ASK FATHER: I made a hasty promise to God. Now what?

From a reader…


At one time in my life I hastily made two promises to God:

1-) Never commit a certain sin;

2-) Never drink coffee again.

Certainly, promise 1 should never have been made, but I digress. My question is twofold:

Is it possible to be commute those two promises?

How should I proceed?

First, let’s get some definitions straight.   We have to consider promises and vows.  Also, you mean dispense, not commute.

A mutual promise, the breaking of which would harm the other party, is binding in justice.  Breaking it would be at least a venial sin.  Simple promises, proposed and accepted, bind only under pain of venial sins unless the the one making the promise also intended to bind himself in justice.  However, the promise ceases if the circumstances under which the promise was made change significantly.  A promise, furthermore, must be distinguished from a mere intention to do something.   Diocesan priests make promises at the time of their ordination to their diocesan bishops.

A vow, on the other hand, is a promise to God made freely and deliberately to perform some good work or to embrace a higher state of life.  The fulfillment of a vow is an obligation of the virtue of Religion (i.e., what we owe to God, rather than to men).  Vows can be public (e.g., of monks and nuns) or private, simple or solemn (e.g., religious vows), personal or real (i.e., concerning property).  A vow binds only the one making the vow.  Vows made under grave extrinsic fear inflicted unjustly are null and void.

It sounds like you made a private vow to God.

Vows should not be undertaken lightly. It is a good idea to consult with one’s pastor or spiritual director or trusted priest before making a vow of any kind. Often in moments of despair or intense spiritual fervor, people make vows which they later come to regret. Some people simply “walk away”, ignore what they vowed.  Vows should not be blown off, lightly.

Canon Law and moral theology remind us that a vow is a serious thing.

Can. 1191 says that: “A vow is a deliberate and free promise made to God, concerning some good which is possible and positively good. The virtue of religion requires that it be fulfilled.”

Can. 1196 tells us that a private vow can be dispensed (as long as dispensing the vow does not injure the rights of another) by the Roman Pontiff (i.e., the Pope), the local Ordinary (i.e., the diocesan bishop or his vicar general) or the parish priest (with respect to his subjects), a religious superior (with respect to his subjects, any novices, or residents of his house), or someone who has been duly delegated by the Holy See or the local Ordinary.

At the time the 1983 Code was put together, a suggestion was made to the Holy See that this power to dispense from vows be given to all confessors (i.e., priests with proper faculties to receive sacramental confessions and to give absolution validly).  This was rejected.   It remains today that only the Pope, ordinaries, and pastors have this authority.

I believe that in some dioceses, bishops delegate this authority to all confessors, or at least all parish priests, including parochial vicars.  NB: Priests should occasionally review their faculties and remind themselves of what they can and cannot absolve, dispense, commute, etc.

So, if you are now ready to start ordering lots of Mystic Monk Coffee, I would make an appointment with your parish priest, or the vicar general or the bishop of the diocese.  Explain the situation.

Don’t just blow this off!  Vows bind under pain of sin.  People harm themselves and weaken the whole Body of Christ when they screw up their relationships with God through sin and the breaking of vows.

BTW… Mystic Monk also has TEA.  I’m just sayin’


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. The Masked Chicken says:

    “However, the promise ceases if the circumstances under which the promise was made change significantly.”

    It can, also, be the case that error regarding facts can nullify a vow or promise. For example, if one promises to Fred to always wash his car after denting it (say, in penance), but, in reality, one dented Mike’s car, the promise is void. Likewise, if one thinks that one is promising something to God, but it is really the Devil in disguise, all bets are off. The virtue of discernment comes into play, here. Also, failure to reveal certain aspects of the conditions of the promise or vows can nullify them.

    Promises and vows are not to be taken lightly, but there is a place for ignorance to be taken into account, as well. One should always know and understand ones promises and vows.

    The Chicken

  2. Siculum says:

    “*shouldn’t* be blown off lightly”

    Just like we shouldn’t lightly say we’ve going to give up coffee if such-and-such. Bad things can happen when you give up coffee.

