Front Page Titles (by Subject) QUESTION LXXXVIII.: OF A VOW WHEREBY SOMETHING IS PROMISED TO GOD. - Aquinas Ethicus: or, the Moral Teaching of St. Thomas, vol. 2 (Summa Theologica - Secunda Secundae Pt.2)
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QUESTION LXXXVIII.: OF A VOW WHEREBY SOMETHING IS PROMISED TO GOD. - St. Thomas Aquinas, Aquinas Ethicus: or, the Moral Teaching of St. Thomas, vol. 2 (Summa Theologica - Secunda Secundae Pt.2) 
Aquinas Ethicus: or, the Moral Teaching of St. Thomas. A Translation of the Principal Portions of the Second part of the Summa Theologica, with Notes by Joseph Rickaby, S.J. (London: Burns and Oates, 1892).
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OF A VOW WHEREBY SOMETHING IS PROMISED TO GOD.
Article I.—Does a vow consist in a mere purpose of the will?
R. There are three necessary requisites to a vow: deliberation, purpose of the will, and promise; and in this the essence of the vow is complete. Sometimes however two other elements are added to confirm the vow, namely, the utterance of the mouth and the witness of other persons.
Article II.—Must a vow always be of the better good?
R. A vow is a promise made to God. Now a promise is of something which one voluntarily does for another; for if one were to say that he would do anything against another, it would not be a promise but a threat. And therefore since every sin is against God, and no work is acceptable to God if it be not virtuous, consequently a vow must be made of no unlawful nor of any indifferent matter, but only of some act of virtue.
That which is absolutely necessary to be or not to be, in no way falls under vow. Thus it would be a folly to vow to die, or not to fly into the air. But as for that which is not absolutely necessary, but is necessary as a means to the end, being the means without which there can be no salvation—such a matter falls indeed under vow, inasmuch as it is done voluntarily, but not inasmuch as it is of necessity. But that which falls neither under absolute necessity, nor under the necessity of means to end, is altogether voluntary: it therefore is the most proper matter of a vow. This is called a greater good, in comparison with the good that is of ordinary necessity to salvation. Therefore, properly speaking, a vow is said to be of the better good.
§ 3. The maceration of the body by watchings and fastings, is not acceptable to God except so far as it is a work of virtue; and that it is in so far as it is done with due discretion, so that concupiscence may be restrained at the same time that nature is not overwhelmed. And on such terms these austerities may fall under vow. Therefore also the Apostle after saying, “Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, pleasing unto God,” added, “your reasonable service.”1 But because a man is easily deceived in his judgment on what concerns himself, the more fitting course with such vows is to submit them to the judgment of a superior, whether they are to be kept or set aside; yet so that if the person should feel great and manifest hardship from the observance of such a vow, and had no access to a superior, he ought not to keep such a vow. As for vows of vain and useless things, they are rather to be derided than kept.
Article IV.—Is it expedient to make any vow?
R. It is a different thing promising to man and promising to God. We promise to man something for his advantage; but we promise to God, not for His advantage, but for our own, because “what is rendered to Him is added to the renderer,” as Augustine says. And therefore it is expedient to vow, inasmuch as by vowing we clamp our will to the doing of that which it is expedient to do.
§ 1. As inability to sin does not diminish liberty, so neither is liberty diminished by the necessity of a will fixed on good, as is evident in God and in the blessed; and such is the necessity of a vow, bearing a certain likeness to the confirmed estate of the blessed. Hence Augustine says: “Happy the necessity, that compels us to the better course.”
§ 2. When the danger arises from the doing of the thing itself, then the doing thereof is not expedient, as when one crosses a river by a tumble-down bridge; but if the danger threatens from a man giving over the doing, the doing does not on that account cease to be expedient. Thus it is expedient to mount on horseback, notwithstanding the danger that threatens you of a fall from your horse. Otherwise you would have to cease from all things, because accidentally by some turn of affairs anything may prove dangerous. Hence it is said: “He that observeth the wind shall not sow; and he that considereth the clouds shall never reap.”1 But the danger that threatens one making a vow is not from the vow itself, but from the fault of the man, who changes his will in transgressing the vow. Hence Augustine says: “Repent not of having vowed: nay, rather rejoice, that it is no longer allowable for you to do that, which only could have been allowed you to your own loss.”1
Article VI.—Is it more praiseworthy and meritorious to do a thing by vow than without a vow?
R. The same work done with a vow is better and more meritorious than without a vow, for three reasons. First, because to vow is an act of religion, which is the chief of the moral virtues. But the work of the nobler virtue is the better and more meritorious. Hence the act of an inferior virtue is better and more meritorious for being commanded by a superior virtue, of which latter it becomes an act by being commanded by it; as the act of faith or hope is better for being commanded by charity.2 And therefore the acts of the other moral virtues, as of abstinence and of chastity, are better and more meritorious for being done by vow, because thus they come to belong to divine worship as sacrifices offered to God. Hence Augustine says: “Even virginity itself is not honoured because it is virginity, but because it is dedicated to God, in which capacity it is fostered and preserved by the uninterrupted practice of piety.” Secondly, because he who both vows a thing and does it accordingly, subjects himself to God more thoroughly than another, who simply does the thing; for he subjects himself to God, not only as to the act, but also as to the power, because henceforth he has it not in his power to act otherwise: as he who should give a man the tree with the fruit, would give more than another who gave the fruit only. Thirdly, because by a vow the will is clamped fast to good; but to do a thing with a will, firm set on good, belongs to the perfection of virtue, as obstinacy in sin is an aggravation of the sin.
