The Consecrated Secular Person

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

Who is the consecrated lay person? Today, the consecrated lay person is a vowed member of a secular institute of diocesan/pontifical right. This means they are 1) lay and 2) secular and 3) consecrated. Such individuals are called “to” secularity. Meaning, that they have forever given their lives over to Christ by profession of the three evangelical counsels, and these counsels are lived in the world, as “leaven in the world”. This distinction is important because the Church distinguishes two ways of living out vowed counsels that while they are compatible with the counsels are lifestyles that are fundamentally incompatible with each other. What are they?

The first is what is known as “separation from the world”. People who are separated from the world are first and foremost members of religious institutes. Members of such institutes have all kinds of names: sisters, canons, canonesses, friars, monks, nuns, mendicants, etc. Religious life by its nature, has “separation from the world” as part of its definition. Let’s break this philosophical concept down. If there is a formal lifestyle that does NOT have “separation from the world” included as part of its very essence, then it is NOT religious life. In order to be a religious, a person must belong to an institution that has “separation from the world” as part of its very definition, as part of its very mission. No one can be a religious without being separated from the world. No one.

Hermits are another vocation that absolutely requires “separation from the world” as part of its very definition. If a person is not “separated from the world”, in the manner approved by the Church authorities in accordance with the norms and intent of canon 603, then that person is NOT a hermit. The very definition of the hermit has as an essential element “separation from the world”.

Why is all this important? Because hermits and religious profess the evangelical counsels to receive the consecration of hermits and religious respectively. Certain elements are required for the valid reception of the consecration of hermits/religious. If they are not present, no consecration is conferred. Likewise, if they are not present, then the vocation is not present. It is as simple as that.

The massive earthquake that occurred in the late 40’s with regard to the profession of the evangelical counsels in a context that was NOT separated from the world but alive and kicking IN the world was an historic one. In 1947, Pope Pius XII, having studied the matter extensively, permitted what we call “secular institutes” to be approved by the Church when they followed stringent criteria.

A secular institute is an institute of consecrated life in which a person professes the evangelical counsels as “leaven in the world”. “Leaven in the world” is essentially different from “separation from the world”. In fact, embracing the one will always and necessarily mean rejecting the other as a way of observing the counsels in lifestyle adopted by the individual. This is because of the philosophical principle of “non contradiction”. Meaning. A religious cannot be a member of a secular institute because a secular institute by definition requires the member to live in the state of secularity. Or put in another way, living “in the world” as opposed to “separated from the world”. Likewise a member of a secular institute cannot simultaneously be a hermit or a religious. Because this individual has embraced a lifestyle that contradicts the very essence of the other lifestyles.

It might be easier to understand some of the differences between religious and secular institutes by contrasting them:

Secular Institutes According to Essential Elements #9

Union with Christ by consecration through profession of the counsels can be lived in the midst of the world, translated in the work of the world, and expressed by means of the world. This is the special vocation of the secular institutes, defined by Pius XII as “consecrated to God and to others” in the world and “by means of the world” (Primo feliciter, V and II). Of themselves, the counsels do not necessarily separate people from the world. In fact, it is a gift of God to the Church that consecration through profession of the counsels can take the form of a life to be lived as a hidden leaven. Christians so consecrated continue the work of salvation by communicating the love of Christ through their presence in the world and through its sanctification from within. Their style of life and presence are not distinguished externally from those of their fellow Christians. Their witness is given in their ordinary environment of life. This discreet form of witness flows from the very nature of their secular vocation and is part of the way that their consecration is meant to be lived (cf. PC 11).

Religious Institutes According to Essential Elements #10 and #34

 Such is not the case, however, with those whose consecration by the profession of the counsels constitutes them as religious. The very nature of religious vocation involves a public witness to Christ and to the Church. Religious profession is made by vows which the Church receives as public. A stable form of community life in an institute canonically erected by the competent ecclesiastical authority manifests in a visible way the covenant and communion which religious life expresses. A certain separation from family and from professional life at the time a person enters the novitiate speaks powerfully of the absoluteness of God. At the same time, it is the beginning of a new and deeper bond in Christ with the family that one has left. This bond becomes firmer as detachment from otherwise legitimate relationships, occupations, and forms of relaxation continues to reflect God’s absoluteness publicly throughout life. A further aspect of the public nature of religious consecration is that the apostolate of religious is in some sense always corporate. Religious presence is visible, affecting ways of acting, attire, and style of life.
The totality of religious consecration requires that the witness to the Gospel be given publicly by the whole of life. Values, attitudes and life-style attest forcefully to the place of Christ in one’s life. The visibility of this witness involves the foregoing of standards of comfort and convenience that would otherwise be legitimate. It requires a restraint on forms of relaxation and entertainment (cf. ES 1, ยง2; CD 33-35). To ensure this public witness, religious willingly accept a pattern of life that is not permissive but largely laid down for them. They wear a religious garb that distinguishes them as consecrated persons, and they have a place of residence which is properly established by their institute in accordance with common law and their own constitutions. Such matters as travel and social contacts are in accord with the spirit and character of their institute and with religious obedience. These provisions alone do not ensure the desired public witness to the joy, hope, and love of Jesus Christ, but they offer important means to it, and it is certain that religious witness is not given without them.

One of the clearest divisions between those called to secularity vs. those called to separation from the world has to do with personal involvement in politics. The secular institute member may run for office. Those separated from the world are not normally permitted to do so:

 To establish the kingdom of God within the very structures of the world, insofar as this constitutes evangelical promotion in human history, is certainly a theme of great interest for the whole Christian community, and therefore for religious also; but not in the sense that they allow themselves to become involved directly in politics. Through their scholastic institutes, the communications media, and multiple religious and educational projects, they can actively contribute especially to the formation of the young, thus making them architects of human and social development.  (Religious and Human Promotion #12)

A call is a positive embracing of the lifestyle. It is a call “to” a defined path of life. When someone is called “to” consecrated secularity, it means that an individual has become a member of a secular institute, because it is the only vocation that requires a definitive commitment to be 1) secular and 2) consecrated.

