Dr. Edward Peters 

To work for the proper implementation of canon law is to play an extraordinarily

constructive role in continuing the redemptive mission of Christ. Pope John Paul II







1983 Code



1917 Code


 Liber Extra



 Eastern Code


1152 x 864


12 jan 2013

Rev. Paul M. Quay, sj, on Indissoluble Vows in Consecrated Life


The following article represents Paul Quay’s lone foray into canon law. Quay's article was accepted for publication in the influential Roman canonical journal Commentarium pro Religiosis et Missionariis  65 (1984) 77-86, marking the first time CpRM carried an article in any language other than Latin, and was followed by an editorial rejoinder in Latin (a translation of which is provided at the end of Quay’s article.) The original article, unfortunately, was beset with numerous printing errors. These have been revised herein.



Quay (1924-1994)


Renewal of Religious Orders, or Destruction?

[The Role of Indissoluble Religious Vows]


by Rev. Paul M. Quay, sj

Research Professor of Philosophy

Loyola University of Chicago


One of the fundamental principles laid down by Vatican II’s decree Perfectae caritatis for the renewal of religious life in the Church is that of a “continual return to...the original...spirit of Institutes” (1). In further detail, “It is for the good itself of the Church that Institutes have their own special character and functions. Therefore, let the spirit of the Founders and their characteristic purposes be recognized and preserved” (2).






(1) “…continuum reditum ad ... primigeniam ... institutorum inspirationem” (PC 2.1).


(2) “In ipsum Ecclesiae bonum cedit ut instituta peculiarem suam indoleem ac munus habeant. Ideo fideliter agnoscantur et serventur Fundatorum spiritus propriaque proposita”, (PC 2.b).

The intent of canon 578 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law is, it seems, to reiterate this principle and to establish it at law (3). Canon 576 can be seen as a reinforcement of the same intent (4). Other canons in the new Code, however, seem seriously to compromise the very possibility that religious orders should return to their original spirit (5). For, an essential element either in the original spirituality of the orders or at least in their “sanae traditiones” was the perfect indissolubility of their vows, something no longer possible as a result of the new Code.


(3) “Fundatorum mens atque proposita a competenti auctoritate ecclesiastica sancita circa naturam, finem, spiritum et indolem instituti, necnon eius sanae traditiones, quae omnibm patrimonium eiusdem instituti constituunt, ab omnibus fideliter servanda sunt”. c. 578.


(4) “Competentis Ecclesiae auctoritatis est... curare ut instituta secundum spiritum fundatorum et sanae traditiones crescant et floreant”. c. 576.


(5) Religious orders, in the sense used here, are those institutes in which the vows once called “solemn” were taken.

Religious Orders and Indissoluble Vows


The religious orders already in existence before the Church first canonically established the notion of solemn vows in the early years of the 13th century found the notion a genuine expression of their spirit and accepted it without opposition. It seems likely that the Franciscans and Dominicans, founded during those same years, the restructured Carmelites, even perhaps the slightly older Premonstratensians, found in this more rigorous indissolubility of vow, much of the internal stability and security needed for their strongly social yet apostolically mobile and active life, a stability and security that had been more easily provided by the quieter and more focused structure of monastic life.



In any case, it was the indissolubility of his vows that set the religious as much apart from the world as though he were already dead, that established the totality of his dedication to the things of God, his stability in the following of Christ despite sins and falls, and that enabled him to give the totality of a life that he possessed only moment by moment as a complete gift, whole and entire, to God. Indissolubility of vows was an essential property of the “marriage to Christ which sustained the purifying search for contemplative union towards which the entire life of the orders was directed” (6).












(6) Cf. Gustave Martelet, S.J., The Church's Holiness and Religious Life, St. Mary's (Kansas), 1956 also in: Review for Religious vol. 24, p. 882, (1955); 25, 32 and 246, (1956).

The solemn vows of religious were not merely mutable and changeable promises to be forever chaste, poor, and obedient. They were not even, as other permanent vows were, personally unchangeable promises which could, however, still be dispensed by the institute. They were covenants with the Lord, in which His fidelity was pledged to make our own possible.



