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Public and Private Vows in Roman Catholic Church

Public and Private Vows in Roman Catholic Church

Pledged members of the Confraternity of Penitents have the option of taking a private vow, with their spiritual director, to live the CFP Rule for Life.  Vows carry with them many graces but also many responsibilities. 


The following is from The New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law, Commissioned by the Canon Law Society of America (John D. Beal, James A. Coriden, and Thomas J. Green, eds.  New York, New York: Paulist Press, 1999, pp. 1416-1420). The Code of Canon Law is italicized in the following commentary.




(cc. 1191-1204)

Vows and oaths are not acts of worship (cultus) in the sense of liturgical celebrations, but they are acts of religion that have a sacred character and impose obligations of religion. Thus they are treated in Book IV of the code which deals with the sanctifying function of the Church. Vows and oaths are, moreover, juridic acts which have juridic effects and which are governed by both general laws and the specific canons that follow. Although canon law does not bind non-Catholics as a general rule (c. 11), the laws on vows and oaths apply to non-Catholics if the law in question is based on the divine law or if the merely ecclesiastical law includes non-Catholics, e.g., the taking of an oath by a non-Catholic in an ecclesiastical process. The canons on vows in the Eastern code (CCEO 889-894) are similar to those in the Latin code, but there is only one canon in the Eastern code on oaths (CCEO 895). This canon recognizes the canonical efficacy only of oaths made before the Church in cases established by canon law.

CHAPTER 1: A VOW (cc. 1191-1198)

The following canons refer to private vows and, as applicable, also to public vows. Members of religious institutes profess public vows, which are also governed by the laws of Book II, part three, especially canons 607, 654-658, and 688-701, as well as the constitutions and other laws proper to each institute. The canons of this chapter treat: the definition of a vow, the capability of vowing, and the nullity of a vow (c. 1191); the different kinds of vows (c. 1192); the obligation of a vow (c. 1193); the cessation of a vow (c. 1194); the suspension of a vow (c. 1195); dispensation (c. 1196); commutation (c. 1197), and suspension of private vows by religious profession (c. 1198).

Definition, Capability, Nullity

Canon 1191 -- §1 A vow, that is a deliberate and free promise made to God about a possible and better good, must be fulfilled by reason of the virtue of religion.

§2 Unless they are prohibited by law, all who possess suitable use of reason are capable of making a vow.

§3 A vow made out of grave or unjust fear or malice is null by the law itself.

A vow is a promise made to God, the fulfillment of which is a serious religious obligation. A promise implies more than a wish or a desire but rather is a firm decision to fulfill what is vowed. A vow must be made with sufficient deliberation, knowingly, and with due discernment. The object of the vow must be something good; otherwise it is not a vow and has no effect. It must be something that the one vowing is capable of fulfilling, and it must be something better, i.e., better than not doing it, or better than its opposite. The good that is vowed may be relatively better depending on the person and circumstances. For example, whether a vow to perpetual virginity is a better good than matrimony would depend on whether the person has a true vocation to a life of celibacy.

Not only must the one vowing have the use of reason, but it must be a sufficient use of reason appropriate to the object of the vow. For example, the minimal use of reason normally required of children for reception of first communion (c. 914) would not be sufficient for the profession of vows in a religious institute (cf. C. 656, 1)

The vow must be freely made, i.e., without grave and unjust fear, or as a result of malice. A vow made under such circumstances would be invalid. Fear is grave when, in order to escape some serious harm that is perceived, a person sees no alternative other than to take the vow. Fear is unjust if it is inspired by a threat that is not deserved; it is just if it is inspired by a threat that is deserved. For example, a secular cleric, living in concubinage is told by the bishop to take a vow in his presence never to repeat that sin or, if the cleric does not take the vow, he will be given an onerous penance. The cleric takes the vow motivated by grave fear of the penance, but the vow is valid insofar as the penance is deserved and just.

