by Therese Ivers
For centuries people have been embracing the evangelical counsels and binding themselves to observe them by the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The most common example we have of persons making these vows are the men and women who make their profession of vows as religious. These religious make what is known as public vows. Not all people, however, are called to make public vows, but instead elect to follow the evangelical counsels through private vows.
There is one primary difference between a public vow of poverty, chastity, or obedience and a private vow of poverty, chastity, or obedience. Public vows are made in a religious profession, or profession in the hands of the bishop of a diocesan hermit and have the effect of placing the individual in the consecrated state in the Church. Private vows are made outside of this context of Ecclesiastical acceptance and they do not change the canonical status of the individual making them within the Church.
Concretely, this means that if Mark would like to dedicate his life to Christ but does not feel called to enter religious life, join a secular institute (by making semi-public vows), become a diocesan hermit, or receive Holy Orders, he may consider whether he is called to make private vows. Making private vows, especially those of the evangelical counsels, is not something to undertake lightly and ought to be done only after careful consideration, prayer, and consultation with a spiritual director.
Vows made by members of Secular Institutes are what some people term “semi-public” vows. That means that they are not public vows which would place them in the consecrated state, but they are not totally private vows either because the Church recognizes these vows. Vowed members of Secular Institutes remain lay if they were lay and ordained if ordained, but they are in the world and are not in the consecrated state. You could call the lay members the true “consecrated lay people” of our Church.
One final thought. Vows can remain private even when made in a Church ceremony. An example of this can be when a priest receives*** private vows of an individual during Mass. Vows are also private (meaning they don’t put you in the consecrated state) if they are made in a Public Association of the Faithful, or a Society of Apostolic Life. The mere fact that a vow is made in front of other people does not make it public in the eyes of the Church. Members of any group that is not recognized in the Church as a religious institute who make vows in a ceremony or Mass in their community are not to consider themselves in the consecrated state because their vows are essentially private. Hence to call themselves consecrated men or women is misleading as they are not officially recognized in the Church as belonging to the consecrated state.
*** Correction: A priest does not “receive” private vows. He can “witness” private vows just like anyone else who hears a person making vows by sound, but he cannot receive vows in the name of the Church because he is not the legitimate superior of the person making vows.
Also, I should again point out that individuals generally shouldn’t make private vows (especially of poverty or obedience) without first studying the theology of the evangelical counsels and understanding how to word their vows so that they are actually sound and valid. The wording will be different than for members of institutes of consecrated life by default and if you don’t know why, you’re not ready to make any vows. I strongly recommend that anyone who is not called to consecrated life to make only one vow of chastity (or virginity if eligible) if they discern a call to be single for the sake of the kingdom and to skip the vows of poverty and obedience and instead simply practice poverty and obedience to the Church and civil laws.