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Chapter 27: Life Formed by the Modes of Christian Response

Question H: How can a conscientious Christian make any vocational commitment other than to follow the counsels of perfection?

1. The Catholic Church has constantly taught that virginity or celibacy dedicated to God, poverty, and obedience are recommended as counsels of perfection; that life in accord with these counsels is a special, divine gift; and that those who commit themselves to such a life by vows or similar promises act with a freedom and generosity which exceed duty (see LG 42–44; PC 1, 12–14). There is a foundation for this position in Scripture: St. Paul, for example, clearly favors Christians remaining unmarried, but in no case insists on this as a definite obligation (see 1 Cor 7.1, 7, 8, 28, 32–35, 38, 40; S.t., 1–2, q. 108, a. 4; 2–2, q. 186, aa. 1, 3–5).

2. This appears puzzling. Every Christian is called to perfection. It would seem that if an act is conducive to perfection, it is obligatory; if not, it is excluded as inappropriate. But if this is so, there are no acts which a Christian can undertake which would be better than the acts required by specific Christian moral norms. Apparently, there is no room for a way to perfection which need not be followed by every conscientious Christian. If so, however, every vocational commitment except that of following the counsels of perfection falls short of the standard of a fully mature Christian conscience.

3. Nevertheless, the counsels cannot be obligatory for all, for otherwise they would in no sense be counsels. Thus a puzzle, but it can be solved. The account of Christian norms and conscience given here shows why the counsels are not obligatory norms.

4. Carrying out the counsels becomes obligatory for some by their commitment to the religious life. Until one discerns that this form of life is one’s vocation, there can be no obligation to fulfill the counsels. As counsels, they call the attention of all to an especially suitable and noble possible form of Christian vocation, and in doing so help some Christians recognize that it is part of their personal vocation to follow them. Without the counsels, few would be likely to think of this possibility and appreciate its excellence.

5. St. Thomas gives a partial account of the reason why Christian morality includes counsels as well as precepts (S.t., 2–2, q. 184, a. 3; q. 186, a. 7). He explains that the counsels are only counsels, not precepts, because they concern means to perfection rather than perfection itself. Everyone is called to the complete integration of self with divine love. The counsels indicate one way of fulfilling this precept, but only one way (see S.t., 2–2, q. 184, aa. 3–4). Therefore, they are not obligatory. Nevertheless, for those who can accept them, they are an easier and more apt way than a personal vocation outside their framework. Thus, the counsels indicate a better way, and for those who make the commitment to fulfill them, it is part of their Christian responsibility to do so (see S.t., 2–2. q. 186, a. 2).

6. Another partial account of the reason why Christian teaching offers the counsels as advice rather than proposing them as precepts is that Christianity fulfills, not nullifies, God’s plan for humankind. That plan includes the blessing: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gn 1.28). In the life of the Church, the special value of the religious state is to be a sign of the reality of the invisible kingdom of Jesus (see LG 44). However, this value is realized provided some members of the Church commit themselves to life according to the counsels and faithfully fulfill this commitment. Hence, there is no need for all Christians to follow this particular way of life; many can continue to find an authentic Christian vocation in marriage and secular occupations.

7. However, the question remains: If life according to the counsels truly fosters charity in a special way, how can the choice of such a life not be strictly obligatory for those capable of this commitment?

8. “Capable of this commitment” can be understood in two ways, which must be distinguished to answer this question. In one way, the phrase refers to a capacity to follow a judgment of prudence that life according to the counsels is to be preferred for oneself. In a second way, it refers to a capacity to determine this preference.

9. A person capable of the commitment in the first sense has made the prudential, discerning judgment: “God is calling me to live according to the counsels.” For such a person, the choice of this life is strictly obligatory, not by virtue of the counsels, but by virtue of a specific norm: One ought to accept and commit oneself to whatever one discerns to be one’s personal vocation.

10. A person capable of the commitment in the second sense is not yet sure what his or her vocation is. Because life according to the counsels is not necessary for any particular Christian’s salvation and not appropriate for all Christians in their communal building up of the Mystical Body, no specific norm ever requires anyone to undertake this life. But one at the point of making the relevant vocational commitment considers this way of Christian life as one good option among others. Since commitment to such a life is an open option for free choice, the person is capable of making it. Yet, since the counsels are not precepts, the capability of making the commitment entails no obligation to make it.

11. Still, the question remains: If the counsels entail no obligation, how do they help one reach the prudential judgment discerning one’s vocation? The answer is that when reflection ends with two or more good options, as question D explained, one rightly attends to one’s nonrational inclinations. The counsels come into play at this point by affecting one’s feelings about the option of life according to them. They affect one’s feelings by making it clear that this way of life is especially pleasing to Jesus, toward whom one not only has the volitional commitment of faith but the emotional affection which belongs to human friendship.

