by Therese Ivers, JCL
It seems that there is always a lot of confusion regarding private vows. Private vows are any vows that are not public vows or semi-public vows. What is the difference, you may ask? It is very simple. Public and semi-public vows are accepted by the competent Church authority and are necessary for consecration. Private vows are all other vows.
Who make public and semi-public vows? Very simple. If a person makes vows in a religious institute, a secular institute, personal prelature, or as a diocesan hermit in the hands of their bishop, they are in public or semi-public vows and they are considered consecrated persons!
Who makes private vows? This is also very simple. Anyone who is not a member of a religious/secular institute, personal prelature, or not a diocesan hermit who decides to make vows of any kind is in private vows! This includes people who are in associations of the faithful hoping to receive approval as consecrated life institutes, Regnum Christi men and women, and members of all other lay movements and clerical movements.
Let’s review the requirements for public or semi-public vows. First, a public or semi-public vow must be accepted by the competent authority. Who is the competent authority? Bishops- only insofar as they are superiors of diocesan hermits and institutes of consecrated life of diocesan right, religious superiors, secular institute leaders, and personal prelature superiors. Confessors, bishops who are not admitting a person to diocesan eremitical life or to vows in an institute of diocesan right, and pastors, and all other clergy are NOT competent authorities when it comes to accepting vows!!! In other words, a competent authority has been described by the Church as:
1) The diocesan bishop for diocesan/canonical hermits, diocesan right religious communities and diocesan right secular institutes. Any other ceremony involving vows is done by the bishop as a witness and not as a lawful superior. Therefore, anything that a diocesan bishop witnesses or blesses outside of these limited circumstances is automatically considered private even if done in the cathedral in front of a million viewers.
2) The superior of a religious institute, personal prelature, or a secular institute for members of the institute! They are the competent authority designated by the Church to receive vows in the name of the Church.
3) No one else! All others are merely witnesses and cannot receive vows in the name of the Church. This includes Cardinals, Archbishops, Bishops, Abbots, Confessors, Spiritual Directors, and others!!!
When a person makes public or semi-public vows that are accepted by the competent authority (persons authorized by the Church to accept vows in Her name and only within certain Church approved structures), they receive a true consecration from God mediated by the Church and they become consecrated persons.
Let’s turn our attention now to private vows. Private vows can be made for a greater good. Of course, it is advised that since there is no lawful superior for a person aspiring to celibacy for the sake of the kingdom, that the vow of obedience is not made. Further, because a person who is aspiring to celibacy for the sake of the kingdom who is who is in the lay or clerical state is responsible for self, the vow of poverty is likewise not encouraged. The vow of poverty is used mainly for members of an institute where property can be communally shared.
What is a private vow? A private vow is a promise made to God for a greater good and is NOT accepted by a competent authority. Who are NOT competent authorities? Spiritual directors, confessors, pastors, and others!!! Even bishops if they are not admitting someone to an institute of consecrated life (that is, a religious community that is of at least diocesan right or a secular institute that is at least of diocesan right or to consecrated life as an individual as a diocesan hermit!). Private vows do not constitute someone in the consecrated state! Therefore, it is incorrect to say that a person under private vows is consecrated. They are dedicated individuals who have promised, resolved, or vowed to live a life of celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom! Again, private vows do not entail a true consecration. Consecration is mediated by the Church through the competent authority (see above for who the competent authority is). Because there is no legitimate authority who can receive a private vow in the name of the Church, consecration, or the setting aside of a person for God’s service that is over and above the consecration of baptism does NOT take place with private vows!!!