Since consecrated virginity is such a “new” vocation, one challenge today’s consecrated virgins face is ambiguity with respect to how this ancient vocation can find its best lived expression in the modern world. Because of this vocation’s “newness,” finding helpful reading material, or even just accurate general information, can be a challenge. Articles and books written about consecrated virginity tend to be few and far between, and often the authors of secondary sources express a variety of different opinions.
Because of this, today’s consecrated virgins (and likewise, young women discerning this vocation) generally find themselves needing to “do their own work,” or to study the Church’s primary sources on consecrated virginity. In my own life, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to pursue formal studies in canon law and its supporting theology—having an academic background in the sacred sciences has been a tremendous help in many ways, especially in terms of gaining perspective and an appreciation of the background principles of how the Church’s legal system functions.
While of course it’s not possible to pack a whole degree’s worth of knowledge into a blog post, here are some fundamental points of reference for we as consecrated virgins to keep in mind as we seek to better educate ourselves on how the Church envisions our vocation:
1. Not all writings on consecrated virginity are authoritative.
This first point might be obvious almost to the point of being a tautology, I think it’s still worth saying: when trying to discern how the Church calls consecrated virgins to live out our vocation, the resources which should demand most of our attention are those which come from the Church herself.
Not everything that’s written on consecrated virginity can automatically be counted as directly representing the mind of the Church. For example, there are many writings on consecrated virginity which are merely personal reflections or individual opinions (this very blog being an obvious case in point!) But even more “serious” sources, such as pastoral writings from local diocesan bishops or scholarly articles published in academic journals, often ultimately represent just one person’s point of view.
With regard to academic writing, naturally it is prudent to take learned opinions into account, and it is good to respect the education of those who may better versed in a particular topic than we ourselves are. However, one scholar’s interpretation of the vocation of consecrated virginity or of a particular aspect of this vocation is not the same thing as the Church issuing an official clarification of a disputed question. We may profit from a scholar’s writings on our vocation, or we might find that his or her writing helps us better understand the Church’s teachings, or we could even find that scholar’s arguments so persuasive that we adjust our own opinions or our way of life accordingly. But when a scholar writes about canon law or theology in his or her own name, we cannot take that writing as the definitive last word on a given issue.
Incidentally, this is true even if that scholar happens to have an authoritative role within the Church in other contexts. For example, while a bishop may have the ability to establish proper laws or determine certain concrete policies within his own diocese, this does not mean that an individual bishop can issue an interpretation of the law which is binding on the whole Church. Similarly, even if, for instance, a Cardinal at the Vatican published a canonical commentary or a theological treatise on the Ordo Virginum, his thoughts would not become the equivalent of binding law simply by virtue of the fact that he is a Cardinal. In fact, even if the Cardinal who was head of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life in Rome were to write a paper on the Ordo Virginum, it would only become authoritative if it was published in an official capacity on behalf of the Congregation—but again, not if he were just writing in his own name or on his own behalf.
2. Not all laws are in the Code.
Now that we have considered how not all materials consecrated virginity are authoritative, let’s talk about which ones are.
Often when Catholics think of “the Church’s laws,” the first thing that comes to mind is the 1983 Code of Canon Law. But while the Code is indeed law, and is therefore certainly authoritative, it’s not the be-all and end-all of law in the Church. In fact, the Code itself notes its own limitations in its first few canons. Keeping in mind that there are other sources of law besides the Code, the trick is to know what other sources are “out there” and pertinent to whatever question is at hand.
For example, liturgical laws are binding, but they are not generally covered in the Code of Canon Law. Relating this to consecrated virgins specifically, we can recall that the Code contains only one canon (can. 604) which explicitly addresses the Order of Virgins. But one other significant source of law for consecrated virgins apart from the Code is the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity itself. In addition to the text of the liturgy and notes on how it should be properly celebrated, the Rite also contains a rather extensive praenotanda. The praenotanda—i.e., the instructions at the beginning of the Rite, which are technically liturgical law—actually give us most of what we know definitively regarding the Church’s specific expectations on consecrated virgins’ way of life.
The Holy See can also issue documents that set out additional or more specific norms than what is included in the Code, whether this be a document created by the Holy Father on his own personal initiative (what we call a “motu proprio”) or one written by the appropriate and duly-authorized offices of the Roman Curia. These kind of “extra” legislative documents from Rome can take a variety of forms. For example, “Apostolic Constitutions” stand by themselves in creating universal laws for the Church (a recent example of an Apostolic Constitution is the document Vultum Dei Quaerere, which sets out updated norms for communities of cloistered nuns), while “Instructions” are documents which authoritatively clarify earlier official writings or which spell out additional and more specific rules.
