Theology of the Body Distortions

by Mother Therese Ivers, JCL, JCD(cand.), OCV, DHS

When John Paul II taught the theology of the body in his Wednesday addresses, he did so with the expectation that what he said would be understood in the wider context of the teachings of the faith. Or, put differently, he expected that people would not isolate the relevant teachings of the Faith from their interpretation of his teachings on the theology of the body. Concretely, this means that his teachings are to be viewed in light of Christian anthropology, authentic philosophy, ascetical/moral/dogmatic theology, etc. They were never intended to be stand-alone teachings that do not need to sustain coherence with the rest of the Church’s teachings. Studying and teaching theology of the body without a strong foundation in philosophy, Christian anthropology, etc., puts individuals in grave danger of twisting the late pontiff’s teachings and distorting their practice of the faith. On the more benign side, it can create weird pseudo devotions and on the more insidious side, it can place them into material heresy.

The danger of studying the “theology of the body” in isolation from the rest of the Church’s teachings is particularly evident in the rush for women to understand their “role” as woman, without a strong philosophical and theological formation. There are two very common heresies floating around the internet today about Catholic women, and both are tied to a distorted interpretation of the theology of the body as popularized by Christopher West.

Heresy #1: Pelagianism

The pelagian heresy arose in the early Church. It was taught that humankind does not need baptism, because human beings by their very nature are in the state of grace. The Church teaches that the punishment due to original sin was the stripping away of sanctifying grace from Adam and Eve, and that this was a gift that had been given to them that was not an essential part of “human nature”. Baptism is required as the ordinary means for a person to attain sanctifying grace, to become the adopted child of God.

Today, we have a new version of the Pelagian heresy. It is the idea that woman is “sacred” because she has a body part that man does not have, a womb. The usual way this heresy is taught is in defense of women wearing mantillas at Mass. Women are taught that the chalice or the tabernacle is “sacred” because they contain Life, and that the Church “veils sacred things”. So, because the woman’s womb can contain life, women are “sacred” and should veil in Church to show they are sacred like the chalice or tabernacle.

If this heresy sounds familiar, it is because it is the invention of Dr. Alice von Hildebrand & Gertrude le Fort, who wanted to popularize the wearing of a headcovering by women at Mass. They instinctively realized that the authentic reasons for wearing headcoverings at Mass (the obsolete discipline demanded by St. Paul, tradition, modesty in an era that identified the woman who went about in public without a headcovering as a woman of “easy virtue”) were not enough to persuade the thinking woman of today to wear a headcovering in Church, and so they re-imaged this heresy to appeal to woman’s vanity: she had to be “special”.

The Church’s actual teaching is that the chalice is sacred because it has been set aside exclusively for God by a constitutive blessing called a “consecration” that has to be done by clergy to “take”. It is not the material of the chalice that makes it special. It is the consecration done by the proper Church minister following the prescribed liturgical ritual that sets it aside from the “profane” and puts it into the “sacred”.

A woman and her womb is simply not “sacred” just because it makes her different from a man and his “male organ”. An unbaptized woman is in the realm of the “profane”. Without the sanctifying grace given by baptism, she is merely a human who will find it impossible to find salvation unless she receives sanctifying grace. This means that no part of the woman is “sacred”. No part of the woman is by human nature itself, a “sacred” part.

But, some people will rush to say that a Christian/Catholic woman’s womb IS sacred because she “bears Christian children”. This falsehood has been around for pretty much most of the Church’s history and was soundly and explicitly refuted by St. Augustine in his book De Virginitate (book 1). He demonstrates that the unborn child is unbaptized, so it is false to say that a Christian mother bears Christian children. As he writes it, all women bear “Adam” when they give birth to children.

St. Augustine does mention that there are women who do give birth to “Christ” and not “Adam”: Our Lady gave birth to Christ, and consecrated virgins give birth to Christ. Christ was conceived as a direct result of “consecrated virginity” and Christ is born in souls as the result of consecrated virgins, who are Brides of Christ. Why is this important?

The heresy of our modern Pelagianism holds that it is the unbaptized flesh/person that is “sacred”. Or, that the womb is magically sacred because it is a womb. Von Hildebrand insists it is because a virgin is a “garden enclosed” and a “tabernacle” for God’s miracle of life for fertile women who are pregnant. But St. Augustine, whom she turns to in support of her argument actually states the opposite. “Virginity,” he states, is not respected in Catholic circles because of the flesh being “intact”, it is respected because it has been made sacred through its consecration to/by God “for the sake of the Kingdom”.

Put in modern terms, the “womb” is not sacred. A lay woman needn’t bother to put on a veil to show offer her pseudo-sacrality in Church, because her womb is not sacred in the least bit. Just as the chalice is made “sacred” by the direct action of the Church by means of a constitutive consecration, so too, a woman can be made “sacred” by the direct action of the Church by means of a constitutive consecration. But, this is not baptism.

