7 Thoughts on Clerical Obedience

By Mother Therese Ivers, JCL, JCD (Cand.), DHS, OCV

It is my belief that knowing about possible pitfalls in living out the different vocations is important for vocational discernment or accompaniment.  Although all vocations require some form of obedience, how obedience is to be exercised will differ by vocation.  E.g. A husband cannot command his wife to do something that is not befitting her status as an adult woman, a wife; he cannot demand that she only wear green-colored clothes, trivializing her dignity as an equal partner, and overstepping the boundaries of spousal authority.  He can command a child to wear only green-colored clothes because the child is under his parental authority.  Diocesan deacons and priests are to practice “clerical obedience”, which is not as encompassing as say, obedience in religious life or “religious obedience”.  I thought I’d list 7 thoughts that might not be crystal clear to those unfamiliar with our theology and law regarding clerical obedience for secular clerics under a diocesan bishop.

Obedience Implied by the Divinely Instituted Hierarchy

The cleric is ordained “unto ministry”, and that ministry is determined by the hierarch in charge, namely, the bishop.  The deacon or priest is called to be a “collaborator” of the bishop, a collaboration that is implicit in the divinely established hierarchy, and explicitly promised by the cleric upon ordination.  Put differently, clerical obedience is not merely an “organizational” way of divvying up duties for the care of the flock, it is part of the very sacrament of orders because orders itself is hierarchical in nature:

Just like that of Christ, the priest’s obedience expresses total and joyful readiness to do God’s will. This is why the priest recognizes that this Will also becomes evident in the indications of legitimate superiors. Readiness towards the latter in this regard is to be understood as true enactment of personal liberty, a consequence of a choice ceaselessly matured before God in prayer. The virtue of obedience, intrinsically requested by the sacrament and the hierarchical structure of the Church, is explicitly promised by the cleric, first in the rite of ordination to the diaconate, and then in the rite of ordination to the priesthood. With this promise the priest strengthens his will in communion, thereby entering into the dynamics of the obedience of Christ, who became obedient Servant unto death on the Cross (cf. Phi 2:7-8).[1]

Clerical obedience is the key ingredient that allows the hierarchy to function and it leads to holiness:  “Priests who perform their duties sincerely and indefatigably in the Spirit of Christ arrive at holiness by this very fact.”[2]  The Church’s entrustment of “ministry” to the cleric is not to give a man his own private “fiefdom”, but to use his ministry to further her mission under the guidance of the bishop as his subordinate collaborator.  It is the bishop’s ministry that the priest or deacon furthers and fosters in the manner determined by the bishop who is himself subject to the authority of the pope. 

2. Obedience of Mind and Heart

One facet of clerical obedience is that as part of the divine economy of salvation, its importance is akin to, yet greater than, military obedience.  In the military, disobeying a “direct order” even in a matter that would be deemed trivial for a civilian, can lead to court martial.  For clergy, disobedience disrupts the communion of the one heart and mind meant to exist between the bishop and his clergy, a unity that calls for the subordinate cleric’s “convergence” and “consonance” with the bishop’s programs:

Filial union with his own Bishop is also an indispensable condition for the efficacy of the priestly ministry. For pastors with more experience it is easy to note the need to … adhere in a co-responsible manner to pastoral programs. Besides being an expression of maturity, this adhesion, which entails proceeding in unison with the mind of the Bishop, contributes to the edification of that unity in communion which is indispensable for the work of evangelization. With full respect for hierarchical subordination, the priest will promote a genuine relationship with his Bishop characterized by sincere trustfulness, cordial friendship, prayer for his person and intentions, and a true effort of consonance and convergence in ideals and programs, which takes nothing away from intelligent capacity for personal initiative and pastoral resourcefulness.[3]

This may not necessarily be easy but it is essential to a flourishing local Church.

3. The Oblation of Self: Obedience

The cleric has been ordained “unto ministry” meaning that he has given his life to the service of the Church, and it is the bishop who determines how he shall serve the Church concretely in ministry.  Celibate clerics have agreed to dedicate their working lives to “ministry” as it is assigned to them by their bishop, and in turn are supported by tithes.  At times, the Pope or the appropriate department of the Holy See representing him, can give special “missions” to individual priests or religious that go outside the normal parameters, but this is highly unusual, and it would generally be decreed in writing.  Whether serving in his own diocese or whether he is “on loan” elsewhere at the service of the universal Church, the cleric finds holiness in the fulfillment of his duties as a cleric. 

He owes obedience to his bishop in all that pertains to sacred ministry.  Just as a married person has given over the right to acts proper to the generation of children to his/her spouse and no longer has that power [control] over his/her body in that dimension, so too, a celibate cleric has given over his life unto ministry as assigned by his legitimate superior.  The obedience he owes is not amorphous and it entails self-sacrifice, sometimes great sacrifice:  “conformation of the priest to Christ takes place not only through his evangelizing, sacramental and pastoral endeavors. It also transpires in self-oblation and expiation, that is to say in accepting with love the sufferings and sacrifices proper to the priestly ministry.”[4]  Christ’s obedience was “unto death, death on a Cross.”  The cleric’s “sacrifice of obedience” might be in faithfully discharging the duties pertaining to the assignment to a parish as insignificant and “hopeless” as Ars, France.  It might take the form of someone who has taught on the university level being assigned to the spiritual care of those in a nursing home.  It might be martyrdom to preserve the seal of confession or being laicized because of a false accusation.

The virtue of clerical obedience can be severely tested when the bishop gives a cleric an assignment that goes against his personal inclinations.  The cleric should always be cultivating the attitude of “holy indifference,” which means that he is not unduly attaching himself to any particular assignment or ministry given to him or voluntarily undertaken with the permission of the bishop: he undertakes his assignment with fervor because this is God’s desire, not for his own sake or self-aggrandizement but for Christ’s people.  The wise cleric is humble and realizes that the most important work he does in the divine economy of salvation is his willing obedience to his bishop’s legitimate commands.  The humble priest spending an hour in unconditionally obedient ministry might be more helpful to souls than a lifetime marked by constant contention with clerical assignments:

In this sense each priest receives a formation that permits him to serve the universal Church and not only become specialized in a single place or a particular task. This “formation for the universal Church” means being ready to face and deal with the most disparate of circumstances with constant readiness to serve the Church at large in an unconditional manner.[5]

4. God’s Will and Private Vows for the Cleric

Many glibly canonize their feelings or desires or ambitions as being “inspired” or “God’s will.”  While much can be said about the topic of God’s will, it will suffice for our purpose here to note that God’s “formal will” requires that an individual fulfill the obligations imposed not only by baptism, but also the additional ones inherent to the individual’s vocation.  There can be no divinely given “inspiration” that goes against these obligations and to act against them while obliged to do so is outright disobedience to God’s will.