But alluding to my first point, not all documents from Rome automatically serve as literal, actual laws. For instance, at times a document will be issued in order to clarify a disputed point of Catholic doctrine or theology (e.g., Inter Insigniores on the question of women’s ordination, or Humanae Vitae on the issue of artificial contraception). Although such documents are clearly authoritative, they simply articulate the theological foundations of our laws rather than serving as the black-and-white rules themselves. Similarly, some papal documents, such as Apostolic exhortations like Vita Consecrata, are meant to teach, encourage, and inspire the faithful to greater virtue rather than to set out new or additional juridical norms. But even though these non-legislative documents cannot be taken as law per se, often they have significance to our interpretation of the law, insofar as they can provide helpful background insight as to the “mind of the legislator”—or in other words, insight into the Church’s intentions when drafting laws related to those issues addressed by the non-legislative documents in question.
In addition to legislative documents coming from Rome, there is also such a thing as binding “proper law,” or laws specific to a particular local Church or group of people. The statutes of a religious community are a good example of proper law, as they detail the specific rules which bind specifically those members of a particular community rather than all religious in general. As far as consecrated virgins are concerned, it is possible that local bishops could establish proper diocesan laws pertaining the consecrated virgins of his diocese, provided that these proper diocesan laws would not conflict with the universal laws of the Church.
3. The Church’s laws follow theology.
On a more theoretical level, it’s good for us to keep in mind that, unlike secular civil law, canon law is based on the Church’s theology and doctrinal teachings. That is, we should realize that as a general principle the Church’s laws are not arbitrary rules, nor are they solely a set of utilitarian policies based purely on convenience or expediency. Rather, they are practical responses to what the Church understands as objective supernatural realities.
To be sure, there is such a thing as “positive ecclesial law,” or laws that the Church essentially invents in order to ensure the practical good ordering of the Christian community. The concept of positive ecclesial law is particularly evident in the Church’s procedural law (i.e., the laws governing ecclesiastical trials and other processes) and in some of our sacramental disciplines (e.g., the obligation for Catholics to attend Mass on Sunday), although positive ecclesial law can certainly be found in other areas of the law as well. Yet even though positive ecclesial laws can be dispensed occasionally, or changed and updated by the proper authority as is necessary according to contemporary pastoral situations, positive ecclesial laws still aren’t truly arbitrary. Even the least theologically significant law does at least reflect the Church’s teachings in some important way.
But with that being said, the upshot to all this is that it is not the actual verbatim wording of a particular law which somehow determines the objective nature of the theological reality being referenced, but instead it’s the other way around. This principle of “law follows theology” is perhaps most obvious when we are discussing areas in which canon law and morality overlap—that is, we’re presumably all aware that a legal rule prohibiting an immoral act is not that the thing which actually makes the act immoral, but is rather a reflection of the act’s pre-existing, objective nature. Still, this principle is also applicable to matters of theology and doctrine. For instance, canon law often describes the effects of the sacraments, but it would be absurd to suggest that sacramental grace only exists because the 1983 Code of Canon Law mentions it! (Fun fact: there is an actual term for what happens when people lose sight of this principle and “miss the forest for the trees,” or become legalistic to the point of absurdity. It’s called “legal positivism.”)
It especially is important to remember this principle when considering the Order of Virgins, because it is only possible to interpret the few existing laws by considering the rich theological identity that consecrated virginity already has.
As an illustration of this, we can recall that it is a matter of law that only women are eligible to receive the consecration of virgins. Some have argued that this is unfair to men, whom they believe should also have this vocation path open to them, and they have expressed their hope that the Church will re-write the eligibility requirements so as to allow males to become consecrated virgins. What this sort of argument overlooks, however, is that the restriction of the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity to women is not due to some baseless custom or random historical accident which somehow later became enshrined in the law, but rather because on a foundational theological level the call to be a bride of Christ is an intrinsically feminine reality. The question of whether or not men can become consecrated virgins is not a simple matter of the Pope potentially deciding to change the wording of the law, but is instead a question which relates to the essential nature of the Ordo Virginum.
4. The Church’s laws are often (and at times, necessarily) vague.
Similarly, occasionally consecrated virgins might tend to feel frustrated by how vague the laws pertaining to the Ordo Virginum are, insofar as many, if not most, practical concerns are left untreated, and often even the few specific directives that are given are general enough to admit a wide scope of varying interpretations.
Sometimes, this vagueness is the result of a real and problematic “gap” in the Church’s law. The possibility of a gaps or unintentional gray area in the Church’s law is a well-recognized phenomenon, and it even has its own official technical term: a lacuna, or lacunae in the plural. Lacunae come about because the drafters of the law, being merely human, cannot always foresee every question that might be asked or every situation in which a law might be tested. While the Code itself gives us some directives on how to deal with lacunae as they surface (cf. can. 17), in general these kinds gaps in the law are those questions for which the Church is obliged to work towards finding answers.
