THE first quality of an oath is that it be true. It is evident that
every statement we make, whether simple or sworn, must be true. If we
affirm what we know to be false we lie, if we swear to what we know to
be false, we perjure ourselves. Perjury is a sacrilegious falsehood,
and the first sin against the Second Commandment.
If, while firmly believing it to be true, what we swear to happens to
be false, we are not guilty of perjury, for the simple reason that our
moral certitude places us in good faith, and good faith guarantees us
against offending. The truth we proclaim under oath is relative not
absolute, subjective rather than objective, that is to say, the
statement we make is true as far as we are in a position to know. All
this holds good before the bar of conscience, but it may be otherwise
in the courts where something more than personal convictions, something
more akin to scientific knowledge, is required.
He who swears without sufficient certitude, without a prudent
examination of the facts of the question, through ignorance that must
be imputed to his guilt, that one takes a rash oath--a sin great or
small according to the gravity of the circumstances. It is not
Some oaths, instead of being statements, are promises, sworn promises.
That of which we call God to witness the truth is not something that
is, but something that will be. If one promises under oath, and has no
intention of redeeming his pledge; or if he afterwards revokes such an
intention without serious reasons, and fails to make good his sworn
promise, he sins grievously, for he makes a fool and a liar of Almighty
God who acts as sponsor of a false pledge. Concerning temperance
pledges, it may here be said that they are simple promises made to God,
but not being sworn to, are not oaths in any sense of the word.
Then, again, to be lawful, an oath must be necessary or useful,
demanded by the glory of God, our own or our neighbor's good; and it
must be possible to fulfil the promise within the given time.
Otherwise, we trifle with a sacred thing, we are guilty of taking vain
and unnecessary oaths. There can be no doubt but that this is highly
offensive to God, who is thus made little of in His holy name.
This is the most frequent offense against the Second Commandment, the
sin of profane swearing, the calling upon God to witness the truth of
every second word we utter. It betrays in a man a very weak sense of
his own honesty when he cannot let his words stand for themselves. It
betokens a blasphemous disrespect for God Himself, represented by that
name which is made a convenient tool to further every vulgar end. It is
therefore criminal and degrading, and the guilt thereby incurred cannot
be palliated by the plea of habit. A sin is none the less a sin because
it is one of a great many. Vice is criminal. The victim of a vice can
be considered less guilty only on condition of seriously combating that
vice. Failing in this, he must bear the full burden of his guilt.
Are we bound to keep our oaths? If valid, we certainly are. An oath is
valid when the matter thereof is not forbidden or illicit. The matter
is illicit when the statement or promise we make is contrary to right.
He who binds himself under oath to do evil, not only does not sin in
fulfiling his pledge, but would sin if he did redeem it. The sin he
thus commits may be mortal or venial according to the gravity of the
matter of the oath. He sinned in taking the oath; he sins more
grievously in keeping it.
The binding force of an oath is also destroyed by fraud and deception.
Fear may have a kindred effect, if it renders one incapable of a human
act. Likewise a former oath may annul a subsequent oath under certain
Again, no man in taking an oath intends to bind himself to anything
physically or morally impossible, or forbidden by his superiors; he
expects that his promise will be accepted by the other party, that all
things will remain unchanged, that the other party will keep faith, and
that there will be no grave reason for him to change his mind. In the
event of any of these conditions failing of fulfilment his intention is
not to be held by his sworn word, and his oath is considered
invalidated. He is to be favored in all doubts and is held only to the
strict words of his promise.
The least therefore we have to do with oaths, the better. They are
things too sacred to trifle with. When necessity demands it, let our
swearing honor the Almighty by the respect we show His holy name.
VOWS are less common than oaths, and this is something to be thankful
for, since being even more sacred than oaths, their abuse incidental to
frequent usage would be more abominable. The fact that men so far
respect the vow as to entirely leave it alone when they feel unequal to
the task of keeping it inviolate, is a good sign--creditable to
themselves and honorable to God.
People have become accustomed to looking upon vows as the exclusive
monopoly of the Catholic Church and her religious men and women. Such
things are rarely met with outside monasteries and convents, except in
the case of secular priests. 'Tis true, one hears tell occasionally of
a stray unfortunate who has broken away from a state voluntarily,
deliberately, chosen and entered upon, and who struggles through life
with a violated vow saddled upon him. But one does not associate the
sacred and heroic character of the vow with such pitiable specimens of
The besom of Protestant reform thought to sweep all vows off the face
of the earth, as immoral, unlawful, unnatural or, at least, useless
things. The first Coryphei broke theirs; and having learned from
experience what troublesome things they are, instiled into their
followers a salutary distaste for these solemn engagements that one can
get along so well without. From disliking them in themselves, they came
to dislike them in others, and it has come to this that the Church has
been obliged to defend against the change of immorality an institution
that alone makes perfection possible. Strange, this! More sad than
First of all, what is a vow? It is a deliberate promise made to God by
which we bind ourselves to do something good that is more pleasing to
Him than its omission would be. It differs from a promissory oath in
this, that an oath makes God a witness of a promise made to a third
party, while in a vow there is no third party, the promise being made
directly to God. In a violated oath, we break faith with man; in a
broken vow, we are faithless to God. The vow is more intimate than the
oath, and although sometimes the words are taken one for the other, in
meaning they are widely different.
Resolutions or purposes, such as we make in confession never to sin
again, or in moments of fervor to perform works of virtue, are not
vows. A promise made to the Blessed Virgin or the saints is not a vow;
it must be made directly to God Himself.
A promise made to God to avoid mortal sin is not a vow, in the strict
sense of the word; or rather such a promise is outside the ordinary
province of the vow, which naturally embraces works of supererogation
and counsel. It is unnecessary and highly imprudent to make such
promises under vow. A promise to commit sin is a blasphemous outrage.
If what we promise to do is something indifferent, vain and useless,
opposed to evangelical counsels or generally less agreeable to God than
the contrary, our promise is null and void as far as the having the
character of a vow is concerned.
Of course, in taking a vow we must know what we are doing and be free
to act or not to act. If then the object of the vow is matter on which
a vow may validly be taken, we are bound in conscience to keep our
solemn engagement. What we forbid ourselves to do may be perfectly
lawful and innocent, but by that vow we forfeit the right we had to do
it, and for us it has become sinful. The peculiar position in which a
vow places a man in relation to his fellow-men concerning what is right
and wrong, is the characteristic of the vow that makes it the object of
much attention. But it requires something lacking in the outfit of an
intelligent man to perceive therein anything that savors of the
unnatural, the unlawful or the immoral.
Concerning those whom a vow has constituted in a profession, we shall
have a word to say later. Right here the folly, to say nothing
stronger, of those who contract vows without thinking, must be apparent
to all. No one should dare take upon himself or herself such a burden
of his or her own initiative. It is an affair that imperiously demands
the services of an outside, disinterested, experienced party, whose
prudence will well weigh the conditions and the necessity of such a
step. Without this, there is no end to the possible misery and dangers
the taking of a vow may lead to.
If through an act of unthinking foolishness or rash presumption, you
find yourself weighed down with the incubus of a vow not made for your
shoulders, the only way out is to make a clean breast of the matter to
your confessor, and follow his directions.
Next: THE PROFESSIONAL VOWS