19 September 2011

Consecrated Virginity and Secularity, Some More Questions


[[Dear Sister Laurel, I still disagree with your proposal that the Consecrated Virgin is a secular in what one CV calls, "the strong sense." She makes clear on her blog (Sponsa Christi) that Lumen Gentium defines laity as those who have neither entered the consecrated state, nor those with Holy Orders and cites par 31. She also notes that Lumen Gentium says that secularity is peculiar to the Laity. Because of this she argues that consecrated virgins are 1) not laity, and 2) not called to a secular vocation in the strong sense of the term, but rather in order to set them off against cloistered nuns who also receive the consecration of virgins.]]

These are good points. Let's be clear however that par 31 of Lumen Gentium sets the laity off (in terms of proper spheres of ministry) against those in the religious state, not the consecrated state: [[The term laity is here understood to mean all the faithful except those in Holy Orders and those who belong to a religious state approved by the Church [meaning here a canonical Religious].]] The text does not read, "those who have entered the consecrated state," for instance. Once upon a time (even at Vatican II) these terms (consecrated and religious) may have been synonymous or largely so, but no longer. The same may have been true regarding the terms lay and secular (though we still have to consider secular priests as a clear exception), but, if this was ever so, it is not the case now despite the fact that the saeculum is generally a proper sphere of activity for the laity. (There are exceptions. It would not be so for lay hermits, for instance.) The Church now has forms of consecrated life which are secular, not Religious, and consecrated virginity of women living in the world (Revised CIC, 1983, c 604) is one of these. Members of secular institutes represent another.

It is true that in part the consecration of virgins under canon 604 represents a distinction from the same consecration given to nuns after solemn profession, but from what I have read, this is merely a part of the truth. It also specifies the locus of the c 604 CV's place of activity and responsibility and it does this with the phrase "living in the world" which is buttressed by minimal or no additional formal requirements (no requirements of LOH, habit, promise of obedience, vow of poverty, etc). I also think it is significant that canon 604 follows c 603 as one of two new forms of consecrated life which itself clearly stresses "stricter separation from the world" as an essential element for the hermit. Thus, "living in the world" seems analogous to that to me (an essential element of the vocation) for the c 604 CV and is to be read in "the strong sense." (Please note, my use of "in the strong sense" is not of my own choosing or preference, but related only to your own usage.)

However, the heart of my own appreciation of the "strong sense" of this term stems from a pastoral and theological perspective, not a canonical one. In the first place, I think there is no avoiding the sense that consecrated virginity for women living in the world is a half-baked, perhaps poorly discerned and badly timed vocation without a reason for being IF it is understood as a quasi-Religious vocation and its secularity is denied, shunned, qualified, or mitigated. Consecrated virgins are used to hearing questions like, "Why didn't you go "all the way' and become a nun?" for instance. Similar questions include, "Why didn't you make a vow of poverty (or obedience)?" "Why doesn't the canon allow for or require these?" These are really good questions, and references to literally being a "Bride of Christ" --significant as that is -- hardly answers the questions or even makes sense without the corresponding call to secularity. Even if one was willing to answer these questions with some form of, "I am literally called to be a Bride of Christ," the next question has to be, "So? Why would God in Christ call anyone, much less a non-Religious to this?" "Is the Church simply multiplying vocations which call for separation from the world?" "Does she really only esteem these?" "Is the universal call to holiness something she takes seriously whether one lives that out in the world or not?" (The unpoken question here is, "How seriously are we called to take Gaudium et Spes, or the II Vatican Council's stress on the universal call to holiness?)

It seems to me it is only the secularity of the CV's living in the world which establishes this identity as truly pastorally or theologically significant and especially, as something other than a bit of precious and anachronistic poetry which no longer speaks effectively to people. It is in its secularity that being a virgin and non-Religious Spouse of Christ and icon of the Church becomes meaningful. The world needs the witness of such virginity, such all-encompassing personal commitment and fulfillment, and of the grace of motherhood which is so intimately bound up with it --- but she needs it from within the midst of the world itself. Only from within the world's very midst does it appropriately signal that Christian hope focuses not on "pie in the sky by and by," but on the transformation and transcendent fulfillment of God's good creation. Only if the vocation really means what it says, regarding "being in the world" can it serve this way.

My own deep sense then is that if one wants (feels called) to be separated from the world in some externally distinguished way (garb, etc,) then she should become a religious or hermit because that is more likely what God is calling her to. Both of these make sense and are not "half-baked" vocations in search of a raison d'etre. If, however, one wants (i.e., feels called) to be a spouse of Christ living in the world then accept that this is a paradoxical calling. By this I mean it is not a matter of compromises (for instance, because one is consecrated or set apart unto God one acts as a quasi religious part of one's time (when one is acting like a consecrated person), and lives and works in the world the rest (and supposedly, in one's secularity is not acting like one set apart unto God at these times) --- a kind of neither fish nor fowl approach). Rather it is a matter of a thoroughgoingness (precisely because in one's secularity one is consecrated and wholly set apart by and unto God in an objective way, one is free to act within and for the world on behalf of the Kingdom with a radicality others might not be able to manage). In other words, my own approach to this reality is Christian, not Greek, and it is thus not offended (scandalized) by paradox or the radicalness and exhaustiveness of the Incarnation.

One final point. I received an email from someone who has determined to seek the Consecration of Virgins for women living in the world. She also is interested in participating in politics at the state level. She wondered if that was possible, and if the two could be balanced. While I would say it is an astounding opportunity to act as leaven and apostle within such an arena, I don't know if balance is precisely the word I would use here. Instead we need people who live their consecrations exhaustively, with integrity, and as radically as they can. Imagine the baptized doing this in the political realm! What hope it would bring to our world! Imagine a woman whose life was centered on Christ, who lived an assiduous prayer life nourished by Christ in Word and Sacrament, who indeed is spouse of Christ, living all this out in sacred service as a political leader! Priests and Religious cannot do this; they are prohibited, but Canon 604 CV's are not and their very secularity, absence of vows, etc make it possible while their consecration makes it desirable and even necessary. Such a vocation as that lived under Canon 604 is not a quasi, second-class vocation in search of itself --- at least not if its secular nature is taken seriously with thoroughgoing commitment. We have heard the description that Christians are disciples called to be in the world but not of it. CV's under Canon 604 are meant to be icons or paradigms of this very Gospel counsel.

I hope this clarifies why I have argued as I have.

Picture above, St Mary Magdalene, in honor of a friend and CV who finds her identity as apostle to the Apostles inspiring and iconic.