The Holy See has published a new document, Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago, addressed to bishops outlining instructions on the Order of Consecrated Virgins within their dioceses. This Instruction was put forward to answer questions being asked by many women and bishops across the world concerning the Order and how it ought to operate. An innocuous enough topic, affecting a small though invaluable minority in the Church, this has nevertheless (and, by now, predictably) become a target of rash criticism from some who seem all too eager to find fault with the Bishop of Rome. Ed Peters, canonist and blogger, has recently put out a piece in which he not only seems to misunderstand the text but also to rush headlong into his judgment of it. The controversy begins and ends with this line: “Thus to have kept her body in perfect continence . . . [is not essential] in the absence of which admittance to consecration is not possible.”
Let me begin by admitting that it is arguable that the Instruction could be worded better. Most committee documents are not works of art. But this post really is making an entire mountain range out of a molehill. Peters reads this line and concludes that physical virginity is no longer necessary for consecrated virgins. He strangely goes on to say that the Blessed Virgin Mary would not be allowed to be a consecrated virgin, because she was married despite her virginity, but that Mary Magdalene (who was not a virgin but was repentant) would be admitted. I find this a curious way to approach the subject and I think that it misses the point. But, I will begin there anyway.
As I understand it, Mary would not have been admitted to the order of consecrated virgins because she had been married and these two vocations are by their nature incompatible. Widowhood is obviously different from virginity; chastity in widowhood, marriage, and virginity share similarities but also diverge in important respects in intention. The wife devotes her marital fidelity to the Lord. The widow devotes her post-married life in particular service to Him. The virgin dedicates her whole sexuality and family life as an image of the heavenly bride. Peters acts as if it is some new phenomenon that only unmarried women are admitted to the Order of Virgins, when in fact the entire point of the vocation is to become the spouse of Christ. It is a particular calling that cannot simply be traded with another, because it is not physical virginity alone which is consecrated in the rite. It is the whole person, body and soul, being dedicated to Christ as His spouse and symbol of the Church. This is why the Church consecrates those who have not been married and includes that in its requirements.
Peters acts as if the Church should have considered the Virgin Mary in writing Ecclesiae or drawing up the rite of consecration of virgins, and thought whether she would be admissible, much like the Protestant who argues against the Immaculate Conception because Romans tells us that “all have sinned.” I would ask Peters if St. Paul should have considered his words more carefully to see whether they implied anything about the Blessed Virgin, as well! It serves to be careful about reading between lines. Nevertheless, the Virgin Mary is held up as the model of consecrated virgins in paragraph 26:
The most splendid and harmonious integration of virginity, marriage and maternity is realized in the person of the Virgin Mary, the first fruits of humanity renewed in Christ. She is the perfect icon of the Church as mystery of communion, the woman in whom is already fulfilled the destiny of glory to which all humanity is called, and ‘mother of the living Gospel’. In the Kecharitoméne – she who has been filled with grace (Lk 1:28) – the Church has always recognised the Virgo virginum(Virgin of virgins), the unsurpassable prototype of consecrated virginity. Thus Mary is the mother, sister and teacher of consecrated virgins.
The fact is that Peters, like others, focuses on the physical aspect of virginity far too much, which is what the Instruction seems to be highlighting. This is why paragraph 88 can say that consecrated virginity is not “reducible to the symbol of physical integrity.” For something not to be reducible to one of its aspects does not mean that it does not contain that quality. Notably, Peters does not quote the entirety of paragraph 88. This is strange, considering that the part he does quote begins with the words “in this context.” What context is that? The entirety reads:
In vocational guidance and when there is need to describe the characteristics of this vocation and the requirements for admission to consecration, the condition of virginity will be presented starting with the rich symbolism of its biblical foundations, within the framework of an anthropological vision solidly based on Christian revelation. On this basis the different dimensions, physical, psychological and spiritual, are integrated and considered in their dynamic connection to the lived history of the person and in openness to the unceasing action of divine grace that directs, guides and invigorates her on the path of holiness.
