With the recent phenomenon of "easy" annulment, we investigate the seeming double standard between religious and marital vows.
Does the Church have a double standard for religious and married people? That is the objection we find implicitly expressed in Instrumentum laboris, the concluding document of the 3rd Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, published June 26, 2014. In §92, we read "how religious and priests can receive a dispensation from their vows and priestly obligations so they can marry, while divorced and remarried persons are unable to receive Holy Communion."
In her canonical legislation, the Catholic Church has constantly striven to find solutions for the painful situations experienced by her members. The procedures for dispensing religious from their solemn vows and reducing priests in difficulty to the lay state are eloquent illustrations of this. It seems it would be paradoxical for the discipline of the Church to be more demanding for the faithful confronted with the failure of their marriage than for consecrated souls.
The discipline of the Church put into practice the evangelical counsels received from Jesus Christ by instituting the religious life. Through the three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, the religious freely enter a state of life ordained to Christian perfection. While canon law determines the general conditions that rule this state of life in the Church, the rules (or constitutions) proper to each Order (or congregation) specify the concrete way in which they are realized.
Instituted by Christ as a mediatrix between God and men (Luke 10:16), the Church exercises a certain power over the public – simple or solemn – and private vows pronounced by her members. She can dispense from them in the name of God, if a sufficiently grave reason justifies it. Indeed, only the person to whom a promise is made can grant the dispensation.
So, vows are neither a natural institution – like marriage between non-baptized persons –, nor part of the sacramental order – like marriage between baptized persons –, but rather an ecclesiastical institution based on evangelical teachings. They exist by the will of the person committing himself, and can only come to an end through the will of Him to whom they are made. "No human power, not even the ministerial power of the Sovereign Pontiff, can dissolve a marriage that is ratum et consummatum (ratified and consummated)" (Casti connubii, December 31, 1930, §35).
The promise of celibacy made by candidates to the priesthood differs from religious vows on several points. First, it is a promise connected to the reception of a sacrament, the sacrament of Holy Orders. Secondly, this discipline is not universal, since the Eastern Catholic Churches have always allowed married men to receive holy orders. Lastly, the only object of this promise is the practice of chastity.
The discipline of the Church sometimes grants the reduction of a priest to the lay state. Whether requested by the priest in question or imposed by an authority, whether granted as a favor or inflicted as a punishment, this decision does not erase the priestly character, but only dispenses the priest from certain obligations of the clerical state. Although they are habitually combined, the sacrament of Holy Orders and the promise of celibacy nonetheless remain distinct.
The fidelity promised in a valid religious marriage, however, is neither distinct nor separable from the sacrament itself, which is the image of the indissoluble bond between Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:31). The Church concedes that it is sometimes inevitable for the spouses to separate physically and no longer live together. But She cannot accept that the sacramental bond be broken or that another non-sacramental union be added on to it legitimately without abusing the power received from Christ over the sacraments in general and marriage in particular.
The Church does not have a double standard for the same obligation. The religious vows and the chastity tied to the priesthood are not essential to a sacrament or directly instituted by God, but have been left to the Church to specify. Therefore, She may untie what she has been tying.
As for the indissolubility of the marriage, She cannot change what is an essential element of a divine institution elevated by Jesus as a sacrament; the Church has no power to modify it but She must faithfully pass on what has been given by Her founder.