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A vow is defined as a promise made to God. The promise is binding, and so differs from a simple resolution which is a present purpose to do or omit certain things in the future.
As between man and man, a promise pledges the faith of the man who makes it; he promises, wishing some other person to trust him, and depend upon him. By his fidelity he shows himself worthy of trust; if he breaks his word, he loses credit, by causing the other a disappointment which is destructive of mutual confidence and, like faith, mutual confidence is important to society, for the natural law condemns all conduct which shakes this confidence. These statements do not apply to a promise made to God; it is impossible for me to deceive God as to my present intention, and He knows whether I shall be constant in the future: God, then, is protected against that disappointment on account of which the failure to fulfil a promise to a fellow-man is considered disgraceful. But, just as one can offer to God an existing thing, or a present action, so also one can offer Him a future action, and perseverance in the purpose of fulfilling it. That offering of perseverance is characteristic of avow. A subsequent change in one's purpose is a want of respect to God: it is like taking away something that has been dedicated to Him, and committing sacrilege in the widest sense of the word. Unlike the simple breach of a promise made to a man, a failure to give to God what has been promised Him is a matter of importance, a very serious offence.
This explanation shows us also how a vow is an act of religion, just as any offering made to God. It is a profession that to God is due the dedication of our actions, and an acknowledgment of the order which makes Him our last end. By adding to our obligations, we declare that God deserves more than He demands. Lastly we see why a vow is always made to God for, as all our actions ought to be ultimately directed to Him, we cannot make a final promise of those actions to anyone but God. Promises made to the saints cannot be lightly neglected without detracting from the honour we owe them; but a failure in this respect, though grave in itself, is vastly less serious than breaking a vow, to which it bears some resemblance. These promises occasionally imply a vow. God is well pleased with the honour paid to His saints, and they rejoice at the glory given to God. We may then confirm by a vow the promise made to a saint, and likewise we may honour a saint by a vow made to God, as for instance, to erect in memory of some saint a temple for Divine worship.
The vow, moreover, is approved by God, because it is useful to man; it strengthens his will to do what is right. The Protestants of the sixteenth century, following Wyclif, declared themselves opposed to vows; but Luther and Calvin condemned only vows relating to acts which were not of obligation, the latter because he considered all good actions as obligatory, the former because the vow of a free action was contradictory to the spirit of the new law. Both denied that the vow was an act of religion and justified it by the simple human reason of strengthening the will. Certain recent tendencies have minimized the importance at least of vows made by members of religious communities. Errors of this kind are due to overemphasis of the fact that vows, and especially the perpetual vow of chastity, of religious life, or of missionary labour, do not imply any special instability in the person who makes them, but only the fickleness natural to the human will; and that instead of denoting the grudging service of a slave, they imply rather the enthusiasm of a generous will, eager to give and sacrifice beyond what is necessary, and at the same time so sincere in self-knowledge as to imitate warriors who burned their ships to cut off the possibility and even the temptation to flight. In the case of a will incapable of change, a vow would have no meaning; it were useless to offer a perseverance that could never be found wanting; for this reason it is not suitable to Christ, or the angels, or to the blessed in heaven.
