We can, moreover, honor God by taking an oath or by making a vow.

To take an oath or make a vow is not an ordinary occurrence of our lives; it is only done in peculiar, i.e., extraordinary cases. An oath is taken when human witness or asseveration is not sufficient; a vow is made when we voluntarily pledge ourselves to do something for God. We honor God by an oath, because we thereby acknowledge His omnipotence, His justice, His holiness. And by a vow we offer Him a sacrifice, because we bind ourselves by a solemn promise to perform a work pleasing to God.

The Oath

Cases sometimes occur in which a man will not believe the word of another. But if a witness comes forward and affirms: “ That is so, I myself saw it,” then the speaker is more readily believed, and all the more if the witness in question is known to be a man of honor. Now it may occur that a man calls God to witness, that is to say, he appeals to the omniscient God to make known the truth of what is said by His almighty power. In this case his word will be regarded as the word of God. As an official seal gives force to a decree, so the oath is the seal God gives us to corroborate a statement. It is a coin of high value, stamped with the name of the living God. Our Lord took an oath when Caiphas adjured Him by the living God to speak the truth. So did Esau, when he confirmed by an oath the promise he made to relinquish his birthright for the pottage of lentils.

1. To swear or take an oath is to call God to witness that one is speaking the truth, or that one will keep a promise.

In swearing, a man calls either upon God or upon something he holds sacred. If a man swears by God, he makes use of words such as these: As the Lord liveth (Jer. iv. 2); as surely as there is a God in heaven, God is my witness (Rom. i. 9); may God punish me, etc. Or we swear by holy things, such as the holy Gospel, the cross of Christ, the Blessed Sacrament. But as these things are incapable of attesting anything themselves, or of punishing a deceiver, it is in fact equivalent to calling God to witness. Our Lord Himself speaks of swearing by the Temple, by heaven, or by the throne of God (Matt. xxiii. 21, 22). But to use such expressions as: Upon my word, by my honor, as surely as I stand here, etc., is merely emphasizing an assertion, not swearing. An oath may be simple or solemn. A simple oath is between man and man in ordinary intercourse; a solemn oath is taken in a court of law or in presence of official personages. (An oath is administered to soldiers and officers of state.) In taking a solemn oath one is required to kiss the Holy Scriptures, or a crucifix, and to say: So help me God, to intimate that if he de parts from the truth, he renounces the divine assistance and the blessings promised in the Gospels. Jews and Mohammedans have their own peculiar ceremonial; the latter raise one finger to show their belief in one God.

2. Christians are not obliged to refuse to take an oath, for it is permitted by God, and pleasing in His sight.

If swearing were forbidden Christ would not have made use of an oath (Matt. xxvi. 64), nor would God have sworn to Abraham on Mount Moriah that He would multiply his seed as the stars in heaven and as the sand by the seashore (Gen. xxii. 16); nor would St. Paul so frequently have taken God to witness in his epistles (Rom. i. 9; 2 Cor. i. 23). The oath has besides a good object; it serves to put an end to disputes (Heb. vi. 16). It is pleasing to God, because by it we make public profession of faith in His omnipotence, His justice, His omniscience, and thus we honor Him. On this account atheists and social democrats cannot be induced to take an oath. It is God’s will that we confirm our word with an oath, when necessary (Exod. xxii. 11). When Our Lord said: “Let your speech be yea, yea, no, no, and that which is over and above these is of evil” (Matt. v. 37), He meant to warn the Pharisees against the habit to which they were addicted of using idle, unnecessary oaths. Catholics need not refuse to take an oath, as some sectaries do; however, no one ought to be compelled to do so. Any one who forces a man to swear when he knows he will swear falsely, is in some way worse than a murderer; for the murderer only kills the body, whereas he who makes another swear falsely, causes the death of a soul, nay, of two souls, his neighbor’s soul and his own also, for he is responsible for the other’s death.

3. We ought therefore to make use of an oath only when it is absolutely necessary, with deliberation, and in the interests of truth and justice.

