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by Therese Ivers, JCL
Vows can only be accepted by a person with the authority to accept. A single woman who meets all the requirements for marriage has the authority to accept the marriage vows of the man who wants to become her husband and vice versa. She “receives” his vows because she is a legitimate acceptor of those vows; she has the authority to freely choose whom she will accept as her husband.
Likewise, vows of the evangelical counsels can only be accepted in the name of the Church by “legitimate superiors” or people designated by the Church to accept vows in her name. The Church has spelled out who is authorized to accept vows or “receive” vows: bishops of those who are in institutes of consecrated life of diocesan right in his diocese and the lawful superiors of members of institutes of consecrated life of pontifical right.
Deacons, priests, bishops, archbishops, and cardinals do not have the authority to receive private vows. The Church has not granted that authority and never will. Vows, especially when they have to do with the evangelical counsels, are a precious part of the Church’s heritage and to protect this expression of herself, the Church carefully discerns those who would like to live in imitation of Christ in vowed poverty, chastity, and obedience, who desire consecration as such. Part of safeguarding the gift of the Holy Spirit’s charisms is to ensure adequate formation for people who wish to make vows so that they know what they are doing, and understand the theology of consecration (which private vows do not achieve). Again, the Church determines whom she authorizes to accept as vowed people. This is the Church’s prerogative, just as it is a person’s prerogative to choose whether and from whom he would accept marriage vows from.
The Church is responsible for the care and guidance of those who make vows of the evangelical counsels in her institutions of consecrated life. The Church, the institution, and the member take on specific rights and obligations when vows are received by the Church. The Church at large has the right to accountability. That the vowed person is living up to the vows made. The institution and the member have mutual obligations and rights. The member might cede ownership of property but an institute has the obligation to materially support the member. None of this is present when someone makes a private vow.
A private vow is by definition private. No rights or obligations on the part of the Church flow from it. If a person privately vows poverty, he does not have the right to be supported by the Church or a Church institution. If a person privately vows obedience, he does not have a superior who has the Church endowed right to command.
It is a sign of poor catechesis rampant in the Church when spiritual directors angle for private vows of obeying them, or priests/bishops allow people to pronounce vows in the middle of Mass when others of the faithful are present because such actions distort the nature of private vows. The Church can’t “recognize” or “approve” or “receive” private vows and so it makes no sense to have any ceremonies during Mass because the faithful at large start to believe that the private vow(s) might have more standing or legitimacy than they really do.
A prime example of such confusion on the part of the faithful has to do with the status of members of the Regnum Christi movement. Let’s examine what they do and how it is damaging to the Church.
First, they make private promises of poverty, chastity, and obedience. I do not know if they do this in the context of Mass, but if they do, that is certainly reprehensible, because it gives the veneer of Church authorization and approval where none exists. So, who is their legitimate superior? Nobody. They can make all the promises of obedience they want, but the Church does not recognize any person being a legitimate superior to them with the authority to command by virtue of the promise of obedience.
The Regnum Christi so-called “consecrated” members (they are not consecrated in God’s eyes except by baptism and confirmation but are no more consecrated than the average single or married person) live like religious but have none of the protections in law of religious because their group is not an institute of consecrated life. If their leaders decide to siphon away all their property and finances and build a private mansion, the members have no recourse if they are cast to starve in the street. Why? Because the Church doesn’t regulate people with private promises as strictly as those who actually represent her in institutes of consecrated life. On the other hand, just as the leadership has no accountability towards members because they are not recognized as an institute of consecrated life or society of apostolic life by the Church, neither do the members have such obligations towards the group. If they decide to get their “promises” dispensed, all they have to do is go to a parish priest and ask for a dispensation.
We already know what happened to the late “Mother” Nadine’s group. When they couldn’t get elevated to an institute of consecrated life or even just a society of apostolic life because of serious abuses, the leadership siphoned away the finances and left the privately vowed members to sink on their own. Yes, this is a serious reason to not pool finances before accountability is in place in the Church (e.g. the institution is elevated by a bishop as an institute of consecrated life or society of apostolic life). One should note that Mother Nadine’s group was in private vows and they wore habits because they were hoping to become an institute of consecrated life. The Church discerned that this way of life didn’t represent an authentic gift of the Holy Spirit and did not open the path to public vows. Again, accountability is built in here in a way that never would have been possible if public vows weren’t fostered and protected by the Church.
