QUAERITUR: Can non-virgins be nuns?

From a reader:

First of all, thank you for all the work you do for your flock! What a
breath of fresh air good priests are! [And it is good that there
are so many!]

Here’s my question; Can a non-virgin become a nun? I found many
conflicting answers to this online and from what I read, it seemed as
if the Church was hesitant to say definitively either way. It seems as
if good arguments can be made for both answers. And if non-virgins
cannot become nuns, and say a woman who had had sex when she was young, realized later in life, or felt later in life, that she was
called to consecrate her life to Christ, what could she do then? Would
that just be a case of “missing your calling”?

Yes, a non-virgin can become a nun. A non-virgin cannot, obviously, become a consecrated virgin.

We are talking about physical virginity here, by the way, and not some fantasy about sorta kinda deciding to be a virgin again.

A non-virgin can indeed be accepted into religious communities. It has happened all through history.

I have no idea where you got the idea that non-virgins could not be professed members of religious communities.

If you want a good example of this in a good film, try In This House Of Brede with the great Diana Rigg.

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25 Responses to QUAERITUR: Can non-virgins be nuns?

  1. albinus1 says:

    Wasn’t it common at one time — or at least not uncommon — for widows to enter a convent? If I recall correctly, wasn’t St. Elizabeth Ann Seton a young widow with children when she founded her order? I think it’s pretty safe to assume that most widows aren’t virgins.

  2. Jonathan says:

    In Canada, Blessed Marie de l’Incarnation, foundress of the Ursuline order in New France, was a widow. Her correspondence with her only son is a goldmine for historians studying the early days of the Colony.

    She followed the will of God, but her entrance to the convent was a very painful experience both to Marie de l’Incarnation and her son:

    “On 25 January she left her aged father, entrusted her son Claude to the care of her sister, and, completely shattered with grief, entered the noviciate of the Ursulines of Tours. No human explanation can justify such an action. Like Abraham, Marie was obeying divine demands, which were approved by her spiritual adviser and by Bishop Bertrand d’Eschaux of Tours. Recalling this painful episode later, Marie was to admit that she “had suffered a living death.” Nothing was more painful for her than her son’s flight. Having a presentiment of something unusual, he had run away from home before his mother’s departure. He was found again three days later, on the wharfs of Blois. Then the poor child stormed the convent with a band of school boys. In the midst of the uproar Marie could pick out the voice of her son, who was crying aloud: “Give me back my mother, give me back my mother.”

    Her son, Dom Claude Martin, later became a benedictine.

    http://www.biographi.ca/009004-119.01-e.php?&id_nbr=325

  3. Ellen says:

    How about Jane de Chantal who founded the Visitations? She was a widow. So was St. Rita. Then there was Cornelia Connelly who founded the Society of the Holy Child Jesus. Cornelia Connelly’s husband was an Episcopal minister who converted to Catholicism, then decided he wanted to be a priest. Cornelia became a nun, founded the order but later her husband renounced the priesthood and the church and tried to force her to return to him. She refused and he sued. The scandal was tremendous, but the courts eventually rejected his claim.

  4. Kypapist says:

    Regarding “In This House of Brede,” while the movie was very good, the book by Rumor Godden was even better, with an expanded plot and presenting far more detail about the sisters and convent life over several decades. The backstory for Diana Riggs’ character is very different and more tragic in the book, as is the cause for its resolution. And the early changes wrought by Vatican II are explored. A very good read by a very good author. Cornelia Connelly’s story is true and also very interesting as she travels from America to Rome to England with her husband and children. The reaction of the British hierarchy to her husband’s lawsuit is very interesting from a historical perspective.

  5. Precentrix says:

    The rites specify different chants for virgins and non-virgins, just in case anyone wondered about that.

  6. Joe in Canada says:

    St Marguerite d’Youville was also a widow (and mother – two of her sons were Priests) when she founded the Grey Nuns.

  7. Tibi gratias ago Pater. Recte dixisti, ut semper. Nunc, placeat tibi, dubium novum: mulierne capacitatem essendi non religiosa, sed virgo consecrata, si eadem, Deus vetet, passa est violatione.

  8. Rich says:

    St. Rita, St. Rita, and St. Rita.

  9. pfreddys says:

    WOW…everyone beat me to it: St. Rita of Cascia. May I suggest if this woman does become a nun she takes the name Rita as her religious name. Best wishes and prayers to that woman.

