‘Personal choices central to individual dignity and autonomy, including intimate choices defining personal identity and beliefs,” Rachel Rose Dumont answers smoothly in her high-pitched, melodic voice. She is reciting from memory the stirring “fundamental interest” passage in Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion for the majority in Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court decision that has enlarged the legal definition of marriage to take into account the feelings of people who are not married but wish to be. “I ask for dignity in the eyes of the law,” she continues, paraphrasing. “The Constitution grants me that right.”
The question posed to her was “At stake in your case is the definition of marriage, obviously, but also of your own state in life — what, as you understand them, are ‘religious vocations’?”
Dumont, 28, is a consecrated virgin in the Catholic Church, having professed solemn vows in a ceremony on Sullivan’s Island, S.C., on October 15, 2014, the memorial of Saint Teresa of Avila. As a “bride of Christ,” the ancient title bestowed on women who forsake conventional marriage to enter into a chaste union with the man they love and believe to be God incarnate, Dumont arranged for a wedding replete with “insignia of bridal consecration,” in the words of the little-known Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity. Her plans included bridesmaids, groomsmen, and a stately procession down the aisle of her parish church, Corpus Christi.
News that Dumont intended to borrow features from typical performances of the Rite of Christian Marriage traveled fast and raised more than a few eyebrows. The chancery at the Diocese of Charleston was quick to respond after details of the forthcoming event were reported in a misleading article last summer in the religion section of the Charleston Post and Courier. The story went viral, generating more than 100,000 social-media shares and provoking a flurry of online commentary, much of it flippant and derisive. Some conservative Christians, particularly non-Catholics, found Dumont’s claim to be marrying Jesus blasphemous.
“We must consider the liturgy in all its dimensions, both its venerable history and its present-day expression,” diocesan spokesman Monsignor Thomas J. McEvoy said in a statement issued August 1, 2014, by the Office for Divine Worship and Sacraments. “The strong nuptial symbolism” that Dumont sought to incorporate into her consecration ceremony was “consistent with a legitimate pattern” found in such ceremonies worldwide, he confirmed, adding:
We would stress, however, that Consecrated Virginity is a sacramental, not to be confused with the sacrament that is Holy Matrimony. To those who have voiced concern that the proposed form for the designated liturgy may be viewed as a mockery of traditional Christian marriage, we emphasize our respect for Miss Dumont’s sincerity and for the sound judgment of her pastor, Father Anthony Pescatore, O.P. We are confident that the public celebration of the mystical marriage of Miss Dumont to Our Lord will serve as powerful symbolic affirmation of the high value that the Church, the Bride of Christ, places on sacramental marriage, the sacred union of one man and one woman.
Dumont and I talk over coffee in her sunlit studio apartment in Mount Pleasant, a beachy Charleston suburb separated from Sullivan’s Island by the Intracoastal Waterway and a drawbridge. Slightly built and tanned to a shade of bronze a little darker than her sandy hair, which falls well below her shoulders, she explains that her marriage to Jesus is not an allusion to the typical marriage between a man and a woman. Rather, it’s the other way around. “It’s the antitype,” she maintains, meaning that the union of Christ and a consecrated virgin is the fulfilled reality that the sacrament of matrimony, which binds together a woman and a man other than Jesus, merely foreshadows.
Dumont maintains that the union of Christ and a consecrated virgin is the antitype, or fulfilled reality, that the sacrament of matrimony, which binds together a woman and a man other than Jesus, merely foreshadows.
George Nolan, an American canon lawyer and noted author, takes issue with Dumont’s suggestion that “marriage commonly understood is ontologically subordinate to the figurative marriage, which is exceedingly rare, between Christ and consecrated virgins,” who currently number about 3,000, including an estimated 215 in the United States. It is her civil lawyers, though, who have the ear of the nation, which is both baffled and slightly bemused by her lawsuit now wending its way through the courts. Her application for a marriage license was denied in Charleston County probate court last November, as was her subsequent appeal. She has retained a national law firm, based in Atlanta, to represent her in her action against the State of South Carolina, whose refusal to recognize her religious vocation as a civil marriage constitutes, she claims, discrimination based on religion.
