Canon Law and Making Private Vows

Q1: I was hoping you could answer a burning question of mine regarding vows and promises.

Background info: I’m a young guy with OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder], I have a nasty habit of doing things I think are good and then I get intense anxiety afterward, with this in mind there’s (sic) several vows which I’ve been told are not indeed vows because they haven’t been made under the witness of a priest, but Canons 1191-1204 seem to show that any promise to God if it’s intended as a vow, becomes a vow only a bishop can dispense.

The actual question: Can a layperson make a vow without the witness of anyone else, and if so, can only the bishop or vicar dispense of it? –Daniel

Q2: I am a reader of your website, and have a quick canon law question I was hoping you could answer since it’s been a cause of scruples for me.

Canon Law 1197 gives the person who made a private vow the ability to commute it to a “better or equal good”, and mentions that those who have the power to dispense private vows per Canon 1196 (i.e., a pastor) can commute the vow into a “lesser good.”

Can a pastor validly commute a private vow to an equal or greater good, or can he ONLY commute it to a lesser good? –Geovanny

A: Most readers would probably be astonished at how often questions about private vows are submitted to this site.  Typically, Catholics regard vows as belonging primarily to the world of religious institutes, whose members (frequently, though not always!) vow poverty, chastity, and obedience; and also to the world of marriage, when husband and wife are colloquially said to “exchange vows” (although if you want to get really technical, the term “vow” is not used at all in this context in current marriage law).  But individual Catholics can and sometimes do make private vows for a variety of reasons—and often they later wish they hadn’t.  Canonically speaking, how does this all work?  Let’s look at the basics and then we can focus on our two questions.

Canon 1191.1 tells us what a vow is: it’s a deliberate and free promise made to God about a possible and better good, and it must be fulfilled by reason of the virtue of religion.  The next canon differentiates between the public vows alluded to above, and private vows: a vow is public if a legitimate superior accepts it in the name of the Church; otherwise, it is private (c. 1192.1).  Thus when a woman takes vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in a formal ceremony, in order to become a sister or a nun in a religious institute (see “What’s the Difference Between Sisters and Nuns?” for more on the distinction), she is making public vows—because her hierarchical superior is standing right there in front of her at the time, receiving her vows in the name of the Church.

In contrast, other Catholics can and sometimes do make private vows, for a whole host of reasons.  For example, over the centuries, many Catholics have been faced with dire situations in their lives—and have decided to promise God that they will do X, if He will help them out of these situations.  Someone might be diagnosed with a terminal illness, and wish to “cut a deal with God,” vowing to (say) dedicate the rest of his life to charitable work, or to donate half his wealth to the Church, or to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, if God will cure his illness.  In many cases it seems clear that God has agreed to the bargain, because the person then gets what he wished.  And if the person later fulfills his vow, that’s basically the end of the story.

Before we move on to the next point, it’s worth noting that canon 1193 states unequivocally that a vow obliges only the person who makes it.  So if your grandmother made a vow to give a specific sum of money to her parish, but died before doing so, her heirs are not bound by her vow, which died with her.  Or to cite a different example, an infertile Catholic couple cannot make a private vow that “if God gives us a son, we’ll make sure that he becomes a priest when he grows up.”  That’s because we all have free will and can make our own decisions about our state in life—and while our parents can certainly encourage us to take this or that path, the ultimate choice is ours alone.  Thus if your parents vowed that you would be a priest, but you are convinced that God is not calling you to become a priest, then you shouldn’t become a priest—because your parents’ vow does not bind you.  In other words, their vow is no vow at all.

As both of our questioners indicate, when Catholics make private vows, it often happens that circumstances change—and the person who made the vow is no longer able/willing to keep his end of the bargain.  Let’s imagine that a wealthy Catholic freely vowed that he would give a million dollars every year to charity X; but now his finances have taken a nose-dive, and he no longer can afford to do this.  Or let’s say that a Catholic man privately made a vow to God that he would become a monk … but now he realizes that he is actually called to married life!  What happens now?