A vow, even in an unimportant matter, presupposes the full consent of the will; it is an act of generosity towards God. One does not give unless one knows fully what one is doing. Every substantial error, or indeed every error which is really the cause of making a vow, renders the vow null and void. This condition must be properly understood; to judge of the effect of the error, it is necessary to know the will of the person making the vow at the moment of making it. One who can say sincerely, "if I had known this or that, I would not have made the vow", is not bound by the vow. If, however, one who is aware of some ignorance on the matter of a vow, but, in spite of that, generously decides to make it, knowing its general import and that it is in itself proper and commendable, such as the vow of chastity, for instance, is bound by it, as it is entirely valid. Lastly, the vows which accompany the entrance into a state, such as the vows of religion, can only be rendered void by some really substantial error. The good of the community requires this stability. For every vow whatsoever such knowledge and liberty are required as render a person capable of committing serious sin; though it does not follow that at the age when one is capable of committing mortal sin, one is capable of understanding the importance of a perpetual engagement. The object of a vow, according to the classical formula, must be not merely something good, but something better; whence it follows that no vow must be made to God of any unlawful or indifferent matter. The reason is simple: God is all holy and cannot accept the offering of anything which is bad or less good in its nature. Again, the object of the vow must be something that is humanly possible, for no one can be bound to do what is impossible. No man can make a vow to avoid all manner of sin, even the slightest, because this is morally impossible. The vow to avoid deliberate sin is valid, at least in persons who have made some progress in virtue. A vow may apply to a duty already existing or to acts which are not commanded by any law. A vow, being a personal act, binds only the person who makes it; but a superior, who makes a vow in the name of his community, may, within the limits of his authority, command the fulfilment of the vow. (As to the obligation of heirs, see section III of this article.) A vow binds according to the intention of the person who makes it; and this intention must be reasonable: in an unimportant matter, one cannot bind oneself under pain of grievous sin. In order to estimate the gravity of the matter, we distinguish between vows which affect isolated acts, and vows which relate to a series of acts. To an isolated act the well-known rule applies: The matter is grave if, in the hypothesis of an ecclesiastical command, it would oblige under mortal sin; but if the vow relates to a series of acts, then we must see what is truly important in regard to the end pursued. Thus every grave offence against the virtue of chastity, as it should be observed outside the married state, is a serious matter for the vow of chastity. The omission of one or two Masses or one or two Rosaries is not a grave matter in the case of a vow to be present at Mass or to say the Rosary every day. Every mortal sin is a grave offence against a vow to do what is most perfect; it is not the same with venial sin, even when deliberate; there must be a habit of committing acts which are certainly imperfect, in order to constitute a grave sin against this vow.
A vow is fulfilled by doing what has been promised, even without a positive intention of fulfilling the vow. One should personally fulfil the vow of some act or omission, promised as such as, for instance, the vow of a pilgrimage, but may fulfil through another such a vow as that of almsgiving, or donation or restitution of property. All obligation ceases when the fulfilment of the vow becomes impossible or harmful, or if the reason for the vow ceases to exist. (As to dispensation from vows, see section III.) A vow is a good action, but should be made with prudence and discretion; in the Christian life, love is better than bonds. We should avoid vows which are embarrassing, either because they are too numerous or because we may be unable to fulfil them (for failure to fulfil a vow is sure to be followed by sorrow which may endure for a long time); besides such vows as are not helpful to sanctification or charity. The more important the obligation the more careful reflection and preparation it requires. No objection can be made to reasonable vows made in order to increase the efficacy of prayer; but the vows to be commended above all are those which give us strength against some weakness, help us to cure some fault, or, best of all, contain the germ of some great spiritual fruit. Such are the vows of religion or missionary work.
The vow properly so called is made to God alone, but promises made to the saints have a certain resemblance to vows and are often accompanied by a vow, as we have already seen. A vow may be the act of a private person, or the act of a superior representing a community. In the latter case the community is only indirectly bound by the vow. The sentiment which leads a person to take a vow marks the distinction between absolute and conditional vows. The condition may be suspensive, that is to say, it may make the commencement of the obligation depend on the happening or the not happening of some future uncertain event; for instance, the words, "If I recover my health", make the obligation commence upon the recovery; or it may be resolutory, that is, it may have the effect of rescinding the vow, as if the person adds to the vow the words, "Unless I lose my fortune", in which case the vow ceases to bind if the fortune is lost. The same sentiment distinguishes between simple, or pure, vows, by which a person promises simply to do an act which is pleasing to God, and vows having some special end in view, such as another's conversion.
According to their object, vows may be personal, as a promise to do a certain act; or real, as a promise of a certain thing; or mixed, as a promise to nurse a sick person with one's own hands. They may also have reference to a single definite object, or leave the choice among two or three objects (disjunctive vows). According to the manner of their utterances, there are vows interior and exterior; vows express, and vows tacit or implied (as for instance, that of the subdeacon at his ordination); vows secret, and vows made in public. According to their juridical form, they may be private or made with the Church's recognition; and these last are divided into simple and solemn vows. Lastly, from the point of view of the dispensation required, vows are either reserved to the Holy See or not reserved. In itself the vow is a promise, and does not imply any surrender or transfer of rights; certain vows, however, according to ecclesiastical law, modify the rights of persons; such are the vows taken in religious orders.
