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Chapter 1: Faith, Religious Assent, and Reverence for God

Question K: How Can One Properly Honor God and Show Reverence?

Acts of worship are the chief way of honoring God and manifesting humility, reverence, and devotion toward him. Chapter three will treat Catholic worship, centering, of course, in the sacrifice of the Mass and sacrament of the Eucharist. The present question is concerned only with those ways of honoring God and showing him reverence which, while presupposing and deepening faith, need not involve or be based on the central act of worship.

It will be useful to begin by considering the general human responsibility to worship God and the sins related to this responsibility. Then the many appropriate ways in which Catholics express their faith and honor God will be considered. Among these are making vows and taking oaths—practices which, used rightly, presuppose faith and reverently express it, and so manifest the honor in which God’s people hold him.

1. It Is Good and Right that Every Human Person Worship God

In himself, God is perfect goodness and love. He creates and orders the universe, including humankind, out of pure generosity. Human persons depend entirely on him; they cannot hope that any of their efforts will bear fruit without his help. For that reason, they should do what they can to please God and should seek his help constantly.

Moreover, everyone sometimes sins (as people have from the beginning) against God’s wise and loving plan. In sinning, one becomes alienated not only from God but from others and even from one’s own better self. One needs God’s forgiveness and mercy. Thus, because it is both due God and in one’s own interest, one should recognize the reality of God and the truth of the human relationship with him, will to act accordingly, and do appropriate acts precisely to express this recognition and will. This recognition and will, together with the appropriate acts which express it, constitute worship.116

a) Human reverence and worship are strictly due God. Considering who God is and what he has done, is doing, and promises to do for humankind, each and every human person has a strict obligation to give God the highest honor and to worship him. The Latin text of the opening of the Preface of the Mass beautifully expresses this point with regard to a central element of Christian worship, thanksgiving for God’s saving work in Jesus: “It is indeed fitting and right, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God” (translation supplied).117

b) Outward acts of worship are necessary for two reasons. God neither needs nor desires creatures’ worship as if he profited from it, but he does want real friendship with humankind, and desires the expression of human worship insofar as it is essential to that friendship. There are two reasons why it is essential. First, because humans are not pure spirits but bodily beings, their interior acts remain incomplete until expressed outwardly. Second, each human person lives, acts, and so relates to God, not as an isolated individual but together with others, and one simply cannot think and will with others except by using language and engaging in outward behavior.

c) Worship of God is prayer, praise, and sacrifice. While worship takes the different forms of prayer, praise, and sacrifice, these are not entirely distinct from one another. Prayer is the most basic form of worship. Worship is prayer insofar as it involves addressing God and, as it were, conversing with him (see CMP, 29.A). It is praise insofar as it expresses in words recognition of God’s excellence. It is sacrifice insofar as it expresses the worshipers’ self-gift to God by setting something valuable apart for him and dedicating it to him. The offering of sacrifice involves prayer and is generally accompanied by appropriate words and gestures.118

d) Worship is usually thanksgiving, atonement, or petition. All worship is adoration insofar as it expresses reverence for God in words and/or deeds which manifest the worshipers’ subordination to his majesty and their complete dependence on him. Sometimes worship is offered simply for the sake of adoration. But usually worshipers have a further reason; and thanksgiving, atonement, and petition are different reasons for worship. Worship is thanksgiving insofar as it responds with gratitude to the friendship and specific benefits God has given, atonement insofar as it heals friendship with God of wounds due to sin, and petition insofar as it relies on friendship with God to seek his blessings.

2. One Should Avoid Every Form of False Worship and Superstition

True Christian worship is based on and flows from the truth of faith and the hope of Christians, relying for salvation on God’s providence and grace. People without faith and hope cannot express and rely on wholly authentic friendship with God.119 Hence, they engage in some makeshift practices. Insofar as such practices misdirect the religious impulse toward some real, more-than-human power apart from God, that power can only be demonic.

Some of these practices survive or reappear from time to time in contemporary culture. Instead of taking the form of false religions, however, today they may present themselves as programs of self-improvement or psychological therapy, or as new forms of “spirituality.” Whatever their guise, one must be careful to avoid any participation in false worship and superstition.

Catholics do not engage in false worship and superstition when they honor Mary, the other saints, and the angels in ways approved by the Church. Such honor is based entirely on communion with God, and so it is altogether subordinate to his plan, will, saving work, and grace. In no way does such honor put created persons in God’s place; one gives them nothing and expects nothing from them apart from God. Still, even within the context of essentially Catholic worship, there can be superstition (which will be treated in 3.B.3.c, f).

a) Idolatry always is a very grave matter. Since it is a fundamental truth of faith that God is unique, it might be thought that only someone who commits the sin of apostasy can be tempted to worship any other power. In some situations, however, people might suppose they could gain something by worshiping demonic powers or something else believed to be real yet neither God nor demonic. Moreover, one could be tempted to participate outwardly, without inner assent and commitment, in the rituals of some form of false religion, witchcraft, or spiritualism whose conception of the divine falsifies the very reality of God, for example, some kind of pantheism, polytheism, or nature worship.

