Public, Semi-Public, and Private Vows and Promises

By Therese Ivers

One of the most frequent topics people discerning their vocation have several questions about is on vows and promises. As most people enter their vocation by means of a vow or vows, this topic is of great importance.

To begin with, all Catholics by virtue of their baptismal promises, have the obligation of rejecting sin, refusing to be mastered by sin, rejecting satan, and living out the teachings of the Catholic Church. All Catholics by virtue of their baptism, are called to strive for holiness in a manner consistent with their state in life.

Some people, perhaps the majority of people, are called to live out the general call or vocation to holiness by embracing a specific way of life through means of vow/promise, ordination, or consecration. This can be described as following a “call within the call”, or as more commonly called, following a “vocation”. It is this sense of a call to a specific way of life that the word “vocation” will be used in this article.

Vocations Entered by Public Vow(s)

Marriage and religious life are entered by means of public vow(s). In marriage, each of the (baptized) couple are the ministers of the sacrament of matrimony and by exchanging vows, enter a lifelong relationship as spouses and become “two in one flesh”. Religious profess vows to God according to their constitutions/statutes which specify how the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience are to be led. Diocesan hermits have the option of entering their state by vowing the three evangelical counsels by public vow, or they may choose to make public promises.

Vocation Entered by Public Promise(s)

Diocesan hermits have the option of professing public promises rather than public promises. They promise by means of a promise or sacred bond to follow the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience according to their rule of life.

Vocation Entered by Semi-Public Vow(s)/Promises

Members of secular institutes vow or promise the three evangelical counsels by means of semi-public vows.

Vocation Entered by Ordination in Conjunction with Public Promises

During the Rite of Ordination, those entering Orders promise obedience, and some promise celibacy.

Some Common Elements of Public and Semi-Public Vows and Promises:

  • Discernment is two-sided. In marriage, it is the other individual who discerns whether to accept marriage vows. It is the Church that discerns through the bishop – or legitimate authority in the different forms of consecrated life or secular institute – whether to accept vows/promises in the name of God and His Church.
  • Public/semi-public vows and promises either constitute a person into a formal vocation recognized in the Church, or are an important element of that way of life (such as in holy orders).
  • New public obligations and rights are assumed by the person making the vows/promises which flow from the nature of the vocation being entered into.

Private Vows and Promises

What is a private vow or promise? The Catechism of the Catholic Church states the following about vows:

In many circumstances, the Christian is called to make promises to God. Baptism and Confirmation, Matrimony and Holy Orders always entail promises. Out of personal devotion, the Christian may also promise to God this action, that prayer, this alms-giving, that pilgrimage, and so forth. Fidelity to promises made to God is a sign of the respect owed to the divine majesty and of love for a faithful God.

“A vow is a deliberate and free promise made to God concerning a possible and better good which must be fulfilled by reason of the virtue of religion,” A vow is an act of devotion in which the Christian dedicates himself to God or promises him some good work. By fulfilling his vows he renders to God what has been promised and consecrated to Him. The Acts of the Apostles shows us St. Paul concerned to fulfill the vows he had made.

The Church recognizes an exemplary value in the vows to practice the evangelical counsels:

Mother Church rejoices that she has within herself many men and women who pursue the Savior’s self-emptying more closely and show it forth more clearly, by undertaking poverty with the freedom of the children of God, and renouncing their own will: they submit themselves to man for the sake of God, thus going beyond what is of precept in the matter of perfection, so as to conform themselves more fully to the obedient Christ.24

The Church can, in certain cases and for proportionate reasons, dispense from vows and promises. (CCC #2101-2103)

Private vows may be made to God, then, for a “possible” and “better” good, according to the Catechism. What is “possible” in this context? Possible has several meanings. One is that a person must be free to make the promise/vow. A married person is not free to vow “chastity” (as the vow of celibacy and continence is called) because the right to the procreative powers of his/her body belongs to his/her spouse. One must be the right age to make a binding vow/promise (the minimum/maximum age will differ according to the nature of the vow/promise). The person must have an understanding of what is being promised and have sufficient deliberation.