Under RELIGIOUS LIFE we have seen how the distinction arose historically between simple and solemn vows, the names of which appear in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Various opinions have been expressed as to the matter of this distinction, and the question has not yet been decided. Some persons make the essential solemnity consist in the surrender of oneself which accompanies certain vows; this is the opinion of Gregory of Valentia (Comment. theol., III, D. 6, Q. vi, punct. 5) and many recent Thomists. But the surrender is found in vows which are not solemn, such as the vows of scholastics of the Society of Jesus, who would not be religious properly so-called, if their surrender differed essentially from that of the professed fathers. Moreover, the surrender really accompanies only a vow of obedience accepted in a religious order, while other vows are solemn, even without any question of obedience, such as the vow of chastity made by subdeacons.
In the opinion of Lehmkuhl (Theol. mor., I, nn. 64750) the solemnity of the vow consists in a spiritual consecration, the effect of which is that, after such a vow, a person is irrevocably set apart and appointed by the Church to serve God by the offering of that vow. This opinion has its attractive side, but does it agree with history? The vow of pilgrimage to the Holy Land was temporary and solemn. Or does it agree with the definition of law? Boniface VIII declares those vows to be solemn which are accompanied either by a consecration or by a religious profession. And lastly, does not the consecration logically follow the solemnity, rather than precede or cause it?
In spite of its complication and the forced explanations to which recourse is had, in order to escape from the difficulty, the opinion of Francisco Suárez (De religione tr. VII, c. ii, c.x, n.l; c.xii, nn.7-9; c.xiii, nn. 3, 8-13; c.xiv, n. 10) still finds distinguished defenders, especially Wernz (Jus Decretalium, III, n. 572). This opinion places the essence of the solemnity in the absolute surrender of himself by the religious, and the acceptance of that surrender by the religious order, which is accomplished by solemn profession, and also in the incapacity of a person who is bound by solemn vows to perform validly acts that are contrary to those vows; such as the incapacity to possess property, or to contract marriage. But historically this incapacity was not and is not always attached to solemn vows; the solemn vow of obedience does not as such involve any particular incapacity; and often solemn vows do not produce this effect. Will they be called solemn as being attached to the vow of obedience, and solemnized by the surrender of oneself?
But, apart from the arbitrary nature of these explanations, the vow of the Crusader was solemn without being attached to any more general vow of obedience; and we have seen that the surrender does not constitute the solemnity. For this reason we prefer a simple opinion, which, in accord with Vasquez (In I-II, Q. xcvi, d. clxv, especially n. 83) and Sanchez (In decalogum, 1, 5, c. 1, n. 11-13), places the material solemnity of vows of religion in the surrender followed by irrevocable acceptance; and with Laymann (De statu religioso, c. i, n. 4), Pellizarius (Manuale regularium, tr. IV, c. i. nn. 10-18). Medina (De sacrorum hominum continentia, l. 4, controv. 7, c. xxxviii), V. De Buck (De solemnitate votorum epistola), Nilles (De juridica votorum solemnitate), and Palmieri (Opus theol., II, pp. 445, 446) respects the ordinary juridical signification of the solemn act. The juridical solemnities are formalities to be observed in order to give to the act either its legal value or at least the more or less valuable guarantee of perfect authenticity. This very simple explanation accounts for the historical changes, both those which have reference to the number and conditions of vows, and those which concern their effects. It is natural that there should be greater difficulty in obtaining a dispensation from a solemn vow, and also that the Church should attach certain disabilities to such a vow. But these effects of solemn vows cannot constitute the essence of such vows. However this may be, canon law at the present day does not recognize any vow as solemn except the vow of chastity, solemnized by religious profession in an order strictly so called. The vows taken in religious congregations, like the simple vows which in religious orders precede the solemn profession, and also the complementary simple vows which follow the profession in some institutes, and lastly the final simple vows taken in certain religious orders in place of solemn profession, are, strictly speaking, private; but they derive a certain authenticity from the approval of the Church and the circumstances in which they are taken.
In itself the vow creates a personal obligation, which does not arise from the virtue of justice and which would seem to cease at the death of the person taking the vow. It is admitted, nevertheless, that heirs are bound to fulfil the vows called real, because they imply a promise to make over certain property or money; the origin of this obligation is the Roman law "De pollicitionibus", accepted as canon law. As to its nature, it is an obligation of religion, if the person making the vow has not made a bequest of the property by will. In this supposition the obligation would be of justice; but in the other cases, seeing that the law mentions no specific title, but simply declares that the obligation of the vow devolves on the heirs, we infer it devolves talis qualis, that is as a religious obligation.