The First Commandment proclaims God’s exclusive lordship and forbids idolatry: the worship of any other power (see Ex 20.2–4, Dt 5.6–8). Plainly, deliberate worship of anything but God denies his unique sovereignty and is inconsistent with trust in him and loving communion with him. But even feigned worship of anything but God not only expresses and fosters false belief but is an act of infidelity to God. A person feigning worship of something known to be unreal offers to that nonentity the outward service which fidelity requires be given God alone.120 Therefore, to engage in idolatry in either of these ways is a very grave matter, for it is a betrayal of covenantal friendship with God.

b) Divination seeks guidance from a higher power apart from God. Divination is any attempt to foresee future contingencies which human beings can know neither naturally nor by divine revelation. In taking seriously omens, astrology, automatic writing, or reading palms, cards, tea leaves, and so forth, people engage in divination. Implicit in these practices is recourse to something more than human which is assumed either to know the future, to determine it, or both. Such a higher power other than God would be either personal and demonic or some sort of impersonal, cosmic, ruling force which subjected human life to inexorable fate. In either case, something other than God is regarded as if it were divine, insofar as enlightenment is sought from it to supplement the guidance God has made available.

c) Magic seeks success from a higher power apart from God. Magic here refers not to entertaining tricks, but to any attempt to determine the future, that is, to succeed in getting certain results which are neither within human and natural power nor expected from God. Black magic (witchcraft, sorcery) explicitly seeks the help of demonic powers. Other magic is not so clearheaded, for the more-than-natural power is left vague and mysterious. Those who make serious use of lucky charms, formulas, amulets, and other vain observances to avoid bad luck and promote good luck rely on magic. Seeking power, as divination seeks guidance, from something more than human apart from God, magic treats this something as if it were divine. Its help is sought to supplement the help God offers those who ask it of him with faith.

d) Using means one considers natural is not divination or magic. People learn by experience to expect particular future events on the basis of particular natural signs (for example, the next day’s weather from the sunset) and to anticipate causal consequences from superficial properties (for example, the medicinal effects of certain herbs). Such knowledge can be used to make accurate predictions without understanding the causal relationships involved. When the means of knowing or causing is not thought to involve a higher power other than God, there is no question of divination or magic. Thus, similar outward acts can have different religious significance depending on what factors a person believes to be operative. For instance, someone who uses a so-called divining rod to locate water may believe either that the procedure works naturally though mysteriously or that some preternatural influence is involved. Moreover, practices considered by the expert to involve only natural factors can be taken by the less sophisticated as preternatural, and attributed either to God or to some other more-than-human principle.

e) The use of divination and magic is always a grave matter. These practices involve the failure to submit entirely to God and trust in his providence and care. Even if it is neither thought of as a demonic power nor actually worshiped, something else is treated as if it shared God’s knowledge and power, and so as if it deserved to be worshiped. No clearheaded person can abide in covenantal communion with God while engaging in such practices or leading others to engage in them. Therefore, they are grave matters.

Nevertheless, some Catholics use or seriously rely on various forms of divination and magic without realizing what they are doing. Their sin can be venial due to insufficient reflection. Still, such venial sins seriously harm one’s Christian life, since relying on what are at best illusory sources of knowledge and power displaces the efforts one should make, the natural means one should use, and, above all, the light and strength one should seek and accept from God.

Without taking these things seriously, other Catholics nevertheless involve themselves in them out of idle curiosity or for amusement. Though not gravely sinful in itself, this should be avoided, since it always unnecessarily toys with superstition, often supports frauds, and sometimes leads others into more serious involvement.121

f) Attempts to summon the ghosts of the dead also are excluded. Such attempts, called spiritism or spiritualism, always risk evoking demonic activity, and often are undertaken for the sake of divination and/or magic. The séances conducted by supposed mediums often involve religious elements whose doctrinal basis denies Jesus’ divinity.122 If Catholics undertake such practices to seek reassurance about the fate of their loved ones, they show lack of confidence in prayer and the rites of the Church, and manifest underlying defects in their faith. Those who seek guidance through a medium also show lack of confidence in divine guidance (see 1 Chr 10.13–14). Participation is a grave matter, and the Church warns her members to avoid having anything to do with such practices (see DS 3642/2182).

3. One Honors God by Professing the Faith

One’s profession of faith acknowledges God as creator, redeemer, and sanctifier, and so honors him. In many situations, one should openly profess one’s faith. While there are times when silence is justified, to deny one’s faith or fail to profess it when appropriate is to be disloyal to God.

a) One should openly profess the faith. The profession of faith—its expression in language—is the specific way in which the act of faith is outwardly performed. For this reason, a formal profession of faith precedes baptism, and often is renewed in the liturgy. But a profession of faith can be appropriate and sometimes necessary in the course of daily life.

