There are few monastic or other orders remaining and there are few members of them. Evangelicals have generally not developed monastic traditions. Indeed, among some evangelicals, the ordination of the minister persists as long as there is a paycheck and the minister’s vow of poverty is involuntary. Nevertheless, the question of whether these vows are enforceable may arise in secular matters involving ecclesiastical monastic orders.
In Wisconsin Province (“Jesuits”) v Cassem, Memorandum of Decision on Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss (D. Conn., 2019), the federal trial court has before it a lawsuit in which a deceased Jesuit left a retirement savings account. As a Jesuit, he had contributed his earnings to the order all of his life pursuant to his vow. The order provided his living expenses since age eighteen. The bulk of his earnings, however, were derived from a very successful and prominent career as a research psychiatrist. Indeed, the retirement account at issue, which was valued at about $1.5 million, was maintained for most of its existence with a beneficiary designation that named the Jesuit order. Late in life, the Jesuit suffered from dementia and returned to reside with his family during the last years of his life. Sometime during that period, the Jesuit allegedly changed the beneficiary designation on the retirement account from the order to family members. The trial court dismissed the Jesuit’s request for a declaratory judgment that the Jesuits owned the account based on the lifelong vow of its deceased member. The court held that the vow was a contractual obligation of the deceased to the order. Remaining would be whether the order could seek contractual enforcement of the vow against the estate of the deceased Jesuit and whether that contract would supersede the beneficiary designation. That question was not answered in this opinion.
Whether an ecclesiastical vow is enforceable as a contract in a secular court would require a court to determine if the First Amendment Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine precluded the claim. Modern church organizations should assume an ecclesiastical vow will not be enforceable in a secular court in most situations, especially if the vow must be enforced against persons not members of the church organization in which the vow was made. For example, the retirement account should have been largely drained by the order with the assistance of the Jesuit upon retirement, if the order was aware of the account, instead of awaiting distribution upon death.