05 January 2014

Followup Questions: On the Supposed Difference Between the Espousal of Religious and Consecrated Virgins

[[Dear Sister, if both religious and consecrated virgins are called to a similar espousal with God, then why are some nuns consecrated as virgins and some not? This seems to argue that there is something different in these two vocations. Why would nuns also want to accept the consecration of virgins if they are already espoused to God as Brides of Christ? Since some Sisters eschew the identity of "Bride of Christ" doesn't this also suggest they are not Brides in the same sense as CV's consecrated under c 604?]]

Thanks for your questions. I think the question of why we continue using the Rite of Consecration of Virgins for nuns is a really thorny one today. It will take some real thinking to deal with the problems it creates as well as the good it represents. However, I don't think it allows us to conclude there is necessarily any conflict nor substantive difference here. Remember that the Church specifies that for a nun eventually ALSO receiving the consecration of virginity after solemn profession --- even some limited time (e.g., several days or weeks) after the rite of profession --- the symbols of espousal usually given at solemn profession along with the solemn prayer of consecration are withheld until the Rite of consecration of virginity. The idea here is that these are not substantively different consecrations and therefore they are not to be repeated. (If profession of vows were merely an "engagement" and consecration of virginity represented the actual marriage as some CV's naively and erroneously argue, then this specific withholding of ring and solemn prayer of consecration would not make much sense. Similarly if profession were the way in which someone consecrates herself while in the Rite of consecration of Virgins it is God doing the consecrating --- as some CV's also sometimes argue erroneously --- then this division would not make much sense either.)

Why do Some Nuns use the Rite and others do not?

Some religious do not receive the consecration because their congregations are not permitted to use the Rite.  (The use of the rite by Religious is restricted to Carthusians and maybe one of two other congregations of cloistered nuns.) Cloistered communities that are allowed to use the Rite may consist of women who were once married as well as virgins but only the virgins among them might receive this consecration; these congregations may also have  nuns whose prayer lives are explicitly nuptial and who wish to formalize that through the Rite. My own impression is that this could be done through the readings, imagery, prayer, and homilies associated with solemn profession and consecration (profession is the dedication piece of things; it is accompanied by a solemn prayer of consecration) --- especially if the house is only professing one or two nuns; with a larger group the chances of needing to accommodate differences in prayer lives and personal sense of mission increases. Though I appreciate that these congregations have kept alive a form of ancient vocation which is traditionally very significant and while they also serve today to remind CV's consecrated under canon 604 that their own vocation by way of contrast is a call to a renewed form of secularity, I don't think we can argue that the Rite of consecration of virgins used for nuns marks the nun as someone called to a different consecration than her Sisters who do not use the Rite. And yet, some CV's seem to believe this is exactly what it suggests.

For me this uneven practice within houses of nuns actually raises the question of the appropriateness and fruitfulness of continuing to use the Rite of Consecration of Virgins for nuns who are solemnly vowed and whose rite of  definitive profession already includes a solemn prayer of consecration and Bridal significance, imagery, and insigniae. This is especially true since the earliest consecrated virgins did not have to be physically intact, but were women who had given themselves wholly to Christ and were therefore considered "virgins" and more, consecrated virgins. Today we really do need consecrated virgins to whole-heartedly accept their own call to an eschatological secularity and it occurs to me that too often the existence of nuns who add the Rite of consecration of virgins to their own solemn profession (minus its usual solemn prayer of consecration) diminishes the sense that secularity is an appropriate form of espousal to Christ. This is also true because these nuns became the group that eventually completely co-opted the use of the Rite among those living secular lives and led to an end of the secular expression. Certainly it can lead to the idea that religious life is tiered and that some are made to experience Christ's love more intimately than others because they are "chosen" by God to be consecrated in a way substantially different from their Sisters (and Brothers!). We have to be cautious of any interpretation of the use of the rite of consecration of virgins which leads in this direction.

