What’s the Difference Between a Nun and a Consecrated Virgin?

Q1: What’s the difference between a nun and a consecrated virgin?  I assumed the two terms were synonymous, until I read recently about a new Vatican document on the topic of consecrated virgins, and it sounds like they are something different from nuns….  Aren’t all nuns consecrated virgins?  If not, what does this term mean, then? –Karen

Q2: I have been discerning consecrated virginity for several years now but I am not sure if I am qualified.  While I have never engaged in any sexual activity with another person, I have in the past violated chastity in the form of solitary vice.  So while I have physical virginity to bring, I don’t have intact chastity, and I find it difficult to determine whether it matters or not, in terms of canonically or morally excluding me.

The issue of what constitutes virginity seems to be quite complex, in that on the one hand it seems to be understood “morally” as having abstained with integrity from sexual pleasure, and on the other hand to be much more literally a matter of not having engaged voluntarily in actual sex.  My own impression of the liturgy of consecration is that it is the latter that is important, but I am not an expert on these things.

I’m finding it difficult to get people to understand that CV isn’t like “modern” religious life, and that it does actually matter what’s happened in the past as well.  I can’t get anyone to understand why I think it is a problem.  I think the religious order most of my advice comes from have long since made the decision that repentance is sufficient and don’t understand why it isn’t in this specific circumstance, despite theology. –Hannah

A:  As Karen notes, a few months ago the Vatican issued an Instruction on the topic of consecrated virgins, called Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago.  It was quite timely, too, since it’s becoming clear that more and more Catholic women are interested in joining the age-old “Order of Virgins.”  Yet there are still plenty of Catholics who, like Karen, are unfamiliar with the concept of the consecrated virgin in the Church, and wrongly think that this is exactly the same as becoming a member of a women’s religious institute—it’s not.  Let’s first take a look at what consecrated virgins actually are, and then we’ll be able to tackle Hannah’s more specific question about virginity in this context.

We Catholics are certainly familiar with women religious, since the Church has many institutes of sisters (engaged in active apostolates like teaching or medical work) and nuns (engaged in a contemplative life of prayer, apart from the world).  In English, both types of women religious are referred to as “Sister,” but as we saw in “What’s the Difference Between Sisters and Nuns?” they involve two significantly different types of religious life.

The most important aspects of religious life that both sisters and nuns have in common are the profession of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience (c. 573.1), and community life in a canonically erected religious institute (c. 573.2).  Note that all religious—both men and women—take a vow of chastity, but that does not necessarily mean that all of them are virgins.  In fact, a fair number of the Church’s great saints became members of religious orders only after being widowed.  Saints Bridget of Sweden (founder of the Bridgettines), Rita of Cascia (Augustinian), and Francis Borgia (Jesuit) were all married with children in their earlier life, and thus were obviously not virgins when they entered their respective religious institutes.  There is no contradiction here: the vow of chastity involves abstinence from sexual activity from now on, when the person is a member of a religious institute, and does not pertain to the person’s previous life.

But the life of a consecrated virgin is different.  Even in the early years of the Church, there were women living in the world who voluntarily chose not to marry, opting instead for life-long virginity as a “Bride of Christ.”  Over the centuries, it began largely to overlap with what gradually became “religious life” as it is known today, and so the original practice fell more or less into desuetude for generations.

That changed with the promulgation in 1963 of Sacrosanctum Concilium, Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.  The Council Fathers ordered the rite for the consecration of virgins to be revised (SC 80); and after Pope Paul VI approved the revision, it was published in 1970.  An English translation of this “Order for the Consecration of Virgins” can be found here, beginning on page 2.

This is why the current (1983) Code of Canon Law contains a specific reference to consecrated virgins, as an order distinct from the communal religious life of sisters and nuns:

The order of virgins is also to be added to these forms of consecrated life. Through their pledge to follow Christ more closely, virgins are consecrated to God, mystically espoused to Christ and dedicated to the service of the Church, when the diocesan Bishop consecrates them according to the approved liturgical rite (c. 604.1).

The specific duties of consecrated virgins are described in the 1970 document:

Those who consecrate their chastity under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit do so for the sake of a more fervent love of Christ and of greater freedom in the service of their brothers and sisters.

They are to spend their time in works of penance and of mercy, in apostolic activity, and in prayer, according to their state of life and spiritual gifts.

To fulfill their duty of prayer they are strongly advised to recite the liturgy of the hours each day…. In this way, by joining their voice to those of Christ the High Priest and of His Church, they will offer unending praise to their heavenly Father and pray for the salvation of the whole world. (2)

Note that nowadays, it’s possible for both cloistered nuns and women living in the world to receive this consecration.  Nuns, of course, have already taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, as mentioned above; but women living in the world have not—and since the latter are often living alone, and are probably working to support themselves in some way, vows of poverty and obedience are not necessarily appropriate for them in any case.

So we can see that being a member of a women’s religious institute (i.e., a sister or a nun), and being a consecrated virgin, are not the same thing!  Let’s now take a look at the question which Hannah raises.  It’s ordinarily assumed that a “consecrated virgin” is a virgin … but is physical virginity actually a requirement?

The 1970 Order for the Consecration of Virgins provides an oblique answer, when it describes “those who may be consecrated.”

In the case of women living in the world it is required:
a) that they have never been married or lived in public or flagrant violation of chastity;
b) that by their age, prudence, and universally attested good character they give assurance of perseverance in a life of chastity dedicated to the service of the Church and of their neighbor;
c) that they be admitted to this consecration by the bishop who is the local Ordinary [i.e., the diocesan bishop].
It is for the bishop to decide on the conditions under which women living in the world are to undertake a life of perpetual virginity. (5)

Note that there is nothing here to suggest that a woman living in the world cannot become a consecrated virgin if, let’s say, she previously engaged in sinful sexual activity outside of marriage, of which she has now repented.  It’s certainly not impossible for a woman who is not physically a virgin to later become a consecrated virgin; the only caveat in the Vatican document is that she cannot have lived in “public or flagrant violation of chastity.”  So long as she has not been the cause of scandal in this regard, the diocesan bishop can definitely permit a woman who has lost her virginity, but has now determined to live a chaste life as a Bride of Christ, to become a consecrated virgin.  Ultimately, it’s his call.

It’s not clear why Hannah is so convinced that “the issue of what constitutes virginity seems to be quite complex,” and that “repentance is [not] sufficient.”  If she has engaged in sexual sin(s) in the past, but (a) she has confessed this and received absolution in the Sacrament of Penance, and (b) her bishop is aware of the issue but nonetheless believes she is spiritually a suitable candidate for consecration in the order of virgins, that’s all she needs to know!  It sounds like Hannah wants to become a consecrated virgin, yet is determined to prove that she cannot—because (in her words) “it does actually matter what’s happened in the past.”  It is the bishop, and not Hannah, who has the authority to make the final decision in her case; and if she is so convinced that some “theology” (which she fails to articulate) would render the bishop unable to approve of her consecration, well, you have to wonder why she’s talking about becoming a consecrated virgin in the first place.

While there don’t seem to be any reliable, official statistics on how many Catholic women around the world have become consecrated virgins, Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago notes the “rapidity of its growth” in some parts of the world (10), which is what prompted the Vatican to issue the guidelines contained in this document.  Quite a few of the older institutes of women religious have been seeing their numbers dwindle for several decades already—but it could be that God is leading women to devote themselves to Him in this not-so-new, different way.

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