In discussions on consecrated life or of women’s vocations in general, one type of question which often arises is how consecrated virginity is different from the more familiar vocation of women’s religious life. For basic instructional purposes, a quick answer to this question would be: a religious Sister is a woman who professes vows within a religious community, and a consecrated virgin is a woman who has received the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity from a bishop.
But of course, a short answer such as this fails to convey the beautifully nuanced distinctions between the two vocations, and it also overlooks the significant “family resemblances” between consecrated virginity and religious life. This kind of purely technical answer also doesn’t answer some of the more probing usual follow-up questions, such as: Why would a woman opt to become a consecrated virgin when she might have been accepted into a number of vibrant religious communities? Why would the Church re-introduce consecrated virginity as a “new,” separate category when we already have such a rich tradition of women dedicating themselves to God as nuns and Sisters? Or why can’t we just regard today’s religious as fulfilling the role of the early Ordo Virginum in the life of the Church today?
While it is possible to find some simple compare-and-contrast charts online, I think a proper appreciation of both vocations and demands some more in-depth consideration. To that end, in this post we will look at this question in four separate sections dealing with: 1. what consecrated virginity and religious life have in common; 2. elements which are specific to consecrated virginity; 3. elements that are unique to religious life; and finally, 4. a brief consideration of why these distinctions are important in the first place.
We can start by considering first of all…
I. What religious life and consecrated virginity have in common
- A common historical origin. Consecrated virginity is the oldest recognized form of consecrated life in the Church today, arguably dating from Apostolic times. Before the existence of religious life as we understand it today, women who desired to dedicate their lives entirely to Christ would resolve to persevere in a life of perpetual virginity. At some point during the Church’s first few centuries a solemn liturgical ritual for the consecration of virgins was established, which eventually would become our Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity.
Based on various Patristic writings, it seems that the members of the ancient Ordo Virginum lived (or were at least called to live) a relatively contemplative lifestyle focused on prayer, penance, and study. The Church Fathers frequently exhorted consecrated virgins to associate with each other for the sake of mutual support, and often this translated into consecrated virgins sharing residences. Naturally, in a common living situation it is simply to be expected that some sort of practical organization occur, and eventually “Rules” came to be written for houses of consecrated virgins. Such Rule-governed houses for consecrated virgins can rightly be considered some of the earliest precursors to women’s religious life, although this form of living was still different from our modern concept religious life in many key respects.
- The possibility of a dual vocation. Continuing with our historical considerations, we can note that in the Roman Catholic Church the earliest instance of “religious life” according to today’s definition of the term would be the Order of St. Benedict. Originally a hermit, St. Benedict wrote a rule for the fruitful and healthy running of a cenobitic monastery sometime around the year 530 A.D., with his sister St. Scholastica subsequently starting a female branch of the Order. The biographer Pope St. Gregory the Great describes St. Scholastica as “consecrated to God from her earliest youth,” which strongly suggests that she was a consecrated virgin even prior to the beginning of her monastic life. Eventually, western women’s monasticism would evolve from a regular way of life for (presumably) already-consecrated virgins to a vocation where women would receive the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity only after making their final monastic vows.
|A Carthusian nun receiving the consecration of virgins|
As European civil society became less organized and more chaotic following the final collapse of the Roman Empire, the practice of consecrating virgins living “in the world,” or outside of monasteries, gradually became less and less frequent until it was functionally obsolete. Still, cloistered women’s monastic life continued to flourish during this time, and it remained the venerable custom of some religious Orders, most notably the Benedictines and Carthusians, to offer the privilege of receiving consecration of virgins to their solemnly professed nuns. This custom was maintained up through the time of the second Vatican Council, and remained in place even after the 1970 revision of the Rite of Consecration re-established the non-monastic Order of Virgins.
So to sum up, since the very beginnings of organized monastic life it has always been possible for a woman to be both a religious and a consecrated virgin, and this remains the case today. In those religious communities which maintain the practice of the consecration of virgins, a nun may receive the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity either at the time of her solemn profession of religious vows or at some point afterwards.
And incidentally, because of the essential compatibility of the two vocations, is also at least theoretically possible for an already-consecrated virgin “living in the world” to discern a later vocation to religious life. In this sense, one helpful parallel for understanding the relationship between the consecration of virgins and religious profession might be the relationship between Holy Orders and religious profession for male religious who are also priests. That is, while religious life and priesthood—like religious life and consecrated virginity—are two distinct vocations, it is possible that one may be called to both.