  10. Dr. Eric says:

    St. Margaret of Cortona was neither a virgin nor a widow.

  11. jilly4ski says:

    Fr. Z “I have no idea where you got the idea that non-virgins could not be professed members of religious communities.”

    This sort of idea, comes from the same place as the notion that all priests make a vow of poverty.

  12. Doubtful Thomas says:

    Blessed Celine Borzecka, Foundress of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Resurrection, was a widow. The Co-Foundress of the Congregation was her daughter, the Servant of God, Mother Hedwig Borzecka.

  13. Elizabeth D says:

    “A non-virgin cannot, obviously, become a consecrated virgin”… “We are talking about physical virginity here, by the way, and not some fantasy about sorta kinda deciding to be a virgin again.”

    Although this may be the wisdom on the matter, neither canon law nor the liturgy get that specific about it. It is also universally accepted (by Cardinal Burke etc) that a victim of sexual assault or a woman not physically intact for some other reason, is not excluded from the consecrated virgin vocation, if they have not willingly had sex; the consecrated virgin vocation as defined today is not simply about a state of the body (some Fathers of the Church did define female virginity as specifically a physical state which certainly we believe of the Mother of God). Integral and central to Christian virginity is a spiritual state in relationship to Christ.

    Because this is so, Blessed John Paul II was not referring to a spiritual state rather than a fantasy when he wrote as a young priest in “Love and Responsibility” that some become virgin late, that is when no longer physically virgin, and spoke also as Pope of “secondary virginity”. He uses the word differently than St Augustine used it. So does Cardinal Burke.

  14. Oh, come on. Isn’t anybody going to mention that there were once whole houses of ex-prostitute nuns?

    But yeah, there are different Masses for feasts of “a virgin”, more than one “virgins”, for “a holy woman”, and for more than one “holy women”. It’s not an insult to know what category you’re (potentially) in.

  15. DeaconPaul says:

    For those using historic categories it is important to realise that in the past if a woman wasn’t married or a widow it would be presumed that she was a virgin. Our modern moral laxity makes this presumption sadly uncertain but we need to be careful in trying to make specific judgements about another’s moral status.

  16. dans0622 says:

    The requirement for physical virginity is put in these terms: “that they have never married or lived in open violation of chastity” (Praenotanda of the Rite of Consecration to a life of virginity). “In cases in which the loss of physical virginity was not intended by the woman, for example in case of rape or involuntary incest, she remains eligible for the consecration of virgins.” So it is said at the following website: http://www.consecratedvirgins.org/questions/who.asp

  17. Sam Urfer says:

    And the ex-prostitute convents were no oddity either. The Medieval Church actively promoted the religious life as a way out of the life of prostitution.

  18. Joshua08 says:

    Elizabeth D,

    “He uses the word differently than St Augustine used it”

    Where do you get that idea from? St. Augustine is explicit in the City of God that the state of virginity is preserved even when a woman is raped, or when, through surgery, her hymen is broken.

    This is also the explicit teaching of every medieval I know of, and of all old moral theology manuals that I have ever seen. John Paul II, whatever else may be said, stated zilch that was new in this particular area. To be honest, I get quite annoyed at the portraying of perennial ideas as in fact new ideas discovered by him. It is both disparaging to the tradition, and to him (for novelty is never the mark of a good thinker)

    Anyhow, St. Thomas, basing his answer on St. Augustine, perhaps gives the most coherent treatment in the tradition. The state of virginity, as with all moral matters, must involve the voluntary. Hence he or she is a virgin who has never willfully had venereal pleasure (as old moral theology manuals will tell you, he who has committed self abuse is NOT a virgin). This is the formal aspect. The material aspect is merely never having experience venereal pleasure. One is a virgin even though this has happened, e.g. nocturnal emission, but there is a completeness when the perfection of virginity is also manifested materially, by the organs themselves never having underwent venereal pleasure. Physical integrity belongs to the perfection of virginity as a sign, and not as its essence. Thus a writer 750 years ago.

    Oh, and virginity is only a virtue when it exists through being dedicated to God through religious continence. St. Augustine (there he is again) remarked that all men are born virgins, no virtue there. The virtue is being consecrated to God in this manner (St. Thomas Aquinas would teach there is a special reward, called a fruit, for virgins [there is also a fruit for widows, and for chaste spouses]). Anyhow, this should suffice to drive away notions that Augustine at least, or the tradition in general, had such a simple, material notion of virginity

  19. Maria says:

    What an interesting article.
    It also occured to me whilst reading this that the two prominent women in Our Lords’ life were of course The Blessed Virgin Mary, and Mary Magdalene.

