of Religious Orders, or Destruction?
Role of Indissoluble Religious Vows]
Rev. Paul M. Quay, sj
Professor of Philosophy
University of Chicago
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).
reditum ad ... primigeniam ... institutorum inspirationem” (PC 2.1).
“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).
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.
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.
“Competentis Ecclesiae auctoritatis est... curare ut instituta secundum
spiritum fundatorum et sanae traditiones crescant et floreant”.
Religious orders, in the sense used here, are those institutes in which the vows
once called “solemn” were taken.
Orders and Indissoluble Vows
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,
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
(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:
“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) 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
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”—
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
Difficulties of the
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
a) Harm to the
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
Dominic Andres, cmf
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.
contradiction carries two consequences: a)
harm coming about to the Church, and, b) significant injury done to those
persons professed of solemn vows.
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
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.
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).
It helps to recall, in this regard, how the Pontifical Commission for the
Revision of the Code responded authoritatively:
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.