Baptism makes the man or woman a child of God. It puts the person in the family of God. However, it does not separate the man/woman from the “profane” and set them aside solely for God’s service. In short, it does not make a man or a woman a “sacred person”. It makes them a “baptized” person. The significance is this. Baptism does not make a woman more “sacred” than a baptized man. The baptized man and woman are equally children of God. If being a child of God makes a person sacred, and sacred things should be veiled, then logically both men and women should be veiled in Church. Not just woman. But calling woman more “sacred” than a man has never been a teaching of the Church. Never. In fact the opposite is almost (but not quite) implied. One of the reasons given by the fathers of the Church for a woman to wear a headcovering in Church was to keep “seductresses” and “temptresses” in their place! A woman was seen as an automatic walking temptation, with an inner “whore” ready to break out at any second, which is a far cry from the “sacred chalice” modernist traditionalist women like to fancy themselves.

The most blatant of the pelagianistic fruits of Westian TOBism is the move from asceticism to a kind of “knowing makes you immune to fallen nature’s tendencies”. Thus, you have people who think viewing porn is perfectly okay because it “glorifies the human body”, or that one has the innate ability to maintain purity with no grace and no sense of mortification because one has imbued TOB teachings. It is amazing how often people who should know better get on this bandwagon and actually ignore JPII’s actual words about photography and filming the unclothed body (he says it is wrong because it objectifies the person, but that painting and carving does not) but cite TOB to defend their position.

Now it is time to cue in more of the distorted version of the theology of the body Christopher Westian adherents. But, they say, obviously a man is different from a woman, and both are designed to be nuptial. So, obviously, the woman is automatically a Bride of Christ, right? So woman needs to wear a mantilla at Mass to show that she has a nuptial relationship with Christ!

Wrong. And again, this is why actually having a philosophical and theological background comes in handy for avoiding heresy. Which leads us to the second material heresy popular amongst Westian TOBers.

The Donatist Heresy

The Donatist heresy is very ancient, stemming explicitly from around the early 300’s but probably was around even earlier than that in an implicit form. It has taken different shapes over the centuries, and was the precursor of the Protestant rejection of the dogma of the superiority of virginity over marriage. If you are wondering what possible relationship the Donatist heresy can have for women, hold on to your mantillas!

Jovinian was one of the major figures of Donatism. Among other things, he claimed that being a (consecrated/sacred) virgin was no better than being a wife with 10 children or being married three times. He taught that fasting was no better than feasting. Put in modern terms, he would claim that the married woman (who has a womb!) would be every bit as sacred as the sacred virgin, and that she is just as much the tabernacle as the sacred virgin. Of course, his teaching was condemned as heretical by the Church because he went against what the Church holds to be true and of dogmatic standing.

In order to become a “sacred person” something special must be done. The Church must “consecrate” the person, setting aside the person from the “profane” and setting them aside for the direct and exclusive service to God. This is NOT done to married women. For a woman to become “sacred”, she must receive the solemn liturgical consecration of virgins in a ritual contained in the Bishop’s special liturgical book called the Roman Pontifical. Step by step, it resembles both an ordination to the priesthood and a wedding. In the words of the Roman Pontifical and catechism, the virgin is “constituted a sacred person” by her reception of this solemn consecration. She is “elevated to the dignity of Bride of Christ”.

People who learn the TOB from Christopher West seem to mistake having a body designed for marriage for being married. And there is a huge, infinite distance between the two. This falsehood triggers people into imagining they (especially women) are brides of Christ because they are women. Of course this is true in the sense that baptized women are members of the Church, but it is completely false if they think they are brides of Christ in a more “true” or “better” way than baptized men. Men are just as much “brides of Christ” as women. Why? Because baptism does not make a woman more of a bride of Christ than a woman.

Notice that it is this solemn ceremony done only by a Bishop that makes a woman a sacred person, a sacred chalice. She becomes what she was not before: a Bride of Christ. Why is this important? Because being a woman does not automatically make a woman a bride. If that were the case, there would be no single women alive, only married women! (There would be no sacrament of marriage if everyone is automatically married!)

How does a woman become a Bride of Christ? Simple. She needs to be a virgin in body and mind (not mind alone like some Westians like to think!). Remember that there is no “natural” virtue of virginity. For someone to have the supernatural virtue of virginity, a person must be a virgin and must intend to remain a virgin “for the sake of the Kingdom” on a life-long basis. That rules out married people who have consummated their marriage, and unmarried people who would like to get married or who have had intentional sexual experience.