  20. Elizabeth D says:

    Joshua08, I stand corrected, you seem to know much more than I. I had seen some things about what St Augustine believed that seemed to differ from the information you give.

  21. Joshua08 says:

    Elizabeth D, no problem. I have great affection for St. Augustine, so my ears pick up when I hear his name

    If you are interested, Book I of the City of God and Book 2 have sections pertaining to this. St. Thomas deals with it most clearly in the Quodlibetals, but of course also in the Summa (Book II-II, question 152…there he also talks about when it is a virtue, whether it can be regained (he says materially no, but that its purpose can be with repentance and an ordering to God))

    Just an excerpt from Augustine
    For the sanctity of the body does not consist in the integrity of its members, nor in their exemption from all touch; for they are exposed to various accidents which do violence to and wound them, and the surgeons who administer relief often perform operations that sicken the spectator. A midwife, suppose, has (whether maliciously or accidentally, or through unskillfulness) destroyed the virginity of some girl, while endeavoring to ascertain it: I suppose no one is so foolish as to believe that, by this destruction of the integrity of one organ, the virgin has lost anything even of her bodily sanctity. And thus, so long as the soul keeps this firmness of purpose which sanctifies even the body, the violence done by another’s lust makes no impression on this bodily sanctity, which is preserved intact by one’s own persistent continence. Suppose a virgin violates the oath she has sworn to God, and goes to meet her seducer with the intention of yielding to him, shall we say that as she goes she is possessed even of bodily sanctity, when already she has lost and destroyed that sanctity of soul which sanctifies the body? Far be it from us to so misapply words. Let us rather draw this conclusion, that while the sanctity of the soul remains even when the body is violated, the sanctity of the body is not lost; and that, in like manner, the sanctity of the body is lost when the sanctity of the soul is violated, though the body itself remains intact.

  22. Nerinab says:

    I second Kypapist’s suggestion. The book, “In this House of Brede” is much better than the movie (though I still enjoyed the movie).

  23. Elizabeth D says:

    Did St Augustine consider his own body as permanently having lost its sanctity? Or did he see this as particular to women? As a sinner woman, it is incredibly hard to live with. Cannot Jesus make a woman perfectly fit for Himself again?

  24. Supertradmum says:

    http://www.consecratedvirgins.org/questions/who.asp

    This is an excellent site and answers questions on consecrated virgins. As to nuns and sisters, there are many orders which accept annulled women and non-virgins. Usually, the question is not one of virginity, but age. Here is a great site http://tradvocations.blogspot.com/

  25. Joshua08 says:

    1. Considering he talked about nocturnal emission and other “guy” issues in the same vein, virginity was not considered particular to women by Augustine (nor by Aquinas). Every moral theology manual I have explicitly treats of its as inclusive of both sexes

    2. I direct you to a passage I alluded to from Aquinas. The straight answer is that even God cannot make one a virgin again in every sense of the word. It is impossible. God cannot change the past, as that would imply a contradiction S. Th. II 152 a. 3 ad 3. But He can, by His grace, give repentance and through that the purpose of holy virginity can be recovered which is what is formal in virtue

    “Virtue can be recovered by penance as regards that which is formal in virtue, but not as to that which is material therein. For if a magnificent man has squandered all his wealth he does not recover his riches by repenting of his sin. On like manner a person who has lost virginity by sin, recovers by repenting, not the matter of virginity but the purpose of virginity.

    As regards the matter of virginity there is that which can be miraculously restored by God, namely the integrity of the organ, which we hold to be accidental to virginity: while there is something else which cannot be restored even by miracle, to wit, that one who has experienced venereal lust should cease to have had that experience. For God cannot make that which is done not to have been done, as stated in I, 25, 4. ”

    In any case, just because virginity is an objectively higher state than marriage, doesn’t mean a non-virgin who observes conjugal chastity is “unfit” for Christ, or that someone who has repented of sinful lust is not truly justified by His grace. They may lack the “auereole” the crown given to virgins, but so too most of us will lack the crown of the martyrs. Martyrdom has its own special reward after all, but lacking that does not make one per se unfit