Personal vows as a layperson

I was under the understanding that personal private vows made to God as a layperson, are binding under mortal sin if broken, and can only be dispensed by ones local priest or bishop. (Canon Law.)

Is that correct?
Or can a layperson make vows, and break those vows and not be in mortal sin for breaking those vows, and ask God to remove the vows without needing dispensation from ones local priest or bishop

A personal vow to God is always a serious matter since it is a vow to God. You are correct about the dispensing of a personal vow unless one breaks the vow in order to complete a greater good.

Whether the breaking of a personal vow is mortal sin or not would depend on a few factors and it would be best to subject the matter to a priest in Confession (or at an appointment) and ask his assessment.

What is canon laws ruling on this, is a vow made privately on ones own, binding under mortal sin?

It could be eg God if you do such and such I will do such and such a thing each week or each day.

What if the priests one goes to, do not understand canon law, and do not believe personal vows are binding or need dispensation. Would that priest be correct?

Canon Law does not make any statement re the moral nature of a personal vow including on one’s own in complete privacy. Here is Canon Law on Vows
Frequently asked Questions:

If one breaks a personal vow to God, the morality would depend on what the vow was, one’s disposition at the time and understanding of what one was doing and finally, the reason one is breaking the vow.

If one consults a priest and he is ignorant of Canon Law and Moral Theology, then one can ring one’s diocesan offices and ask for contact details of a canon lawyer. If a priest should refuse to dispense one from the vow because he does not believe in binding personal vows, one can consult another priest.

If one obeys what a priest might state or advise, and later find out that that priest was very wrong, there is no sin whatsoever in the fact that one followed his advice.

Finally, my strong advice would be that one should not make a private or personal vow or vows without seeking sound spiritual advice and especially an understanding of what exactly such a vow or vows are and all implications.

My parish priest told me it’s not a sin to break personal private promises to God. He said only public vows as a religious would be a sin to break.
Is that correct?

I suggest that you talk to a *different priest *and get his opinion. The priest who has already given you his opinion may know more factors surrounding your promise than I do. As ONE example only - if one has made a private vow to God but did not fully realise what they were doing at that time, then the vow would not be valid and no dispensation would be required - but in the common course, if one has made an invalid private vow, the priest should explain why a dispensation is not necessary.

A private vow or promise to God can be sinful - to what degree depends on surrounding factors. It is absolutely impossible for me to state whether the matter is sinful or not since I do not know all the factors involved, nor am I entitled to know.

Canon Law tells us (as already quoted in previous post) that a private vow or promise requires dispensation from a priest. Were there no sin attached to breaking a private vow or promise, then I would think that a dispensation would never be necessary. But clearly Canon Law does state (as already quoted in previous post) that a private vow or promise does require dispensation, therefore Father should have dispensed you, I would have thought.
I am NOT a canon lawyer nor even anywhere close - I am giving you merely my private opinion.

**Catholic Catechism:
Promises and vows **

2101 In many circumstances, the Christian is called to make promises to God. Baptism and Confirmation, Matrimony and Holy Orders always entail promises. Out of personal devotion, the Christian may also promise to God this action, that prayer, this alms-giving, that pilgrimage, and so forth. **Fidelity to promises made to God is a sign of the respect owed to the divine majesty and of love for a faithful God. **

2102 "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,"21 A vow is an act of devotion in which the Christian dedicates himself to God or promises him some good work. **By fulfilling his vows he renders to God what has been promised and consecrated to Him. **The Acts of the Apostles shows us St. Paul concerned to fulfill the vows he had made.22

2103 The Church recognizes an exemplary value in the vows to practice the evangelical counsels:23

Mother Church rejoices that she has within herself many men and women who pursue the Savior’s self-emptying more closely and show it forth more clearly, by undertaking poverty with the freedom of the children of God, and renouncing their own will: they submit themselves to man for the sake of God, thus going beyond what is of precept in the matter of perfection, so as to conform themselves more fully to the obedient Christ.24
**The Church can, in certain cases and for proportionate reasons, dispense from vows and promises25 **

My parish priest does not believe any vow as a layperson can be binding under sin, or need dispensation. Talked with him. He believed it was scruples, without listening to any details.