Let’s take the example of a cleric who believes that God is calling him to “completely dedicate himself” to the welfare and relief of the holy souls and makes a vow to that effect.  When a vow is made by a cleric, it cannot go against the scope and breadth of the clerical obedience promised at ordination.  In the Catholic Church, the bishop has the authority to dispense, commute, or even annul private vows made by his clerics.  A public vow is made to God and received “in the name of the Church” by “legitimate authority.”  In praxis and in law, the only public vows made are usually in the context of consecrated life forms in which is made profession of the evangelical counsels before the person authorized by law to receive the vows in the name of the Church.  A private vow is a vow made that is not received “in the name of the Church” by “legitimate authority” and remains “private” even if it is televised, made in front of a bishop, pope, or large crowd.  It is the lack of reception of the vow in the name of the Church by the “legitimate authority” that makes it private.  The Church does not authorize anyone [other than the Pope] to receive vows in Her name that are not already governed in law.  At this time, the only vows and promises that are “public” are tied to the sacraments and consecrated life.

To be valid, a vow must be for the “good” and it cannot go against the obligations of one’s state in life.  Because a cleric has given up his life unto “ministry”, he has effectively handed over the right to his time, effort, energy, and intention to the Church which mediates Her rights in this matter through the bishop.  A cleric receives and is obliged to obey the bishop’s lawful orders regarding clerical ministry.  A private vow, therefore, that goes against the bishop’s lawful directives is either annulled or suspended for as long as the bishop’s assignments stand.  Moralists even state that because the obligation of obedience is perpetual, a bishop could theoretically permit a cleric to make a private vow to do a good thing, but he or his successor can always negate or suspend the cleric’s private vow by giving him a different assignment.  The assignment does not have to be objectively better in itself, it is subjectively better for the cleric to fulfill it because it pertains to the obedience owed by the hierarchical nature of holy orders and his promise(s) of obedience.  Put differently, a cleric cannot object that the apparent “good” promised by his private vow is “better” than whatever “good” is assigned by his bishop and therefore it would be “bad” to do the apparently “lesser good”.  There is no wrong in doing the good even if it is not the “best” or “highest”.  But doing an objectively “higher” good in disobedience to a lawful directive (meaning something that falls under the scope of the authority of the bishop) is always objectively wrong.

A spirit of activism can endanger a cleric’s personal salvation and render his ministry less fruitful.  Activism takes place when the cleric puts his emphasis on “work” and little on sacramental ministry and cultivating his own interior life.  It fails to recognize the power of the grace of God and instead relies on the human metrics for success: the number of baptisms, successful fundraisers for this or that cause, the latest round of volunteers that signed up for the parish renovation committee, etc.  This activism is most evident when the work becomes more important than the prayer that should undergird it, such as when religious communities are founded primarily to supply cheap, exploited labor in an apostolate and denying its members the tools and time for growth in virtue and prayer because the work takes precedence.  There is the age-old story of a pastor who delivered a moving homily and he was proud of his efforts in giving it; to another person, though, it was revealed by God that a prayer of a lay saint was the primary reason for the conversion of heart experienced by the congregants during that homily.

The power of prayer and conformity to God’s will, so often given lip service but denied in praxis by clerics, is that which allows the performance of the slightest duty done with love of God and neighbor, to bear great fruit.  A pastor with a devotion to relieving the sufferings of the holy souls in purgatory does not have to spend all day in the cemetery praying for them or in the pulpit preaching constantly on purgatory.  He can offer his obedience in attending his clerical retreat for their benefit.  He may fervently hear confessions or offer up the midnight rush to a hospital for an anointing for their relief.  He may offer the sacrifice of his will in ministry to God.  The time he spends exercising or in appropriate recreation can likewise be dedicated for the Church suffering. 

This is not rocket science, but it is difficult for the laity and clergy imbued with masculine values and with a secular outlook to truly grasp the significance of the cleric imitating Christ in His total conformity to God’s will in holy obedience.  The external appearances can be so very deceptive: a man “wasting his talents” in an assignment given by the bishop or its corollary of a cleric apparently “successful” in an assignment or privately undertaken apostolate that is done without fervor or concomitant interior life; the object of envy from fellow clergy for a post that is in truth far from glamorous but done with the love of God… God’s metrics are not ours.  It is the bishop’s duty to assess the needs of the local Church, giving assignments to his collaborators in ministry and it is the clerics’ duty to carry out the assigned ministry out of love for souls by faithful obedience.  This is how God’s will is accomplished in the life of a cleric.

5. Three Things Bishops Can Demand

  • Fidelity to Faith.  A bishop can take a heretic to task.  This should go without saying, but it bears repeating now and then.
  • Upright living.  The diocesan bishop has the authority to insist that any immoral behavior engaged upon by a cleric be corrected.
  • Conformity to canon law and all things pertaining to ministry.  The bishop has the authority to determine precisely how a cleric is to engage in ministry within the confines of law.  It is he who determines what the cleric is assigned to do, and whether it is on a full-time or part-time basis.  Any ministry that is voluntary on the part of the cleric is also subject to the bishop’s review and permission.

6. Three Things Bishops Cannot Demand

Even bishops are limited in what they can require under clerical obedience.  There are matters that do not fall under their authority such as things that do not pertain to faith, morals, or “ministry”.  We shall divide our examples into three categories of secular affairs, certain matters pertaining to physical health, and certain things pertaining to mental or spiritual health.

  • Secular Affairs.  A bishop cannot force a cleric to make a will in favor of himself or his diocese under the guise of “obedience.”  He cannot insist on a certain color, make, and model of the car a cleric purchases with his salary.  The diocesan bishop does not have the authority to force his priests to vote in a particular manner or intercept his mail.
  • Physical Health.  A bishop cannot require a cleric to undergo “extraordinary medical procedures.”   He can demand – generally, not in the particulars – that level of self-care required by the cleric’s office(s).  He does not have the right to the medical records of a cleric – but he can demand proof of physical fitness to serve in ministry. 
  • Mental/Spiritual Health.  A cleric may not be forced to have a spiritual director.  He cannot be forced to seek counseling or disclose his mental health records.  The cleric cannot be made to take an oath of truthfulness in a trial (therefore, there can be no perjury), nor to testify against himself.  Mental health and spiritual direction cannot be “weaponized”, used as a way to govern in the external forum based upon internal forum knowledge.  A cleric should never, ever agree to undergo counseling or, worse, release confidential records without consulting a canonist with regard to his rights in the matter and how to best mitigate potential damage should he freely choose to have counseling and/or release its content [e.g. the wording of a release can be extremely important with regard to limiting the number of recipients and duration of how long a report can be stored.]  Freely choose, in this case, means that the cleric is fully informed of the pros and cons of the action in addition to being free from undue pressure, which is usually not the case.

7. Disobedience is Not Equal

Disobedience to legitimate authority can have the equivalent of court martial for clerics.  The most serious form of disobedience is schism. “[S]chism is the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.”[6] But other forms of disobedience can be serious as well, whether because they touch upon the liturgy directly, pertain to matters of faith and morals, or because they gravely disrupt the divinely ordained hierarchical relationship between cleric and bishop.  Punishment, therefore, for clerical disobedience will depend on the kind of disobedience and can be as severe as laicization or excommunication.

The question naturally arises as to whether disobedience can ever be called for in the life of a cleric. We all know the concept of “civil disobedience” in America. It is an act done in protest to that which is deemed either “immoral” or “unjust” or because “the greater good” demands it.  In the USA, we have a strong tradition of standing for the rule of law, and there is sufficient leisure for people to devote to eradicating injustice and the pursuit of their rights.  It should come as no surprise that clerical obedience does have its limits, but what those limits are may surprise the faithful who have not spent years in clerical formation.