Often, too, laws are only refined or further specified in response to abuses. For example, the seminary system and the concept of canonical requirements for priestly formation developed relatively late in the Church’s history, arising out of the Council of Trent in the late sixteenth century in response to the many problems occasioned by a lack of necessary education and vocational earnestness that had become chronic among the clergy of the preceding centuries.
But on the other hand, sometimes the Church’s laws are vague out of necessity, and this can be for several reasons. First of all, the Church’s universal laws must be truly universal. That is, they must apply equally to every country around the world today, despite the wildly different pastoral circumstances that can exist across different nations and cultures. Often, it is the local situations and circumstances which determine the practical ways a particular law can be acknowledged or carried out.
For example, although the Code identifies consecrated virgins as women “dedicated to the service of the Church,” the specifics of how this is to be observed in one’s day-to-day life is still technically left to the discretion of the local bishops. Even presuming that we should interpret “dedication to the service of the Church” in a literal way—that is, meaning that consecrated virgins are categorically called to devote the better part of their time and energy to work which directly and explicitly advances the Church’s mission—there are a number of concrete ways in which this can be expressed. Naturally, determining the most fruitful and suitable ways for the consecrated virgins of a given place to devote themselves to serving the Church is going to depend on a number of factors such as: the specific needs of the diocese, the presence or absence of Catholic institutions, the local cultural expectations for women in general and consecrated women in particular, the overall education level and professional ability of candidates aspiring to consecrated virginity, the attitude of the local civil government towards the Catholic Church, and so forth. Because of all these variables, if the Church’s law were to get overly specific, it might wind up inadvertently legislating against viable and appropriate practical arrangements for consecrated virgins’ serving the Church, thus thwarting the very thing it was intended to promote.
Likewise, because consecrated virginity is such a “new” vocation, some practical questions can only be answered through trial-and-error and lived experience. The question of formation programs for aspiring consecrated virgins is a good example. Currently, beyond the very basic prerequisites for candidates stated in the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity, the Church’s universal law doesn’t state any specific official discernment or formation process for those candidates for the Ordo Virginum. While arguably it would be desirable for the Church eventually to develop some more concrete guidelines, I can imagine that a pre-set and overly specific formation program created at the time of the promulgation of the revised Rite might have done more harm than good. That is, in the long there may be some real benefit in a generation of consecrated virgins and bishops having had the opportunity to reflect on their own insights and lived experience with the Ordo Virginum when determining what kind of formation is most helpful and necessary, rather than having a pre-convinced model imposed before the practical nuances of this vocation were fully understood.
The idea that the Church’s laws might at times be intentionally and appropriately vague brings us to our next point, namely that…
5. The Church’s laws presume good faith and common sense.
One way in which the Church’s legal system is markedly different from secular systems of civil law is that the Church’s law, for better or worse, generally favors trusting the good will and common sense of its subjects. For example, the Code presumes that its adherents already know and accept the basic tenets Christian morality, and thus does not take pains to re-legislate the Ten Commandments. Because of this, most grave sins aren’t technically canonical crimes, as the Church trusts the faithful to avoid sin on account of their sincerely held faith and not merely due to a fear of “breaking the law.”
Often times as well, canon law leaves the practical application of generally-stated principles to the good judgement of individuals. For example, clerics are directed to “foster simplicity of life and are to refrain from all things that have a semblance of vanity” (can. 282 §1) and to “refrain completely from all those things which are unbecoming to their state,” (can. 285 §1) even while the Code does not give us any specific, concrete, black-and-white definitions for what exactly constitutes “vanity,” or what qualifies something as “unbecoming to the clerical state.” Of course, the subjective nature of these canons’ wording leaves plenty of potential rhetorical loopholes for a legalistic cleric to justify at least certain components of a de facto worldly or unbecoming lifestyle. Still, the Code does seriously intend that these admonitions are to be observed and taken seriously, for if they were meant as merely pious devotional aspirations, the drafters would not have not have bothered to include them in the first place! Therefore, the law itself can be understood as trusting individual clerics to be both honest and sensible enough to discern for themselves what specific lifestyle choices are or are not appropriate for their vocation in the cultural context in which they serve.
6. The Church’s legal system prefers to exhort rather than demand.
On an overlapping note, another distinctive feature of the Church’s legal system, especially in our most recent Code of Canon Law, is the law’s preference to exhort rather than demand. That is, although the Church’s law is perfectly capable of binding strictly, it would generally prefer to encourage us to works of prayer, asceticism, and pastoral charity rather than mandating such things under direct pain of sin.