Malice (dolus) in the context of this canon is the deliberate act of lying or of concealing the truth in order to get another person to make a vow which he or she would not do if the truth were known, or in order for oneself to get permission to make a vow, which would not be permitted if the truth were known. For example, a novice conceals from her superiors some external forum fact that, if known, would result in her not being admitted to profession of vows. Such malice invalidates the profession of vows (cf. C. 656, 4)

Also invalid is a vow made out of ignorance or error concerning an element which constitutes the substance of the vow or which amounts to a condition sine qua non (c. 126). Ignorance is lack of knowledge; error is mistaken judgment. Ignorance or error invalidates a vow if the person vowing lacked knowledge of, or erred in judgment about, something that is of the substance of the vow. For example, a woman who, believing her husband to have survived a war, vows in gratitude to go to Mass every day, and only later discovers that he in fact was killed in the final hours of battle, is not bound by the vow.

A condition sine qua non is one which is so important that the vow would not have been taken if it had been known that the condition was not verified or could not be fulfilled. For example, a religious brother, who is unaware of or mistakes the juridical effects of a solemn vow of poverty and believes he can keep property, takes solemn vows in a religious institute on the condition, whether explicit or implicit, that he retain ownership of his goods (cf. C. 688, 4-5).


Canon 1192 -- §1 A vow is public if a legitimate superior accepts it in the name of the Church; otherwise, it is private.

§2 A vow is solemn if the Church has recognized it as such; otherwise, it is simple.

§3 A vow is personal if the person making the vow promises an action; real, if the person making the vow promises some thing; mixed if it shares the nature of a personal and real vow.

This distinction between a public and private vow is not exact because members of some secular institutes and some associations of the faithful take vows which are accepted by a legitimate superior, yet these are considered private vows or, in the case of secular institutes, "semi-public vows." A more accurate distinction, modeled on the difference between solemn and simple vows, is simply this: a public vow is one which is recognized as such by the Church; otherwise it is private. An essential element of religious life is the profession of vows which are recognized as public (cc. 607, §2; 654). Members of secular institutes assume vows or some other sacred bond as determined by the constitutions (c. 712). Societies of apostolic life, by definition, do not take "religious" vows, but in some of them the members assume the evangelical counsels by some bond (vow, oath, promise) as defined in the constitutions (c. 731).

This is the only place in the revised code where solemn and simple vows are mentioned. The older religious orders (monastics, canons regulars, mendicants, Jesuits) have perpetual solemn vows, and the more recent apostolic congregations have perpetual simple vows. The chief juridical difference between the two is that religious who profess a solemn vow of poverty renounce ownership of all their temporal goods (c. 688, §§4-5), whereas religious who profess a simple vow of poverty have a right to retain ownership of their patrimony, but must give up its use and any revenue (c. 668, §1). A temporary vow, which expires after a stated period of time, is always a simple vow.

A personal vow binds the person to perform some act, e.g., to make a pilgrimage or to fast. A real vow binds the person to give a thing, e.g., a donation of property to a religious institute. A mixed vow consists of both personal and real elements, e.g., to make a pilgrimage to a shrine and to contribute funds for a new chapel there.


Canon 1193 -- By its nature a vow obliges only the person who makes it.

This is a change from the previous law (CIC 1310, §1), which said that the obligation of a real vow, or the real part of a mixed vow, passes on to the heirs of the one who died without having fulfilled the vow. There might be a moral or legal obligation on the part of the heirs to fulfill the vow of a deceased person, but there is not obligation arising from that person's vow itself.


Canon 1194 -- A vow ceases by the lapse of the time designated to fulfill the obligation, by a substantial change of the matter promised, by the absence of a condition on which the vow depends, by the absence of the purpose of the vow, by dispensation, or by commutation.

A vow ceases to bind when the obligation of the vow is fulfilled. There are six other ways by which a vow ceases to bind:

(1) when the time appointed for the fulfillment of the obligation has passed, e.g., one vows to make a pilgrimage to Rome during the Holy Year and it is not possible to fulfill the vow during that year;

(2) when there has been a substantial change in the matter promised, i.e., the thing promised becomes impossible or wrongful whether in itself or due to circumstances, e.g.. one vows to attend Mass each year at a certain church and the church is closed, or one vows to give a large donation to the parish building fund and it becomes necessary to use the money to pay for emergency medical care;

(3) when a condition on which the vow depends no longer exists, e.g., one vows to fast every day because of obesity, and the excess weight is lost;

(5) by dispensation (c. 1196); and

(6) by commutation (c. 1197).


