The Consecrated Virgin as the Bride of Christ

Joseph Bolin

April 13, 2005

A Consecrated Virgin is the bride of Christ.

Be veiled, virgin, if virgin you are; for you ought to blush…. You do well in falsely assuming the married character, if you veil your head; nay, you do not seem to assume it falsely, for you are wedded to Christ:1

What can be fairer than a soul which is called the daughter of God, and which seeks for herself no outward adorning? She believes in Christ, and, dowered with this hope of greatness makes her way to her spouse; for Christ is at once her bridegroom and her Lord.2

The Son of God, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,… in addition to all His other benefits bestowed this also upon us, that we should possess upon earth, in the state of virginity, a picture of the holiness of Angels. Accordingly such as have attained this virtue, the Catholic Church has been accustomed to call the brides of Christ.3

She is a virgin, who marries God.4

Christian virgins are often called brides of Christ. Moreover, they are not merely called brides of Christ, but they are given to Christ in a Church ceremony much like that of human marriage.

Virginity possesses both what others have, and what others do not have, seeing as it obtains the common and a special grace, and rejoices in its own privilege, if I may so speak, of consecration. For also the authority of the Church permits us to call virgins brides of Christ, when it consecrates them to the Lord in the manner of brides, as showing that they indeed most of all will have a spiritual marriage, who have fled from fleshly consort, and are worthily joined spiritually to God by the bond of matrimony, having despised [spreverunt] human marriage for the sake of his love. In these most of all is fulfilled that saying of the Apostle: “He who adheres to the Lord, is one spirit [with him].”5 (1 Cor 6:17)

You were a virgin in the paradise of God, among the flowers of the Church: you were a spouse of Christ, you were a temple of God, you were a dwelling of the Holy Spirit… 19. Did you not recall the holy day of the Lord’s Resurrection on which you bore yourself to the divine altar to be veiled? You went forth in so great and solemn gathering of the church of God, splendid among the lights of the neophytes, among the candidates of the heavenly kingdom as one to be wedded to the king. Did you not remember what kind of speech was addressed to you on that day: “See, O daughter, look, O virgin, ‘and forget your people and your father’s house; and the king will desire your beauty; for he is the Lord your God?” (Ps 45:10-11) Remember therefore how great a people came to the heading of your Spouse and Lord. You should have kept the faith which you promised before so many witness, always to consider him to whom you pledged your virginity. It should have been easier to pour out your blood with your spirit, than to lose your chastity.

20…. You were covered with the sacred veil, when the whole people, subscribing your dowry not with ink, but with the spirit, called out together, “Amen.”… If when engagements are made before ten witnesses, when weddings are completed, any woman joined to a mortal man commits adultery with great danger, how is it when the spiritual bond formed before innumerable witnesses of the Church, before the angels and heavenly hosts, is loosed by adultery? I do not know whether a fitting death or punishment could even be imagined.

21. Someone will say: “It is better to marry than to burn.” This saying pertains to one not promised, to one not yet veiled. But she who has pledged herself to Christ, and received the holy veil, has already married, she is already joined to an immortal husband.6

The Church’s tradition has consistently considered consecrated virgins to be brides of Christ. We have given above just a few of the testimonies of the fathers. The same teaching is to be found in the later doctors of the Church7 and in the Magisterium.8 In this paper we will investigate why the consecrated virgin is a bride of Christ. First we will consider the nature of the consecrated virgin, and then why such a woman deserves the title “Bride of Christ.”

Goal of Consecrated Virginity

In considering the nature of consecrated virginity, we should first consider the end or goal of it, and then the means necessary or fitting for that end. The end of virginity is twofold. First, it frees one’s attention from human affairs, affairs relating to one’s spouse, and thus enables one more freely to attend to the things of God. This is the reason mentioned most explicitly by St. Paul in the First Epistle to the Corinthians.

I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband.9

Secondly, virginity opens up a greater freedom of the heart for God. For “man is set between the things of this world and spiritual goods, in which eternal happiness consists, in such a way that to the degree that he adheres more to one of them, he withdraws more from the other, and conversely.”10 Thus, though marriage is a great thing -- in a sense because it is a great but limited thing -- it is not the greatest good, and so one’s heart can be freer to set its affection on God if it is not bound to a spouse.11

15. This then is the primary purpose, this the central idea of Christian virginity: to aim only at the divine, to turn thereto the whole mind and soul; to want to please God in everything, to think of Him continually, to consecrate body and soul completely to Him...

