07 May 2014

On Appropriate Perspectives: Loving Chastely vs Protecting One's Virginity

[[Dear Sister, with respect, why would requiring a manifestation of conscience in someone seeking something as important as consecration as a virgin be "problematical" as you put it? If a woman is not physically a virgin or if she has been lustful or involved in immodest activities and things like that, how can she represent this vocation? don't we have a right to know that the persons we admit to consecration really are virgins? Didn't you have to pass some kind of screening to become a hermit? Isn't this just part of the discernment process in determining who is called to this vocation or not?]]

Thanks for your questions. Let me talk about some of the concerns these two related ideas (1. more detailed physicalist definitions or focus (including the more scrupulous definitions of the meaning of the terms "public" and "open") and 2. the requirement that there be a manifestation of conscience in cases of personal doubt) have raised for me with regard to the vocation to consecrated virginity --- especially as these more physicalist definitions seem to me to be linked with larger elitist attitudes or tendencies among some CV's which assert things like "Religious should not be allowed to call themselves brides of Christ" or the notion that "in heaven some who were consecrated will wear the virgin's crown or aureole" while others, because of physical  or biological criterion, will not, and so forth. Perhaps that will help answer your question about why I consider the whole thrust problematical. I will try not to merely repeat what I have already said.

My first concern has to do with the nature of the vocation itself and what we are saying with it. Is it merely the consecration of physical virginity per se, a virginity defined in mainly physicalist terms, or is it the consecration of a person to a life of virginal (single-hearted) and spousal love? While these two things belong together we change the emphasis significantly when our focus is on establishing ever-more-detailed definitions of what it means to be virgin rather than on what instead constitutes violations (especially public violations!) of chastity in the virginal state. Once we cease measuring virginity (within this vocation) primarily in terms of love or the generous, sacrificial, and risky (by which I do not mean reckless) self-giving this entails and instead focus on the necessary avoidance of emotional and physical interactions or activities which might lead to a loss of physical virginity we have made a fateful move. I argue this is especially so given the more detailed ways in which these are being defined and which are confusing folks to the point which may actually require a woman check with her Bishop to see if she has violated them or not. Specifically, it seems to me that in introducing this whole issue we have significantly shifted the mindset with which a woman approaches the vocation, and therefore too, the nature of the vocation itself from one of generous self-gift to one of scrupulous self-protection. Perhaps paradoxically this is true because the canon seems to me to confuse virginity with any serious violation of chastity in the first place. Once that is done the definition of virginity needs to be continually and retroactively continually expanded in the way some are attempting to do now.

Both virginity (including sexual or genital innocence or relative innocence) and a commitment to generous or sacrificial self-gift can be protected and encouraged of course, but the perspective required to do so is different than this practice encourages. What it takes to do this is a perspective which defines (a life of consecrated) virginity in terms of self-gift and singleness of heart, a perspective which sees virginal love as a goal, not as a static or "starting" state one simply preserves; its achievement must be perceived as something which demands a woman engage profoundly with others --- not that she avoid such engagement. If the focus is on loving and singleness of heart, on generous and sacrificial self-gifting in ways which are graced and motivated by Christ and empowered by the Spirit, then one will not need to do detailed examinations of whether this activity or that experience actually violated one's physical virginity. One will generally be successful at preserving this physical state because they are striving for something more transcendent which will also include lesser or more limited  concerns.

However, if one's focus is instead on merely preserving a physical state, then one may very well fail to love --- and to miss opportunities to love while identifying them as "dangerous" or "near occasions of sin" or simply being blind to them altogether. It's a little like riding a bicycle between two posts. If a person looks at the posts, first one then the other, then again, etc., she will invariably crash into the posts. If, on the other hand a person sights along the top of the wheel to gauge its projected  movement along the path or, even better,  focuses as well as one can on the path beyond the posts --- that is, if she looks at where she wishes to go and is actually heading rather than where she does NOT wish to go --- she will pretty much sail through the posts without concern. If I look at what it means to love --- God, myself, and others --- and if I try to do so with greater compassion, sensitivity, generosity, sacrifice, and so forth, I am not likely to violate chastity; if, however, I am constantly concerned with my own chastity it will only be by luck or the sheer grace of God alone that I do not violate it because I have set my sights on violation. (By the way, we ought not tempt the Lord our God in this matter! Grace is necessary but so is the perspective it provides) Meanwhile there is no doubt that I will also fail to grow sufficiently in loving as fully as I am called to because love implies self-forgetfulness and risk while this perspective is not only relatively self-centered but is defined by the words, "Caution" and "Danger!". In this analysis perspective is everything and the approach suggested by some CV's seems to me to foster the wrong perspective.

Another example, this time from the history of Judaism might be better. Consider the commandment to keep holy the Sabbath. This was ordinarily interpreted to mean that one rested from work but it also meant to rest in God as well as to worship him. It allowed the whole of creation to rest on that day. Sabbath rest allowed one to foster an attitude of thanksgiving or gratitude for God and his gifts. It allowed one to foster a mindset in which an instrumental and even exploitative approach to reality (including people) was relinquished along with workaholism and all the ways we measure ourselves in terms of wealth, success, power, etc,  so that one might just be oneself with God and one's loved ones.

