Marriage Vows: What Relevance Today?


Petroc Willey FAITH Magazine September-October 2006

What Difference Does A "Vow" Make

We live at a time when the taking of lifelong marriage vows is increasingly regarded as unnecessary, as a mere optional extra, while alternative forms
of domestic arrangements are given official sanction, arrangements which enable couples to live together as ‘partners’ under some mutilated or truncated ‘form’ of traditional vows.[1] At the same time, however, a sizable proportion of those wishing to live together stubbornly continue to do so within this traditional context of vows that bind for life. It is an opportune moment to look again at the significance of vowing, both for one’s self-understanding and for one’s understanding of the other to whom such vows are made.
This examination of vows may also assist us in appreciating some of the fundamental differences that there are between couples who live together in a vowed state and couples who enter trial marriages[2] and free unions. Such unions may turn out to be permanent; but the important point is that there is no explicit vow of permanence on the part of the couple.[3]

The Avoidance of Marriage Vows

Let us begin by looking at possible reasons for the absence of vowing. Underlying a disinclination to take vows may be partly a general sense that things are impermanent, are in flux. An atmosphere of instability prevails in which any thought of permanent commitments appears misplaced. This general sense can be fuelled by a popular picture of progress, which encourages one to let go of the past as out-dated and quickly surpassed. Whereas the predominant ‘myth’ of the nineteenth and early twentieth century was that of evolution[4], today the overarching ‘story’, in so far as post-modernism allows one, is that of revolution, and especially scientific revolution.

We are being faced not just with gradual shifts in our understanding of ourselves and the world; people experience not just a sense of rapid alteration but of a continual breaking with the past, a perpetual overturning of the established order of things. The world of the children is no longer the same as that of their parents: it often happens that parents have to ask their children, or grandchildren, to explain the technology and social vocabulary of the present.

A general atmosphere of change need not affect peoples’ views on the value of making permanent commitments. But it is also understandable that anything which is not ‘moving with the times’ tends to be labelled as ‘old-fashioned’ and ‘outmoded’. There is another aspect we may want to consider. Some people do not want to take vows because they do not want to lose their freedom. A particular concept of freedom is being employed here, understood as a matter of not being tied down, as having as many options as possible kept open.[5] In the sphere of romantic love, the typical expression of this refusal to commit oneself is flirtation. Here a person seems to offer himself, but draws back at the last moment. The gestures of the flirt suggest that theself is being offered, but nothing comes of it. The mutual self-offering, which lies at the heart of genuine love, is reduced to a game which can never reach a conclusion.

Ironically, this understanding of freedom ends by undermining the very potentialities inherent in the act of choice, for all choice limits us: whenever we choose to do anything, we have rejected everything else. Every act of choice is a selection and an exclusion. Not all of our choices have final and decisive consequences, of course. We can choose to make a pot of tea now and tidy the garden later. We necessarily conduct a good deal of our lives on this level, making choices which only temporarily exclude other possibilities. Still, there are choices which are decisive, which do finally exclude. A commitment to faith in God is one of these. Marriage is another. Built into the very nature of these choices is an unchanging commitment, a forsaking of all others.

We can simply refuse to take these larger decisions in order to retain our freedom. We can refuse to think about the weightier matters of choice. But the cost to us is that life then becomes superficial. Dante, in The Divine Comedy, his allegory about the human soul, places those who have avoided choice all their life on the edge of hell. They are not in hell, because it is not as if they were sinful. They are simply empty. In her commentary on this poem, Dorothy Sayers describes this group as the refusers of life, who can have no final resting place. Dante pictures them running aimlessly, being stung continually by small insects, which represent the thought that, in doing anything definite at all, they are missing out on something else. Even in their indecision they cannot settle[6].

