The Vatican has caused alarm by saying consecrated virgins need not be virgins

Since 1970, when the Rite of Consecration of Virgins was reintroduced, numbers have steadily grown, and are projected to reach 5,000 by 2020. Consecrated virgins are women who take a vow of celibacy, but live in the world in a great variety of jobs and apostolates.

It’s a success story – but the story now features a major public controversy, thanks to a single sentence in a Vatican document.

Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago, issued by the Vatican dicastery for consecrated life, includes a sentence which a group representing consecrated virgins in the US has described as “shocking”. The document says that to become a consecrated virgin, a woman need not “have kept her body in perfect continence”. Translated from Vatican-speak, this means that a woman can be a consecrated virgin even if she has had sex.

The novelty of this claim was underlined by the US Association of Consecrated Virgins: “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 was “disappointing”, the statement said, to see this physical requirement taken away.

The canon lawyer Edward Peters said he could not think of a previous document in Catholic history which agreed with Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago on this point. “If virginity is not being consecrated in a consecrated virgin, what is?” Peters asked.

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