Thursday, July 29, 2010

Defining Consecrated Life

Some of the questions I receive most frequently, both in real life and in emails, have to do with the difference between consecrated virginity and a private vow of virginity, celibate commitments within lay movements, or membership in a Third Order.*

The short answer to all these questions is that consecrated virginity, like religious life, is a public, canonically recognized state of consecrated life. In contrast, members of lay movements and those who have made private vows—while they might be living a dedicated lifestyle with many similarities to canonically consecrated persons—are not formally considered to have entered into what the Church officially recognizes as “consecrated life.”

This of course does NOT mean that those who have made commitments outside of canonically recognized forms of consecrated are not in fact responding to a genuine call from God, or that they aren’t called to become saints in their own way of life. But it does mean that the fundamental nature of their vocation is different from that of persons who are officially considered to be “consecrated.”

The essential elements of consecrated life

This brings us to the question of how “consecrated life” properly so-called can be identified and defined.

Naturally, questions regarding the technical canonical status of members of lay movements presuppose that the Church already has a well-articulated theology on the precise nature of consecrated life. But in fact, the nature of “consecration” as a state in life is one of the more ambiguous areas of ecclesiology. (This may perhaps be largely because, as the Church understands the consecrated life and its continued growth and development as a more or less direct gift of the Holy Spirit, the institutional Church was laudably reluctant to burden its expressions with an overabundance of regulations.)

However, it would seem that the Church still does maintain that several elements are absolutely constitutive to the consecrated life:

1. Observance of the evangelical counsels

The most obvious essential element of consecrated life is the embracing of the evangelical councils. In Canon Law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the consecrated life is frequently defined as “the state in life which is constituted by the profession of the evangelical counsels.” (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 914)

The evangelical counsels are traditionally held to be, and are described in Canon Law as, poverty, chastity, and obedience. (cf. canons 599-601.) While there is a wide variety among the various forms of consecrated life of acceptable ways in which the counsels of poverty and obedience may be observed on a practical level, a common thread which runs through all forms of consecrated life is the “obligation of perfect continence in celibacy” (can. 599)

And in a sense, celibacy as the common foundation is significant and has particular spiritual value, in that celibacy freely chosen “for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven” not only has the most explicit scriptural roots, but also serves as the original historical foundation for the development of all the subsequent particular forms of consecrated life.

2. A permanent commitment to the evangelical counsels

The Catechism also specifies that it is not only the observance of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but “that it is the profession of these counsels, within a permanent state of life recognized by the Church, which characterizes the life consecrated to God.” (Emphasis in the hard-copy printed original—see also online CCC 915.) It is only by a free and deliberate commitment to the evangelical counsels, made with the intention of permanently undertaking the subsequent obligations, that an individual can be identified as being in a canonically “consecrated” state of life.

But it does not seem that this should be taken to mean that a formula for profession vows explicitly mentioning poverty, chastity, and obedience is strictly necessary in order for an individual to enter into a truly consecrated state. If this were the case, Benedictine monks and nuns, and Dominican nuns and friars, for example, would not be rightly considered “consecrated” since the vow formulae of their respective Orders mention neither poverty nor chastity directly.

Rather, it seems that in requiring the profession of the evangelical councils, Canon Law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church are simply stipulating that all consecrated persons must make a public and permanent commitment to a way of life which is in accord with a radical living of the three named evangelical counsels in a real, even if implicit, sense.

Conversely, any proposed form of consecrated life which would seek to “exempt” itself categorically from observing either poverty, chastity, or obedience in at least some concrete manner, would drastically undermine its status as a true form of canonical consecration.

3. Official recognition by the visible, institutional Church

Finally, one other qualification for a way of life to be properly considered “consecrated” is that it be formally acknowledged by the Church as such. This is indicated by the same paragraph in the Catechism, which states that a consecrated person must profess the evangelical counsels within the context of “a permanent state in life recognized by the Church.” (My emphasis.)

Individuals can not be considered “consecrated” according to Canon Law unless they are officially regarded as being so by the institutional Church, regardless of their subjective level of holiness or the loftiness of ideal to which they aspire.

