October 19, 2000
volume 11, no. 205

The Commandments of God
tenth segment
The Second Commandment
part two: Oaths and Vows

    A sailor, threatened with shipwreck, swore, if saved, to have a chapel built in honor of St. Anne, at the place of his safe landing. He was saved, hence the shrine at Beaupre, Quebec, Canada. Thousands flock to that famous shrine, one of the most miraculous in the world. The crutches and spectacles lined along the walls are a proof of the miraculous cures.

    An oath is the calling on God to witness to the truth of what we say. Taking an oath is called swearing. In swearing, we call either upon God or upon something sacred. In solemn oaths, we place a hand on the Bible, or kiss it. Sometimes we also kiss the crucifix. If we swear by God, such words are used as: "God is my witness" "So help me God." "As the Lord liveth" etc. If we swear by holy things, we say: "By the holy Gospel", "by the cross of Christ", etc. Such expressions as "Upon my word", "by my honor", are not oaths but merely emphasize assertions.

    An oath may be simple or solemn. A simple oath is one between man and man in ordinary intercourse. A solemn oath is one taken before ecclesiastical or civil authority, in the presence of an official. An oath of public office is a solemn oath. The formula used ends with: "So help me God." Our Lord swore solemnly when Caiphas adjured Him by the Living God to tell the truth. (cf. Matthew 26:64).

    We must not take an oath of blind obedience to a secret society. A promise under oath ceases to bind under certain conditions.

    (a) if it is relaxed by the person to whom the promise was given:
    (b) If the object of the promise is substantially changed:
    (c) If the object becomes sinful or useless:
    (d) If the reason for the oath ceases to exist:
    (e) If a condition under which the oath was given ceases; and
    (f) If the oath is annulled, dispensed, or commuted by lawful authority.

    To make an oath lawful, three things are necessary:

1. We must have a good reason for taking an oath. An oath properly taken is permitted by God and pleasing in His sight. No one should be compelled to take an oath however. It is not necessary to swear at every provocation, such as when friends do not believe us, or to emphasize statements. Such trivial matters should not be the subjects of oaths. A number of people have the bad habit of raising the hand in a gesture of swearing every time someone doubts their slightest assertions.

2. We must be convinced that what we say under oath is true. It is wrong to take oaths about what we do not know, just because a friend asks us to swear to it. If we take an oath, promising to do something, and in our mind we have plans of breaking our word, then we are swearing falsely. If we take an oath before a court of justice, saying we saw such and such a person in a certain place at a certain hour, and we know we really did not see him, then we are swearing falsely. We must think well before taking an oath; rash oaths are sinful.

3. We must not swear, that is, take an oath, to do what is wrong. We should never keep an oath to do evil. If one is so unfortunate as to have made such an evil oath, he should promptly determine not to keep it, or he will commit greater sins. Herod swore to grant Salome, the daughter of his unlawful wife, anything she asked. When she demanded the head of John the Baptist, he gave it to her. Thus he committed a worse crime by keeping his wicked and rash oath.

    A person who deliberately calls on God to bear witness to a lie commits the very grievous sin of perjury. Perjury is a false swearing. One commits perjury when he confirms by oath what he knows is not true, or what he is doubtful about, or when he swears to a promise which he does not intend to keep. Perjury is a grave sin, because it insults God by calling Him to witness a lie. Perjury before a civil court of law is punishable by imprisonment. [Ed. note: Unless you are the current president of the United States and have the head of the Justice Department beholden to him!]

    Regarding the non-fulfillment of an oath, the sin may be venial or grave, according to importance of the matter concerned. The witnesses who swore falsely at the trial of Christ committed a grave sin of perjury. If circumstances arise that prevent our keeping a valid oath, we should consult our confessor, to know what to do.

    A vow is a deliberate promise made to God, by which a person binds himself under pain of sin to do something that is especially pleasing to God. A vow is made to God alone, not to anyone else. The subject of the vow must not never be trifle, but something good in itself, and better than its opposite. A vow is the most solemn promise we can ever make, an act of divine worship.

    A vow made under compulsion is invalid. A vow to do something that will offend God must not be accomplished. In general we should consult our confessor before making a vow. "It is better not to vow, than after a vow not to perform the things promised" (Ecclesiastes 5:4).

    Sometimes vows are accompanied by certain conditions. For example, in 1248 St. Louis of France vowed to lead a Crusade if he got over a severe illness. In our days, people vow to go on specified pilgrimages, to get cured of sickness, etc. We must not confuse vows and oaths with mere promises or resolutions. These last do not bind under pain of sin. For instance, some make a promise not to go to shows or dances for a certain length If they go, they do not commit a mortal sin, for simple promises and resolutions do not bind under pain of sin. However, we should not make promises or resolutions that we are not earnest about keeping.

    A vow is most pleasing to God, because it is a voluntary offering made to Him. The most important vows are religious vows, taken by those joining a religious order; vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. By the religious vows a person gives up the world entirely, consecrating not only what he or she does, but what he or she is to the exclusive service of God.

    Non-fulfillment, or needless postponement, of a vow is a venial or mortal sin, according to the importance of the matter. The guilt is doubled, if at the same time one transgresses a commandment, as when violating a vow of chastity. If we are not able to fulfill a vow, we must consult our confessor about having it annulled or changed into some other good work. The vows of children may be cancelled by their parents. Bishops and other superiors have the authority to release or absolve from some vows.

Next Thursday: The Third Commandment part one

October 19, 2000
volume 11, no. 205

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