When Christ says the oath is of evil (Matt. v. 37), He intends to signify that it is occasioned by man’s evil tendencies, and that rash oaths are sinful. Had mankind not fallen from its original state of integrity and justice, there would have been no need for the oath; but since faith and fidelity have vanished, recourse has been had to it. Not until evil prevailed everywhere did swearing become an ordinary practice; when by reason of the general perfidy and corruption no man’s word could be relied on, then God was called to witness. St. Augustine compares the oath to a medicine, which must not be taken without good reason; it is to a man’s words what the crutch is to the cripple. Consequently it is wrong to swear heedlessly, about trifling matters, as salesmen often do about their wares. Frequent swearing is apt to lead to false swearing. “A man that sweareth much shall be filled with iniquity, and a scourge shall not depart from his house” (Ecclus. xxiii. 12). Wherefore we must make use of an oath as seldom as possible, unless it is required of us by the Government or in a court of law. Our oath must always be true; that is to say, when on our oath, we must always say what we really believe to be true, and we must have the intention of keeping our word. The Roman general Regulus (250 B.C.) affords a fine instance of this. He was taken prisoner in war by the Carthaginians, and after being kept six years in captivity, he was sent to Rome to sue for peace. Before leaving the Carthaginian camp, a solemn oath was ad ministered to him to return thither, provided the Romans would not conclude peace. On arriving in Rome he informed the Senate of the enemy’s weakness, and urged them to pursue the war. Then he returned to prison, although every one in Rome, even the pagan high priest, spared no effort to detain him. St. Peter, on the contrary, swore falsely in the outer court of the high priest’s palace (Matt. xxvi. 72). Blessed Thomas More, the High Chancellor of England, was thrown into prison by Henry VIII., because he would not concur in the hostile attitude that monarch assumed towards the Catholic Church. He might have purchased his release merely by swearing to conform to what his sovereign decreed. He was advised to do this, mentally applying the words to God, his supreme Sovereign and Lord. But he would not consent, saying he dared not swear falsely. It is possible, however, that one may swear under a misapprehension, or one may be prevented by illness or misadventure, or some other sufficient cause, from fulfilling a promise made under an oath; in that case no guilt is incurred. Our oath must be premeditated; that is, we must consider well beforehand whether our statement is strictly true, or whether we shall be able to accomplish what we promise. King Herod at the feast swore rashly, for he promised with an oath to give the damsel who danced before him whatever she should ask. At her mother’s instigation she asked the head of John the Baptist (Mark vi. 23). We read that forty Jews, in their enmity to St. Paul, swore neither to eat nor drink until they had killed him (Acts xxiii. 12). In the present day Freemasons bind themselves by oath not to express any desire to receive the last sacraments on their death-bed. Such oaths are sinful, and highly displeasing to God.

4. He who swears falsely, commits a grave act of blasphemy, and draws down upon himself the curse of God and the penalty of eternal perdition.

False swearing is also called perjury. He who swears falsely, who confirms by oath a statement he knows to be untrue, or who swears to do something, although he is conscious that he cannot fulfill his promise, is like a man who stamps a forged document with an official seal, an act which cannot escape punishment. Swearing falsely is a mortal sin, whatever be the subject of the oath. The curse of God rests upon the house of him who swears falsely (Zach. v. 3). God often punishes false swearers by a speedy and sudden death. Sedecias, the King of Judah, swore fealty to Nabuchodonosor and broke his covenant. Forthwith God announced to him by the lips of the prophet Ezechiel that he should meet with severe chastisement and die in Babylon (Ezech. xvii.), and in fact Nabuchodonosor took the king captive, put out his eyes, and brought him to Babylon, where he died (4 Kings xxv. 7). Wladislas, King of Hungary, concluded peace with the Turkish Sultan Murad II., and confirmed the treaty with an oath, yet he resumed hostilities against him. He fell in the battle of Warna (1444) with all the flower of his nobility. Perjury is punishable by the law with imprisonment. The Emperor Charlemagne made it a law that all who were convicted of swearing falsely should have their right hand cut off; later on three fingers only of the right hand, wherewith they took the oath, were struck off. Rash swearing is at the least a venial sin; it is a bad habit, and he who is always ready to confirm every statement, whether true or false, by an oath, lives, if he knows the value of his words, in a state of mortal sin. If a man has sworn wrongfully, he must not keep his oath, but deplore it. That is what Herod ought to have done. With regard to breaking an oath, that is to say, the non-fulfillment of a promise made under oath, it may be either a venial or a mortal sin, according as the matter concerned is weighty or not. The same is true of a vow (Suarez).