20… The Apostle is not reproving men because they are concerned about their wives, nor does he reprehend wives because they seek to please their husbands; rather is he asserting clearly that their hearts are divided between love of God and love of their spouse, and beset by gnawing cares, and so by reason of the duties of their married state they can hardly be free to contemplate the divine. For the duty of the married life to which they are bound clearly demands: "They shall be two in one flesh." (Gen 2:24; Cf. Mat 19:5) For spouses are to be bound to each other by mutual bonds both in joy and in sorrow. (Cf. 1 Cor 7:39) It is easy to see, therefore, why persons who desire to consecrate themselves to God's service embrace the state of virginity as a liberation, in order to be more entirely at God's disposition and devoted to the good of their neighbor.12

Nature of Consecrated Virginity: For God

If virginity is to be holy Christian virginity, it must be in some way devoted to God.

The difference between the Christian and vestal virginity is great, yet it consists wholly in the being to whom the vow is made and paid.13

Neither is virginity honored because it is virginity, but because it hath been dedicated to God, and, although it be kept in the flesh, yet is it kept by religion and devotion of the Spirit.14

Virginity is devoted to God by being ordered to the aforesaid goal of freeing oneself for a greater attention and devotion to the things of God. St. John Chrysostom even denies the name virgin to those who are virgins because they reject marriage, rather than because they seek a greater good.

The virgins of the heretics I would not call virgins … because they chose not to wed because they condemned marriage. For by judging that the act [of marriage] is evil, they lost the prize of virginity.15

Similarly Chrysostom denies the name virgin to those who are virgins in body, but who are heretics or otherwise opposed to God’s law.

The virgins of heretics I would not call virgins at all. First, they are not chaste…. How can they who, unsatisfied with one husband, bring in another who is not God, be chaste?…

Neither fasting nor virginity is good or bad according to itself, but from the choice of those who follow these practices… Who is a virgin who has fallen from the faith, who listens to deceivers, who trusts in demons, and honors lies?… A virgin who is going to receive the holy bridegroom ought to be pure not only in body, but also in soul.16

Pope Pius XII re-presents this teaching of St. John Chrysostom and other fathers in his encyclical Sacra Virginitas.

12. Here also it must be added, as the Fathers and Doctors of the Church have clearly taught, that virginity is not a Christian virtue unless we embrace it “for the kingdom of heaven;” (Mat 19:12) that is, unless we take up this way of life precisely to be able to devote ourselves more freely to divine things to attain heaven more surely, and with skillful efforts to lead others more readily to the kingdom of heaven.

13. Those therefore, who do not marry because of exaggerated self-interest, or because, as Augustine says, they shun the burdens of marriage or because like Pharisees they proudly flaunt their physical integrity… none of these can claim for themselves the honor of Christian virginity.17


For virginity to be perfectly devoted to God, it must be perpetual. “In likening those who of their own free will have determined to renounce these pleasures to those who by nature or the violence of men are forced to do so, is not the Divine Redeemer teaching us that chastity to be really perfect must be perpetual?”18 It is not difficult to see why this is so. If a spouse is an impediment to the greater freedom for attention to the things of God, then the desire for a future spouse will also be an impediment.

It is not at a venture that I may say, a married woman seems to me happier than a virgin about to be married: for the one hath what the other as yet desires, especially if she be not yet even the betrothed of any one. The one studies to please one, unto whom she hath been given; the other many, in doubt unto whom she is to be given.19

Of course a virgin who has not committed herself to perpetual virginity may not be actively seeking a husband. Nevertheless the possibility of seeking a husband in the future allows the heart to be more easily drawn from the devotion to God which is the purpose of Christian virginity.

By Vow

Virginity is most determined to be perpetual by a vow, whereby the will is fixed in its intention. Consequently the most perfect manner of keeping virginity is not merely by the intention of remaining a virgin, but by vow.

Those who obligate themselves by perpetual vow to keep their virginity put into practice in the most perfect way possible what Christ said about perpetual abstinence from marriage; nor can it justly be affirmed that the intention of those who wish to leave open a way of escape from this state of life is better and more perfect.20

Perfect Virginity: actually devoted to God

If a virgin as the Church uses the term properly names a Christian virgin, then this name most properly belongs to those who are actually devoted to Christ, and less properly to those who have promised such devotion, or been dedicated to such devotion by the Church, but have forsaken their promise, i.e., do not seek Christ.

