continued from above...]
Another thought is that I don't agree with the idea (used somewhere on this blog) of comparing a consecrated virgin's life to the "average devout lay person's." I would adamantly declare that there is no such thing as an "average devout lay person." Any lay person seriously seeking holiness is unique, and set apart for God in his or her own way of serving him. There is nothing average about it!

Along those lines, while I think some women feel the call to consecrated virginity as a call to go deeper, or love more, or give themselves more "radically" to God than they did in their lay lives, this is not the case for others. I think this vocation has many facets, and a high degree of individuality, in a full and beautiful sense.

While discerning the vocation, some women feel God drawing them on towards this vocation by certain means and certain inspirations. These can include things mentioned above, in which she feels God calling her to something *more* or *more radical*, etc.

Yet, others discerning the same vocation feel a continuum with their lay lives. There can be a simplicity of a woman who has lived close to Christ all her life, and whose vocation as consecrated, or vocation passing from lay to consecrated, is seamless and of the same quality in many respects.

There are different ways to enter into this vocation, and different facets of this rich vocation that are expressed in individual consecrated virgins.

I think the way in which some of them discern their vocations reflects more the obviously "religious" dimension of the vocation, that it is being radically set apart for God.

I think the way in which others come to a clearness of their vocations is a quiet passing into a deeper mode of being, much like the passing of each of us into eternal life. Each lay woman, as she enters into the beatific vision at her death, is espoused to the Triune God. I see some CVs here on earth who pass into the discernment of their vocations like that, quietly, and as a continuum with who they were before.

I think both approaches are valid if both spring from how God is leading each CV. And each reflect a different dimension of the same vocation.

As for dress, I don't see anything wrong with a consecrated virgin wearing a little makeup or a little jewelry. If the standard is simplicity and modesty, I would think each woman should prayerfully consider what is best for her.

(For example, taking into account that she probably already owns jewelry from before, especially jewelry that has meaning, was gifts from family and friends, etc. Wearing such pieces would be different from going out and acquiring the latest trends.)

There is a huge subjectivity in all of this. One consecrated virgin might decide lip balm and face lotion fall within modesty and simplicity (and I agree) though Missionaries of Charities don't have such things in their poverty.

I think simplicity and modesty in dress goes far beyond what one actually wears and into the reasons why certain things are picked to wear. It can in the end be very self-indulgent, and self-important (and I think you probably agree with me here) to come up with all kinds of dos and don'ts for what CVs should or should not wear. One of the key questions (beyond objective questions such as "what is modest") is, "how much time should be spent on this?" "How much mental effort should go in to figuring these things out?"

I think many CVs find it easiest to wear what is available, economical, modest, and flattering, without spending too much time working it all out. That is not that different from many lay women I know!

I'm sorry that I can't give you anything more than this. I haven't the time to go over every thought I have and type it all out. But this is better than nothing.

(I'm not sure if this second half went through, so I'm sending it again.)

Anonymous said...

Same anonymous as above, here is a link to a story about a consecrated virgin. To my mind, she beautifully embodies her vocation. She exudes the quiet spirit of someone who belongs to Christ. She is fully herself, and fully His. I don't think the fact that she wears dangling earrings and a t-shirt has anything to do with anything. She's modest. She's simple. She's lovely, and a lovely witness to her vocation. I didn't even notice what she was wearing the first time I saw this. I noticed her; her and her vocation.

Hannah said...

Something I do feel can be a difficult matter of discernment with this less structured vocation is that there is no definition of how "dedication to the Church", and to the consecrated life should be weighed when it comes into conflicts with other real duties - family and earning a living.

In a religious order, there are rules about handling contact with family, there are rules about things like attending family weddings and funerals, and you don't have to think about providing for your own basic needs. The CV inevitably has a foot in the world, in having to manage her own financial provision: a foot that means that the mutual commitment between her and the Church as an institution cannot go beyond a certain point.

At a late stage of discernment, I still feel pulled in several directions here. I am still finding it difficult to find a way of earning my living that makes sense, that flows into and out of being Sponsa Christi, while being adequate to actual provision. It seems to me that my life is likely to be a sort of compromise for a long time - in the same sort of way that the life of a mother whose family can't afford for her to stay at home with her children might be.

I think perhaps the same might logically go for things like the weight a CV should put into actually working for the Church, over and above other considerations? Suppose someone works for a Church hospital, but their mother or father becomes ill and needs more support from them than they can give at a distance. The only closer job she can get would be in a secular hospital. What sort of criteria should she use to discern what her priority should be?

I would say tentatively that I don't entirely feel that working directly for the Church should have too much priority, because I feel that someone could potentially be furthering Christian mission far more by being seen as a witness of charity or prayer in a secular environment. This doesn't, I realise, necessarily mean that this should be a vocation of the CV - I may not have read the right post yet to be entirely clear precisely what the argument is that the complete commitment should take the form of working directly for the Church for preference, or precisely how much priority Jenna is arguing that it should be given. However, it does seem to me that it is right to avoid (in any Christian vocation) setting limits to what one is prepared to do to fulfil the vocation (e.g. refusing to change profession or go abroad when that is possible and seems right for other reasons): I agree the commitment to being a CV should take priority over mere personal preferences.

