It’s already well-known to readers of this blog that, as the Order of Virgins is a form of consecrated life which has been only fairly recently re-introduced into the life of the modern Church, there are still a lot of open questions regarding the more concrete aspects of how this vocation is to be lived out. For instance, we might ask: what is the life of a consecrated virgin supposed to “look like?” How does she present herself in public? What sort of formation should she have had? How is her relationship with her bishop and her diocese supposed to function? And what exactly does it mean for her to be “dedicated to the service of the Church?”
One way that canonists often try to resolve these kinds of ambiguities is by looking for parallel situations in the Church. When we find ourselves needing to contend with gaps in the Church’s law—whether the lacunae pertain to consecrated virginity specifically, or to any other challengingly vague circumstance in the life of the Church—we can begin to address these gaps by considering other approved ways of life (or circumstances with adequate legislation) which are fundamentally similar in some important respect. Then once we have identified how the Church approaches these better-understood situations, we can adapt and apply the rules governing those situations to the circumstances which are still in question.
To this end, I’ve noticed many commentators tend to assume that secular institutes provide the closest parallel to the Order of Virgins, based primarily on the fact that both secular institute members and consecrated virgins “live in the world.”* However, I believe that looking at secular institutes as the interpretive key for understanding the revived Order of Virgins is a mistake, for several reasons:
1. The Church is still somewhat unclear on the canonical and theological nature of secular institutes
One reason why I believe secular institutes really do not provide a good model for understanding consecrated virginity is because, at this point in time, there is still a lot about secular institutes which the Church can’t yet fully categorize or articulate.
The Church does give us a basic working definition of secular institutes in canon 710 of the Code of Canon Law. Here, a secular institute is identified as: “…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.”
We know that, like religious, secular institute members make a profession to observe the evangelical counsels (cf. can. 723 §1). But unlike religious, the vows of secular institute members are not considered “public.” Secular institute members are also similar to religious in the sense that they are consecrated specifically as part of a particular community with its own founder and charism. Yet in contrast with religious, they usually do not share a household or live together. Secular institute members are often described by the Church as called to be a “leaven in the world,” (cf. CCC 929) and as such they generally work in secular jobs and refrain from adopting any special dress, titles, or customs which would outwardly distinguish them as consecrated persons.
However, even in light of these basics, there is still a great deal of variety among the different secular institutes. For example, secular institutes can vary widely in how they understand the practice of “discretion.” Some institutes encourage their members to share their special ecclesial identity openly whenever it could be pastorally helpful (at least one secular institute even has special identifying dress which members wear in some circumstances), while other institutes have the tradition of keeping their members’ vocation much more hidden. Some secular institutes have a very strong emphasis on the “secularity” and specifically “lay” character of their vocation, while other institutes were at least originally founded with the intention of their members living what was essentially a modified form of religious life. In many secular institutes, the members may only see each other once or twice each year; but on the other hand, some secular institutes do allow for or encourage a certain level of common life among their members.
But perhaps more significant to my point here, the Church’s writings on secular institutes are often confusing, or even seemingly self-contradictory. For example, the Church describes secular institutes as being institutes of consecrated life, with the subsequent implication that members of secular institutes are thus truly consecrated. The Church also describes consecrated life as being a different state from that of laity (cf. can. 588 §1). However, in canon 711, secular institute membership is described as something which “does not change the member’s proper canonical condition among the people of God, whether lay or clerical.” So it would seem to be currently a bit of conundrum as to how secular institute members can be truly consecrated, and truly lay (i.e., not having changed their canonical condition to “consecrated”) at the same time!
A similar confusing gap in the Church’s understanding of secular institutes is the question of precisely what kind of vows secular institute members make.** Secular institutes are distinct from religious institutes in that their vows are not public. And since their vows are not public, then it would seem to follow logically that their vows would therefore have to be considered private. One characteristic of private vows per se is that they are a personal initiative, and not something officially received in the name of the Church. Yet it would seem that secular institute members’ vows are indeed received in the name of the Church when they are received by the moderator of their institute. Some commentators have tried to resolve this inconsistency by calling secular institute members’ vows “semi-public”—but this is also problematic, since “semi-public vows” are not a concept which is actually mentioned anywhere in our current canon law.
