03 March 2012

Public vs Private Profession or Profession vs Commitment: Followup questions

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, As a lay person who has made Simple, Personal Vows to God which were witnessed by the parish priest, and as a lay person who has written and observes a personal Rule, it seems that my actions are strictly between myself and God, and that no special obligations or relationship exists between me and any official part of the Church, and in no official capacity, and that even though my vows were witnessed by the priest, I have not accomplished a "Profession". Am I correct? It would seem I am truly on my own, and not obligated to the Church in any official way, which leaves me free, but obligated to live a good and moral life and loyal to the Church. I hope to have the help of the Church, certainly Her prayers and blessings as I may have the good fortune to receive them, but that I am not in a "consecrated STATE" as far as the Church is concerned.

Thanks very much for your questions. I realize asking them indicates both understanding and substantial personal pain. I am breaking them up and placing them throughout this post, but let me try to answer in a way which brings out not only the distinctions involved between public and private profession (or, what some, more accurately, call profession vs dedication) but also the seriousness of what you have indeed committed to.

As noted in the last post, Sister Sandra Schneiders, IHM, defines profession as a formal, solemn, and public act by which a person undertakes
a state of life, and when looked at that way, your vows are indeed a dedication but not a profession. In what I have written on this blog I have tended to a usage which distinguishes between public and private professions while implicitly linking these to differing states of life. Sister Sandra's usage in making state of life an explicit part of the definition of profession is less ambiguous and for that reason, perhaps significantly more helpful than my own in avoiding misunderstanding and the obscuring of important distinctions; still, I think we are in essential agreement. Your vows are private and that means that while they are a personally significant expression of your baptismal consecration (for you are indeed consecrated in that way), you remain in the lay state to live out that expression. As is true of any person in the church, you, as baptized, are obliged to live out the evangelical counsels in some way in that state and your vows express this explicitly. What remains true is that the Church which you help constitute both needs and expects you to live out any commitments you make with integrity and seriousness. She has affirmed that baptism constitutes a universal call to holiness and that holiness is no less exhaustive or significant than the call experienced by someone in the consecrated or ordained states.

It is true that, as you say, your private dedication of yourself via these vows does not cause you to enter
the consecrated state of life and does not lead to the same kinds of legitimate (canonical) relationships an ecclesial vocation with public vows does. You do not have legitimate superiors, for instance, do not belong to a congregation or religious community by virtue of this commitment nor do you enjoy additional rights, obligations or protections which are part of such relationships in order to support the stable state of life for which they exist. While you are expected to live out your baptismal vows (the laws which bind every Catholic are indeed binding on you and hold you accountable for this) you have assumed no additional legal rights or obligations nor entered into the additional legal (canonical) relationships which obtain in public profession. However, the values you live out in those vows are personally binding on you nonetheless because they are real specifications of your baptismal consecration. Your dedication (i.e., your private vows) commits you in a serious and real way until you discern either that you are no longer called to this or until you determine you need no additional vows to live out your baptismal consecration and act to have these vows dispensed by your pastor, for instance.

The Importance of Private Commitments

[[This is an important distinction because there actually would seem to me to be a consecration of sorts present by virtue of trying to fulfill what I believe to be God's desires in my life; it would seem necessary in order to fulfill them. I am obligated to obey the Church by the wording and intent of the my (sic) vows, as much as I am obligated to fulfill my vows to God to whom I made them, and a blatant refusal or deliberate failure to do so would be a sin. I had the intent of living by the vows I took forever, but it seems the Church does not see my vows that way in spite of what I may have intended. Which makes me wonder then, what is my obligation to my Lord if having made vows with the intent of permanency and solemnity the Church does not see things that way? If I were a younger person it might be easier to resolve the issue by entering a religious order or lay institute and making profession; unfortunately, it seems that time is past.]]

Both God and the Church expect you to live out the private vows you have made as part of a significant Christian commitment, and to do so with integrity. The Church expects you to lead others in taking their own baptismal commitments with absolute seriousness as well. She also takes your private vows seriously --- which is one reason she provides for their dispensation by your pastor, Bishop, or others designated to do so in case you discern you are called to something else (c.1196), for instance. She does not simply say, "Oh, just move on --- forget about them! They are insignificant" They are not. They are significant commitments to God. However the church, who had no part in discerning the wisdom of or mediating your vows, does regard them as private commitments which can be dispensed without additional legal steps and without directly affecting your relationships with others in the church should you discern that is the right course of action. (For instance, when a religious seeks dispensation of her vows this affects others in direct and significant ways, whether they are her superiors who participate in what is often a painful process of discernment and cease to be
legally responsible for her or her vocation), her community more generally (who love her and, though retaining profound friendships, lose her as a Sister in religion and important member of the community or congregation), or the church as a whole (who now welcome her as a lay person), etc.) Should you ever seek dispensation of your vows others are not similarly affected because your commitments, while personally significant, are private and made privately to God.

Even so, what does not change in all of this for you is your baptismal consecration and your responsibility to live out an exhaustive holiness accordingly in ways which are paradigmatic of and for the lay state. This IS a formal, solemn, and public sacramental consecration for you and affects many people and the life of the Church more generally. It is the power of this consecration which I believe is behind your sense that some consecration is necessary to live out your own private commitments. Your baptismal consecration grounds and empowers your living out the will of God in your life.

A larger question regarding the place of private vows for the baptized or married

Whether this applies in your specific case or not, one of the issues your questions raise is the remaining effects of a theology of religious life and vocation which effectively treated baptism as an entry level position in the church and other vocations as higher levels and more exhaustive forms of holiness. We have to encourage people to take their lay (baptismal) consecration and commitments with absolute seriousness. We have to be clear that every Christian is called to the evangelical counsels in some sense and we have to find ways to communicate that. Too often people seek to make private vows in an attempt to express their sense they are called to a self-commitment and holiness "more" exhaustive than their baptismal consecration involves.

For instance, they may make a vow of obedience as "listening" and commit to reading the Bible or listening to the Word of God in other ways when in fact these are generally things EVERY Christian is obliged to by virtue of their identities as Christians. They may make a vow of poverty in terms of a simplicity and detachment which are themselves something every Christian is obliged to by virtue of their baptism.

Sometimes, as I have mentioned before, I hear from married persons seeking to make additional vows --- usually of poverty and obedience, though sometimes also of chastity. When we talk about the matter and examine why they feel this way and what it is their marriage vows call them to in this place and time, there is usually no need for additional vows. Further, given the relationship between wife and husband there is usually no real place for vows which are private and bind only one of them. What was needed in such cases was a clearer idea of how significant and demanding are the public vows (baptism and marriage) they have already made. The significance and nature of these vows as public vows which are a means and call to achieving holiness and union with God, and in the case of marriage vows, a call to such holiness and union through this union with another, had slipped from sight. So had the need to reflect on and grow in their understanding and living out of these vows --- just as Religious routinely reflect on and grow in their their own.

The Church has contributed to this problem through the centuries. Vatican II took a decisive step away from the theology which engendered and exacerbates it. But we have a long way to go in implementing Vatican II in our lives and allowing it to guide our theologies, especially in this area. While wonderful and essential, it is not enough that lay people are moving into areas of ministry that were closed to them before. A fundamental change in our appreciation of what the lay vocation is and demands is still necessary so that people do not continue to feel they have only been called to an entry level vocation and cannot give their whole selves to God in this way.