07 January 2013

On Consecrated Virginity, "Hairsplitting" and "nitpicking"

[[Dear Sister, I see that you got hassled for "hairsplitting" and "nitpicking" in the distinctions you drew in Phatmass discussion on Consecrated Virginity of Women living in the world. Like you I believe that words have meaning and it is a sign of respect for meaning and truth to take care with language. I don't mean to ask you to repeat all you have written here about the vocation to sacred secularity which c 604 represents but I wonder if you have an explanation of why people so object to someone being clear about how the Church uses language?  With regard to c 604 and consecration why does this seem to be so do you think? Why is the secularity of the vocation such an issue? Also, why do people seem to need to say "My consecration is better than yours!!"?]]

Yes, I did get in a bit of  difficulty for making sure folks were using a basic vocabulary correctly. (One person even suggested Jesus would be weeping over all this hairsplitting! I agree he is likely sighing in forebearance, but not because of my concern over significant nuances.) For instance, one person said CV's made vows to their Bishops. I pointed out not only that CV's do not make vows at all, but that all vows are made to God alone, not to human beings. When someone complained that after all this was not heresy (and so, she implied, not all THAT important) I pointed out that it could be heresy and was, at the very least, blasphemy since making vows TO a person rather than in their hands arrogates to them a dignity which is due God alone. The content and dynamics of a vow of obedience would be quite different if one was vowing this TO a person rather than doing so in a way which commits BOTH persons to discern together what the will of God would be in any given situation. I also spoke of the distinction between receiving and witnessing a vow, and I pointed out that Vatican II assiduously kept the distinction between consecration (an act of God) and dedication (the human side of the commitment) so that we should not speak of consecrating ourselves to God, but of dedicating ourselves.

So, why are folks so careless with language, and more, so upset when one insists that words have meanings and that in canon law and theology people are very careful about nuances? Good question. I am sure simple ignorance is a big part of this. We aren't always used to using language accurately and in this world of instant electronic contact where letters replace words and acronyms replace actual sentences, taking care to actually learn and respect the nuances of usage or to reflect on the importance of these is becoming less and less common.  Unfortunately, another piece of this ignorance is an unawareness of the significant implications of usage. For instance, as noted above there is a BIG difference in living the content of promises made to a person and living the content of vows made to God. Vows bind both the subject and the superior in an ecclesial relationship as mutual discerners of God's will, and does so explicitly. It also makes clear that this is not blind obedience and that while the two persons are not peers, an individual, for significant reasons, may indeed disagree with a superior's judgment and be truly obedient to God nonetheless. Similarly there is a big difference between a legitimate superior receiving one's vows (an act done in the name of the church and resulting in legal relationships and obligations) and simply witnessing them (not done in the name of the Church , etc.) or between either eschewing (or embracing) secularism and eschewing (or embracing) a secular vocation.

But where vocations come into play being accurate is threatening to some. For those still wed to the notion that a lay vocation is an entry-level vocation and "lower" than a supposedly "higher" vocation like "consecrated" life, to point out that specifications of baptismal commitments with private vows are acts of dedication, not consecration or that these leave the person in the lay state, is something which threatens their view of themselves and others. Here the Church has simply done a very poor job in effectively teaching Vatican II's universal call to holiness, catechizing on the nature of Baptism, or on being clear how exhaustive the discipleship demanded of EVERY Christian is --- especially in light of a past Tradition that seemed to speak of things rather differently and which has never been adequately translated for contemporary church life.

With regard to c 604 and secularity we run into the same problems, and they all come to a head in this vocation's charism and importance. There are several problems: 1) people don't distinguish between the secular and secularism, though these are two very different things. Secularism treats the secular as the ultimate reality determining their actions and values; often they even worship it. Secularity, on the other hand, treats the everyday world of space and time (saeculum) as the potential sacrament of God's incarnational presence, honoring it appropriately as mediatory and charisma (gift); 2) people still distinguish a secular vocation as "lower" than a religious vocation despite the fact that both represent calls to exhaustive holiness, one a call lived in the world, and the second a call marked by degrees of separation from the world. (Thus the second has distinctive garb, and vows which qualify one's relationship to the central worldly dimensions of wealth, power, and relationships where the former does not.) 3) there remains a tendency to equate secularity with the profane (that which is "outside the temple"), and thus to denigrate it while equating consecrated life with the sacred (that which is of or within the Temple.)

