Consecrated life, in the canon law of the Catholic Church, is a stable form of Christian living by those faithful who are called to follow Jesus Christ in a more exacting way recognized by the Church. It "is characterized by the public profession of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience, in a stable state of life recognized by the Church". The Code of Canon Law defines it as "a stable form of living by which the faithful, following Christ more closely under the action of the Holy Spirit, are totally dedicated to God who is loved most of all, so that, having been dedicated by a new and special title to his honour, to the building up of the Church, and to the salvation of the world, they strive for the perfection of charity in the service of the kingdom of God and, having been made an outstanding sign in the Church, foretell the heavenly glory."
What makes the consecrated life a more exacting way of Christian living is the public religious vows or other sacred bonds whereby the consecrated persons commit themselves, for the love of God, to observe as binding the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience from the Gospel, or at least, in the case of consecrated virgins and widows/widowers, a vow of total chastity. The Benedictine vow as laid down in the Rule of Saint Benedict, ch. 58:17, is analogous to the more usual vow of religious institutes. Consecrated persons are not part of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, unless they are also ordained bishops, priests or deacons.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church comments: "From the very beginning of the Church there were men and women who set out to follow Christ with greater liberty, and to imitate him more closely, by practising the evangelical counsels. They led lives dedicated to God, each in his own way. Many of them, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, became hermits or founded religious families. Thus the Church, by virtue of her authority, gladly accepted and approved them."
Consecrated life may be lived either in institutes or individually. While those living it are either clergy (if ordained) or lay people, the state of consecrated life is neither clerical nor lay by nature.
Religious institutes are societies in which members, according to proper law, pronounce public vows, either perpetual or temporary, which are to be renewed, however, when the period of time has lapsed, and lead a life as brothers or sisters in common".
Secular institutes, are "institutes of consecrated life in which the Christian faithful, living in the world, strive for the perfection of charity and work for the sanctification of the world especially from within".
Besides institutes of consecrated life, the Catholic Church recognizes:
the eremitic life, also known as the anchoritic life, "by which the Christian faithful devote their life to the praise of God and salvation of the world through a stricter separation from the world, the silence of solitude and assiduous prayer and penance". Catholic Church law recognizes as a hermit "one dedicated to God in a consecrated life if he or she publicly professes the three evangelical counsels, confirmed by a vow or other sacred bond, in the hands of the diocesan bishop, and observes his or her own plan of life under his direction". "They manifest to everyone the interior aspect of the mystery of the Church, that is, personal intimacy with Christ. Hidden from the eyes of men, the life of the hermit is a silent preaching of the Lord, to whom he has surrendered his life simply because he is everything to him. Here is a particular call to find in the desert, in the thick of spiritual battle, the glory of the Crucified One."
Consecrated virgins who "expressing the holy resolution of following Jesus more closely, are consecrated to God by the diocesan bishop according to the approved liturgical rite, are mystically betrothed to Christ, the Son of God, and are dedicated to the service of the Church". Sacred virgins are one of oldest forms of consecrated life, and the Ordo Virginum (Order of Virgins) began with the consecration of the Blessed Virgin Mary at the Annunciation. They "share with the Church her own title of Virgin, Bride, and Mother" and have a specifically spousal vocation with Jesus Christ. Consecrated virgins have come from all walks of life and their numbers include a Doctor of the Church, St. Hildegard.
Consecrated widows may be established who, like virgins, "profess chastity apart from the world by a public profession".Pope John Paul II's post-synodal apostolic exhortation 1 Cor 7:8), as well as the consecration of widowers. These women and men, through a vow of perpetual chastity as a sign of the Kingdom of God, consecrate their state of life in order to devote themselves to prayer and the service of the Church." Although the Latin Church has no specific liturgical rite for the consecration of widows and widowers, the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches envisages individual eastern Churches choosing to have consecrated widows.
The Code of Canon Law and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches envisage new forms of consecrated life being approved by the Holy See.