Because of this, it would be creating a false dichotomy to hold the charismatic nature of the consecrated life (i.e., the aspect of defined by the inspiration towards total self-giving which is imparted directly by the Holy Spirit to consecrated persons) as somehow being opposed to the governing hierarchical nature of the magisterium. These two “poles” of the Church—which are even not without overlap—are profoundly inter-related; the consecrated life is given its visible association with the mission of Christ only through its relationship to the successors of the Apostles.

But, are there “de facto” or “lay” forms of consecrated life?

Yet despite these non-negotiable requirements, it is at times proposed that other radical ways of following Christ should be regarded as being true forms of consecrated life.

Examples of these could include:

- single or married members of the new lay ecclesial movements, such as the Neo-Catechumenal Way, Focolare, Opus Dei, Communion and Liberation, or Regnum Christi;

- dedicated celibate members of these movements (including Opus Dei numeraries and the “consecrated” women of Regnum Christi);

- married or privately-vowed celibate members of secular Third Orders (such as Lay Dominicans, Secular Franciscans, or Secular Discalced Carmelites);

- families associated with the charismatic movement who deliberately live within close proximity to each other so as to enjoy some kind of community life (such as the People of Hope in New Jersey);

- “lay monasteries” comprised of married persons, single persons, and families with children, all living in common;

- “consecrated widows” in the Latin Rite;

- men and women who choose to live an eremitic lifestyle privately, on their own initiative, and without any formal episcopal approval;

- people who commit to a particular way of life associated with an organized apostolic work, such as members of the Catholic Worker, Lamp Ministries, or L’Arche movements;

- individuals who simply profess a private vow of celibacy or virginity, either on their own or under the guidance of a spiritual director.

None of these ways of life are properly considered “consecrated” according to the Church’s technical understanding of the term, because they either lack an appropriately full observance of the evangelical counsels (such as in the case of married members of lay ecclesial movements), or an explicit profession of the counsels (as in the case of L’Arche members or lay hermits), or public recognition from the Church in their chosen was of life (such as those who are privately vowed to a life of celibacy).

Individuals who fit into one of these categories are often referred to, or refer to themselves, as “lay consecrated.” However, used in this context, “lay consecrated” is not a canonical term,** and my own personal opinion is that the use of this phrase should be discouraged for pastoral reasons of not confusing the faithful.

While those who would call themselves “lay consecrated” in the sense indicated above may in fact be living Christian lives that are subjectively as fervent as—or perhaps even more fervent than—that of those who are consecrated according to Canon Law, they nevertheless do not have the same specific place in the Church as those who are in a publicly-recognized state of consecrated life.

What is special about the vocation of consecrated persons?

Publicly consecrated persons have the specific vocation of bearing witness to the absolute primacy of Jesus Christ and to the reality of eternal life.

By freely renouncing marriage and many of the good things associated with earthly life, consecrated persons show the world that Christ alone can satisfy all the longings of the human heart. They also dramatically profess their belief in the Resurrection, and even more basically, in the existence of God—in other words, they “bet their life” that there is more to our existence than the here-and-now material world.

In doing this, consecrated persons are called to serve as a kind of “window” to the supernatural world. Because they live on earth as if they were already in heaven, where the saints “neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels,” (Matthew 22:30) consecrated persons could be said to have the vocation of making heaven tangibly present to us on earth.

Consecrated persons, in their total devotion and self-gift to Christ, are also called to serve as an especially vivid reflection of Christ’s bride the Church. In this way, the prayer of consecrated persons is in a special sense the voice of the Church herself; and the apostolic activity of consecrated persons is in a particular way an expression of the Church’s maternal care for her children.

Could it be possible that a person who is not technically considered “consecrated” might also be able to do these things? The answer is yes…and no.

“Yes,” because of course all Christians are called to be eschatological witnesses to at least some extent. Even the absolute minimum required of a faithful Catholic is enough to orient one’s life dramatically towards the reality of heaven. It could also theoretically happen that an individual was not technically “consecrated,” in the sincerity of his or her devotion, may in actual fact be a more convincing witness than many canonically consecrated persons.