The dangers of rashly making private vows of poverty or obedience aren’t limited to people in groups that are not institutes of consecrated life or societies of apostolic life. This post is not about those dangers and common pitfalls- a whole treatise can be written on the theology and practice of private vows – but rather, this is a caution that the Church should not give the appearance of giving more perceived but inauthentic weight to private vows by allowing them to be said in the middle of Mass or public Liturgy. Indeed, a person who makes a private vow should normally keep this private. There is no need to proclaim that one has a vow of poverty- one just live it! Nor of chastity – one can refuse dates and simply say one isn’t interested in marriage.
A private vow is made (by definition) on the authority of the one making it. Hence the final word doesn’t rest on a spiritual director or even a bishop. If a person is free to make a valid private vow and chooses to do so, he does so on his own authority not because of some non-existent “permission” from a spiritual director or clergy. The spiritual director or clergy has no authority to “grant” permission for a private vow any more than they have to “receive” it. It’s like someone giving an eligible man “permission” to marry- it is sheer nonsense because it rests upon the man and only that man to make the decision whether to admit a particular eligible woman to be his wife. No one else can make that decision for him or force him to do so.
In the past, individuals who wished to make a private vow did so by consulting people who were more knowledgeable about the matter. Priests were often the most educated people in a locale. Diocesan priests are now very unlikely to know enough about private vows to assist people in coming to an informed decision about making them. The two sources I would suggest for someone considering making a private vow (I don’t recommend one of poverty or obedience for lay persons as a general rule) would be either a canon lawyer or a member of a secular institute.
(c) 2014 by Therese Ivers, JCL
The world is in tumultuous confusion as the reports about the recent Synod have disseminated. Will the Catholic Church allow practicing homosexual couples and divorced and remarried without a Church annulment Catholics receive Holy Communion? Will doctrine about homosexuality and marriage change? It seems that now is a good time to review some quick points about what the Church actually teaches about nuptial bonds and sexual fidelity.
Supernatural Nuptial Bonds
There are three types of supernatural (above nature, cannot be manufactured by humans alone) nuptial (marriage) bonds. The first is the union of Christ and the Church. The second is the union or marriage of Christ and the sacred virgin (consecrated virgins). The third is the union of a baptized man and a baptized woman in sacramental marriage.
What is a Supernatural Nuptial Bond?
Marriage is a contract. An invisible but true bond arises between the married. It unites the married in a spousal relationship. The spousal relationship is unique among relationships in God’s plan in that, among other things, it alone brokers the mutual surrender of the use of the procreative powers to the other spouse, and to that spouse alone.
How long does the Supernatural Nuptial Bond Last?
- Between Christ and His Church- Forever. Eternally.
- Between Christ and the Sacred Virgin – Forever. Eternally.
- Between a baptized husband and a baptized wife who have consummated their marriage- until death dissolves the bond.
- Between a baptized husband and a baptized wife who have NOT consummated their marriage- until death or dissolution by the Pope or religious vows dissolves the bond.
Note that a sacramental consummated marriage is the closest representation a married couple has in mirroring the eternal marriage bond between Christ and the Church. It is consummation that makes it an indissoluble bond that cannot be broken by anyone or anything but death.
Can the Church change its teachings on divorce and remarriage with respect to indissoluble sacramental marriages so that more people can receive Holy Communion?
No. To change the doctrine on marriage would essentially indicate the Church is (1) a liar and (2) with no purpose for existence. Why? Because the Church has always taught that a valid sacramental consummated marriage most perfectly reflects her own indissoluble union with Christ***. Right now people are calling for people living in adultery (e.g. husbands and wives with invisible indissoluble or intact nuptial bonds who have received a civil divorce from the state but have not received a judgement of invalidity of their bond from the Church) to be able to receive Holy Communion. The Church cannot condone adultery and “allow” people to commit sacrilege for any reason whatsoever without lying about her fundamental nature. Further, if the Church all of a sudden cooked up the idea that maybe valid-sacramental-and-consummated-marriages are not in fact truly indissoluble and allowed for the “dissolution” for “pastoral reasons”, then the Church has no point in existing. Why? Because what is said of sacramental-consummated-marriage is said of the Church’s own marriage and relationship to Christ. If sacramental-consummated-marriage can be dissolved or if adultery is okay, then the Church can dissolve because Christ could just get “divorced”, or the Church could turn to Satan and be adulterous. Again, my point is that the teachings on marriage, the nuptial bond, and Christ and the Church are symphonic and interconnected. Destroy one teaching and the whole thing falls apart.
