CD 282: Self-imposed obligations

I promised to abstain from meat on Wednesdays as well as Fridays. Is it a sin if I fail in this?

In the normal course of our spiritual life, we must keep the obligations that the Church imposes on us: these are summed up in the precepts of the Church which you will find in the Catechism. (2041-2043) There several things to beware of in any self-imposed obligation. If we choose to bind ourselves to further obligations, they should be considered carefully with the advice of a good confessor or spiritual director. We can choose to make private vows but it is wise not to take such a step lightly. We are weak and fall into sin often enough without creating further sins for ourselves by creating an obligation in which we are likely to fail. Private vows are more appropriately reserved for a major change in our lives in which we undertake to serve God in a particular way.

With a resolution to do a particular penance it is usually best to include it more generally within the context of the spiritual life without taking a vow which would bind under pain of sin. The second commandment forbids us to take the name of God in vain and this would include making any rash promises or vows. We must also be aware of the temptation of pride which will subtly convince us that we are heroes when we need to progress further in the virtues, in our commitment to prayer, and in our life of daily charity.

Having given that caution, I would encourage you to make penance a part of your spiritual life; abstinence on Wednesdays as well as Fridays would be a reasonable and moderate form of penance, best undertaken as a small “gift” to Our Lord in reparation for past sins and in humble pleading for His grace. In addition to any positive penance that we undertake, we should be ready always to accept the penances that come our way in the inconveniences of everyday life. Offering these up in union with Our Lord’s passion is always a powerful means of sanctification.

Catholic Dilemmas column published in the Catholic Herald
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