“Here,” Dumont says, holding up her left hand to show her gold-and-diamond wedding band. “I wear this for a reason. I celebrate my marriage and I choose to make it public” — she reads the expression on my face — “although, true, I couldn’t very easily hide it even if I wanted to, at this point.”
A native of the Charleston area, she returned in 2008 after graduating with honors from Brown University, where she majored in Italian, and is currently employed as a Starbucks barista in Mount Pleasant and, on weekends, as a server at a seafood restaurant in nearby Isle of Palms. In 2009, she was selected to compete in the Miss South Carolina beauty pageant but backed out at the last minute; “Chucktown’s reigning It girl,” a local gossip blogger called her, to her embarrassment, though she admits she was flattered. As the only child of Johnnie Dumont, a Charleston philanthropist and developer of luxury real estate across the Lowcountry, she is used to the attention but ambivalent about it.
Not a year had passed when a spiritual cataclysm struck suddenly one evening and swept through her life like a raging summer hurricane, uprooting her well-laid plans for the future and knocking down her romantic visions of frolicking tow-haired children and a white picket fence. In short order she broke off her engagement to her fiancé, Michael Cooper. They had been dating since her senior year at Porter-Gaud, a private day school on the other side of town, near the Ashley River.
Dumont politely demurs when I ask her to elaborate on her religious experience, but some of the details can be gleaned from previously published comments of hers in local and national media, both secular and Catholic:
An Episcopalian by birth though, at the time of her visions, not a churchgoer, she began to be visited by Jesus in May 2010. Looking up from her laptop one evening at home, she was startled to see him standing in front of her “in my room, in the flesh,” she told St. Anthony Messenger magazine last year, in an interview that appeared as a sidebar to an article about the canonical status of private revelations, including apparitions not recognized by Rome. “He didn’t speak for the longest time. He just radiated this overwhelming presence. I said nothing. I did nothing. I never felt so loved in all my life.”
She described Jesus’ mood as
unspeakably sad. “It hurts for me to contain my love. I offer it to many, but few will receive it. Is no one willing to alleviate my burden even for a short while?” Those were his words as best I can recall. It’s not like I was recording it on my phone. I wasn’t taking notes. But it’s not something I would easily forget.
Crushed under the weight of her strong emotions following this astonishing incident, Dumont confided in Cooper but soon regretted it:
It was a mistake. A blunder. In effect, I told him [Cooper] I’d fallen for another guy. That’s how he heard it. I was gushing, and it was wrong. Inappropriate. From this distance, it’s clear that our relationship would have had to end anyway because of this, and instinctively I knew what I had to do, but I had no idea how to go about it, and the clock was ticking.
It’s not that I came to love Mike less. It’s that now I loved another man more — oh, not the same way I loved Mike, of course. “True, eros tends to rise ‘in ecstasy’ toward the Divine, to lead us beyond ourselves; yet for this very reason it calls for a path of ascent, renunciation, purification, and healing,”
she concluded, quoting from Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love), the first encyclical promulgated by Pope Benedict XVI.
Cooper, who now lives in New York, did not respond to requests for an interview.
Searching online, Dumont found testimony from other women, including Saints Margaret Mary Alacoque and Faustina Kowalska, who have reported similar experiences.
A series of twelve more visions — or encounters, as Dumont calls them, insisting that Jesus appeared to her in person, in a physical body, in space and time, not in her imagination — occurred through July of that year. The shortest encounter lasted about one minute; the longest, most of the night, from about 10 p.m. until dawn. Searching online, Dumont found testimony from other women, including Saints Margaret Mary Alacoque and Faustina Kowalska, who have reported similar experiences. She read widely on the Church’s tradition of bridal mysticism. She discovered the Song of Songs.
Seeking advice, she called the nearest Catholic church and soon began meeting with Father Pescatore twice a week for spiritual direction. Three months in, she began taking instruction, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, and was received into the Catholic Church the next year, 2012, at the Easter Vigil Mass at Corpus Christi.
Dumont contacted several orders of women religious. She says she admired the kindness and quiet intelligence of many of the sisters she spoke with, but “my vocation was not there,” she explains. “I love them. Their work is phenomenal. And you know what? I wasn’t called to it. I considered the Carmelites and a few other contemplative orders, but sitting still in one place for hours on end concentrating is not my calling either.” She laughs. “I need to be mobile.”
