A Primer On Chastity, Virginity, Continence for Catholics Part I

By Therese Ivers, JCL (JCD cand.)

With headlines carrying the shocking news that the Vatican “no longer requires virginity for virgins”, there has been a lot of controversy and angst stirred up amongst the Catholic community, particularly within the Order of Virgins. However, a calm look at the Church’s traditional teaching on virginity, and the practice of admitting certain women to the Order of Virgins should help in sifting through to the truth of the matter.

What has happened recently is that the Holy See has released an Instruction called Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago (Image of the Bridal Church). In it are contained explanations, exhortations, and advice concerning the Order of Virgins. An Instruction is considered to be a document which explains how the law of the Church is to be carried out or interpreted. It is not law itself, nor can it be more restrictive of rights than the law itself. For that reason, if there are conflicting parts between the law and the Instruction, such parts are automatically void by virtue of canon 34.[1]

In Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago is a very controversial paragraph. It is controversial because it introduces a novelty for the practice of consecrating women who are virgins into the Order of Virgins (Ordo Virginum), a group that has existed since the beginning of Christian virginity at the Annunciation. The paragraph, in #88, in the document which does not yet exist in Latin, the Church’s legal language, but which is consistently translated among the major languages in the vernacular reads as follows in English:

As a treasure of inestimable value that God pours into clay vessels (cf. 2?Cor 4:7), this vocation is truly an undeserved gift. It encounters the person in her actual humanity, always in need of redemption and yearning for the full meaning of her existence. It finds its origin and dynamic centre in the grace of God, who unceasingly acts with the tenderness and the strength of his merciful love in the often complex and sometimes contradictory events of human life, helping the person to grasp her uniqueness and the unity of her being, enabling her to make a total gift of self. In this context it should be kept in mind that the call to give witness to the Church’s virginal, spousal and fruitful love for Christ is not reducible to the symbol of physical integrity. Thus to have kept her body in perfect continence or to have practised the virtue of chastity in an exemplary way, while of great importance with regard to the discernment, are not essential prerequisites in the absence of which admittance to consecration is not possible. [Emphasis added.]

Why is the paragraph problematic? It is because while it is true that the Church’s virginal, spousal and fruitful love cannot “be reducible to the symbol of physical integrity”, it does, as a matter of fact require the signification of virginity to be meaningful. However, this traditional criterion for women who desire to belong to the Ordo Virginum [“OV” or “OCV”] is removed by the last sentence which says that “Thus to have kept her body in perfect continence or to have practiced the virtue of chastity in an exemplary way… are not essential prerequisites in the absence of which admittance to the consecration is not possible”. More simply put, after removing the double negative, “The pre-requisite for a body kept in perfect continence is no longer [an] essential [pre-requisite] for admission to the Order of Virgins.  Words have meaning and in this case, the word phrase “kept her body in perfect continence” has specific meaning in the Church.  As Dr. Peters so ably points out in both his short internet post (which cites his lengthy scholarly article in Studia Canonica), it is the denial of lifelong perfect continence as a pre-requisite that is hugely problematic.

The key to understanding the global-wide stir about this passage is extrinsically connected to the Church’s ancient custom of consecrating female virgins as Brides of Christ with a special spiritual anointing. This anointing creates Brides whose own nuptial bond reflects the Church’s own radiant virgin-spousal bond with Christ, the Son of God. Previously, at least “juridic virginity” was required for the reception of this anointing. Now, this document is denying that virginity is an essential requirement for women to receive this special anointing and spousal bond to Christ, which today takes place in a solemn liturgical ritual presided over by a bishop, which is an abrupt departure from 2018 years of tradition in the Catholic Church.

