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States of Christian Life and Vocation, According to the Doctors and Theologians of the Church/Part 1/Section 1/Article 2/Paragraph I. Celibacy/Chapter 5

< States of Christian Life and Vocation, According to the Doctors and Theologians of the Church‎ | Part 1/Section 1‎ | Article 2/Paragraph I. Celibacy


To live a life of celibacy or virginity, without having vowed it, is a counsel ; and it is another counsel, says Suarez, to vow it.[1] It is good, and even very good, to consecrate to God by vow our perpetual chastity. This assertion is of faith, if we view the vow in itself and in its matter, and leave aside accidental circumstances.[2] It may be proved from the fathers and councils. Their testimonies are so numerous and clear, that even heretics cannot deny them ; there is therefore no need to tarry with them. But we cannot omit confirming this truth by some very striking examples. The first and noblest that we have in the law of grace is that given by the ever Blessed Virgin Mary, who made a vow of chastity ; and I have proved elsewhere that her illustrious spouse, St. Joseph, did the same. It is likely, but not certain, that our Lord had a similar vow. However, it is beyond all doubt that Jesus Christ was the pattern most perfect of virginity vowed to God ; either because he consecrated his virginity, not by a vow only, but by the divinity itself (he chose virginity as a state absolutely suited to his adorable person, and from the instant of his conception he determined immovably to keep it) ; or because the vow of the Blessed Virgin has its root in Jesus Christ, was inspired and taken in view of that divine Saviour, and by way of preparation for his coming.[3] These glorious examples have had many imitators in the course of ages, as we shall mention later on.

But reason itself affords us another proof of the statement. A matter good, and better than its opposite, can be the subject of a vow. Now, perfect chastity, as we have seen, is good and better than the state which is incompatible with it: hence, it can be the object of a vow. Therefore the vow of chastity is excellent ; and to keep it by vow is better than to keep it without vow.[4] And indeed St. Thomas proves abundantly that it is preferable to do good and vow to do so, than to do the same good without any vow.[5] Greater generosity is displayed in giving away the tree with its fruit, than in making a present of the fruit only.

A vow of perfect chastity binds a person to abstain from every exterior, and even interior, act contrary to it, such as an impure thought or desire ; insomuch that were one, under this vow, deliberately to consent, even interiorly, to any act of the kind, he would commit a double mortal sin, one against the sixth commandment of God, and another against religion, by violating his vow.[6] When that person goes to confession, he or she must not only tell the sin committed, but make known, besides, the vow of chastity which they have taken.

In the next place, a vow of chastity binds one not to enter the marriage state. This double obligation lasts for life in the case of a vow of perpetual chastity. Where the vow is intended only for a limited time, the obligation remains until the end of the time for which it was made. When a person simply and absolutely vows chastity, he is to be considered as having contracted the twofold obligation that we have spoken of, namely : to abstain from every act, exterior and interior, of impurity, and not to marry. According to Suarez, the case is the same when virginity is vowed without any restriction.[7] Yet, as the binding force of a vow is only what the one taking the vow wishes to impose on himself, it may happen that a person taking the vow of perpetual chastity intends to promise God only certain acts of that virtue. Therefore, virginity can be vowed with the express purpose of not vowing perfect chastity ; and this partial vow of virginity obliges only not to marry, or not to do any external act contrary to virginity. A person can also take the vow not to marry ; in which case one does not sin against his vow, unless he actually marries, or desires to do so. A perpetual and absolute vow of perfect chastity is reserved to the Holy See ; that is to say, ordinarily speaking, the Sovereign Pontiff alone can dispense from it.

After what we have said, the inference is plain that what heightens the merit of generous souls, what strengthens them in their resolves and links them more closely to God, is, for weak, inconstant, and unfaithful souls, an occasion of grievous sin. Therefore, says St. Clement, no one should make to God rash and thoughtless promises. We should be prudent in our actions, for it is better never to bind one's self by vow than not to fulfil the obligation when it has been contracted.[8] It is, then, important not to vow chastity before taking the advice of a prudent, learned, and virtuous confessor. The directors of souls should not lose sight of the wise advice given by St. Liguori : "Do not allow young women to take a vow of perpetual chastity unless they are known to be solidly virtuous, instructed in the rules of the spiritual life, and accustomed to prayer. In the beginning, they can be allowed to take the vow only from one feast to another."[9]

However, if it is inconsiderate to allow the vow of chastity to be taken without discretion, would it not be far more grievous to make it a maxim and an invariable rule to stifle and repress always the holy desire to consecrate one's self to God which grace begets in Christian souls ?

What has been said should teach persons who have vowed their chastity to God, how much they ought to be in dread of sins which their sacred engagements render still more terrible. "He that thinketh himself to stand, let him take heed lest he fall." (i Cor. 10, 12.) Therefore, let them guard against occasions, and take means to preserve their purity of soul and body. They should be faithful in frequenting the sacraments, and persevere in prayer.


  1. De statu perf. lib. I, c. viii, n. 3.
  2. De voto cast., lib. 9, c. i, n. 16.
  3. Suar., De voto cast., lib. 9, c. i, n. 19.
  4. Ibid., n. 21.
  5. St. Th.; opusc. 18, c. xii.
  6. Suar., De voto cast., lib. 9, c. ii, n. 2.
  7. Ibid., c. iii, n. 15.
  8. Lib. Const. Apost., cap. i, apud Suar., ibid. ; c. i, n. 18.
  9. Praxis confess., n. 93.