The sentence was that she should either sacrifice, or be sent to a house of ill-fame…. The virgin… began to reflect, What am I to do? Each crown, that of martyrdom and that of virginity, is grudged me to-day. But the name of virgin is not acknowledged where the Author of virginity is denied. How can one be a virgin who cherishes a harlot? How can one be a virgin who loves adulterers? How a virgin if she seeks for a lover?21 It is preferable to have a virgin mind than a virgin body. Each is good if each be possible; if it be not possible, let me be chaste, not to man but to God.22

We see the same principle already in St. Paul with respect to widows. He implies that even as a widow who has relatives to support her is not a “real widow,” so a widow who does not devote herself to God, but seeks lesser things for herself, is not considered a “real widow” in the sense in which widowhood is praiseworthy.

She who is a real widow, and is left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day; whereas she who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives.23

Why the Consecrated Virgin is called and is a bride of Christ

From these considerations regarding the nature of Christian Virginity we can see why a consecrated virgin is fittingly called a “bride of Christ.”

Personal Dedication to Christ, Body and Soul

As a married woman gives her person, both body, and soul, to her husband, so the virgin gives herself to Christ, both in body and soul. “The unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband.”24

By freely choosing virginity, women… realize the personal value of their own femininity by becoming a “sincere gift” for God who has revealed himself in Christ, a gift for Christ, the Redeemer of humanity and the spouse of souls: a “spousal” gift. One cannot correctly understand virginity – a woman’s consecration in virginity – without referring to spousal love. It is through this kind of love that a person becomes a gift for the other…. [Virginity] cannot be compared to remaining simply unmarried or single, because virginity is not restricted to a mere “no,” but contains a profound “yes” in the spousal order: the gift of self for love in a total and undivided manner….

A woman is “married” either through the sacrament of marriage or spiritually through marriage to Christ. In both cases marriage signifies the “sincere gift of the person” of the bride to the groom. In this way, one can say that the profile of marriage is found spiritually in virginity.25

But indeed, the virgin devotes herself more entirely to Christ than the wife to her husband, since the wife gives herself to her husband “in the Lord,”26 and therefore secondarily; the wife’s primary gift of herself must be to Christ. The virgin’s gift of herself, on the other hand, pertains directly to Christ, and therefore can be a more perfect gift.

[The Apostle Paul] is asserting clearly that their hearts [i.e., the hearts of husbands and wives] are divided between love of God and love of their spouse… It is easy to see, therefore, why persons who desire to consecrate themselves to God’s service embrace the state of virginity as a liberation, in order to be more entirely at God’s disposition and devoted to the good of their neighbor.27

The virgin is most of all devoted to Christ as regards her soul, inasmuch as she is and seeks to be united with him spiritually, as are the “angels in heaven.”28 In the following text of St. Ambrose, for example, the two primaries marks of the virgin are that she should be intent on the Lord – “The virgin’s dew is the divine word”; “you should fully know Him Whom you love” – and that she should be without sins of speech. The virginal life is a simple and humble life that is set upon the Lord.

38… “Thou art all fair, My love, and no blemish is in thee. Come hither from Lebanon, My spouse, come hither from Lebanon. Thou shalt pass and pass through from the beginning of faith, from the top of Sanir and Hermon, from the dens of the lions, from the mountains of the leopards.” (Song of Songs 4:8) By which references is set forth the perfect and irreproachable beauty of a virgin soul, consecrated to the altars of God, not moved by perishable things amidst the haunts and dens of spiritual wild beasts, but intent, by the mysteries of God, on being found worthy of the Beloved, Whose breasts are full of joy…. 40. Let, then, your work be as it were a honeycomb, for virginity is fit to be compared to bees, so laborious is it, so modest, so continent. The bee feeds on dew, it knows no marriage couch, it makes honey. The virgin’s dew is the divine word, for the words of God descend like the dew. The virgin’s modesty is unstained nature. The virgin’s produce is the fruit of the lips, without bitterness, abounding in sweetness….

41. How I wish you, my daughter, to be an imitator of these bees, whose food is flowers, whose offspring is collected and brought together by the mouth. Do imitate her, my daughter. Let no veil of deceit be spread over your words; let them have no covering of guile, that they may be pure, and full of gravity….

46… “Set a watch before thy mouth, and a door to thy lips,” (Ps 141:3) that you, too, may be able to say: “As the apple-tree among the trees of the wood, so is my Beloved among the sons. In His shadow I delighted and sat down, and His fruit was sweet to my palate. I found Him Whom my soul loved, I held Him and would not let him go. My beloved came down into His garden to eat the fruit of His trees. Come, my Beloved, let us go forth into the field. Set me as a signet upon Thine heart, and as a seal upon Thine arm. My Beloved is white and ruddy.”29 For it is fitting, O Virgin, that you should fully know Him Whom you love, and should recognize in Him all the mystery of His Divine Nature and the Body which He has assumed….