The Vow (Solemn Promise)

1. A vow is a promise voluntarily made to God, to perform some good action.

The vow is a promise made to God. We call upon God implicitly, if not explicitly when we say: My God, I promise that I will do this or that. A simple intention is not a vow; no one, not even God Him self, can require anything of us because of it. A vow is a promise made of our own free will: no one is bound to make it (Deut. xxiii. 22), and no one can be compelled to make it. A vow made under compulsion is invalid; not so one made under apprehension of danger, or stress of want, for then the act is voluntary. We must only promise what will be pleasing to God; not anything wrong, as did Jephte who, before going to battle, vowed to the Lord that if he was victorious, he would offer as a holocaust whosoever should first come out of the doors of his house. His only daughter came to meet him, and she was sacrificed (Judges xi.). Such a vow is foolish and displeasing to God (Eccles. v. 3), and ought not to be accomplished. Usually something is promised which is not of obligation, a pilgrim age, for instance; but one may also promise something which one is otherwise obliged to do, e.g., to observe the fasts of the Church, to keep the holy-days, to be temperate in eating and drinking. In this case failure to keep one’s promise is a twofold sin. The owner of a factory, whose only child was dangerously ill, promised before God if she recovered, that he would never have work done on Sundays and holy-days. She got well and he kept his word. He was then doubly bound to observe the holy-days.

Vows are sometimes accompanied by a condition.

A kind of bargain is made with God. Jacob promised to give tithes of his possessions to God provided He brought him back prosperously to his father’s house (Gen. xxviii. 20-22). The processions on the Rogation days originated through a vow made about the year 500 by St. Mamertus, Bishop of Vienna, in time of famine; and about a century later the procession on St. Mark’s Day was instituted in consequence of a vow made by Pope Gregory the Great while the plague was raging. The inhabitants of Ober-Ammergau pledged themselves to perform the Passion play every ten years in 1633, at the time of an epidemic. St. Louis of France promised, if he recovered from a severe illness, to undertake a crusade (1248). In the present day many persons promise, in illness or affliction, to visit some place of pilgrimage, to make an offering to some church, to give a statue, to fast on certain days, etc. The celebrated sanctuary of Maria-Zell, which attracts so many pilgrims, is due to a vow made before a battle with the Turks by King Louis I. of Hungary, (1363).

2. The most important vows are the religious vows, that is to say the solemn promise made voluntarily by persons entering a religious Order, to follow the evangelical counsels.

Poverty, chastity, and obedience, are the three vows taken by Religious. They are very useful, for by them a man entirely gives up the world, in order to serve God better. These vows are most pleasing to God, for those who take them consecrate not only all they do, but their ownselves to God. As St. Anselm says, he who gives the tree gives more than he who only gives the fruit of the tree. Many persons offer oblations to God; a vestment, for instance, candles or flowers; but a better, more perfect oblation is to give one’s self to God. The vows of religion are either solemn (so called because the obligations incurred are greater), or simple vows. Solemn vows are those in which there is an irrevocable consecration of one’s self accepted by the Church, on the part of one who takes them. What is consecrated to God can never again be employed for secular purposes; with that which is simply dedicated it is otherwise. Thus any one who takes the solemn vows is irrevocably consecrated to the service of God. The Pope alone can release from solemn vows, and that only for weighty reasons. Before taking the solemn vows, i.e., being professed, it is necessary to have spent a year in the novitiate, and have been under the simple vows for at least three years (Pius IX., March 19, 1857). Bishops, or the superior-general of an Order can generally release from the simple vows, and for a less grave cause.