The obligation of the vow is cancelled not only by the performance of the work promised, but also by the effective substitution of a better work, and by any circumstance which would have prevented the obligation from arising; as, for instance, if the work became useless, or unnecessary, or impossible. The obligation of the vow may also be annulled by lawful authority. We shall first sum up the generally accepted doctrine, and then endeavour to explain it briefly.
We must distinguish between the power to annul a vow and the power to dispense from the obligation to fulfil it. A vow may be annulled directly or indirectly. No vow can be made to the prejudice of an obligation already existing. If a person entitled to benefit under a previous obligation asserts a claim which is incompatible with the fulfilment of a vow, the fulfilment is prevented, and the obligation is ipso facto at least temporarily removed. Thus, a master may require the performance of services promised by the contract of hiring, without reference to any vow subsequently made; a husband may also require his wife to fulfil a conjugal duty. This is indirect annulment, which presents no difficulty. But besides this, certain persons, in virtue of a general power over the acts of others, may directly and finally annul all vows made by their subjects, or may prevent them generally from taking vows in the future. This power belongs to the father or guardian in the case of a minor, to the regular prelate, and even to the superior of religious congregations, in the case of professed religious; and, according to many authorities, to the husband, in the case of the married woman; and the person exercising this power of annulment is not required to prove the existence of just cause.
The power of dispensing, on the contrary, requires a just cause, less, however, than that which would suffice by itself to exempt from a vow. A still less reason is enough to commute the vow into another good work, especially if the latter is almost equivalent to the work promised. According to canon law, all vows made before solemn profession cease to bind by the fact of that profession, due regard being shown to the rights of third persons; and it is always permissible for a person to commute vows previously made into those of his or her religious profession, even when this is not solemn. When a vow is commuted by ecclesiastical authority, although the person who has taken the vow may always fulfil his obligation by doing the work originally promised, he is not in any case bound to do so, even if the substituted work becomes impossible. The power of dispensing and commuting belongs to those who have ordinary jurisdiction (besides the pope, the bishop and the regular prelate) over all vows not reserved to the pope and vows the dispensation from which does not prejudice the rights of third persons. Without the consent of the latter these rights cannot be prejudiced by a dispensation from the vow, except by the exercise of a supreme power over those rights, such as is possessed by the pope over the rights of religious congregations. Moreover, the power of dispensation may be delegated either in special cases or even generally: thus the confessors of the regular orders may grant dispensation from vows to their penitents-that is to persons whose confessions they are authorized to receive.
Dispensation from a vow is ordinarily justified by great difficulty in its fulfilment or by the fact that it was taken without due deliberation, or by the probability of some greater good either to the person taking it or to others, as, for instance, to a family, the State, or the Church. In dispensing from vows, the ecclesiastical superior does not dispense from any Divine law, but he exercises the power of the keys, the power of binding and loosing, in order to remit the debt contracted to God: and this power appears so useful to society, that, even if it had not been formally conferred by Christ, we might contend that it would always have belonged to the authority responsible for the public interests of religion. (See Francisco Suárez, "De religione", VI, Q. xviii.) The direct annulment of vows is more difficult of explanation; for no one can have a power extending so far as to interfere with the interior acts of another person. A son not yet arrived at the age of puberty may, even without the consent of his parents, make a promise of marriage; why does he appear to be unable, by reason of his tender age, to bind himself by any vow to God? We may observe that the distinction between direct and indirect annulment is not found in St. Thomas, or in Cajetan, but dates from a later period. With Lehmkuhl, we cannot explain this power without the intervention of ecclesiastical authority: in our opinion, the Church, in consideration of the weakness of minors and the condition of religious and married women, gives them a general conditional dispensation that is to say a dispensation at the discretion of the father, the superior, or the husband. The power to commute vows does not give the power to dispense from them; but the power over vows may, according to a probable opinion, extend also to oaths, and even to vows confirmed by oaths.
No person may, in virtue of ordinary powers, dispense from vows which the sovereign pontiff has reserved to himself. These vows are, first, all such as form part of a religious profession, at least in an institute approved by Rome, and this reservation applies also to vows taken by women belonging to orders, entitled to make solemn vows, but who in some countries take only simple vows. Besides these, five vows are reserved to the Holy See: the vow of perpetual chastity, the vow to enter the religious state (that is in an institution with solemn vows), a vow of a pilgrimage to the tombs of the Apostles, to St. James of Compostela, or to the Holy Land. However, these vows are only reserved if they are made under grave obligation, with full liberty and unconditionally, and if they include the whole object of the vow. The reservation does not extend to accidental circumstances, for instance, to enter one order in preference to another, or to make a pilgrimage in this or that manner. In urgent cases, when there would be great peril in delay, the ordinaries may, if necessary, dispense even from reserved vows.
