Built Upon Sand: Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago

by Mother Therese Ivers, JCL, JCD (Cand.), OCV, DHS

It has been four years since the Instruction Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago has been released. What is interesting is that the more scholarly commentators of this document have been writing upon what the document says. Other than the controversial paragraph #88, most do not bother with a more basic analysis of the document as to whether what is says is consonant with the history, theology, and nature of the vocation to sacred virginity. Nor are there any commentaries which go into depth about the individual juridic weight of each “mandate” articulated in it.

This is highly problematic because even a casual perusal of the document makes it clear that the first part appears to have had different authors than the second part. For example, “consecrated virgins” is the term used for the first part. Then there is an abrupt change to “consecrated women”.

Not unsurprisingly for a document that is the result of what appears to be separate committees whose members must have had different exposure to the theology and law of consecrated life, and indeed, the vocation upon which they were writing, ESI is riddled with internal and external contradictions. In fact, the authors adopt at least 2 or 3 implicit [and contradictory] “definitions” of the vocation to justify their positivistic construction of their vision of how the vocation is to be lived and governed.

An Instruction is only valid insofar as what it requires is actually based upon already existing law. It cannot create law that restricts freedom of the bishops/virgins, because by law, an Instruction interprets law, not creates it. Creation of a law requires a specific legal process, and the last time law has been promulgated with regard to the Ordo Virginum was in 1983/1990 in the two Codes of canon law of the Church.

Further, an Instruction cannot only not impose new law, anything in it that actually contradicts law is null and void. In the eagerness to explain but not actually evaluate ESI, most (if not all) jurists have let certain obvious contradictions pass by unnoticed. One very obvious contradiction reads as follows:

With daily fidelity to the Divine Office, which they received as a gift and have taken on as a duty in the rite of consecration, they extend through time the memory of salvation and allow the extraordinary abundance of the paschal mystery to flow and spread through every hour of their life. Celebrating the Liturgy of the Hours, in particular Morning and Evening Prayer[55], they let the sentiments of Christ echo through them, absorbing them. They unite their voices to those of the entire Church, presenting to the Father the often unconscious cries of joy and sorrow that rise from humanity and from the whole of creation.

Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago #34 [emphasis mine]

While this paragraph from ESI sounds utterly reasonable to someone who is familiar with the requirement to recite the liturgical hours on the part of religious, it is in fact, not an obligation or duty of the virgin to pray all or even part of the liturgy of the hours. Here is in fact, what the law says about the [non religious] virgin praying the office:

They are to spend their time in works of penance and of mercy, in apostolic activity and in prayer, according to their state of life and spiritual gifts.

To fulfill their duty of prayer they are strongly advised to celebrate the liturgy of the hours each day, especially morning prayer and evening prayer…

Rite of Consecration of Virgins, Roman Pontifical Introduction n. 2

In legal terminology, “strongly advised” [the Latin here is virginibus sacratis vehementer suadetur] does not equate to “obligated” or the “duty” of the sacred virgin [virgo sacra]. Because the plain wording of ESI imposes an obligation where the law itself does not, this part of the Instruction is null and void per canon 34. 2 which states:

Regulations found in instructions do not derogate from laws, and if any of them cannot be reconciled with the prescriptions of laws, they lack all force.

Canon 34.2

The virgin is advised to recite, but does not take on the obligation or duty of reciting the Liturgy of the Hours, either in whole or in part. Why? Part of the rationale for this was the fact that the authors of the law knew that it was impractical to impose the liturgical celebration of the hours upon women who did not belong to an institute with common public prayers. Indeed, the situation of many virgins is that they may have other forms of prayer that spiritually uplift them [e.g. they may spend hours of lectio divina], or their work/travel schedule prohibits an undistracted devout recitation of the hours. Those familiar with the actual praxis of this vocation are familiar with these practical difficulties but those situated in the heart of religious communities or in their academic towers commenting on a vocation not their own might overlook it.

It is not just the law that has been butchered by the authors of Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago. It is also our tradition and theology. In #2 of ESI, a footnote reads as follows:

Initially, the similarity between this form of life and that of consecrated widows also entailed a lack of clear distinction, as can be gathered from the writings of Ignatius of Antioch, who, at the beginning of the second century, greeted “the virgins called widows” of the community of Smyrna: Ignatius Antiochensis, Ep. Ad. Smyrn. XIII: PG 5, 717-718. In the Apostolic Constitutions of the second half of the fourth century, virgins appear together with widows and deaconesses, as an institutional component of the Christian community.

ESI, footnote #4 [emphasis mine]

If the idea is that “consecrated virgins” should be named “consecrated women” and their ranks opened to widows who have experienced intercourse, then this footnote makes perfect sense. Destroy any distinctions that were acknowledged in the early Church to pave the way to a new theology of consecrated single women instead of sacred virgins. It is, after all, a lot easier to forgo the Church’s actual teaching on virginity because it is a hard truth that few wish to honor, instead of the easy lie of substituting [what is for the most part non-virginal continence in today’s single women] for virginity.

The problem with this approach is that it is not only a false assumption, but it highlights the utter unfamiliarity of the writers with the social, cultural, and the theological realities of the early Christian Church. Widows and virgins were known to the Church. Not only because they were inscribed in different rolls and were assigned different places in the liturgical gatherings, but also because they dressed differently, and had different legal and social rights under Roman laws. Widows, in general, were much more free than virgins to live as they pleased. There is no possible way that the close knit Christian communities were not acutely aware of who among their number was a widow or a virgin respectively.

Further, the quote doesn’t pertain to “single women” it talks of two distinct types of women “virgins” and “widows”. It would have helped the authors of ESI had they been more familiar with other documents, or even had fact checkers. Why do they not explain how they came to interpret the words of St. Ignatius of Antioch when the self same quote is cited by Pope Pius XII:

And not much later Ignatius of Antioch salutes the virgins,[6] who together with the widows, formed a not insignificant part of the Christian community of Smyrna. 

Encyclical Sacra Virginitas, #3. [emphasis mine]

Unlike the authors of ESI, Pius XII was more familiar with the actual patristic writings and the commentaries about virgins. He did not make the mistake of thinking that there was a lack of a clear distinction between a virgin and a widow in an era in which women as a matter of culture and imperial law, dressed according to their procreative status: virgins, matrons, widows, slaves, and prostitutes.

The sheer volume of inconsistencies, internal and external contradictions, and the lack of first principles grounded upon the nature of the vocation makes the Instruction a monument to the invalid attempt of a positivist construction [as in the attempt of fiat based regulations not based on proper law] of the vocation rather than what it should have been: an interpretation of the existing law.

In summary, ESI is the attempt of many individuals to make sense of the vocation to sacred virginity, but a massive failure at that, because of the complete misunderstanding of its nature and the futile use of the wrong tool to impose invalid regulations not in conformity with existing law. A serious canonical study should be made of the document, assessing the weight of its diverse parts, which is only as good as its fonts.