Jesus teaches: “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven” (Mt 10.32–33; cf. Lk 9.26). Just as family members and friends honor one another and deepen their mutual commitments by openly acknowledging their bonds of communion, so Jesus’ followers honor God and deepen their faith by openly and proudly professing it. Someone ashamed to acknowledge the faith dishonors God, just as he or she would dishonor a relative or friend by failing out of embarrassment to acknowledge that person; and someone who denies the faith, as Peter out of fear denied his relationship with Jesus, would be disloyal to God, as Peter was disloyal to Jesus (see Mt 26.69–75, Mk 14.66–72, Lk 22.54–62, Jn 18.25–27).

Moreover, because God truly is supremely good, and faith affirms God’s truth, the profession of faith manifests God’s goodness, and so gives him honor he deserves (see S.t., 2–2, q. 13, a. 1). Hence, whenever there is a choice between professing faith and denying it, it must be professed. (The profession of faith will be considered again in relation to the apostolic responsibility of Christian life in 2.B.2.c and 2.D.4.d–e.)

Sometimes, of course, Christians may be quiet about their faith without denying it. Provided they say nothing false and do nothing wrong, they often justifiably avoid calling attention to their faith in times of persecution. They may flee to avoid martyrdom and should not court it. Even in normal times, one whose faith is known need not profess it again (unless, of course, that is equivalent to denying it) if professing it probably will antagonize others rather than lead them to consider the gospel’s truth.

b) Denial of faith and failure to profess it are grave matters. Believers can sin by denying their faith outwardly or failing to profess it openly when that omission is motivated by shame or is equivalent to a denial. One can be tempted to commit these sins against faith by shame or fear, for instance, by shame in the face of fellow students’ or coworkers’ manifest contempt for faith, or by fear of professors or managers who discriminate against outspoken believers. Faith can be denied by words or deeds, explicitly or implicitly; for example, in a time of persecution, those who avoid identification as Christians by pretending to share in the worship of a false religion deny their faith by deeds and implicitly.

In and of themselves, these sins of word and deed need not affect one’s intellectual and volitional commitment of faith, but they do violate the covenantal friendship which faith establishes, dishonor God, and deprive other people of a witness of faith. For these reasons, Christians traditionally have cited Scripture to support their belief that salvation is at stake in these matters (see Lk 9.26, Rom 10.10) and have held that they must be prepared to die rather than deny the faith. Thus, these are grave matters.

4. God’s Honor Requires that One Think and Speak Reverently of Him

Like respect for human persons, reverence toward God is more than an attitude of mind and will. A reverent person does acknowledge God’s infinite goodness and willingly accepts his sovereign majesty, but, more than this, thinks and speaks of him with due reverence.

a) One should be reverent in thought and speech. People’s names rightly are used to address them, to speak well of them, and to recall (and sometimes bring to bear) their status and authority. Similarly, Christians rightly use God’s name reverently to invoke and praise him, to urge others to act in ways pleasing to him, and to bring his power to bear against the powers of evil (see S.t., 2–2, q. 90, a. 2). Again, just as one appreciates the good qualities of anyone whom one regards with appropriate respect, so one should be in awe of God’s infinite greatness and should appreciate his perfect goodness. Moreover, just as respect can be shown for human persons by treating those dear to them and even their possessions with respect, so God is honored by thinking and speaking with appropriate reverence about everyone and everything which, by relationship to him, is sacred by somehow sharing in his holiness.

b) Blasphemy is a sin against this reverence and is a grave matter. One can sin by deliberately thinking or speaking in ways which involve contempt, scorn, disparagement, or abuse of God, and so dishonoring him directly in himself. One also can dishonor God indirectly, by thinking and speaking ill of sacred persons and things. Inasmuch as this sin violates the covenantal friendship which faith establishes, it not only is against reverence for God but against faith itself.

Jews and Christians universally have judged blasphemy to be a very grave matter (see S.t., 2–2, q. 13, aa. 2–3).123 Moreover, one is tempted to commit this sin because of hostility toward God, aroused by antagonism toward his plan and will, and such hostility presupposes some other serious sin (as will be explained in 3.A.4.a). Other things being equal, blasphemy directly against God most clearly dishonors him, and therefore such blasphemy is the worst sort. If expressed outwardly, it conflicts with the profession of faith, inasmuch as it calls in question God’s supreme goodness (see S.t., 2–2, q. 13, a. 1).

c) The casual, irreverent use of God’s name is not blasphemy. The casual use of divine names and the names of saints or holy things to express negative feelings, without hostility toward God, bears an outward similarity to blasphemy. But when such expressions are used (as they commonly are in some social and cultural situations) without any thought of dishonor to God or any intent to detract from his goodness, they are profanity rather than blasphemy, and are venial sins of irreverence. Insofar as it is irreverent, however, profanity in speech should not be taken lightly.

