The Monastic Vows

Why are the monastic vows different than the traditional religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience?

At solemn vows a monk professes the following vow formula:  “I promise stability in this community, conversion according to a monastic way of life, and obedience.”  These vows are different from the formula for many other religious priests, brothers and sisters, which are made up of the familiar triad:  poverty, chastity, and obedience.  The latter three are often referred to as the evangelical counsels, and while widespread among religious today, they are a more recent (so to speak) development than St. Benedict’s formulation of the monk’s promise in his Rule for Monks.  Benedict, writing in the sixth century, had his monks promise, in Latin, stability, fidelity to a monastic manner of life, and obedience.  The “fidelity to a monastic manner of life” translates the key Benedictine phrase in the vow formula, conversatio morum.  The current translation, professed by all monks of our congregation, uses the word “conversion” instead of “fidelity,” so as to echo a centuries-long tradition where the original Latin word was believed to be conversio rather than conversatio.  (Conversatio means in this context monastic manner of life.)

The evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience are a later formulation (fourteenth century), albeit rooted in the Gospels.  The Franciscans are responsible for this formulation, presumably inspired by St. Francis’s keen attention to the virtue of poverty.  St. Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican saint, also contributed greatly in his writings to the exposition of these three counsels.

While a Benedictine monk does not explicitly promise chastity and poverty, he is still bound by them canonically, according to the universal law of the church for members of religious orders.  He is also understood to be bound to them by the Rule of Saint Benedict, which requires that a monk practice celibate chastity and forbids the ownership of any private property.  This is part of the fidelity to the monastic manner of life, the conversatio of a monk.

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