In addition to this sensitivity to the general atmosphere of impermanence, and the adherence to a concept of freedom understood as a perpetual openness, many people avoid taking marriage vows out of a sense that such vows appear to involve an unrealistic level of commitment. How can a couple know whether they will still want to be together in five years time, or in ten years time? What if one should fall in love with someone else? After all, as the Book of Proverbs pragmatically advises, “Do not boast about tomorrow; for you do not know what a day may bring forth” (27:1). Perhaps vows are a subtle form of boasting, an attempt at an impossible level of self-reliance. “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (Jas 4:14b). A character inKierkegaard’s fictional journal, Either/Or, suggests that “If, instead of promising forever, the parties would say, until Easter, or until May-day comes, there might be some meaning in what they say; for then they would have said something definite, and also something that they might be able to keep”.[7]

Between today and tomorrow all kinds of pressures and problems might arise: who knows whether we have the strength or the inclination to endure such testing? Better not to vow at all. Some, then, doubt whether it is really possible to make a vow of lifelong commitment to another. Such a doubt may be born of personal experience: perhaps their own, or their parents’ lives have seen the impact of abandonment or divorce.

Moreover, as life expectancy rises, a ‘lifelong commitment’ means something increasingly demanding - although even in Christ’s time, when life expectancy was much lower, His disciples responded with horror and disbelief at His prohibition on divorce: “If that is the position, it is better not to marry” (Matt.19:10). Alongside the rise in life expectancy, and with this the length of lifelong marriages, there has been a rise in expectations concerning the interpersonal dimension of married life[8] - resulting in an unfortunate parody of the Lord’s saying that, “to whom more is given, more is expected”.

The thought, then, might be: are we not asking the impossible?[9] A vow, after all, has to be possible in order to be valid. We are not obliged to undertake the impossible. If someone were to vow to grow an extra limb, there would be no point in taking such a vow seriously. But surely a lifelong commitment to another person is not an impossibility in this way: one only has to look to the significant number of people who remain married throughout life to see that this is not the case. Perhaps; though the sceptic might still argue that here one is looking not at the impact of vows, but at those couples who have contrived to hold together through a certain level of psychological stability supported by sufficient conditions of external security.Let us allow the sceptic to press his point: can one really do more than hope for permanence in marriage?[10]

The Persistence of Vowing

Despite these many worries, every year thousands of people continue to make marriage vows, swearing eternal fidelity to each other. As G.K.Chesterton noted, those who ridicule the whole idea of vows often seem to imagine that they are some kind of yoke imposed on reluctant lovers by the devil. But in fact they are a yoke consistently imposed by the lovers themselves. It appears to be of the very nature of love to want to bind itself. Lovers do not want to be free, and the very concept of ‘free love’, if this means love without commitment, is a contradiction in terms. Vows made before God are not an intrusion into lovers’ lives; lovers want to swear an oath on the highest authority as confirmation of the seriousness of their love.[11] Vowsare very different in kind from the sort of ordinary undertakings we give to do things - “I’ll come to see you tomorrow”, “I’ll write to you”, and so on. There are innumerable instances of this kind of undertaking from which a fairly minor degree of inconvenience exempts us. People normally understand if we do not turn up the next day, or do not write, if they know that something more pressing has appeared on the horizon. We can make and remake our obligations, even some of our more solemn promises. We do not have many commitments to which we feel unshakeably bound. We can express this point by saying that we are in control of our obligations. We do not allow them to control us.

However, there is a small category of undertakings, normally including vows taken before God, which we make and intend as absolutely binding. Once we have made them we have no control over them to re-organise and reshuffle them as it suits us. Marriage vows are one such case. We allow the choice which is made in this act of vowing to be the last word on the subject for us. Marriage vows exercise a self-imposed necessity.[12] Moreover, considerations about possible changes in circumstances in the future are not allowed to count when making marriage vows: “Marriage conditioned on a future event cannot be validly contracted” (Canon 1102.1). The Church is clear that if a couple attach conditions concerning the future to their consent there isno valid marriage.

Reasons for Making Vows

Why, then, should we make marriage vows? And what is it that such vows do for us as persons? What is their significance? I would like to make two suggestions regarding the importance of vows. First, they enable us to form a stable identity; secondly, they orientate us towards goodness and, in particular, towards the unique dignity and goodness of another person.