Around this time, Dumont’s curiosity was piqued by the story of Elizabeth Lee, a bioethicist who after 16 years of marriage was still in love with her spouse, Jesus, and spoke fondly of her wedding and the excitement and anticipation leading up it. “I had two bridal showers,” Lee, a consecrated virgin, told ABC’s Nightline. “My mom helped me write out the invitations. She went with me to look at dresses.”
The term “consecrated virgin” is unfortunate, Dumont thinks, in that it distracts from the positive aspect of her vocation. “People hear the term and think, ‘Okay, she’s sworn off sex,’” she says. “What ‘consecrated virginity’ means is that I’m not available because I’m already married.” Suspecting that she’s failed to make herself understood, she reaches over, opens up her silver MacBook Air, and goes online to Sponsa Christi, the website of Jenna Marie Cooper (no relation to Michael), who was consecrated to a life of virginity in the Archdiocese of New York in 2009 and now studies canon law at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome.
“Since Apostolic times, there have always been some Christian women who felt called to renounce the possibility of an earthly marriage in order to dedicate themselves to Christ in as complete and total a way as they could,” Dumont reads before handing me the laptop to read for myself:
Or in other words, they were offering Christ all the love and devotion that they would have otherwise given to an earthly husband and children. In relation to the rest of the baptized faithful, such women can rightfully be considered espoused to Christ in a more radical, concrete, and literal sense. . . .
For example, men categorically are not called to be “brides of Christ” in this particular sense, since this kind of more-or-less literal “bridehood” is an essentially feminine reality. That is, a man in his masculine nature is not able to relate to Christ as his Bridegroom in the same strong sense as a woman can in her femininity. Similarly, a married woman cannot take Christ as her spouse in this same direct way, since she has already committed herself to a mortal husband.
The long-distance nature of the relationship is hard for Dumont. “He’s not a ghost,” she reminds me. “He’s a living, breathing man, with particular features and his own, unique tone of voice, who lives somewhere in the universe, usually not here” — with a sweeping gesture she indicates the 500 square feet of her apartment — “but sometimes,” implying that his visitations with her are ongoing, but I let it drop.
“Obergefell certainly gives her case a boost,” says a legal scholar who asked to remain anonymous.
I ask her about a devotional article on the coffee table. “Jude,” she says, picking up the laminated holy card and handing it to me. “The patron saint of hope. They say he bears a strong physical resemblance to Jesus, who’s possibly his cousin. We’re not sure. I’ve recruited him to join me,” and here she smiles and rolls her eyes, signaling that her lapse into the Catholic-church-lady patois is deliberate, “in a spiritual amicus brief. He intercedes on my behalf. He prays for my cause.”
Legal hurdles that Dumont must clear on the way to obtaining a marriage license involve the failure, or perceived failure, of “the Groom” to meet three requirements of the probate court: that he appear with her in court, that he co-sign the written application for the license, and that he present one of five specified pieces of identification (a passport, a driver’s license, etc.). Apparently wanting to avoid the weeds of the legal arguments that her lawyers have cautioned her against wandering into in public, she states bluntly — and somewhat officiously, but she’s a little nervous — that her “considered opinion” is that the language of marriage law in South Carolina should be amended to reflect the validity of her de facto “extraordinary marriage,” as she describes it.
“Obergefell certainly gives her case a boost,” a legal scholar, who asked to remain anonymous, tells me by e-mail, explaining that
the reasoning that the Court used to strike down certain restrictions on the eligibility of two adults to marry would prima facie apply to her own situation. The contention that her claimed spouse is not a living person would immediately run up against theological counter-contentions, which a plain reading of the First Amendment would discourage most courts from explicitly refuting. The sticking point will probably be the difficulty of demonstrating the consent of both spouses.
