‘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 could lie so easily to his wife, how can we trust him?” He was right. I have thought of this when people make easy distinctions between the public and private lives of adulterous politicians. While some distinctions should be made, why, really, should we trust them?

When I was in college I became friends with several women who belonged to an international students’ society. There was a certain flirtatiousness in those friendships, and they were somehow less than serious. That ended when I got engaged. Suddenly there was a new depth and seriousness in those friendships, because those friends knew I had made a vow.

One always has to consider the cultural background of a vow. A vow made in our culture today means something different from one made in our culture fifty years ago. I had a complicated conversation with a Catholic priest, a friend, who was considering leaving the priesthood to get married. (In the end he did not.) His argument was that the vows he had made as a younger man were not made by the person he had become. I pointed out that the same is true of anyone who has been married for a long time. It is true of anyone who says, in effect, “This is who I will try to be from now on,” or “This is what I claim to be, whatever else may change.”

Apart from the obvious gravity of the crimes often involved, sexual scandals involving clergy are horrible partly because they involve the betrayal of vows. You promised to be a certain sort of faithful person and you were not. It is equivalent to an adulterous husband or wife in terms of betrayal. This is true also of those bishops who claim to be true successors of the apostles and were more concerned with the reputation of an institution than with the children under their protection. They were false and should be deposed. I feel sorry for those who have deprived themselves of the sacraments because of this horrible situation, but I understand their disgust.

One of the rules shared by every culture is that one should stand by one’s word. If we say something, we should stick to it. This is not to say that no one should ever acknowledge failure: some marriages should end, and some people should leave the vowed religious life. But the ease with which we do these things, the ease with which we divorce and remarry, is truly disturbing. In our culture now, vows count for much less than feelings, which are notoriously unstable. A vow says implicitly that something transcends my feelings and expectations. If I am serious, it eclipses them and yet, mysteriously, over the long haul, it begins to include and enhance them. Anyone who has known a long and good marriage learns this. You are indeed not the person you were when you made that vow years ago. Your life is, precisely because of the vow, deeper and more serious and much more filled with joy. Any serious commitment to the Christian life involves a measure of self-denial, and this is what our culture has no use for. It is the consensus of the Christian tradition that if we say honestly, “This is what I will be and do from now on,” something—some One—will back us up.

Published in the December 20, 2013 issue: 

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

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