As a treasure of inestimable value that God pours into clay vessels (cf. 2 Cor 4:7), this vocation is truly an undeserved gift. It encounters the person in her actual humanity, always in need of redemption and yearning for the full meaning of her existence. It finds its origin and dynamic centre in the grace of God, who unceasingly acts with the tenderness and the strength of his merciful love in the often complex and sometimes contradictory events of human life, helping the person to grasp her uniqueness and the unity of her being, enabling her to make a total gift of self. In this context it should be kept in mind that the call to give witness to the Church’s virginal, spousal and fruitful love for Christ is not reducible to the symbol of physical integrity. Thus to have kept her body in perfect continence or to have practised the virtue of chastity in an exemplary way, while of great importance with regard to the discernment, are not essential prerequisites in the absence of which admittance to consecration is not possible. (Emphasis mine.)
In reading the full paragraph, I see no reason to doubt that the physical virginity is part of the consideration of admission to the Ordo virginum. Indeed, another canon lawyer, Jenna Cooper, outlines it well in an interview with Catholic News Agency:
I don’t see this as saying non-virgins can be virgins. I see this as saying in cases where there is a real question, it errs on the side of walking with women in individual cases for further discernment, as opposed to having a hard-dividing line to exclude women from this vocation . . . The presumption of the document is that these are virgins who are doing this . . . An important thing to do though is to read the questionable paragraph in context with the rest of the document. The instruction talks a lot about the value of virginity, Christian virginity, the spirituality of virginity.
Cooper is also a consecrated virgin who resides in Minnesota. She, as Peters also makes clear, points out that instructions like this one never intend to change any doctrinal stance but merely explain what already exists: “The nature of this kind of document as an instruction doesn’t change the law that it’s intended to explain.”
I am also baffled when Peters says that Ecclesiae “formalizes a serious eligibility error hitherto only implicit in the current rite.” I was not aware that the Church had promulgated a new motto for us: the law of Peters is the law of faith! The absurdity of one man, however well-educated, declaring that there is a theological error in the rites of the Church is astonishing in its brashness. No less how he attempts to make the Church’s recent publication insulting to the Blessed Virgin, setting the two in opposition. (Is it insulting that Mary could not be ordained? Peters would likely rush to say the opposite and he would be right!) What purpose does this approach even serve? I put forward that it is positively fruitless.
Peters solves any controversy for us in his opening paragraphs before going on to ignore his own solution:
Preliminarily, note that ESI is an ‘instruction’ and, while Roman dicasteries and arch/diocesan leadership are not consistent in respecting the requirements of this genre, Canon 34 generally limits the impact of instructions to those matters in which they are consistent with prior Church law (usually canon and liturgical). In other words, no binding changes to fundamental Church teaching can be achieved by an instruction. (Emphasis in original.)
His conclusion seems to be the same as Cooper’s. That is where he ought to have ended.
Ed Peters, being a canonist in the public eye, ought to know better than to stoke the fires of controversy. His role is one of clearing the airs of confusion by enunciating the decisions of the Church in light of her manifest intentions and previous teachings. The title of his blog is “In the Light of the Law;” why does he not, therefore, shed that light in a moment where it is needed? We live in an age, unfortunately, when it is tempting and popular for intermediaries like Peters to compound scandalous events (whether it be from the failings of mass media, the bishops, or, yes, even the Vatican) rather than do the difficult work of interpreting the facts in an attitude of docility and love. Too often, those in places of great responsibility give in to the temptation to come at the Church with the critical eye of the stranger rather than the love of a son who hears his father’s words and does his best to carry them out.
It is discouraging that so vital a role is now often used to discredit the Church and stir up the defensive instincts of one’s readers. Such a high and noble calling comes with its own magnitude of responsibility, one that will surely be judged with more severity than the everyman. Let us pray that intermediaries between the hierarchy and the Faithful, like Peters, will grow in their capacity to patiently, calmly, charitably, sift through ecclesiastical issues in a way that enlightens rather than bedevils. Above all, let us pray for the grace to trust the teachings of the Church and leave behind this nagging suspicion that she is on the verge of betraying the Faith at every turn.
Joe Dantona is a convert living in eastern Ohio. He studied political science, history, and theology. He divides his free time between entertaining his wife and kids with dad jokes and getting distracted while reading good books.