‘I Do’ Undone

What We've Forgotten About Vows

An Irish friend who keeps up with the situation of Catholicism in his country told me that the great falling off in church attendance there has not been only among the youth, who, in Ireland as everywhere else, are expected to drift away, but also among middle-aged and older Catholics. They had been taught to believe that the clergy were on the whole faithful to their vows and trustworthy, when in fact many priests were not and many bishops turned out to be more concerned with the reputation of the church than with the well-being of the victims of sexual abuse.

This is frequently presented as a matter of hypocrisy, which La Rochefoucauld famously defined as the tribute that vice pays to virtue. But much more is involved here—specifically, the collapse of our common understanding of what a vow means and what a vowed life is. It goes beyond the scandals that have arisen around clerical sex abuse to include the ways we deal with marriage and politics and business.

I’ve seen firsthand the difference vows can make in a culture where many expect them to be broken. I was once about to go into business with a friend. We knew someone with connections who could help us succeed, and we were thinking about bringing him in as a partner. One night my friend went out for a drink with this potentially helpful associate, and listened as the man called his wife on his cell phone to tell her he was staying late at the office, winking at my friend, who told me later, “If he...

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About the Author

John Garvey is an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal. His most recent book is Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.