Additionally, our categories consecrated life shouldn’t be used to constrain the Holy Spirit. If a well-balanced, non-consecrated layperson truly felt called—and had no incompatible obligations—to honor God through an ascetic lifestyle more directly focused on the next world than on this present one, absolutely nothing in the Church’s teaching or tradition would support us discouraging him or her from this!

However, in another very important sense, people who are not technically “consecrated” really cannot take on the role of canonically consecrated persons.

Canonically consecrated persons are given their vocation by the Church herself. That is, a persons in public states of consecrated life have not only had their interior “call” verified and confirmed by the institutional Church; but has also, in a real way, been given a “mandate” or commission by the Church to bear a very specific kind of Christian witness to the world.

Consequently, consecrated persons are able to serve as representatives of the Church in a manner not possible for persons who are not canonically consecrated. In this, they are also able to act as “icons” of the Church as the bride of Christ, and to make eschatological realties present in a uniquely concrete way. In entering into a canonical form of consecrated life, and individual is able to set him or herself aside for God alone in a dramatically more concrete and demonstrable fashion that can an individual who remains technically a lay person.

Finally, some points to keep in mind…

While keeping in mind that the relatively new phenomena of lay ecclesial movements and other “new forms of consecrated life” require a great deal of prudence and discernment on the part of all those involved, in addition to that of the magisterium, it is still good to remember that the Church does have a tradition of attaining sanctity through a private observance of the evangelical councils. Many saints, such as Catherine of Siena, Joan of Arc, Gemma Galgani, Bl. Kateri Tekakwitha, and Bl. Frederic Ozanam (founder of the St. Vincent de Paul Society), never formally entered religious life but rather chose to remain celibate “for the sake of the Kingdom” simply through a private vow or promise.

In celebrating their lives and commemorating their feast days, the Church seems to regard these saints as having been wholly given over to God in a notably distinct manner, even if they did not lead a life that was formally considered “consecrated.” Because of this, it would be reasonable to conclude that individuals today who are not, strictly speaking, in a state of consecrated life may still be able to live out something like a “spirituality of consecration” by truly—if only interiorly or subjectively—setting themselves aside for God alone.

Yet at the same time, a genuine call to “de facto” consecrated life would seem to be relatively rare, and difficult to discern accurately. For this reason, it remains important to maintain the distinction between a praiseworthy life of a private dedication to the evangelical counsels, and the states of consecrated life officially recognized by the Church.


* People also often ask me about consecrated virginity versus secular institutes. But for the sake of not making this post any more confusing than it has to be, in this discussion I’m sort of “bracketing off” the entire question of secular institutes.

Secular institutes are a notoriously “gray” area in determining what constitutes canonical consecration. On the one hand, the Church recognizes and legislates the existence of secular institutes, which would seem to make them a canonical form of consecrated life. But on the other hand, secular institute members profess private vows, which would seem to imply that the Church does not formally recognize their commitment to the evangelical counsels in a way proper to canonical forms of consecrated life. Additionally, can. 711 indicates that secular institute membership doesn’t chance an individual’s canonical status.

** Although in another context, “lay consecrated” might be considered a canonical term when used to indicate canonically consecrated persons who have not received the sacrament of Holy Orders. In this sense, all persons in consecrated life who are not bishops, priests, or deacons would be considered “lay consecrated,” including religious brothers, consecrated virgins, cloistered nuns, and Sisters in apostolic religious congregations.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

What Does It Mean to Be “In the World?”

As regular readers of this blog have probably picked up by now, I strongly believe that, in terms of the general pattern of our day-to-day concrete experience, consecrated virgins should strive to live lives that are readily identifiable as being “consecrated.” My opinion is that consecrated virgins should live out their spousal relationship with Christ through a more visible dedication to prayer, service, and simplicity of life.

In other words, I think that consecrated virgins are called to an intensity of Christian witness which goes beyond that proper to a devout, single Catholic lay woman. This is in contrast with the popular conception that consecrated virgins are instead called to a more “hidden” witness within the context of a secular lifestyle.

