Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Canon Law and Sacred Bonds: Vows and Oaths in Consecrated Life

Continuing a thread from this post, I've recently been reading through The Canonical Establishment of a Religious Institute by Fr. Elio Gambari, and have been trying to absorb all the canonical distinctions currently made regarding vows and oaths and such in consecrated life in the Church.

The most important distinction, it seems to me, relevant to recognizing someone as "consecrated" through the evangelical counsels, is that between a "sacred" bond and one that is not. Fr. Gambari explains that, theologically speaking, a sacred bond or obligation is one that was undertaken as an act of the virtue of religion (as opposed to, say, something like a contract which binds under the virtue of justice). Keeping the obligations, therefore, are by nature a perpetual act of worship. Some groups, wishing to avoid "consecrated" status under canon law, do in fact bind themselves with non-sacred bonds (for example, Opus Dei members are bound only by contracts to the organization).

Another distinction, more minor, is that between vows and oaths. Sometimes the distinction here is quite clear; for example, swearing that a statement is true in court is clearly an oath not a vow. But given that an oath can also be used to bind oneself to the truth of a promise, the difference between a promissory oath and an (at least semi-public) vow is more subtle. Fr. Gambari seems to indicate that a vow is an obligation undertaken before God (which may have another person or even the Church as a witness), whereas an oath is an obligation undertaken before another person, with God invoked as the witness. If you see the subtle difference there. A vow is to God, with possibly a human witness. An oath is to humans, with God invoked as witness. Either may be sacred if proceeding from the virtue of religion.

When it comes to the sacred bonds undertaken by consecrated persons, there are canonical distinctions between public and private, and simple and solemn (though as I discussed in that other post, the latter has been much downplayed under the new canon law). These distinctions seem essentially canonical rather than "theological," though there has been some argument that a solemn vow involves a particular act of total self-surrender. In general, however, a vow is solemn simply because the Church recognizes it as such, and simple otherwise. Likewise, a vow is public if the Church recognizes it as such, and non-public (though not necessarily "private") otherwise.

Originally, "solemn" and "public" were by nature the same thing. The solemn profession of members of Religious Orders strictly-so-called (the distinction being discussed in the post I link to at the beginning), though to God, were received in His name by the Church in the person of the Superior into whose hands the vows were made. This made the vows public, and for that very fact solemn. And, of course, by nature they were perpetual rather than temporary.

Then, a variety of groups sprung up which wanted to imitate the Religious Orders in professing the evangelical counsels, but which the Church would not publicly recognize (or who did not want such recognition; solemn vows, for women, being tied to strict enclosure). They, therefore, took simple vows before God which, even if made in the presence of a superior, were not received by the Church and which therefore were "private" in terms of canonical effect. These Congregations under simple vows were also therefore, for a long time, not considered true "religious."

Eventually, the Church recognized the vows taken by Jesuit scholastics, though simple (because temporary) to be "public," and that they were thus officially "religious" in terms of their canonical status. However, for a long time this was thought to be a special distinction for the Jesuits preparing for final solemn profession only. It was only around the turn of the 20th-century that the simple vows undertaken by the congregations (as opposed to orders) were received by the Church as "public" and the canonical status of "religious" given to them (though the term "regular" was/is still reserved for members of a Religious Order, under a Rule, strictly-so-called).

The distinction between religious orders and religious congregations thus consisted, primarily, in the vows being solemn or simple (as they were now both public). The canonical difference was (and remains, though less emphasized) that solemn vows actually prevent, canonically, the acquisition of any property, in the case of poverty, whereas under simple vows one could legally possess property (it's just that one had obligated oneself to surrender its use and usufruct to the community if asked).

Solemn vows of chastity also actually invalidated any marriage attempted. Previously, a simple vow of chastity constituted a prohibitory impediment to marriage (ie, it made the marriage illicit), but not a diriment impediment (ie, one that would make a marriage invalid.) Only solemn vows constituted a diriment impediment to marriage. Under the current code of canon law, however, the distinction between diriment and prohibitory impediments to marriage is not as clear, and whether the distinction remains for simple vs. solemn vows of chastity is less clear. It may be that a simple vow of chastity (as long as public and perpetual) now also invalidates a marriage. The canonical difference in terms of poverty seems to remain, however.

At one point, religious were not considered a separate state of life in the Church. A religious was clerical or lay (depending on whether they were ordained or not; choir nuns having an odd pseudo-clerical character opposed to the "lay sisters"), the concept of "religious" being equivalent to "consecrated person." Around Vatican II, there seemed to be a shift in thinking, and Religious are currently recognized as a third canonical state in the Church, neither clerical nor lay (though they may also be clerical if ordained), with a public character in the life of the Church (a privilege previously reserved to the clergy). Thus, a distinction between a religious, and a consecrated but non-religious cleric or lay person, came into being.

