Saturday, September 22, 2018

A First Look at Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago

As probably anyone familiar with this blog already knows, on July 4, 2018 the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life in Rome published a new document on the vocation of consecrated virginity, an Instruction titled: Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago (which roughly translates into English as: “The image of the Church as Bride.”)

Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago (ESI) is by far the longest and more detailed document on the Ordo virginum that the Church has given us since the second Vatican Council. And so obviously, there is a lot to unpack here! I do hope to write on specific facets of ESI in greater detail over the next several months. But to start, here is a basic overview based on my own first thoughts and impressions.

The nature of an Instruction

To start, an “Instruction” is a type of magisterial document which provides clarity on earlier existing laws, especially ones which may have been vague or may have had disputed interpretations. As such, by their very nature Instructions aren’t the sort of document that can change or override laws that already exist. However, as canon 34 in the current Code of Canon Law states, Instructions can also: “clarify the prescripts of laws and elaborate on and determine the methods to be observed in fulfilling them [i.e., the prescripts of laws].” So even while, very strictly speaking, an Instruction doesn’t create new “laws” per se, arguably Instructions can and often do create new obligations, at least insofar as they direct the law to be carried out in a more substantial practical way than was the case previously.

Often Instructions pertain to the law contained in a single source or document, but ESI is somewhat exceptional in that it serves as a commentary on the entire body of existing law on the Order of Virgins, including canon 604 in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity and its praenotanda, and the brief references to the Ordo virginum in various other documents such as Pastor Bonus and Apostolorum Successores.

Instructions are technically “given for the use of those whose duty it is to see that laws are executed and oblige them in the execution of the laws,” (can. 34) rather than for the direct use of those who are to be bound by the laws. So again, very strictly speaking, ESI is most primarily meant for the bishops who are responsible for the guidance and oversight of the consecrated virgins entrusted to their pastoral care. Yet given that ESI not only spells some of the specifics of consecrated virgins’ practical obligations, but also delves deeply into the spirituality and theological nature of this vocation, it’s safe to say that consecrated virgins themselves should be familiar with this document and can profit from a careful reading of it.

Filling in gaps

As has been noted before, in the Church’s body of laws it is possible (if not somewhat inevitable…) to have gaps, or lacunae, in the law. Because the drafters of the law, being merely human, cannot always foresee every question that might be asked or every scenario when a law might be tested, there can be situations in which law is simply silent on a given issue. Although the current Code does give us some guidance on how to deal with such situations as they arise (cf. can. 17), occasionally an additional clarifying magisterial document is needed.

Since the Ordo virginum has been one of the most lacunose topics in the Church’s law today, ESI was clearly meant to take this role. Some lacunae which ESI now fills, or at least takes some serious steps forward in filling, are:

ESI clarifies, in at least a fundamental way, the tone and tenor of a consecrated virgin’s way of life.

Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago envisions consecrated virginity as a life informed by the Evangelical counsels, and as an all-encompassing state in life radically oriented around prayer, service of the Church, and public witness; as opposed to this vocation being akin to something like a purely private vow or membership in a secular Third Order.

For example, ESI 40 tells us that a consecrated virgin should choose her professional career specifically in light of her vocation and her call to service, and ESI 28 indicates that a consecrated virgin’s major life decisions should be co-discerned with her bishop. The Instruction also reaffirms a consecrated virgin’s duty to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, (ESI 34) and directs consecrated virgins to attend daily Mass when they are living in locations where this is possible. (ESI 32)

It is also noteworthy how ESI 27 indicates that, through their propositum of perpetual virginity, consecrated virgins commit to a way of life that encompasses all of the traditionally-formulated Evangelical counsels. That is, while in an extremely black-and-white, literal sense some might regard consecrated virgins as only making a commitment to evangelical chastity via virginity, the Church sees consecrated virgins as being called to some form of evangelical poverty and obedience as well.

ESI establishes some clearer criteria for the discernment of vocations.

For instance, ESI 82 sets a firm lower age limit of eighteen for women to begin formation for consecrated virginity, and names twenty-five years as the usual normal minimum age for receiving the consecration itself. This is significant, since in the past there were questions as to whether the requirement that candidates have sufficient maturity (i.e., as per the praenotanda of the Rite of Consecration: “…that by their age, prudence, and universally approved character they give assurance of perseverance in a life of chastity dedicated to the service of the Church and of their neighbor”) meant that aspiring consecrated virgins should simply have attained the level of personal human development necessary to make a responsible adult life decision, or whether a candidate should actually be relatively advanced in years—as in, being at least thirty-five or forty years old. ESI 82 makes it clear that consecrated virginity is a vocation which young women are invited to discern.

