In a recent post, Sr. Laurel of Stillsong Hermitage has claimed that Sts. Perpetua and Felicity were considered virgins by the early Church. This is absurd and untrue. Both saints are honored and venerated as martyrs, but never have they been revered as virgins. Even in the the Church’s liturgy, the two saints are assigned a memorial for martyrs but the option for virgin martyrs is not given because they were not virgins. The example of these two martyrs was used to bolster the position that the early Church merely considered women who didn’t sin against chastity as eligible for the consecration of virgins.
The praxis of the Church’s consecration of virgins should always be viewed in a historical and theological light. From the earliest of times, the Church has required virginity as a prerequisite for her sacred virgins. When virgins were accused of having fallen, the Church historically used midwives to verify their physical state as documents from the time of the Church Fathers can attest. For most of Church history, the virgin had to attest to her physical intactness to her bishop in order to validly receive the consecration. This is because she is the physical sign of the Church’s own being as a virgin.
This is also why Pope St. Leo the Great, who in the 400’s penned the prayer of Consecration used in the Rite, wrote that even women who had been violated against their will by the invading barbarians should refrain from seeking the Consecration of virgins. Technically, as St. Augustine pointed out, these women did not lose their virginity. However, they did lose the physical sign of it and this is why St. Leo recommended that they do not receive the consecration. This is certainly a far cry from the supposed loose teaching on virginity held by the early Christian Church. St. Leo’s prayer is the very first pontifical consecration prayer extant, and he was Pope only about one and a half to two centuries after the deaths of St. Perpetua and St. Felicity, non-virgin martyrs, and many of the virgin martyrs of that period.
The Pontificals, using this version of the Leonine Consecration, often designated an interrogatory by the bishop during the Rite itself concerning the candidate’s state of intactness. Only in 1970 -not 1983- did the Rite transition into a less intrusive way of ascertaining the virginity of the candidate. This does not mean that the definition of virginity has changed but that the manner in which the eligibility of the virgin is determined as far as a manifestation of conscience is affected has changed.
Lastly, a comment on what it means for an act of unchastity to be “open” or “public”. “Public” can mean “known by another person”. That is what Cardinal Burke’s letter from the Vatican clarifies. “Public” in canonical parlance, means that an act is in the external forum. Hence, it need not be “notorious”. For example, a person could “publicly” renounce the Catholic Faith by a formal letter to (and accepted by) his bishop. That need not be known to the general populace for this to be a public, external act. Perhaps only he and his bishop and whoever notates the baptismal record are the only ones who know. But, the act is still considered to be “public”. A person could have something on his public record that is not known to anyone except those who dig into court records. That does not negate the fact that it is publicly “known”.
At the present time, I am working with a professional translator and a respected publishing house in the field to translate and publish a monumental theological and liturgical commentary on the Rite of Consecration of Virgins. This 1076 page book chock full of citations will eliminate many controversies in the English speaking world because it will give access to theological thought that has been inaccessible to those who only know English. It is a doctoral dissertation about the Rite, written at the liturgical Pontifical University, the Anselmo, run by Benedictines. Each detail of the Rite is scrutinized, and previous Rites and commentaries are compared and contrasted. This undertaking we estimate will cost about $17,500. If you should feel moved to contribute towards a greater understanding of the vocation of consecrated virginity and wish to donate to this book translation and publication project, please contact me for details.