I'd like to thank Jenna for writing this blog, particularly given the amount of personal criticism it means receiving. I find it incredibly valuable, and I do really appreciate it.

Sponsa Christi said...

Hi Hannah,

This is an old post, so I'm not sure how much discussion we're really going to have here at this point. (I am hoping to write an "updated" post on consecrated virgins and service soon, though, so perhaps that will be the occasion of some more conversation on this topic.)

I wrote both my Master's and my J.C.L. thesis on consecrated virgins and service to the Church, so obviously this is an important topic to me! I feel like the question of what it means for consecrated virgins to be "dedicated to the service to the Church" is the central key to understanding this vocation. That it, differences in interpreting this one phrase can lead to radically different ideas of the fundamental identity of this vocation.

Specifically, if "dedicated to the service of the Church" is understood as some kind of poetic metaphor for deepening one's baptismal commitment to Christian life in general, then consecrated virginity at least de facto becomes little more than an expression of personal piety--i.e., something less than the radical self-gift entailed in other forms of consecrated life.

On the other hand, if consecrated virgins do have specific concrete obligations attached to their state of consecration, such as a commitment to direct and literal service to the Church, then this does become a vocation which shapes one's whole life.

I do appreciate the practical difficulties that many consecrated virgins face in trying to serve the Church. I'm also aware (more aware than I think people give me credit for! :) ) that "service to the Church"can take a variety of different forms and doesn't always necessarily have to mean being directly employed by a diocese or parish. However, I think at some point we do have to draw a line between "service to the Church" and purely secular work (even if that secular work is informed by Christian values), because if we don't make some sort of distinction at some point, then "service to the Church" becomes a meaningless phrase.

The exact practical details of how exactly consecrate virgins are to be "dedicated to the service of the Church" is something I think individual dioceses are going to need to work out for themselves over a long period of time. But my concern in writing about consecrated virgins and "dedication to the service of the Church" is mostly to try to articulate the general principal and the ideal we should be actively striving for.

Hannah said...

Thank-you for your answer - sorry I didn't check the date.

Having been able to read more extensively through your very edifying blog :-), I think I understand the drift of this a bit better. I have the impression that there can be a problem with the word "work" implying "employed by", where that is not really what you have in mind, and as it is difficult to establish a boundary between "direct service to the Church" and "secular work informed by Christian values" it can be quite confusing to follow. But I do completely agree with what I think you're saying, and I think it's likely to be of a lot of use in articulating to others why I'm not really satisfied with things as they are.

It would be of immense use to me to have concrete ideas (yours or anyone else's) as to what sort of paid work one might do in service of the Church without being a Church-employee, or what principles one might use to work out the best option with regard to purely secular work if one finds one has no other choice. I'm deeply dissatisfied with the current natural tenor of my life as being, really, a sort of devout lay spirituality which though perfectly valid in itself, doesn't at all feel as if it is my calling, which I think is to complete direct dedication, not a witness to the way ordinary things can be used in the service of God. I do want to give every aspect and moment of my life in the same way a nun would, even if the form that takes has to be worked out differently.

Sponsa Christi said...

Hi Hannah--again, I'm hoping to write a new post with perhaps some more current discussion, but basically I think someone could serve the Church full-time, in a paid capacity, without formally being a diocesan or parish employee through things like:

- working in a apostolate sponsored by a religious community rather than a diocese or parish;
- teaching at an independent school or university that is "in the Catholic tradition" (e.g., like Ave Maria University);
- working as a staff member of a lay-lead apostolate or charity (like EWTN or Mary's Meals, for example);
- being a Catholic medical doctor or psychologist with a private practice (provided that this involves some sort of charitable concern for the poor or "evangelical" concern with bringing explicitly Catholic values into one's professional work);
- working in the field of Catholic publishing (Catholic publishers generally aren't formally under the auspices of a diocese); etc.

But these are just some examples off the top of my head--I'm sure there are many others.

I also think it could be completely appropriate for a consecrated virgin to have some sort of self-lead individual apostolate that she supports through some kind of secondary "secular" freelance work (which would be sort of like how cloistered nuns can support themselves through not-specifically-religious cottage industries like soap or candy making.) I've heard of one consecrated virgin who focuses on giving retreats for young people, and supports this through a small specialty cake-making business.

I think things start getting problematic when consecrated virgins have a job that forces them to compromise on their vocation in some way--such as when a job makes daily Mass impossible or when they aren't able to be open about their vocation.

I think it can also be a problem when a consecrated virgin has a purely secular career that she takes as a major part of her identity. E.g., I think it would be inappropriate for a consecrated virgin to see herself as something like "a corporate lawyer who happens to be a consecrated virgin."