Naturally, since secular institutes are a newer form of consecrated life, it is understandable that there are still questions which have yet to be resolved, and so these observations of mine are certainly not meant to undermine the life and vocation of current secular institute members. However, it does still stand to reason that all these unanswered questions would make secular institutes a less-than-helpful interpretive key for other forms of consecrated life.
2. Secular institutes have many fundamental differences from consecrated virginity
Even apart from the above-mentioned ambiguities, when we consider what we actually do know about secular institutes, it becomes clear that secular institutes are structurally, fundamentally different from the Order of Virgins.
For one thing, as was just noted, secular institute members’ profession of the evangelical counsels is private (or at least less-than-fully public), whereas consecrated virginity is very much a public state of consecrated life. In fact, we could go so far as to say that a woman enters into the Order of Virgins in the most public way possible, via a liturgical ritual to which all the faithful are to be invited. This element alone carries implications which make secular institutes inappropriate a parallel for understanding the Order of Virgins.
Another very significant canonical difference is that consecrated virginity is a non-institutional form of consecrated life, in the sense that virgins are consecrated as individuals rather specifically as members of a special group or community. A consecrated virgin remains under the direct authority of her bishop, and her only “institutional” affiliation within the Church is her connection to her diocese. Likewise, consecrated virgins do not have a special call to follow the charismatic spirituality of any particular founder or foundress.
In contrast, secular institutes are by definition institutional. One becomes consecrated as a secular institute member specifically by joining a community which is a secular institute. A secular institute member has his or her profession of the evangelical counsels received by the moderator (the word used in lieu of “superior” for secular institutes) of their institute, and the concrete ways in which they observe the counsels is determined by the constitution, customs, and spirituality, of their particular institute. And like religious—but unlike consecrated virgins—secular institute members are called to live out the unique charism handed down to them from the founder or foundress of their institute.
Additionally, there are many essential elements of the vocation to consecrated virginity which the Church does not ascribe to secular institutes, and vice-versa. For example, only consecrated virgins are explicitly identified as “brides of Christ.” While bridal spirituality is absolutely central to the vocation of a consecrated virgin, it would seem to be, at most, optional for a woman secular institute member.
On the other hand, while secular institute members are given a specific mission “to order temporal things according to God and to inform the world by the power of the gospel,” (can. 713 §2) and are explicitly directed to “lead their lives in the ordinary conditions of the world,” (can. 714) this sort of language and “leaven” imagery is never used in magisterial documents to describe the Order of Virgins. In fact, consecrated virgins are arguably given the very opposite vocation of serving as an “eschatological sign of the world to come” (cf. the praenotanda of the Rite of Consecration).
3. The issue of anachronism
There is an issue of anachronism. Today’s Order of Virgins was intended as a revival of an ancient Patristic form of consecrated life, (cf. Vita Consecrata, 7) whereas secular institutes are almost overwhelmingly a twentieth-century development.
Secular institutes are the newest form of consecrated life in the Church. While it could be argued that various earlier associations in the Church history served as precursors to today’s secular institutes (the earliest Ursuline Sisters and French Daughters of the Heart of Mary are often cited as examples of this), secular institutes as such were not formally recognized and endorsed by the Church until 1947, when Pope Pius XII promulgated the Apostolic Constitution Provida Mater Ecclesia. What’s more, the central defining charism of secular institutes—i.e., an apostolic mission to order the sphere of temporal affairs in accord with Christian values—is very recent development in the life of the Church. It was virtually unheard of before the twentieth century to have a distinctive spirituality ordered specifically around the call to be “leaven in the world.” (That is, prior to the twentieth century, it’s difficult to find any examples of the Church promoting “ordinary Christian life in the world” as a vocation to be embraced through a special, recognized form of dedicated evangelical life. “Leaven” imagery, being scriptural in origin, was of course still used before the modern era. However, this tended to be a description of Christian life in general, rather than as a distinctive charism in its own right.)
