Last week, one of my professors (not at Dominican House of Studies, but at another school where I am taking a class) referred to the evangelical counsels—poverty, chastity, and obedience—as "poverty, virginity, and obedience."
I raised my hand and asked if he was using "virginity" to mean unmarried chastity. He said virginity was a more appropriate word than chastity because virginity implies a "complete self-gift" to God, while chastity by definition is according to one's state of life. For married people, chastity includes sex, he noted, because sex is appropriate within the marital bond. So, yes, he did mean unmarried chastity, and in this, he said, he was following the terminology used by Hans Urs von Balthasar—calling "virginity" an offering up of one's entire sexual being, whether or not one is a physical virgin.
The word virginity in his eyes, then, applies not to the state of virginity, but to the act of being chaste for the kingdom. To me, that relativizes the term beyond recognition.
Such an alteration made me uncomfortable, so I asked priests and religious about it. Some of them said it downgraded chastity. To me, it downgraded virginity, as I will explain. In any case, wrote to the professor to ask his permission to refer to the counsels in class by their traditional names, and he granted it.
The experience inspired me to research the Church's traditional teaching on virginity. I found a good overview in the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on the subject, which goes into the physical and spiritual aspects of virginity.
In my talks, like the January 2008 one below, I discuss the meaning of the spiritual aspect, a k a "secondary virginity." (No one I know likes that term, least of all myself, but I have yet to find one to replace it; "purity" and "sexual integrity" are too general.)
The problem I have with labeling "virginity" under the traditional vows, as though vowed chastity were equal to virginity, is that it implies the Church views secondary virginity as equal to actual virginity in every respect, which it simply does not.
The ancient vocation of the consecrated virgin, which was revived during the Second Vatican Council, reflects the Church's belief that a woman who dedicates her virginity to the Lord is a special sign to the world. If it were not so, it would not matter whether Mary was pure of heart, mind, and body for her entire life. There is a reason she is the Blessed Virgin and not the Blessed Secondary Virgin Mary.
For me, what it comes down to is that it is always better to never have sinned than to have sinned. That doesn't mean that one who has escaped a fall may pride oneself as being better than one who has fallen. Nor does it mean one cannot grow from the experience of repenting of a fall. But, as I told a young woman who suggested my experience of recovering from a sinful lifestyle had made me "wise," someone who never committed such sins has wisdom that I will never know. There is a reason Mary is called Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom, and not Our Lady, Who Got Wise.