In part II, we shall provide a glossary of words like chastity, virginity, and continence, and explain how they relate to the consecration of virgins. There is too much confusion about virginity and that needs to be cleared up. In this section, however, it is probably a good idea to talk about WHY virginity is valued in the Catholic Church. Virginity is valued because it reflects the virginity of the Most Holy Trinity, the virginity of Christ and the virginity of the Church. [2]

For consecrated virgins, who are “living images” of the Church, the Bride of Christ, and who with the Church share the title “Bride of Christ”, St. Thomas Aquinas has some beautiful passages in his Sententiae:

Every sensible thing the Church uses has a spiritual significance. And since a single corporeal thing fails to represent adequately something spiritual, one spiritual reality may sometimes be represented by several corporeal signs. The spiritual marriage of Christ and the Church is fruitful, for by it the sons of God are given birth; it is pure, for as the Epistle to the Ephesians reads, “Christ also loved the Church, and delivered Himself up for it,… that He might present to Himself, a glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing.”… For which reason, St. Paul writes (II Cor. II:2): “for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.”

Now bodily fruitfulness and virginity or integrity of the flesh are incompatible. Therefore two different signs are needed to represent the spiritual marriage of Christ and His Church, one to image its fruitfulness, the other to reflect its perfect purity or integrity.

Since on earth marriage represents the fruitfulness of the spiritual relationship between Christ and His church, another symbol is needed to typify its integrity. The veiling of virgins accomplishes this in all its words and ceremonies. Because of that fact, only bishops, into whose keeping the Church has been committed, can give virgins the veil, acting as the friend and proxy of the bridegroom. Further, the pure integrity of Christ’s union with the Church is symbolized perfectly by virginal continence but only imperfectly by the continence of widows. Therefore, although they too receive the veil, it is not given to them with the same solemnity.

It should be noticed that the spiritual marriage of Christ and the Church is signified by the virginity of the Church, “symbolized perfectly by virginal continence but only imperfectly by the continence of widows”. This is fully consonant with what the Church says in the Rite of Consecration of Virgins:

God himself is its source. It is he, infinitely pure and holy, who gives the grace of virginity. Those to whom he gives it are seen by the Fathers of the Church as images of the eternal and all-holy God.

When the fullness of time had come, the almighty Father showed, in the mystery of the Incarnation, his love for this great virtue. In the chaste womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Word was made flesh, in a marriage covenant uniting two natures, human and divine.

Our Lord himself taught us the high calling of such a life, consecrated to God and chosen for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven . By his whole life, and especially by his labors, his preaching, and, above all, by his Paschal Mystery, he brought his Church into being. He desired it to be a virgin, a bride, and a mother: a virgin, to keep the faith whole and entire; a bride, to be one with him forever; and a mother, to raise up the family of the Church.

The dignity of being a sacred virgin is to be anointed as a bride of Christ and symbolizing in her very body, the Church herself because her body has been kept in holy virginal continence. Now, if we re-examine the problematic sentence in Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago, we see that according to this document, continence (virginal or widowed) is not essential for admission to the consecration. If that is the case, what possible value does the consecration of virgins have if it is conferred on non-virgins? The physical symbol has been removed and there is now nothing left. This is why this Instruction has produced shockwaves around the globe; the nature of the vocation has been removed, which means that whatever is deemed to be “consecrated virginity” no longer has any theological meaning or purpose if there is no longer an essential pre-requisite to keeping the body in perfect continence. Virginity and continence are inextricably connected with the body when practiced by humans. This shall be seen in Part II.


To be continued.



[1] Can. 34 §1. Instructions clarify the prescripts of laws and elaborate on and determine the methods to be observed in fulfilling them. They are 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. Those who possess executive power legitimately issue such instructions within the limits of their competence.

  • 2. The ordinances of instructions do not derogate from laws. If these ordinances cannot be reconciled with the prescripts of laws, they lack all force.
  • 3. Instructions cease to have force not only by explicit or implicit revocation of the competent authority who issued them or of the superior of that authority but also by the cessation of the law for whose clarification or execution they were given.

[2] Cf. The Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity in the Roman Pontifical, #16; Virginity, by St. Gregory of Nyssa in chapters 1-2.

Therese Ivers is a member of the Order of Virgins, a canon lawyer, and perita on consecrated life by virtue of holding the diploma from the Vatican on the Theology and Law of Consecrated Life.  She is the president of the Society of American Virgins.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.