3. A vow renders the good action which we pledge ourselves to perform more acceptable to God. Consequently by means of a vow we obtain a more speedy answer to prayer, and make more rapid progress in the way of perfection.

By a vow we prove our fidelity to God. We also make an offering to God because we thereby bind ourselves to the performance of a good work. Thus, for instance, one who fasts in fulfillment of a vow performs a more perfect action than he who fasts without a vow. Hence it is that the prayers of those who make vows are more speedily granted. After the inhabitants of Ober-Ammergau had made the promise already mentioned, not one more fell a victim to the pestilence. The pious Anna made a vow to the Lord, when she prayed that a son might be granted to her, and she became the mother of the great prophet Samuel (1 Kings i. 11). Why do we see so many ex-votos in places of pilgrimage, so many votive offerings in churches? Vows enable us to attain more quickly to perfection (St. Francis of Sales). We thereby gain strength in the practice of virtue, because our will is fortified by the vow. The thought: I have promised my God to do this, is a powerful incentive to the performance of good actions. Many persons of great sanctity have taken vows, as a useful restraint to keep themselves in the fear of God. We may obtain special graces from God by pledging ourselves to make novenas in honor of the saints, to be particularly devout to the Mother of God during the month of May or of October, to perform certain mortifications or good works.

4. He who does not keep a solemn promise, offends against God; and so does he who needlessly postpones the fulfillment of his promise (Exod. xxiii. 21).

If we are bound to keep our word to our fellow-creatures, how much the more ought we to fulfil the promise made to God. “ It is much better not to vow, than after a vow not to perform the things promised” (Eccles. v. 4). The debtor is compelled by the law of the land to pay his debts, and can it be supposed that he will go scot free who withholds from God what is His due? The non-fulfilment of a vow may be either a venial or a mortal sin, according to the importance of the matter in question. The guilt is doubled, if at the same time we transgress a command and show disrespect to God, as for instance by violating a vow of chastity. If we are unable to fulfil a promise we are exempt from blame, provided we do our utmost to perform the thing promised.

5. Therefore any one who is desirous of taking a vow, ought to consider well beforehand whether he will be able to keep his word.

A man who wishes to build, first makes an estimate of the cost, to see whether his means will allow him to complete the structure (Luke xiv. 28). No one ought to make a promise for his whole life, without first testing his ability to keep it. St. Francis of Sales made a vow to say the Rosary every day of his life; he often regretted having been so hasty in that promise. In any serious matter it is advisable to consult an experienced priest. For this reason the Church has made the rule that every one who wishes to take the vows of religion, should have a twelve months noviceship. During that time he can make up his mind as to whether he has a real vocation to the religious life. If he takes the vows without feeling certain about his vocation he has only himself to blame.

6. A Religious who finds himself unable to keep his vows must apply to his Superior to be released from them or have them commuted.

Our Lord said to His apostles: “Whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed also in heaven” (Matt. xviii. 18). Hence the bishop or other superior is authorized to absolve from vows. The vow is usually commuted for some good work more conducive to the spiritual weal of the individual. There are five vows from which the Holy Father alone can dispense: The vow to enter a religious Order; the vow of lifelong chastity; the vow to visit the tombs of the apostles in Rome; and the vows to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (the holy places) or to Compostella (the tomb of St. James). Under certain circumstances the bishop also has power to dispense from these vows: If they have been made conditionally; under some measure of compulsion; without mature deliberation, or in ignorance of what they involved. In a time of jubilee every confessor has power to commute vows for some good work of another nature. One may always do more than one has promised: God will not be displeased, any more than an ordinary creditor, if He is paid more than what is due to Him.