As we have already mentioned, clerics cannot be ordered to go against the faith or morals and they must obey matters of discipline unless they are waived by legitimate authority.  Further, they cannot be ordered to do things that do not substantially pertain to ministry that are not already regulated by law.  Examples of things that go beyond the bishop’s authority to command include the model and color of the cleric’s vehicle, who inherits under the terms of a cleric’s will, and how time off is to be spent.  A cleric could give due consideration to a bishop’s request or viewpoint in these matters, but would not be obliged to follow them, even if couched in the language of an order, because it goes outside the scope of a bishop’s authority.  His not following a command under these conditions would not be disobedience because it does not pertain to what was promised by the cleric.

The level of obligation for something demanded by obedience will depend on the matter itself.  Is it of divine law?  Divine positive law?  Natural law?  Positive ecclesial law?  Civil law?  The cleric is to be a model of obedience just as the Son of God was the model for obedience.  That being said, there is an aspect about clerical obedience that does not appear to be appreciated by lay persons, namely, its tie to the divinely instituted hierarchy.  An unmarried lay person has the right to do all kinds of good things and freely choose what will be done, how, and with whom.  Married persons enjoy many freedoms as well, but this is curtailed by their duties to spouse and children.  Clerics, although they are ordained unto sacred service, are generally not free to choose the good things that they are to do with their time.

The lack of freedom for a cleric in determining how the bulk of his time will be spent can be puzzling to laypersons because they have more latitude in how they spend their time.  An unmarried layperson, duties permitting, can choose to spend eight hours a day at the cemetery praying for the holy souls.  A military chaplain cannot.  The unmarried layperson can choose to dedicate his life to a particular apostolate.  The cleric cannot.  The cleric’s time is simply not his own when it comes to ministry.  He is bound to his diocese, and to work for the good of his diocese.  In working for the good of his diocese – unless “loaned out” by his bishop, he works for the good of the universal Church.  This hierarchical system of assignments is not merely a human administrative issue, it is backed by divine law and the will of God.  This is what he signed up to do.

Thus, it should come as no surprise to those who understand this truth that while a layperson can put into his calculations for his choice of how to spend his own time factors such as whether he is attracted to the apostolate, whether he is treated well by his colleagues/supervisors, whether his talent is suitable for the apostolate, etc., this is not how clerical ministry works.  A cleric cannot put his own individual desires or “inspirations” or preferences ahead of his bishop’s commands.  He cannot base his decision on whether to obey on what he speculates to be the “true” reason for the command.  If what is commanded falls under the scope of the bishop’s authority, he is bound to obey. 

What some of the laity fail to realize is that not only is there a danger of the “clericalization of the laity” in the Church, there is also a danger of the “laicization of the clergy”.  This means that the cleric encroaches on the role of the laity, instead of remaining in his own proper sphere.  For example, it belongs to the laity to sanctify the world through activity with politics that goes beyond voting.  Former president of Paraguay, Senator Fernando Lugo, made the headlines when he wanted to devote his life to lay profane (non-sacred) activity (as a politician), not sacred ministry.  He was a bishop who was laicized because he put lay activism before clerical oblation.  

Put differently, Lugo essentially said “non serviam” and chose to reject the sacred in favor of work in the realm of the profane.  Obviously, he did so because he saw “good” that could be done as a politician. Humans generally make decisions based on perceived good.  He rebelled against his duty as a cleric.  This called for a drastic response: his reduction by the Holy See to the lay state.  Just as serious disobedience can be punished in the military with the death penalty or life imprisonment, so too, serious disobedience against the divinely instituted structure of command may be punished by excommunication and/or laicization.  Why?  Because persistent insubordination to the will of God by a cleric pursuing a good, no matter how noble has no place in the clerical ranks.  It can lead not only to scandal but can potentially undermine the faith of other clergy who may choose to reject their divine vocation thusly.  The formal will of God always demands obedience of the cleric no matter how tempting and how rewarding other enticing work or “apostolates” may be.

While we are on the topic of laicization, let’s talk about what we typically call “laicization” which is a punishment or favor for an ordained man who is legally put back into the canonical “lay state” by the Holy See.  When an ordained man is placed back into the lay state by the Holy See, obedience requires that he forfeit all trappings of the clerical state even if he remains invisibly but truly ordained.  Thus, he no longer has the right to active and passive voice among the diocesan clergy.  He no longer can be called “Deacon” or “Father”.  He may no longer wear clerical garb.  Likewise, the faithful have the obligation of obedience to the Holy See in such a matter and not accord the man the respect due a cleric: they are not to call the cleric by his former title, agitate for disobedience against the decree of laicization, etc.  E.g. Mr. Fernando Lugo is addressed by his civil titles as a senator, not as a bishop of the Catholic Church.  Violence against his person is not punished ecclesiastically and cannot be considered a sacrilege because he no longer has clerical standing, notwithstanding his sacramental seal of orders.

In summary, clerical obedience is not fully understood by most people, but I hope that these reflections help in understanding this essential aspect of the vocation to orders. 

[1] Directory, pg. 77.

[2] Presbytorum ordinis, Ch. 3, Section I, n. 13.

[3] Directory, pp. 46-47.

[4] Directory, pg. 22.

[5] Directory, pg. 27.

[6] Canon 751.

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New Rule Beneficial for Associations of the Faithful “In Itinere”

by Mother Therese Ivers, JCL, JCD(Cand), DHS, OCV

Today’s new rule coming from Pope Francis stating that diocesan bishops must have written authorization from the Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life should they desire to create an Association of the Faithful that aims to eventually become an institute of consecrated life or society of apostolic life is long overdue. With this new role undertaken by the Holy See, it is to be hoped that more scrutiny will be given to the content of statutes for these associations based on the theology of consecrated life. With bishops creating public associations of the faithful at times in a questionable way – e.g. creating an “association” of just one individual – it very appropriate for the Vatican with actual experience and knowledge of consecrated life to provide better oversight in the matter. If we are lucky, the internal guidelines for giving written approval to bishops might include criteria for the written approval of the dicastery that would require certain minimal standards to be met by the aspiring association, thus ensuring a greater probability of the proposed institute’s success and growth.

One thing I hope to see – and maybe it will find its way into the internal guidelines – is a requirement that an association of the faithful be required to publicly and prominently display its status in its online presence so that prospective candidates know that they are not joining an institute of consecrated life, a risk that they might not fully understand if they are being recruited to a “religious community” that isn’t actually religious.

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What the Church Means by “Public” for Vocations

by Mother Therese Ivers, JCD(Cand), JCL, OCV, DHS

This was originally intended to be called “When Vows are Not What They Seem”, but I have decided to make that observation at the end of this new article.

He was a fellow student at my university, his habit swirling about as he walked the long corridor.  One day, as we were talking, I discovered that he was a quasi-refuge in the sense that there was an implicit understanding he would never return home.  Why was that?  Because in his home country, where his religious community had to be wary of informants, he was secretly ordained in a room set up as an office.  His community had already ordained the maximum number of priests permitted by the government and this was a clandestine ordination.  Only a bishop and another cleric or two were present.