The purpose of solemn vows was not simply to force oneself by grace-inspired, self-imposed, but not self-dissoluble obligations to do what one had found to be pleasing to God. Nor was their purpose even to place oneself in a situation where, whatever one's weaknesses, he would still be forced towards God, however reluctantly, so that through penitence and forgiveness he might come to contemplative union. Their principal purpose was to glorify God and to bear witness to His faithfulness. One enters into a covenantal relation with Him, in response to His invitation through which His own fidelity is engaged, a fidelity which our sins and failures can, through repentance, be used to manifest no less than can our progress in His love and service (7).













(7) Cf. Paul M. Quay, SJ, “God's Call and Man's Response”, Review for Religious 33 (1974) 1062, pp. 1095-99. Solemn profession is also well described as “consecration” in the old, strong, Latin sense of the word. Since not even a roughly equivalent English term any longer exists, explanation in terms of a “consecration of life” conceals as much as it manifests.

Hence, a religious with valid and solemn vows, though he might for grave enough reason be sent away from his order, was not freed thereby from any of his solemn vows. (8) The right to command him in virtue of his vow of obedience was, most commonly, transferred to his local ordinary. Poverty was modified, in its details only, to suit his new situation. But he could not, for example, will any goods to another; and goods which came to him reverted at his death to his Institute or to the Holy See. The vow of chastity remained untouched. (9)








(8) Despite what is sometimes asserted, there was no intrinsic connection between the indissolubility of solemn vows and the existence of monastic prisons. This is evident, to give but one example, from the fact that the Society of Jesus, an order in the full sense, had no mode of physical constraint during its early days; and what was introduced later, e.g., in Latin America, represented a borrowing from other Institutes and a weakening of its own spirit.


(9) Many once held, including even St. Thomas Aquinas, then a papal theologian, that the pope himself had no power to dispense from solemn vows (Summa Theo., II-II, 88, 11c and 12, ad 3). Nor do I know of any indication that St. Ignatius Loyola, for all his intense loyalty to the papacy, disagreed with St. Thomas on this point. For the present state of the question, one may quote the DDC VII: 908: “De nos jours, la question ne se pose plus, car on considère que le pape agit en vertu de son pouvoir vicaire, et comme interprète autant qu'exécuteur du droit divin.” In any case, the over-riding importance of the indissolubility of their vows, particularly that of chastity, was central in the original spiritual life of the religious orders.

If the vows of religious were solemn and if, after due investigation, they were clearly seen to be valid and yet if it was also clear that he was unable or unwilling to live the life proper to his institute, he might transfer to another institute in which the manner of life was better suited to his capacities or, if he were a priest or deacon, to the diocesan clergy or, still without dispensation, to the secular laity. Far more in accord, however, with the nature of the religious life was a common effort of prayer and penance by both the individual and his community to obtain from God the grace of vocation, necessary and sufficient to live well that special mode of life, a grace God never denies to those who rightly seek it. (10)











(10) Evidently, a religious may, after solemn vows, fall into neurosis, psychosis, or some similar condition which prevents the material carrying out of his vows. But, equally evidently, such a condition, by depriving him of his freedom concerning the points in question, prevents a formal violation of his vows and cannot, therefore, be said to make it impossible for him to live the life of his Institute. Cf. in this regard, canon 689.

With the promulgation of the Code of Canon Law in 1917, however, the Church ceased to recognize any totally indissoluble vows of religion. In virtue of the Pio-Benedictine Code, the religious order as spiritually, if not always juridically, understood for many centuries, was abrogated, at least in the Patriarchate of the West. (11)





(11) Hence, canon 4 of the new Code is of no help for our present concern. It preserves rights and privileges that are “in use), and unrevoked”—but the right to take indispensable vows was in fact revoked by the earlier Code.

Since at least part of the motivation for this move seems to have been to prevent some of the worst consequences of abusive dismissals by religious superiors (12), my own surmise is that the 1917 Code's provisions were adopted without any deliberate intent to abolish the religious orders as distinct forms of Christian life. The failure to realize that this had in principle been done by the radical nature of the changes introduced by the Code seems to have been due to a highly extrinsicist theology of religious life then in vogue coupled with a certain juridicism, both of which were set aside by the Second Vatican Council.