In itself, profanity is more serious than thoughtless cursing of other persons without serious intent (Go to hell!), for such cursing is not irreverent toward God but only disrespectful toward a created person. And both profanity and thoughtless cursing are more serious in themselves than the mere use of vulgar language, which is sinful only inasmuch as it needlessly annoys and distresses others.

5. God’s Honor Can Require One to Desire Him to Show Himself

Respect for other persons leads to the desire that they manifest themselves in accord with their dignity when a situation calls for it. Similarly, reverence for God should lead Christians to ask him to show his power and goodness when they think his own honor and glory require it. This desire must be distinguished from the sin of testing God.

a) Asking God to show himself and questioning him can be good. One can want God to show his love, power, or other attributes for some good reason, including one’s own consolation and the conversion of others, without in any way putting him to a test. Moreover, one can ask God for a sign of his will with respect to some choice to be made without putting him to a test, since what is doubted in such a case is not God’s excellence but one’s own judgment.

Again, as many passages of the Old Testament and episodes in the lives of saints make clear, people intensely involved in their relationship with God often express negative feelings toward him and question him, much as loving spouses and intimate friends do toward one another. Such expressions of feeling and questioning need not manifest irreverence, for they express desire for more perfect communion rather than doubt about God and his perfections.

b) Attempting to put God to the test is always a grave matter. People test others to establish their level of ability or attainment. In general, this practice is unobjectionable. Nor is there anything wrong with asking others to fulfill their commitments when the point is not simply to test them but to realize some common good, including the expression and experience of mutual love. But something is plainly wrong when someone tries to experiment with another’s moral qualities and commitment: “If you really love me, you must prove it by doing this for me!” Similarly, one can put God to a test, or try to, either by expressly challenging him or by deliberately acting in a way which would be pointless except as a test (see S.t., 2–2, q. 97, a. 1).

Since God has manifested his love and faithfulness, especially in Jesus, any testing of his good will toward humankind in general or oneself in particular presupposes lack of confidence in the new covenant communion, and so violates the Christian commitment of faith. Moreover, that God is omniscient and omnipotent are revealed truths. To call these attributes in question, as testing God does, manifests lack of faith. In any case, testing God seriously violates faith, since his majesty and goodness are beyond question, and so it always is a grave matter (see S.t., 2–2, q. 97, a. 2).124

6. God’s Honor Requires that One Treat Sacred Things Reverently

One honors God by treating with reverence whatever is sacred. To violate the sacred is to commit sacrilege.

a) Sacred realities share in some way in God’s holiness. Because the Lord is present in them, the eucharistic species are sacred. Because God’s acts and words are present in them, the sacraments and copies of sacred Scripture are sacred things. Because of their baptism, God’s people are sacred; because of their ordination or vows, priests and religious are sacred. Because of the use to which they are consecrated or dedicated, churches and blessed cemeteries are sacred places. Because the saints will rise to glory with Jesus, their relics are sacred. Sacramentals are sacred because they are blessed and designated for holy uses.

Christians should treat all these sacred realities with appropriate reverence and should distinguish them in practice from what is not sacred, in accord with the relationship of each to God by which it is holy (see S.t., 2–2, q. 99, a. 1). Still, sacred persons, places, or other realities distinct from God should not be treated as if they were holy of themselves, as God is, for that would be to make idols of them.

b) Sacrilege dishonors God by dishonoring what is sacred. One commits sacrilege by violating a sacred reality, that is, by treating a person, place, or thing somehow set apart for God and his worship in a way inconsistent with the holiness which arises from his, her, or its specific relationship to God. In doing this, one acts irreverently toward God, which offends against the covenantal friendship established by faith (see S.t., 2–2, q. 99, a. 2). 

c) In several kinds of cases, a sacrilege is a grave matter. One way of violating a sacred reality is by treating it as if it were dishonorable (or, at least, not sacred) precisely for the sake of irreverence, for example, destroying an altar to show contempt for the Mass. Such sacrilege always is grave matter, since the intent is to dishonor God.

Another way is by committing another sin which somehow detracts from the holiness of the sacred reality, for example, fornicating with someone vowed to chastity or vandalizing a church. If the sin is grave and the violation of the sacred willingly accepted, even if not intended, the sacrilege also is a grave matter, since the irreverence, arising from the incompatibility between holiness and grave sin, is grave.