Now, let’s get back to what St. Jerome, St. Augustine, and the Fathers of the Church say. A woman is not special because of her womb, but because she is a virgin who maintains perpetual virginity “for the sake of the Kingdom”. A woman is not “sacred” because she has an organ different from a man’s, gives birth, or is “intact”, or even because she is baptized. She becomes sacred if she is set aside by the Church through the solemn consecration of virgins.

St. Jerome has some very harsh words about laywomen who try to usurp the dignity of sacred virgins (the “real” sacred women): “This circumstance led me shrewdly to suspect that his [Jovinian’s] object in proclaiming the excellence of marriage was only to disparage virginity. For when the less is put upon a level with the greater, the lower profits by comparison, but the higher suffers wrong.” Lay women who believe they are “sacred” because they possess a womb, or because they got pregnant or because women are magically sacred without a proper consecration do grave harm to the truly sacred, because they are implicitly embracing the Pelagian and Donatist heresies. They implicitly reject true sacrality for vanity or pride: I am “more sacred” and a “bride of Christ” than you men, when they have no basis for this.

Today, the pride and vanity of laywomen who fancy themselves brides of Christ is stoked by distorted versions of the Theology of the Body. The pride and vanity of laywomen who consider themselves sacred is on full display for all to see by those who “signal” this by wearing a mantilla at Mass. Heresy always offers something attractive to its adherents. In this case, woman believes she is sacred just because she is a woman, or a bride of Christ in a more special way than man just because she is baptized.

It is one thing for a laywoman to rejoice in their membership in the Church who is Bride of Christ. But they should not whisper to themselves that they are more Bride than men. Nor should they go around making a “consecration” to the Divine Bridegroom as if their baptism (and that of men) has not already made them members of the Bride-Church. They should not go swanning about with veils and other paraphernalia as if they are truly consecrated brides of Christ. Movements such as the pertinacious and dangerously false (but pleasing unto itching ears) Hopes Garden “Consecration to the Divine Bridegroom” should be seen for the charlatan projects they are: teachings and product lines created to make people think they are every inch what they are not: a true Bride of Christ. A woman doesn’t need a headcovering or a private dedication prayer to be a member of the Church! Baptism has already accomplished incorporation into the Bride of Christ, the Church.

In summary, there are many women going around with headcoverings that are signs of their internal material heresies. Of course, not all who wear mantillas are heretics, but many are, because they do hold these false teachings and for many, they are the primary reason for wearing mantillas. Without a good grasp of human nature, philosophy, and theology, more people will accept false teachings because they appeal to their vanity and pride.

Of course, women are not the only victims of a false narrative. Men are too. But that is the subject for another day.

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Vocation or Exploitation?

By Mother Therese Ivers, JCL, JCD (Cand.), OCV, DHS

It is very rare for a contemplative community to be invited to a diocese for the purposes of exploitation.  The reason is quite simple.  The sole “apostolate” of the monks or nuns is to pray, to be united in a powerhouse of prayer.  In many areas, the practical disbelief in the power and utility of prayer makes it impossible for such a community to be adequately supported by the local Catholics from the standpoint of even bare survival.  The locals do not see the point of supporting contemplatives because they don’t get any tangible benefits out of the deal.  They may have the financial resources to support a community, but not the spiritual insight needed.  However, anytime an active community is “founded” or “invited” to a diocese, the faithful should always question whether it is primarily there for the salvation of the members of the community or if it is there to have a cheap source of labor in a particular field.  This applies in a particular way to both prospective donors and applicants.

The primary purpose of a religious institute is for the salvation of the souls of the religious.  Everything about that institute must be geared towards that goal.  Only when and if that fundamental need is fulfilled can a religious turn around and be a good public witness of the ability of God for the fulfillment of one’s whole life to others and devote time in the apostolate.  This principal is on the supernatural plane, what is imitated on a natural plane, e.g. the example of the instructions given on a passenger jet for people to first put on the oxygen mask on themselves and then on others.  One cannot give what one does not have.  

In practical terms, this means that the priority of the spiritual wellbeing of religious demands the curtailment of duties of the apostolate when the individual/communal needs of the religious as religious demand its curtailment.  This, however, is very rarely seen in real life, because the priorities are often inverted: the needs of the apostolate trump the needs of the religious.  Indeed, many active religious depend on the apostolate for their very liveihood, which make them especiallly vulernable to exploitation.  If the community needs to curtail the apostolate to nurture and protect the religious, they quickly find that they cannot do so because their financial support depends on performing the works of the apostolate full-force.  

For the benefit of those who are looking to support a new foundation financially or who are thinking of joining a “new” community, here are some things to consider:

1.  A Bishop’s (Priest’s) Decisions Are Not Infallible

One of the most egregious examples of the abuse of the episcopal office that historically happened in the United States was when bishops invited cloistered nuns such as the Benedictines over to the United States and then fundamentally changed them into active religious communities.  Far from valuing the contemplatives for being a source of prayer, the bishops wanted them to teach.  This was a horrific abuse, and an example of “exploitation”.  The religious were not actually valued for being religious, they were valued for being recruits for cheap labor for a need for Catholic teachers.  The magisterium has to repeatedly remind bishops that they may not tap contemplatives into service for their pet projects/apostolates.

