In the Catholic Church, a consecrated virgin is a woman who has been consecrated by the church to a life of perpetual virginity as a bride of Christ. Consecrated virgins are consecrated by the diocesan bishop according to the approved liturgical rite. The consecrated virgins are to spend their time in works of penance and mercy, in apostolic activity and in prayer, according to their state of life and spiritual gifts. A consecrated virgin may live either as a nun in some of the monastic orders or "in the world" under the authority of her bishop, to the service of the church.
The rite of consecration of virgins for women living in the world was reintroduced in 1970, under Pope Paul VI, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. It is based on the template of the practice of the velatio virginum going back to the Apostolic era, especially the early virgin martyrs. The consecration of virgins for nuns who made their final profession of vows outlasted times in various forms and without discontinuation in bestowal.
The 1983 Code of Canon Law and the 1996 Apostolic Exhortation Vita Consecrata by John Paul II speak of the reflourishing Order of Virgins (Ordo Virginum), the members of which represent an image of the church as the Bride of Christ.
Estimates on the number of consecrated virgins derived from diocesan records range at around 5,000 consecrated virgins living in the world as of 2018. In view of growing interest in the vocation, and of the upcoming 50th anniversary of its formal institution, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life issued the instruction Ecclesia Sponsae imago in July 2018.
Chastity is one of the Seven Virtues in Christian tradition, listed by Gregory the Great at the end of the 6th century. Praise of chastity or celibacy as a religious virtue is already present in the New Testament, especially in 1 Corinthians, where Paul the Apostle suggests a special role for virgins or unmarried women (? ? ? ? ) as more suitable for "the things of the Lord" (? ). In 2 Corinthians 11:2, Paul alludes to the metaphor of the Church as Bride of Christ by addressing the congregation "I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ".
In the theology of the Church Fathers, the prototype of the sacred virgin is Mary, the mother of Jesus, consecrated by the Holy Spirit at Annunciation. Although not stated in the gospels, the perpetual virginity of Mary was widely upheld as a dogma by the Church Fathers from the 4th century. The tradition of a ritual form of the consecration also dates to the 4th century, but it is widely held that a more informal consecration was imparted to virgin women by their bishops dating from the time of the Apostles. The first known formal rite of consecration is that of Saint Marcellina, dated AD 353, mentioned in De Virginibus by her brother, Saint Ambrose. Another early consecrated virgin is Saint Genevieve (c. 422 – c. 512).
During the medieval period, the rite of consecration was maintained by nuns in monastic orders, such as the Benedictines and Carthusians. This consecration could be done either concurrently with or some time after the profession of solemn vows. Among Carthusian nuns, there is[year needed] the unique practice of these virgins being entitled to wear a stole, and a maniple, vestments otherwise reserved to clergy.
Typically, mendicant nuns did not have the tradition of receiving the consecration of virgins but were content to have perpetual vows.
The modern revival of the rite of the consecration of virgins in the Catholic Church for women living outside of religious communities is associated with Anne Leflaive (1899–1987). The consecration of virgins after the fashion of the ancient Church was supported by certain French bishops in the early 20th century. Leflaive was directed towards this vocation by François de Rovérié de Cabrières, the bishop of Montpellier. She received the consecration in the chapel of Carmel at Paray-le-Monial on 6 January 1924, on her 25th birthday, by the bishop of Autun, Hyacinthe-Jean Chassagnon.
There was an increasing demand for such consecrations in the 1920s, and bishops requested clarification from the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life. The reply given on 25 March 1927 was in the negative. The Congregation forbade the revival of this type of consecration. The 1927 decree argued that the consecration of virgins living in the world (in saeculo viventes) had long fallen out of use, and was in contradiction to the then current Canon Law of 1917. It was also argued that the official sanction of a vow of virginity in a "very imposing ceremony" might risk to lead the women so consecrated to judge their status as superior to those of nuns, whose solemn vows are not accompanied by similar ceremonies, and even to divert some women who would otherwise have chosen a monastic vocation. It was significantly due to Anne Leflaive's efforts over the following decades this ban was eventually rescinded in 1970. In 1939, Leflaive founded the secular Missionaries of Catholic Action, an institute of celibate women or widows living in the world, which was, however, suppressed in 1946. Beginning in the 1940s, Leflaive was in contact with Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII and with Giovanni Montini, the future Pope Paul VI, who were receptive to her ideas. During the 1950s, Leflaive visited Rome once a year in order to lobby at the Vatican for the re-instatement of the rite of consecration of virgins. Leflaive published Study of the Consecrations of Virgins in the Roman Pontifical in 1934, re-edited as Espouse du Christ in 1956, and as La Femme et l'Eglise in 1968. At a time where the Reformed confessions began to introduce the ordination of women, Leflaive strictly rejected such a possibility, arguing that "Christ and His Church offer to the woman a gift of great plentitude [sic]" in the form of the Consecration of Virgins, already inscribed in the Roman Pontifical.
