The Vows and Oaths of Christendom

In a conversation with some of our conference speakers, who are also all contributors to this web site, the question “What is Christendom?” was presented for our consideration. The hope was expressed that these writers would each offer his thoughts on the subject in future articles. Upon reflection, I thought of answering this question indirectly, by replying to another question, “What makes Christendom?”

To that question, my reply would be that vows and oaths, and the keeping thereof, make Christendom. This is not a comprehensive reply, but it does touch upon an essential ingredient of Christendom. Vows and oaths were part of the warp and woof of the Christian culture of the Ages of Faith; so much so, that I believe an historian specializing in the era would back me up in my statement that these were the sacred bonds that knit together the fabric of Christendom.

Christendom as the union of throne and altar is dead. But what produced it was the living out in society of the only faith and morals supernaturally revealed by God through Jesus Christ. These supernatural ingredients, immortal as is the Church Herself, are yet with us. Therefore, if the body of Christendom is dead, it is a cadaver that may be resurrected, as was the Corpus of Him after whom Christendom derives its name.

Beginning with the Emperor Theodosius, citizenship in the Roman Empire was achieved by sacramental Baptism; that is, one became a Roman citizen contemporaneously with becoming a member of the Church. Let us, then, briefly consider Baptism.

Besides the sacramental effects of grace that are bestowed ex opere operato by virtue of the priesthood of Jesus Christ, the baptismal rite entails also certain acts on the part of the baptizand. These are chiefly the profession of the true Faith and the “vows of Baptism,” which, in the case of infants, are made through the agency of Godparents. This beginning of vow-taking and vow-living would continue in the lives of most by the profession of other vows: monastic vows, marriage vows, vows of pilgrimage, Crusaders’ vows, or a host of private vows motivated by Christian piety.

(By stark contrast, things are so bad now that Archbishop Müller, the Prefect of the CDF has told us that “marriages nowadays are probably invalid more often than they were previously.” In the current “springtime” of the Church, our capacity for taking and living vows has diminished — another thermometer indicating that the Church Militant has a bit of a fever.)

The vow gives a man a clear-cut sense of purpose, something quite necessary for living a good life. Many of the problems of modernity flow from the fact that the modern man lives a purposeless existence — descended as he thinks himself to be from apes, and quite lost in a vast cosmos measurable in quantities of Carl Sagan’s “billions and billions.” That we are each made by God to know, love, and serve Him in this life and be happy with Him forever in the next is a great truth we teach to children, but one that modern man has become too sophisticated to live by. Therefore, he lives instead like a sneering cynic, a despairing wraith, or a crude barbarian — or some combination thereof. If Saint Teresa of Avila was correct in her statement in The Way of Perfection that the Devil “is very much afraid of resolute souls, knowing by experience that they inflict great injury upon him,” it would seem the Devil hasn’t particularly much to fear in these times.

According to the Code of Canon Law, “A vow is a deliberate and free promise made to God, concerning some good which is possible and better. The virtue of religion requires that it be fulfilled.” (Can. 1191 §1) The virtue of religion is part of the virtue of justice, whereby we render to the other his due. Here, the “other” is God, so the virtue of religion demands that we give God His due.

The same canon (§3) tells us that a vow is “personal if it promises an action by the person making the vow; real, if it promises some thing; mixed, if it has both a personal and a real aspect” (my emphasis). Therefore, we see people vow to perform (or abstain) from certain acts just as we see people vow to give gifts — for instance, to endow a monastery, church, or charitable institution with money or real estate.

Returning for a moment to the vows of Baptism, we learn from The Catholic Encyclopedia that the ancient usages of Baptismal vows, which included not only the renunciations we have today (in the traditional rite), but a positive promise to follow Christ:

The catechumen, standing with his face to the West, which symbolized the abode of darkness, and stretching out his hand, or sometimes spitting out in defiance and abhorrence of the devil, was wont to make this abjuration. It was also customary after this for the candidate for baptism to make an explicit promise of obedience to Christ. This was called by the Greeks syntassesthai Christo, the giving of oneself over to the control of Christ. St. Justin Martyr testifies that baptism was only administered to those who, together with their profession of faith, made a promise or vow that they would live in conformity with the Christian code. Hence the generally employed formula: syntassomai soi, Christe, “I surrender myself to thee, O Christ, to be ruled by thy precepts”. This took place directly over the apotaxis or renunciation of the devil, and was variously described by the Latins as promissum [promise], pactum [pact], and votum [vow]. During this declaration of attachment to Jesus Christ the person to be baptized turned towards the East as towards the region of light.