2.  What is Done for the Laity?

If the stated purpose of having a religious community is to serve a certain population, how is the diocese helping the laity who currently serve that population?  E.g. If a teaching community is being founded, what kind of assistance is the diocese giving right now to lay teachers in Catholic schools?  Are teachers getting paid a living wage.  If not, then exploitation of men/women in the proposed active community is more likely as a source of cheap labor.  Are teachers getting a good formation in Catholic teachings?  Again, if not, why not?  If the point of dragging in religious is to provide vetted teachers of the faith, why are the lay teachers not given the formation needed to teach the faith correctly?  (Often the diocese will cite it is not their strict responsibility to provide a Catholic education or that it is too “expensive,” which brings us right back full circle to exploitation of religious for a cheap labor pool.)  If the reason given is to “expose [target group]” to religious in habits, then why do the habited persons need to be around that group full time?  It’s not as if we say that we need priests in their clerical garb teaching 3rd grade in parochial school or at the beside of patients Monday through Friday to expose them to the priesthood. Why the disconnect? Recall that the duty of the priest is primarily that unto ministry; the duty of religious is primarily unto prayer and penance.  In neither case is their primary duty give exposure by their garb to a set group of the faithful day after day in an apostolate.

3. How Will the Well-Being of the Religious be Protected?

Religious have certain needs given the demands of a religious vocation.  In many cases, religious have been recruited to do what should be undertaken by members of Secular Institutes.  Things that are very intrinsic to religious life include “communal life” and “separation from the world”.  For an adequate “life in common”, there must be enough people to handle the actual upkeep of the community in such a manner that does not entail “imbalance” for the individual religious.  Only after the internal needs of the community are actually met, can there be any thought to giving out assignments in a particular apostolate.  Unless the community actually has great numbers within its ranks, it is not possible for religious to work “full time” in an apostolate and still be true to an authentic religious lifestyle.  Not only should the community already be able to meet its internal needs, but it should have safeguards such that an individual religious can be either removed without violating any contract or replaced by one or more religious.  

Good stewardship demands as a principle of justice that the religious life of the religious be protected.  So, if all or a bulk of a religious community’s livelihood depends on the apostolate, then the religious community should never put all eligible religious to “work” in the apostolate: they must keep a reasonable number in “reserve” to replace or relieve a working religious.  If the religious community is unable to support themselves by having a “reserve,” then they must find a way to become financially viable without the need to put all religious to work.  This is not easy, but it is indispensable for authentic religious life.  Religious should not have to skip community retreats on a regular basis because they are “on call” or their presence in the apostolate is always needed to maintain financial stability.

If the vision of the community or bishop lacks such protections for the well-being of individual religious, then donors and prospective candidates should be aware that exploitation is most certainly a factor.  

4.  Fidelity to Charism

Another common form of disrespect to religious, especially religious women, is the desire of bishops and priests to recruit religious to “work” that is not included in the founding charism of the institute.  A male religious institute may decide to “import” a group of religious sisters from a foreign country to be housekeepers and cooks for them instead of either assigning their own members to shoulder the work or in lieu of paying just wages to lay persons to undertake the work.  This is outright exploitation.  Most religious institutes are not founded with the “charism” of being unpaid servants to clerics or fellow religious.  Often, this outright form of exploitation takes the form of a male – even a diocesan bishop or parish priest – wanting to assign a religious sister to serve as his personal housekeeper/cook or to assign the religious (individual or group) to a pet apostolate that is not in line with their actual charism.  Not only will these pet projects go against the founding charism of the religious institute, but the religious themselves are often not given the opportunities to develop as religious.

5.  Putting the Cart Before the Horse

The canonical procedures for the founding of religious institutes are put there for a reason.  Bishops and “founders” often try to take “shortcuts” because they don’t understand the wisdom of said procedures.  Actions like creating a “public association of the faithful” with grandiose plans for building huge motherhouses when only one person is involved in the fake “association” (bishops who attempt to establish an “association” with only one committed individual should reexamine the canons on associations of the faithful… ) or abusing canons 603/604 to try to circumvent an authentic development of a religious community can constitute serious red flags.  The founding of a religious institute is not the same thing as putting together a plan and then recruiting warm bodies to execute the plan.  A community must grow organically, within the parameters provided for in law.  There must be time for it to develop its own peculiar way of following the Lord in poverty, chastity, and obedience.  Donors must be aware of the very fragile nature of associations of the faithful and the statistical likelihood of failure for the majority of such associations before they rush to support them. Religious are real people and communities are comprised of very real people.  Personality differences alone can cause an association to disband, not to mention disagreements on how things are to be done.  It is encumbent upon the man or woman discerning membership in an association of the faithful to ponder whether they are really happy to undertake the risks involved; they are not given the same protections in law that are accorded members of religious institutes.  They may live and die as lay people instead of religious.

