Triumph of Chastity
: an allegory of the virtue of Chastity
is standing on a wagon drawn by two unicorns
; her train of virgin is led by one holding a banner bearing the emblem of the white weasel or ermine, symbol of chastity in medieval tradition
(Master of the Paris Entries, c. 1500–1520).
The Christian concept has a precedent in the Vestal Virgins of ancient Roman religion.
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, both male and female, 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 (ἡ γυνὴ καὶ ἡ παρθένος ἡ ἄγαμος) as more suitable for "the things of the Lord" (μεριμνᾷ τὰ τοῦ κυρίου).
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 Christian hagiography, there are numerous accounts of pre-Nicaean virgin martyrs, such as
Margaret of Antioch, Agnes of Rome, Euphemia of Chalcedon and Lucia of Syracuse.
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 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. Saint Margaret of Hungary (1242–1270), a Dominican nun, is a special case insofar as she received the consecration of virgins despite the Dominican tradition of not receiving this consecration; this was done because her father, king Béla IV of Hungary, had her solemn vows dispensed by the pope for the purposes of a political marriage. The consecration of virgins put a stop to this as it could not be dispensed.
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.
In 1950, Pius XII issued Sponsa Christi, an Apostolic Constitution addressing the vocation of consecrated women and their mystical engagement with Christ.
- "Because of their consecration by the diocesan Bishop, they acquire a special bond with the Church, to which they devote their service, even if they remain in the world. Alone or in community they represent a special eschatological image of the heavenly bride and the future life, when the church will finally live the love of her bridegroom Christ in abundance."
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.
- "This then is the primary purpose, this the central idea of Christian virginity: to aim only at the divine, to turn thereto the whole mind and soul; to want to please God in everything, to think of Him continually, to consecrate body and soul completely to Him."
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 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 living in the world belong to the consecrated life. They are not supported financially by their bishop, but must provide for their own upkeep. These women work in professions ranging from teachers and attorneys to that of firefighter. Some lead lives of contemplation as hermits.
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 2020.
The 1970 decree states as a requirement that candidates "have never married or lived in open violation of chastity", not the technical fact of virginity (which would for example exclude rape victims from the consecration).
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 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"