Canon 1194 explains the basic ways that a vow ceases to bind the Catholic who made it.  Firstly, a vow is no longer binding if it involved a time-frame which has now expired.  Imagine that for some reason you made a vow in 2019, to travel to Rome next year and pray at the tomb of St. Peter.  You had every intention of doing this … but we all know what happened in 2020.  Since you were literally, physically unable to fulfill your vow because you simply couldn’t travel to Italy in 2020, you were no longer bound by your vow as of January 1, 2021.

Canon 1194 tells us that the second way a vow ceases is that there is “a substantial change of the matter promised.”  The example provided earlier, of the Catholic who vowed to donate a million dollars every year but no longer has the financial ability to do this, is a case in point.  As we have seen before in different contexts (in “Tithing and Excommunication,” among others), the Church holds to the basic principle found in ancient Roman law: nemo ad impossibile obligari potest, or “nobody can be obliged to do the impossible.”  To state the obvious, you can’t give a million dollars to charity every year, if you don’t have a million dollars to give!  In such circumstances the vow would no longer be binding.

The third way mentioned in canon 1194 is “the absence of a condition on which the vow depends.”  This one should be perfectly clear: if, as in the example provided earlier, you vow to do X if God cures your terminal illness, but God doesn’t choose to cure your terminal illness … you aren’t bound to do X.

The fourth way a vow ceases to bind, as per canon 1194, is “the absence of the purpose of the vow.”  Imagine that a Catholic boy is madly in love with a certain girl, and makes a vow that he will pray 15 decades of the rosary every day until the day they finally marry.  Now let’s imagine that he does this faithfully, all the while simultaneously trying to woo her … but before she can give him her decision, she is killed in a car accident.  Now the purpose of his vow—marrying this girl—no longer exists, since it’s obviously impossible for them to wed.  His vow to pray one 15-decade rosary daily has therefore ceased to be binding.

Finally, according to canon 1194 there are two other ways that a vow ceases: it can be dispensed, or it can be commuted.  Both of these usually—although not always, as we’ll see in a moment—involve the intervention of another person.  Let’s look first at dispensation from a vow.

If you are dispensed from a vow, that means you are released from it, and it is no longer binding.  Who can dispense you from a private vow?  Canon 1196 has the answer.  For starters, the Holy Father always has the power to release any Catholic from a vow—and this should go without saying, since he has supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church (c. 331, and see “Can a Pope be Removed From Office?” and “Can the Pope Validly Marry People on an Airplane?” for more on this).

Canon 1196 n. 1 then tells us that the local ordinary and the pastor of the parish can also dispense from a private vow.  The term “local ordinary” is defined in canon 134.1 and .2, and includes the diocesan bishop himself, the diocesan Vicar General (defined in c. 475), and any Episcopal Vicars (defined in c. 476) which the diocese might have.  See “Our Priest Cancelled Our Wedding, So Who Else Can Validly Marry Us?” from more on the local ordinary.  By the way, it should immediately be clear that Daniel is in error in this regard—because it is quite false that “only a bishop can dispense,” as he suggested.

If the Catholic who wishes to be dispensed from a private vow is a member of a clerical religious institute, canon 1196 n. 2 states that his superior has the power to dispense. The wording of this section indicates that this also applies to novices, who are not yet full members of the institute.

Finally, canon 1196 n. 3 notes that the Holy Father or a local ordinary can grant to another person the power to dispense from private vows as well.  This covers the issue of dispensing someone from a private vow; now let’s look at what commuting a vow is about.

Commutation of a vow is the substitution of the work required by the vow with some other kind of work.  So let’s say that you vowed to spend one full day per week in charitable work; but now your family obligations or your health has changed, and you are genuinely unable to do this.  It’s possible to commute the vow to something different—perhaps instead attending daily Mass for the intentions of those working at the charity.  But who has authority to commute your private vow?

