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,
e 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

infrequently grievous.

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

moral worth.

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.