Is that correct?
Am getting mixed opinions, even from catholic canon lawyers I emailed, some say confession to any priest about the vows and asking dispensation, others say ask dispensation of bishop or local priest,

The following is the only answer I can give you. Canon Law governs all baptised Catholics including The Holy Father, bishops, priests and religious as well as laity.
Canon Law states that a person who has made a private vow or vows needs to be dispensed. The dispensation can be given by :

Vatican Website CANON LAW

**Can. 1196 In addition to the Roman Pontiff, the following can dispense from private vows for a just cause provided that a dispensation does not injure a right acquired by others:

1/ the local ordinary and the pastor with regard to all their subjects and even travelers;**


I have made a public promise to God, to the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel, and to the Prior General of the Order of the Brothers and Sisters of the same Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel to observe the Carmelite Way of Life as a Lay Carmelite. That promise, which is less binding than a vow, includes that I will live a chaste life according to my state in life and that I will be obedient in practicing certain daily prayers. When I am disobedient to the Order’s statutes, the Provincial statutes, when I skip my prayers, I am in sin. Whether that sin is venial or mortal is a matter of degree of the disobedience (gravity) and my state of mind, etc. I always bring it to Confession, either way.

I believe I can only be released from this promise by my Prior Provincial or someone higher up than him.

I have not yet made private vows of obedience and chastity. If and when I do, I can only be released from them by a member of the clergy. If I break those vows it would definitely be a matter of sin. Again, mortal or venial would be dependent upon the degree of gravity, etc.

Thank you Mary Ellen,

So I can ring another diocesan priest to meet up with me, travel to his diocese and receive dispensations as a traveller?
(my Bishops office sent me to my parish priest and won’t reply, and my parish priest doesn’t understand canola so doesn’t believe personal vows are binding),

So.visiting another head diocesan priest in another diocese will be.acceptable?

Such would not be correct. They would bind gravely or venially depending on such as the intention of the person making the vow etc.

Thus one might bind oneself venially or gravely or even both depending.

No that is not correct.

He could have meant a personal resolution. Often people make a personal resolution and then later hear about vows and fear that is what they did. A vow is a very deliberate and particular thing and yes private vows when the are indeed such bind in conscience.

And actual private vow yes needs to be dispensed by ones Pastor (or go talk with another Pastor at his Parish -explaining things and that your from a different Parish), Bishop or other Priest given the authority to do by the Bishop etc.

A person may not dispense themselves. However they can commute the vow to something equal to it…and vows can cease to bind for various reasons or be not valid…or like I noted above not be vows at all but resolutions…

There are many points in this thread. I will try to respond as briefly and succinctly as possible, while hoping that this matter has already been successfully resolved.


  1. Vows, apart from those pronounced by those in Consecrated Life in the context of their public profession, are by their very nature private vows. They are binding upon an individual. Being released from such a private vow can take two routes:
    a) By Dispensation. Being dispensed by a competent authority (the Roman Pontiff, the local ordinary (which is defined in canon 134 as the diocesan bishop as well as any vicars general or episcopal vicars) as well as a priest who has the cura animarum (the care of souls…i.e. the pastor of a parish). SOME diocesan bishops also delegate their own proper and lawful power to dispense from private vows to all the priests he has given faculties to hear confessions. Obviously I do not know if that is the case in your diocese, since I do not know your diocese. But this is probably why the canon lawyers were providing you with answers that confused you and seemed in conflict.
    b) By Commutation. “The person who makes a private vow can commute the work promised by the vow into a better or equal good; however, one who has the power of dispensing according to the norm of can. 1196 can commute it into a lesser good.” (A direct quote of Can. 1197.)

N.B. Personal vows may bind under pain of mortal or venial sin, according to the formulation and intention of the one making the vow. They can also have an expiration or not. The standard formula will stipulate [for one year, for three years, for life] and should be clear in the formulation of the vow…which is why one should only pronounce a vow with the counsel of a spiritual director or other competent adviser, the texts used should be theologically and canonically sound, and it should be done only when one has an understanding of the theology of vows as well as their juridical implications.

  1. What you describe in your post of August 26 at 6:00 ("It could be eg God if you do such and such I will do such and such a thing each week or each day.) I would judge, as a priest and confessor, to be a promise and not a vow binding under pain of sin. That said, I do not know if this is what you actually said or if it is your characterization of what you said or an illustration of something equivalent to what you said.