When women consecrated to the sacred secularity of canon 604 argue against this secularity they tend to be unable to embrace the paradox here and continue to try and stress one element (sacredness or secularity) over the other. Thus, if one is consecrated the conclusion is they can't be secular and if one is secular the conclusion is one cannot be living a consecrated life (that is, in the consecrated state of life). But, the Incarnation modeled by Jesus tells us this is exactly wrong and so does what authoritative writers (including a Pope or two) have written about the vocation to consecrated virginity of women living in the world. It is hard to let go of the either/or, higher/lower mindsets so typical of the world's ways of evaluating things and to adopt the ways of the Reign of God. (None of us are far from being the disciples clamoring to know who is higher or who would be sitting at Jesus' right hand!) And yet, letting go of these ways of valuing reality is precisely an aspect of the vocation to consecrated virginity lived in the world that is its truest charism or gift to the Church and World. It is in regard to this Kingdom message that CV's are apostles and prophets with a countercultural truth.

There is two further reasons this is all so difficult: 4) we are actually asking CV's under c 604 to adopt another theological context for understanding the eschatological nature of their vocations. If heaven is a  merely otherworldly reality (what is sometimes referred to as pie in the sky by and by) then it is true there is no reason to accept the call to be apostles of a Kingdom which interpenetrates this one and transfigures it into the Sacrament of God's presence. (For that matter there is little reason to invest in this world at all, whether in ministry, medicine, politics, education, or anything else.) But to be truly meaningful canon 604 requires CV's to recognize and embrace the truth that Paul, John,  and the early Church more generally spoke of heaven or eternal life in terms of the reconciliation and transformation of the saeculum in a way which looks forward to God one day being ALL in ALL. That is a huge theological step away from what so many believe today about heaven or the secular and a very demanding theological context to ask CV's to embrace and be clear about with their lives. Even so, it is a fundamental part of the theological context which undergirds the paradoxical sacred secularity of the call to consecrated virginity and allows it to be precisely the kind of gift our world yearns for so desperately.

The vocation is easily misunderstood and distorted without or apart from this context. After all, what the world does NOT need is another vocation which seems to say the secular cannot be embraced as the place God is made fully manifest, a vocation in which some dimension of the incarnational God we call Emmanuel is embarrassing or scandalous, a vocation which fails to embrace a thoroughgoing secularity vividly proclaiming the truth of Vatican II's universal call to holiness.

And this raises the final related reason all this is so difficult: 5) this is a "new" (recovered) vocation in search of its truest meaning after having been partly subverted by cloistered life and disappearing altogether in the 12th Century. The original consecrated virgins as a whole were not proto-nuns. They were secular women consecrated to serve the Church in every sphere of life and this vocation continued into the 1100's. But for centuries the only consecrated virgins have been cloistered nuns in solemn vows. With the promulgation of c 604 the Church has recovered the secular vocation which is to stand side by side the cloistered vocation in equal dignity. Unfortunately, the church and world have not yet come to understand or esteem this vocation properly, and neither have some CV's. Thus, some women consecrated under c 604 see themselves as quasi-nuns rather than secular women who are also consecrated.

The upshot of this is the vocation is usually defined in terms of what it is not rather than what it is (it is not religious life, these women are not nuns, do not have vows, are not called Sister, are not secular in the "strong sense", are not laity, etc). Such a vocation does not speak positively or prophetically to anyone. It is still in search of itself, and still struggling for recognition equal to that given to nuns, Sisters, canonical hermits, etc. I sincerely believe that until CV's consecrated under c 604 wholeheartedly adopt the SACRED SECULARITY of their vocations this struggle will continue and so will the vocation's inability to speak to anyone effectively (pastorally) much less prophetically.

As for your last question, why is there such a need for people to say essentially that, "My conse-cration is better (more lasting or eternal, more spousal, more God-given, etc) than yours"?  I guess everything I have spoken of up until this point is a piece of the answer, but the more general response would need to be, "Sin." Human sin is the reason for this. Sometimes it is evident as a lack of humility or desire for status along with a failure (or refusal) to see that every consecration, from Baptism onward, is an eternal act of God and a unique gift to the recipient, to the Church, and to the world more generally; but it is also true that in treating some vocations as superior and others as inferior the entire church has colluded in this situation. It is understandable that a person who believes they are called to an exhaustive discipleship and holiness would not believe an "entry level" vocation is sufficient.

Much of the time however, the answer to your question really has to do with our inability to think paradoxically --- another symptom of human sinfulness or estrangement from God, I would suggest. In fact, I would argue that our disregard or disdain for language and nuances of meaning is similarly rooted; so too is the  anti-intellectualism which seems to believe that someone who is trained to take these things seriously and honor truth in this way, is merely saying they are "better" than the next person. We do tend to judge what gifts of God we will accept and which we will not; anti-intellectualism clearly rejects certain gifts out of a false humility, a superficial sense of equality, and more importantly perhaps, a lack of appreciation or gratitude for truth.

I hope this is helpful.