Avowal Movements

To be clear: agreeing with the Pope and David Quinn in consecutive posts is not a sign that I am somehow on the turn. However, Mr Quinn has an article about Franciscan friars and religious orders in general, and I have some sympathy with his view that the good they do is overlooked. Yet:

These vows could not be more anti-modern. Vowing never to have sex strikes a lot of us as being a denial of life itself. But maybe that’s because we over-value sex.

But isn’t vowing never to have sex also over-valuing sex? Suppose I take a solemn vow to never eat a Dime bar (or Daim or whatever the hell it’s called these days) for as long as I live because it gets the way of my earthly duties. Others might see this as extreme, but if they do it isn’t because they over-value Dime bars. Yet I seem to think that my abstaining from eating Dime bars means that I can get on with doing my duties, such as halting the moral decline of the human race. And I seem to think that if I don’t abstain from eating them, my project is doomed. Am I not over-valuing Dime bars by denying my own capacity to get on with things? (Some liberal and conservative commentators may reply that there is no ‘moral equivalence’ between Dime bars and sex, to which I reply: it depends how good the Dime bar is, or how bad the sex)

It may not be that sex, or Dime bars, or any other object of desire is over-valued: it may be that vowing itself is overvalued. That’s why the idea of the sacred has to be brought into things: the conditions underpinning any written contract can change, rendering the contract null and void, but you can no more change the conditions of a sacred vow than you can eat your own head. It is a kind of extremism, externalising the responsibility for your conduct: you are no longer accountable to yourself, but to the vow you have made. In the case of Franciscan friars, this is probably benign enough for the rest of us, but the general principle that sacred vows are good can have all sorts of awful consequences. It means, for instance, that you might justify blowing up that apartment block full of civilians because your sworn oath to your homeland demands that you do it.

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