Telegraph:– Consecrated virgins say they are “disappointed” by the Vatican’s new guidance that literal virginity is not necessary.
A document released earlier this month says that a woman does not need to have “kept her body in perfect continence” to become a consecrated virgin.
The Vatican document, entitled Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago, says 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.”
Women who wish to be consecrated as virgins take part in a ceremony in which they dress in white and pledge themselves to Christ. There are thought to be around 5,000 worldwide.
Once they have joined the vocation, they wear wedding rings and cannot marry or engage in sexual relationships.
The US Association of Consecrated Virgins issued a statement calling the document “deeply disappointing” and said the advice was “shocking”.
“The entire tradition of the Church has firmly upheld that a woman must have received the gift of virginity – that is, both material and formal (physical and spiritual) – in order to receive the consecration of virgins,” it said.
There are around 250 consecrated virgins in the United States and around 200 in the UK.
Information on the British National Office for Vocation’s website also appears to differ to the new guidance, stating that the women must not have “lost virginity through voluntary intercourse” or been previously married.
It adds: “While the numbers of those seeking consecration as widows and widowers appears to be growing, there is not currently a rite in the Western Church for this particular form of consecration.”
The Vatican document says women can leave the vocation for “very serious reasons” if they apply in writing to the relevant bishop.
It adds that two years of preparation is needed before consecration and the ceremony does not normally take place before the woman reaches 25.
The document was published as guidance for the international church in response to a growing number of women who are expressing interest in the vocation.
The orders of virgins were present in the early Catholic Church but had died out since the medieval era before being revived in 1970 under the leadership of Pope Paul VI.
Unlike nuns, they do not have special clothing or live secluded from the secular world, though some spend much of their time as a recluse.
Among the UK’s notable consecrated virgins is Sister Wendy Beckett, 88, a South-African born art historian and broadcaster.