Because of the tendency by some today to treat the consecration of religious and that of CV's as being of different weights or degrees, a further piece of my answer to your questions comes from a consideration of the fact that the French Bishops have made it clear that hermits being consecrated under canon 603, for instance, should not add the consecration of canon 604 to this. They have noted that each consecration is complete in itself. One does not add anything by adding the consecration of virgins to consecration under canon 603. Dioceses in the US have adopted this policy (i.e., today we do not see canon 603 professions and consecrations of diocesan hermits accompanied, much less "completed" with consecrations  of virginity under canon 604) and it seems that canonists generally tend to find it a wise policy.  Were one consecration so different in character from the other that the other could be added (for instance if one were  "constitutive" and one was not), or if one were a fuller or more complete form of the first, none of this would make sense.

Religious Eschewing the Designation Bride of Christ

Meanwhile contemporary Religious who have shunned the identification, "Brides of Christ" have done so for several legitimate reasons. The most important one is that the identification was used in an elitist sense and also one which stripped or tended to strip it of its eschatological meaning. It was seen as indicating marriage in an incredible and mainly "this-worldly" sense by many; at the same time ONLY religious associated this imagery or vocation with themselves --- married people, for instance, though they should have seen themselves as imaging the ecclesial call to espousal to Christ as well, did not. Single persons had no sense at all of being participants in this eschatological call by virtue of their baptism. In general the Church per se was not easily seen as the Bride of Christ with, for instance, religious and married people serving as related but differing icons of this identity.

Further, many Sisters' prayer lives were not similar to those of persons with mystical experiences of union with God. This, coupled with an exaggerated emphasis on religious as Brides of Christ, led to unnecessary self-criticism of their own prayer lives, and unwarranted doubt about the quality of their own vocations; in short, it was destructive. Finally, most Sisters today find the Bride of Christ imagery less helpful than imagery of Sisters or Brothers who identified with everyone and  resonated with imagery that spoke clearly of their availability to all as well as to the universal call to holiness so very important to Vatican II. None of this detracts from or obviates the espousal of religious to Christ, but it does remind us that the reality of espousal can be lived and witnessed to in various ways -- some less legitimate or edifying than others. Especially it reminds us that espousal is not elitist. It is not primarily about the one who is espoused but rather it is about the One who loves them with an everlasting love just as it is about the person's commissioning to bring others to imagine and accept their own call to a union with God which is also spousal. If someone feels the need to proclaim they are "a Bride of Christ" in a way which is elitist and does not open others to accept a share in espousal with Christ, then perhaps the need they are evidencing is too-self-centered  --- too exclusively this-worldly and not sufficiently theological, ecclesial, or eschatological.

Patterns of Exclusion and Elitism

At the present time some in the Church are over-emphasizing the Bridegroom imagery of priesthood in a literal way which requires male gender and mandatory celibacy. (Advocates of this over-emphasis seem to forget that the Church, both Roman and Eastern, also has married priests today and has historically had at least women deacons. They also seem to be forgetting that in baptism we all become Brides to the Bridegroom even as we all image  the risen Christ.) This has led, I believe, to an unfortunate correlative emphasis on Consecrated virgins as the female counterpart to male clergy and even more especially to the Bishop.

Unfortunately, in order to argue this position, advocates have to omit the fact that both male and female religious have been considered Brides of the Bridegroom throughout the entire history of the Church; they must tacitly deny the early history of the Church that defined virginity in terms of giving one's whole self to God in Christ and included both women and men (usually called ascetics); as a consequence they have also embraced a notion of consecrated virginity that focuses on females and physical intactness only. Finally, they are now stripping the eschatological dimension from the symbol Bride of Christ when used for individuals thus turning it into a too-this-worldly marriage. All of this seems to me to  involve neglecting the fact that the Church as a whole, male AND female, married AND celibate, is the Bride while the Bridegroom is the risen and ascended Christ, that is the Christ whose eschatological identity is therefore more cosmic and less culturally derived or merely historically defined.

This pattern, of course, reprises several of the valid reasons contemporary religious have shunned the designation, "Bride of Christ" in the past 50-60 years or so. It should be clear that they did not do so because they are not espoused to Christ in the same way that CV's consecrated under canon 604 or cloistered nuns receiving the consecration are. Both are espoused (and both represent the espousal we are all ultimately called to), one group as religious, whether cloistered or ministerial) and the other as consecrated secular persons. In this way they once again reflect the same two forms of the vocation that existed side by side until the 11th century.