Although my friend and classmate was “secretly” or “privately” ordained, he entered the very public state of the priesthood.  The only reason his ordination was not “public” in view of all the faithful was because of ongoing persecution.  But yet it was still a “public” occasion despite it taking place in an administration office.  If this is confusing, it is because the Church has very particular uses of the word “public” when it comes to the liturgy and vocations.  These meanings are not immediately evident to laity, and so it is high time to make this public!

Public Ceremony vs. Private Ceremony

My secretly ordained priest-friend was ordained in a public liturgy… that wasn’t open to the public due to dire circumstances.  Liturgies, by their nature, are public.  Outside of specific and unusual circumstances, (e.g. the ordination of a bishop or other such special Mass where “tickets” are usually issued), the liturgy celebrated in parishes and the cathedrals are public, open to the faithful.  This is why you’ll see some cathedrals, otherwise only accessible for touring by means of admission fees, open during Mass times or the Liturgy of the Hours, free of charge to the faithful who attend, and tourists are either barred or admonished not to disturb the proceedings.

Outside the liturgy, most Catholic ceremonies are “private”.  For example, a May crowning of Our Lady is a private devotional act.  Likewise, the Stations of the Cross are a private prayer, even if thousands of people attend it.  To protect the faithful from inappropriate or unsound private prayers or devotions, only prayers and devotions that have been approved by the bishop may be done in a Catholic Church.  Even if prayers are said in a Church, if they are not liturgical, celebrated in an integral liturgical act, they are private in nature.  So, a rosary said in a parish church with a hundred people is still a private prayer.  The gospel of the day, if read at the conclusion of the rosary and not in Mass, is a private act.

Now, over the years, the Church has increasingly shifted certain public acts (we will discuss that shortly) from a private setting to a liturgical setting.  The most obvious case is that of marriage.  For centuries, the sacrament of marriage was conferred by the spouses upon each other in their homes or suitable locations for such a momentous event.  As time went on, more and more fiancees opted to be married in Church immediately before Mass and then to attend Mass.  This was not mandatory.  A wedding could still take place anywhere.  However, a problem cropped up in which people with greater access to mobility (think nobles, merchants, and others with means), could go from one town to another picking up women and “marrying them”, without the others knowing it.  Hence, the Council of Trent stepped in and made it a rule that notices of marriage, the “banns”, needed to be published, and that the couples had to celebrate their marriage in front of a priest and two witnesses, and that this marriage would be recorded in baptismal records of the parties so that they couldn’t pick up additional “spouses”.  This was in the sixteenth century.  

Once the sacrament of marriage had to be conferred by the spouses in front of a priest and two witnesses to be valid, the location of weddings shifted to churches and sometimes rectories.  But it must be noted that marriage is always inherently a “public act”, regardless of where it is celebrated, and irrespective of how many people actually attend to see it happen.  Eventually, after the Vatican Council II, the sacrament of marriage was permitted and encouraged to be done in the context of Mass.  It is not an absolute requirement: a couple can get married outside of Mass, but that is not a topic for today.  The point is that while marriage can and generally is conferred by the spouses in the context of Mass, what makes the ceremony public is not the Mass, (although the Mass is public), but the fact that marriage is a public act.

Another ceremony that was a “public” act but done in private settings that has been moved to be normally celebrated in the context of Mass is the profession of religious men and women.  Again, up until Vatican II, professions were not always done in the context of a Mass: many religious Orders did theirs privately, in the chapter-room (meeting room) of their convent.  E.g. Therese of Lisieux had her solemn profession in the chapter room, surrounded only by nuns.  Dominicans and others also made perpetual profession in-house.  On the other hand, there were a plethora of homebrewed “liturgies” for perpetual profession that were created by religious communities given that there was no official liturgy for it.  Sometimes the profession of vows took place before Mass like with weddings.  Other times, religious made their vows right before Communion with the host being elevated.  There were a lot of different practices.  Following Vatican II, a specific liturgy template was created in the Roman RItual for the profession ceremony of male and female religious in the context of Mass.  It is not mandatory for use, as religious still have the option to do professions in-house, but most religious have adopted it and slightly adapted it with the flavor of their own institute.

It is one thing for a public ceremony to take place in a public manner, often in the context of the liturgy or taking place inside a church.  However, there are, as has already been said, “private” ceremonies, prayers, and devotions that may be done “publicly”.  This is important to understand.  Prayers, devotions, and other ceremonies are legally private when they are not liturgical even if they take place in a crowd or within a Church building.  While the Church regulates these “private” acts, it does not give them “public” standing.  

As far as vocations go, the closest “imitation” of a vocation event there is, with regard to a “private” act that is not “public” in standing, is the private vow(s) a person might make of the evangelical counsels.  There are other private events or acts that might take publicly or in a Church, such as the Stations of the Cross that are public only in the sense that they are done with people, but private in the sense that these are not public worship.

To recap, a public ceremony is always “public” in the eyes of the Church and her laws by its very nature.  However, whether a crowd attends is an entirely different matter, and will depend on circumstances.  A private ceremony or prayer is always “private” even if done in the midst of a crowd or broadcasted on TV, and this can include things like the Stations of the Cross.

Private Vows vs. Public Vows

Anybody, with sufficient knowledge, deliberation, and ability to carry it out, can make a promise or vow to God to do something for the greater good, including making promises of chastity (obedience and poverty are not usually made by individuals not banded together).  Such a vow or promise when made directly to God and outside the context of either an institute of consecrated life (religious institute or secular institute) or as a diocesan hermit in the hands of a bishop, are by their very nature “private”.  This means while the person making the vow is obliged by the virtue of religion to fulfill his/her promise to God, the Church sees this as a private arrangement between the individual and God.  As a private arrangement, the Church’s oversight over it is largely confined to the “internal forum” in confession and spiritual direction.  However, appropriate authorities do have the power to commute or dispense such vows and how this is done and the parameters is covered by canon law.

Another form of private vow, usually not widely understood, are the vows made by people in groups that want to be an institute of consecrated life, or who belong to a society of apostolic life.  While these vows usually “imitate” the public vows made by members of religious institutes or secular institutes, they are not public.  Even if there is a crowd and the persons making them wear a habit, these vows are still “private” because the people making them do not belong to an institute of consecrated life.  What is an institute of consecrated life?  There are two types.  One is a religious institute of diocesan or pontifical right, and the other is a secular institute of diocesan or pontifical right.  What is common to institutes of consecrated life is that their vows are “public” and members don’t merely “make” vows, they “profess” vows.  Groups that “hope” to be a religious or secular institute do not “profess” vows: they make private vows.  Again, these private vows can be made in the midst of a crowd and in front of bishops. 

Let’s illustrate this concept with a community well known to American Catholics: The Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.  This community was started in 1997 when they were established as an association of the faithful (a group of the faithful who want to be an institute of consecrated life).  These women made private vows until 2013, 16 years after they started.  From 1997 to 2013, these women were laywomen in every sense of the word: they were not religious.  They were laywomen, some of whom were in private vows.  Yes, the private vow ceremony looked like the vow ceremonies of religious, but they were legally “private”.  They did not make the people who made these vows “religious”: the women, dressed in habits, were laywomen with private vows.  Only in 2013, when the community became an “institute of consecrated life”, that is, in their case, a “religious institute”, were the women allowed to “profess vows” and become “religious sisters”.  

