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Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago punts on one problem, fixes a second, but greatly worsens a third

July 5, 2018

With papal approval the Roman dicastery in charge of consecrated life has just published an important document on consecrated virginity, Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago. Now, according to the plain terms of ESI, the Blessed Virgin Mary, archetype of virginity consecrated to God, would not be eligible for admission to the order of virgins, but Mary Magdalene, model for women who, Deo gratias, set aside a promiscuous life, would be eligible.

Something, I suggest, is seriously wrong with such norms.

Within the confines of a blog post—so this is not a comprehensive analysis of the document nor of the issues it was trying to address*—I will critique three key points about ESI, namely, that it: fails to correct a mistaken admission criterion currently found in the 1970 Rite of Consecration of Virgins; improves a badly-framed admission criterion that till now has prevented some otherwise eligible women from entering this order; and, most unfortunately, formalizes a serious eligibility error hitherto only implicit in the current rite.

Preliminarily, note that ESI is an “instruction” and, while Roman dicasteries and arch/diocesan leadership are not consistent in respecting the requirements of this genre, Canon 34 generally limits the impact of instructions to those matters in which they are consistent with prior Church law (usually canon and liturgical). In other words, no binding changes to fundamental Church teaching can be achieved by an instruction. Further, I leave aside some of the practical and administrative questions that are raised by ESI and look forward to others’ evaluations of ESI’s narration of the history, anthropology, and ecclesial meaning of consecrated virginity.

To my three points.

1. Both the 1970 Rite and now ESI 84 expressly prohibit women who were ever married from being consecrated virgins. Thus, Our Lady, Queen of Virgins, would not be admitted to the order of virgins because she had been married. This is not a “gotcha” criticism; rather, it illustrates the problems caused by Rome’s predilection for using circumlocutions and euphemisms in documents that call for definitions and clarity. Let’s back up.

Long story made short, a woman who has not freely engaged in penile-vaginal sexual intercourse is a “virgin” while one who has engaged in that act is not. That most women never married are virgins and most married women are not virgins, is true, of course, but it is plainly wrong to treat marital status itself as dispositive of whether a woman is a virgin and so marital status should not have been cast as such in the 1970 Rite nor repeated in ESI.

That Our Lady is a ‘special case’, of course (though there are other married virgins in Church history), does not excuse a dicastery’s framing or retaining a requirement for admission to the order of virgins that actually excludes the Blessed Virgin from the order. Consider: the marriage of Mary and Joseph was also a ‘special case’, but the Church spent centuries developing and articulating a definition of marriage that embraced—not excluded, embraced!—the marriage of Mary and Joseph. The care spent making clear that Mary and Joseph were genuine spouses (not ‘pretend’ or ‘partial’ spouses) not only preserved the truth about their marriage but it helped the Church identify and defend the truth about all marriage. Similarly, Mary’s first place in the order of feminine virginity demands no less precision from those responsible for shaping Church thinking about virginity than her role as the wife in the Holy Family, shedding light on the order of marriage, received from them. Using a woman’s marital status as a circumlocution for whether she is a virgin obscures what is being consecrated.

2. The 1970 Rite and ESI 84 preclude from consecration as virgins women who have, in some notable way, violated chastity. This and similar phrasing seems to be a euphemism for “had sexual intercourse”, but in speaking so broadly, it confuses the virtue of chastity with the fact of virginity. Simply put, women can violate chastity in many ways, but in only one way do they lose their virginity. An unchaste life might well be an obstacle to living as a consecrated virgin, but, may not the same be said of unchastity prior to holy orders, religious life, or even marriage itself? If so, why is “unchastity” a bar to one way of life but not to these others? Moreover, the great differences in the types and degrees of unchastity militate against using that broad moral notion as a juridic criterion for admission to a way of life.

Fortunately, ESI 93 clarifies how the 1970 Rite and ESI 84 should henceforth be understood in regard to that unchastity which contra-indicates a woman’s suitability for admission to the order of virgins by requiring bishops “to ascertain that she has never lived in public or open violation of chastity, that is, in a stable situation of cohabitation or in similar situations that would have been publicly known” (emphasis added). This language, while still not perfect, suffices, I think, to cover the majority of cases wherein women who acknowledge one or more unchaste acts, yet acts not destructive of their virginity, may still be considered for admission to the order of virgins.