Still another way of violating a sacred reality is by deliberately administering or receiving a sacrament unworthily, or treating the eucharistic species as if they were not sacred. In such cases, even if no other sin is committed and the irreverence is only accepted as a side effect, not intended as an end or chosen as a means, the matter is grave because of the great irreverence such acts involve, inasmuch as the Holy Spirit acts in all the sacraments and Jesus is bodily present in the Eucharist. (Sacrilege against the Eucharist will be treated in 3.B.3.a).

d) The sacrilege of simony is always grave matter. To deal in spiritual realities, treating them as if they could be priced, is a sacrilege, for it involves the will to equate the sacred with the profane. This sacrilege is called simony after the Simon who tried to buy from St. Peter the power to confer the Holy Spirit (see Acts 8.18–24). People commit this sin by offering a bribe to obtain a sacred office in the Church, extorting a payment from someone for a dispensation from a Church law, and so on. The sin is particularly grave because it violates the principle of spiritual goods: the gratuity of God’s good will (see S.t., 2–2, q. 100, a. 1).

Offering (and asking for) the ordinary stipends for saying Masses and performing other priestly duties is not simony; the stipend is compensation for the service, not a price put on the priceless spiritual good.125 Similarly, buying and selling a blessed object or reliquary on the basis of its material worth is not simony, although charging for the blessing or for the relic would be.126

e) Sacrilege can be light matter. When a sacrilege is not grave for one of the reasons mentioned in (c) and does not involve simony, it can be light matter. For instance, those who without sufficient reason use a church for a profane but decent purpose violate its sacred character, but their irreverence, if not intended but only accepted, is not great. Using Scripture as material for humor unrelated to a religious purpose is irreverent, but need not be gravely so if God’s word is not denied and the irreverence is not the point of the humor. Altar boys who drink the wine remaining after Mass misuse what belongs to the Church, but the theft is small and so the unintended irreverence is slight.

7. Making a Vow Is a Way of Worshipping God

As has been explained (in A.1), faith is more than intellectual assent, for it includes reverent submission to God and commitment to communion with the divine persons. A vow is a further promise to God, the making and fulfilling of which not only presuppose the covenantal relationship which faith accepts, but deepen that relationship, just as similar acts deepen purely human friendships.127

The most familiar vows are those by which some Catholics commit themselves to observe the three evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience in an approved form of consecrated life. Such vows are called public because they are accepted in the name of the Church by a legitimate superior.128

However, the practice of making and fulfilling private vows can have a place in any Catholic’s life, and the present treatment concerns only such private vows. One might, for example, vow to participate in daily Mass whenever possible, or to donate a certain part of one’s income to the poor, or to forgo marriage in order to dedicate oneself more fully to a special vocation of service to some particular group of persons in need.

a) Vows are promises to God, but differ from promises to others. To make a promise is not only to decide to do or omit doing something as another wants, but to bind oneself to carry out the decision, while communicating to the other person that one has made it and bound oneself (promises will be treated in 7.C.1). Those who promise put themselves in the position of not being able to change their decision without being unfaithful to the one to whom they made the promise. In all these respects, vows made to God are analogous to promises made to other people.

But vows differ from ordinary promises in four ways. First, one can promise another to do something morally wrong. But since God wants only what is good and since it is no gift to him to bind oneself to forgo doing something better than one might otherwise do, one can vow only what is both morally right and also better than what one might otherwise do. Second, in making promises to other persons, one benefits them by providing them with assurance about the future so that they can take advantage of knowing beforehand what one will do. But in making vows one cannot benefit God in that way, since he is all-knowing. Rather, one simply gives him the gift of the freedom to change one’s mind in order to do what is especially good and pleasing to him. Third, the unfaithfulness to another human person in breaking a promise is not only disloyalty but unfairness, since the person is disappointed and loses the expected benefit. But since God cannot be disappointed or harmed, the unfaithfulness to him in breaking a vow is simply the irreverence and insult involved in taking back the gift one had given him. Fourth, promises among human individuals are expressed in language, sometimes in the presence of witnesses or in special, legal form. While vows can be expressed and witnessed, they need not be, since God knows one’s heart, and one cannot evade responsibilities to him.129

b) Not everything called a vow will be treated here. The word vow is used to refer to a variety of promises made in a religious context. Thus, one speaks of baptismal vows, although the baptismal promises to reject Satan and to serve God faithfully are essentially required by the commitment of faith, which is proper to baptism, and are more basic than any optional vow (see S.t., 2–2, q. 88, a. 2). Many people also speak of marriage vows, because sacramental marriage is a sacred act carrying with it special religious responsibilities. However, the commitment to God involved in sacramental marriage is not optional but implicit in marital consent, which primarily is the commitment of the bride and groom to each other. In what follows, vow refers only to optional promises made directly to God. (And, as stated above, only private vows are under consideration here; public vows will be treated in volume four.)

c) Making vows prudently and fulfilling them is good and right. Those who do something good in fulfillment of a vow determine themselves more firmly to that good than if they did the same thing without vowing it. Even more important, actions which fulfill vows are richer in meaning than they otherwise would be, for they have the added significance of a free gift to God. Just as gratuitous acts in purely human friendships intensify commitment and nourish love, so vows intensify the commitment of faith and nourish charity toward God. To make a vow is to deepen one’s intimacy with God by voluntarily binding oneself more firmly to some good which he wills.