There are a couple reasons for this fundamentally exhortative stance. First of all, recalling once more the necessarily universal scope of the Church’s law, exhortations allow the Church to declare what she desires to be normative, while still making an allowance for unusually difficult circumstances where the norm in all its fullness may not be possible to realize. But perhaps more significantly, this also reflects a certain ideological orientation of the magisterium post-Vatican II—namely, a desire to shepherd the faithful to a more mature understanding and lived expression of their faith. By exhorting rather than compelling, the Church arguably gives the faithful more liberty to grow in virtue, insofar as they are permitted to embrace certain ideals of the Christian life more freely and to assume some of their obligations out of a greater sense of personal responsibility and devotion.
These canonical exhortations can take many a few different forms, and might be thought of as running across a scale of earnestness and seriousness. At the low end of the “earnestness” scale would be instances where the law invites the faithful or certain portions of the faithful to that which is praiseworthy, yet truly optional. One example of this would be how the lay faithful are invited to pray the Liturgy of the Hours in canon 1174 §2. This canon in no way obligates the laity to participate in the Divine Office, nor does it suggest that this is something a layperson really ought to be doing in order to be a practicing Catholic. Rather, it is truly an invitation in the plainest sense of the word. The Church is recognizing that laypersons’ praying the Divine Office is a good thing, and she welcomes the laity to participate in this facet of her liturgical life.
A middle case might be those situations in the law where individuals are clearly asked to do something or to refrain from something, but where the law envisions and tolerates certain foreseeable exceptions. For instance, unlike laypeople who are merely invited to participate the Liturgy of the Hours, in the praenotanda of the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity, consecrated virgins are “strongly advised” (vehementer suadetur) to pray the Divine Office. While this phrasing means that consecrated virgins who are genuinely unable to pray the Office for serious reasons (perhaps such as illiteracy, a severe learning disability, or living in a country where Christians were violently persecuted) would not need a formal dispensation to omit the Office, at the same time it also does not portray the Liturgy of the Hours as something which is truly optional for the Ordo Virginum.
On the most serious end of the spectrum are those places in the law wherein individuals are definitely called to fulfill what is identified as a fundamental obligation of their state in life, but without specifying these obligations in a close enough way so as to make them juridically enforceable. Some of the examples listed above illustrating the law’s presumption of common-sense would certainly also apply here. Similarly, there are also places in the law where an obligation is certainly imposed, but without any stated penalties attached to a failure to fulfill that obligation. For instance, clerics are required to observe celibate chastity in “perfect and perpetual continence” (can. 277). While the law does not impose a specific canonical punishment for every kind of priestly sin of unchastity, this does not mean that clergy are any less required to fulfill the promises they made at Ordination.
7. There is such a thing as “moral obligation.”
An important corollary to these last two points is that the Church’s legal system relies heavily on the concept of moral obligation, especially in those areas that relate to carrying out the duties of one’s state in life.
A moral obligation, as distinct from a legal or juridical obligation, is an obligation which one is in justice bound to observe even without said obligation being spelled out in explicitly in the form of a law. A secular textbook example of a moral obligation would be the obligation to return stolen property even after the stature of limitations for prosecuting the theft has passed. In a Catholic worldview, we might think of moral obligations as those responsibilities which, if we fail to fulfill them, would leave us as having committed a sin even if in a very technical sense we were not disobeying the strict letter of the law.
For consecrated virgins specifically, our most central moral obligation might also be the most obvious one—i.e., the obligation to remain in a perpetual state of dedicated virginity. At the time of this writing, reception of the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity is not actually listed in the Code of Canon Law as an impediment to a valid Catholic marriage, despite the fact that both perpetual religious profession and Holy Orders are identified as such. Although it is exceedingly reasonable to suppose that this omission is merely a problematic lacuna (i.e., a gap that should be corrected), clearly, we can also speak of a consecrated virgin being authentically obligated to a life of virginity based just on the theological nature of her commitment, even without having the verbatim words of a canon to back up this assertion.
8. The Church’s laws are not the fullness of Christian life.
Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that the Church’s laws are not meant to be a step-by-step handbook to growing in holiness, but are instead more like guardrails meant to keep us from falling too far off the road. When seeking to live ones’ vocation well and fully—whether that be one’s baptismal vocation as a Christian or a more specific vocation to a particular state in life, such as consecrated virginity—it is not sufficient merely to follow the letter of the law.
Christian life in general demands a certain generosity of spirit, one that doesn’t merely keep score based on how well one fulfills the most basic requirements. This is doubly true for those Christians called to a life of radical observance of the evangelical counsels in consecrated life. Obeying the Church’s laws is an important first step on the road to a fruitful consecrated life, but it is only the first step.