(12) For some of the abuses possibly thought of, though mentioned in a different context, see DDC VII: 909.

Vatican II opened the door for religious orders to return to the original spirit of their founders, giving them, indeed, a mandate to that effect. Implicit in that mandate was the obligation to return to their original, pre-1917 Code status with regard to the indissolubility of their vows.



The revised Code of Canon Law of 1983, however, returns things pretty much to their status under the former Code, though making the abolition of the solemnity of religious vows much clearer than this latter did. For the new Code makes all vows of religion dispensable, even those it calls “perpetual”, and this, in the final analysis, at the will of the religious. Canon 692 provides for dispensation of a religious from all vows and other obligations of religious life, on the religious' own request, for “most grave reason” not further specified (c. 691 § 1) (13). Canon 701 makes such complete dispensation automatic any time a religious attempts marriage, even civilly (c. 694 § 1, n. 2) or is otherwise dismissed for grave fault (cc. 694-696). A religious who is a priest, however, remains bound by his promise of celibacy, even after a rescript of laicization, unless and until the Pope grants a dispensation (c. 291). Thus, it would seem, the new Code undoes, with regard to religious orders, that which Vatican II had sought to achieve and without which religious renewal in the sense in which the Council defined it must remain impossible for the orders.













(13) Presumably, these would be interpreted along the lines of earlier law. Thus, such reasons as mental illness, unsuitable psychological dispositions in the religious, a need to assist his parents, or unjust and unavoidable vexations in his Order would count as “most grave”— cf. DDC, VII, col. 909. Yet in an order such as the Society of Jesus, necessary assistance to parents is provided by the order; unjust vexations can be dealt with not only by canonical procedures but by growth in the desire to suffer with Christ for one's persecutors as He did; mental illness should be considered as any other incapacitating disease incurred in the line of one's duty; and lesser psychological obstacles to the living of the life are made the responsibility of Superiors, to be dealt with case by case. Would not treating such reasons as grounds for dispensation from permanent vows represent a major misunderstanding of the nature of the life of the religious order?

Difficulties of the New Approach


The new Code's nullification of Vatican II's mandate of renewal insofar as it relates to religious orders would seem a) to have hurtful consequences for the Church as a whole, and b) also to do serious injury to individuals.



a) Harm to the common good.


Since the life of religious orders requires fidelity till death in the living of one's vows, only such fidelity can ground the eschatological witness that is the central function of all religious life as such and that has offered so much of support and consolation to married couples in difficulty, and to others in secular life, in times past. Yet, if that witness is to be public and visible in its fidelity, there is needed a situation of law which can reach as far as death in every present moment, a time-independent structure within the Body of Christ that will be visible to all precisely in its permanence.



Now, jurists have pointed out in connection with civil law that the mere possibility of civil divorce for a citizenry at large, with the consequent possibility of civil remarriage, deprives every couple of the possibility of making an irrevocable, mutual self-donation except on a private and merely subjective basis. (14) So for the religious orders: the mere existence of the possibility of self-initiated (c. 691-692) or self­provoked (cc. 694-696, 701) dissolution of “permanent” vows effectively reduces the vows of all to merely individual and subjective determinations, perseverance in which will have no intrinsically social or communal significance within the Church.








(14) Cf., e.g., Robert R. Rodes, Jr., “A Prospectus for a Symbolist Jurisprudence”, Natural Law Forum 2 (1957) 88-118, especially at pp. 106-110. This whole article should be read, however, for it indicates the primary reason for the failure of the earlier Code to recognize the true impact of its, in principle very excellent, laws.

Indeed, without explicit acceptance by the Church, it is hard to see how the “testimonium publicum, rightly emphasized by c. 607 § 3, can be given to the Church, which would not have acknowledged its presence. Certainly, no testimonium publicum, whatever its external forms, will be effective which does not publicly show at least as much trust in God's fidelity and power as is shown by a couple entering the state of Christian marriage through the sacrament of matrimony (15). Yet the new Code would seem to leave no room for at least some religious vows that are, de jure and by promise of the Holy See, indissoluble.







