A Roman Catholic canon lawyer, who's also a consecrated virgin, is disputing news headlines claiming that new Vatican guidelines on consecrated virgins, also known as "brides of Christ," will now allow women who are not virgins to join the order.
The Guardian and other media outlets have written about the "shock" over new instructions the Vatican's Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life published on July 4, which seem to leave room for the "order of virgins" to not actually be virgins.
Paragraph No.88 of the document states that "it should be kept in mind that 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.
"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," it adds.
The U.S. Association of Consecrated Virgins criticized the wording of the document, calling it "intentionally convoluted and confusing" in a statement.
The association said that any implication that physical virginity might not be an essential prerequisite is "shocking."
"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," the statement added.
Jenna Cooper, a Minnesota-based canon lawyer and consecrated virgin with the Archdiocese of New York, told the Catholic News Agency on Monday that the Vatican document needs to be carefully read, however.
"I don't see this as saying non-virgins can be virgins. I see this as saying in cases where there is a real question, it errs on the side of walking with women in individual cases for further discernment, as opposed to having a hard-dividing line to exclude women from this vocation," Cooper said.
"The presumption of the document is that these are virgins who are doing this (consecration)," she told CNA.
"An important thing to do though is to read the questionable paragraph in context with the rest of the document. The instruction talks a lot about the value of virginity, Christian virginity, the spirituality of virginity."
The canonist pushed back against reports that the Vatican is changing its policy, positing that what the document does is elaborate on disputed points, such as in cases where a woman might have lost her virginity out of ignorance or against her will.
"One thing I'm particularly happy about is I think it does an excellent job articulating the values of this vocation for the wider Church," Cooper said of the document.
There are different figures available about the total number of consecrated virgins worldwide. The Vatican says there are over 5,000, though an older webpage by the United States Association of Consecrated Virgins puts that number at around 3,000.
"Our common spirituality is that of living as a bride of Christ, the spirituality of the Church herself, and of our Blessed Mother. Some members also follow a preferred Franciscan, Dominican, Benedictine, Carmelite or Ignation spirituality," the association explains.
"We long for times of Eucharistic adoration, we hold heartfelt love for the Church, we find joy in supporting our Bishops and priests, we delight in the Sacraments, and we long for the life to come when we shall see our Bridegroom face to face."