01 November 2010

On the Use of the term "Vowed"

[[Sister Laurel, Why is the term "vowed" usually reserved for those with public or canonical vows? Do you mean to say that these are better than private vows?]]

The simple reason is that in the Roman Catholic Church, except for the act of consecration of a consecrated virgin which is unaccompanied by vows, or the consecration of the relative minority of diocesan hermits who choose sacred bonds other than vows, only public vows received by the Church and accompanied by the prayer of consecration during the rite of religious profession initiate a person into the consecrated state, a new and stable state of life. (As noted diocesan or c 603 hermits provide an exception here in some cases because the Canon allows for "public profession confirmed by vow or other sacred bond," but again, this would be an exception to the rule while it still involves public profession and is accompanied by the prayer of consecration. In a general way it would be considered a vowed life even with other sacred bonds.)  Private vows do not do what public vows do, nor do they bind in law in the same way. Thus we refer to the vowed life, the vowed state, or, within true religious communities, the vowed members, and when we do so we normally mean the publicly or canonically vowed.

In drawing the distinctions I have I absolutely do NOT mean that public vows are better than private vows, but they are different in the rights and responsibilities attached and, as just outlined, the state of life they help initiate a person into. As I wrote recently on another matter, diocesan hermits are specifically professed under Canon 603 but this is not the only Canon which binds in law and in conscience once the hermit is professed. A lay hermit may privately vow poverty and chastity (and if they can do so reasonably with someone who will act as director or superior --- an unlikely proposition --- obedience), but in so doing she is not bound in law to either Canon 603 or any of the other appropriate Canons which bind the diocesan hermit. Private vows do not bind in law in the same way as public vows. So, not better but different.

In a similar way, people have the right to certain NECESSARY expectations of the publicly professed person as someone who has professed an ecclesial vocation which they actually do not have with privately professed persons. They have the right to expect, among other things, that the Church herself was really, officially, and formally part of discerning and mediating this vocation, that the person acts in the church's name in living it out, that she is competent to commit to doing so for the whole of her life, that she may be approached as someone who represents the vocation with integrity and transparency, and so forth. They have the right to expect that, in some substantial way they can call on in need, she lives her life for them as she would for her own family, for instance. Thus too the public rights/privilege to title and habit, post-nomial initials, etc which are meant to serve as signs of these rights and responsibilities, and which are symbols of the state of life itself.

This, as I have written before, emphatically does not mean the lay hermit who makes private vows (or no vows at all!), for instance, has a second class vocation, or that she does not live the eremitical life every bit as well as the diocesan hermit, but it does mean that people do NOT have the right to necessarily expect of her what they may necessarily expect from a diocesan hermit. This includes that hermit being bound by and meeting the obligations of ALL of the Canons --- and thus to all of the canonical relationships which apply to consecrated life for the WHOLE (length, breadth, and depth) of her life. What applies to this illustration with hermits is true with regard to public vs private profession more generally. Again, not better, but different.

One of the reasons I am emphatic that people must be clear whether they are publicly or privately professed is that in the former case God's own call has been mediated to the person, and their response received (not merely witnessed) in a way which creates both moral and legal rights, responsibilities, and necessary expectations on the part of the whole Church. To summarize then, in general we use "vowed" to reference not just the obligations and responsibilities legally and morally assumed by the person professed, but to an entire constellation of rights and necessary expectations which people have a right to hold with regard to the one who is professed/consecrated and related to the People of God in this new and public way. Private vows neither bind nor obligate in the same way, nor allow for the same expectations. It is for this reason we ordinarily do not refer to these persons as "vowed." In other words, private vows are certainly personally binding, but not publicly so. It is a very large difference and for that reason we ordinarily reserve the term "vowed" for the latter.

cf also: Ecclesial vocations --- a matter of stable relationships for more on the stable relationships comprising the heart of canonical standing.