Religious vows are the public vows made by the members of 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 remains a member of the Laity. 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 onself 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 of Rome 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 Canon law. The vows 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.
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 profession of vows. There are technical differences between them in Canon law.
There are other forms of vowed or 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).
Among them are the Consecrated Hermits that in accordance with canon 603 make a public profession of the Evangelical Counsels, confirmed by a vow or other sacred bond, once only, which is therefore perpetual.
Also among the other forms of vowed life are the Secular Institutes, regulated explicitly since 1984 by Canon Law (Canon 710-730). One of the Secular Institutes, the Institute of the Holy Family, aggregated to the Society of St. Paul, is the only form of consecrated life in the Catholic Church today that has consecrated and publicly vowed married and widowed members. While they live in the world, in their marriages, they consecrate the world and their marriages from within through public vows (i.e. vows recognised in Church law) of married chastity, poverty, and obedience, according to their particular state, and as full members of the family of 10 religious orders (first and second orders), secular institutes, and lay cooperators, called the Pauline Family, founded by the Blessed Fr. James Alberione.
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 administerd by the Abbot or Hieromonk who performs the service. Following a perod 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.
- ↑ 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.