Consecrated Virgins Part II

by Therese Ivers, JCL

This is a belated continuation of a series of posts on consecrated virgins living in the world.

Q.  I read this explanation of consecrated virgins on a vocations website and wanted to know if this is accurate:

From the beginnings of the Church there have been those who felt the call to consecrate themselves exclusively to Christ in a private manner. In recent times there has been a revival of this vocation, by which a woman makes her private consecration in the presence of her bishop.

A.  This description of consecrated virginity is highly inaccurate and unfortunately widespread on the internet.  I will respond to each sentence of this explanation of the vocation separately.

From the beginnings of the Church there have been those who felt the call to consecrate themselves exclusively to Christ in a private manner.

From the beginning of the Church, women have felt the call to follow Christ exclusively and completely.  They were known in the early Church as “virgins” and this was a public vocation, not a way of life lived “in a private manner”.  It is said that the Apostle Mathew was the first known Bishop to have conferred the consecration of virgins (upon the princess Iphigenia for which he was martyred as her kingly father wanted to marry her off and couldn’t because of the consecration).  However, this was far from being a private affair; members of the Order of Virgins had special privileges in the ancient Church because of their public status as brides of Christ.  What were some of these privileges?  Virgins occupied a special place of honor in the assembly in Church.  They often assisted the deaconesses in the ministry of baptism.  As membership in the Order of Virgins was public, many of the Church fathers wrote about consecrated virgins and how they were to live.  St. Cyprian described consecrated virgins as “the choicest portion of the Lord’s flock”.  That this vocation was not private is implicit in the Catechism of the Catholic Church which states:  From apostolic times Christian virgins, called by the Lord to cling only to him with greater freedom of heart, body, and spirit, have decided with the Church’s approval to live in a state of virginity “for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.”  [CCC 922, emphasis added]

In recent times there has been a revival of this vocation, by which a woman makes her private consecration in the presence of her bishop.

Since the revision of the Rite of Consecration of Virginity promulgated in 1970, female virgins living in the world were once more permitted to receive the consecration of virgins from their bishop after a short temporary exclusion dating from the 1950’s.  This is not private and it is not made by the woman.  This is a public ceremony in which the bishop confers the consecration upon the female virgin, constituting her a “sacred person” and placing her in the (public) consecrated state.  No vows are made, either public or private in this Rite.  Instead, the virgin is consecrated body and soul as a bride of Christ through the ministry of the bishop.  This is similar to what happens at an Ordination.  A man or deacon does not make promises which somehow transform him into a deacon or priest.  Instead, the sacrament of Orders is conferred upon him by the bishop and it is this conferral of Orders which constitutes him a deacon, priest, or bishop.  Priests and deacons do make promises during their ceremony, but consecrated virgins don’t.  Once a man legitimately receives Holy Orders, he belongs to the ordained state of life, in the hierarchy.  Once a female virgin legitimately receives the consecration of virgins from her bishop (or a bishop delegated by him), she belongs to the consecrated state of life and no longer in the lay state.

Q.  I am thinking about becoming a consecrated virgin.  This seems to be a personal matter between me and Christ and so I don’t want this to be public.  Can’t I just have a private consecration?

A.  If John wishes to marry Gloria, their marriage is between themselves but their vows create a new reality for them and for the Church.  They become husband and wife and join the married state when they get married.  Even if John and Gloria get married in the rectory or just in front of a priest/deacon and two witnesses, the marriage is a public act and their new status is public of being married with a true spousal bond between them.  They don’t need a whole church full of people to make their marriage a public ceremony celebrating a new public status that they enjoy once they exchange vows.  A consecrated virgin becomes a sacred person and a bride of Christ when the sacramental consecration of virgins is conferred upon her by the Bishop.  This can be done in a small chapel or (preferably in the mind of the Church)her Cathedral in front of hundreds or thousands of people.  Either way, the consecrated virgin has become a member of the consecrated state and is no longer single nor lay.  In this sense, her commitment (even if only the bishop was present doing the consecration) is very public.

Q.  I believe that there are four vocations- the priesthood, marriage, religious life, and the single life.  Do consecrated virgins belong to the generous single life?

A.  There are three states in the Church:  lay, ordained, and consecrated.  Most people are called to be in one of the vocations in these states in Holy Orders (permanent/transitional diaconate, priesthood, and episcopacy),  Consecrated Life (religious life, diocesan eremitic life, and consecrated virginity), or to Matrimony (in the lay state).   Some people are in more than one vocation such as the married deacon (married state+ ordained state) or the religious priest (consecrated state + ordained state).  Those in the consecrated state cannot be in the lay state.  Consecrated virgins, therefore, are not singles nor are they lay.  They are brides of Christ (a relationship) and they are in the consecrated state.

Q.  I thought that consecrated virgins are lay women because they are not priests.  Why do you say they are not lay?

A.  There are two ways the word “lay” is used in the Church.  The first way is to refer to non-ordained persons in the hierarchical sense.  Thus, in this view, the Church is divided into two hierarchical categories, ordained and non ordained (lay).  In this sense, even non-ordained religious and hermits are “lay” because they are not ordained.   In the other view, which is not hierarchical but vocational, the Church is seen to be divided into three categories: ordained, consecrated, and lay.  On this subject, the Catechism says:  “the state of life which is constituted by the profession of the evangelical counsels, while not entering into the hierarchical structure of the Church, belongs undeniably to her life and holiness.” CCC 914  This is how canon law talks about consecrated life as not being lay or ordained:  “In itself, the state of consecrated life is neither clerical nor lay.” – CIC 588  Thus, consecrated virgins are not lay when it comes to the states of life, any more than a religious monk or sister is lay.

Q.  Can a consecrated virgin adopt a child?

A. Consecrated virgins live out their consecrated life in accordance with the bishop’s directives.  The joys of motherhood are not proper to the virgin who remains celibate for the sake of the Kingdom.  To understand this better, a married person agrees not only to be open to children (and the sexual dimension requisite for the procreation of children) but also to assume the duties of educating and rearing of any children God may bless the couple with.  The responsibility of educating and parenting of a child in preparation for that child’s eventual maturity as an adult is intrinsically bound with the parental generation of the child. Therefore, unless the child in question is a close relative without other resources, it is not proper for a consecrated virgin to adopt a child as the renunciation of parenting is an implied part of the virgin’s renunciation of sexual intercourse (and its consequences).  A decision so momentous which doesn’t normally foster the virgin’s freedom to think upon the things of the Lord without worries stemming from a physical spouse and children must be approved by the virgin’s bishop for her to be able in good conscience to adopt a child without betraying her vocation.

Another objection to a consecrated virgin’s adoption of a child has to do with the way God designed humans to be formed.  The acts proper for the procreation of children and the education of any resultant children is an essential element of marriage.   A child’s best interest is served by the stable, permanent union of a male parent and female parent with their masculine and feminine influences and complementary gifts with which to give the child the environment necessary for a holistic upbringing. This may be one reason why Mary and Joseph were married- to give the Child Jesus a stable family unit with male and female modeling.

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