48. And since you are worthy to be compared not now with men but with heavenly beings, whose life you are living on earth, receive from the Lord the precepts you are to observe: “Set Me as a signet upon thine heart, and as a seal upon thine arm;” that clearer proofs of your prudence and actions may be set forth, in which Christ the Figure of God may shine…. Let us, then, sealed by the Trinity, take more diligent heed, lest either levity of character or the deceit of any unfaithfulness unseal the pledge which we have received in our hearts.30

Bodily dedication to Christ

Nonetheless the virgin is devoted bodily to Christ, inasmuch as for the sake of this spiritual union of charity with Christ she preserves her virginity for him. Thus also in the text of St. Ambrose, virginity is several times related to the spiritual espousal to Christ in the context of chastity as such, rather than in the context of a devotion of mind and works to Christ.

9… how many desired that she would come to them in marriage! But she answered: “It would be an injury to my spouse to look on any one as likely to please me…

51…For you, holy virgins, there is a special guardianship, for you who with unspotted chastity keep the couch of the Lord holy. And no wonder if the angels fight for you who war with the mode of life of angels. Virginal chastity merits their guardianship whose life it attains to.

52. Why should I continue the praise of chastity in more words? For chastity has made even angels. He who has preserved it is an angel; he who has lost it a devil. And hence has religion also gained its name. She is a virgin who is the bride of God, a harlot who makes gods for herself.31

The preservation of the body in chastity is not as perfect as the preservation of the mind in purity, but it is the foundation for it.

11… Virginity has brought from heaven that which it may imitate on earth. And not unfittingly has she sought her manner of life from heaven, who has found for herself a Spouse in heaven. She, passing beyond the clouds, air, angels, and stars, has found the Word of God in the very bosom of the Father, and has drawn Him into herself with her whole heart.32

When it is said that she “has found for herself a Spouse in heaven,” this refers directly to the consecration of chastity. To seek the “manner of life from heaven,” the simplicity and attentiveness to the heavenly spouse, is then based upon this chastity. Thus chastity is in a certain respect more fundamental than the devotion of the mind, though devotion of mind is more perfect, and the two cannot really be separated for the Christian virgin.

According to the Second Vatican Council, the precious gift of "perfect continence, out of desire for the kingdom of heaven," is outstanding among the evangelical counsels. (LG 42)… Traditionally, three vows are usually spoken of--poverty, chastity and obedience--beginning with the discussion of poverty as detachment from external goods, ranked on a lower level with regard to the goods of body and soul (cf. St. Thomas, Summa Theol., II-II, q. 186, a. 3). The Council, instead, expressly mentions consecrated chastity before the other two vows (cf. LG 43; PC 12, 13, 14), because it considers chastity as the determining commitment of the state of consecrated life.33

Moreover, this aspect of the virgin, pertaining more directly to the sexual nature, and the gift of oneself through the sexual nature, is closer to the proper nature of marriage. Hence the term “Bride of Christ” generally has reference to this bodily tie of the virgin to Christ.

Wear the full garb of woman, to preserve the standing of virgin. Belie somewhat of your inward consciousness, in order to exhibit the truth to God alone. And yet you do not belie yourself in appearing as a bride. For wedded you are to Christ: to Him you have surrendered your flesh; to Him you have espoused your maturity.34

Even when the term “Bride of Christ” signifies more generally the consecration of the woman to Christ, it always includes such a dedication of the sexual power in chastity. Thus no woman who has not dedicated her chastity to Christ in this way is called a “Bride of Christ.” She may be consecrated to Christ by a vow of obedience accepted by the Church – and obedience is greater than virginity – yet if her chastity is not dedicated exclusively to Christ, she is not called a “Bride of Christ.”

Truly Devoted to Christ

As the name “virgin” is sometimes denied to one who by a lack of devotion to Christ belies her virginal state, so the term “Bride of Christ” can also be denied to such a virgin.

To be a holy virgin and a true spouse of Jesus Christ, it is not enough to be a virgin, but one must be also a prudent virgin, and have enough oil for the lamp which is in the heart, to always maintain the fire of love for the spouse. The foolish virgins were also virgins, but because they neglected to provide themselves with oil, they were driven from the divine spouse when they wished to enter to the wedding, as he said to their face: “I do not know you.” Therefore a virgin who wants to be a true spouse of the Redeemer, should not have any other care and thought on this earth than to love and to please Jesus Christ. St. Bernard says that Jesus Christ, being our Lord, wishes to be feared by us: then becoming our father, he wishes to be honored; but becoming our spouse, he wishes to be loved: “If he shows himself as a spouse, he will change his words and will say, ‘If I am a spouse, where is my love?’ Therefore God must be feared as Lord, honored as Father, loved as Spouse.” (Serm. 83 in Cant.)35