I'm not sure whether I agree with making a Religious a distinct canonical state of life (neither lay nor clerical, though a person might also be a cleric), as opposed to something superadded to one of the other two states (clerical or lay). Frankly, it seems unnecessary and untraditional. Nevertheless, the distinction between Religious strictly so-called and consecrated persons more generally does make sense if based on whether communal life is required or not. Surely, as the concept of Secular Institutes now shows, a person can be consecrated while living in the world, and yet "Secular Religious" seems an oxymoron to me if, definitionally, seculars live in the world, but religious withdraw from it.

This distinction of consecrated religious from consecrated seculars makes sense to me though, as I said, I'm not sure recognizing the former as a distinct canonical state of life makes sense, nor do I entirely understand why "consecrated life" in general was not recognized as the third state of life as opposed to just "religious," why secular consecrated persons are considered to remain either clerical or lay, except perhaps that those states are considered more fittingly secular. Is "state of life" based on institutional lifestyle within the Church in that sense? But then, it would seem, non-consecrated members of Societies of Apostolic Life living in common could be considered "non-consecrated religious" (a usage that is certainly not used in their regard.) The current classifications seem a bit clunky or contradictory in that regard.

Either way, currently, public vows (of the evangelical counsels, at least) may be said to be those that give one this public canonical status of a religious. And, likewise, vows constituting one as a religious canonically are public, while others are not. There is thus no "absolute" feature which distinguishes a vow as public; for example, a vow made in a public ceremony might still be canonically non-public. Rather, it is relative simply to the Church's recognition of it as such (with the corresponding canonical effect of one taking on the public status of a religious). In a similar manner, vows are solemn just because the Church recognizes them as such (with the corresponding canonical effects); though solemn vows are always public and perpetual.

However, while any non-solemn vow is considered simple, vows that are not strictly speaking "public" (in terms of establishing one canonically as a religious) are not necessarily private either. For example, members of Secular Institutes, the newest form of consecrated life who are not bound to live in community, do not take "public" (ie, religious) vows inasmuch as they do not take on the canonical status of a religious, but the vows (or other sacred bonds) they take on are not necessarily "private" either in the sense of being totally devotional or just before God with no human witness or reception.

In fact, the vows (or other bonds) undertaken by members of Secular Institutes are "recognized and approved" by the Church, and may even be received in God's name for the Church by the Superior, and do have canonical relevance (requiring dispensation, etc), all of which is very different from purely private vows (though some groups do bind themselves purely by private vows). Still, inasmuch as they are sacred, which is to say proceeding from the virtue of religion, and recognized by the Church, these vows render members of secular institutes consecrated persons, though not religious (they remain lay, or secular clergy).

Fr. Gambari suggests the term "semi-public" (or "juridical") for these counter-intuitively publicly received sacred vows/bonds which constitute one a consecrated person, but which nevertheless do not constitute one a religious in terms of canonical rights/privileges, though he admits current canon law itself seems rather confused or undecided in this regard.

The distinction seems to be that only vows constituting one as a religious canonically are public because religious have a public standing as representatives of the Church that the laity (even if consecrated) do not. Therefore, members of Secular Institutes, for example, though their vows are approved and received publicly by the Church through an approved public association, still ultimately they are making these vows as private individuals. Religious, on the other hand, make their vows not only as individuals, but as canonically public figures in the Church.

However, I might suggest, rather than keeping a confused and artificial distinction between "public" and "semi-public" based on whether the vows render one a religious canonically, simply clarifying canon law by having a separate distinction between public and private (based, intuitively, on whether the vow is received/recognized by the Church publicly), and between "religious" and "non-religious" vows (based on whether the vow canonically confers "religious" status). In fact, the Code already uses the term "religious vows" instead of "public" vows at one point (in reference to what Societies of Apostolic Life don't have), so such a development would not be such a huge leap.

Of course, if the Church ever returned to a canonical situation (which in some ways I think makes more sense) where religious status was not a public state within the Church, but merely something super-added to the lay and clerical states as it was in the past, this odd status of "semi-public" (or an additional distinction between religious vs. non-religious consecration) would not be needed, and such vows could probably be public (with secular institute members either recognized as religious, or as equivalent and being distinguished from them merely by the lack of communal living rather than a difference in the public status of the vows or in canonical state of life).

There is also the question of Societies of Apostolic Life, which live in common (and celibately) for the pursuit of some apostolate, but which really seem to consist of two distinct groups: those which undertake the evangelical counsels, and those which don't. Those who undertake the evangelical counsels according to sacred vows (or other bonds) approved by the Church, I would think, thus constitute consecrated persons. However, their vows or bonds are by nature non-public inasmuch as they do not canonically establish the person as religious (otherwise, there would be no difference between the Society of Apostolic Life and a religious institute for the consecrated members).

There are also consecrated persons in the Church not attached to any institute; namely, there are "diocesan" hermits who profess the evangelical counsels according to some sacred vow or bond (either public or private) before the bishop, but who are not part of any specific institute besides the diocese itself, rather living according to a plan of life and answering directly to the bishop.

