On Promises

We read in Deuteronomy 1, “Support me, O Lord, according to your promises….” It takes a certain amount of boldness even to ask the Lord to keep His promises, let alone to recognize that He made any to us.

Much of our contentment and discontentment arises over the keeping or breaking of promises. An oath or a pledge is a declaration that we will keep a promise. A vow is a solemn promise, often made to God, designed to emphasize the seriousness of the promise, the intent to keep it. A contract is an agreement that something will be done or delivered in a specified manner, usually at a specific time. Too many lives are filled with broken promises. Hence, oaths and contracts usually have some specific legal penalty or remedy if the promised act is not fulfilled. Others depend on us to keep our promises.

Promises may or may not have time factors involved in them. Marriage is, or should be, “till death do us part.” A contract may read that I will deliver this load of coal on December 20. Promises enable us to configure a future that yet has no present order. A promise identifies how someone will act or speak in a not-yet future. It allows us to make our own promises on the surety of those of others.

The question comes up about promises that we never should make, or carry out if made. I think of Herod Antipas. He swore that he would give his dancing daughter up to half a kingdom. Only she asked for the head of John the Baptist instead. The king, since he made such a fuss, had to “keep” his oath and promise. Plato pointed out in a famous passage in the Republic that the greatest crimes need mutual agreement and promise among gangsters for the worst schemes to be accomplished. Promises arise out of our understanding and power to will. They are part of the discourse on free will and its relation to reason.

The Beheading of John the Baptist by Caravaggio (1608)
The Beheading of John the Baptist by Caravaggio (1608)

A promise is a way to organize the future, as Hannah Arendt once explained it. The past has happened. We cannot change it. To lie about what happened in the past is an evil that can be checked against facts. But the future has not yet happened. Now we might be believers who claim that we so trust in God that we do not have to “do” anything. We just let whatever happens be “God’s will.” We excuse ourselves by saying that we follow “God’s will” wherever it leads. But this thesis merely bypasses the whole meaning of what it is to be human: to be able to act and take responsibility for our actions.

The regularities of nature, the sun rising and setting, go on without our will having anything to do with them. We can praise them, but not change them. This necessity is true of our own existence as far as we ourselves are concerned. But our existence depended on the promises of others, hopefully of our parents, of their promise to raise what is begotten of them. But other things will only exist if we plan for them. Just to have a plan is not enough. We must will it, resolve, and promise to carry it into existence.

In his famous essay, “In Defence of Rash Vows,” Chesterton wrote these remarkable lines:

It is most interesting to listen to opponents to marriage. . . .They appear to imagine that the ideal of constancy (of keeping a vow) was a yoke mysteriously imposed on mankind by the devil, instead of being, as it is, a yoke consistently imposed by all lovers on themselves. They have invented a phrase, a phrase that is a black and white contradiction in two words – “free love” – as if love ever had been or ever could be free. It is the nature of love to bind oneself, and the institution of marriage merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word.

It has never been said better. Love is a choice to be free by binding ourselves to what we love in such a way that we keep our promise to the one we choose. Broken promises and vows do not free us. They merely explain to us how we chose not to be free.

In the confessional formula, we firmly “promise” to make amends for our sins. Without this promise, things are at a standstill morally and sacramentally. If we break a promise, and who hasn’t, we should not use that as an excuse to break every other promise. But if we find ourselves constantly breaking promises, solemn and ordinary, we are nearing the condition of that “free love” to which Chesterton referred, that love that binds us to nothing but ourselves.

The Catholic Thing

  • Beth

    My youngest son (8) is memorizing Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening
    by Robert Frost. This being our fourth child to memorize the poem, I’ve
    had many opportunities to hear it and think about it. It came to mind
    directly upon reading this essay. The final stanza:
    The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
    But I have promises to keep,
    And miles to go before I sleep,
    And miles to go before I sleep.

    Thank you, Fr. Schall.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    In another splendid passage Chesterton also said, “It is plain that the promise, or extension of responsibility through time, is what chiefly distinguishes us, I will not say from savages, but from
    brutes and reptiles. This was noted by the shrewdness of the Old Testament, when it summed up the dark irresponsible enormity of Leviathan in the words “Will he make a pact with thee?” The promise, like the wheel, is unknown in Nature: and is the first mark of man. Referring only to human civilisation it may be said with seriousness, that in the beginning was the Word. The vow is to the man what the song is to the bird, or the bark to the dog; his voice, whereby he is known… It is not easy to mention anything on which the enormous apparatus of human life can be said to depend. But if it depends on anything, it is on this frail cord, flung from the forgotten hills of yesterday to the invisible mountains of to-morrow. On that solitary string hangs everything from Armageddon to an almanac, from a successful revolution to a return ticket.”

  • Alley Upta

    Two lovers may have committed themselves to each other in the past and meant it. The same two lovers may willingly and amicably wish to part from each other in the future and mean it. Why may we not accept that both affirmations are made in good faith and accept them with good grace?

    • Rosemary58

      It sounds romantic but the reality of divorce is quite ugly. If the marriage commitment were merely contractual (civil), there would be no problem, and many couples choose to go that way.

      Being that Catholics are oriented toward the spiritual, that is a reality for us. To Catholics there is a third Person in the marriage: God. A Catholic man and woman enter into a sacramental covenant not just between themselves – as they would in a civil marriage – but also between themselves and God.

  • DS

    To the Editors: I hope you don’t mind a commentary on the redesigned website, which I am finding to be a challenge. Perhaps others do too. Everything loads more slowly, especially the commentary. Logins are often required, even if I use the same device….perhaps that is why we are not seeing anywhere near the number of comments and some of the old “regulars” (eg, Manfred). Any way to get back some of the simplicity and speed of the old site?

    • Brad Miner

      The new site is a work in progress. We are working daily on improvements. Bear with us during our shakedown cruise.

  • An Italian pop star from the 1960’s said once that, from the masculine point of view, “divorce is for those men who lack the spine to love a woman forever” a phrase that remained in my memory and deserves to be known in the original:

    “Sono contro il divorzio. Lo considero una faccenda ipocrita da uomi senza la spina dorsale per amare una donna per tutta la vita. I mattrimonio è un conttratto indissolubile, per la vita, o è inutile che si sia. È nato così il matrimonio: dall’esigenza dell’uomo di crearsi un nucleo sociale tutto suo, la famiglia. E un núcleo no è lecito scioglerlo.” Luigi Tenco

    “I am against divorce. I consider it a matter of hypocritical men without the backbone to love a woman for life. Matrimony is an indissoluble contract, for life, otherwise it is useless to anyone. This leads to marriage: the need of man to create a social nucleus all of his own, the family. It is not lawful to dissolve a nucleus. ” (Best possible amateur translation.) Luigi Tenco

    Such were the musings of a pop star in the early sixties. We’ve come a long way (down.)