This Instruction also sheds additional light on what is required for candidates in terms of virginal chastity. Previously, it was posited—but not confirmed—that the prerequisite of “never having lived in public or manifest violation of chastity” meant that a woman must not have ever committed serious sins against chastity in the presence of another person. However, ESI 93 clarifies that a life of “public” unchastity should be interpreted as a widely-known habitual state, rather than simply an act committed in the presence of a witness. Likewise, while I believe the document does reiterate, in many places, the expectation that candidates will indeed be literal virgins, ESI 88 clarifies that rape victims and women who have committed sins of unchastity that stopped short of actual intercourse are not automatically prevented from discerning a vocation to the Ordo virginum.

While I know many consecrated virgins, especially perhaps in the Unites States, are disappointed with this more “generous” standard—and even while I myself was more sympathetic to arguments requiring a stricter interpretation of what exactly constitutes “virginity” for the purposes of receiving the consecration—I do think that having this greater clarity is a good thing.*

ESI discusses the importance of formation and gives us an outline of what this should look like.

Prior to ESI, it was at least theoretically possible to argue that no formation should be necessary for consecrated virgins, since this was not mentioned anywhere in the existing law. Even in those places where the importance of having some kind of formation program for aspiring consecrated virgins was acknowledged as common sense, the practical expression of this could vary widely from diocese to diocese. For example, some dioceses might have an aspiring consecrated virgin set a date for her consecration less than a year after her initial request, while other dioceses might have a candidate meet with a structured formation team for many years.

Additionally, the lack of guidance on what formation for consecrated virginity should look like often led to some problematic situations, such as the entirely of formation being entrusted to a confessor or spiritual director (leading to a potential conflict of fora); or a candidate being “in formation” for years on end without a clear timeline, or even without any sense of whether or not her consecration was actually likely to happen.

While there is still a lot of work to do on the local level in terms of creating helpful formation programs for consecrated virgins, ESI 92 - 103 gives us some solid preliminary framework. Specifically, formation is to be carried out in two stages: a preparation period of one or two years when the aspirant focuses on learning more about the Ordo virginum and the dioceses learns more about the aspirant; and ordinarily a two or three-year formation period wherein the candidate is formed in her identity as a future consecrated virgin. ESI 92 - 103 gives us an overview of the content of a good formation program, with ESI 102 emphasizing the need for theological formation.

ESI describes the relationship of a consecrated virgin to her diocese.

I have always thought that it was possible, even based on the limited sources, to discern that consecrated virginity as a state in life has a uniquely diocesan character. Yet even if the overall diocesan “flavor” of the Ordo virginum could in this sense be taken for granted, that still left us with many questions in need of answers. Among other things, we didn’t have a word to describe a consecrated virgin’s connection to her diocese (which led some to argue that there was not in fact any meaningful bond there); and we didn’t have any guidelines for how to handle situations when a consecrated virgin might need to relocate.

Happily, ESI confirms and expounds on the diocesan nature of this vocation in many places throughout the document. In particular, in ESI 51we are given a term for a consecrated virgin’s relationship her diocese, that is: “inscription.” ESI 60 also clarifies that a consecrated virgin may move out of her diocese of consecration, but only for an appropriately serious reason (“…reasonable and proportionate motives”); and ESI 61 tells us that a consecrated virgin may reside in a different diocese without permanently transferring, meaning that she still maintains her bond with the original diocese of her consecration. But ESI 62 also does provide for the possibility of a permeant transfer in which a consecrated virgin is inscribed into a new diocese, and it sets out the conditions under which this may occur and the appropriate process to be followed.

On a related note, ESI 67-68 discusses the possibility of a consecrated virgin joining a secular Third Order or becoming involved with one of the newer ecclesial movements. While a consecrated virgin is free to make use of the spiritual assistance these groups provide, ESI 68 indicates that she must give first priority to her vocation to consecrated virginity. She does so by discerning the extent of her involvement in such groups with her bishop, and by only participating in the group’s activities insofar as those commitments don’t interfere with her obligations within the local diocesan Ordo virginum.

ESI also discusses departures from the Ordo virginum, which is a broader category than one might expect.

As a preliminary note to this, based on the way the terms are used in ESI, it seems that the Ordo virginum and the consecration of virgins per se might be conceived or understood as two slightly different things. That is, the consecration of virgins is the spiritual reality, while the Ordo virginum is the term for consecrated virginity as a juridically-recognized state in life.** Perhaps the closest parallel would be the way in which a man’s sacramental identity as a priest is not always the same as his belonging to the clerical state—i.e., a priest can leave the clerical state and live as a layman while still actually being a priest in a theological sense.