Importance of Solemn Consecration

Virgins who, committed to the holy plan of following Christ more closely, are consecrated to God by the diocesan bishop according to the approved liturgical rite, are betrothed36 mystically to Christ, the Son of God, and are dedicated to the service of the Church.37

The dedication to Christ that a virgin makes by her own vow to God is raised to a higher level by the acceptance of the Church. A woman may truly dedicate her virginity to Christ by a private vow, and in this way be considered the Bride of Christ, since even by a private vow she is then bound to Christ according to both her body and her soul. “By the vow of continence the soul is espoused to Christ.”38

Christian virgins, “the most illustrious portion of Christ’s flock,” moved by love, setting aside all the cares of the world and overcoming the division of the heart which it is easy to have and is full of danger [facilemque periculorum plenam], not only devoted their whole selves to Christ as the true spouse of souls, but surrendered [manciparent] their whole life, adorned with the gems of all the Christian virtues, forever to Christ the Lord himself and to the Church. This mystical surrender of virgins to Christ and this giving of themselves [traditio] to the Church was accomplished in the first Christian centuries spontaneously [sponte] and more by deeds than by words.39

Nevertheless, when this vow is accepted by the Church, the virgin’s dedication to Christ becomes more perfect, and cannot be considered to be on the same level as a private dedication.

Later, when the virgins formed not only a class, but a well defined state and an order recognized [receptum] by the Church, the profession of virginity began to be made publicly, and thus to be strengthened by an ever stricter bond. Later on the Church, when it accepted the holy vow or purpose [votum propositumve] of virginity, consecrated the virgin inviolably to God and to the Church by a rite so solemn, that it is justly ranked among the most beautiful monuments of the ancient liturgy; and she clearly distinguished her from others, who bound themselves to God only by private bonds. [vinculis…obligabant]40

This elevation of the virginal state by the ecclesial acceptance of her vow of virginity can be seen in the rite of consecration of virgins.41

(Arch-priest) Most Reverend Father, Holy Mother the Catholic Church asks, that you deign to bless these virgins here present, to consecrate them, and to espouse them to our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Most High God….

(Bishop) We choose to bless these virgins here present, to consecrate them….

(Bishop) Do you promise that you will preserve virginity forever?…

(Bishop) Do you wish to be blessed, to be consecrated, and to be espoused to our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Most High God?

The espousal is spoken of as something to be performed not by the virgins themselves, but by the bishop. Nevertheless the foundation of this spiritual espousal is the will of the virgin to give herself to the Lord Jesus, as can be clearly seen in the preface.

(Preface)… Lord, look upon these your handmaids, who placing their purpose of continence in your hand, offer their devotion to you, from whom they have received [their] vows. [i.e., God inspired the love of virginity in them]… From the fount of your bounty this gift also flowed forth, that although no prohibition diminished the honor of marriage, and the nuptial blessing remained upon holy wedlock, there still arose loftier souls, who in the bond of man and woman disdained the marriage, yet desired the mystery [sacrament], who did not imitate what is accomplished in marriage, but loved what is prefigured by marriage. Blessed virginity has acknowledged its author, and emulous of the angelic integrity, has devoted [devovit] itself to his wedding chamber [thalamo], to his nuptial bed [cubiculo]; for he is the spouse of perpetual virginity just as he is the son of perpetual virginity. Therefore grant to those who implore your help and who seek to strengthen themselves by the consecration of your blessing, your protection….

The implication is that by her profession of virginity the virgin is already devoted to Christ as his bride, and that the consecration performed by the bishop only confirms the virgin in this dedication to Christ.

(Bishop) Will you [vultis] persist in the holy virginity which you have professed? (Virgins) We will. (Bishop) Receive the sacred veil, by which you may be known to have despised the world, and subjected yourself truly, humbly, and with all the effort [annisu] of your heart, to Jesus Christ as his bride forever.

The voluntary nature of the virgin’s gift of herself to Christ, and its source within her heart, is clear.

(Schola) come to be espoused, my beloved; the winter has passed, the turtle dove sings, the blossoming vines are fragrant.42

(Bishop, putting a ring on the virgin’s hand) I espouse you to Jesus Christ, to the Son of the Most High Father; may he guard you inviolate. Therefore receive the ring of faith, the seal of the Holy Spirit, that you may be called the bride of God, and if you serve him faithfully, you will be crowned forever.

(Virgins, when all have received the ring) I have been espoused to him, whom the angels serve, at whose beauty sun and moon marvel.