§ 2. The necessity of constraint, as being contrary to the will, causes sadness. But the necessity of vow, as strengthening the will, causes not sadness but joy, in well-disposed persons.
§ 3. He who does a thing without a vow, has his will fixed upon that particular work which he does, at the moment when he does it; but his will does not remain altogether fixed for the future, like the will of the person under vow, who has bound his will to a certain line of action, even before doing this particular act, and perhaps has bound himself to repeat the act many times over.
Article VIII.—Are those debarred from vowing who are subject to another’s control?
R. A vow is a promise made to God. Now none can bind himself by promise irrevocably to that which is under the control of another, but only to that which is altogether under his own control. But whoever is subject to another, is not his own master to do as he likes in the matter in which he is subject, but is dependent on another’s will. And therefore, in the things in which one is subject to another, he cannot bind himself irrevocably by vow without the consent of his superior.1
§ 2. From the time that a human being comes to the years of puberty, if his condition is not that of a slave, he is his own master in what relates to his own person, as to the contracting marriage, or binding himself by vow to religious life; but he is not his own master as to the ordering of the household: hence with respect to that he cannot vow anything that can stand without the consent of his father.
Article X.—Does a vow admit of dispensation?
R. Dispensation from a vow is to be looked upon in the same manner as dispensation from the observance of a law. A law is made in view of what is in the majority of cases good. But because what is good in the majority of cases may happen in a particular case not to be good, it has been found necessary to have some one to determine that the law should not be observed in that particular case. And this is the proper meaning of a dispensation from a law: for dispensation seems to imply a sort of commensurate distribution, or application of some common attribute to the subjects that come under it: in which way one is said to dispense food to a family.1 In like manner a person vowing makes in a certain way a law for himself, binding himself to something that is ordinarily and for most cases good. But it may happen that in a particular case the thing proves either simply evil, or useless, or a hindrance to greater good; which is against the idea of what falls under a vow. And therefore it is necessary to have it ruled in such a case that the vow is not to be observed. If it is ruled absolutely that a vow is not to be observed, that is called a dispensation from the vow. If in place of what was to be observed something else is imposed, that is called a commutation of the vow. Hence it is less to commute a vow than to dispense from a vow; but both the one and the other lies within the power of the Church.
§ 2. As by natural law and divine precept a man is bound to fulfil his vow, so is he also under the same obligations to obey the law or commandment of his superiors. Still, when a dispensation is granted from a human law, it is not that a human law is disobeyed, such disobedience being against the law of nature and the commandment of God; but what happens is this, that what was a law ceases to be a law in this particular case. So also it comes about by the authority of the superior dispensing, that what was contained under a vow is no longer so contained, it being ruled in this particular case that the matter is not proper matter for a vow. And therefore, when a Prelate of the Church dispenses from a vow, he does not dispense from any precept of natural or divine law; but he rules a point, which was become matter of obligation through the resolve of a human will, wherein the person who so made up his mind was not able at the time to see all round the circumstances of the case.1
Article XII.—Is the authority of a Prelate requisite for the commutation or dispensation of a vow?
R. A vow is a promise made to God of something acceptable to God. Now in any promise, what is acceptable to the recipient of the promise depends on what he chooses to have. But a Prelate in the Church holds the place of God. And therefore in the commutation or dispensation of vows there is required the authority of a Prelate, to determine in the person of God what is acceptable to God.
§ 2. Some have said that Prelates can dispense from vows just as they like, for this reason, that there is included as a condition in every vow the will of the Prelate who has authority over the person making it, as in the vows of those who are in the subject condition of slaves or sons there is understood the clause, if my father, or master, approves, or does not object; and in this view a subject need have no remorse of conscience in abandoning any vow, when told to do so by his superior. But the above position rests on a false foundation; for since the power of a spiritual superior, who is not a master but a dispenser, or steward, is given “unto edification and not for destruction,”1 so the superior can no more forbid what is of itself pleasing to God, namely works of virtue, than he can command what is of itself displeasing to God, to wit, sins. And therefore it is lawful to vow those works absolutely. But it is the Prelate’s office to discern what course is the more virtuous and the more acceptable to God. And therefore where the case is plain, the Prelate’s dispensation would not excuse from blame; for instance, if a Prelate were to dispense a person from a vow of entering religion, without there being any apparent obstacle in the way of its fulfilment. But if there were an apparent cause that made the matter at least doubtful, the subject might abide by the judgment of his superior dispensing or commuting, but not by his own judgment, because he himself does not hold the place of God, except it be in the case in which the thing vowed were manifestly unlawful, and he had no convenient access to his superior.
[1 ]Romans xii. 1.
[1 ]Eccles. xi. 4.
[1 ]The distinction here lies between dangers that come of relaxing our efforts, and dangers that are irrespective of our efforts. An enterprise is rash when, being unnecessary, it is fraught with grave dangers of the latter sort, the issue of which, once we are in the danger, is independent of anything that we may do. By this principle a strong man and a wise one regulates even his amusements. Is it a question only of a steep Alpine ascent, or are there frequent avalanches? Is the water deep? is that all? or is it infested with sharks? (Trl.)
[2 ]See II-II. q. 26. art. 7. for this sense of commanded. (Trl.)
[1 ]That is, he can vow, but his superior can revoke the vow. (Trl.)
[1 ]Nowadays they dispense medicine. (Trl.)
[1 ]Cf. I-II. q. 94. art. 5.; q. 100. art. 8.; II-II. q. 89. art. 9. § 1. (Trl.)
[1 ]2 Cor. x. 8.