If this is not confusing, it should be noted that it is not making vows in a habit.  It is not making vows in a group.  It is not making vows in front of a bishop or even in the hands of a bishop that makes a vow public.  All vows are legally “private” governed by the rules that govern private vows in canon law, unless they are made in an institute of consecrated life or at the profession of a diocesan hermit in accordance with canon 603 in the hands of the hermit’s bishop.

What are “public vows”?  Public vows are divided into two categories.  One is the “public vow” of religious.  The other is the “public vow” of other consecrated people who belong to secular institutes or who are diocesan hermits according to canon 603.  Sometimes this second kind of public vow (although recognized by canon 1192) of secular institutes is called a “semi-public vow” because it is not intended to be a part of the “public” witness that religious give to the Church as in “visible” witness.  Religious are publicly known to have public vows and their habit is a visible sign of this public witness to the people of God that they are individuals with a visible (public) mission in the Church and who are bound by the vows to the observance of the evangelical counsels.  For religious, the “public” nature of their vows is not merely confined to the fact that they are “public” in law, or “publicly” made in front of people, but that people have the right to know that these people are bound by these vows and are visible reminders of the Heaven all should strive to attain.

Although the nature of the vows of members of secular institutes are “public” because they have been professed in the hands of a legitimate superior who accepted it in the name of the Church, they are not intended to be “visible” in every day life.  This means that secular institute members do not wear habits (they are forbidden to do so) and their vocation, unlike that of religious, is not intended to be “in your face” visible with the faithful always being aware of the fact that they have professed the evangelical counsels.  In other words, the person in the pew with ordinary clothes who is unmarried might be, unknown to you, a member of a secular institute.  He/she has no obligation to make it known to you or anyone else that he/she is a professed secular institute member.  Why?  Because “visibility” is not demanded of this vocation, while it is an essential component (“separation from the world”) for religious.

There is another division of public vows (see canon 1192) that has less meaning today than it did previously: the “simple vow” and the “solemn vow”.  There are differences between the two types of public vows, and now is not the time to get into this.  Generally speaking, for a woman religious having solemn vows, it means that she is a cloistered nun, as only Orders (not congregations) were allowed to have solemn vows.  So if a woman has “solemn vows”, it means she is a nun, she is cloistered.

Private State vs. Public State

There are three basic states in the Church:  Clerical, Lay, and Consecrated.  These states are juridic, or legal.  That is why when we say that a priest is “laicized”, we mean that he has left the “clerical state” and put back into the “lay state” but he continues to have holy orders on his soul even if he is only treated like a layperson.  Not all consecrated people are in the consecrated state but all who are in the consecrated state are not in the lay state ( as distinguished from the clerical and consecrated states not in the hierarchical clerical/non-clerical sense of “lay”).  And to add to the confusion, being in a “public state” does not necessarily refer to those “juridic states”.

So, let’s talk about being in a private state.  An unmarried, non-ordained person is generally in a “private” state of life.  This person can have private vows of the evangelical counsels, but since the vows are “private”, he/she remains in the lay juridic state.  Having private vows does not place a person in a true ecclesial vocation (more on this later when my dissertation is published).  However, it does place the person in a private state of dedication with obligations binding in conscience.

Vocations change a person’s state of life, but not necessarily the juridic state of life.  A person’s state of life is changed by Holy Orders, Marriage, Profession as a Religious, Profession as a Secular Institute Member, Profession as a Diocesan Hermit or Consecration as a Virgin. A person’s juridic state is changed by only these vocations: Holy Orders, Profession as a Religious, Profession of a Diocesan Hermit and Consecration as a Virgin.  Married people and members of secular institutes remain lay or clerical as the case may be: marriage and profession as a member of a secular institute does not change a person’s juridic state of life.

These distinctions are important because they help put context into the status of these lesser known groups: members of secular institutes, diocesan hermits, consecrated virgins, and privately vowed individuals.

Secular Institutes:  Public vows ( or sacred bonds) but not publicly visible in day to day life as people with the vows.  Members remain in the Public state of laity or clergy respectively.

Privately vowed individuals (and members of groups who are not institutes of consecrated life):  Private vows.  Members are fully in the lay state or clerical state respectively.  They are not consecrated, they do not “profess vows”, but they can “make vows” even if group members (with permission) wear habits or go through vow ceremonies that imitate consecrated life.

Consecrated Virgins: Public consecration, public juridic consecrated state, but “visibility” as a member of the consecrated state is not required.  Members of the Order of Virgins may belong to secular institutes, or cloistered religious institutes or not belong to any group.  Consecrated virgins are not in the “lay state” (they are only “lay” hierarchically as in being non-ordained, but not lay vocationally, any more than a cloistered monk.)

Diocesan Hermits:  Public profession, public juridic consecrated state and “visibility” of profession is generally undertaken (a habit is a sign of “separation from the world”.  Diocesan hermits are not in the “lay state” (they are only “lay” hierarchically as in being non-ordained, but not lay vocationally, any more than a cloistered monk.)

When Vows Are Not What They Seem

It is time to analyze some highly irregular situations that have occurred over the last year in different places around the globe to figure out the actual status of certain people who have shared their “ceremonies” publicly in social media or are otherwise featured on diocesan/parish websites.

The Hermit Who Aped Hermit Profession

It is not fitting to use the liturgy to convince people of a false status in the Church.  In the case of one woman, she fixed up a costume that resembles a habit, and with the assistance of a priest, said vows in the middle of a livestreamed Mass, got her clothes blessed by said priest, and goes around calling herself a hermit.  This situation is problematic because the priest does not have permission to allow a person to interrupt a Mass to witness vows, or bless habits, as if he has been authorized by the Church to witness private vows.  The woman is every bit as lay as the unordained married man with ten children, and if she solicits funds as a hermit, such actions are fraudulent unless the people know she is not recognized as a hermit by the Church and is no more consecrated than her donors.

The Hermit Who Made a “Vow” of “Simplicity” in Front of a Priest

A hermit whose profession was approved by a diocesan bishop made vows before a priest of chastity, obedience and simplicity.  This profession ceremony, livestreamed on TV, was invalid and did not constitute the person as a hermit.  A diocesan hermit must make the profession in the hands of the bishop (or his delegate) and the vow of obedience is not amorphous: for validity it must be made to obey the bishop and his successors and the rule of life.  The vow of poverty cannot be substituted with an amorphous vow of “simplicity”.  The canon is specific about the vows being about the “counsels”, which do not include “simplicity”.  This person is not a diocesan hermit or a consecrated person until/unless making a proper profession with valid vow formulae.

The Strange Case of the Woman Who Claims to be a CV but Whose Certificate Says she Made Solemn Vows

There is a highly irregular situation in which a woman who claims to be a consecrated virgin but whose certificate says otherwise.  The certificate in question states that this particular woman pronounced her “solemn vows as a consecrated virgin” in the presence of a named priest.  Then it says that the “vows were renewed and confirmed … in the presence of” her named bishop.  