The practice of renewing the baptismal promises is more or less widespread. This is done under circumstances of special solemnity such as at the closing exercises of a mission, after the administration of First Communion to children, or the conferring of the Sacrament of Confirmation. It is thus intended as a way of reaffirming one’s loyalty to the obligations taken over by membership in the Christian Church.

The renewal of our baptismal vows is also carried out liturgically in the Easter Vigil. Moreover, the formula of Saint Louis Marie de Montfort’s Marian consecration is also a renewal of one’s baptismal vows — but specifically made in the hands of Our Lady. Saint Louis based his consecration prayer on the custom of renewing one’s baptismal vows that was a major part of the Tridentine reform of the Church (Cf. “Baptism” in Jesus Living in Mary).

Besides baptism, what other concrete forms did vows and oaths take?

The monastic vow of monks and nuns, and the vows of holy Matrimony would be known to the reader. Other kinds of vows would include the Crusading vow by which a man pledged himself to fight for the reconquest of the Holy Land. The popular piety of the day also encouraged various vows of pilgrimage (the Crusading vow was really but a species of this). By such vows, devout believers would promise a journey — in days when travel was most inconvenient and potentially dangerous — to places like Rome, Jerusalem, Canterbury, or Spain’s Santiago de Compostela. Westminster Abbey owes its existence to the munificence of Saint Edward the Confessor, who made a vow to go on pilgrimage to Rome. When affairs of state made it impossible for him to fulfill the vow, Pope Leo IX commuted it to the building or restoring, in England, of an abbey in honor of Saint Peter. Hence, Westminster Abbey. (The Anglicans who now have the Abbey inform us that the “correct title” of the Abbey is “the Collegiate Church of St Peter, Westminster,” but fail to mention King Saint Edward’s vow and the Pope’s role.) During the return trip of Columbus’ first voyage, the great Admiral and others made a vow to perform various acts of devotion, including pilgrimage to, and an all-night vigil at Santa Clara Monastery at Moguer.

And what of oaths? Summarizing tradition, the Code of Canon Law (Can. 1199 §1) tells us, “An oath is the invocation of the divine Name as witness to the truth. It cannot be taken except in truth, judgement and justice.” Further (Can. 1200 §1): “A person who freely swears on oath to do something is specially obliged by the virtue of religion to fulfil that which he or she asserted by the oath.” Swearing an oath can be done for various reasons, e.g., swearing to the truth of one’s testimony in a legal proceeding. A “promissory oath” is the kind of oath that calls God to witness that its maker is bound to perform the deed promised.

Among the kinds of promissory oaths common in the Ages of Faith were various oaths of chivalry, whereby the knight swore, with God as his witness, to follow the Code of Chivalry. (Some are trying to revive this practice in our day.) Such real oaths of antiquity are dramatized in the film “The Two Towers,” where the character Éomer calls out to the men of Rohan riding off to the Battle at Helms Deep, “Riders of Rohan, oaths you have taken. Now, fulfill them all, to Lord and Land!” A contrary example from J.R.R. Tolkien lore would be that of the “Oathbreakers,” of whom we are told, “The Army of the Dead, also known as the Dead Men of Dunharrow or Oathbreakers, were the ghosts of deceased Men of the White Mountains, cursed to remain in Middle-earth by Isildur after they abandoned their oath to aid him in the War of the Last Alliance.” Members of medieval guilds also swore oaths. If these were trade guilds, the oath was to obey the regulations of the guild, which regulated such matters as the quality of goods, just prices, non-competition among brethren (no “price wars”) and the care to be taken for ill and deceased guildsmen and their families — a sort of insurance policy. Making religious oaths pertaining to the trades by which they earned their bread was one way that our European ancestors in the Faith sanctified the ordinary.

In The Challenge of Faith, Brother Francis shows where vows fit into the spiritual life: “Promises made to God, whether simple or solemn, public or private, are the counterpart of prayer. In prayer we ask something from God; in making vows and promises we contract to do something for Him.”

“To do something for Him” — This is indeed a challenge! It is also something worthy of the attention of baptized souls who desire God’s glory. If vows, oaths, pledges, resolutions and other modes of binding a man to God once made Christendom, they can yet make it again. For that reason, these considerations are intended to me more than just nostalgia for a bygone day. They ought to provide us with motivation for our present and a vision for the future.