6. Does the Diocese Value Consecrated Life?

The success of a new foundation can be dependent on the diocesan attitude towards consecrated life in general, especially its long term attitude. If the atmosphere is to support the community de jour, then what is a new foundation today, encouraged and supported by the diocese and/or bishop will be the discarded community down the road when the diocese finds another more exciting apostolate to recruit people to.

Donors and aspirants should look at how existing communities and forms of consecrated life are currently treated by diocesan officials, the bishop, and clergy. Is there a competent delegate or vicar for consecrated life? Are chaplains and confessors appointed by the bishop who actually know consecrated life and its forms? Is there any meaningful relationship between the bishop and the existing forms of consecrated life or are they ignored or given mere token acknowledgement of their existence? What level of involvement do actual religious have in diocesan and parish structures as laid out in Apostolorum Successores? Are diocesan sponsored monk/nun runs geared primarily to communities and forms of life who exist outside of the diocesan boundaries when there are communities and forms of consecrated life within the diocese? Is there actual warm and constructive dialogue between the consecrated persons of the diocese and the bishop and clergy or are they completely left out of the picture? E.g. Does the bishop solicit advice and/or help for adding personnel to an apostolate from consecrated persons in the diocese or does he arbitrarily “import” or found a community and let the existing consecrated persons find out after the fact through the diocesan paper or other channels?

The (mis)behavior of a diocese and its people towards already existing or past forms of consecrated life in its boundaries should be taken quite seriously when evaluating the viability of a new foundation from the standpoint of the donor or prospective candidate. If a contemplative community was founded and then had to leave because of the lack of stable funding, then it is good to be cautious because such a situation may be ripe for exploitation of active religious. If hermits and virgins are sneered at or forbidden by diocesan officials, then exploitation is possible because the diocese is more likely to objectify religious life for its visible service and desired for cost-cutting measures.

Promising signs of a healthy diocesan attitude towards the consecrated life are the inclusion of consecrated persons in the diocesan and parish structures, a good relationship between the bishop and delegate towards all forms of consecrated life, opportunities for formation and culture given in abundance towards consecrated persons, etc. Because religious participate in the maternal mission of the Church, it is of grave importance for a healthy diocese to promote the feminine dimension of the Church so as to avoid the distortions that arise from a unilateral focus on the priesthood and male values to the practical exclusion of the Marian dimension of the Church. Lip service is insufficient; by deeds and attitudes shall the truth be known.


Catholics, especially bishops and priests, must avoid the “heresy of activism”.  They must stop valuing things solely on the masculine value basis of “productivity”.  Religious must not be objectified by the faithful, clergy, or fellow consecrated persons as merely “doers” of a particular apostolate.  They are not only people, but people willed by God to be first and foremost steeped in an atmosphere geared towards their sanctification and well being.  Exploitation is a real evil, made more evil by disguising it under the cloak of religious life.  Religious life does not exist to ensure the “perpetuity” of devoting warm bodies to an “apostolate” no matter how good the apostolate or pressing the needs of its recipients.  Religious life exists first and foremost for the benefit of the religious and only secondarily for any apostolate.  If it is clear that a bishop or founder principally intends the perpetuity of the apostolate, then it is clear that exploitation is the primary goal.  When the needs of a stable, balanced life in religion conflicts with the demands of the apostolate, the needs of the religious as a religious must always be prioritized.

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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, §2; 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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Is Sacred Virginity a Secular or Religious Vocation?

by Mother Therese Ivers, JCL, JCD (cand), DHS, OCV

It seems that a lot of people have the erroneous impression that sacred virgins are called to secularity, or worse, that they are lay persons. Others likewise erroneously believe it is a religious vocation. It is time to put both errors to rest. Let’s first start with what a lot of people cite when they claim that consecrated virgins are “secular”: Canon 604. Canon 604 is the canon in the Latin Code of Canon Law which describes the vocation in juridic terms. What a lot of people miss, is the fact that it is talking about ALL people who liturgically receive the consecration of virgins, not members of a specific group. Here is what canon 604 states:

§1. Similar to these forms of consecrated life is the order of virgins who, expressing the holy resolution of following Christ more closely, are consecrated to God by the diocesan Bishop according to the approved liturgical rite, are mystically betrothed to Christ, the Son of God, and are dedicated to the service of the Church.

§2. In order to observe their own resolution more faithfully and to perform by mutual assistance service to the Church in harmony with their proper state, virgins can be associated together.