The vow of chastity forbids all voluntary sexual pleasure, whether interior or exterior: thus its object is identical with the obligations which the virtue of chastity imposes outside the marriage state. Strictly speaking, it differs (though in ordinary language the expressions may be synonymous) from the vow of celibacy (or abstinence from marriage), the vow of virginity (which becomes impossible of fulfilment after complete transgression), or the vow not to use the rights of marriage. The violation of the vow of chastity is always a sin against religion; it constitutes also a sacrilege in a person who has received Holy orders, or in a religious, because each of these persons has been consecrated to God by his vow: his vow forms part of the public worship of the Church. Some authors consider that this sacrilege is committed by the violation of even a private vow of chastity. Although a sin against the virtue of chastity is committed, there is no violation of the vow when a person without experiencing any sexual pleasure personally becomes an accomplice (as for instance by counsel) in the sin of another person not bound by a vow. Unless the person concerned is able honestly to abstain from all use of the rights of marriage, every simple vow of chastity constitutes a prohibitive impediment to marriage; sometimes, as is the case in the Society of Jesus, it becomes by privilege a diriment impediment; when joined to religious solemn profession, it has the effect even of annulling a previous marriage not consummated. Some theologians have expressed the opinion that the religious profession produced this effect by Divine law; but it is more usual at the present day, and it seems to us more correct, to see in this a point of ecclesiastical discipline. A person who, in defiance of his solemn vow, attempts to contract marriage, incurs the excommunication reserved to the bishop by the Constitution "Apostolicae Sedis". Marriage following after the simple vow of perpetual chastity has the effect of making the perfect fulfilment of the vow impossible, as long as the married state continues therefore the observance of the vow is suspended, and the bishop or the regular confessor may give permission for the use of marriage. If the marriage is dissolved, the vow recovers its full force. We have already seen that the vow of the wife, taken at marriage, can be directly annulled by the husband, and that of the husband indirectly by the wife.
The Sovereign Pontiff may dispense from the vow, even the solemn vow, of chastity. History contains well-known examples of such dispensations; thus, Julius III permitted Cardinal Pole to dispense even priests who, at the time of the Anglican schism, had contracted marriage; Pius VII dispensed priests who were civilly married under the French Revolution. But such dispensations are only granted for exceptionally grave reasons; and even when a case is one of a simple vow of perpetual chastity freely and deliberately taken, the Holy See ordinarily grants a dispensation only in view of marriage, and imposes a perpetual commutation, such as the condition of approaching the sacraments once a month.
Historically there are frequent instances of special vows in the Old Testament, generally under the form of offerings conditionally made to God offerings of things, of animals, even of persons, which might, however, be redeemed; offerings of worship, of abstinence, of personal sacrifices. See for example the vow of Jacob (Gen., xxviu, 2022), of Jephte (Judges 11:30, 31), of Anna the mother of Samuel (1 Samuel 1:11), in which we find an example of Nazaritism, and the imprecatory vow of Saul (1 Samuel 14:24). In Deuteronomy, xxiii, 21-23, it is laid down that there is no sin in not making a promise to God, but that there is sin in delaying to pay the vow. The New Testament contains no express commendation of vows; but two instances of special vows are specially recorded in the Acts of the Apostles (xviii, 18, and xxi, 23). In both these passages, the vows are of the same nature as those of the Nazarenes. These particular vows were not unknown to the Fathers of the Church, especially to St. Ambrose, "De officiis ministrorum", III, xii (P.L., XVI, 168); St. Jerome, Epistle 130 (PL 22:1118 and St. Augustine, Sermon 148 (P.L., XXXVIII, 799). But the Church especially recognized the promise to devote one's life to the service of God; baptism itself is accompanied by promises which were formerly considered as genuine vows, and which contain in reality a consecration of oneself to Jesus Christ by the renunciation of the devil and paganism. At a very early period continence was professed by virgins and widows and though this profession appears rather under the form of the choice of a state of life than a formal promise, in the fifth century it was considered strictly irrevocable.
APA citation. (1912). Vows. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15511a.htm
MLA citation. "Vows." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15511a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Tomas Hancil and Joseph P. Thomas.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
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