The Catholic church has raised eyebrows by suggesting women who devote their lives to Christ as consecrated virgins needn't actually be virgins.
Vatican document 'Ecclesiae Sponsae Imago' published earlier this month includes a clause stating physical virginity is not an 'essential prerequisite' to consecration.
Women known as 'Brides of Christ' vow to lifelong virginity as part of a spiritual commitment to remain sacred for Jesus.
The Vatican has declared women who pledge to lifelong virginity as part of their spiritual pursuit needn't actually be virgins in a physical sense
An estimated 5,000 women around the world are consecrated virgins as part of vows to remain sacred for Christ
Outlining details of the female consecration, which comes after the Vatican said there was rising interest in taking vows to 'marry' Christ, the document read:
'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.'
In reaction, US Association of Consecrated Virgins said it was 'shocking' to hear physical virginity is no longer a necessity to a life of consecration.
'The entire tradition of the Church has firmly upheld that a woman must have received the gift of virginity – both physical and spiritual – in order to receive the consecration of virgins,' the group said in a statement.
A Detroit church last year presided over a ceremony which saw three women, garbed in traditional wedding dresses, vow lifelong virginity
They said that the rules do not change the original requisites for consecration as stated in the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity, which says:
'In the case of virgins leading lives in the world it is required that they have never celebrated marriage and that they have not publicly or manifestly lived in a state contrary to chastity.'
Reports estimate there are up to 5,000 consecrated virgins in the world, including more than 230 in the United States and 200 in the UK.
It is a practice where women take vows as a commitment to a life of chastity and 'give themselves fully to Christ'.
The women aren't nuns and don't join the religious order, instead continuing to work regular jobs and support themselves financially.
The ceremony usually involves receiving rings as a sign of their pledge.
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