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The Principle of Vows

Every year around April 15, when federal taxes are due, several radio and television stations create a fictitious individual with W-2s, deductions, capital gains, losses, investments, etc. and submit that information to twenty different tax preparers, CPAs, and accountants. Inevitably, the returns are never the same. Twenty preparers, twenty different results.

Of course, the point of these exercises is to prove what almost everyone knows: our tax system is so complex, and so confusing, that not even the “experts” can figure it out. In essence, it’s a crap shoot, and the only beneficiaries are the people who make a living pretending to know what they are doing. 

Like the government, the Church has a similar problem. When it comes to pastoral advice about dealing with difficult family and relationship issues, one can ask several people and get several different answers for solving the problem. Let me explain.

In my last article, I talked about my nephew’s son and an invitation to a confirmation ceremony. I had a gut feeling about what I should do as a sincere Catholic, but I still sought advice.

The first person I consulted is a deacon. After I gave him the details of the situation, he suggested that I go to the event because at least I would be supporting the parents who are trying to raise their child in a Christian environment.

The second person is a priest. He gave a similar answer to the deacon’s but emphasized the need to stay in touch with the family and not to cause a rift that would be difficult to heal.

Person number three is a DRE. She combined the rationale from the priest and the deacon and suggested I attend the event.

I then asked two friends who are also devout Catholics, and each one said I should not go because doing so would create a scandal.

Finally, I asked the assistant pastor at my very conservative church, and he stated quickly and unequivocally that I could not attend because I would be affirming bad choices by the parents.

Now keep in mind that all six people I consulted are solid Catholics, and yet three went one way, and three went the other. At this point I began to wonder if there was a way of looking at some of these “sticky” issues with a more precise means of determining the proper response for those caught on the horns of a dilemma. I don’t have all the answers, but I would like to propose at least one guiding principle that might be helpful. For lack of a better name, I shall call this the “Principle of Vows.” Here is how it works.

Whenever a parishioner approaches a priest, seeking guidance to resolve a difficult situation, the first thought of the priest should be, “Does this situation involve a vow?” If it does, the second question should be, “Has a solemn vow been broken by one or more of the parties involved?” If the answer is yes, then the priest should declare that the parishioner can do nothing that will affirm that breaking the vow is permissible. 

For example, let’s say that your best friend Frank was married in the Church ten years ago. Two years ago, despite your attempts to dissuade him, he divorced his wife and began to live with another woman. One day you receive an invitation to his wedding to his new paramour. As a practicing Catholic, can you attend?

Using the “Principle of Vows,” you cannot attend the wedding. Frank broke his vow to God when he divorced his wife. To attend would be tell Frank that his behavior was acceptable.

Here’s another example: Your neighbor’s daughter, who is 21, was raised in the Church. Her boyfriend is a Baptist. Without a dispensation from a bishop, she chooses to get married in his church. Can you attend? 

At her baptism, her parents vowed to raise her in the Church. At her confirmation, she affirmed her belief in the Holy Catholic Church. By choosing to get married in the Baptist faith, she is breaking those vows and is entering into an invalid marriage. As a consequence, you cannot attend the ceremony.

I am not a theologian or a canon lawyer, but it seems to me that the Church can find a way to give priests and other clergy a more precise guide for helping the flock make difficult decisions. Perhaps I am naïve, but I offer the Principle of Vows as a beginning point for discussion.

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