12. What occurs here is not mysterious; it is an instance of a familiar experience. People often express their preferences to others, yet make it clear that they do not wish this expression to be taken as binding. For example, a husband talking with his wife about plans for a wedding anniversary celebration might say: “I think it would be fun to go away for a weekend together, but if you’d rather have a little party with the children, that’s fine with me too.” Such advice will affect the wife’s feelings and might or might not be decisive in settling which option she chooses. The probability that she will choose the vacation is greater than if her husband had not offered his counsel, yet this might not be sufficient to make this option seem to her the one to be preferred. She would violate the spirit in which the advice was given if she nevertheless said to herself: I am more inclined to the party, but ought to please my husband, and so have an obligation to choose the weekend vacation.

Some light can be thrown on the counsels by a passage in which Paul holds that every new Christian ought to stay in the condition in which he or she is at the time of conversion—the married are to stay so, the single so, the slaves so, the uncircumcised so (see 1 Cor 7.17–24). The vital thing is to make the most of one’s condition, not to be in this or that state of life. With little time before one leaves this world, one does well to simplify, not complicate, the job one must do. Thus, it seems that to make the most of their opportunity, all who have not made incompatible commitments and begin to consider the option of life according to the counsels should prefer it.

On the other hand, one must consider the saying, with respect to celibacy or virginity: “He who is able to receive this, let him receive it” (Mt 19.12). This often is taken to mean that one must be careful to assess one’s ability to live according to the counsels before committing oneself to doing so. Many who attempt such an assessment reach inconclusive results. Thus, it seems that many to whom Paul’s advice is directed should not follow it.

However, “He who is able to receive this, let him receive it” is misunderstood when it is taken to call for self-assessment of capacity to live according to the counsels. This cannot be ascertained in any direct way, for it is a matter of one’s future development and depends on God’s grace. Hence, when people try to make such an assessment, they embark on a reflection in principle interminable. In doing this, moreover, they make the serious error of supposing their ability to fulfill commitments will depend on their own power, rather than on God’s grace, which a humble Christian always will confidently ask for and gratefully receive.

The true meaning of “He who is able to receive this, let him receive it” is indicated in the answer to the main question above. One has the capacity to accept this teaching when one has made a prudential judgment discerning life according to the counsels as the option to be preferred. The counsels themselves help one to reach this judgment. If a person considers the option and prayerfully allows the counsels to have their proper effect on inclination yet still feels a preference for another way of living a good Christian life, then he or she does not reach the prudential judgment, “God is calling me to this life,” and so should make no commitment to it.

It also is worth noticing that worries about the difficulty of fulfilling a commitment to live according to the counsels are to a large extent ungrounded in the realities of Christian life. As Paul’s advice makes clear, a young person who chooses the religious life keeps the comparative simplicity of childhood and avoids most of the complexity of adult, secular life. (This observation is not intended in any pejorative sense.) Like the life of a child, the life of a religious is celibate (and so unburdened with the responsibilities and distractions of spouse and family), is without personal property (and so unburdened with the responsibilities and temptations of ownership), and is without individual autonomy (and so unburdened with the responsibilities and temptations of setting and striving for one’s own goals in life). Thus, rather than being especially difficult, life according to the counsels actually is a simpler and easier way to live a good Christian life.2 St. Thomas also points out this personal advantage of this way of life.

At this point, someone is likely to object that if life according to the counsels really is an easier way to live a Christian life, then it is not superior. One would do better to worry less about personal sanctity and accept the greater burdens of a more complex life, thus contributing its goods to fulfillment in Jesus. This objection is plausible but fallacious. It presupposes that the choice of what is harder is better, and it takes for granted that the easier way to lead a fully Christian life is easier in all respects. Neither assumption is correct. To work out one’s salvation within the framework of the counsels is not easy by human standards. It is especially difficult at the outset, whereas married life is easy at the beginning and becomes harder as it unfolds. More important, the more difficult is not necessarily morally superior. Fulfilling the law of Jesus is both better and easier than fulfilling the law of Moses (see Mt 11.28–30; Rom 7.1–6; Gal 4.21–5.6).

2. This point often has been made by saintly religious. See, for example, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Story of a Soul, trans. John Clarke, O.C.D. (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1976), 218, on obedience: “O Mother, what anxieties the Vow of Obedience frees us from! How happy are simple religious! Their only compass being their Superiors’ will, they are always sure of being on the right road; they have nothing to fear from being mistaken even when it seems that their Superiors are wrong.”