The espousal is again said to be accomplished by the bishop. Now it is true that according to the older rite of marriage, the priest spoke in a similar manner – “I join you in marriage” – and thus this mode of speech might seem not to indicate the primary and essential role of the bishop. However, this is a difference between the case of marriage and that of virginity. In the case of marriage, since it is a sacrament, and since wherever there is a valid marriage between Christians43, it is a sacrament, the bond caused by the expressed consent of the spouses already constitutes the sacrament, and so the priest can only confirm or add a blessing to the sacramental bond.44 But in the case of virginity, since it is not a sacrament, the bond caused by the virgin’s vow does not of itself constitute a sacred ecclesial sign nor place her in a definite order in the Church, and thus the bond can be essentially altered to a more perfect bond by the act of the Church’s minister, namely the bishop.

This is even more evident in the new rite and practice of the consecration of virgins living in the world, or rather, the restoration of the ancient custom, which had passed out of practice as the virginal consecration began to be more and more associated with poverty, obedience, and the communal life.45 On the one hand, just as the rite of marriage has been changed, so that the priest no longer says, “I join you in marriage,” so in the rite of the consecration of virgins, the bishop no longer says, “I espouse you.” Thus the fundamental nature of the gift of the spouses to one another in marriage is emphasized, and likewise the fundamental nature of the gift of the virgin to Christ. On the other hand, a virgin may often have been under a private vow of virginity for years before being consecrated as a virgin by the Church, yet the rite still makes clear that through the sacred rite she is consecrated as a virgin and bride of Christ.46

Effect of the Virgin’s Consecration

There are two reasons why the virgin’s bond to Christ is confirmed and elevated by the Church’s acceptance of it. First, the bond itself is a stronger bond, since it pertains not only to what the virgin, as a result of her vow, owes to God, but what she owes to God as a member of a sacred state in the Church. “The profession of virginity began to be made publicly, and to be always strengthened by an even stricter bond.”47 Secondly, by the Church’s consecration of the virgin, she becomes in the name of the Church a sacred sign of the Church’s spousal union with Christ. “The bishop alone blesses virgins, who represent [figuram gerunt] the Church espoused to Christ.”48

As a consequence, St. Thomas considers the violation of a consecrated virgin to be not only adultery, but also sacrilege. “If someone abuses a virgin consecrated to God, insofar as she is the spouse of Christ, it is sacrilege by way of adultery.”49

Image of the Church’s Spousal love for Christ

This image of the union of Christ and the Church may be considered in two ways. First, with respect to the love uniting them. The consecrated virgin, by the purity, i.e., the exclusivity of her love for Christ, is to represent the Church’s exclusive love for Christ.

Without in any way undervaluing human love and marriage—is not the latter, according to faith, the image and sharing of the union of love joining Christ and the Church? —consecrated chastity evokes this union in a more immediate way and brings that surpassing excellence to which all human love should tend.50

The reference to the nuptial union of Christ and the Church gives marriage itself its highest dignity: in particular, the sacrament of matrimony introduces the spouses into the mystery of Christ's union with the Church. However, the profession of virginity or celibacy enables consecrated persons to share more directly in the mystery of this marriage. While conjugal love goes to Christ the Bridegroom through a human union, virginal love goes directly to the person of Christ through an immediate union with him, without intermediaries: a truly complete and decisive spiritual espousal. Thus in the person of those who profess and live consecrated chastity, the Church expresses her union as Bride with Christ the Bridegroom to the greatest extent. For this reason it must be said that the virginal life is found at the heart of the Church.51

Image of the Church’s Integrity

Secondly, the union of Christ and the Church may be considered with respect to the integrity of the Church in the gift of herself to Christ. (Augustine)

The things which are done bodily in the Church, are signs of spiritual things. But since a bodily sign cannot sufficiently represent the spiritual thing signified, it is sometimes necessary for several bodily signs to be used [aptentur] to signify the same spiritual reality. Therefore the spiritual marriage of Christ and the Church has both fecundity, through which we are reborn as sons of God, and incorruption, since Christ chose for himself the Church not having stain or spot or anything of this kind, as is said in Eph. 5; hence it is said in 2 Cor. (11:2) “I have espoused you to present you to Christ as a chaste virgin to her one husband.” But bodily fecundity does not allow integrity of the flesh; and therefore it was necessary for the spiritual marriage of Christ and the Church to be represented by different signs with respect to fecundity and with respect to integrity. Therefore as by bodily marriage spiritual marriage is represented with respect to fecundity, so it was necessary for something to represent spiritual marriage with respect to its integrity, and this is done in the veiling of virgins, as is shown from all of the things which are spoken [proferuntur] and done [geruntur], and for this reason the bishop alone, to whom the care of the Church is committed, espouses virgins, veiling them not for himself, but for Christ, as the friend and best man [paranymphus] of the spouse. And because the signification of integrity can be fully in virginal continence, but only partially in the continence of widows, a veil is also given to widows, but not with such solemnity as that with which it is given to virgins.52