d) The power to make vows is subject to inherent limits. Only those can make vows who can freely assume responsibilities, and they cannot do so without the reflection and freedom of choice necessary for grave moral responsibility (see CMP, 17.A–B). Moreover, as with other promises, one should not vow to do anything one cannot do. Besides, as no one can promise that someone else will do something, so one cannot bind anyone else by one’s vow. For this reason, the vows of persons subject to authority can be nullified to the extent fulfilling them would be at odds with the authority’s legitimate wishes.130 An important instance of this occurs when a child subject to parental authority makes a vow whose fulfillment would conflict with what a parent otherwise would direct the child to do or refrain from doing; the parent can annul the vow.

e) One should exercise prudence in making vows. Because a serious responsibility is assumed in making a vow, vows should not be made hastily or lightly. Prudent persons considering making a vow, especially one binding under pain of grave sin, will consult an able confessor, spiritual director, or other holy and mature person about whether and how to proceed. Hesitation about making a vow does not manifest weakness of faith and fervor, but reverence toward God, for it shows that the promises one makes to him are taken seriously.

f) In making vows, bargaining with God is to be avoided. In purely human relationships, people often make promises (and threats) to motivate others to do as they wish. As an element of contractual arrangements among people with no common commitment beyond that to be fair to each other, such promises can be morally acceptable. However, they become manipulative when they interfere with and even displace common commitment; this reduces relationships, such as marriage, which should be loving communion, to practical arrangements for gratifying individualistic desires. In one’s relationship with God, a merely contractual relationship is impossible: he gives every good—all one is and has—and, as his child, one is in communion with him. So, any attempt to bargain with God manifests serious defects in faith, hope, and love. Consequently, setting conditions on one’s vows is wrong if it is an effort to bargain with God.131

Still, not all conditional vows involve bargaining with God. People in love sometimes make conditional promises, not to manipulate one another, but to propose plans for pursuing common interests which their loved ones may freely accept or reject. For example, a man might promise his wife: “If you will take the children to visit your parents, I will paint the interior of the house.” Similarly, one rightly makes conditional vows to let God show whether he accepts the proposed way of cooperating with him and intensifying one’s relationship with him. For example, a person with certain skills might vow: “If you, Lord, provide such and such conditions necessary to put these skills to use in a certain form of apostolate, I will undertake that apostolic work and persevere in it until I complete it or die trying.” But it remains wrong to make conditional vows in a bargaining spirit, especially if one foresees, as an honest and clearheaded bargainer would foresee, that one is likely to trust and love God less if he does not fulfill one’s condition.

g) The obligation assumed in making a vow has limits. Since one freely binds oneself to what one vows, the obligation to fulfill the vow has all the limits set in making it. Moreover, just as with other promises, there is no responsibility to fulfill a vow if one discovers that one cannot rightly (or simply cannot) do so, if the condition on which or purpose for which the vow was made does not come about or ceases to exist, or if what one promised changes substantially, for instance, if in peacetime one vows to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land at a certain time, but a war is raging when the time comes, so that fulfilling the vow would mean accepting substantial unforeseen burdens and risks.

h) Vows can be dispensed, commuted, or fulfilled in alternate ways. Just as human friends can release one another from promises and are prepared to do so if there is a good reason, so God can dispense vows. Bishops and all other pastors (and religious superiors in certain cases) can exercise this power in God’s name with respect to any private vow provided they have a good reason and doing so does not infringe the rights of someone else concerned.

Those who can grant a dispensation from a vow also can commute the vow, that is, dispense from part of what was promised or substitute something less. Hence, someone with a good reason for not fulfilling a vow should request that it be commuted or, if necessary, dispensed.

Moreover, since what is important about a vow is the free gift of making it, one need not do precisely what was vowed, but is free to fulfill a vow by doing something else as good as or better, if that is possible in the nature of the case.132

i) To break a vow is sinful. It is a sin to break a vow, since the very act of vowing creates a responsibility to fulfill the vow out of faithfulness toward God. Having given him a gift, one acts unfaithfully in withdrawing it. Moreover, as making and fulfilling a vow presuppose, express, and deepen the covenantal friendship which faith establishes, so breaking a vow harms that friendship, just as wrongfully breaking a promise to a human friend harms the friendship.

Breaking a vow can be a grave matter, but need not be regarded as such in every instance.133 While St. Thomas does not say explicitly how grave he considers breaking vows to be, he emphasizes that the demand of faithfulness to God, being rooted both in his lordship and in the many gifts he has given, calls for the greatest fidelity to him; thus, one is most greatly obliged to God, and a vow to him is a very great obligation (see S.t., 2–2, q. 88, a. 3). From this it seems to follow that deliberately failing to fulfill any vow would be a grave matter. Approved Catholic moralists, nevertheless, agreed that the responsibility of faithfulness which is assumed in making a vow is not always a grave one. They generally held that in making private vows, one can limit one’s responsibility by intending only to bind oneself under pain of venial sin, and that even if in vowing one did not intend to limit one’s responsibility, breaking a private vow admits of parvity of matter. Many also held that the obligation of a vow is determined by the seriousness of what is promised, and will be light if that is rather unimportant in itself.