(15) Cf. c. 1056 of the new Code: “The essential properties of marriage are unity and indissolubility, which by reason of the sacrament acquires a particular firmness in Christian marriage” and c. 1057: “Matrimonial consent is an act of the will whereby a man and a woman, through an irrevocable covenant, give themselves to each other...” emphasis added. Yet it is a rare marriage for which the couple has been as carefully trained and formed and tested as has the member of a religious order for his final and “permanent” vows.

The change in Catholics' attitude towards the indissolubility of marriage vows seems to have been much affected by the dissolutions of the ostensibly permanent vows of religious. Indeed, it does not seem too strong to say that true theological scandal has thus been given. The quiet and wides­pread contempt for or “writing off” of religious life that has been generated as a result is endlessly more hurtful to the Church than any admiratio, usually accompanied by compassion rather than scorn, stirred by the sight simply of the violation of vows.



The loss of the ecclesial dimension of religious witness will set a direction of change that, in today's Church, seems likely to exacerbate present evils. For, religious life would of necessity move back towards the individualism of the Egyptian desert. This would obviously not destroy religious life in the Church; but it seems likely to weaken seriously such large, complexly structured, and highly mobile orders as, say, the Society of Jesus, which came into being only after the canonical protection afforded by solemn vows gave the enormous stability and firmness needed by their members if they were to live successfully their charism.



The frequent dispensation of solemnly professed religious seems a major factor in the great reduction of the seriousness with which vows of every sort are taken and the promise of priestly celibacy is made. It has become sadly common to have men take “permanent” vows or to be ordained, with full approval of their spiritual directors and superiors, and yet to leave the religious life or priesthood for marriage within the year. It is precisely because of the difficulties intrinsic to a state with permanent vows that the strongest possible social support should be given those who enter that state, that is, through positive and explicit provisions in favor of indissolubility by the common law of the Church.



b) Harm to individuals


Clearly, the new Code does not prevision any dispensation by dismissal without prior grave sin or by self-initiated petition to depart without “most grave reasons”, whatever these may prove to be. Nonetheless, experience over the past twenty years suggests that the knowledge that one action before a Justice of the Peace would suffice to clear a man of the whole burden of his religious commitment seems hardly likely to help one who is struggling with a serious temptation against perseverance. To make possible at law any humanly desirable advantage from infidelity to permanent vows is to tempt men in their weakness and to risk genuine scandal.



Further, in permanent vows, not only is God's fidelity engaged but so is that exigence for our own fidelity which constitutes the essential element of our being we call our honor. (16) Hence, if the individual is convinced (as seems usually the case) that he has pledged his honor in taking valid vows, if there is even a solid probability that he is subconsciously so convinced, then it seems a serious violation of charity to invite him to act against that conviction by making him or letting him take the initiative in seeking dissolution of his vows. Even to make express provision for his doing what he sees as a violation of his word to God risks causing serious and abiding harm, both spiritual and psychological.





(16) It is this common exigence for fidelity that links the superficially disparate notions of a woman's “honor” (her chastity) and a man's “honor” (his courage unto death in service of loyalty). Cf. “Spurious Vocation: The Problem and Suggestions for Solution”, Review for Religious 33 (1974), pp. 1374-1382.



Given the high rate of divorce among former religious who have attempted marriage, and given other public manifestations of severe and perduring problems in a goodly number of those dispensed from solemn vows, it seems permissible to think that automatic dispensation lacks something as a responsible and charitable way to deal with such situations, appearing all too much like the Order's mere washing its hands of an awkward situation.





The new Code removes from the general law much of the earlier structure of social support for the permanence of vows. If this support is to be had, then, it must be sought, preferably by all the orders together, through petition to the Holy See, since it is the Holy See alone that can now dispense in the case of the solemnly professed and that could grant such a privilege with respect to the new Code. If such a privilege is granted, it need constitute no more than a declaration that the Holy See agrees not to dispense a religious from solemn vows, even if he departs from his Order or is dismissed.



Even if, as some assert, the Church is moving away from the notion of indissoluble vows, even in marriage, still religious may legitimately ask for papal privilege, as has often been done before now, in order to be faithful to the particular call of God embodied in their respective Institute. This seems the more evident in the light of Vatican II's mandate to return to their original spirit. If the Holy See does not approve this request, that is its responsibility; the religious orders surely need be under no compulsion to anticipate its judgment.

