A challenge to the Vatican from America’s consecrated virgins
The recent Vatican Instruction “Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago” on the “Ordo virginum” has caused considerable distress among consecrated virgins in America, and presumably elsewhere. This is evident in a preliminary statement issued today by the United States Association of Consecrated Virgins, which concluded its annual convention today in Miami, Florida.
According to USACV President Judith M. Stegman, JCL the nub of the problem is the lack of clarity in the Instruction issued by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, which seems to invalidate the traditional requirement that consecrated virgins be, in natural reality, actual virgins. The problematic sentence is found in number 88:
Thus to have kept her body in perfect continence or to have practiced the virtue of chastity in an exemplary way, while of great importance with regard to the discernment, are not essential prerequisites in the absence of which admittance to consecration is not possible.
This statement raises an important question, namely, whether losing one’s virginity is a failure “to have kept her body in perfect continence” which does not necessarily make admittance to virginal consecration impossible. In other words, is actual virginity a necessary foundation for consecrated virginity?
Clearly, a previous lack of virginity should not be an impediment to offering perfect chastity to the Lord in the future. This can be done in many forms. As an example, many spiritual writers have recommended that widows not marry a second time, but rather embrace the opportunity to devote themselves exclusively to God for the rest of their lives. Nor should the Mary Magdalenes of the world regard their lack of natural or physical virginity as an impediment to a deep commitment to Christ actuated through perfect chastity going forward.
But when it comes to the formal state of consecrated virginity, something different has always been involved, namely the consecrated virginity, both existent and ongoing, of a fairly young woman who freely renounces not only sins against chastity but her freedom to engage in even morally legitimate sexual relations (within marriage) without ever having experienced them. This is a radical, lifelong commitment to become a spouse of Jesus Christ without ever, legitimately or illegitimately, having experienced the pleasures of sexual intercourse here on earth. So it has always been understood, and so the actual Rite of Consecration still assumes the case to be.
We can see through a small thought experiment how easily a failure to recognize the connection between actual virginity and consecrated virginity can become absurd. For if physical virginity is not a requirement for the vocation of consecrated virginity within the Church, at what point would this make an absurdity of the vocation? What would its meaning be for those who embrace virginity only at an advanced age? Or for those who choose to forego sexual relations only after enjoying many years of marriage? Or for those have habitually lived unchastely over a long period of time? Surely such persons should be able to commit themselves to a life free of sexual relations in the future, and to embrace that commitment as part of their path of growth in holiness. Just as surely, such persons cannot really embrace in its vocational fullness the life of a consecrated virgin.
An issue with deep repercussions
Moreover, if they could, the meaning of “virginity” would have changed. There is more at stake here than the difference between a primary and secondary commitment, for a secondary commitment for the right motives is spiritually excellent; or the difference between an unequivocal initial commitment and a commitment made in the aftermath of sexual experience, for here again a sadder but wiser commitment for the right motives is also spiritually excellent. But consecration to virginity before all else is a special grace and a special vocation which is as founded on natural virginity as is the virginity of a woman entering marriage for the first time. One cannot be consecrated to what one is not. Avoiding sexual relations in the future, after one has already engaged in them, may be praiseworthy, but it does not make one a “virgin”.
Here we run smack into what we call “reality”. In our age we have come very close to losing the connection between what is real and what we desire. We do not acknowledge that our being is a tremendous gift and our nature is likewise a gift, a gift with an in-built moral and spiritual structure to give us important clues about both our purpose and our destiny. This lack of connection to reality—and the corresponding refusal to take seriously our obligation to address the horrendous problems it causes—is easily the most fundamental challenge our time.
Severing the relationship between natural or physical virginity and what we might a psychological virginity “going forward” or even “in spite of what our bodies are doing” is extremely dangerous in our world, and it is the last thing the Church should encourage in any way. In our age more than ever, we need to recognize who we are as human persons. We are unions of body and soul, and the “state” of our bodies determines in many ways the vocations which are open to us, and to which we are called, and to which our very souls ought to aspire. All of this and more is encompassed by the unfailing Providence of God, who always calls us to Himself. If we close one door, He will open another. But the recognition of such changed options is in itself important evidence of spiritual growth.
If we have learned anything through a generation of denying reality, we ought to recognize that this denial, this severance from the real, leads not to greater happiness but to destruction and death, not only for each man, woman and child personally, but for entire cultures and civilizations. For all these reasons—and without in any way minimizing the importance of conversion and rebirth in Christ for anyone, with or without anything sexual in their past to regret—the United States Association of Consecrated Virgins has raised an important question, one which strikes at the very heart of our current malaise.
Let us pray for a resolution which recognizes human nature, as God has created it in each of us, for the gift it truly is.
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