Jenna Cooper writes in Crisis Magazine:
One idea which I would respectfully propose to bishops interested in discussing the possibility of women deacons is: instead of spending the time and resources necessary to explore the question of a feminine diaconate, why not channel that pastoral concern into further developing and promoting the restored Order of Virgins? Consecrated virgins could easily fulfill most of what seems to be envisioned for women deacons in terms of engaging in works of mercy in an official capacity on the Church’s behalf, and the Order of Virgins provides a particularly fitting sphere in which women can become more closely linked with the mission of the Church. The vocation of consecrated virginity also has two distinct advantages over a hypothetical female diaconate. Namely, it is a completely orthodox reality which involves no theological controversy whatsoever, and it is something which already exists in our current liturgy and canon law. But what is the Order of Virgins? Although relatively unknown even among well-catechized Catholics, the Ordo Virginum is arguably the oldest form of consecrated life in the Church. Since Apostolic times, there have always been some Christian women who felt called to love Christ in as undivided a sense as possible, by committing to a life of virginity in order to relate to Christ as their Bridegroom in a radical way. Many of the female saints whose names are familiar to us from the Roman Canon of the Mass—e.g., Sts. Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, and Cecilia—were consecrated virgins in addition to being martyrs. We know that by the fourth century, the Church had already established a solemn liturgical ritual for consecration to a life of virginity, though our earliest references to consecrated virgins as forming a distinct group within the Church are found in the late first-century writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch. With the rise of organized monastic life towards the end of the Patristic era, the consecration of virgins gradually came to be associated with women’s religious life properly so-called. By the time of the Middle Ages, the practice of consecrating non-monastic women, or virgins “living in the world,” gradually fell out of use until it became all but obsolete. However, the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity itself was preserved for posterity in the Roman Pontifical, as some monastic Orders continued to offer their solemnly professed nuns the privilege of receiving the consecration of virgins. With the Second Vatican Council, the document Sacrosanctum Concilium called for a revision of the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity. The resulting revision, promulgated in 1970, was explicitly extended not only to nuns whose Orders had a custom of using the Rite, but also to “women living in the world”—in fact, the revised Rite of Consecration seems to have been primarily intended for this latter category. Later, the new 1983 Code of Canon Law would further acknowledge consecrated virginity as a recognized form of consecrated life. And so in a situation not dissimilar to the restoration of the permanent diaconate for men, the Patristic era Order of Virgins was re-established as a vocation in the life of the modern Church.
Worth noting: In addition to being a canon lawyer, Jenna Cooper is herself a Consecrated Virgin for the Archdiocese of New York.
One significant element that would be missing in this equation, of course, is marriage. Consecrated virgins would not be able to bring marriage and parenthood into ordained ministry. That’s not insignificant—as married deacons will tell you. The lived experience of being a husband and father is often invaluable in serving as a deacon—especially, in counseling and preaching. The wife is often a critical partner in ministry, as well.
Celibacy is a charism to be cherished in Holy Orders and in religious life; the contributions of celibate priests, deacons, brothers and sisters have been monumental.
But it’s worth exploring the question of whether the Church today needs more opportunities in ordained ministry for those who are married—and what impact that might have.