1. Vows and personal identity
In order to understand how vows help us to form stable identities, let us look more closely at what a vow is. A vow is not equivalent to a prediction. When a man marries, he is not predicting that he will be living with his wife in ten years time. His vow is a guarantee of his commitment. There are two important differences between a prediction and a guarantee. First, guarantees involve personal commitment with reference to the future. Secondly, they imply power over the future.

In the case of predictions, neither of these points is likely to hold. Take the case of a weather-forecaster: he might predict that it will rain tomorrow, and he might be correct. But this does not mean that he has some kind of personal interest in seeing it rain; nor does it mean that he can make it rain. To make a marriage vow, then, is to say that in the future I will stand in a certain relation to another person. I commit myself to being a certain type of person, one who will be faithful to another. “The man who makes a vow makes an appointment with himself at some distant time or place”.[13]

Now to be able to do this, to surrender the whole of my life to another, I have to believe that in some sense I am the kind of creature who can ‘comprehend’ my future and take power over it. I have to be able to stand over my life as a whole, and say to the other person in the light of all of it, “I do”. It is the whole self which is offered, not just the present self, but the self extended in time. The moral challenge is, “Will I keep that vow?” Or we could put it like this: “Will I remain the same person, the person that I was when I made that vow?” There is nothing to stop me, of course, being a faithful husband one day and a Don Juan the next, just as theoretically I could change career every week. But if I lived like that I would rapidly cease to regard myself as a single person - Iwould be constantly becoming someone else. It takes self-discipline to be only one person.[14]

The challenge, which making marriage vows enables us to take up, is to become integrated, ‘pure in heart’ - that is, single-hearted. In fallen Adam, the Church teaches that we have lost our natural integration and each of us is scattered. In his novel, Steppenwolf, Hermann Hesse described the human condition thus: “the souls that dwell in man are not two, nor five, but countless in number”. Only Christ, the new Adam, was ever fully One. And it is by living in Christ that we are healed and made one-self again. We become a particular person by, and through, the choices that we make. Our identities are formed through our decisions. Our choices not only have an effect on the world, they have a lasting effect on us as well. John Paul II wrote of this in Familiaris Consortio: “Man, who has beencalled to live God’s wise and loving design in a responsible manner, is an historical being who day by day builds himself up through his many free choices” (34, my emphasis). Under God, that is, and with the assistance of his grace, each one of us is a self-maker[15]. For good or bad we are creating a self that is either moving towards the harmony of a single self under God, or towards disharmony. Dag Hammarskjold writes in this way about our choices,

“At every moment you choose yourself. But do you choose your self? Body and soul contain a thousand possibilities out of which you can build many I’s. But only in one of them is there a congruence between the elector and the elected. Only one - which you will never find until you have excluded all those superficial and fleeting possibilities of being and doing with which you toy, out of curiosity or wonder or greed, and which hinder you from casting anchor in the experience of the mystery of life, and the consciousness of the talent entrusted to you which is your I”.[16]

Making a vow, then, provides a basic orientation to one’s life, around which a stable identity may be formed.

2. Vows and the unique value of the person
We make choices in response to goodness, which we perceive in people and in created things. The goodness of what lies outside of us draws the will. We love and make vows in response to a perceived good. Writing about our desire for God, Augustine says,

“If the poet can say, ‘Everyone is drawn by his delight’, not by necessity but by delight, not by compulsion but by sheer pleasure, then how much more must we say
that a man is drawn by Christ, when he delights in truth, in blessedness, in holiness and in eternal life, all of which mean Christ?... Show me a lover and he will understand
what I am saying.”[17]

Making a vow involves a steadying of the will in its response to goodness. That is its value. It involves narrowing the opportunities we have for seeking and doing good so that we can respond more fully to a specific good. It means turning our attention onto something specific. The idea of attention is important here. When one pays attention, one narrows one’s gaze upon a single object, excluding everything else. One holds oneself alert in relation to that object - not towards things in general, but towards that specific object. Attention is always concerned with the particular and the unique.

