Within the common Christian vocation, the Church recognizes certain important distinctions among states of life as elements in personal vocation. In particular, tradition teaches that the status of the religious—which involves a communal life and the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience—is especially suitable for those called to it; this form of life has been called a “state of perfection” (see S.t., 2–2, q. 184, a. 4). The concept of state of perfection often has been misunderstood, with bad effects for other states of life. However, the unique value of the religious state ought to be recognized. Nothing in this chapter about the common vocation of Christians and the personal vocation of every Christian is inconsistent with full appreciation for the religious state of life.
There are several misunderstandings of the religious state which need to be set aside.
First, the religious is not special in living a life entirely shaped by a fundamental commitment to the good of religion. The redemptive commitment of Jesus, in which every Christian shares as the fundamental commitment of his or her own life, is to the human good of religion—of friendship with God and the fulfillment in communion of divine and human persons. In contrast with nonbelievers, who might organize their lives by a morally upright fundmental commitment to justice or by a selfish commitment to certain aspects of personal self-integration, every Christian is primarily a religious person.
Second, as Vatican II teaches (see LG 39–42), every Christian is called to holiness. God’s will for all is sanctity (see 1 Thes 4.3; Eph 1.4). What is central to holiness is the love of God; it “governs all the means of attaining holiness, enlivens them, and brings them to fulfillment” (LG 42; translation supplied). The precept of charity is radical and total: One must love God with one’s entire mind, heart, soul, and strength (see Mt 22.36–37; Mk 12.29–30; Lk 10.25–28). If one fulfilled this precept, one would be perfect. Thus, since this precept is addressed to all; all are called to personal perfection (see S.t., 2–2, q. 44, aa. 3–6; q. 184, a. 3).
Third, the religious is not special in living a life which is more divine, while other Christians live a life which is more human. Everyone who lives in God’s love lives a life (sin apart) altogether divine, and every human person lives a life altogether human. Moreover, every Christian is called to be one with Jesus both in revealing God’s love to others and in responding to God as humankind should.
Fourth, the religious is not special in living a life which is more other-worldly, leaving to others the task of living a this-worldly existence. All Christian life is lived in this world and must contribute something to the realization of human goods—which include the great good of religion—here and now. At the same time, everything one does out of love of God is destined to last forever, and contributes even now to the hidden but real growth of the invisible kingdom of Jesus.
The true distinction between the religious state and other Christian states of life is hinted at by Vatican II when it says that there are diverse gifts of the Spirit: “He calls some to give clear witness to the desire for a heavenly home and to keep that desire green among the human family. He summons others to dedicate themselves to the earthly service of men and to make ready the material of the celestial realm by this ministry of theirs” (GS 38). Again, the Council teaches that the religious state reveals to all believers that heavenly goods are already present now. Life in the religious state provides a kind of preview of resurrection life in the heavenly kingdom (see LG 44).
The whole of Christian life is marked by a tension between fulfillment-already-realized and fulfillment-not-yet-realized. These are not contraries—that is, qualities incompatible with one another. Rather, they are the relative opposites inherent in the fact that Jesus is risen and the new creation already is being built up in him, yet life goes on in this world and sin with all its effects still must be overcome. Jesus has come, yet Jesus is still to come. Christian life has its meaning from both comings.
What Vatican II says about the religious state amounts to this: So far as possible in this world, those in the religious state live in accord with fulfillment already realized. By contrast, other Christians live much more in accord with the reality of the kingdom as a project still to be completed. The difference is one of polar (or relative) opposition, like that between north and south. If this way of understanding the distinction is right, one should expect to find various degrees of the religious state and its opposite—a conclusion which seems to be verified by the Church’s liberality in approving various religious life-styles.
The explanation just given of the specific character of the religious state can account for the three vows. In heaven, the work of creation will be complete, and no new members of the communion will be called for. Hence, there will be neither marriage nor begetting (see Mt 22.23–33; Mk 12.18–27; Lk 20.27–40). Consecrated virginity is appropriate insofar as the heavenly situation already is real. In heaven, the need for scarce means to achieve ends will no longer obtain, and so there will be no problems of property. A life of communal poverty, without private ownership of goods, seems eminently suited to manifest this aspect of heaven (see Mt 19.16–22; Mk 10.17–22; Lk 18.18–23). Finally, in heaven the self-determination of the saints will already have been achieved, and so they will be able to live with spontaneity without the burden of making major decisions. The obedience of religious life can be regarded as a sign of this situation.