The problem with this particular situation is that the alleged consecrated virgin has not furnished any evidence that this was anything other than a private dedication ceremony in which she piously decided to remain single for the rest of her life.  Red flags include the fact that she is not a nun; therefore she did not make “solemn vows”.  That a certificate states that the woman made “solemn vows” betrays a level of ignorance as to the nature of both vows and the consecration of virgins that would render any alleged vows and consecration invalid by reason of ignorance.  A vow cannot be validly made without the ability to make it (does the person understand the duties it entails; a vow of chastity goes way beyond abstaining from genital activity); due circumspection, which means that the person must not only understand what the vow is (there is a reason religious spend at least one or two years in training and classes before making temporary vows and as much as nine years prior to making final vows: vows are serious business and you need to know what you are committing yourself to), but also understand how it impacts their life in very practical ways and theological import; etc.  One very basic thing that any well formed person ought to know is the difference between a solemn vow, a simple vow, and a private vow, and a public vow.  If such a person cannot articulate this, it is unlikely that their vow is valid.  Not only must there be sufficient knowledge to validly make a vow, the vow-er must be able to fulfill it.  That is rather impossible if no formation is given on it.

The second troubling aspect of this alleged consecrated virgin case is that the woman in question purportedly made the “vows” in the “presence of” her pastor and later her bishop.  In no case is a private vow ever anything but private.  Whether the vow is made in front of a priest, an auditorium, in a hot air balloon, in the desert, or in front of a bishop or pope, if it is private, it remains private and made merely “in the presence of”.  Yes, it can be witnessed by the seagulls or a crowd in a church or by even a bishop, but witnessing is not the same thing as “receiving”.  The language of this woman’s certificate plainly indicates that whatever promises, vows, or spiritual declarations of love made by her (we don’t know exactly what was done), this was strictly private and personal between her and God.

The consecration of virgins, by its very nature, is not strictly private and personal between the virgin and God.  The virgin doesn’t make herself a consecrated virgin by saying some kind of private vow or even emitting solemn vows as a nun.  She “receives” the consecration from the bishop.  Not a priest.  A bishop.  A bishop does not “witness” the virgin making a private or fake “solemn” vow, he actively confers the consecration upon her.  Thus, by the certificate’s own words, whatever this woman is, she is certainly not certified as being a consecrated virgin.

It goes without saying that just as a vow has certain elements for it to be valid, so too does the consecration of virgins.  Among other things, it requires the plain, unequivocal knowledge of what it is (like the basic understanding that it is not a “solemn vow”), the ability to live it out, virginity to receive it, and most importantly, the knowledge of, and ability to fulfill the obligations that it imposes on its recipient.  As a public representative of the Church (in ecclesiae sponsae imago), the virgin assumes new and important responsibilities in the Church.  She has a duty to prayer, assiduous penance, and to service of the Church.  Her status is public.  The faithful may hold her accountable.  This is part and parcel of being in public state of consecration.  She has a new reality: she is a Bride of Christ, Mother of Souls.  As one sainted consecrated virgin publicly stated: “I am Christ’s mother!”  (An Arch-heretic may have been triggered by that to launch his own special brand of heresy against Mary; more on this some other time.)

That’s is part of what is required on the virgin’s part for validity of consecration.  There are other elements needed too.  The prayer of consecration (the liturgy) must be done correctly.  A made-up prayer does not suffice.  There is no indication that the liturgical prayer of consecration was recited by the bishop upon this woman without any changes to the prayer.  In fact, the certificate hints of the very real possibility that this prayer was not said: it implies that the bishop merely witnessed this woman who had already made some kind of private commitment or vow before her pastor was renewing this private commitment in front of himself, and that he probably just said some pious prayer as an encouragement for her self-dedication.  

But even if the prayer of consecration of virgins was actually said by the bishop over the woman, there is another element required: the intention of the minister.  For a valid consecration, the bishop must intend to consecrate the virgin with all that is implied in a genuine consecration.  He has to realize that it is not a “blessing’ or “recognition” of the woman’s private vow(s).  He has to intend to use the prayer and constitute the woman a consecrated virgin, placing her automatically in a public state.  He has to intend that she be bound by the obligations and rights of her new state in life.  He has to intend that she is actually a consecrated virgin.  Again, the wording of the certificate and an email sent to her later does not instill confidence that he had any such intention.  The certificate is a huge red flag.  But the email is even more of a red flag.  Part by part it states:

“You consecrated your virginity to God in his church and in the presence of witnesses.”

Notice that it is not the bishop consecrating the woman.  He is specifically stating the woman is dedicating her virginity to God in front of people.  That is completely different.

“You are not living that vocation in a public manner as some CVs do for a role within the Church.”

Here, the bishop is clearly stating that he woman who is living “virginity” that she dedicated to God herself is not living her call to virginity in a “public manner” for a “role within the Church”.  Let’s review what the genuine consecration of virgins does: it establishes the virgin in the role and title and position of Bride of Christ, mother of souls, dedicated to the service of the Church.  What is the bishop saying?  She does NOT have a role (that one) in the Church.  I think that is fairly clear.  A bishop cannot consecrate a virgin and erase her public role: by its very nature the virgin is always in a public role (even if not visible).  

If this is not already evident, the next sentence states:

“Your consecration was privately celebrated and will be privately carried out, but it is no less sacred or special to God.”

The bishop acknowledges that the woman’s self dedication was ‘privately celebrated” and will be “privately carried out” and he consoles her with the thought that it is “no less sacred or special to God”.  Again, for validity, a genuine consecration must be known by the recipient for what it is and does.  That means that even if an ordination is done in an office space, the man receiving it knows that it places him in a public position and that he is a priest of God.  If a bishop has to explain to someone that something is “no less sacred or special to God”, it implies that the person in question did not understand that a consecration by its very nature is sacred, special to God.  In fact, given the context here, the bishop’s words actually point to what is more likely the case: it is quite possible that he is reassuring this woman that her private commitment to remain a virgin is as “special” in the eyes of God as the genuine consecration of virgins given to approved candidates.  

A bishop has no authority to demand or insist that a virgin’s consecration be “privately carried out” if it is the genuine consecration of virgins found in the Roman Pontifical and validly conferred upon the virgin.  By is very nature the consecration of virgins is public (even if celebrated in a closet) .  By its very nature, anything the woman does is as a representative of the Church.  There is no such thing as it being “privately carried out”.  What a real consecrated virgin does is done in full image of the Church.  I remember the case of another woman who actually did receive the genuine consecration of virgins, whose bishop insisted that she get permission from him if she wanted to be in a public position like that of a politician: this was an invalid restriction because he had no authority to restrict her from a perfectly legitimate path.  Put differently, if a bishop does not trust a woman to conduct herself as an exemplary Catholic in her words and actions, he has no business consecrating her.  If the bishop is foolish enough to consecrate a woman who is not formed with at least a few years of actual formation in the basics of philosophy, theology, theology of vows, Christology, ascetical and  moral theology, liturgy, and the like, then he should expect to reap the consequences.  The woman must be capable of living an edifying life, one that isn’t merely “pious” but one that exemplifies the “state of perfection”.  Most women do not have the generosity and formation needed for the transition, and thereby do not actually qualify for the consecration of virgins.