Often, this idea—i.e., that women consecrated to a life of virginity according to canon 604 are normatively called to “blend in” with the lay faithful, without any conspicuous outward expressions of their consecration, and without undertaking any life-altering obligations other than celibacy—finds as its justification the fact that consecrated virgins are described in the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity as living “in the world.”

But after considering this argument more for some time, I’ve come to my own conclusion that this line of reasoning may not be accurate, and is perhaps based on some unsupported theological or canonical assumptions. Namely, to understand consecrated virginity as ordinarily entailing a more or less “lay” mode of life would seem to be giving the words “in the world” a weight and connotation which the Church does not actually appear to ascribe to them.

Here, it is important to note that within the Church’s authoritative writings the phrase “in the world,” like the word “secular,” is not a univocal term. That is, these words can be used to mean different things in different contexts. (Unlike, for example, terms such as “Coajuter bishop” or “papal enclosure,” which refer to one specific thing regardless of the context in which they are used.)

In some instances he words “secular” and “in the world” are intended to be taken in the strong sense of implying total immersion in, or a close association with, the sphere of temporal affairs. This is certainly the more colloquial usage of the two phrases. For example, in every-day conversation we generally speak of things being “secular” in contrast with those which are wholly dedicated to God as “sacred;” and sometimes religious Sisters refer to their pre-consecrated lives with the expression: “when I was in the world…”

There are also some official, formal contexts in which the Church uses the terms “secular” and “in the world” in this strong sense. In the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium, the Church gives this description of the role and identity of the lay faithful (here specified as those who have neither received Holy Orders nor who have entered into a public state of consecration):

What specifically characterizes the laity is their secular nature. …the laity, by their very vocation, seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God. They live in the world, that is, in each and in all of the secular professions and occupations. They live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven.” (Lumen Gentium, 31.)

Here, the context makes it obvious that, when in reference to the laity, “in the world” and “secular” should be taken in the strong sense, or “at face value,” so to speak.

Likewise, Canon Law indicates that, when used to describe the special vocation of secular institute members, “in the world” and secular” should also be understood in this strong sense.

For example, canon 710 states that:

A secular institute is an institute of consecrated life in which the Christian faithful, living in the world, strive for the perfection of charity and seek to contribute to the sanctification of the world, especially from within.”

Canon 713 tells us that:

Ҥ1. Members of these institutes express and exercise their own consecration in apostolic activity, and like leaven they strive to imbue all things with the spirit of the gospel for the strengthening and growth of the Body of Christ.

§2. In the world and from the world, lay members participate in the evangelizing function of the Church whether through the witness of a Christian life and of fidelity toward their own consecration, or through the assistance they offer to order temporal things according to God and to inform the world by the power of the gospel. They also cooperate in the service of the ecclesial community according to their own secular way of life.”

And in canon 714 we read:

Members are to lead their lives in the ordinary conditions of the world according to the norm of the constitutions, whether alone, or in their own families, or in a group living as brothers or sisters.”

However, there is also a more limited meaning to the words “secular” and “in the world.”

Sometimes, in some instances, these terms can be used simply to designate that certain individuals are not technically a part of a religious community, even while these same individuals may have a role in the Church which is more similar to that of religious than it is to that of the laity.

For example, diocesan priests are often said to be “in the world,” and Canon Law describes them as “secular clerics.” Yet at the same time, nobody with an adequate understanding of the Catholic priesthood would argue that the clergy should live a lifestyle that could be called “secular” in the strong sense of the term. (In fact, “secular priest” can sometimes be a confusing term for people, since it sounds so much like an oxymoron!)

Even if we were to set aside for the movement the various theological descriptions of the priesthood as men specially called and chosen to be set apart for the God’s service, it’s possible to demonstrate, even working just from Canon Law, that the Church clearly envisions diocesan priests as living a distinctively “consecrated” lifestyle.

Diocesan priests are solemnly obligated to a life of celibacy (can. 277), obedience to their bishop (can. 273), and to the recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours (can. 276). While all Christians, including laypeople are called to the type of chastity and obedience proper to their state, secular priests are asked to live these with a radicalism that would be inappropriate for most Christians “in the world.”