- A shared spiritual heritage. As women’s religious life continued to grow and develop from the time of the early Middle Ages and on through the centuries, many practices originally associated specifically with the Ordo Virginum were “borrowed” by women religious, even within Orders which did not have a tradition of using the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity. Elements such as bridal imagery in profession ceremonies, the formal reception of the veil, and committing oneself to the evangelical counsels in the presence of the local bishop often remained as customs in women’s religious life in general.
While this borrowing is especially evident in cloistered contemplative Orders, echoes of the consecration of virgins can be found even in many modern, non-cloistered “active” women’s religious communities. For example, many active Sisters receive a “wedding” ring at their final profession. Some active communities invite the local bishop to preside as the main celebrant at their profession Masses, even though the presence of the bishop isn’t strictly necessary since it is the religious superior who receives a Sister’s vows. And of course, the veil which is a part of most Sisters’ habits was originally a sign of consecrated virginity.
- Belonging in the same basic category of “consecrated life.” As a result of Vatican II, the Church saw some developments and clarifications to the theology of consecrated life, particularly in terms of understanding “consecrated life” as an inclusive category. While in the centuries prior to Vatican II the Church tended to use the terms “religious life” and “consecrated life” practically as synonyms, the 1983 revision of the Code of Canon Law acknowledged consecrated life as an umbrella category encompassing a variety of distinct forms. While “religious life” technically speaking was recognized as one specific form among others, the Code also explicitly acknowledged non-monastic consecrated virginity as a form of consecrated life in its own right in canon 604. Other vocations identified in canon law as forms of consecrated life include secular institutes, societies of apostolic life, and diocesan hermits.
While these distinctions highlighted the variety of the different expressions of committed evangelical life in the Church, the acknowledgment of “consecrated life” as an inclusive category also served to underscore the fundamental unity of the various forms of consecration. While there are still some overarching theological and canonical gray areas that have yet to be worked out (e.g., in some contexts the exact nature of secular institute members’ consecration still remains somewhat of an open question), the Church has clarified that consecrated virgins and women religious should be regarded as equally “consecrated.”
- Overlap in theological identity. Consequently, given that consecrated virginity and religious life are both rightly considered forms of consecrated life, the Church’s teachings on the essential theological nature and purpose of consecrated life can be understood as applying to consecrated virgins as well as women religious.
For example, both consecrated virginity and religious life involve a call to live as an “eschatological sign,” or a living anticipation of the kind of life all the faithful in heaven will enjoy. Likewise, both vocations are considered to be charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit for the good of the Church as a whole. And membership in the Ordo Virginum, like religious life, is a fully public state of consecrated life, meaning that consecrated virgins as well as women religious are called to a public evangelical witness.
Now moving on to consider the vocation of consecrated virginity specifically, we can reflect those things which are…
II. Unique elements of consecrated virginity
- The call to be a bride of Christ. Consecrated virginity is most fundamentally a call to a spousal relationship with Christ. That is, the call to live as a bride of Christ is a central and non-negotiable aspect of a vocation to the Order of Virgins, and consecrated virgins are the only ones whom canon law explicitly describes as “mystically betrothed to Christ.”
Of course, as was mentioned above, many women’s religious communities that do not use the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity still have a venerable tradition of employing bridal imagery in their profession ceremonies and broader spiritual life. However, on a canonical level bridal spirituality is more or less optional for religious, in the sense that the incorporation of such spiritual imagery is entirely dependent on the specific charism of a particular community. Therefore, it is entirely possible to be a fervent religious, following Christ in the evangelical counsels, without necessarily understanding this as a specifically nuptial call. While a consecrated virgin by definition is called to relate to Christ as her Spouse, a woman religious might legitimately feel called to see her commitment to Christ in other terms—perhaps such as relating to Christ primarily as a friend, brother, or teacher.
(For a more detailed discussion of this concept, see my earlier post: “Who Can Be Called a Bride of Christ?”)
- A vocation only for women. Consecrated virginity is the only vocation in the Catholic Church which is restricted to women. Just as only men are called to Holy Orders and the priesthood, only women can receive solemn consecration to a life of virginity.