Kierkegaard’s analysis of the figure of Don Juan is especially interesting in this regard. Don Juan, he says, with his constant series of ‘beginnings’ of relationships is looking for the common in all his women. To him every girl is an ordinary girl, “every love affair an everyday story”. It is not the unique for which he is looking, not individuality, but the common. “He desires, and this desire acts seductively. To that extent he seduces. He enjoys the satisfaction of desire; as soon as he has enjoyed it, he seeks a new object, and so on endlessly”.[18] Don Juan may find a new object, but it is the ‘womanhood’ which he loves in each woman, the ‘essence’ of each woman. Vows, on the other hand, focus our attention so that what is loved isthe unique individual. These reflections shed light on why marriage should be both lifelong and exclusive.

• Marriage vows should be for life because only this commitment of the totality of one’s attention, of one’s time, can reflect the Christian belief in the unlimited value of the other person. The worth of the person one marries cannot be measured, and the institution of marriage bears witness to this fact by the absolute commitment it asks each spouse to make to the other. The supra-temporal reality of the person is affirmed by the gift one makes of the whole of one’s time. If all marriages were only trial marriages, or if vows were made for temporary periods, or with conditions attached, the infinite worth of the person would no longer be affirmed.

• Again, marriage is necessarily exclusive in character because only the narrow path of attention leads to life, not restless movement along the broad path. We can only see the value of something fully when we have our gaze focused in an uncluttered way. The French philosopher, Simone Weil, described the state of attention as one of control, not giving orders to do things, so much as stopping us from doing other things.[19] In taking marriage vows a couple are doing something profoundly human. This is how it was “in the beginning” (Matt. 19:8). Moreover they open the couple to being swept up into the work and union of Christ and his Bride.