Canon 1195 -- The person who has power over the matter of the vow can suspend the obligation of the vow for as long a time as the fulfillment of the vow brings disadvantage to that person.

Suspension is a temporary cessation of the fulfillment of a vow; the obligation of the vow resumes when the reason for the suspension ceases. A person who has power over the matter of a vow is a person whose own rights are affected by the vow of another. If this person's rights are adversely affected by the fulfillment of the vow, he or she may suspend the vow in question, even against the will of the one who made the vow.


Canon 1196 -- In addition to the Roman Pontiff, the following can dispense from private vows for a just cause provided that a dispensation does not injure a right acquired by others:

1° the local ordinary and the pastor with regard to all their subjects and even travelers;

2° the superior of a religious institute or society of apostolic life if it is clerical and of pontifical right with regard to members, novices, and persons who live day and night in a house of the institute or society;

3° those to whom the Apostolic See or the local ordinary has delegated the power of dispensing.

Dispensation from a vow is its complete cancellation for a just reason by an authority competent in law. Just reasons include the public good, a serious difficulty in fulfilling the vow, excessive scrupulosity. In doubt or error about the adequacy of the reason, a dispensation may be lawfully given.

The acquired right (cf. c. 4) which may be injured must be understood in a strict sense, i.e., only a right which has been lawfully acquired, not something which is merely promised. For example, some years ago a man had vowed to endow a chair at a Catholic university and had established a foundation for this purpose upon which the funding of the chair has since depended, but recently his personal fortune suffered losses and now he wants to dissolve the foundation which he controls; he may not be dispensed from his vow without the agreement of the university since its acquired right to these funds would be harmed.

Commentators on the 1917 code said that only the Holy See was able to dispense from a vow if those who would be harmed by the dispensation refused to consent to it. Since Vatican II it must be presumed that the diocesan bishop also has this power. Although canons 85-93 are not applicable here since they deal only with dispensation from laws, not vows, these canons may be helpful as a parallel passage (cf. c.17)

Transients (vagi) are not expressly mentioned here, but they are included in number one because they are subjects of the local ordinary and the pastor in a place where they are staying (cf. c. 102, §d). The local ordinary or pastor may give the dispensation to his subjects whether they are in or outside the territory at the time of the dispensation, and whether he himself is in or outside his own territory when he dispenses.

Those who stay day and night in a house of a religious institute or society of apostolic life include the students and other residents, lay, staff, and even guests who stay overnight.


Canon 1197 -- The person who makes a private vow can commute the work promised by the vow into a better or equal good; however, the one who has the power of dispensing according to the norm of can. 1196 can commute it to a lesser good.

The commutation of a vow is the substitution of the act or work (opus) promised by the vow to some other act. If the act to be substituted is as good or better than the original act that was vowed, the person who made the vow can commute it. If the act to be substituted is a lesser good than the original act that was vowed, the commutation is validly granted only by a competent superior as in the previous canon. The authorities competent to dispense are also competent to commute the vow to a greater or equal good -- not just to a lesser good -- if this is desired by the person seeking the commutation.

Suspension by Religious Profession

Canon 1198 -- Vows made before religious profession are suspended while the person who made the vow remains in the religious institute.

Any private vow is suspended by the law itself at the first profession of a religious (c. 655), and it continues to be suspended as long as the religious remains in the institute, i.e., until definitive departure at which time the vow begins to bind again. A religious may continue to observe the non-binding vow if he or she wishes, but only with the permission of the competent superior if the act in question is incompatible with religious obligations or arouses public notice, e.g., if the religious must miss a common act of the community in order to perform the deed privately vowed. This canon does not apply to members of societies of apostolic life who should seek a dispensation from a private vow if this is warranted.


(Note: St. Thomas Aquinas discusses vows on this link.)

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