This broader and more demanding goal was stated as "keep Holy the Sabbath". Eventually, Judaism developed detailed lists of what was and was not allowed on the Sabbath. Sixty-nine forms of work were delineated as prohibited on the Sabbath. Throughout history, of course, developed even further in response to a changed culture.  In contemporary culture observant Jews had do ask themselves "May I turn on a light switch after the Sabbath has begun?" Drive or ride in a car? Etc, etc. In other words the focus or perspective shifted away from the goal to limited and delimiting notions of the means to that goal. It also fostered the hardening of a sacred/profane dichotomy. Is this what the commandment is about? I don't think so. And yet, this is invariably the direction things move when we are concerned with what we should avoid rather than with exercising the freedom and love of the children of God. (Remember Paul's Conclusions on Law vs Gospel.)

I think the Church herself saw this clearly in creating what seems to me to be a threshold definition of virginity rather than a highly detailed and physicalist one. (Again, it seems to me the canon confuses loss of virginity and violations of chastity since not all violations of chastity --- even if flagrant -- cause one to cease being a virgin; thus, I am instead suggesting the church created a threshold definition here.) While she clearly expects the woman never to have been married or participated in the marital act, in every other way the canon, rite of consecration, formal homily, etc seems to focus on loving others and witnessing to an all-embracing, demanding, challenging spousal love to which all are ultimately called. Again, when we keep our focus on the latter we are almost assured of remaining chaste in whatever state of life to which we are called. When our focus is drawn to the former, the detailed "thou shalt nots" ---- especially if this is linked to a sense of confusion or uncertainty --- we are more apt to fail at the larger task, the true call. In terms of the parable of the foolish virgins we might put it this way:  If attention is drawn away from Christ and his call to love others in the exhaustive way he loves us,  if our attention is drawn away from waiting on him to focus instead or even primarily on preserving physical virginity, if, that is, CV's shift their perspective from the love that gives freedom (and espcially freedom from fear) to an anxious, fearful and protective concern that, in Scriptural terms, brings "death", then CV's are apt to find their lamps are clean and shiny but empty of oil and unable to light the way to the wedding banquet. They may even find they have missed the Bridegroom altogether. Again, at bottom this is paradoxically at least partly a result of conflating any serious violation of chastity with a violation of one's virginity.

Manifestation of Conscience, a dangerous Precedent

The second concern I have is that if we allow (or require) women who are confused about the matter of their personal virginity (not least because of the previously mentioned confusion) and do not know whether they have ALSO violated chastity to make a manifestation of conscience so their bishop can decide matters, then unless the church refuses to consecrate such women or subsequently locks the consecrated virgin up in something equivalent to a medieval anchorhold we will need to require subsequent and regular manifestations of conscience to continue to protect such women's virginity. We will really not be able to adopt this idea of requiring a manifestation of conscience in cases of personal doubt only as a pre-consecration step. There are a couple of reasons for this.

First, if the woman --- whom we presume to be relatively intelligent and at least well-catechised if not theologically well-educated --- is confused or uncertain before consecration it can only be because 1) the definition of virginity is too difficult (or too narrow) for her  to grasp or the list of things which are violations are too complex or too vaguely defined for her to determine things on her own; there is no reason to think this will change after consecration --- especially since cultural and societal changes, physical changes in the woman herself, and the demands of ministry focused on loving engagement with others will assure this detail-oriented definition does not remain static, or 2) the woman is not really suited to the vocation or is really too immature to be admitted to consecration. In either case if such a woman is admitted to consecration there is no reason to think she will not need to be questioned and checked up on regularly.

One alternative, of course, is as you say, to treat the first manifestation of conscience as a screening procedure used in the discernment process alone and then presume the woman will never need this again. But this is inadequate; it is either naive or it sets a double standard. You see, once we set the precedent of having another person determine FOR a woman if she is really a virgin when she herself is doubtful we have taken what I called earlier a fateful step on a slippery slope that can only lead to more of the same. For the moment this women is presumably is a virgin but what about six months from now? A year? Tomorrow? How will she "protect her virginity" if she (and perhaps the church herself) is unclear on what constitutes an irreparable violation of that in the first place? This is, after all, what that confidential pre-consecration "talk" with her Bishop signaled. And how about those CV's who claimed to know what they were committing to? Do they really know what it means to remain chaste or was their focus insufficiently detailed and physicalist originally (as some CV's seem to believe the Church's working requirements for admission to consecration have been for the past 31 years)? Who decides? Best just call them all in regularly for a "confidential chat" with the bishop!

Obviously I am being a bit facetious here, but only a bit. Setting a precedent regarding the manifestation of conscience for a woman who is unsure she is really a virgin in order to consecrate her to a life of virginal, spousal love is a terrible and destructive idea which fosters the wrong perspective for generous, single-hearted, and selfless love. There are a number of other questions raised by you and also by other readers including: what happens to women who are already consecrated but cannot NOW affirm virginity in the face of more stringent (and also less demanding) definitions? How about those who fall into essentially private violations of these definitions? I will leave this here for now until I have more time, but I hope this has been helpful in clarifying some of my concerns.