3. Nemo dat quod non habet. / One cannot give what one does not have. A woman who has lost her virginity, as summarized above, has no virginity to consecrate to the Lord. Through the centuries until, I suggest, the appearance of the 1970 Rite, a polite but firm inquiry into the fact of virginity was part of the discernment process undertaken for woman seeking admission to the order of virgins. Only in the last few decades—largely as a result of conscience situations arising in certain religious communities—did circumlocutions begin to appear that seemed to undermine the necessity of virginity for consecration as a virgin. In the 1970 Rite the inquiry about virginity quietly disappeared but the requirement itself was not repudiated.

With the publication of ESI, however, virginity is, formally, no longer required for consecration as a virgin: “In this context it should be kept in mind that the call to give witness to the Church’s virginal, spousal and fruitful love for Christ is not reducible to the symbol of physical integrity. Thus to have kept her body in perfect continence or to have practised 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.” ESI 88.

This is a stunning assertion. Simply stunning. Under it, Mary Magdalene, extreme in her sins but outstanding in her repentance, seems eligible for consecration as a virgin. More practically, many, many women, less obvious in sexual sin and likely less perfect in repentance, are now eligible for consecration precisely as virgins.

Let’s see how ESI 88 brings this about.

First, the straw man of “physical integrity” (basically, an intact hymen) is cited as if that were proof of a woman’s virginity (which it obviously is not, though many might not think of that). But then, having rightly warned the reader not to focus on “physical integrity” as if that were virginity, ESI immediately substitutes “perfect continence”—another unfamiliar term but one describing a situation that, if verified, would satisfy as proof of virginity!—and rejects it as being necessary for admission to the order of virgins.

I know of no ecclesiastical document in history, until Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago, that directly and effectively denies that virginity is required for one’s consecration as a virgin. Even in the last few decades, where inquiries into the fact of virginity were dangerously diluted, no responsible ecclesiastical official or document that I know of ever denied that what is required in a woman here is virginity—not a wish for virginity, not a hence-forth perpetual resolve for perfect continence, not sorrow over the loss of one’s virginity in a single one-night stand, however laudable all of those sentiments are, but virginity itself.

If a single act of sexual intercourse suffices juridically for consummation of marriage (and it does, see Canon 1061 § 1), then why should not a single act of sexual intercourse suffice juridically for the loss of virginity that prevents consecration as a virgin? St. Jerome, that Father who, perhaps more than any other, laid the foundations for the ecclesiastical recognition of consecrated virginity (but who, curiously, is never mentioned in ESI) declared: “Let me flatly say that not even God, who can do all things, can restore virginity once it is destroyed” (Ep. 22 ad Eustochium, 5, my trans.).

One is left wondering, then, If virginity is not being consecrated in a consecrated virgin, what is?

My suggestions:

First, with regard to possible petitions from formerly-married women to the order of virgins, and recognizing that it is not marriage per se but sexual intercourse that deprives one of virginity (and suggesting, if appropriate, exploration of an Order of Widows at the local level), should, on rare occasion, an inquiry about whether a marriage was actually consummated seems useful, a process for such an inquiry seems available per 1983 CIC 1681 / Mitis 1678.

Second, women who acknowledge one or more acts, even serious ones, against chastity may nevertheless be considered for admission into the order of virgins provided those acts did not result in the loss of virginity, and, for the very rare close cases still imaginable under ESI 84, Rome may be consulted.

Third, recalling the limited authority of documents issued as “instructions”, the ‘optional virginity’ claim in ESI seems to me so far outside of the canonical and liturgical tradition that I suggest, first, it be immediately derogated from ESI itself, and, in the hopeful meantime, that it not be relied upon by a bishop assessing a woman’s basic eligibility for the order of virgins if he learns that she has freely engaged in even one act of sexual intercourse, conjugal or otherwise.

A last thought: most of these problematic points would be avoided, of course, if virginity, as a quality of the human person that some women choose to preserve and some do not, were, in a Church document carrying juridic directions on consecrated virginity, directly defined and consistently treated without resort to circumlocutions and euphemisms. + + +

* For more background on issues related to the rite of consecration of virgins, see, e.g., Edward Peters, “Toward reform of the first criterion for admission to the order of virgins”, Studia Canonica 48 (2014) 467-491. Canon 604 of the 1983 Code recognizes consecrated virginity as an approved way of life for eligible women. The rite of consecration of virgins itself is available in, e.g., The Rites II (Pueblo, 1980) 132-164.

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