8. One Honors God by Reverently Taking Oaths When Appropriate

God’s truth and fidelity make his revelation credible and so make faith possible. These same divine characteristics lead those who believe in God to swear by him, that is, to call on him to guarantee their sincerity.134 Familiar occasions for taking an oath are when entering on a public office or testifying in court. On these occasions and others when oaths are required, one should take them, and in doing so should bear in mind one’s special obligation to be truthful.

a) Rightly taking an oath is an act of faith and reverence. In taking an oath, one calls on God to witness to and guarantee the truth of one’s statements (for example, the testimony to be given) or the sincerity of one’s promise (for example, to fulfill the duties of an office). Authentic oath taking involves a conditional readiness to accept justly deserved divine punishment for false swearing, a readiness often expressed elliptically by words such as “so help me God.”

Underlying the practice of taking oaths are convictions basic to the act of faith itself: that God’s truth and fidelity are beyond question, that he cares about and is involved in human affairs, and that sinners will be punished. Those who rightly take oaths hold these convictions and express them by their sincere oath taking. Moreover, to take an oath rightly is to submit to God’s majesty and take seriously the special responsibility assumed in oath taking not to offend his holiness.

b) In taking an oath, one assumes a new responsibility. Someone who takes an oath to confirm his or her truthfulness assumes a new and grave responsibility toward God to be truthful. Special care must therefore be taken to be accurate in statements made under oath and to assert as certain only what one is certain of. In taking an oath to confirm the sincerity of a promise, one similarly assumes a new and grave responsibility toward God to be sincere.

Even so, this latter responsibility—to be sincere in promising—does not do away with the ordinary limits of sincere promises.135 Thus, although confirmed by an oath, a promise to do something wrong or a promise extorted by fraud, force, or grave fear is null. Nor is there a duty to fulfill a promise, even though confirmed by an oath, from which one is released by the person for whose benefit the promise was made. Moreover, all other conditions which can limit the duty to keep sincere promises also limit the responsibility to carry out promises confirmed by oaths. Thus, such a promise need not be kept if the condition on which or the purpose for which it was made does not come about or ceases to exist, or if what was promised changes substantially, for example, if the nation to which citizens promised loyalty undergoes revolutionary changes in its constitution.

c) It is often inappropriate to take an oath. According to the New Testament, Jesus gave instructions to avoid not only false swearing but oaths in general, since a simple yes or no should suffice while anything beyond that comes from evil (see Mt 5.33–37; cf. Jas 5.12). Some have read this as an absolute prohibition of oaths. That view is unsound, however, both because it is inconsistent with other passages of Scripture and because the Christian tradition has approved of oaths.136 What Jesus said about oaths must be read as excluding them generally but not absolutely. His point seems to be that among people who would consider oaths important, because they believe in God, mutual truthfulness should make oath taking unnecessary, and thus frequent use of oaths is bad, insofar as it supports practices of lying and deception.

Still, oaths are inappropriate in many cases. Invoking God’s witness in insignificant matters dishonors him. Those who take oaths lightly show irreverence and seldom are careful enough about avoiding perjury. Moreover, in morally defective relationships which should either be terminated or radically renewed, oath taking as a substitute for mutual trust impedes the required conversion. Finally, in some cases it is wrong to make a true statement or a sincere promise, for example, if the statement defames someone or violates one’s responsibility to keep a secret, or if the promise is to do something which should not be done. Swearing to confirm such a statement or promise is inappropriate inasmuch as it involves God in one’s wrongdoing.

In some cases, legal documents and procedures offer an alternative to taking an oath: affirming under the penalty for perjury. Since oaths are excluded generally, though not absolutely, one should take such an option when it is available. This is easily done, by forming the general intention of affirming rather than swearing in such cases.

d) Perjury is a grave matter. Perjury is committed by someone who swears insincerely to the truth of what he or she believes false or to a promise he or she does not intend to keep. Those who commit perjury call on God to bear witness, but use his truth and faithfulness to guarantee their falsity and unfaithfulness. This dishonors God by attempting to make him a party to one’s wrongdoing—something quite irreverent and inconsistent with covenantal friendship: “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name” (Ex 20.7, Dt 5.11; cf. Lv 19.12). Thus, in itself perjury always is a grave matter (see DS 2124/1174; S.t., 2–2, q. 98, a. 3).