The “better” good can encompass a lot of things. A person can promise to fast. This is a “better” good only if it is both subjectively and objectively better for the person making the vow. So, objectively, fasting is a good thing. Subjectively, it can be bad or good depending on the person and his/her circumstances. A person with hypoglycemia probably should never do a strict fast or vow one because it is “bad” for their health. The reason the Pharisee’s fasting and almsgiving talked about in the Gospel could be bad is the motivation was for show and human praise rather than the glorification of God.

Now, should a person make private vows or promises of poverty, chastity, and obedience if they do not feel called to life as a religious, member of a secular institute, or diocesan hermit? That is a million dollar question, and for it, there is no pat answer. In discerning whether to assume private vows or promises with such life changing implications, a person should give the matter the serious thought, understanding, and deliberation appropriate for taking such an action. Some things which should be considered are:

  • A person should undertake the responsibilities pledged by vow or promise only if they are truly called to do so by God. One of the advantages of pursuing public vow(s)/promise(s) is that the Church herself through the ministry of others (bishop, community, potential spouse) discerns whether a person may be called to a particular way of life. The process of discernment is usually lengthy so that the individual can learn about the rights and responsibilities of the life he/she wishes to enter by vow and so that the bishop, person, or community can determine if they are a good fit. In other words, a lot more formation in the evangelical counsels is available to those who pursue canonically recognized vocations.

By the same token, discerning whether to pursue lifelong commitments made by private vows/promises can be more difficult because there isn’t that in built process of formation and guidance given to people thinking of canonically recognized vocations.

  • It is strongly recommended that the insight and advice of a competent spiritual director be sought if one is considering assuming a private vow(s) related to the evangelical counsels. This is to ensure that one is indeed truly called by God to make it(them), that the formula and matter is valid (for example, to vow “joy” is invalid because joy is not something that can be undertaken at will), that the scope of the vow is clearly spelled out and understood, etc.
  • Private vows may be dispensed or commuted by the proper authorities, not by oneself.

  • While all Christians are called to follow the evangelical counsels in a manner befitting their state in life, not all are called to vow their strict and more radical observance for the sake of the Kingdom. Hence, it is important that it is truly God’s will, not an individual’s inclination, that brings a person to make a vow of chastity. A person should exercise great caution in vowing poverty or obedience, because how they are actually lived out must be understood in accordance with tradition and how they are to be lived should be written out so that boundaries are clearly understood.

  • Normally, a person should not make a vow of obedience to their spiritual director. This is because the internal and external forums are distinct and should not be confused, and there is room for grave abuse when the forums are mixed. Nor should an individual ever make a vow of secrecy or silence (not to criticize their superior or keep the details of their spiritual life/practices secret).
  • A private vow/promise of chastity involves a person dedicating himself to the Lord.  Thus a  lay person who is under private vow/promise is a “dedicated” lay person.  A person whose vows are public is a member of the “consecrated state”, and thus belongs to the state which in itself is neither lay nor clerical but consecrated.  A person whose vows are semi-public (members of secular institutes make these vows or promises) is a “consecrated” lay person if lay or “consecrated” ordained person if ordained, but is not a member of the consecrated state unless he/she is also a member of a religious institute, a diocesan hermit, or a consecrated virgin.  In other words, “dedicated” is one making one’s vows to God unmediated through the Church.  “Consecrated” is one whose vows are mediated through the Church.

So, if a person, after suitable preparation, formation, testing, discernment, advice, etc. wishes to make a private vow of chastity, then what? Because the decision should not be made lightly, valid formulas will not be listed on this site, but should be sought from a priest, spiritual director, or other expert.

(c) 2009 by Therese Ivers, JCL

All Rights Reserved

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