Given all of the above, it is highly unlikely that the woman in question validly received the consecration of virgins.  There are too many unanswered serious problems with that situation and the above merely form some of the legitimate questions surrounding it.

Priest “Hermits”

Canon 603 is sometimes abused and invalidly used to deal with immigration or personality conflict or pastoral style issues. Sometimes there are men who are ordained, and their ordination was a highly imprudent mistake made by the bishop, often done for the sake of augmenting numbers, who are simply unsuitable for any ministry with the people. Bishops wrongly make such men “diocesan hermits” without reference to whether there is a divine call for such men to be a hermit. Sometimes this is just a “label” slapped on a priest who happens to live alone. In one case that I am thinking of, the alleged priest hermit has shown no evidence that he actually made any profession of the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in the hands of his bishop. Thus, whatever he is, it isn’t a diocesan hermit unless he did in fact profess the vows in the hands of his bishop on a perpetual basis. In other cases, there is a question of immigration fraud when a convent of nuns wants to get a “chaplain” and the only way of doing it is to claim the man is a “religious” when in fact it is just a label stuck on someone who merely expects to do ministry solely with the convent and live alone. A priest is not a hermit until and unless he perpetually professes the vows in the hands of his bishop in accordance with a time-tested (usually years) vetted, and approved rule of life.

When a Bishop’s Word is Definitive and When it is NOT

Now, there are some who take a priest’s or bishop’s words indiscriminately, without actually paying attention to what is objectively said and done vs. what is alleged to be said and done.  As a result of things done willy-nilly, and usually as a result of problems and questions arising from concrete historical situations, canon law gradually expanded to give definitive norms on many things, including how vows are made and dispensed, what people belong to associations vs. institutes of consecrated life, etc. These establish objective criteria to evaluate the validity and/or liceity of concrete actions and their legal consequences.  This means that there are a lot of things that can be evaluated independently of what any individual priest or bishop might say.

E.g. A bishop might have presided at the vow ceremony in a Mass of the Dominicans of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist between 1997 and 2013.  He might have called the women “religious”.  He might have informally or even at Mass called the making of vows a “profession of vows”.  But the women in question were not religious, were not consecrated women, and did not profess vows.  Why?  Because in law, the Church recognized the group as an “association of the faithful”.  That meant that any vows made were private vows.  Even though the women wore a habit, they were not religious.  They were lay women in private vows wearing a habit, and hoping to become consecrated women eventually.  So, just because a bishop “says” something doesn’t always mean that what he says is real.  On the other hand, it was a bishop who made the Dominicans of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist a “religious institute of diocesan right”.  He had to do this legally in the legal format required by canon law after consulting the Holy See.  If he had not followed the legal procedures, the Dominican sisters would have remained laywomen and an association of the faithful.  But once the group became, through his authorization, a religious institute, the women were able to profess vows, become consecrated women, and were truly “religious”.  

Why is this important?  Because a person or place might “look” like a religious or a hermit or a consecrated virgin, but just because a priest or bishop says that they are doesn’t always mean that is the case.  And the same can be true of erroneous statements that priests and bishops can make about people in real vocations.  For example, many consecrated virgins are called “privately vowed” persons by ignorant priests and bishops.  Secular institutes might be ridiculed as not consecrated persons by others.  But in fact, members of secular institutes are every bit as consecrated as the consecrated virgins and religious and diocesan hermits.  The purpose of canon law is to make things more clear and to help people get to heaven doing what is needed in their state of life with their respective duties.  

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Secular Institutes and “Sacred Secularity”

by Mother Therese Ivers, JCD (Cand), JCL, OCV, DHS

This is a continuation of yesterday’s post in which I respond to Sr. Laurel’s fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the vocations to religious life and to sacred virginity.

Sr. Laurel claims that the Rite of Consecration of Virgins is the Church’s way of celebrating so-called “sacred secularity”, making it possible for secular people to be espoused to Christ. She says that the revised Rite of Consecration of Virgins was constructed to allow women who live in the world to be regarded as a Bride of Christ just as much as religious. However, there is a very serious flaw in her argument.

The Church constructed a vocation to what she terms “sacred secularity” in 1947: the secular institute. The purpose of this vocation was to fully profess the evangelical counsels in the state of perfection but in a completely secular context. Of great importance is the fact that the profession of secular institute members can be identical, word for word, for the profession of religious, simply by substituting secular institute for “religious community” and “secular institute member” for “religious”.
In other words, Sr. Laurel’s argument rests on the idea that religious are Brides of Christ. The Rite of Religious Profession says so. Therefore, we need a new Rite to tell people that people called to “sacred secularity” can also be Brides of Christ, which is why the Rite of Consecration of Virgins was created.

There are many problems with this argument, but some I will raise in my dissertation as it pertains to my “new scientific contribution to the juridic science” of canon law. A dissertation is meant to give a substantially fresh angle on something, and that is why I can’t give all the reasons I hold my position in public just yet. But there are reasons one can figure out from the very vocations and rituals out there.

Sr. Laurel neglects to consider that secular institutes were approved in 1947, a full 22 years prior to the issuance of the Rite of Religious Profession and a full 23 years prior to the promulgation of the Rite of Consecration of Virgins. The secularity that is demanded of members of secular institutes (whether they are lay or clerics), which she labels “sacred secularity”, was already present in the Church. The perpetual profession of the evangelical counsels of secular institute members can look identical to perpetual profession of religious.

Indeed, once the Rite of Religious Profession was promulgated, many secular institutes (and hermits, incidentally) used an adapted form of the Rite for their own professions. In case this is not clear, let’s spell out the significance of this fact. According to Sr. Laurel, it is the Rite of Religious Profession that spells out that a religious is a Bride of Christ. What she does not acknowledge is that many secular institutes use that Rite of Religious Profession for their perpetual profession ritual! And according to Sr. Laurel, it is the Rite of Religious Profession that makes the woman vow-ee a Bride of Christ. Thus, one must logically conclude that if secular institutes are using the Rite of Religious Profession, that “sacred secularity” and the possibility of woman in the world being Bride of Christ is already in the Church without the Rite of Consecration of Virgins.

Let’s repeat. Sr. Laurel sees the Rite of Consecration of Virgins as necessary to show the world that a woman can be a Bride of Christ in a “sacred secularity” and the Church needed the Rite of Consecration of Virgins to “prove” this. But, truly secular people (members of secular institutes) don’t need the Rite of Consecration of Virgins to “prove” that people can be a Bride of Christ in her meaning of the term, because they use the Rite of Religious Profession!

Put differently, the Rite of Consecration of Virgins was never intended to be about making a secular vocation (if it were, then why can religious receive the consecration of virgins?), because secular institutes were recognized in 1947, long before the Rite of Consecration of Virgins added secular women to the pool of eligible women to receive the consecration of virgins in 1970.

Now, let’s move on with another thing Sr. Laurel is undoubtedly unfamiliar with, namely, the fact that members of secular institutes, who actually live “sacred secularity”, can receive the consecration of virgins. Yes, that’s right! So, why would a sacred secular person receive a consecration that in the words of Sr. Laurel, place a person into a “sacred secularity”?