Notice that nowhere in the text does it talk about the vocation of the sacred virgins as being one of that to “secularity” or it being a “lay vocation” or “separated from the world”. For its very definition does not include this terminology. Let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s adapt canon 604 for priests:

§1. Similar to these [other] forms of ordained life is the order of priests who, expressing the holy resolution of following Christ more closely in ministry, are consecrated to God by the diocesan Bishop according to the approved liturgical rite, are conformed to Christ, the Son of God, and are dedicated to the service of the Church.

§2. In order to observe their own resolution more faithfully and to perform by mutual assistance service to the Church in harmony with their proper state, priests can be associated together.

Would this text automatically translate as “the order of priests is secular”? Or, “Priests are called to secularity”? Of course not. Whether the man in question is a hermit, a member of a religious institute, a member of a secular institute, or does not belong to any institute, the priesthood is the priesthood is the priesthood. The priesthood is neither secular by nature nor is it religious by nature. In no part of its definition is “part of the world” or “separated from the world”. It is compatible with either mode of living. If an essential part of the very definition of the vocation to holy orders is “secularity” then the result would be no priest/deacon/bishop would be allowed to be a religious or hermit of any kind because part of the definition of the nature of the vocation of a religious or hermit is “separation from the world”. Likewise, if an essential part of the very definition of the vocation to holy orders is “separation from the world”, then a priest could not be a “diocesan priest” or belong to a “secular institute”. Read this carefully. The very definition of being a priest would preclude the priest from membership in a secular institute or under the direction of a diocesan bishop if part of the definition of the vocation of the priesthood requires “separation from the world”. This is logic 101.

What is striking about the liturgical ritual of consecration of virgins is that both members of cloistered communities can receive it (c.f. the Roman Pontifical) and members of secular institutes can receive it. Religious by law and by definition profess the evangelical counsels and are “separated from the world”. Non clerical secular institute members by law and by definition profess the evangelical counsels and are “leaven within the world”. Note that the evangelical counsels of themselves do not define whether a person is “not separated from the world” or “separated from the world”. The counsels can be practiced in either condition.

When commenting upon the consecration of virgins, people tend to only read part of the liturgical ritual of the consecration of virgins in the Roman Pontifical. This is a grave error. Likewise, they ignore how the ordo virginum is entered according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (hint: through liturgically bestowed consecration). Religious nuns who receive the consecration of virgins receive the same exact consecration as members of secular institutes who receive the same consecration of virgins as those who do not belong to another form of consecrated life. In other words, the homily, minister, consecratory prayer and essential elements of the ritual of consecration of virgins is the same. There isn’t a separate consecration prayer for nuns or hermits vs. members of secular institutes. The Order of Virgins is open to all who validly receive the consecration of virgins, regardless of whether they belong to an institute of consecrated life or eremitic life or not. Why? Because the very nature of the virginal vocation is compatible with all forms of consecrated life (except consecrated widowhood which requires having had intercourse with one’s deceased husband as a prerequisite). Logically, the virginal vocation cannot be identical to that of other forms of consecrated life (so your homework is to figure out what makes this vocation distinct).

The reason a woman who does not belong to a religious order does not don a habit when she receives the consecration of virgins is because the vocation of consecrated virginity does not have as an essential element of its definition “separation from the world”. Likewise, a woman who is a virgin and a nun does not take off a habit if she receives the solemn liturgical consecration of virgins because the vocation of consecrated virginity does not have as an essential element of its definition “leaven within the world” or “secularity”. Again, if one simply takes the time to actually read canon 604 and the Roman Pontifical’s consecration of virgins ritual, it will be abundantly clear that secularity or separation from the world is not and cannot be part of the definition of the vocation itself.

Any serious interpretation of the vocation to sacred virginity must include a rigorous scrutiny of the entire ritual of the consecration of virgins, and not just cherry picking from a portion of it to suit an ideological narrative. Further, this interpretation should take into consideration the normative text which is in Latin. Why? Because many vernacular translations omit (or badly translate) portions of text found in the Latin that give greater insight into the nature of the vocation.

If the vocation to sacred virginity is neither secular nor separated from the world by nature, then what exactly is its nature? A careful reading of the entire ritual (Introduction-Ch. 3), particularly in its Latin form, will furnish the answer. An answer many women, whatever their condition of life, will not like. The answer goes against the narrative many religious women tell themselves and others as far as their self-identity is concerned. It goes against the narrative a lot of clergy have. It is what it is. It is unique. It is an immense privilege; it is an immense responsibility to live up to. For those who need it spelled out, this will be done in my upcoming dissertation on the nature of the vocation to consecrated virginity.