Catholic officials have been largely silent on the controversial lawsuit, caught between support for Dumont’s high-profile witness to traditional Christian sexual morality and her decision to pin her case on the legal argument that the traditional definition of marriage is discriminatory and unconstitutional. Noting that typically the consecration rite takes place in the cathedral of the diocese in which the woman takes her vows, some observers have speculated that the Charleston Diocese has tried to distance itself from her case from the outset, though it maintains that the Sullivan’s Island location was granted at Dumont’s request. “She had grown attached to the Church of Corpus Christi there,” McEvoy tells me by e-mail, sidestepping my questions about the chancery’s position on her legal claim to marriage in the eyes of the state.
Nicole Stimler, a fellow at the Te Deum Institute, a conservative Catholic think tank in Philadelphia, offers that Dumont may be on to something, however. “I’ve read Obergefell closely several times, and, you know, much of the language is highly encouraging,” she tells me over the racket of children shouting in the background on her side of the phone. “The Court has clearly ruled that relationships that are inherently incapable of being consummated in the traditional understanding of the word ‘consummation’ can be marriages. For Rachel Rose, that’s good news.”
That leads to the delicate question that has dogged Dumont since she initiated her request for consecration early last year. “Please,” she says when I broach the subject. She’s had to negotiate this line of inquiry a lot in recent months. “It’s not like there’s a medical exam. People are so prurient.” She catches herself: “I’m not saying you personally . . . ” I nod to indicate “no offense taken,” hoping to prompt her to share with me what by now, I suspect, must be a practiced speech. She takes a sip of coffee and starts over:
The vow I took to live chastely began the moment I took it. Ideally, a consecrated virgin will have lived in perfect chastity in the past as well. The minimum requirement in this regard is only that she has never given scandal. The Church stipulates that consecrated virgins must “have never been married or lived in public or flagrant violation of chastity.” That’s me. I was not churched as a child, but my parents instilled in me some pretty strong notions about modesty and decorum and all these attributes that sound so Victorian, I know, but really they’re ageless.
The Catholic Church is the last institution in our culture to uphold them, although that’s not what makes them true. That the Church upholds them makes the Church true. Or it’s part of what makes the Church true. People hate it for that. You wouldn’t believe how much reverse slut-shaming I get, including from some people I considered friends.
Is that her primary motivation for asking that the principle of marriage equality be extended to women in her state of life? “It does drive me to a certain extent,” she says, a note of dejection creeping into her voice. “The smirks, the sarcasm. The predictable jokes.”
The Church does not consider her to be literally married, so why should the state? More to the point: Why should she care whether it does? “The law of the land is that pretty much any two consenting adults can be civilly married,” she argues. “Civil marriage confers a certain ‘nobility and dignity’” — the reference is to Obergefell — “that, yes, I could live without, but I don’t have to. I have a legal right to it.” She breaks eye contact for a moment and looks at the window, on the other side of which a mother plays with her splashing children at the edge of the pool. “We’re a traditional male–female couple who have committed ourselves to each other in a lifelong union. What part of that makes the State of South Carolina conclude we’re not married?”
Roberto Lambertini, a professor of moral theology at the Angelicum in Rome, is a friend of Dumont’s. He is touched by her heartfelt stand, he tells me, but does not ultimately support it. “God help her,” he says, because
she is making herself formally complicit in a social movement that reinforces a personal and societal disorder that the Church explicitly identifies as such and admonishes against. She has walked into the great contemporary confusion about the institution of marriage, and in the process she has reinforced the underlying confusion, the serious confusion about sexuality in general, which is a source of such gnawing unease for so many people in the world today.
Do not misunderstand. Her intentions are beautiful. They are pure. She is very sweet. Her intimacy with Our Lord is a great gift, but her demand that her South Carolina bless it is a grave misstep.
The secular state has seduced her, don’t you think? Only the Church can give her what she seeks.
She longs profoundly for the sacrament of matrimony. Should the Church extend it to women in her state? I don’t know. I know only that she would like it to, though probably she doesn’t realize that yet. She has yet to learn that the civil law is sterile in this regard. It has nothing to offer that she needs. Rachel Rose, you are knocking on the wrong door.
Does he mean that, in demanding secular courts to pronounce on her religious vocation and remarkable relationship, Dumont is flinging to the dogs that which is holy?
Lambertini sighs deeply into the phone. “I wouldn’t put it that way,” he says. He pauses. “Let the dead bury their dead. That’s what I mean.”