In the Catholic Church, "secular" (or "diocesan") priests do not make vows. However, they are required by Catholic canon (church) law to promise obedience and celibacy to their bishop. In contrast, "religious" priests do make vows. They make three vows called the "evangelical counsels" to the superior of their religious order -- poverty, chastity and obedience. Therefore the promises of "secular" priests correspond to two of the three vows made by their "religious" counterparts.
"Secular" vs. "Religious" Priesthood
The priests designated by the terms "secular" or "diocesan" have been in existence since the beginning of Catholic Church history. These priests are assigned to a diocese (a geographical area) and are under the authority of the bishop of that diocese. The priests designated by the term "religious" have been in existence only since the seventh century, when the first religious orders (also called congregations, institutes or communities) of monks were formed. These priests are under the authority of both the superior of their order and the bishop of the diocese where they live. The term "secular" is applied to the diocesan priests because they are considered to be living "in the world," in contrast to the "religious" priests, who live in community with other members of their order.
Secular Priests' Promises
The commitments required of secular priests are specified in Catholic canon law. Canon 273 indicates that they are "bound by a special obligation to show reverence and obedience to the Supreme Pontiff and their own ordinary." (The term "ordinary" means the bishop of the diocese where the priest resides.) Canon 277 specifies that they must "observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and therefore are bound to celibacy." These commitments are made to the bishop at the time of ordination (along with a commitment to say certain daily prayers) in the form of promises.
Obedience and Celibacy
The rule requiring obedience of secular priests has been in place since the Catholic Church developed a structure of authority. The Church has always been a strictly hierarchical organization. However, the rule requiring celibacy is not as old. The wisdom of imposing celibacy on all priests was debated over several centuries and finally affirmed in 1139, when the marriage of priests was declared invalid. The policy was reaffirmed by Pope Paul VI in 1967 in the document "On the Celibacy of the Priest" (or "Sacerdotalis Caelibatus"), which states "priestly celibacy has been guarded by the Church for centuries as a brilliant jewel, and retains its value undiminished."
Secular priests do not make a commitment to poverty (as do religious priests), which means that they are permitted to own property. However, they do function under certain financial constraints. Canons 285 and 286 indicate that secular priests cannot "take on the management of goods belonging to lay persons," nor can they conduct "business or trade personally or through others." Therefore the secular priest -- while not committed to poverty -- is unlikely to amass wealth. Nevertheless, the commitments/promises that secular priests make are quite distinct from the vows of religious priests.
- stjohnsphilly.com: What is the difference between a diocesan priest and a priest who is a member of a religious order?
- Bridgeport Vocations: Diocesan or Religious Priesthood?
- The Holy See: Code of Canon Law
- The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism; Richard McBrien (editor)
- The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church; Cross and Livingstone (editors)
- The Holy See: Paul VI -- SACERDOTALIS CAELIBATUS
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