Religious vows are the public vows made by the members of religious communities pertaining to their conduct, practices and views.
In the Buddhist tradition, in particular within the Mahayana and Vajrayana tradition, many different kinds of religious vows are taken by the lay community as well as by the monastic community, as they progress along the path of practice. In the monastic tradition of all schools of Buddhism the Vinaya expounds the vows of the fully ordained Nuns and Monks.
In the Christian tradition, such public vows are made by the religious life – cenobitic and eremitic – of the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Eastern Orthodox Churches, whereby they confirm their public profession of the Evangelical Counsels or Benedictine equivalent. They are regarded as the individual's free response to a call by God to follow Jesus Christ more closely under the action of the Holy Spirit in a particular form of religious living. A person who lives a religious life according to vows they have made is called a votary or a votarist. The religious vow, being a public vow, is binding in Church law. One of its effects is that the person making it ceases to be free to marry. In the Roman Catholic Church, by making a religious vow – whether as a member of a religious community or as a consecrated hermit – one does not become a member of the hierarchy but becomes a member of a unique state of life which is neither Clerical nor Lay, the Consecrated State. Nevertheless, many male members of the Consecrated life are members of the hierarchy, because they are in Holy Orders. The members of some Roman Catholic communities make "recognized private vows", which must not be confused with private vows but are similar to public vows in Church law.
In the western church
Since the 6th century, monks and nuns following the Rule of Saint Benedict have been making the so-called Benedictine vow at their public profession of obedience (placing oneself under the direction of the abbot/abbess or prior/prioress), stability (committing oneself to a particular monastery), and "conversion of manners" (which includes forgoing private ownership and celibate chastity).
During the 12th and 13th centuries mendicant orders emerged, such as the Franciscans and Dominicans, whose vocation emphasizing mobility and flexibility required them to drop the concept of "stability". They therefore profess chastity, poverty and obedience, like the members of many other orders and religious congregations founded subsequently. The public profession of these so-called Evangelical counsels (or counsels of perfection), confirmed by vow or other sacred bond, are now a requirement according to modern Church Law.
The "clerks regular" of the 16th century and after, such as the Jesuits and Redemptorists, followed this same general format, though some added a "fourth vow", indicating some special apostolate or attitude within the order. Fully professed Jesuits (known as "the professed of the fourth vow" within the order), take a vow of particular obedience to the Pope to undertake any mission laid out in their Formula of the Institute. The Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa centuries later (1940s), are another example of this, in that her sisters take a fourth vow of special service to "the poorest of the poor".
In the Roman Catholic Church today
In the Roman Catholic Church, the vows of members of religious orders and congregations are regulated by canons 654-658 of the Code of Canon Law. These are public vows, meaning vows accepted by a superior in the name of the Church, and are usually of two durations: temporary, and, after a few years, final vows (permanent or "perpetual"). Depending on the order, temporary vows may be renewed a number of times before permission to take final vows is given. There are exceptions: the Jesuits' first vows are perpetual, for instance, and the Sisters of Charity take only temporary but renewable vows.
Religious vows are of two varieties: simple vows and solemn vows. The highest level of commitment is exemplified by those who have taken their solemn, perpetual vows. There once were significant technical differences between them in canon law; but these differences were suppressed by the current Code of Canon Law in 1983, although the nominal distinction is maintained. Only a limited number of religious congregations may invite their members to solemn vows; most religious congregations are only authorized to take simple vows. Even in congregations with solemn vows, some members with perpetual vows may have taken them simply rather than solemnly.
A perpetual vow can be superseded by the Pope, when he decides that a man under perpetual vows should become a Bishop of the Church. In these cases, the ties to the order the new Bishop had, are dissolved as if the Bishop had never been a member; hence, such a person as, e.g., Pope Francis has had no formal ties to his old order for years. However, if the Bishop was a member in good standing, he will be regarded, informally, as "one of us", and he will always be welcome in any of the order's houses.
There are other forms of consecrated life in the Catholic Church for single men and women. They make a public profession of the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty, and obedience, confirmed by a vow or other sacred bond, regulated by canon law but live consecrated lives in the world (i.e. not as members of a religious institute). Such are the secular institutes and, for those not living in an institute of consecrated life, whether religious or secular, consecrated hermits and consecrated virgins. These make a public profession of the evangelical counsels by a vow or other sacred bond. Also similar are the societies of apostolic life.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church
Although the taking of vows was not a part of the earliest monastic foundations (the wearing of a particular monastic habit is the earliest recorded manifestation of those who had left the world), vows did come to be accepted as a normal part of the Tonsure service in the Christian East. Previously, one would simply find a spiritual father and live under his direction. Once one put on the monastic habit, it was understood that one had made a lifetime commitment to God and would remain steadfast in it to the end. Over time, however, the formal Tonsure and taking of vows was adopted to impress upon the monastic the seriousness of the commitment to the ascetic life he or she was adopting.
The vows taken by Orthodox monks are: Chastity, Poverty, Obedience, and Stability. The vows are administered by the Abbot or Hieromonk who performs the service. Following a period of instruction and testing as a Novice, a monk or nun may be Tonsured with the permission of the candidate's spiritual father. There are three degrees of monasticism in the Orthodox Church: The Ryassaphore (one who wears the Ryassa—however, there are no vows at this level—the Stavrophore (one who wears the Cross), and the Schema-monk (one who wears the Great Schema; i.e., the full monastic habit). The one administering the Tonsure must be an ordained Priest, and must be a monk of at least the rank he is tonsuring the candidate into. However a Bishop (who, in the Orthodox Church, must always be a monk) may Tonsure a monk or nun into any degree regardless of his own monastic rank.
- 1983 Code of Canon Law, Canon 588
- Chart showing the place of those making religious vows among the People of God
- Rule of St Benedict, ch. 58:17.
- In the Roman Catholic Church, see canons 573, 603 and 654 of the Code of Canon Law 1983; only the Benedictines continue to make the equivalent Benedictine vow.
- Code of Canon Law, canon 1192 §2