The main drive behind a change in the Church’s teachings is the pervasive idea that we are “entitled” to sexual union of any kind with anyone at any time. God’s teaching is very clear and opposite to this mainstream thought. A human being may NOT surrender his/her sexual powers to – or utilize them with – another person except in a monogamous nuptial bond and only with one person of the opposite sex. Once surrendered, only death of the spouse returns the ability to bestow that power on another of the opposite sex. Yes, this is a hard teaching, but there are a lot of natural and supernatural reasons which support this permanent and exclusive heterosexual relationship.
The Eucharist is a sign of communion. It is also a union between Christ and the member of the Bride the Church when an individual receives the Lord in this sacrament. To worthily receive Holy Communion, a person must be in the state of grace. That is, he or she must conform to the ways God hard wired humans to be happy and holy. Being chaste (continent if one is single or continent towards anyone who is not a spouse if one is married) is such a requirement for being in the state of grace because our relationships should reflect God’s own pure relationships within Himself and with all creatures. Sexual union with one other than a spouse destroys that life of grace and ability to grow in true love and friendship, particularly with God our Father. Can the Church which purports to have a spousal relationship with God allow a person in the state of sin to approach God intimately in Holy Communion and “eat and drink unto damnation”? Is this true love for the Christian soul? Ignoring the invisible realities makes us blind to the reality of the push for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive the Sacrament of unity, an act of sacrilege which is ultimately an act of hatred of God and the Church.
Sexual promiscuity (any sexual act that is not a loving conjugal union with a validly married spouse) is not the ultimate answer to happiness and fulfillment. If it were, Christ would have made it allowable because He wants us to be happy and virtuous. Instead, He invites people to be continent for the sake of the Kingdom. He also condemned divorce which led the apostles to say that it might be better not to marry! Christ didn’t do this to make life miserable, but to allow us to participate in the nuptial mystery He models with the Church.
What can be said about Christ’s indissoluble union with the Church that human marriage should reflect? Volumes can be said about this subject, but the most basic, fundamental elements of human marriage are shown in this Divine union. First, the nuptial bond is permanent. It is indissoluble. So is sacramental consummated marriage between the baptized. Second, marriage is relationship in which the spouses are united in an intimate communion of the whole of life. They are to ever strive for the good of the other. This is why Christ says to men to lay down their lives for their brides like He did for the Church. Communication is key in fostering and nurturing this relationship. Third, marriage is a fruitful entity. The Church, through baptism, has brought supernatural life to countless human beings. Likewise, husbands and wives are normally called to acts that are apt for the generation of children… and once they have them, to raise, form, and educate them. Love is willing the good of the other and working towards that in a nuptial relationship.
It is loving God and neighbor in a virtuous marriage or virtuous continent lifestyle for singles that brings happiness and peace, not spurts of pleasurable sexual encounters with all and sundry or in successive bigamy.
Happiness in Sexual Fidelity
A single person can be fulfilled and happy as a continent person. True happiness is found in doing the will of God and in living a devout life. This does not mean a single person should refrain from finding a spouse, but that sex is not indispensable to human happiness. In a sense, the single person does imitate the married life of Christ and the Church by being a baptized person. The individual participates in the spiritual fatherhood of Christ and the spiritual motherhood of the Church via baptism. Baptism makes one participate in the bridehood of the Church, and so one can live focused on Christ as the soul’s Bridegroom.
Likewise, the married can be fulfilled and happy even if circumstances mean that they must exercise continence/abstinence. This does not mean that it is easy, but God’s grace can sustain those who are unwillingly in a position wherein they must practice continence. Should a valid, sacramental and consummated marriage come to a point where it is necessary for the parties to live separately, they must live in continence with respect to others. They cannot seek the emotional support, the communion of the whole of life and sexual dimension that marriage is all about with another person unless the Church finds and rules that their original bond was invalid for lawful reasons.