Now, let’s talk briefly about the lay vocation. Sacred virgins are not lay. Let me repeat this, because it is an important point. Sacred virgins are not lay!!! They belong to the consecrated state in the Church, which is distinct from the lay state and the clerical state. Other people who belong to the consecrated state in the Church are diocesan hermits and members of religious institutes (and in the Eastern Churches, consecrated widows). In the words of St. John Paul II: ” The idea of a Church made up only of sacred ministers and lay people does not therefore conform to the intentions of her divine Founder, as revealed to us by the Gospels and the other writings of the New Testament.” Vita Consacrata, n. 29. Sacred virgins have been constituted “sacred persons”. They have existed from the very beginning of the Church, starting with the Blessed Virgin Mary. They are not lay nor called to the lay state.

There is a difference between being in the lay state and being “called to a vocation” in the lay state. A woman can be married and be a religious sister (separated from her husband). She is not “called to a vocation’ in the lay state. She is called to the consecrated state. Marriage is usually between lay persons, but this is not always the case. Some clerics are married. Some consecrated persons are married. Neither are lay or called to lay life. A vocation “to” the lay or secular state is rare: it basically means that a person is called to a secular institute. Simply being lay is not a vocation in and of itself. The vocation to human marriage is not a vocation to the lay state, the couple simply remain in the lay state as opposed to being called to it.

Let us pray that the faithful of the Church learn more about the vocation of those called to be the living images of the Church as Virgin, Bride, and Mother.

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Hermits and Vows

by Mother Therese Ivers, JCD (cand), DHS, OCV

JEANNE LEBERFive to fifteen minutes total of the time I spent in canon law classes for my licentiate in canon law were spent on canons 603 and 604. Why?  Because they either considered too rare of a vocation, or because there is a lot of jurisprudence and history that must go into the proper interpretation of these canons.  A good interpretation of these two canons, which deal with hermits and virgins respectively, can take volumes and much research and familiarity with the development of the vocations, significant legal history, concrete lives of those who lived it in earlier centuries, etc.  I should know.  My first approved subject for my doctoral dissertation was on diocesan hermits.  I wrote extensively before I discovered that someone else had gotten to my conclusion first, and my topic could no longer be considered a significant contribution to the field. 

My second (current) subject of my dissertation is on sacred virgins.  It always amazes me how little native English speakers think there is about this vocation because they cannot read other languages.  The bibliography of just one of my sources contains 50 pages of books, articles, and other treatments on virginity that are utterly unknown to these virgins who rely mostly on religious life to give them guidance instead of their own patrimony.  It is embarassing and scandalous.  If 5 or 10 minutes total is all a priest hears about hermits in all of his formation as a priest and in canon law, then he is simply not an expert on the vocation.  Yet, unfortunately, that is the most that 99.999% of priests and chancery officials know about the hermit vocation.  This is why many make serious blunders when it comes to hermits (and virgins).

At any rate, I am returning to the topic of hermits and vows yet again because in the last few months I have seen 3 separate “professions” of hermits that have sparked grave concern about the direction the eremitic vocation is going in, and part of this concern is linked to errors surrounding the nature of consecrated life and the role and nature of vows.  (I do not think any of the three were valid.)

Let’s begin with the hermit vocation.  The Church recognizes in law, only hermits who are validly consecrated according to the provisions of canon 603.  But wait, what about the “private hermit”!  Isn’t that a vocation?  No.  Simply put, it is not a vocation (if you want to know why, read my upcoming dissertation). It is a lifestyle that is adopted by some members of the faithful who feel called to imitate Catholic hermits who are professed according to canon 603, but who do not conform to canon 603 completely themselves.  Retired clergy and single lay persons can live “like” hermits: they can devote hours upon hours to prayer and penance.  They can live in the “solitude of silence”, segregated from normal society for the most part.  They can -but shouldn’t- even mouth off words of vows, sign made up vows on the altar, and wear costumes.  But they do not have a hermit vocation.  In other words, they can be “hermits”, in the sense of living a lifestyle of prayerful seclusion, but they are not recognized as such by the Church.  

The Church is the protector and clarifier of vocations.  People are expected to conform their lives to the vocations they have been accepted into, and not define a vocation by their own individual lifestyle.  In other words, there are objective standards to which those who are authentically called must live, and definitions which they have no ability to change because to do so would change the nature of the vocation.  In an earlier post, I pointed out that Covid 19 has made a lot of people “recluses”, locked into their homes.  But being mostly confined to the home and being a devout person does not constitute a person a hermit.  The vocation is deeper than a superficial resemblance caused by global lockdowns.  To pretend that all a hermit is is a single person in a household who rarely goes out is to completely miss the point of the vocation to the eremitic life.  Canon 603 merely scratches the surface of what it means to be a hermit, and to be quite frank, it is a pity that it is the only canon on the vocation as this really trips chancery officials who do not know how to interpret it and come up with all kinds of crazy abuses.