Womanhood and spiritual marriage

Could this mystical signification of the marriage between the Church and God in Christ be the reason why it is chiefly women who are said to be wedded to God? Or is there another reason as well? Certainly this mystical signification seems to be the most prominent reason in the writings of the Fathers and Doctors, but that does not exclude another cause as well. Pope John Paul II seems to suggest that there is also another reason why it is particularly women who represent the marriage of the Church to Christ.

4. According to the Council, the mystery of the Church's spousal union with Christ is represented in every consecrated life (cf. Lumen Gentium, n. 44), especially through the profession of the evangelical counsel of chastity (cf. Perfectae caritatis, n. 12). It is understandable however that this representation is particularly realized in the consecrated woman, to whom the title "sponsa Christi" is frequently attributed, including in the liturgical texts. It is true that Tertullian applied the image of nuptials with God to men and women without distinction when he wrote: "How many men and women in the ranks of the Church have appealed to continence and preferred to be wedded to God . . ." (De exhort. cast., 13; PL 2:930A; Corp. Christ., 2, 1035, 35-39), but it cannot be denied that the feminine soul has a particular capacity to live in a mystical spousal relationship with Christ and thus to reproduce in herself the face and heart of his Bride, the Church. This is why, in the rite for the profession of women religious and consecrated virgins in the world, the singing or recitation of the antiphon "Veni sponsa Christi . . ." fills their hearts with intense emotion, enveloping those concerned and the whole assembly in an aura of mysticism.53

The pope states that the “feminine soul has a particular capacity to live in a mystical spousal relationship with Christ” and thus “to reproduce in herself the face and heart of his Bride, the Church.” It is not merely that the Church is spoken of as feminine, and therefore better represented by a woman than by a man. But also, woman is better suited than man to live out with her whole heart the interior relationship with Christ that primarily signifies the marriage of the Church to Christ; to love as one who receives love.54 It is also thought that women are naturally more suited to contemplation than men; the consequence of this is of course that women better show forth the attentiveness to the things of God that St. Paul speaks of as the mark of the unmarried man or woman, and which pertains to the gift of self proper to spousal love.55

1 Tertullian, on Prayer, Chapter 22

2 St. Jerome, Letter 54 to Furia n. 3

3 St. Athanasius, Apol. ad Constantium., n. 33

4 Quae Deo nubit; the English translation in the NPNF series has “She is a virgin, who is the bride of God.” St. Ambrose, Concerning Virgins, Book 1, Chapter 8.

5 St. Jerome, Epistle XIII, n. 1 (my translation)

6 St. Ambrose, de Lapsu Virginis, (my translation)

7 To name just a few: St. Anthony of Padua, Sermons on virgins, sermon II; St. Bonaventure, Sermon IV for the Feast of the Holy Trinity, at the end; Sermon in Praise of One Virgin; St. Thomas Aquinas, II-II 154:10 ad 2; Super 1 ad Cor. XI-XVI Cap 11 Lectio 2; St. Alphonsus de Ligouri, The True Spouse of Jesus Christ.

8 Pius XII, Sacra Virginitas & Sponsa Christi; Code of Canon Law, 601:1; John Paul II, Redemptionis Donum (Here the Pope speaks of both men and women, and does not explicitly make a distinction between them as regards being spouses of Christ); Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, Verbi Sponsa

9 1 Cor. 7:32-34

10 Summa Theologiae, I-II 108:4

11 Ibid., & Redemptionis Donum, John Paul II

12 Pope Pius XII, Sacra Virginitas

13 St. Augustine, Reply to Faustus the Manichaean, Book 20, n. 21

14 St. Augustine, Of Holy Virginity 8

15 St. John Chrysostom, De Virginitate, n. 1

16 Ibid., nn. 1, 4, 5

17 Op. Cit.

18 Ibid.

19 St. Augustine, Of Holy Virginity 11

20 Sacra Virginitas 16

21 The context makes it clear that the one who “cherishes a harlot,” who “loves adulterers,” who “seeks for a lover,” is to be understood according to the biblical language, whereby false gods are called harlots and adulterers.