Sacred virgins share in some of the joys and difficulties of both singles and married persons. Because of their explicit nuptial bond with Christ that goes beyond the participation of the bridehood of the Church initiated by baptism, sacred virgins are eternally bound to sexual fidelity to Christ. They are not free to bestow the gift of their sexuality to any other person. Their bond is indissoluble, and so they are models for fidelity to the sacramental and consummated married persons and vice versa, because the bond cannot be broken by any human power. Similarly, they are much like single persons in the sense that they do not and cannot lawfully experience conjugal acts. Thus, in their persons, they witness to the overwhelming love for Christ which induces and assists them in living out their marriage with Christ and all it demands, including sexual fidelity. Unlike religious, who may have their vows dispensed, sacred virgins cannot be released from their indissoluble marriage with Christ. In this sense, they share their lot with the married. After the honeymoon is over, they must be diligent to keep up the communication and loving acts to deepen the marital relationship with Christ just as married spouses must do to deepen their marriage relationship. Sacred virgins are a beacon of hope to this sex crazed world. They show in their lives and bodies that sexual fidelity can be lived out and that continence, indeed, perpetual virginity can be fulfilling.
Concretely, this means that a sacred virgin consecrated by the bishop under the provisions of Canon 604 cannot give up on her married life with Christ and turn to human consolation of a person for a marriage relationship with the emotional support, sexual dimension and other benefits marriage with a visible man entails.
Finally, a Note about Divorce and Remarriage
Civil divorce happens when the State says that the marriage contract entered into by John and Jane Doe is now dissolved and now no longer binding. The Church’s stance against divorce, contraception, infanticide, homosexual activity, and abortion were the most culture changing forces in the apostolic and patristic era. What could be more counter cultural than these things against the sexually promiscuous Greek, Eastern, and Roman civilizations of the time? It was unheard of for a man to be required to be married to one and the same woman for life instead of having the easy way out with a divorce. Or for the pater familias to be forbidden the right to kill any newborn for any reason whatsoever of his extended family and slaves. Daughters were more likely to be exposed or drowned than sons. Likewise, it was easy for a man to keep concubines, lovers, and slaves for his sexual pleasure whilst perpetuating the family line with his legitimate progeny. It was and now is again in this modern age, a startling concept that a bond arises with valid marriage and that even if the State claims it is now dissolved, God still recognizes valid marriages and expects people to fulfill their duties as married persons.
Poorly catechized Catholics and non-Catholics often think that a civil divorce dissolves a marriage and that an “annulment” is merely a Church stamped recognition of that dissolution or a “Church dissolution/divorce”. This is not the case. A declaration of nullity occurs only when a person proves with the Church’s own laws that the union he/she was in was not a valid marriage. Annulments (more properly called declarations or findings of nullity) are not really about the sacramentality of a marriage but validity. Was it a true marriage when John and Jane said “I do”, or was there something that prevented the marriage bond from being created at the time of consent? Unless and until a declaration of nullity has been issued by the Church’s courts that examine the marriage in question, people must presume that their marriage is valid, and that to civilly divorce and remarry without this declaration is to go into the state of public adultery (living with a consort who is not one’s spouse as if they were one’s spouse). The Church does not “grant annulments” as if all a person has to do is submit a request and the Church “grants” a divorce. No, the person must challenge the existence of the marriage bond, and if the nullity of that bond is proven, the Church will declare it to be invalid and the person(s) free to marry because in the sight of God they are single.
For more information on annulments and to clear up myths about them, please refer to my book, 101 FAQs on Annulments sold on Amazon:
*** Update: It should be emphasized that this is only true between the different types of natural and supernatural marriage bonds between husbands and wives. A (valid) sacramental and consummated marriage is indissoluble and most closely represents the Church’s indissoluble union with Christ insofar as human marriages are concerned. However, there is a marriage that represents and participates in the Church’s own indissoluble union with Christ- the sacred virgin’s indissoluble marriage with Christ. As the the Roman Pontifical (the Bishop’s Liturgy book) puts it:
Among your many gifts you give to some the grace of virginity. Yet the honor of marriage is in no way lessened. As it was in the beginning, your first blessing still remains upon this holy union. Yet your loving wisdom chooses those who make sacrifice of marriage for the sake of the love of which it is the sign. The renounce the joys of human marriage, but cherish all that it foreshadows. OCV, n. 24
© 2014 by Therese Ivers, JCL, OCV
Answer: NO. Unless the sin(s) are already public knowledge, nobody has the right to inquire into the conscience of another person outside of the confessional. Men wishing to become priests who helped with the procural of an abortion will have to get a proper dispensation. Women cannot be asked whether they’ve had abortions or indulged in any sexual activities by anyone for any purpose including vocational screening. This right to a good reputation is not limited to sexual sins but to all sins. Nobody is required to reveal any sin outside of confession that is not already a matter of public knowledge. I wrote in further detail about this and abuses that happen when people violate privacy of conscience in my book on the protections of conscience because the Church took certain abuses so seriously that excommunication was the penalty given for religious superiors who illegally pried into other people’s consciences under the guise of obedience.