A real hermit is one who has thoroughly discerned, internalized, and acted upon the call to be alone with the Alone, in the “silence of solitude”, in strict withdrawal from the world.  A real hermit is one who conforms to the values of the eremitic vocation but does not necessarily adopt all of the means.  E.g. The making of vows and the writing of a rule of life that has been approved are “means” to an end; years of studying about the vows, writing a rule of life that is sensible for living out a genuine eremitic lifestyle, having accountability to God and the Church, these are all ways intended to foster and protect authentic expressions of the eremitic vocation.  Without other people to intervene, a twisted, false ecclesiology, a lifestyle of isolation, unhealthy prayer or penitential practices, and possibly danger to mental health can blossom and grow if the individual is not well balanced, knowlegable, “mature” in faith, etc.  Thus, a hermit is a member of the faithful who conforms to the essentials of the eremitic lifestyle: assiduous prayer and penance “in the silence of solitude”, in “stricter withdrawal from the world”.  The hermit is not a person who is active in priestly ministry, campus ministry, or who otherwise engages in interfacing with people on a regular, sustained basis.  

For most people, it is far easier to be a canonical hermit than a lay (or clerical) hermit at least in theory.  This is because, in theory, the Church assists diocesan hermit candidates in discerning and embracing what is truly eremitical and jettisoning what is an obstacle to that lifestyle.  The vows and rule of life help provide a meaningful way to ascertain whether a person is actually living a life that is suitable for those desiring consecration.  The consecrated state is not merely a “legal” state.  It is an ontological reality to which greater responsibility on the recipient is attached.  Years are spent in formation, in which the theology of the vows should have been assimiliated, the virtues understood and practiced.  Layers of self-deception and walls to grace should have been peeled away in formation and the resulting rule of life should reflect a clearer reflection of the hermit’s understanding of self and the road to greater conformity to Christ.  

Those who do not wish to (or cannot) pursue formation and profession as a hermit under canon 603 have a much harder time of it.  To be faithful to the eremitic lifestyle, they must forgo certain things that could be of great help.  They may not wear a habit, because the habit is a public sign of consecration, and they have chosen a path outside of consecration.  To wear a habit would be to wear a lie, deceiving the faithful about their true status as regular members of the faithful (or clerics).  They may not make vows at Mass because without a legitimate superior, they have no one to receive their vows.  They cannot sign vows on the altar, because that is reserved to those who are liturgically allowed to do so (namely, those who are in approved institutes of consecrated life or those in the process of becoming so with appropriate permission, or those who are professed in the hands of the bishop in accord with canon 603).  Any rule of life that they might have will probably have to be worked out alone without the assistance of canon lawyers and others who might be experts on this lifestyle.  They cannot expect formation or continuing formation from the diocese in the eremitic lifestyle.  This means that often, lay “hermits” will actually not be living authenticly as hermits because they can’t or they won’t or they don’t know how.  E.g. The married husband or wife raising a family is not a “hermit” no matter how devout they are or how many hours they spend in prayer to the detriment of their actual vocation.  The college professor or the activist priest are no more hermits than the local news reporter.  The hermit vocation is not about being a “single religious” living independently, with or without other people, with bits of prayer sprinkled in their day.  It is far richer than that, and that is why most people are not called to this lifestyle, much less vocation.  Humans are social and this is why it is a rare vocation.  God rarely calls people to the hermit life.

Now, a word about vows.  Vows should be studied for years before making them.  There is no point in a private vow of “obedience” as there is no legitimate authority to obey.  Real experts should be consulted for valid vow formulae.  Recently, there was a ceremony with invalid vows for a “diocesan hermit”.  Because the vow formula was invalid, the individual is not a hermit until/unless that is rectified.  

Lastly, let’s briefly discuss private vows.  Private vows do not a hermit make.  Private vows should never be made in a way that gives the impression that the Church accepts or approves those vows, particularly at Mass.  No priest should preside at any Mass or ceremony that looks like the profession of vows for a hermit, because by so doing, he is mocking the actual vocation of diocesan hermits, violating liturgical directives, and in general confusing the faithful about the consecrated state.  It could safely be considered sacriligious to do so as he does not have the authority and it would be simulating a real sacramental (eremitic profession).

St. Paul the First Hermit, pray for us!

P.S.  In case you are wondering, I have studied way more than 5-10 minutes on hermits!!!  I probably have one of the best private collections on hermit books, treatises, and articles in the Americas.  I have also studied for years on consecrated life, the eremitic life, and yes, I do possess a diploma from the Vatican on the Theology and Law of Consecrated Life, making me a perita (expert).  That is why I am writing now.  To share with you so that invalid ceremonies do not continue to harm the dignity of the vocation and make a mockery of the consecrated life.

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