This makes consecrated virginity intrinsically different from religious life as a category. Although individual religious communities are either male or female, religious life in general is open to both men and women. Furthermore, in our current canon law, the laws governing religious communities for the most part apply equally to both male and female communities, which indicates that unlike Holy Orders or consecrated virginity, a vocation to religious life per se is not directly connected to one’s gender.
- A requirement of literal virginity. Consecrated virginity is also unique among the various forms of consecrated life recognized by the Church in that it is the only one to have literal virginity as a prerequisite. A religious vow of chastity is future-oriented in that it is a commitment to live in evangelical chastity from that point forward, regardless of whatever sins have been committed and repented from previously. In contrast to this, a candidate for the Ordo Virginum professes her resolve to continue on in the state of virginity in which she has already been persevering throughout the entire course of her life.
- A “passive” rather than “active” consecration. A woman becomes a consecrated virgin when she receives the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity at the hands of a bishop. It is true that a candidate for consecration makes public promises during the course of the Rite, and that in doing so she actively states her resolve to persevere in a life of virginity and service to the Church. Still, the defining element in the consecration of virgins is not the making of these public promises, but rather the reception of the central consecratory prayer. Technically speaking, the consecration of virgins is a solemn constitutive blessing, which makes a virgin a sacred person through no action of her own—similar to the way in which a Church building is made into a sacred place when it is consecrated.
On the other hand, religious are consecrated through their active profession of religious vows. While there is certainly a “passive” dimension in religious profession insofar as a religious’ vows must be received by the competent authority in the Church, religious can be described as essentially consecrating themselves by means of their promises to God.
As a consequence of this dynamic, it is possible for the Church to dispense a religious from her vows in certain rare cases, because the Church has the power to release members of the faithful from the obligation to fulfill promises they have previously made. But since a consecrated virgin is made consecrated not through her own promises but rather through the solemn constitutive blessing of the Rite, it is not possible for the Church to “un-consecrate” her. Therefore, while the Church might be able to release a consecrated virgin from some of the non-essential obligations of her state, her consecration itself is absolutely permanent.
- A special connection to the local Church. As the Rite of Consecration identifies consecrated virgins as the “spiritual daughters” of the diocesan bishop who are admitted to consecrated under his authority; and given that the Rite also envisions consecrated virgins as those who often “take part in the good works of the diocese”; we can rightly describe consecrated virgins as belonging to their home dioceses in a special way.
While religious undoubtedly contribute a great deal to the dioceses where they are present, a religious’ first and most primary bond is always with her religious Order or community. As a result, an apostolic religious might be sent on mission to any number of places according to the needs of her institute, but a consecrated virgin is free to remain as a more stable presence within a particular local Church. And while a religious is called specifically to those works of the apostolate which harmonize with her community’s charism, whether or not these apostolic words directly relate to the perceived needs of any particular diocese, a consecrated virgin is able to serve the local Church in whatever ways her bishop discerns is most necessary.
- A special affinity with the early Church. As noted above, the Ordo Virginum can trace its origin back to Apostolic times, pre-dating the development of religious life by several centuries. Our earliest reference of consecrated virgins as forming a distinct group within the Church goes back to St. Ignatius of Antioch’s greeting to the “ever-virgins called widows” in the Church at Smyrna written around 100 A.D., and there are references to a specific liturgical ritual for the consecration of virgins in the fourth-century writings of St. Ambrose. Our current text of the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity contains several antiphons traditionally attributed to St. Agnes, and the virgin-martyrs listed in the Roman Canon are generally considered to be members of the Ordo Virginum.
Because of this, the spirituality of consecrated virgins today might rightly be called the spirituality of the early virgin-martyrs. While naturally the virgin-martyr saints can and do inspire the spirituality of many women religious as well, religious primarily share in the charism of their own proper founders who lived in later periods of the Church’s history.
III. Unique elements of religious life
Turning now to religious life, we can note that religious life is different from consecrated virginity in that religious life necessarily involves…
- A call to follow the spirituality of a particular founder or foundress. In our modern understanding of religious life, religious are considered the spiritual sons or daughters of a particular founder or foundress. The Church currently speaks of the founders of religious communities as having been granted the charism—i.e., a special gift of grace from God for the good of the Church as a whole—of a foundational spirituality and unique purpose within the Church. When a religious joins her specific Order or congregation, she is accepting a call to share in the specific charism that was originally rooted in a particular time and place with a particular person or group of persons.