Perjury often is grave matter for an additional reason: the inseparable injustice to others which it involves. This injustice lies in leading others to rely on one’s insincerely sworn testimony or promises (see S.t., 2–2, q. 70, a. 4). Also, in some instances, perjury causes others to be deprived of something due them: liberty, property, their good name, even life itself.

e) Breaking a promise sealed by an oath need not be grave. A promise sealed by an oath, whether made sincerely or not, is broken by not being fulfilled, provided the one who made it still owes it to the other party to keep it. But the oath confirming the promise directly bears on the act of promising, whose sincerity it guarantees, and only indirectly on the promise’s fulfillment. Thus, even if a promise sealed by an oath is sinfully broken, the sin is not always perjury.

Perjury is committed in sinfully breaking a promise made under oath if, even while breaking it, one continues to take advantage of the confidence others bestowed because of the oath, for example, by covertly abusing a position of trust one has sworn to fulfill faithfully. But one does not commit perjury, and so does no irreverence to God, if in openly breaking the promise the confidence gained by the oath is surrendered. Breaking the promise is grave matter in these circumstances only if it would have been grave to break the same promise even if it had not been sealed by an oath. (The responsibility to keep promises and the sin of breaking them will be treated in 7.C.1.)

116. The treatment here of devotion, adoration, sacrifice, oblation, and thanksgiving is based on but adapts the treatment of St. Thomas: S.t., 2–2, qq. 82, 84–86, and 106.

117. “Vere dignum et iustum est, aequum et salutare, nos tibi semper et ubique gratias agere, Domine, sacte Pater, omnipotens aeterne Deus.”

118. St. Thomas, S.t., 2–2, q. 86, a. 1, makes a further distinction between oblation and sacrifice: all sacrifices are oblations, but not all oblations are sacrifices. Whatever is offered in worship is an oblation; it is a sacrifice only when something is done to what is offered to set it apart as sacred. The destruction of the oblation is one, but not the only, way of setting it apart as sacred (see S.t., 2–2, q. 85, a. 3, ad 3).

119. People without faith and hope here refers to a variety of people whose situations before God are very diverse. Some (only God knows which ones or how many) have refused the light; others have not adequately heard the gospel, but perhaps enjoy that implicit faith which can suffice for salvation (see LG 14, 16; AG 7; GS 22; CMP, 30.2). But even the latter are at a disadvantage insofar as they try to worship God in a fallen world without Jesus’ teaching and example to guide them.

120. On idolatry: S.t., 2–2, q. 94; The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, s.v. “idolatry.”

121. On divination and magic, see S.t., 2–2, qq. 95–96.

122. See LG 49, n. 2 (228 in Abbott); New Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. “spiritualists.”

123. It is a canonical crime to use media of social communication or a public speech or show to blaspheme: CIC, c. 1369.

124. Many moralists say that there can be parvity of matter in virtually (or interpretively) testing God. But what they mean by virtually (or interpretively) testing God is leaving things to God when one can and should use available means. That can be done out of laziness, without any will to test God, and indeed with full faith in his excellence and with confidence in his loving care. The irreverence involved in such behavior can be slight and unintentional—thus the possibility of parvity of matter. See St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, Theologia moralis, ed. L. Gaudé, 4 vols. (Rome: Ex Typographia Vaticana, 1905–12), 1:388–89.

125. However, CIC, c. 947, warns: “Any appearance of trafficking or commerce is to be entirely excluded from Mass offerings.”

126. CIC, c. 149, §3, and c. 1380, deal with simony; by the former, simonical provision of an office is invalid; by the latter, one who celebrates or receives a sacrament through simony is to be punished with an interdict or suspension. A study done before the 1983 code, but still helpful for its moral and canonical analysis of simony: Raymond A. Ryder, Simony: An Historical Synopsis and Commentary (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1931).

127. The treatment of vows here is based on but adapts that of St. Thomas, S.t., 2–2, q. 88.

128. See CIC, c. 654 and c. 1192, §1.

129. CIC, c. 1191, §1, defines vow: “A vow is a deliberate and free promise made to God concerning a possible and better good which must be fulfilled by reason of the virtue of religion.”

130. CIC, c. 1195: “A person who has power over the matter of the vow can suspend its obligation for as long as its fulfillment would prejudice such a person.”

131. The failure of some Catholics to meet this requirement for good vows undoubtedly explains in part some Protestants’ rejection of all vows—a position condemned by the Church (see DS 1622/865).

132. On the cessation, suppression, or dispensation of a vow and on commutation of the works promised, see CIC, cc. 1194–97. A study done before the 1983 code but still useful: James Martin Lowry, Dispensation from Private Vows: A Historical Synopsis and a Commentary (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1946).

133. The canonical definition of vow includes a statement of its obligation, but no precise indication of the gravity of that obligation: CIC, c. 1191, §1: “A vow . . . must be fulfilled by reason of the virtue of religion.”

134. The treatment of oaths here is based on but adapts that of St. Thomas, S.t., 2–2, q. 89.

135. See CIC, cc. 1200–1203.

136. See W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, The Gospel According to Matthew, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1988), 533–38; New Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. “oaths.”