Because the protections of patient confidentiality cease under USA law if a person signs a release, candidates to the seminary, orders, or the consecrated life are strongly advised to consult with a canon lawyer on how to best protect their right to privacy prior to allowing a Church official or institution to review any psychological reports. Candidates should know that the Holy See has norms on the use of psychological evaluations that are not always followed in the USA.
In a recent post, Sr. Laurel of Stillsong Hermitage has claimed that Sts. Perpetua and Felicity were considered virgins by the early Church. This is absurd and untrue. Both saints are honored and venerated as martyrs, but never have they been revered as virgins. Even in the the Church’s liturgy, the two saints are assigned a memorial for martyrs but the option for virgin martyrs is not given because they were not virgins. The example of these two martyrs was used to bolster the position that the early Church merely considered women who didn’t sin against chastity as eligible for the consecration of virgins.
The praxis of the Church’s consecration of virgins should always be viewed in a historical and theological light. From the earliest of times, the Church has required virginity as a prerequisite for her sacred virgins. When virgins were accused of having fallen, the Church historically used midwives to verify their physical state as documents from the time of the Church Fathers can attest. For most of Church history, the virgin had to attest to her physical intactness to her bishop in order to validly receive the consecration. This is because she is the physical sign of the Church’s own being as a virgin.
This is also why Pope St. Leo the Great, who in the 400’s penned the prayer of Consecration used in the Rite, wrote that even women who had been violated against their will by the invading barbarians should refrain from seeking the Consecration of virgins. Technically, as St. Augustine pointed out, these women did not lose their virginity. However, they did lose the physical sign of it and this is why St. Leo recommended that they do not receive the consecration. This is certainly a far cry from the supposed loose teaching on virginity held by the early Christian Church. St. Leo’s prayer is the very first pontifical consecration prayer extant, and he was Pope only about one and a half to two centuries after the deaths of St. Perpetua and St. Felicity, non-virgin martyrs, and many of the virgin martyrs of that period.
The Pontificals, using this version of the Leonine Consecration, often designated an interrogatory by the bishop during the Rite itself concerning the candidate’s state of intactness. Only in 1970 -not 1983- did the Rite transition into a less intrusive way of ascertaining the virginity of the candidate. This does not mean that the definition of virginity has changed but that the manner in which the eligibility of the virgin is determined as far as a manifestation of conscience is affected has changed.
Lastly, a comment on what it means for an act of unchastity to be “open” or “public”. “Public” can mean “known by another person”. That is what Cardinal Burke’s letter from the Vatican clarifies. “Public” in canonical parlance, means that an act is in the external forum. Hence, it need not be “notorious”. For example, a person could “publicly” renounce the Catholic Faith by a formal letter to (and accepted by) his bishop. That need not be known to the general populace for this to be a public, external act. Perhaps only he and his bishop and whoever notates the baptismal record are the only ones who know. But, the act is still considered to be “public”. A person could have something on his public record that is not known to anyone except those who dig into court records. That does not negate the fact that it is publicly “known”.
At the present time, I am working with a professional translator and a respected publishing house in the field to translate and publish a monumental theological and liturgical commentary on the Rite of Consecration of Virgins. This 1076 page book chock full of citations will eliminate many controversies in the English speaking world because it will give access to theological thought that has been inaccessible to those who only know English. It is a doctoral dissertation about the Rite, written at the liturgical Pontifical University, the Anselmo, run by Benedictines. Each detail of the Rite is scrutinized, and previous Rites and commentaries are compared and contrasted. This undertaking we estimate will cost about $17,500. If you should feel moved to contribute towards a greater understanding of the vocation of consecrated virginity and wish to donate to this book translation and publication project, please contact me for details.