Now that I have broken down the difference between consecrated secularity and consecrated separation from the world, it is time to look at combining compatible vocations. A man can be a member of a secular institute and a priest. The vocation to the priesthood is distinct from the vocation to a secular institute. But both are compatible with each other. Likewise, a member of a secular institute can be consecrated as a virgin if she meets all the criteria. The vocation to be a consecrated virgin is distinct from the vocation to a secular institute. Both are compatible with each other.

When you have two separate vocations, formation needs to be given for both. Thus, a man who intends to be both a priest and a secular institute member must have formation in the priesthood vocational track and the secular institute member vocational track. This is because a vocation has its own essential nature and essential elements. It has its own patrimony. Its own saints, culture, history, theology, mission, and impact on the world. It has its own defined way of life, defined rights, defined obligations. The man will learn that even if he leaves a secular institute, he will still be a priest, because it is a reality that cannot be dispensed; he will remain a priest even if he departs a secular institute.

What is true of men who have a dual vocation to secularity and to the priesthood is likewise true of virgin females who have a dual vocation to secularity and to sacred virginity. If a woman intends to be both a member of a secular institute and a consecrated virgin, she will need formation in both vocations in order to make the informed decision as to whether to do so. She must learn everything of her intended secular institute’s traditions, charism, patrimony, secular form of life, etc. She must learn the obligations and rights she will assume by professing the evangelical counsels. Likewise, she must learn what the vocation to sacred virginity is. She must study its saints, its patrimony, charism, culture, history, theology, unique mission, and impact in the world. She must understand and embrace its defined form of life, rights, and obligations. She must understand that it is a reality that, unlike that in the secular institute, cannot be dispensed; she will remain a sacred virgin even if she departs a secular institute.

What has been said in earlier articles bears repeating. The very essence, definition, or nature of sacred virginity DOES NOT contain as an essential element a call to secularity or to separation from the world. As has been shown above, the nature of a secular institute requires an actual commitment to secularity. This is why secular institutes, in principle, are forbidden in many major areas to be like religious; they are not separated from the world. How consecrated laypersons/seculars live out their lives is diametrically opposed to how religious live out their lives. Since a member of a secular institute can receive the consecration of virgins and a member of a religious institute can receive the consecration of virgins, logic dictates that the very essence of the vocation to be a sacred virgin cannot contain secularity or separation from the world as part of its definition. It also implies that the vocation to sacred virginity – by definition – is something different by its very nature than any other vocation in consecrated life because it is not pigeon holed into the sequela Christi paradigm. Its very nature allows it to be lived in circumstances that are incompatible with each other: secularity vs. separation from the world.

The ritual contained in the Roman Pontifical is used for the ordination of male members of a secular institute to the holy orders. The ritual contained in the Roman Pontifical is used for the consecration of female virgin members of a secular institute to sacred virginity. Those who receive the consecration of ordination or of the consecration of virgins are entered into a new vocation, adding an additional vocation they must conform to. It is important to realize that a secular institute is not a “latent” form of the diaconate/priesthood/episcopacy. Men do not go through the ordination ceremony in order to be “recognized at last” as the priests they were by virtue of their profession in the secular institute. Likewise, women do not go through the consecration of virgins ceremony in order to be “recognized at last” as the sacred virgins they were by virtue of their profession in the secular institute. These are new realities, which are not the result of the profession of the counsels and are essentially different from the profession of the counsels.

There is much experience in the realm of formation for men who are also members of institutes of consecrated life for them to add the additional vocation of holy orders. There is little experience (apart from some communities in the Benedictine, Carthusian, and Trappist orders) today for female virgins who are also members of institutes of consecrated life for giving adequate formation for women who intend to be sacred virgins [and one wonders if the formation actually provided is adequate given the uniqueness of the vocation to sacred virginity]. I think part of this has to do with the historic and immoral plundering of the unique and distinct patrimony of the order of virgins by female communities (and by certain modern proponents of the hermit vocation). It also has to do with a contemporary tendency to gloss over the fact that the very origin, history, and theology of religious (and secular institute) life is fundamentally different from that of sacred virginity.

There appears to be this fixed idea that consecrated virginity is (maybe) a vocation in its own right when “lived in the world”, but it magically becomes a non-vocation when “lived by a member of an institute of consecrated life”. Yet, the constitutive sacramental consecration is one and the same, regardless as to who receives it. Thus, sacred virginity is either a vocation in its own right or it is not. It either has something essential to its very nature and definition that no other vocation shares, or it is not actually a vocation. It either imposes new rights and obligations by virtue of its very nature/essence that are distinct from those of other vocations, or it is not a vocation.

Already, we have determined that sacred virginity cannot have as part of its definition “secularity” or “separation from the world”. The Church Fathers, then, must have understood the definition of sacred virginity to be something other than an enterprise that requires secularity. What was it? How do you conform to a vocation that has existed for 2022 years if you don’t know what it is? [The nature is knowable; but most people are not formed well enough to know what its nature is.] The vocation of sacred virginity is not identical to the vocation of consecrated secularity (secular institute membership). Both are beautiful. Both are compatible. But the question is, what makes the vocations to secularity (secular institute) and to sacred virginity different in a way that makes membership in both desirable? [The answer to that question is forthcoming in my dissertation.]

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