Although I believe we can indeed regard the Ordo Virginum as having a distinctive spirituality of its own, consecrated virginity was not literally “founded“ in the same way as a religious family, but rather developed organically along with the infant Church. Therefore, we might say that a consecrated virgin is called to a more universal or even “generic” vocation than a religious Sister would be.
- The following of a rule and constitutions. Just as religious are called to follow in the footsteps of a particular founder, they also commit to following a particular rule and constitutions (with constitutions being a more concrete interpretation of a Rule’s broader spiritual vision). In fact, the very term “religious” comes from a Latin word meaning “to bind,” as religious freely bind themselves to observe a Rule.
We might think of a Rule as being somewhat like an instruction book for growing in holiness. As a consequence, religious life as a vocation is much more oriented towards the guidance and personal spiritual benefit of the individual religious than membership in the Ordo Virginum would be.
That is, a stated purpose of many religious communities, and an implicit mission of all of them, is to provide actively for the sanctification of their members. While it is certainly to be hoped that the reception of Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity would contribute to a newly-consecrated virgin’s personal holiness, the Ordo Virginum as a state is not fundamentally ordered to the same kind of personal spiritual assistance as religious life according to a Rule would be.
- Community life. Religious life is also, by its very nature, a call to live in community with other religious. Community life for religious is not only the shared vision and purpose that comes about from belonging to an intentional group, but it also includes the day-to-day sharing of a truly common life lived under the same roof. Because of this, religious give a unique witness to the value of fraternal charity.
I do think it’s important to note that consecrated virginity is certainly not anti-community, as consecrated virgins are part of the larger community which is their diocese. Consecrated virgins also can and do form associations, and they are even free even to share residences with other consecrated virgins if they wish. Still, unlike women religious, a consecrated virgin is consecrated as an individual and is not required to observe any form of common life.
- A more radical and explicit call to poverty and obedience. Community life also allows religious to observe the evangelical counsels of poverty and obedience in a much more concrete way than most consecrated virgins are able to do.
While a consecrated virgin is called to live in a spirit of evangelical obedience in terms of accepting the guidance of her bishop, a bishop will not have exactly the same role in her daily life as the community superior of a woman religious. This allows religious to live out the virtue of obedience in a much more intense and immediate way.
Likewise, while a consecrated virgin is called to observe the virtue of evangelical poverty through a simple way of life, consecrated virgins are capable of owning personal property and administering their own financial resources. This is very different the religious vow of poverty, which obligates a woman religious to hold all material goods in common with her Sisters in community, and which therefore for most intents and purposes prevents her from owning anything herself. Sharing all good in common also gives individual religious a level of freedom from material concerns which is meant to foster an interior prayerful serenity, whereas consecrated virgins (like the laity and secular clergy) need to be proactive in all the mundane tasks involved in prudently providing for their own practical needs.
- Separation from the world. Religious life has its roots in the eremitic monasticism of the Desert Fathers, and this heritage rightly influences, to at least a certain extent, all forms of religious life today, from cloistered contemplative life to the most active apostolic communities.
The Church’s earliest monks and nuns “left the world” by retreating to deserted places, which often meant literal deserts. This was for the very pragmatic purpose of freeing themselves from the distractions of day-to-day life in human society for the sake of being free to focus on spiritual things. Yet, this iconic “fuga mundi” also had a more symbolic dimension of renouncing all things for the love of God.
Eventually, literal deserts were replaced by the metaphorical “desert” of the architectural enclosure of a monastery building. With the advent of apostolic women’s communities, various community customs and practices (such as restricted home visits, keeping silence at certain times, carefully selection in media consumption, always leaving the convent with a companion, etc.) came to act as a sort of substitute for the strict cloister observed by nuns. Even today, while many apostolic religious have a great deal of engagement with human society outside of their community, religious are always called to maintain at least a core spirituality of separation from the world.
While I would argue that, in keeping with our vocation to be eschatological signs, consecrated virgins are called to embody a profound sense of detachment from even the good things of this world, virgins consecrated according to canon 604 are not called to the same concrete and radical separation from the world that religious are. This naturally gives consecrated virgins a greater freedom to relate to the ordinary faithful in their diocese, but it also means that they have to contend with many of the same temptations and distractions as anyone else who “lives in the world.”