Just as a religious fully professed according to the Rite of Religious Profession can receive the solemn consecration of virgins (if she is eligible), so too, can a member of a secular institute, fully professed according to the Rite of Religious Profession (she can be professed with a different ritual, but I’m making a point here) receive the solemn consecration of virgins (if she is eligible). Thus, the notion that sacred virginity is tied to secularity is absurd. Secularity does not pertain to the definition of the vocation of sacred virginity.

Now one of the reasons why Sr. Laurel harps on the idea of “secularity” for consecrated virgins is that she prooftexts the liturgical part about virgins “are apostles in the Church and in the world, in the things of the Spirit and in the things of the world” to indicate that only women immersed and inserted into the “world” are called to this vocation. This is problematic because the homily from which this is taken is the same and sole homily for both religious nuns who receive the consecration of virgins and women who do not belong to a religious institute. Thus, one must acknowledge that religious can be in their own manner, “apostles in the Church and in the world, in the things of the Spirit and in the things of the world”. You cannot argue that this is not meant for religious, because it is the identical homily given to religious who are consecrated as virgins. Is the solemnly professed monastic nun who listens to this part about being an apostle magically called to “sacred secularity” when she becomes a Bride of Christ through the consecration of virgins? Of course not! Because that is not the point of the consecration of virgins!

That a “sacred secular”, that is, a member of a secular institute can use the Rite of Religious Profession and become a Bride of Christ through the Rite of Consecration of Virgins in the same way a cloistered nun can should trigger deeper reflection on the part of those who want to claim that the consecration of virgins is essentially about “sacred secularity”.

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The Vocation of Consecrated Virgins: Not “Sacred Secularity”

Two consecrated virgin saints: One living in the world and the other a nun.

by Mother Therese Ivers, JCD(cand), JCL, OCV, DHS

Sr. Laurel O’Neal of Stillsong Hermitage has brought up a theory of the vocation of sacred virginity in a recent blog post that I thought I would mention briefly. Briefly, because I am engaged in writing my dissertation on the vocation of sacred virginity. Specifically, I am writing on what it means to be a Bride of Christ, and the significance of that for both virgins in the world and virgins who are also nuns who receive the consecration of virgins concurrently or after their perpetual profession of vows.

Sr. Laurel appears to believe that “sacred secularity” is somehow the key to the vocation to sacred virginity. However, this is not the case. The Rite of Consecration of Virgins does not make a distinction between women in the world in its homily, consecration prayer, or anything else, except for a few things specific to mixing (or separating as traditionally done) the rite of religious profession with the rite of consecration of virgins. The intention remains the same: to create a spouse of the Lord Jesus Christ by the working of the Holy Spirit by the ministry of the bishop upon the virgin, irrespective as to whether she is a woman who does not belong to an institute of consecrated life or if she belongs to a secular institute or to a religious institute that is cloistered.

The fact that the consecration of virgins may be given to secular virgins, virgins who belong to secular institutes, and virgins who belong to religious institutes should give the attentive reader a clue as to the nature of the consecration of virgins. Whatever it is, it cannot, by its very nature, be “secular”. Nor, can it, by its very nature, be “religious”, or “separated from the world”. The reason is that if the vocation itself is defined as secular or as separated from the world, the consecration cannot be given to virgins who belong to the other group. A secular vocation cannot mix with a religious vocation, and vice versa.

This is elementary logic, and yet it is often ignored because in their delight in seeing women who do not belong to a religious institute being once more permitted to receive the consecration of virgins, authors and bloggers have alike focused a great deal of attention on the fact that virgins “living in the world” can receive the consecration once more after a hiatus of about 900 years. However, they singularly fail to work through the major inconsistencies of their theology of consecrated life when they cannot reconcile their narrative and vision about the vocation of consecrated virginity with the reality of nuns receiving the consecration of virgins as they have done even to this day and stretching back to the very beginning of female monasticism.

If religious nuns are brides of Christ per se (by the nature of their vocation) then what is the point of them receiving the consecration of virgins as perpetually professed nuns? Further, the rite of consecration of virgins itself would be lying as it has always explicitly claimed that the virgin was created a spouse of Christ in that ritual. It should be noted that the Roman Pontifical of 1595, 1962, and 1970 all make this claim, and all were designed to consecrate eligible nuns and in the words of the 1970 Rite (different but still explicit words to that effect made in the 1595 and 1962 rites), the virgin is “elevated to the dignity of Bride of Christ”. Mind you, this is said to the perpetually professed nuns who receive the consecration of virgins today, and its equivalent was said to perpetually professed nuns who received it from 1595 to 1970 (the older versions also mention bridehood, but I am not going to go into a liturgical history lesson here).

A nun cannot belong to a vocation that is secular by nature. This is why a person cannot simultaneously belong to a secular institute and a religious institute because one is secular and the other is “separated from the world”. If a sacred virgin is in a vocation – and she is – then it stands to reason that the same consecration that elevates her as a Bride of Christ, joined by the Holy Spirit in an “indissoluble bond” (again this is explicit in the Rite of Consecration of Virgins), puts her in a unique vocation that is neither secular nor separated from the world by its very nature. In other words, the consecration of virgins does what the Rite says it does: it makes her into a Bride of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As being a Bride of Christ is its own vocation in its own right, then it stands to reason that the religious vocation is radically different than the virginal one by its very nature.

Thus, it stands to reason that religious life, secular institutes, and hermits can belong to the order of virgins and their own vocation simultaneously because the vocation to sacred virginity is essentially different than the vocation to a life primarily centered on the profession of the evangelical counsels, but compatible with it. Interestingly enough, the vocations of holy orders are also compatible to a life primarily centered on the profession of the evangelical counsels, but are essentially different from it.

I strongly cautioned Sr. Laurel to read my upcoming dissertation on consecrated virgins in our Facebook exchange she reported in her blog, and I renew this caution. Sacred virginity as a vocation, cannot be secular by nature, which is essentially what she is claiming. I think she will have to do some more reflection on what the vocation could be (the Rite of Consecration of Virgins in all of its chapters might prove illuminating, particularly in the Latin version), but to give the very simplified answer, the sacred virgin is a Bride of Christ, created a Bride when she received the consecration as a laywoman or as a nun. Not my words or idea, but the Rite itself explicitly states this and makes no exceptions for nuns as if it magically produced something different for them.

Sr. Laurel is a friend. We do not see eye to eye on everything, and that is okay. But, when it comes to my own vocation, I know I have the advantage of having done an enormous amount of research on my vocation. I am even the editor of a liturgical commentary written as a dissertation at San Anselmo on the rite of consecration of virgins, its development, and even contrasts the profession of religious. That commentary is over 1,000 pages long, and is extremely good, and I hope it can be published soon. Sr. Laurel says she respects the vocation of consecrated virginity, but objectively, she does not if she thinks that religious are essentially brides of Christ the same way with the same bond as sacred virgins. I don’t think she’ll really understand this, though, until she reads my dissertation, which is still in draft form as I polish it up for submission.

[Note: O’Neal was previously misspelled and is now corrected.]

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