Our human weakness, of course, is such that, despite all efforts, people will on occasion be admitted to solemn profession who are truly incapable, at time they take their vows, of honoring them with any hope of permanence. But would not a more detailed and carefully delineated list of diriment impediments to solemn vows deal adequately with most such cases, providing objective grounds for declaring the vows null and void to begin with?



The notion of dismissal should, I think, be “decriminalized” and cease to be exclusively or primarily punitive. At least this decriminalization should be expressly permitted the individual Institutes by Church law. (17) If canonical tradition requires the retention of dimissio” as punitive, then some other term is needed that would signify no more than that the religious is sent away from his Institute, for his own peace of soul, without any suggestion of wrongdoing.






(17) Thus, in the early days of the Society of Jesus, dismissal was seen chiefly as a means to enable the individual to find a way of life in which he could more easily find and serve the Lord in peace—this even in cases where the indications of his unfitness for the Jesuit life involved deliberate violations of commands in virtue of his vow of obedience.

It is argued that true indissolubility would lead to more frequent sins and to greater danger of damnation than the present discipline. On the basis of this argument, however, all law should be abrogated. More basically, violation of grave obligations should not lead, for the Christian above all others, to denial of those obligations or refusal to incur them in the future but to repentance, pardon, and gratitude to Christ who saves us from our sins.



As has doubtless been apparent throughout this article, I am not a canonist. The problem raised here may well have, for a canonist, an obvious and simple resolution; it may be no problem at all, but only a misconstrual on my part. Yet, having talked to many on this topic, I can attest that many so construe the law. It would, therefore, be of help to many if those more competent than I would address this matter. ++





Editorial Comment

by Dominic Andres, cmf




The author speaks out against the intrinsic contradiction between conciliar precepts and canonical provisions concerning the renewal and a continual return to original inspiration of [religious] Institutes, and especially the suppression of solemn vows; between [on the one hand] the mandate to observe faithfully the mind of the founders and propositions concerning the nature and character of the Institutes, as well as their healthy traditions, and [on the other hand] the elimination of the perfect indissolubility of solemn vows, abrogated by the new Code.


This contradiction carries two consequences: a) harm coming about to the Church, and, b) significant injury done to those persons professed of solemn vows.


He proposes, therefore, the following: a) that all Orders, together, should make recourse to the Holy See, because only it is competent for the dispensation of solemn vows and [can act] in defense of some privilege affected by the current Code; and, b) that the Holy See, for its part, declare its intention not to dispense from solemn vows, not even in cases involving departure from a [religious] Order.




1. No one should forget the basic rule at Commentarium, that CpR, as such, should not necessarily be linked with the opinions and ideas expressed by individual authors, although it seeks to preserve what might be called a calm place for common discussion.


2. Solemn vows do not remain in Part II of Book II of the Code (cc. 573-746) according to the criterion for universal simplification in the codification project; but they do appear in Book IV of the same Code, on The sanctifying mission of the Church (c. 1192). The Church has not done away with solemn vows nor Orders offering them. [IVCR] those taking up by public vow the observance of the three evangelical counsels, can, and indeed sometimes must, in accord with the norm of canons 576, 578, 631 § 1, and 1192 § 1, and others of this sort, and without a new proclamation of some privilege, expect that in profession. It belongs to legitimate Ecclesiastical Authority to recognize the solemnity of vows and the special effects of this solemnity attributed by proper law of the Order (c. 1192 § 2).


3. It helps to recall, in this regard, how the Pontifical Commission for the Revision of the Code responded authoritatively: “[There does not seem to be any real preservation of solemn vows…] Response: Although in the canons “On Religious Institutes” there no longer appears the distinction between solemn and simple vows (due to the criterion of simplification), the concept remains (defined in canons 1143-1192) and [the proposed Code] should not be understood as suppressing a distinction that can be preserved, and indeed sometimes must be by the proper law of religious [institutes]. Communicationes 15 (1983) p. 7.


4. The author, while a religious, is not trained in canon law, but in philosophy, and perhaps his acute observations are better understood under this light, for they are not groundless nor lacking in psychological and spiritual importance. Another step toward understanding this matter lies in the final paragraph of the study.