IV. Why is all this important?
So what should we take away from these distinctions?
First of all, I believe that a failure to appreciate the ways in which religious life is different from consecrated virginity can cause unnecessary spiritual difficulties for women religious. For example, it would be wrong for a nun or Sister who was not a virgin to suffer from a crisis of conscience in this regard, since she should be at peace knowing that God is pleased with her resolve to life in chastity from the moment of her profession forward.
Expecting women’s religious life to fulfill the role of the Order of Virgins also has the potential to hinder women religious from fulfilling their charism in even practical ways. Many examples of this can be found in the history of the Church in the United States, when at certain points women religious were often expected to abandon the work for which they were founded in order to attend to what the local bishop determined as the more pressing needs of the diocese. Often this took the form of, for instance, a teaching community adding nursing to their apostolate; but at times even solemnly-professed cloistered nuns were pressured to abandon their fully contemplative life in order to engage in an active apostolate. While consecrated virgins might legitimately be at a diocesan bishop’s disposal in this regard, the charism of a religious community generally has certain restrictions which cannot be disregarded without putting the very identity of the community at risk.
Similarly, wrongly conflating the two vocations could conceivably lead to the imposition upon consecrated virgins of certain characteristic obligations of religious life (i.e., those obligations to which consecrated virgins are not necessarily called), such as making it a strict requirement for consecrated virgins to live in community or compelling consecrated virgins to adopt the spirituality of a particular religious Order.
But conversely, there is also, in my opinion, a real danger that a less-than-fully informed understanding of the relationship between religious life and the Order of Virgins could lead to consecrated virginity being mistakenly understood as a sort of “watered down” version of religious life. Without an appropriate understanding of the distinctive dignity of consecrated virginity, it can be easy to overlook the lofty goals to which consecrated virgins are indeed called by virtue of their vocation.
To be more specific, confusion regarding the differences between consecrated virginity and religious life can lead to wrongly allowing certain concessions for consecrated virgins—that is, “concessions” which might be perfectly acceptable for religious, but which would cut at the heart of a vocation to the Ordo Virginum. Examples of this could include encouraging struggling consecrated virgins to seek a “dispensation from their vows”; advising non-virgins to discern a vocation to consecrated virginity; suggesting that select private devotional prayers could take the place of some or all of the Liturgy of the Hours for a consecrated virgin; guiding a consecrated virgin to find her primary spiritual “home” within a lay ecclesial movement rather than within her parish and diocese; or de-emphasizing the importance of a nuptial spirituality in a life of consecrated virginity.
But on the other hand, while it is important to understand the ways in which consecrated virginity and religious life are distinct from each other, I would also propose that it’s equally critical to keep in mind the deep affinity that actually does exist between to the two forms of consecrated life. That is, regarding the Order of Virgins and religious life as two entirely unrelated entities can cause us to lose out on a great deal of spiritual richness and theological insight, which could prevent all of us consecrated women from living out our respective vocations to the fullest.
For example, the spousal call of consecrated virgins represents, in at least an analogical way, the goal of total union with Christ towards to which all the observances of religious life are ultimately directed. Even if not every woman religious will personally experience the grace of relating to Christ in explicitly spousal terms, this does not mean that religious should automatically dismiss traditional bridal imagery as outdated sentimentalism. Rather, I would say that refection on religious life’s overlapping history with the Ordo Virginum can provide nourishing food for thought for Sisters in all kinds of communities.
Likewise, while consecrated virginity is much less structured than religious life, it is crucial not to fall into the mistaken assumption that consecrated virgins are therefore somehow not called to devote themselves quite as radically to the Lord as women religious are. We should keep in mind that, when lived properly, the consecration of virgins should require just as much of a complete self-gift as the profession of religious vows. While consecrated virgins (and those responsible for their formation and guidance) should be careful to avoid attempts to fit themselves into the “mold” of religious life, with careful discernment the lives of fervent women religious can still be very instructive to those of us called to consecrated virginity. At a time in history when the restored Ordo Virginum is still very much “finding itself” in terms of practical lived expressions in day-to-day life, we consecrated virgins should not be afraid to look to our Sisters in religious life for inspiration in living out a life informed by the evangelical counsels.