  2. A promise is not the same thing as a promise made that binds under pain of sin. The former is a promise strictly speaking and the latter is a vow, strictly speaking. Theologically, a vow engages the virtue of religion in regards to fulfilling the thing promised by vow. (If one makes a vow of chastity and commits a sin against chastity, one has sinned against the virtue of chastity – by the act – and against the virtue of religion – by the vow. Keeping the vow is a double merit, related, in the same case, to the virtue of chastity and of religion.) This is the explanation of what Canon 1191 means.

  3. The priest with whom you spoke may be confused as to whether what you made was a simple promise or a private vow. Or, in fact, he may have made a judgement that what you made did not constitute a vow. A vow must be a deliberative act. If it was a promise and not a vow, the priest advising you is correct.

  4. He is, however, wrong to say private vows are not real and are not binding. They are. It is not only public vows, pronounced by those publicly consecrated by the Church, that have this effect. That is why pronouncing a vow is NEVER to be done lightly.

  5. Regarding your statement “My parish priest does not believe any vow as a layperson can be binding under sin, or need dispensation. Talked with him. He believed it was scruples, without listening to any details.”: He is wrong on the first point. He would be correct on the second if he determined what you made is a promise. I am troubled though by your statement, if accurate, that he made the decision without listening to details. In this case, the details would be necessary, at least for me!, to discern the situation.

  6. "So I can ring another diocesan priest to meet up with me, travel to his diocese and receive dispensations as a traveller? "

A maxim of canon law is “Laws that are permissive are to be given the broadest interpretation.” It is not necessary, therefore, to go to another diocese. One may go to any parish in which one is said to have reasonably traveled there. The law is specifying here that those who have the faculty to dispense from private vows are not limited by the grant of the law to their own subjects but may apply this to those who reside outside their jurisdiction.

One last clarification. The situation of Mary_Ellen and her profession as a Lay Carmelite wwould be governed by its own norms and statutes and so is an entirely different matter; it does not really relate to the topic of private vows as set forth in Canon 1192 and being discussed by MaryHelp 777 and BarbaraTh.

The Carmelite third order is a public association of the faithful and is governed under Canon 298-309 and, especially, according to the rule and constitutions for the Third Order of Carmel, The Ancient Observance.

*Can. 303 Associations whose members share in the spirit of some religious institute while in secular life, lead an apostolic life, and strive for Christian perfection under the higher direction of the same institute are called third orders or some other appropriate name.
The promises made by profession as a tertiary, whether temporary or perpetual, do not bind under pain of sin. One would be guilty of not being faithful to a promise professed but one has not, thereby, sinned. It is an important distinction.

  1. Does a Lay Carmelite profess vows? If so, what are they?

Lay Carmelites typically profess only Promises. However, after a considerable time of prayer, discernment and competent spiritual direction, one may profess two vows: obedience, and chastity – in accordance with one’s state in life. These vows are private, vis-à-vis the public vows of religion (poverty, chastity and obedience) that a Religious makes. The taking of these vows is neither encouraged nor discouraged.

It is correct that dispensation from those promises made in profession as a tertiary are reserved to the superiors in Carmel and are not proper to one’s parish priest because one is, in fact, incorporated into the family of Carmel by the emission of profession as a tertiary. This is delineated in paragraph 94 of the rule: “Every member is free to leave the Third Order by asking the council in writing and the council is authorised to accede to this request. Members may also be dismissed for a just cause, that is, for reasons set out in common law or for the repeated and unjustified failure to meet obligations. The decision belongs to the council according to the statutes, after having heard and warned the party concerned. They always have the right to appeal to the competent ecclesiastical authority, that is, the Prior General or Prior Provincial.”

Misunderstanding I think :slight_smile: - I did not mean that a vow to God was grave matter or always binding gravely (i.e. one condition of the three necessary conditions for mortal sin).
What I meant was as stated - that making a vow to God should not be made lightly, that it is a serious matter (as opposed to a “light matter”) … and whether it might bind venially or gravely.

I see - we call all mis-speak! (or wright)…:wink:


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