Of course, the “newness” of secular institutes should not be automatically written off as a bad thing. It is very reasonable to believe that the Holy Spirit would inspire a new form of consecrated life to meet the specific needs of the modern world, just as different forms of religious and consecrated life were inspired at different points in the Church’s history to meet the needs of the Church and human society as a whole.***
However, this newness does make secular institutes an unhelpful parallel for understanding consecrated virginity, which was meant as a restoration of the ancient, Patristic-era Order of Virgins. To say that consecrated virgins should look to secular institutes for guidance in understanding consecrated virginity would be to anachronistically superimpose a distinctively modern charism onto what is really an ancient vocation.
One other point…
To address one final point, I’ve occasionally seen it argued that, because secular institute members are at least officially permitted to receive the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity,**** we can deduce that secular institute members and consecrated virgins “living in the world” are meant to be living similar ways of life. Or in other words, because a vocation to consecrated virginity and a vocation to a secular institute can theoretically co-exist in the same person (just as a nun in certain religious Orders could have a twofold vocation to religious life and to consecrated virginity), we should therefore assume that the Church intended non-monastic consecrated virgins to a live fully secular lifestyle in the strongest sense of the term. According to this train of thought, since a secular institute member can supposedly live out her distinctly secular vocation even after receiving the consecration of virgins, it must thereby follow that consecrated virginity isn’t something which could conflict or overshadow this call to a strongly secular way of life.
The first observation I have here is that, even after researching this topic fairly extensively, I am not aware of any actual documented cases of a particular secular institute encouraging its members to seek the consecration of virgins. So to being with, it would seem that the issue of a woman needing to harmonize her twin vocations to consecrated virginity and secular institute membership is a primarily hypothetical one at this point in time.
But more substantially, to me this line of reasoning also seems to be based on some not-yet-justified assumptions. Namely, how do we know that secular institute membership should be the “dominant” spirituality in a woman who is called to both vocations? Why should we think of consecrated virginity as merely a possible facet of a vocation to secular institute membership, rather than the other way around? Instead, might it possibly make more sense to think of secular institute membership as being more like a secondary support to a “primary” vocation to consecrated virginity?
To look at one potential parallel on this, we do have examples of diocesan or secular priests (i.e., priests “living in the world”) who are also secular institute members. In a few cases, these priest-secular institute members are actually incardinated into their institute. However, most of the time, priests who are members of secular institutes are diocesan priests who are incardinated into their diocese in the normal way. While they share in the spirituality and limited community life of their institute, these priests still owe their primary obedience to their bishop, and remain dedicated to priestly ministry in their dioceses.
Even if they belong to a secular institute which includes lay members, such priests still fulfill their specifically priestly obligations, and continue to dress and present themselves publicly as priests. That is, such priests do not strive to live as laypeople, even though most secular institutes put a heavy emphasis on “lay spirituality.” Secular institute membership among the clergy is seen as an affirmation and support of their priesthood, rather than a negation of the “specialness” of their priestly vocation.
Similarly, I think the theoretical possibility of female secular institute members becoming consecrated virgins might say more about the nature of secular institutes than it does about the nature of consecrated virginity. And so I would go so far as to argue that—insofar as consecrated virginity and secular institute membership aren’t de jure incompatible—consecrated virgins who are members of secular institutes should see consecrated virginity as their principal vocation, and should give this primary vocation pride of place in terms of the way they order their exterior lives.
* For example, Sr. Sharon Holland, IHM makes this very point in her famous article “Consecrated Virgins for Today’s Church.”
** And to make this even more confusing, some secular institutes profess the evangelical counsels not through vows, but rather through some other “sacred bond”—i.e., a commitment which is technically something other than a vow per se.
*** Earlier examples of different forms of consecrated life developing in order to respond prophetically to the needs of the Church and contemporary society could include: organized monasticism arising just in time to preserve western culture and learning after the fall of the Roman empire, or the foundation of the mendicant Orders in the Middle Ages serving to bring renewal to the comfortably-established medieval Church.
**** Sr. Sharon Holland also discusses this in “Consecrated Virgins for Today’s Church.”