22 Ambrose, Concerning Virgins, Book 2, n. 24 (emphasis added)

23 1 Tim 5:5-6

24 1 Cor 7:34

25 Mulieris Dignitatem, 20 & 21 (emphasis added)

26 1 Cor 7:39

27 Sacra Virginitas, 20 (emphasis added)

28 Mat 22:30

29 This quotation is put together from multiple places in the Song of Songs. (2:3, 3:4, 5:1, 7:11, 8:6, 5:10) Virginity seems to be intimately connected with The Song of Songs for St. Ambrose, so that it is natural for him to pull together such a collection of verses; even where he is not quoting from the Song of Songs, its imagery and ideas are suffused throughout this work on virgins.

30 St. Ambrose, Concerning Virgins, Book I (emphasis added)

31 Ibid.

32 Ibid.

33 Pope John Paul II, General Audience, November 16, 1994

34 Tertullian, On the Veiling of Virgins, Chapter 16

35 St. Alphonsus de Liguori, La Vera Sposa di Gesù Cristo (my translation)

36 desponsatae; I have rendered this consistently as espoused in my translations.

37 Catechism of the Catholic Church #923, citing Code of Canon Law #604, 1

38 St. Thomas, In IV Sent. d. 25, q. 1, a. 1 (All quotations from St. Thomas are my translations.)

39 Pius XII, Apostolic Constitution Sponsa Christi. (My translation)

40 Ibid.

41 Pontificale Romanum of Leo XIII. (My translation)

42 Cf. Song of Songs 2:10-12

43 Code of Canon Law, 1055 #2.

44 Nevertheless there is valid reason for the wording of the older rite of marriage, and for the Eastern position on the role of the minister in marriage. The minister cannot bestow the sacrament as though something added to an already existing marital bond. But inasmuch as the Church can mandate a particular form for the validity of marriage that includes the blessing of the minister, the minister’s act can cause the consent previously expressed to become binding, and in this sense the minister can confer the sacrament. And there is a certain fittingness to this, inasmuch as though the spouses in marriage are immediately a sign for one another, and give themselves to one another, they are also a sign for the whole Church of Christ’s union with the Church.

45 “Especially after the peace granted to Christians, and after the example of the hermits and cenobites, the consecration to God of virginity begin to be ever more frequently completed and confirmed by the explicit and public profession of the counsels of poverty and a stricter obedience… The Church recommended generally to virgins common life understood in a broad sense, but for a long time she did not wish to rigorously impose the monastic life even upon consecrated virgins, whom with all the honor due them, she left free in the world. Still, these liturgically consecrated virgins who lived in their own home or lived a freer common life, constantly diminished until in many places they disappeared de iure, everywhere de facto. Moreover, they were generally not re-established, and later on were even prohibited.” Sponsa Christi

46 “Come, daughters, that through me, his servant, the Lord may consecrate the resolution you have formed in your hearts.”…

“Today through our ministry he anoints you with a new grace and consecrates you to God by a new title. He gives each one of you the dignity of being a bride of Christ and binds you to the Son of God in a covenant to last for ever.”…

“Are you resolved to accept solemn consecration as a bride of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God?”…

“I am espoused to him whom the angels serve; sun and moon stand in wonder at his glory.” (Rite of Consecration for Virgins living in the World)

47 Sponsa Christi

48 St. Thomas, In IV Sent. d. 25, q. 1, a. 1

49 II-II 154:10 ad 2

50 Paul VI, Apostolic Exhortation, June 29, 1971

51 John Paul II, Catechesis on consecrated life, November 23, 1994

52 In IV Sent. d. 38, q. 1, a. 5 (my translation)

53 John Paul II, General Audience, March 15, 1995

54 Cf. Mulieris Dignitatem VIII: “When the author of the Letter to the Ephesians calls Christ "the Bridegroom" and the Church "the Bride," he indirectly confirms through this analogy the truth about woman as bride. The Bridegroom is the one who loves. The Bride is loved: it is she who receives love, in order to love in return….”

“When we say that the woman is the one who receives love in order to love in return, this refers not only or above all to the specific spousal relationship of marriage. It means something more universal, based on the very fact of her being a woman within all the interpersonal relationships which, in the most varied ways, shape society and structure the interaction between all persons-men and women…. The passage from the Letter to the Ephesians which we have been considering enables us to think of a special kind of "prophetism" that belongs to women in their femininity. The analogy of the Bridegroom and the Bride speaks of the love with which every human being-man and woman-is loved by God in Christ. But in the context of the biblical analogy and the text's interior logic, it is precisely the woman-the bride-who manifests this truth to everyone.”

55 Cf. Verbi Sponsa, Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, n. 4; General Audience of September 6, 1995, John Paul II

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