[1]. For example, the proportion of religious marriages in England and Wales continues to fall. There were 168,500 civil marriages contracted in 2002, accounting for two-thirds of all marriages. This compares with 1991, when fewer than half of all marriages were solemnized in a civil ceremony. See Changing Trends in Family Life, CARE Factsheet January 2002. Download from www.care.org.uk/resource/doscs/res\_familytrends.htm
[2]. The notion of ‘trial marriages’ would seem to be self-contradictory, since vows belong to the essence of marriage. The apparent attraction of a trial marriage lies in the seeming possibility of experiencing marriage without actually undertaking it. But just as one cannot pretend to eat salmon and experience the taste, or pretend to believe in God and experience the act of faith, so neither can one pretend to make marriage vows and experience marriage.
[3]. Some 25\% of men and women cohabit, although of this group some 60\% decide to marry. The breakdown rate of cohabitees is very high when one considers that around 35\% of those who cohabit split up without marrying, and that the proportion of divorces is far higher among those who have previously cohabited than among those who did not do so. See Changing Trends in Family Life, CARE Factsheet January 2002. Download from www.care.org.uk/resource/doscs/res\_familytrends.htm
[4]. See Mary Midgley, Evolution as Religion
[5]. One of the characters in Kierkegaard’s Either/Or offers this prudent advice: ‘One must always take care not to enter into any relationship in which there is the possibility of many members. For this reason friendship is dangerous, to say nothing of marriage. Husband and wife are indeed said to become one, but this is a very dark and mystic saying. When you are one of several, then you have lost your freedom; you cannot send for your travelling boots whenever you wish, you cannot move aimlessly about in the world. If you have a wife it is difficult; if you have a wife and perhaps a child, it is troublesome; if you have a wife and children, it is impossible’.
[6]. See Commentary on The Inferno, Canto III, Penguin Classics. 7. Princeton University Press 1956 Vol.I, p.292.
[8]. For a useful critique of this increasingly burdensome emphasis on the interpersonal dimension of married life, see David Matzo, Sex and Love in the Home, SCM 2003.
[9]. ‘Sir, it is so far from being natural for a man and woman to live in a state of marriage, that we find all the motives which they have for remaining in that connection, and the restraints which civilised society imposes to prevent separation, are hardly sufficient to keep them together.’ (Dr.Samuel Johnson, cited in Boswell, Life of Johnson, Everyman Edition Vol.I, p.241). 10. To support the sceptic’s view, evidence might be drawn from sociobiology - that is, looking at human society and customs from the standpoint of biology. According to the standard evolutionary view, the study of primate behaviour is particularly relevant for understanding the roots of our own nature. But in fact the evidence we can draw from this is ambiguous. Themost popular pattern among primates is the clan or group ‘marriage’, where a dominant male lives with several females (gorillas are one example of those who adopt this form of life). It has been argued on the basis of primate behaviour that human females will want the support and faithfulness of their males more than the males will be inclined to stick to their females. This has to do with the closer link between the mother and her offspring, a fact which humans share with all mammals: the perpetuation of the genetic line is more dependent on the females’ constant care and attention than upon the males’. In evolutionary terms, then, it may not always ‘pay’ to be monogamous that is, the highest number of offspring may be best guaranteed by some non monogamous arrangement such as group‘marriage’. Moving across the species boundary, then, it is worth noting that many human societies permit the taking of many wives, most of them encouraging this practice by law and custom (see Stephen Clark, The Nature of the Beast, OUP 1982, pp.77f and ‘Sexual Ontology and Group Marriage’, Philosophy 58, 1983, pp.215 227). Does any of this show that we are not ‘designed’ for marriage? Is this kind of comparison with other species which are closest to mankind helpful for understanding human behaviour and commitments? Such comparisons can surely throw some light on human behaviour, for we are mammals, even though spiritual mammals. It does indicate, I think, that marriage is not ‘natural’ in the popular sense of easy or problem free. Our instincts could point us in a different direction,and these instincts will be with us if we marry. At the same time, there is some evidence that we may have a natural pair bonding tendency. Pair bonding may not be the best or only way to serve our genes but then there is no reason why we have to accept the so called ‘selfish gene’ theory, that we are of value only as gene carriers (the theory popularised by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene. People want to live in pairs for emotional reasons and for personal satisfaction, and want to do so even if there are no children. And we do also have an example of pair bonding among the primates: the gibbon. Clark points out that those who think that we have no pair bonding tendency should note the behaviour of those species who really do not have it e.g. chimps: no social consequences at allfollow mating; the males who are present mate with any female in season and then depart to live as they were before. Human beings rarely act like this (see Roger Trigg: Understanding Social Science, Blackwell 1985, pp.154 184). So, while sociobiology does not lead one to inevitably declare that Christian marriage is impossible, the evidence indicates that it is not uncomplicated either. Our natural tendencies are ambiguous. But then the natural is only a starting point for a Christian, not the conclusion. The Christian life as a whole is a supernatural affair, in which God makes possible even what is impossible for men (cf Matt. 19:26f). And our real nature, transcending the level of any purely biological inheritance, is to imitate the goodness and fidelity of God, as Jesus said (Matt.5:48; cf Catechism of the Catholic Church §1648).
[11]. See Chesterton’s essay: ‘A Defence of Rash Vows’, in The Defendant, J.M.Dent and Sons 1901
[12]. For the philosophical question as to how the making of a sign can impose a moral obligation see G.E.M.Anscombe, Collected Philosophical Papers Vol.3, Blackwell 1981 pp.10 21, 97 103.
[13]. G.K.Chesterton: ‘A Defence of Rash Vows’, The Defendant, J.M.Dent and Sons 1901, p.33.
[14]. ‘…if the person were to withhold something or reserve the possibility of deciding otherwise in the future, by this very fact he or she would not be giving totally’. (John Paul II, Familiaris consortio, 11)
[15]. On the self-making nature of choices, see G.Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus, Vol.1, Franciscan Herald Press 1983 Ch.2; J.Boyle, ‘Freedom, the Human Person and Human Action’, in W.E.May (ed), Principles of Catholic Moral Life, Franciscan Herald Press 1981; J.Finnis, Fundamentals of Ethics, OUP 1983 pp.136-144.
[16]. Markings, Faber and Faber 1966 p.38.
[17]. Homilies on St.John's Gospel, 26:4f.
[18]. Either/Or, Princeton University Press 1956, I, p.97.
[19]. Lectures on Philosophy, RKP 1978 p.205.

Faith Magazine

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