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In the 1917 Canon law of the Roman Catholic Church, public vows are either simple vows or solemn vows. Professed members of religious orders take solemn vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience (the vows of religion), while members of religious congregations take simple vows. The practical difference lies in the vow of poverty. While in simple vows, a person maintains the right to own goods (but cedes their administration), in solemn vows a person renounces the right of ownership of goods.
The distinction arose historically between simple and solemn vows, the names of which appear in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Various opinions have been expressed as to the matter of this distinction, and the question has not yet been decided.
Some persons make the essential solemnity consist in the surrender of oneself that accompanies certain vows; this is the opinion of Gregory of Valentia (Comment. theol., III, D. 6, Q. vi, punct. 5) and many recent Thomists. But the surrender is found in vows that are not solemn, such as the vows of scholastics of the Society of Jesus, who would not be religious properly so-called, if their surrender differed essentially from that of the professed fathers. Moreover, the surrender really accompanies only a vow of obedience accepted in a religious order, while other vows are solemn, even without any question of obedience, such as the vow of chastity made by subdeacons.
In the opinion of Augustinus Lehmkuhl (Theol. mor., I, nn. 64750) the solemnity of the vow consists in a spiritual consecration, the effect of which is that, after such a vow, a person is irrevocably set apart and appointed by the Church to serve God by the offering of that vow. The vow of pilgrimage to the Holy Land was temporary and solemn. Pope Boniface VIII declares those vows to be solemn that are accompanied either by a consecration or by a religious profession.
In spite of its complication and the forced explanations to which recourse is had, to escape from the difficulty, the opinion of Suárez (De religione tr. VII, c.ii, c.x, n.l; c.xii, nn.7-9; c.xiii, nn.3, 8-13; c.xiv, n. 10) still finds distinguished defenders, especially Franz Xavier Wernz (Jus Decretalium, III, n. 572). This opinion places the essence of the solemnity in the absolute surrender by the declarer and the acceptance of that surrender by the religious order, which is accomplished by solemn profession, and also in the incapacity of a person who is bound by solemn vows to perform validly acts that are contrary to those vows; such as the incapacity to possess property, or to contract marriage. This incapacity was not, and is not, always attached to solemn vows, which do involve any particular incapacity; and often solemn vows do not produce this effect.
The vow of the Crusader was solemn without being attached to any more general vow of obedience. Surrender does not constitute the solemnity. A simple opinion, which, in accord with Vasquez (In I-II, Q. xcvi, d. clxv, especially n. 83) and Sanchez (In decalogum, 1, 5, c. 1, n. 11-13), places the material solemnity of vows of religion in the surrender followed by irrevocable acceptance; and with Paul Laymann (De statu religioso, c. i, n. 4), Franciscus Pellizarius (Manuale regularium, tr. IV, c. i. nn. 10-18). Medina (De sacrorum hominum continentia, l. 4, controv. 7, c. xxxviii), V. De Buck (De solemnitate votorum epistola), Nilles (De juridica votorum solemnitate), and Palmieri (Opus theol., II, pp. 445, 446) respects the ordinary juridical signification of the solemn act. The juridical solemnities are formalities to be observed to give to the act either its legal value or at least the more or less valuable guarantee perfect authenticity.
This explanation accounts for the historical changes, both those that refer to the number and conditions of vows, and those that concern their effects. It is natural there should be greater difficulty in obtaining a dispensation from a solemn vow, and also that the Church should attach certain disabilities to such a vow. But these effects of solemn vows cannot constitute the essence of such vows. However this may be, canon law does not recognize any vow as solemn except the vow of chastity, solemnized by religious profession in an order strictly so called.
The vows taken in religious congregations, like the simple vows that in religious orders precede the solemn profession, and also the complementary simple vows which follow the profession in some institutes, and lastly the final simple vows taken in certain religious orders in place of solemn profession, are, strictly speaking, private; but they derive a certain authenticity from the approval of the Church and the circumstances in which they are taken.
Code of Canon Law
In the 1983 Code of Canon Law, Simple and Solemn Laws are thus defined:
A vow is solemn if the Church has recognized it as such; otherwise, it is simple. (cf Can 1192, par 2)