Canon 1197 tells us that it depends!  If you want to commute your vow to a better or equal good, you can do that yourself.  So if you had vowed to spend every Saturday fasting on bread and water, but now want to change it to Fridays—i.e., an “equal good”—you simply decide to do it on Fridays instead and that’s that.  Or if you want to change it from Saturdays to both Wednesdays and Fridays (which is twice the fasting, and thus a “better good”), you likewise can do that on your own initiative, with no outside intervention needed.

If, however, you want to commute your private vow to a lesser good, then all of those people mentioned in canon 1196—who have authority to release you from your vow altogether—likewise have the authority to commute your vow.  Imagine that you’ve vowed to donate 10% of your income to support a certain convent, but now you’re married and have a baby, and can no longer afford to do that.  Let’s say you don’t want to be dispensed from your vow completely; but you’d like to give just 3% instead.  As per canon 1196, you can get permission to do this from the Holy Father, the local ordinary, or your own parish priest.

Readers who have patiently made it to this point might be asking themselves, “Why would I need to make a vow to do these things?  Why can’t I just tell God, ‘From now on I’m going to try to fast on Saturdays,’ and if it doesn’t work out, I won’t have to deal with the hassle and obligation of getting released from a vow?”  It’s an excellent question—and it leads us to a very important point, which is directly related to the fact that so many questions are sent to this site on the subject of private vows.

The undeniable fact is, Catholics are not obliged to make private vows—ever.  As has been seen here, making a vow brings with it a lot of moral responsibility to see that the vow is fulfilled.  Simply telling God in prayer that you are henceforth going to aim to do XYZ is not a vow, and so if you fail to do XYZ for whatever reason, you needn’t worry about any of the canons mentioned above.

There are plenty of situations where an individual Catholic might benefit spiritually from making a private vow; but as many confessors and spiritual directors can attest, there are also plenty of cases where the vow shouldn’t have been made in the first place.  Far too many private vows seem to be made by Catholics who are immature—spiritually and/or otherwise—and who think there is something romantic/dramatic about “making a vow to God that I will do X for the rest of my life.”  As a basic rule, if you feel called to make a private vow, ask your spiritual director, or at least a confessor or some other priest, for a second opinion first—and abide by his decision.  Remember, making a vow might bring you a spiritual good; but obedience is a virtue, and abiding humbly by the prudent decision of someone in authority in the Church will surely benefit you spiritually too.

The whole issue of obedience brings us to another big issue regarding private vows.  An awful lot of Catholics hastily make private vows, not necessarily because they are being led to do so by the Holy Spirit, but because they are suffering from severe scruples, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, or sometimes even outright mental illness.  In their confusion they seem to think that binding themselves by a vow somehow makes them better Catholics, and keeps them on the “right” track—but in reality, what will keep them on the right track is obedience to a spiritual director’s advice, whether they like that advice or not.  And it is the stubborn refusal to submit to spiritual authority, rather than the making of private vows and being released from them, that so often lies at the root of the vow-making Catholic’s declared confusion.

So, in Geovanny’s case, we’ve already seen that strictly speaking, the law does not permit the pastor to commute someone’s vow to a greater good.  However, in the case of someone tormented by scrupulosity, it may very well happen that the pastor is asked by the person to give his okay to the commutation—which originated with the person himself.  Legally there’s nothing wrong with doing it this way at all.

It’s also possible that what is at issue in Geovanny’s situation may be a disagreement with his priest, about what constitutes a “greater or equal good” and what is a “lesser good.”  This kind of uncertainty is actually very easy to resolve: if you’re not sure, the safest rule of thumb is to abide by your spiritual director/priest’s decision.  Period!

By this point, the answers to both our questions should be evident—but whether the questioners choose to accept those answers is of course another matter.  And there’s another useful takeaway here, which can serve as a general rule for all of us: if you wish to promise God privately that you will do X, and intend to bind yourself by actually making a vow … don’t, without at least first running the idea past your spiritual director, or confessor, or parish priest, and abiding by his decision.  If circumstances change and you’re genuinely no longer able to fulfill your promise, God will understand; but once you make a vow, as we’ve seen here, you enmesh yourself in a legal procedure which was entirely avoidable from the start.

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