Restoring Promises

By Jim Tonkowich Published on June 22, 2017

“I got a problem,” sang music legend Eric Clapton, “can you relate? / I got a woman callin’ love hate. / We made a vow we’d always be friends. / How could we know that promises end?”

I thought of that song as I read Russell Hittinger’s article “The Three Necessary Societies” in the June/July issue of First Things. While the article deserves to be read and studied in its entirety, one phrase caught my eye.

“Even in its decadent eighteenth-century estate, French Catholic society had been a culture of vows” (emphasis added). Think about that: “a culture of vows,” a culture in which people made and kept promises.

“In 1789 and the years following,” Hittinger goes on, “that culture swiftly capsized.”

In 1790, the revolution issued decrees prohibiting monastic vows, then solemn vows, and in their place required a clerical oath to the Civil Constitution of the Church. In 1791, marriage was made only a civil contract, and celibacy for the secular clergy was relaxed. In 1792, two further decrees finished the reorganization of society: The first provided for unilateral and no-fault divorce; the second abolished the monarchy. Thus came about the demise of the two great vows of the laity, that of husband to wife and king to the realm.

Fewer promises would, it seemed, increase freedom for all. But as it turned out, a society without vows quickly slumps into chaos — needing the coersive power of the state to hold it together.

“As Long as You Both Shall Love”

Hittinger points out that this breaking down of a culture of vows was top-down. That is, the government abolished vows.

Today, the end of our own culture of vows is a bottom-up problem. The government allows oaths. We the people either avoid them or feel free to break them.

Marriage is the most obvious example. Couples still stand “before God and this congregation” to “pledge their troth.” That’s old language about making solemn vows of commitment and exclusive loyalty to one another.

As the divorce rate makes clear, solemn vows are deemed something less than solemn by many couples. Those words are traditional, so we say them ignoring their meaning.

Such promises don’t end; they’re stillborn.

Ages ago on an episode of TV’s The Love Boat, Captain Stubing married a happy couple for “as long as you both shall love.” I remember it clearly because it came as both a shock and as refreshing honesty. Who believes in that “till death do us part” stuff these days?

Starting with Woodrow Wilson, many presidents have deemed the Constitution an antiquated impediment to progress. Yet every one put his right hand on a Bible and solemnly swore, “I… will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Executives know that there has never been a contract written that a good lawyer can’t help weasel you out of.

And in the national meeting of one of the Mainline Christian denominations, it was taken for granted that ordination vows placed no obligation on ministers to believe or teach what they swore to be true. Perhaps that’s why so many churches have given up membership vows. Such promises don’t end; they’re stillborn.

Christians Need to Lead the Way

In Paradiso, the third book of The Divine Comedy, in the lowest circle of Heaven, the Moon, Dante meets those who kept their faith, but did not keep their promises.

Piccarda Donati took vows as a nun, but was subsequently kidnapped by her brother who forced her into a marriage he found advantageous. Piccarda acquiesced.

Each infidelity may be a small, personal decision, but added together they create society-wide problems.

As translator Anthony Esolen notes, “Piccarda’s is… the fundamental inconstancy: that of giving up your will to God and then taking it back, not wholly, but a little bit, to flee harm or other trouble.” She should have kept her vows even on pain of death, but breaking them seemed prudent and marriage was certainly more congenial than prison, torture or death.

Today we still take vows. But the marriage gets hard. The Constitution gets in the way. The deal is not as good as we thought. Our theology “evolves.” Our families need of us.

Each infidelity may be a small, personal decision, but added together they create society-wide problems. We trade a culture of vows and the order imposed by vows for a culture of broken promises and broken lives.

Beatrice, Dante’s guide, told him, “Mortal men / Should not think vows a deal of scraps and rags! / … Be grave / In moving, Christians, be deliberate: / not like a feather tossed by every puff; / and don’t think any splash will cleanse a fault!” (Paradiso V.63-64, 72-75).

Put more simply, Christians need to lead the way by making and fulfilling vows, showing a shocked world that for some of us promises don’t end.

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