ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
80. The rite for the consecration of virgins at present found in the Roman Pontifical is to be revised.
Moreover, a rite of religious profession and renewal of vows shall be drawn up in order to achieve greater unity, sobriety, and dignity. Apart from exceptions in particular law, this rite should be adopted by those who make their profession or renewal of vows within the Mass.
Religious profession should preferably be made within the Mass.
Sacrosanctum Concilium, the first declaration to come forth from Vatican II, covers every aspect of Church worship. Much of what it treats is quite familiar—the sacraments, for example—but other aspects of public worship were much more obscure, and in our case at hand remain so today. Para. 80 treats of the “consecration of virgins.” Virtually unknown to most Catholics today, the idea of lay virginity takes its roots from the New Testament and exists to this day, though in minute numbers. Every few years a diocesan Catholic paper will carry a picture of a woman professing a vow of perpetual virginity to the local bishop. The number of vowed perpetual virgins around the world, as of July 2018, is about 5000, per the Catholic news service Crux in 2018. There are but 3200 dioceses on the planet, so you need not be embarrassed if you know nothing of what I’m talking about.
It may be more likely that one might encounter a different form of lay dedication, an “associate” of an existing religious order, a person who embraces the ideals of a religious tradition such as the Cistercian [Trappists], Franciscan, Dominican, or Jesuit, etc., while living in the everyday world. “The Third Order of St. Francis” [today referred to as the Secular Franciscan Order] is a good example, as a worldwide structured organization of lay men and women who meet periodically for prayer, instruction in the Franciscan tradition, and participation, if possible, in the Franciscan works of charity to the poor, particularly in large cities. Members live in the spirit of poverty, chastity, and obedience to the best of their ability and make solemn promises to do so, but these promises are not, canonically speaking, vows. [A canonical vow, those taken by full members of religious orders, require a dispensation from Rome for release from the commitment, a process called ‘exclaustration.”] Note that one of the promises or vows is to chastity, as distinguished from virginity. Associates of religious orders continue a conjugal life if married.
In recent years the concept of “associate” has taken on a new flavor as a recruiting instrument for religious orders, particularly of women religious. The idea here is the development of opportunities for experimentation in the lifestyle of the institute or order. For example, South Carolina’s Mepkin Abbey, where Margaret and I retreat every year, has developed structured programming of lived experience for those considering a vowed Trappist life. An associate with no intention of joining the order is welcomed to make annual or more frequent retreats, as well as to meet and pray over monthly internet gatherings. The income from retreatants is the main support of the monastery as well. CARA is the only research center I can find which has researched the numerical total of “associates;” its 2016 research places the number of associates at about 56,000 in the United States, with a large majority over the age of 40. CARA does not include associates as an annual category in its census of the American Church.
The “consecrated virgins” referred to in para. 80 are not tracked by CARA, either. The church officer responsible for consecrated virgins is the local bishop, and the diocese is required to keep record of those whom the bishop has seen fit to permit the making of a solemn perpetual promise. What is vowed is virginity. The first point to be made is that para. 80 is not talking about nuns, who live in community and make three-fold promises of poverty, chastity, and obedience, or solemn vows if in major orders such as the Dominicans. The second point is gender: the consecration of virgins is a female rite, for reasons enumerated below. And third, the word “virginity” has theological and legal meanings in Church theology and law, and at times these are at conflict with each other.
One of my relatives undertook this consecration about the time I was born. She has since passed away, and I’m sorry that I never inquired about her state during my adult years, though I don’t remember anyone ever talking about her state. What I satisfied myself with at the time was that she had taken a major vow to never marry, that she kept her day job in retail clothing, that she was significantly involved in ministries of her parish and civic community, and extended charity of all sorts to her large family of origin.
The history of consecrated virgins is quite ancient. The origin of the practice can probably be dated to the time of St. Paul and the apocalyptic mood of expectation of the end of the world and the Second Coming of Christ. Paul, in this atmosphere, writes that while married persons should not separate, it is better for the unmarried that they do not engage in new intimate relationships but focus instead on prayer and good works, that Christ might find them thus upon his return. The idea of virginity—the freely chosen abstinence of any sexual activity—is thus wedded to the idea that one has stepped out of the normal world to bear a powerful witness to a world yet to come. In my training for the more conventional religious order vows, this witness to the future aspect of chastity was presented as one of several rationales.
