Christian women who have pledged lifelong virginity as “brides of Christ” have expressed shock at a Vatican document that suggests literal virginity is not a prerequisite for their consecration.
The Vatican’s new instruction on consecrated virginity, Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago, was published earlier this month after requests from bishops who reported an increasing number of women being called to the vocation.
There are an estimated 5,000 consecrated virgins in at least 42 countries, with the largest numbers in France, Italy and Argentina.
Consecrated virgins are unmarried women who offer their physical virginity as a gift to Christ, and devote time to penance, works of mercy and prayer. Unlike nuns, they do not live in enclosed communities or wear special clothing. Most have jobs, and they provide for their own needs.
The 39-page Vatican document offers detailed guidance on the vocation, including advising up to two years’ preparation before consecration.
It says consecrated virgins “are dedicated to the Lord Jesus in virginity … They experience the spiritual fertility of an intimate relationship with him”.
But the clause that has surprised some says actual virginity is not essential for a woman to become a consecrated virgin.
“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,” it says.
“Thus to have kept her body in perfect continence or to have practiced 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.”
In a statement, the US Association of Consecrated Virgins, which says there are 235 consecrated virgins across America, said the document was “deeply disappointing in its denial of integral virginity as the essential and natural foundation of the vocation”.
“It is shocking to hear from Mother Church that physical virginity may no longer be considered an essential prerequisite for consecration to a life of virginity,” it added.
Women dress as brides for the consecration ceremony, in which they pledge perpetual virginity.
Theresa Jordan, who was consecrated along with two other women in Detroit last June, said: “It’s a promise that we make to be faithful to Christ all our life. [We] make him a promise of our virginity as a gift back to him.”