Consecrated virgins (and potentially widows, though that's still in development) are women who undertake the obligation of perpetual celibacy according to a sacred bond, but not the other two counsels. In this sense, they are consecrated in one regard, but are not necessarily consecrated persons as a whole, inasmuch as only one of the three totalizing aspects of their life (in this case, their sexuality) has been consecrated to God alone.

Though there appears to be at least one group out there claiming to have married couples as "consecrated" with the vow of chastity adapted to conjugal chastity rather than celibacy, Fr. Gambari argues in his book that sexually active marital chastity (even for a religious motive) cannot render a person consecrated, which requires dedication of sexuality to God alone (not to any other person in addition), even if various aspects of these people's lives may be consecrated to some degree or in some sense.

I suppose the same "partially consecrated" status of consecrated virgins might be admitted for those who take a vow of only poverty or only obedience, but I know of no such states approved in the Church. Secular priests make promises of celibacy and obedience but which are not considered sacred bonds (albeit they are undertaken for a supernatural motive, they nevertheless are a promise made to a human; not to God, nor invoking Him as witness), and the Knights of Obedience in the Sovereign Military Order of Malta make a similar promise of obedience to the superior, but which is not a sacred vow either.

Though new forms of consecrated life in the Church require approval of the Holy See, one can imagine, based on what I've said above, what these might look like in terms of different combinations of the canonical aspects. For example, some people might undertake sacred bonds of obedience or poverty (or some combination of two of the three counsels) without undertaking the other(s). These people would not necessarily be consecrated as total persons, but they would have thus consecrated one aspect of themselves like consecrated virgins or widows.

Perhaps that sorts of consecration of sexuality could also be opened to males. Or perhaps notorious women could consecrate their sexuality "from this point onward" and be considered consecrated penitents under the patronage of St. Mary of Egypt or something like that. Or one could imagine some of these non-religious forms of consecration (either of the person's whole life through all the counsels, or an aspect of it through one or two of them) being expressed in Solemn rather than Simple vows (in terms of canonical effect), or possibly removing the link between Solemn Vows and enclosure for women.

Or perhaps consecrated persons in general will be recognized as constituting, canonically, that third state of life
(if it is to be maintained as a canonical state of life, rather than something superadded to lay or cleric) rather than reserving it to the consecrated religious only and leaving secular (ie, non-religious) consecrated persons as either clerical or lay. One wonders, however, how open the current hierarchy would be to giving such public standing in the Church to non-clerical seculars.

I think that if a third state of life canonically is to be maintained, then this would make sense for me. However, as I hinted earlier in the post, I think religious (or even consecrated) life constitute a third state doesn't make much sense. Rather, I'd think, there should be "two axes." A lay-cleric axis based generally (outside the occasional laicized priest or "lay abbot") on ordination status, at least for men, and then a secular-religious axis based on life either in the world or in a community.

Consecrated life could then be superadded to any of the four combinations; either institutionally (in a religious community for religious, or a secular institute for seculars), or else individually (like diocesan hermits) through the diocese (or even the Holy See). Under such definitions, members of Societies of Apostolic Life not professing the evangelical counsels might then be considered "non-consecrated but religious." Whether some of these combinations had "public" standing in the Church would be another question.

The variety that has developed in the Church in these regards, and which continues to develop, may be confusing at times, but is actually very inspiring.


George said...

i agree with you that 'two axes' of lay-clergy and secular-religious, creating four combinations, would make more sense than having three states with a laity that is always secular, a religious state that never is, and then a clerical state that may be either religious or secular.

however, if that doesn't happen, if the church is going to maintain a third state, then i agree that it then might make sense to extend this to consecrated persons in general, even seculars, rather than just religious.

and if even that doesn't happen, then i agree that making a public/semi-public distinction in vows based on religious status conferred, rather than on the public reception/recognition, makes less sense than simply distinguishing between public/private and religious/non-religious (or even "secular") vows.

A Sinner said...

Yes, if I were to found a Secular Institute (an idea I often toy with), I think our constitutions would say something to effect of:

The sacred bonds undertaken by the society are vows publicly recognized and approved by the Church, and publicly received for the Church in God's name by the superior, but which are only semi-public inasmuch as they do not confer the public state of "religious" canonically.

However, IF the Church ever makes a distinction between "public/private" and "religious/non-religious" when it comes to such vows...then the vows are to be considered Public Non-Religious vows.

I would also say that, though members of secular institutes currently retain their state of life as clerical or lay, if the Church were to ever extend the third state of life to all consecrated life, both religious and secular, then this state would be taken up by members of the institute simply in virtue of their consecration.

GB said...

There are serious errors in your thoughts about the vocation of Consecrated virgins [ as per Canon 604] .

This is the earliest form of consecrated life in the 2000 year history of the Church. You are reading all forms of consecrated life through the " Horizon " or Lens of Religious life which is incorrect. You cannot compare the Total irrevocable consecration of a virgin according to the ancient rite [ which is a totally different 'paradigm'] with the Profession of vows of religious institutes that are a later development.

The consecration of virgins happens through an ancient Prayer of Consecration said by the Bishop over her. There are no vows involved.

Please read my blog

also my research article

Thank you !