  3. mysticalrose says:

    Does the age that the vow was undertaken matter? Suppose you make private vow as a child/teenager, but above the age of reason — would this need to be dispensed by a priest?

  4. The Masked Chicken says:

    “A vow, on the other hand, is a promise to God made freely and deliberately to perform some good work or to embrace a higher state of life.”

    The vow must, also, be possible. Can. 1191 says:

    “Can. 1191 §1. A vow, that is, a deliberate and free promise made to God about a possible and better good, must be fulfilled by reason of the virtue of religion.”

    One cannot, for instance, vow never to sneeze or not sleep.

    Can. 1194, likewise, says:

    Can. 1194 A vow ceases by the lapse of the time designated to fulfill the obligation, by a substantial change of the matter promised, by the absence of a condition on which the vow depends, by the absence of the purpose of the vow, by dispensation, or by commutation.

    One such condition is knowledge of what the vow entails. I think one commentary says that if one could say, “If I knew this or that at the time of the vow, I wouldn’t have made it,” then there might have been a defect in the vow.

    This subject is very important to me because in the Pentecostal-type groups, sometimes, one is lead to make a promise based on supposed locutions or because one has mis-read Scripture (innocently) or because one thought that God was acting in a certain manner. In these cases, one must wonder about the nature of such promises or vows. Ignorance or error about essential facts connected with a promise is something to be considered when judging whether or not the promise is active and even in existence. Sadly, such situations are all too common among well-meaning Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, especially of the more Charismatic type (one such really bad example is the Prtotestant Discipling Movement, where one puts ones entire life under the control of a discipler, without any of the protections of Catholic religious life. The results have, at times, been catastrophic). Also, the Protestants have no real pastor with the ability to dispense from or substitute for the promise, so one must wonder about that.

    I think the guiding principle should be to never make a promise in the heat of some passion and in a vacuum. My advice to everyone is that before making a real promise or vow, one should talk the matter over with at least one dispassionate individual because one can get caught up in a wilderness of mirrors if one has no outside input beyond themselves.

    The Chicken

  5. Making a later much regretted vow, and seriousness thereof, forms much of the plot of one of Pope Francis’ favorite books, I Promessi Sposi (The Betroved). Worth a read

    [Good choice! Click below. It is one of the classics of Western literature.]

  6. Andrew_81 says:

    Excellent and thorough answer, Father. Thanks for the clarity.

    If it helps the consideration:

    My old moral theology professor (quite the stringent Thomist, so not one to lightly propose “pastoral solutions”) taught us that it is only very rarely that people make what are properly called “vows”. His teaching on the section of Justice, concerning vows, summarized:

    – People often make “resolutions” — these are not promises to anyone except perhaps a kind of “promise to self”, so in themselves do not oblige under pain of sin. If they fail or stop out of laxity or weakness, it might be venially sinful if the laxity or weakness was contrary to Fortitude.

    – Further we were taught that a “vow” was not just a mere promise made to God, but required a firmly founded will to bind under penalty of sin, at least implicitly. It creates a kind of private law on the person making the vow.

    – In the case of doubt as to the existence of a vow, just as is the principle with Canon Law, the private law (vow) does not bind.

    You are quite correct that the specific circumstances will need to be considered to see if there was more than just a resolution made.

  7. Militans says:

    “At one time in my life I hastily made two promises to God:

    1-) Never commit a certain sin;

    2-) Never drink coffee again.

    Certainly, promise 1 should never have been made, but I digress.”

    I might question why a promise not to commit a sin would be a bad idea? Surely one is not bound by what is impossible, and if one takes this vow seriously but nevertheless stumbles he can confess his sins and seek reconciliation?

  8. Matt Robare says:

    The very first thing you learn when you look at fairy tales and myths is to never make a rash oath.

    Heck, look at Rahab, who promised a holocaust of the first thing he saw on returning home if he was victorious in battle and ended up sacrificing his daughter. To be fair, later theologians were harsh on him for not having the common sense that one can’t fulfill a vow to God by committing a mortal sin, but he still shouldn’t have made the vow in the first place.

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