From all appearances, ESI 75 indicates that that the consecration itself is truly permanent (“The grace of consecration in the Ordo virginum defines and shapes the spiritual features of the person in a permanent way”). However, for grave reasons a woman may be dispensed by her bishop from the obligations of the Ordo virginum (cf. ESI 70).  In my reading of ESI, I take this reference to dispensable obligations to mean the concrete external obligations inherent in belonging to the Order of Virgins, such as: the responsibility to be a public witness and present oneself as a consecrated virgin, the commitment to diocesan service or other apostolates, the obligation to pray the Liturgy of the Hours and attend daily Mass, and so forth.  

According to ESI 71-72, a consecrated virgin can also be dismissed from the Ordo virginum, but only for attempting marriage, notoriously defecting from the faith, or for obstinately persevering in “very serious external and imputable crimes or failings against the obligations arising from her consecration.” In order for such a dismissal to be valid, a consecrated virgin would need to be given a chance to defend herself and informed of her right to appeal the decision, and the dismissal would need to be confirmed by the Holy See in order to take effect.***

The question of an already-consecrated virgin potentially discerning a vocation to religious life, to membership in a secular institute, or to membership in a society of apostolic life is also treated under the heading of “departures” in ESI 69. In discerning a new vocation to religious life or to another form of consecrated life, a consecrated virgin would need to prayerfully discern this matter in conversation with both her bishop and the superior of the institute in question. Her bishop would then transmit her request to the Holy See in Rome, with the Holy See arranging the specifics on a case-by-case basis.

Interestingly, ESI speaks of a consecrated virgin’s potential “transfer” to an institute of consecrated life, whereas previous commentators reasonably presumed a consecrated virgin would need to enter an institute in the normal way through the novitiate. It is also interesting that a consecrated virgin can only join a secular institute by leaving the Ordo virginum (even while a 1971 response from the Congregation for Divine Worship in the publication Notitiae allowed secular institute members to receive the consecration of virgins),**** as this brings a new perspective to discussions of exactly how compatible the two vocations of consecrated virginity and secular institute membership really are.

Going forward

So what do we make of ESI overall? Speaking for myself, although of course ESI isn’t absolutely perfect—and it would be unrealistic to expect any document of this nature to be—I think ESI as a whole is a very good thing for the Ordo virginum in the Church today. Besides the not-insignificant fact that the clarifications on disputed questions are helpful on a practical level, in my mind the greatest benefit of this document is how it communicates the idea that a call to consecrated virginity is a “real vocation” that’s worth taking seriously.

I think all too often in the past, consecrated virginity has tended to be regarded as either a vocational “last resort,” as a kind of pious hobby, as a purely personal commitment with no real pertinence to the wider Church, or (perhaps more benignly, but no less inaccurately) as a modified form of religious life designed to be less demanding. But with ESI’s focus on the necessity of substantial formation, along with its directives regarding the importance of a real commitment to prayer, service, and the Evangelical counsels, ESI makes it clear that a call to the Ordo virginum is meant to be—even in the concrete details of a consecrated virgin’s day-to-day lifestyle—just as much a radical offering of one’s whole self as a call to religious life or priesthood should be.

Undoubtedly, ESI leaves us with many salutary challenges. Of course, dioceses are challenged to flesh out the directives of ESI in the practical ways that will best fit the circumstances of the local Church, which I imagine will be somewhat of an ongoing journey of learning and discernment for all involved.

But for those of us who are already consecrated virgins, I think ESI presents more of a personal challenge. That is, we are now called to consider how well we’re living up to the newly-articulated high standards of our vocation to the Ordo virginum. The might sound a bit stern, but I see this as a beautiful season of growth for all of us. 

In short, it’s an exciting time to be a consecrated virgin!


* I do plan on commenting on the controversy surrounding ESI 88 at greater length in a later post. In the meantime, here is an article with an interview I gave to Catholic News Agency on this issue:

** I had always assumed that the Ordo virginum properly referred to any woman who had received the consecration of virgins, including cloistered nuns who received the consecration as part of the long-standing tradition of their Order. However, ESI seems to use the term “Ordo virginum” to refer specifically to consecrated virgins “living in the world.” I’m not sure if this was an intentional change or a new further specification; or if, alternately, it might have been somewhat of an oversight due to our lack of a more extensive terminology.

*** While some of my canonist colleagues have noted that the rules for dismissal are extremely minimal, I actually see this as a huge step forward that a we have a process in the first place—before ESI, there was some thought that a bishop could dismiss a consecrated virgin at any time for any reason totally at his own discretion!

**** I have not seen a copy of this 1971 response, but Sr. Sharon Holland refers to it in her 2002 article “Consecrated Virgins for Today’s Church.” UPDATE 9/24/2018 – Many thanks to reader Gloria ExGana for sharing a link to a digital copy of the issue of Notitiae where this question is addressed: ; and also to reader Bernadette Chen for sharing a link to an English translation of this response: