It seems that there is always a lot of confusion regarding private vows. Private vows are any vows that are not public vows or semi-public vows. What is the difference, you may ask? It is very simple. Public and semi-public vows are accepted by the competent Church authority and are necessary for consecration. Private vows are all other vows.
Who make public and semi-public vows? Very simple. If a person makes vows in a religious institute, a secular institute, personal prelature, or as a diocesan hermit in the hands of their bishop, they are in public or semi-public vows and they are considered consecrated persons!
Who makes private vows? This is also very simple. Anyone who is not a member of a religious/secular institute, personal prelature, or not a diocesan hermit who decides to make vows of any kind is in private vows! This includes people who are in associations of the faithful hoping to receive approval as consecrated life institutes, Regnum Christi men and women, and members of all other lay movements and clerical movements.
Let’s review the requirements for public or semi-public vows. First, a public or semi-public vow must be accepted by the competent authority. Who is the competent authority? Bishops- only insofar as they are superiors of diocesan hermits and institutes of consecrated life of diocesan right, religious superiors, secular institute leaders, and personal prelature superiors. Confessors, bishops who are not admitting a person to diocesan eremitical life or to vows in an institute of diocesan right, and pastors, and all other clergy are NOT competent authorities when it comes to accepting vows!!! In other words, a competent authority has been described by the Church as:
1) The diocesan bishop for diocesan/canonical hermits, diocesan right religious communities and diocesan right secular institutes. Any other ceremony involving vows is done by the bishop as a witness and not as a lawful superior. Therefore, anything that a diocesan bishop witnesses or blesses outside of these limited circumstances is automatically considered private even if done in the cathedral in front of a million viewers.
2) The superior of a religious institute, personal prelature, or a secular institute for members of the institute! They are the competent authority designated by the Church to receive vows in the name of the Church.
3) No one else! All others are merely witnesses and cannot receive vows in the name of the Church. This includes Cardinals, Archbishops, Bishops, Abbots, Confessors, Spiritual Directors, and others!!!
When a person makes public or semi-public vows that are accepted by the competent authority (persons authorized by the Church to accept vows in Her name and only within certain Church approved structures), they receive a true consecration from God mediated by the Church and they become consecrated persons.
Let’s turn our attention now to private vows. Private vows can be made for a greater good. Of course, it is advised that since there is no lawful superior for a person aspiring to celibacy for the sake of the kingdom, that the vow of obedience is not made. Further, because a person who is aspiring to celibacy for the sake of the kingdom who is who is in the lay or clerical state is responsible for self, the vow of poverty is likewise not encouraged. The vow of poverty is used mainly for members of an institute where property can be communally shared.
What is a private vow? A private vow is a promise made to God for a greater good and is NOT accepted by a competent authority. Who are NOT competent authorities? Spiritual directors, confessors, pastors, and others!!! Even bishops if they are not admitting someone to an institute of consecrated life (that is, a religious community that is of at least diocesan right or a secular institute that is at least of diocesan right or to consecrated life as an individual as a diocesan hermit!). Private vows do not constitute someone in the consecrated state! Therefore, it is incorrect to say that a person under private vows is consecrated. They are dedicated individuals who have promised, resolved, or vowed to live a life of celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom! Again, private vows do not entail a true consecration. Consecration is mediated by the Church through the competent authority (see above for who the competent authority is). Because there is no legitimate authority who can receive a private vow in the name of the Church, consecration, or the setting aside of a person for God’s service that is over and above the consecration of baptism does NOT take place with private vows!!!
The vocation to sacred virginity is rapidly growing around the globe. It is in fact the fastest growing vocation in consecrated life for women. Rev. Caroline Nolan, Ph.D., LSS, is a consecrated virgin originally hailing from Ireland who examines the vocation of sacred virginity lived in the world in her book, Ever Ancient Ever New, An Introduction to Consecrated Life and the Ordo Virginum. It is in many senses a groundbreaking work, as it is one of the few works in print in the English language written specifically about virgins consecrated with the Rite of 1970.
Dr. Nolan divides her 134 page work into six chapters. In the first chapter, she examines the concepts of consecration, and the consecrated life. She also gives a brief history and theology of consecrated life and of consecrated virginity. There are many gems in this first chapter. For example, she underscores the change in being that occurs with consecration: “She is now different from her prior state of being because she is now in a new relationship with Christ in the same way as a woman and man, who after their marriage, are in a new relationship as husband and wife…. It is a state of being that is for life and one which encompasses a faith dimension.” On the other hand, there are a few factual errors, including the assertion that the Rite for the Ordo Virginum disappeared from the 7th-19th centuries.
The first chapter also contains a simplified sketch on Christian virginity: in apostolic times CVs “were single women, who at the time were referred to as virgins, that is women who had never married and who dedicated themselves to lives of celibate chastity, prayer, penance and works of charity. However, it was through celibate chastity that they primarily worshiped the Lord.” Elsewhere she defines virginity “The essence of the term implies purity… While physical virginity is assumed in the case of consecrated virgins, the focus of the vocation does not revolve totally around the physical state of virginity. It is, rather, about the spiritual state of a pure heart that is committed to living a perpetual celibate chaste life. A Consecrated virgin is a woman who is called to live alone while at the same time living in the world.”
Unfortunately, what is not made clear is that consecrated virginity’s definition differs from that of the other vocations in the consecrated state precisely because of primary virginity, and the underlying significance of virginity as such. Instead, Nolan barely concedes that “physical virginity is assumed in the case of consecrated virgins”, but emphasizes celibate chastity as the hallmark of the vocation. All forms of consecrated life in the Church involve “celibate chastity” and a pure heart.
Likewise, the idea of women better representing the Church as bride of Christ is a generic one, and it can said of all baptized women. Dr. Nolan briefly explains the title of bride of Christ given to CVs upon their consecration in Apostolic times thus: “A common term used to refer to these women was ‘spouse’ of Christ. This term was suitable in the sense that these women were very much part of the Church and the Church is the spouse of Christ. These women through their commitment to remain unmarried for the sake of the kingdom bore witness to the Church’s intimate spousal connection to Christ.” Deaconesses and consecrated widows were “very much part of the Church” and Nolan’s definition would make it appear that it would have been suitable to give them this title as well. Historically, though, the title was not given to them by the Fathers because it was reserved for women whose primary virginity had been preserved and consecrated by the Church. Ideally, this would have been made a little clearer in the book.
The second chapter is a wonderful collection of scriptural models for consecrated men and women. Nolan takes several Old and New Testament personalities and show how they model various integral aspects of consecrated life. It is a useful chapter to bring to meditation. For consecrated virgins, it can be a good source of inspiration for living the life. For aspirants and candidates, it can be very illuminating. The one quibble I would have with this chapter is that while it is true that consecrated persons are told to live “prophetically” by the Church, Nolan appears to downgrade true biblical prophecies of the future that were revealed by God to the prophets to natural foresight: “Contrary to popular belief, prophets do not foretell the future but they do indeed put forward some possibilities as to what is likely to happen should a certain path of life be embarked upon.”
In the third chapter, Nolan explores different ecclesial vocations for men and women. She goes through the priesthood, diaconate, religious, hermits, secular institutes and lay movements, and consecrated virginity as vocational options. While there are many useful observations she makes on the different vocations, there are also some significant errors contained in this section of the book. One such error arises from thinking that sacred virginity is similar to all the other forms of consecrated life in which a person dedicates their life by means of vows or promises and in turn is consecrated by God. She makes this assertion about consecrated virgins: “They take a public vow to live chaste single lives.” This is simply not true. Nowhere in the Rite does a consecrated virgin make a vow of chastity or even virginity. She repeats the idea that sacred virgins take a public vow in the forth chapter. Yet, she contradicts the notion of making a public vow later on in the book when she asserts that the virgin makes an “implicit vow” of obedience:
“Women consecrated to the Ordo Virginum do not make explicit vows of obedience, but they do so implicitly since they are at the service of their bishop and diocese where they reside permanently. The placing of their hands in the bishop’s is also a sign of their solemn propositum to embrace a celibate chaste life. The propositum is specific to the canonical state of the Ordo Virginum. It is not a vow, canonically spekaing, neither is it a promise, but a unique resolve that changes the canonical status of each of the women from being a layperson to becoming a publicly consecrated layperson. From this moment onwards, together with the prayer of consecration that follows, the candidates become formally consecrated women in the eyes of the Church.”
It is surprising that in discussing the different ecclesial vocations, Dr. Nolan did not specifically mention Diocesan hermits. Instead she brings up religious hermits, and private hermits who might make private vows. There is no mention of the diocesan hermit professing the evangelical counsels in the hands of his/her bishop. It doesn’t make sense to discuss religious (who are by definition religious even if they live in hermitages) or lay non-consecrated hermits because neither are ecclesial vocations in their own right as hermits per se. The ecclesial institution of canonical diocesan hermits makes its nature clear. The hermit follows the evangelical counsels individually rather than communally and has the bishop as the legitimate superior. For this reason, the hermit does not take as the explicit object of their vows solitude, prayer, and penance, but poverty, chastity, and obedience. In formation, the diocese generally assigns a formator. The hermit also generally is given a habit, as a sign of their true separation from the world, as with religious.
Secular Institutes are also not given a very useful definition. Lumping secular institutes with ecclesial movements, Dr. Nolan states that “they promise to live a life of chastity with an implicit understanding that they are obedient to the overseer of their institute or movement. They also embrace a simple lifestyle without actually taking an explicit promise of poverty.” This is an incorrect definition of secular institutes. Members of secular institutes are formally consecrated and have either vows or promises (or a sacred bond) of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Those who are not full members of secular institutes or who merely belong to ecclesial lay movements are not consecrated but are dedicated persons. It is not immediately apparent why ecclesial movements would even be brought up if they do not receive a true consecration through the mediation of the Church. Professed members of secular institutes are truly publicly consecrated laypersons.
Chapter four has some really good suggestions and insights into the discernment process. For example, the author suggests that a virgin be in her thirties before receiving the consecration because it is around the age of 30 that a woman often experiences a very strong pull to physical motherhood. On the other hand, permission for women who had been the victims of sexual violence to receive the consecration is not the primary reason why the requirements were written the way they were, but respect for the internal forum which prohibits the bishop from asking if a woman has committed a sin with another.
Dr. Nolan walks the reader through the different stages of the Rite of Consecration in Chapter Five. She offers a multitude of ways certainl elements of the Rite may be done, such as the wearing of a white alb for attire. There is certainly room for legitimately diverse ways of celebrating the Rite and she offers her perspectives on the matter.
In the final chapter, the author points out some of the difficulties of the vocation to sacred virginity. There can be times of loneliness. People can profoundly misunderstand and mock the vocation. After briefly highlighting these, she provides a good bibliography.
We are in the middle of planning out the session for our upcoming Vocations Discernment Bootcamp. We have some space that we have leeway for some topics and thought you might have questions or ideas that you would love to see covered in the bootcamp! So, we’re going to make this into a contest. The top three ideas or questions submitted before August 15, 2013 will receive a free copy of one of my ebooks. Winners will get to choose which book they wish to get.
Several years ago I was doing research in a seminary library and decided for “down time” I would read a book on consecrated virginity. After climbing dusty stairs and sifting through dustier books, I came across this gem on consecrated virginity in its form prior to 1970. Sr. Klimisch takes you through what it means for the Church to be called Bride. She goes on to speak of how people can be called Brides of Christ. She also discusses religious life, and how that fits into the Church’s relationship with Christ. In one of her final chapters, Klimisch treats of nuns who receive the Consecration of Virgins.
When Sr. Klimisch speaks of religous and consecrated virginity, she does so with the assumption that consecrated virgins were religious and therefore had assumed the bonds of religious vows. In one sense this is great news because she is able to put her finger on what the Consecration of Virgins means to a religious who is already professed. She is not an author who thinks that it is simply redundant. Instead, she laments the fact that consecrated virginity is unknown and unappreciated and then goes on to explain how it has meaning to the Church and to religious who are able to receive it.
It would have been nice had Sr. Mary Jane written a few years later, when the 1970 Rite came out and the lifestyle was not tethered to religious life. However, what she says is valid, and can give those who enter religious Order with the tradition of giving the Consecration of Virgins a nice meditation on their vocation.
As one would expect in a Benedictine, Sr. Klimisch is meticulous in her research. Every chapter is carefully footnoted, and I discovered many new authors and periodicals to look up. Thus far, I have to say that this is one of the best books to get when trying to understand the mystery of the Church as Bride and how we all fit into that reality of being part of the Bride of Christ.
I was able to obtain from Sr. Klimisch’s community a couple of extra copies of her book to lend, and I am going to be republishing her book in paperback form sometime in the very near future. I am not sure if it will be next week or later, but until that time, I will be offering a special pre-publication price. Once it is published, the list price will be higher. It is expensive and time consuming to purchase licenses and get the book ready for publication, and so the book’s cost reflects this. Right now, you can pre-order the book by purchasing via the link below. It will be shipped to you the next business day after I receive the books from the printers.
At World Youth Day in Brazil, Pope Francis called for resistance to clericalism: “But I want you to make yourselves heard in your dioceses, I want the noise to go out, I want the Church to go out onto the streets, I want us to resist everything worldly, everything static, everything comfortable, everything to do with clericalism, everything that might make us closed in on ourselves.” Francis’ exhortation to the young adults of the Church was not to get rid of clerics (anti-clericalism) but to get rid of the attitude and practices of clericalism, “the shadow side of the glory that is the Catholic priesthood” (Fr. John Neuhaus)
What exactly is this clericalism that our Holy Father wants gone? Russell Shaw, in his erudite article discussing clericalism says this: “It fosters an ecclesiastical caste system in which clerics comprise the dominant elite, with lay people serving as a passive, inert mass of spear-carriers tasked with receiving clerical tutelage and doing what they’re told. This upstairs-downstairs way of understanding relationships and roles in the Church extends even to the spiritual life: priests are called to be saints, lay people are called to satisfy the legalistic minimum of Christian life and scrape by into purgatory.” A clericalist would say that a lay person exists to “pay, pray, and obey”.
At its heart, clericalism is the practice and attitudes of clerics who refuse to collaborate with the laity and consecrated persons in the collaborative manner indicated by numerous papal documents and instead take a heavy handed approach to governing their portion of the flock. “Father knows best” could characterize clericalism. Just saying this, however, doesn’t necessarily make what it can look like obvious to a devout Catholic. For this reason, I will give examples of clericalist attitudes and practices. For an indepth look at the evils of clericalism, Russell Shaw does have an excellent book on the subject, To Hunt, To Shoot, To Entertain: Clericalism and the Catholic Laity. I haven’t read it, but I did read its “twin”, which was excellent on the difference between “ministry” and “apostolate”, which I highly recommend: Ministry or Apostolate?: What Should the Catholic Laity Be Doing?
Priests Know Best Attitude
The community was gathered for a time of fellowship and recreation. One sister started to reflect aloud on the properties of risen bodies of the saved. The superior quickly silenced her. “This is only private speculation,” she warned, conveniently forgetting that both the New Testament and the Catechism of the Council of Trent covered the properties of risen bodies. Months later, the same community was at retreat, furiously taking notes as the priest giving it shared his wisdom with the community. He discoursed eloquently about “The Four Last Things” which is a staple for traditional retreats.
Spellbound, the sisters hung on his every word and were enthralled at his treatment of the topic of risen bodies. The community again gathered for discussion after the retreat. Not a word was said about the retreat being unfit for religious ears because it was “only private speculation”. Why not? Because the sisters were habituated by clericalism to accept a priest’s word as final. If a priest discussed the properties of risen bodies, he was right. End of discussion. If a sister brought up the subject, she was wrong because it was “pure speculation”.
I myself have experienced the insidious cancer called clericalism in my dealings with priests. One episode stands out in my memory. A small group of priests had come to my university to recruit for their community. They made the audacious claim that priests “were the best educators” and that lay people could not teach as well as priests could. Knowing that this was patently false, I alone dared to call them on this stance. If they could not understand that priests are not primary educators (this belongs to parents) and that all others contribute to education, then they might be missing other important elements of our Faith. As I conversed with them, I did discover other things which set off my warning bells and red flags. They said things that made me quite sure they did not understand human nature and that things that they were involved with were going to explode as a result. Sure enough, years later, I was not surprised to hear that these men taught boys how to sleep in their birthday suit with them as a way of exercising “chastity”. I will not say more other than that these men were not only sued out of existence but the bishop shut them down for irregularities in other areas.