Over much of the Church’s history, however, the more common metaphor for the virgin was “bride of Christ.” If you look at the lists of saints in Eucharistic Prayer I, just about all of the female names—Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, etc.—are those of young, marriage age adolescents whose surviving biographies follow a pattern of resistance to men in authority who desired to possess them and who killed them for the saints’ refusal to give themselves to anyone except God. In later centuries women mystics describe their ecstatic encounters with Christ in language that borders on the erotic at times. Even today, the term “Bride of Christ” is used to describe consecrated virgins in Canon Law, code 604.
“Bride of Christ” is an official descriptive term in Church practice for women who have taken vows of virginity; the sexual imagery is not accidental. The same marital metaphor is frequently applied to Christ and the Church, before and after Vatican II, most recently in the Catechism, para. 796. Consecrated virginity is described as a “sacramental” of God’s union with his chosen people; virgins are a living sign of this reality. It should be noted that the consecrated virgins live on their own in the world, though post-Council popes have encouraged some sort of common life to assist in preserving the vow and spiritual growth through common prayer and shared good works. [Practically speaking, this is nearly impossible: Russia, for example, is known to have four consecrated virgins in the entire country.] Canon Law is clear that the Church has no financial responsibilities for consecrated virgins.
There is a quixotic element to this lifestyle, and perhaps the subject of para. 80 could have been passed over in this liturgical posting stream. But the subject of virginity itself is a major consideration in Catholic theology, particularly morality. My guess is that most readers have some recollection of St. Maria Goretti. In 1902 she was assaulted by a youth seeking intercourse. According to one biographer, she tried to resist, crying out that “No, God does not wish it. It is sin. You would go to hell for it.” She protected her virginity but was stabbed to death for her resistance. In 1950 she was canonized by Pope Pius XII. As theologian Sister Anne Patrick wrote in 1997, her canonization “reinforced the emphasis upon a young woman’s responsibility for the sexual behavior of a dating couple typical for the Catholic education of the day,” i.e., the post-World War II industrialized countries.
A similar canonization took place closer to our own time, as the New York Times reported on August 16, 1985. In this case a Catholic nun was killed rather than surrender her virginity to a military officer during Zaire’s civil war in 1964. In his declaration, Pope John Paul II praised Sister Marie Clementine Anwarite, for demonstrating “the primordial value accorded to virginity,” and he added that he forgave the man who killed her. The systematic rape and torture of missionary religious sisters during Africa’s decolonizing wars in the 1960’s reached numbers where the administration of birth control pills was not unheard of; Pope Francis raised the subject in an informal press conference in 2016.
Patrick writes that the general acceptance of St. Maria Goretti’s canonization in 1950 was not repeated in 1986 for St. Marie Clementine, as theological concerns about the patriarchal nature of sexual morality were growing on three fronts:  that virginity, of all the possible virtues, was assuming too much attention in the moral hierarchy, which in actuality begins with the Beatitudes; “the one virtue worth dying for;”  that virginity appeared to subvert women to a kind of sexual scrutiny that men rarely if ever experience; and  the catechetics of vows in general was liable to create a spiritual caste within the Church, or rather, continue one. Vowed living has been considered the more sacred or difficult life than the married state, though marriage, too, is a vowed life. Why is one considered more “chosen” than the other?
The call for a new rite of consecration of virgins was made in Sacrosanctum Concilium in 1963. The most recent Vatican document on consecrated virginal life is Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago . I cannot help but point out that there is no comparable rite for males, nor an organized format for monitoring sexual behaviors such as that listed in this document here:
Dismissal from the Ordo virginum
71. If a consecrated woman has notoriously defected from the catholic faith or has contracted marriage, even only civilly, the Bishop will collect the evidence and declare her dismissal from the Ordo virginum, so that it is recognized juridically.
72. If a consecrated woman is accused of very serious external and imputable crimes or failings against the obligations arising from her consecration, such as to cause scandal among the people of God, the Bishop will begin the process of dismissal. He will therefore inform the woman about the accusations and the proofs that have been collected, giving her the opportunity for defense.
If the Bishop considers her defense insufficient, and there is no other way to provide for her correction, for the restoration of justice and reparation of the scandal, he will dismiss her from the Ordo virginum. The decree of dismissal must express at least in summary form the reasons for the decision. It will not take effect until it has been confirmed by the Holy See, to whom all the acts must be forwarded. The decree will not be valid if it does not indicate the consecrated woman’s right to have recourse to the competent authority within ten days of receiving notification of the decree. The recourse has a suspensive effect.
Record-keeping and communication about separation
73. In all cases of the separation of a consecrated woman from the Ordo virginum, the diocesan Bishop will arrange for this to be recorded in the book of consecrations. He will take care to inform the other consecrated women about it, either personally or through the Delegate, and the Pastor responsible so that he may note it in the Baptismal register.