Fr. John H. Stapleton
Vows are less common than oaths, and this is something to be thankful for, since being even more sacred than oaths, their abuse incidental to frequent usage would be more abominable. The fact that men so far respect the vow as to entirely leave it alone when they feel unequal to the task of keeping it inviolate, is a good sign - creditable to themselves and honorable to God.
People have become accustomed to looking upon vows as the exclusive monopoly of the Catholic Church and her religious men and women. Such things are rarely met with outside monasteries and convents, except in the case of secular priests. It is true that one hears tell occasionally of a stray unfortunate who has broken away from a state voluntarily, deliberately, chosen and entered upon, and who struggles through life with a violated vow saddled upon him. But one does not associate the sacred and heroic character of the vow with such pitiable specimens of moral worth.
The besom of Protestant reform thought to sweep all vows off the face of the earth, as immoral, unlawful, unnatural or, at least, useless things. The first Coryphei broke theirs; and, having learned from experience what troublesome things they are, instilled into their followers a salutary distaste for these solemn engagements that one can get along so well without. From disliking them in themselves, they came to dislike them in others, and it has come to this that the Church has been obliged to defend against the change of immorality an institution that alone makes perfection possible.
First of all, what is a vow? It is a deliberate promise made to God by which we bind ourselves to do something good that is more pleasing to Him than its omission would be. It differs from a promissory oath in this, that an oath makes God a witness of a promise made to a third party, while in a vow there is no third party, the promise being made directly to God. In a violated oath, we break faith with man; in a broken vow, we are faithless to God. The vow is more intimate than the oath, and although sometimes the words are taken one for the other, in meaning they are widely different.
Resolutions or purposes, such as we make in confession never to sin again, or in moments of fervor to perform works of virtue, are not vows. A promise made to the Blessed Virgin or the saints is not a vow; it must be made directly to God Himself.
A promise made to God to avoid mortal sin is not a vow, in the strict sense of the word; or rather such a promise is outside the ordinary province of the vow, which naturally embraces works of supererogation and counsel. It is unnecessary and highly imprudent to make such promises under a vow. A promise to commit sin is a blasphemous outrage. If what we promise to do is something indifferent, vain and useless, opposed to evangelical counsels or generally less agreeable to God than the contrary, our promise is null and void as far as the having the character of a vow is concerned.
Of course, in taking a vow we must know what we are doing and be free to act or not to act. If then the object of the vow is matter on which a vow may validly be taken, we are bound in conscience to keep our solemn engagement. What we forbid ourselves to do may be perfectly lawful and innocent, but by that vow we forfeit the right we had to do it, and for us it has become sinful. The peculiar position in which a vow places a man in relation to his fellow-men concerning what is right and wrong, is the characteristic of the vow that makes it the object of much attention. But it requires something lacking in the outfit of an intelligent man to perceive therein anything that savors of the unnatural, the unlawful or the immoral.
Concerning those whom a vow has constituted in a profession, we shall have a word to say later. Right here the folly, to say nothing stronger, of those who contract vows without thinking, must be apparent to all. No one should dare take upon himself or herself such a burden of his or her own initiative. It is an affair that imperiously demands the services of an outside, disinterested, experienced party, whose prudence will well weigh the conditions and the necessity of such a step. Without this, there is no end to the possible misery and dangers the taking of a vow may lead to.
If through an act of unthinking foolishness or rash presumption, you find yourself weighed down with the incubus of a vow not made for your shoulders, the only way out is to make a clean breast of the matter to your confessor, and follow his directions.