There is no doubt that priests are in the hierarchy and are blessed to act in persona Christi. This is a very high honor. However, the ordained priesthood is ordered to the service of the common priesthood of the faithful and not the other way around. A priest has every right to ask that he be treated in a dignified manner. But, sometimes this can get out of hand, especially when it is combined with actions that reek of clericalism. One example of this is the double standard some clericalists employ when they demand that priests be addressed with their titles but refuse to use the titles of those whom they address. If it is that important to be called “Father Smith”, then, please, dear Fr. Smith, try calling me “Miss Ivers”. If you insist on being called “Your Reverence”, please likewise extend that courtesy to me and call me “Your Reverence” or that lady “Mrs. Olson”. I am not stuffy. In private, I do call some men who are ordained and who may even be bishops by their first name, if we are close friends or colleagues. They do the same for me.
Parish or Diocesan councils are often a farce, put on to give the appearance of the bishop or priest as listening, but doing so with their minds pre-set as to what they are going to do anyway. In his work on the vocation of the laity, Pope John Paul II wrote some interesting passages. In one, he wrote:
[Furthermore the revised Code of Canon Law contains many provisions on the participation of women in the life and mission of the Church: they are provisions that must be more commonly known and, according to the diverse sensibilities of culture and opportuneness in a pastoral situation, be realized with greater timeliness and determination. An example comes to mind in the participation of women on diocesan and parochial Pastoral Councils as well as Diocesan Synods and particular Councils. In this regard the synod Fathers have written: “Without discrimination women should be participants in the life of the church, and also in consultation and the process of coming to decisions”. And Again: “Women, who already hold places of great importance in transmitting the faith and offering every kind of service in the life of the church, ought to be associated in the preparation of pastoral and missionary documents and ought to be recognized as cooperators in the mission of the church in the family, in professional life and in the civil community”. (Christifideles Laici, 51.)
Being “associated in the preparation of pastoral and missionary documents” surely does not mean only by way of being mere secretaries. Yet, how many bishops take this to heart when they write their pastoral letters? How many pastors (both bishops and priests) take the notion of having women or men for that matter involved in “consultation and the process of coming to decisions” seriously by word and deed? Let’s look at the pompous clericalist idea expressed in opposition to St. John Newman cited by Dr. Jeff Mirus: “What is the province of the laity? To hunt, to shoot, to entertain? These matters they understand, but to meddle with ecclesiastical matters they have no right at all, and this affair of Newman is a matter purely ecclesiastical…. Dr. Newman is the most dangerous man in England, and you will see that he will make use of the laity against your Grace.” This diatribe originated from St. John Newman’s position that bishops ought to consult the laity before making critical decisions about those matters in which the laity have expertise, such as the organization and direction of schools. A position, by the way, echoed in the Documents of Vatican II, and in the New Code of Canon Law.
Heavy Handed Top-Down Governance
When a bishop or a pastor routinely call people in to do certain tasks for the Church, making unilateral decisions all the time when they impact large numbers of people without consulting others (especially those whom they will affect), and in general stifle the laity’s role of evangelizing and spreading the Church because they have been conditioned to “obey” rather than to lead, this is a result of clericalism at its finest. A symptom of this kind of clericalism is when people run to the priest for every little thing. Instead of studying the catechism themselves, they go to the priest. Instead of starting and running a soup kitchen, they feel a need to get their pastor’s approval. Instead of gathering with some other parishioners and maybe non-Catholic neighbors for a bible study, they feel an intense need to get their pastor’s blessing first. It’s not that a pastor shouldn’t be vigilant, but he shouldn’t be controlling to the point of stamping down legitimate expressions of the lay faithful’s mission to be evangelists because he fears human weakness and the occasional material heresy.
While I could go on and on with the evils of clericalism, I think these examples should be sufficient as a jumping board for further reflection. Priests are at the service of the Church. They are to help people grow in the Faith but are not supposed to be tyrants. While the laity can never be independent of the need for the ministrations of the priest, particularly by way of Sacraments, the laity are expected to become mature Catholics. Just as minors are expected to learn how to be adults, and the goal of parenthood is to wean the child from the parent, so too, must the goal of priests be to wean Catholics from being overly dependent upon them and learning how to live as Catholics who partake of the royal priesthood of Christ. The crime of clericalism is that it disrespects the Catholic in the pews, treating them as minors, as people who passively “pray, pay, and obey”.
(c) 2013 by Therese Ivers, JCL. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be republished or reposted without written consent of the author.