A challenge to the Vatican from America’s consecrated virgins

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jul 12, 2018

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.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Jul. 15, 2018 8:51 AM ET USA

    jbaumberg4257: It seems to me that Augustine has it exactly right, which is why I wrote in a previous comment that, in cases of rape, "perhaps even some exceptions could be made". There is no question that someone whose loss of virginity has come about only through rape remains undefiled in God's sight; no sin can attach to this. A consecrated virgin who is raped has not in any way been unfaithful to her vocation. Someone who has been raped who wants to become a consecrated virgin could certainly make the consecration with a clear conscience. Whether such an exception should be made, however, would depend on a prudential consideration of several factors, two of which easily come to mind: (1) Sometimes admittance to a desired vocation is denied based on various kinds of impediments which have nothing to do with sin or fault, much as a man cannot be ordained a priest unless he has the use of his hands. One must consider the impact on the vocation as a whole, for the person seeking admittance to it, for all those who have already embraced it, and for its own internal logic; (2) Sometimes something in one's past could cause a person not to be accepted in a particular vocational choice. Here one must consider whether someone who has been raped is likely to be able to make a truly free choice of virginity from the right motives--or is the choice induced by trauma or some resulting psychological distortion? None of these are light questions, but there can be no question that rape does not defile a woman in God's eyes, regardless of what sinful men have done to her body.

  • Posted by: Jbaumberg4257 - Jul. 14, 2018 1:41 PM ET USA

    How do you handle St. Augustine's rejoinder to the rape of the consecrated virgins in the sack of Rome in 410 AD? (City of God, bk 1): "If women were violated, they are still pure because they did not consent and their morals were unsullied. Purity is a property of the mind, and unwelcome acts upon our bodies do not defile them. Those who were violated are still chaste, and God will use this circumstance to help them grow in virtue." (Steve West) This may be the Vatican's thinking.

  • Posted by: LCRich - Jul. 14, 2018 11:56 AM ET USA

    In my opinion, virginity is “physical virginity.” We must not overlook the fact that anyone, regardless of their past sexual behaviors, is able to practice chastity and offer their life of chastity to God. Chastity is a very strong virtue to build our Faith and deepen the love of God within our soul.

  • Posted by: fatdogs8245 - Jul. 14, 2018 11:02 AM ET USA

    Dr. Mirus, The question of a young woman who has been raped also came to mind as a possible intended exception, and while I agree with one commentator that hard cases make bad law, it seems what is first required before making exceptions is a clear definition of what it means to be a virgin. What part does the will (intention) have in determining this state or is it purely a physical description? A deeper understanding of Mary's perpetual virginity would lead us here.

  • Posted by: billG - Jul. 13, 2018 10:20 PM ET USA

    Is there a connection between a "consecrated virgin" who is not a virgin, and a "marriage" between two of the same sex? Western 'civilization' is destroying the meaning of words in order to accommodate the times. Does the Church have to lead the way?

  • Posted by: john.n.akiko7522 - Jul. 13, 2018 9:25 PM ET USA

    Unfortunately the foxes seem to be running the hen house

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Jul. 13, 2018 8:58 PM ET USA

    goredawg: We can recognize the unique situation presented by a woman who has been raped, and perhaps even some exception could be made, but here the adage applies that hard cases make bad law. We would not want to lose the meaning of virginity in the name of what we might call a more therapeutic culture. Clearly, no woman who has been raped should be made to feel diminished in any way; love and support are essential. But this cannot translate into a breaking of the real connection between physical virginity and what it means to be a consecrated virgin. Apart from hard cases involving coercion, what we "do with our bodies" matters enormously to our interior life and spiritual commitments. Here, again, we are dealing with one unique vocation, which ought not to be destroyed in its essence.

  • Posted by: extremeCatholic - Jul. 13, 2018 7:41 PM ET USA

    Weaponzied ambiguity.

  • Posted by: shrink - Jul. 13, 2018 3:56 PM ET USA

    One has a right to his own opinion, but not to his own facts. Feelings and opinions are not facts and wishful thinking will not make them so, even if you are transgender, or reside in the Vatican.

  • Posted by: garedawg - Jul. 13, 2018 11:40 AM ET USA

    The whole emphasis on physical virginity I find somewhat disturbing, because it reminds me of these more "traditional" cultures where if a women is raped, she is seen as ruined goods. I know that the physical virginity of the Holy Virgin Mary is a key doctrine of our church, but making it such a big deal for the rest of us might cause a woman to fall into despair because she can never get her virginity back. I've seen it happen.

  • Posted by: feedback - Jul. 13, 2018 1:50 AM ET USA

    This inversion of standards, not just lowering them, could be a prelude to something much more offensive. It's unclear what motivated these particular changes: was it shortage of consecrated virgins, or pressing desires of non-virginal candidates for consecrations? I'm afraid it's neither.