18 October 2010

Perpetual Vows, Binding beyond Death?

[[Dear Sister Laurel, Are the perpetual vows of religious considered to be eternally binding, i.e. binding after death? Thank you very much for the ministry of your life & writing, so meaningful to me both as a discerner of religious life and as a person living with chronic illness. ]]

This is a great question but the short answer is no, perpetual vows are not binding beyond death (which may be a reason they are also called final or definitive --- or in some cases, solemn vows --- instead). Consider vows of poverty or obedience, for instance. They wouldn't make much sense on the other side of death where we exist in perfect union with God. (Can you imagine disobedience, the need for superiors, or struggling with self-denial and material goods after death?) Monastics make a vow of conversatio morum, or conversion of life as well as one of stability to a monastery. Those would be meaningless on the other side of death. Chastity too for that matter. Chastity or consecrated celibacy commits us to love in a non-exclusive eschatological way (the way of the Kingdom of God in fullness). After death this love is natural for everyone and no one needs a vow (or a special call) to accomplish it.

Through our faithfulness to vows (whether we mean baptismal, marriage, or religious vows) we become who we are called to be and in the moment of death we finally and irrevocably confirm or deny all those choices by choosing God or rejecting him for eternity. If we choose God and affirm all the choices for life we have made through our lives we undergo purgation through the love of God. That is, through the power of God's love we are affirmed as and remain the person we have become but stripped of imperfections, distortions, and mere potentiality, so there is no longer a need for vows or similar commitments. If we have chosen this throughout our life and also at the moment of death, we are united with God and nothing can change that either to detract from it or to add to it. (Again, purgation refers to the final work of God's creative and welcoming love where stripping of imperfections, etc is finally accomplished; we remain the person we have become in life in this process, but now without distortion or diminution.)

Postscript: I should note that the question as to whether the person remains a consecrated person after death is not the same as whether one remains a vowed person, or whether vows continue to be binding. The person does indeed continue to be one who has been consecrated and lived into her consecration more and more throughout her life. When I speak of becoming the person we are called to be with every choice we make that includes becoming the one who realizes the potential of her consecration.

I hope this is helpful!

Post postscript: Anyone interested in reading an interpretation of purgatory that is like the one provided here (but which is much richer as well) should look at Benedict XVI's book Eschatology. It is part of a series on Dogmatic Theology published under the name Joseph Ratzinger and may surprise people who find my view to be completely unorthodox.