21 August 2008

Question on Private vows: Consecrare versus Dedicare

[[Sister O'Neal, you have written about the difference between private vows and public vows as the difference between a person consecrating themselves to God, and God consecrating the person. Are there actual church documents that indicate such a difference? Isn't consecration consecration whether private or public? (I have private vows so the question is important to me.)]]

Your questions are excellent and they point up an area where my own writing and speaking here has been imprecise. In part, in earlier posts I drew a distinction between active and passive consecration because of the work of another writer on consecrated life, but that may not be adequate. This is because I had not looked at the original language used in several church documents in some time, so your question gave me the chance to do that. The results are significant and will actually cause me to change the way I speak about this matter in the future. In particular, I will no longer speak of a person consecrating herself to God, and try to reserve the term consecration for an action of God only --- for in the strict sense making holy or setting apart as a member of the consecrated state is something only God does; consecration is a divine and not a human action. (Accepted common usage allows one to speak of consecrating something or oneself to God though, but this is really misleading and confusing. What remains true, whatever usage one eventually adopts is the two kinds of ACTION must be distinguished from one another.)

It is in the documents of Vatican II where one finds a clear distinction between what is a divine action and what is a human action. In Lumen Gentium and Perfectae Caritatis, for instance the verb consecrare and noun consecratio are never used for the human element in profession. When the human element is meant, these documents use terms like, se devovere, mancipare, and dedicare. (I have not looked at JP II's Vita Consecrata closely or in the original Latin in this particlar regard, so I can't yet speak to that.) As noted above, what is clear though is that the pertinent documents of Vatican II draw a distinction between consecration, which is something God does, and dedication (etc), which is the corresponding human action involved in profession. Now, if this latter usage is true of the human element in public profession, it is equally true in private profession. At the same time, what is missing in private vows besides the calling forth in the name of the Church is the entire prayer/rite of consecration which is part of perpetual or solemn public profession. This is true whether or not one uses "consecration" in the broad and common sense of dedication or not.

When one is consecrated to and by God through the mediation of the Church in a formal and juridical act, one is set apart in a new state of life ("status"), viz., the consecrated state. Through ecclesial mediation one is changed; it is sometimes spoken of as analogous to the change being effected in the consecration of bread and wine. (I have seen this analogy used by dioceses and archdioceses in explaining the nature of the consecration of a woman in regard to the Consecration of Virgins and, though I would define this change in the person cautiously and specifically in terms of being made fit to receive the graces, rights and obligations of a new state of life, I adopt it here.) Private vows do not involve such mediation by the church or such an act of transformation even though one is (presumably) led by God to make such vows. What this essentially means is that private vows ordinarily mark a continuing lay vocation (that is, it involves no change in state of life); public vows mark a vocation to the consecrated and/or religious state (status). Both involve the significant dedication of self to God and are meaningful and important vocations; both are presumably embraced as responses to the Holy Spirit, but they differ at the same time.

Your own private vows are a specification and intensification of your baptismal vows; your dedication to God is significant, and I personally hope you will reflect on and find ways to share what they mean for the lay vocation. It is actually too bad that while we have the reality of private vows and many lay people with such vows, most of the writing and reflecting about such things are done by priests and religious! This is especially true, I think, in a world so thoroughly secularized and needing the witness of those who resist this secularization while remaining firmly within the world of ordinary temporal affairs. However, it is also true because while the church esteems the lay vocation, she has a long history either of not doing so adequately or of mainly leaving the reflection on it to those who are not part of the lay state. The result is a failure to hear how truly important the lay vocation is from the inside of that vocation --- and that is always sadly inadequate. If, for instance, I write about the importance of the lay eremitical vocation it always raises the question of why it is I did not choose to live as one then. The same inadequacy results often when some people make private vows because on some level they are actually not affirming their own lay vocation; instead they are affirming they do not believe it is "enough"; religious life is better, lay life (they believe) is an entry level vocation only. Unfortunately, until Vatican II, the Church made this way of thinking all-too-easy. So, again, I hope you will find ways to reflect on and write about your own vocation. I believe both it and your own doing this are critically important to many more people than you might know.

Whether one adopts the distinction between passive and active consecrations mentioned in Centered in Christ (Roberts, OCSO), continues to use "consecrate" in the broad and common sense of dedicating to God, or adopts the less ambiguous and (I think) theologically more adequate conciliar linguistic distinction between consecrare and dedicare (etc) to underscore the differences involved, what remains true is that in private vows one is not initiated into the consecrated state. This particular setting apart requires an act of God, and that is one which the church clearly teaches is always mediated by the Church in a public and juridical (canonical) act; it is another (and even the primary) reason vocations to the consecrated state are called ecclesial vocations.

I hope this helps. As always, if this raises more questions or is unclear in some way, please get back to me.