Pius XII in 1950 decreed that only nuns living in reclusion were permitted to receive the formal consecration of virgins. In 1954, Pius cited Sponsa Christi his encyclical Sacra Virginitas as showing the importance of the office consecrated men and women fulfill in the Church.
In 1963, the Second Vatican Council requested a revision of the rite of the consecration of virgins that was found in the Roman Pontifical. The revised Rite was approved by Pope Paul VI and published in 1970. This consecration could be bestowed either on women in monastic orders or on women living in the world, which revived the form of life that had been found in the early Church.
The 1970 rite of Ordo Consecrationis Virginum states the following requirements for women living in the world to receive the consecration: "that they have never married or lived in open violation of chastity; that, by their prudence and universally approved character, they give assurance of perseverance in a life of chastity dedicated to the service of the church and of their neighbor; that they be admitted to this Consecration by the Bishop who is the local Ordinary."
Consecrated virgins belong to the consecrated life. Those living in the world need not be supported financially by their bishop, but may provide for their own upkeep. Whether virgins are supported by themselves, retirement funds, governmental programs, their families, parishes, or diocese, or religious institute will be up to them and respective entities. Bishops do have the responsibility of financially providing for the initial and ongoing formation of consecrated virgins. Concecrated virgins work in professions ranging from teachers and attorneys to that of firefighter.
In 1972, Elizabeth Bailey became the first virgin to be consecrated under the new rite in England, and the first known consecrated virgin in Britain since the 3rd century.
The number of consecrated virgins under the 1970 rite of consecration has grown into the thousands over the course of four decades. As of 2008, the United States Association of Consecrated Virgins (USACV) gave an "educated guess" of a total number of 3,000 consecrated virgins in 42 countries. In a 2015 survey, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL) established an estimated number of 4,000 consecrated virgins in 78 countries, with a growing tendency, with a projected increase to about 5,000 by 2018.
The 1970 decree states as a requirement that candidates "have never married or lived in open violation of chastity". While the lack of a strict requirement of virginity was only implied by omission in the 1970 document, the Vatican on 4 July 2018 released a clarifying statement, explicitly conceding that: "to have kept her body in perfect continence or to have practised 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." The statement was published in reaction to bishops requesting clarification due to the growing number of women showing interest in the vocation. The new clause leaves it to the "good judgement and insight" of the bishop to discern the suitability of a candidate to her vocation. The US Association of Consecrated Virgins released a statement calling the new guidance "shocking" and "deeply disappointing" as well as "intentionally convoluted and confusing",
The instruction Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago on the Ordo virginum was published by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life in July, 2018. In June 2020, Pope Francis addressed a letter to the consecrated virgins on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of the revised rite of the Consecration of Virgins, calling their vocation as "a sign of hope".
Instructions, of course, must be interpreted in accordance with the methodology outlined in canon law, and it can be argued that virginity is still required by the liturgical law contained within the Roman Pontifical (instructions cannot contradict the law or they are null) because of the wording of the prenotandae and the rest of the ceremony makes it evident that virginity is intended for female candidates.
By the rite of consecration the diocesan bishop sets the virgin apart as a sacred person. The virgin who receives the consecration is elevated to the consecrated state, which she shares with religious and diocesan hermits. She becomes a member of the Order of Virgins. The Order of Virgins has members who live in the world and members who are religious nuns.
The consecration of a virgin living in the world is reserved to the diocesan bishop. Likewise the consecration of a nun as a virgin is reserved to the diocesan bishop. It is for him to decide on the conditions under which women living in the world are to undertake a life of perpetual virginity.
The approved liturgical rite whereby the bishop consecrates the candidate is by the solemn rite of Consecratio Virginum (Consecration of Virgins). The usual minister of the rite of consecration is the bishop who is the local ordinary. The consecrated virgin is committed to perpetual virginity and to leading a life of prayer and service in a simple lifestyle. She is "strongly advised" to recite the Liturgy of the Hours daily, and is encouraged but not required to pray Lauds and Vespers.  The legislation outlining this, as it appears in the 1983 Code of Canon Law of the Catholic Church, says:
- §1. Similar to these forms of consecrated life is the order of 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 betrothed mystically to Christ, the Son of God, and are dedicated to the service of the Church.
- §2. In order to observe their commitment more faithfully and to perform by mutual support service to the Church which is in harmony with their state these virgins can form themselves into associations.