Canon Law often states that secular priests are supposed to be completely devoted to the work of the Church (can. 281), to the extent that nothing else in their life should interfere with the exercise of their ministry (cf. can. 278 §3). Additionally, secular priests are also asked to refrain from involvement in political, military, or civil affairs (can. 285-289). This is very different from the vocation of those in secular institutes, or from that of the laity in general, who are specifically and authentically called to exercise a Christian influence in realm of temporal affairs. Further, when canon 284 asks that priests wear clerical garb, this obviously presumes that the Church intends her priests to be recognizable, public representatives of the Church.

So even while diocesan priests are properly considered “secular” clerics who live “in the world,” in this case it is very clear that these designations do NOT mean that they are called to live lives similar to that of devout single laymen.

Now, given that we can acknowledge more than one possible interpretation of what it means to be “secular” and to “live in the world,” the question is how to understand these terms when applied to consecrated virgins.

In my opinion, consecrated virgins living in the world are only “in the world” in the more limited technical sense. That is, consecrated virgins, like diocesan priests, are “in the world” insofar as they are not members of a religious community. This means that, while consecrated virgins obviously from religious Sisters in some fundamental ways (e.g., they do not have cloister regulations or community obligations), at the same time consecrated virgins are still called to live lives that are demonstrably “set apart” for God alone.

I think that this conclusion is evident by the way in which the phrase “in the world” is actually used in the Church’s authoritative writings on consecrated virgins. Typically, when the liturgy and other Church documents refer to consecrated virgins as being “in the world,” this is simply used to distinguish virgins consecrated according to canon 604 from solemnly professed cloistered nuns who received the Rite of Consecration according to the traditional practice of their Order.

And unlike the official literature and Canon Law on secular institutes, there are absolutely NO authoritative documents which suggest that consecrated virgins should be living out their vocation to perpetual virginity in the context of an otherwise lay lifestyle.

The fact that the call to evangelize “in the ordinary conditions of the world” is emphasized so clearly in the Church’s writings on secular institutes proves that the Church is indeed capable of articulating the charism of living the evangelical counsels while intimately involved in the sphere of temporal concerns.

Because of this, the lack of such language in reference to consecrated virgins should really be quite striking. Had the Council Fathers of Vatican II intended the restored Order of Virgins to be distinctively “in the world” in the strong sense of the term, then surely they would have thought to articulate this point unambiguously.

It could perhaps be argued that, because we also lack any authoritative statement forbidding a secular institute-type lifestyle for consecrated virgins, it is still reasonable to understand consecrated virgins as being “in the world” in the strong sense of the term.

However, I think this is also a mistake. Because it cannot be disputed that consecrated virginity is a public state of consecrated life, in the absence of any modifying directive (i.e., a statement that explicitly allows or requires consecrated virgins to adopt a “lay” and strongly secular mode of life) we should presume that consecrated virgins are called to a manner of living which is most similar to that of other public states of consecrated life (such as religious life).

It could be said that the Church’s “default setting” for consecrated life—as well as the Church’s standard for all public states of consecrated life—involves a life lived exclusively for God and the Church in a radical, total, open, visible, and readily obvious manner. Because of this, I think the burden of proof would fall on those who believe that consecrated virginity, as a public state of consecration, would be best lived in a subtle or “part-time” way, or that it would pertain primarily to an individual’s private interior life.

Similarly, to assume that consecrated virgins are called to live a secular institute-type lifestyle would seem to show a misunderstanding of the Rite of Consecration’s place in history. Consecrated virginity is a truly ancient vocation, one which pre-dates religious life by several centuries. Yet in contrast, secular institutes are a distinctly twentieth-century development.

Even while it could rightly be said that secular institutes were in some sense anticipated by the various lay fraternities of the Middle Ages, or by the early Ursulines in the sixteenth century, the existence of secular institutes as such was not formally acknowledged by the Church until 1947. Likewise, the idea of living the evangelical counsels in a discreet way, as a “hidden leaven” in the world of temporal affairs, with the object of imbuing those temporal affairs with Christian values, was not given serious theological consideration until fairly recently in the history of the Church.

And so my own thought is that, if were we to assume that consecrated virgins are normally called to life and mission similar to that of secular institute members, them we would be inappropriately superimposing a very modern ideal onto a Patristic-era form of consecrated life.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Women of Mystery, Women of Hope

Here is a short, seven-minute film I found on the blog “Roman Catholic Vocations.” I liked it because it struck me as being almost like a Fishers of Men for women’s consecrated life.

Although unfortunately there are no consecrated virgins in the film, it is set in New York!

And, it features three of our best-known religious congregations: the Sisters and Life and the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal, both of which are diocesan communities; and the Missionary Sisters of Charity, who have a formation house in the Bronx.

Women of Mystery, Women of Hope also has its own website:

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Archbishop Dolan on Independence Day

Okay…I know that lately, Archbishop Dolan’s writing has been showing up on my blog almost as often as on his own! But for the fourth of July, I felt like I just had to share his most recent column in our Archdiocesan newspaper, Catholic New York:

(Emphases, in bold, are mine.)

Declaring Our Dependence (on God)

My friend Cardinal Francis George, the Archbishop of Chicago, comments that perhaps the most revolutionary statement we can make these days is the opening line of the creed, “We believe in God, the Father Almighty...” as we pray at every Sunday Mass.

We look forward to all the festivities of our national holiday, the Fourth of July, this weekend.

We call it Independence Day, celebrating our independence from England, sealed on July 4, 1776, won at the cost of the blood of brave patriots during the Revolutionary War.

However, to profess our faith that “We believe in God, the Father Almighty...” is actually an act of dependence: we admit that every breath we take, each day we have, every opportunity we are given, come from an omnipotent God, and we bask in the fact that we are totally dependent upon Him. He is sovereign, He is Lord, He has power and dominion. “Without Him, we can do nothing; with Him, nothing is impossible.”

Yes, this spiritual Declaration of Dependence is downright revolutionary. For today, it is chic to throw off—not the shackles of allegiance to King George, as our brave patriots gallantly did—but any sense of obedience to God, His revelation and the basic code of right and wrong He has engraved upon the human heart.

Oh, it’s not that we do not believe in God; it’s just that we consider ourselves to be gods: we claim dominion over life itself, as we accept abortion, euthanasia, destruction of embryonic stem cells, capital punishment and destructive poverty that causes starvation and plagues in the world.

We presume to tamper with the basic institution of a civil society, marriage and family, re-defining it to suit the spirit of the age.

We revel in violence on TV, in movies, in the rap lyrics our young people sing, independent of the decency and respect God has instilled in us.

Creatures resort to war, and terrorism, feeling themselves above the moral limits of conflict that a civilized society has always tried to heed.

We defend freedom as the right to do whatever we want, whenever we want, wherever we want, however we want, with whomever we want, instead of believing that freedom is really the liberty to do what we ought.

The Ten Commandments become a list of suggestions, the Eight Beatitudes a set of nice ideas, the Bible mere literature, the Church unnecessary, religion a crutch for the unenlightened, objective truth an outmoded oppression.

Because, you see, we are independent. We are self-made, and we worship our creator—ourselves!

This is sure curious. For one, we are terribly dependent—not, regrettably, upon God—but upon money, insurance, gas, weapons, security systems or even upon alcohol, pornography, lust, gambling and drugs, in a culture of consumption and convenience.

Two, it is curious because the patriots who won independence for us in 1776 had no trouble at all acknowledging their total dependence upon God. In fact, the normative documents of our beloved country presume the existence of a providential God, objective truth, moral duty and the right to life itself.

The real invitation this Fourth of July is to be independent of earthly and selfish tyranny, whether that be King George, Osama bin Laden, or a slavery to the passions, while at the same time confessing an utter dependence upon God and His eternal law.

“The Truth shall make you free,” as Jesus taught.

Happy Fourth of July!

God bless America!

“We believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” And we will never declare our independence from Him.