Help support New Advent and get the full contents of this website as an instant download. Includes the Catholic Encyclopedia, Church Fathers, Summa, Bible and more all for only $19.99...
(Or COUNSELS OF PERFECTION).
Christ in the Gospels laid down certain rules of life and conduct which must be practiced by every one of His followers as the necessary condition for attaining to everlasting life. These precepts of the Gospel practically consist of the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, of the Old Law, interpreted in the sense of the New. Besides these precepts which must be observed by all under pain of eternal damnation, He also taught certain principles which He expressly stated were not to be considered as binding upon all, or as necessary conditions without which heaven could not be attained, but rather as counsels for those who desired to do more than the minimum and to aim at Christian perfection, so far as that can be obtained here upon earth. Thus (Matthew 19:16 sq.) when the young man asked Him what he should do to obtain eternal life, Christ bade him to "keep the commandments". That was all that was necessary in the strict sense of the word, and by thus keeping the commands which God had given eternal life could be obtained. But when the young man pressed further, Christ told him: "If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor". So again, in the same chapter, He speaks of "eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven", and added, "He that can receive it, let him receive it".
This distinction between the precepts of the Gospel, which are binding on all, and the counsels, which are the subject of the vocation of the comparatively few, has ever been maintained by the Catholic Church. It has been denied by heretics in all ages, and especially by many Protestants in the sixteenth and following centuries, on the ground that, inasmuch as all Christians are at all times bound, if they would keep God's Commandments, to do their utmost, and even so will fall short of perfect obedience, no distinction between precepts and counsels can rightly be made. The opponents of the Catholic doctrine base their opposition on such texts as Luke 17:10, "When ye have done all that is commanded you, say, we are unprofitable servants". It is impossible, they say, to keep the Commandments adequately. To teach further "counsels" involves either the absurdity of advising what is far beyond all human capacity, or else the impiety of minimizing the commands of Almighty God. The Catholic doctrine, however, founded, as we have seen, upon the words of Christ in the Gospel, is also supported by St. Paul. In 1 Corinthians 7, for instance, he not only presses home the duty incumbent on all Christians of keeping free from all sins of the flesh, and of fulfilling the obligations of the married state, if they have taken those obligations upon themselves, but also gives his "counsel" in favour of the unmarried state and of perfect chastity, on the ground that it is thus more possible to serve God with an undivided allegiance. Indeed, the danger in the Early Church, and even in Apostolic times, was not that the "counsels" would be neglected or denied, but that they should be exalted into commands of universal obligation, "forbidding to marry" (1 Timothy 4:3), and imposing poverty as a duty on all.
The difference between a precept and a counsel lies in this, that the precept is a matter of necessity while the counsel is left to the free choice of the person to whom it is proposed. It is fitting, therefore, that the New Law, which is a law of liberty, should contain counsels of this kind, which would have been out of place in the Old Law, which was a law of servitude. The precepts of the New Law have for their scope the ordinance of those matters which are essential for the obtaining of life eternal the gift which it is the special object of the New Law to place within the reach of its followers. But the counsels show the means by which that same end may be reached yet more certainly and expeditiously. Man is, in this life, placed between the good things of this world and the good things of eternity, in such a way that the more he inclines to the first the more he alienates himself from the second. A man who is wholly given up to this world, finding in it the end and object of his existence, loses altogether the goods of eternity, of which he has no appreciation. So in like manner, the man who is wholly detached from this world, and whose thoughts are wholly bent on the realities of the world above, is taking the shortest way to obtain possession of that on which his heart is fixed. The children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light, but the case is reversed if a larger view be taken.
Now the principal good things of this world easily divide themselves into three classes. There are the riches which make life easy and pleasant, there are the pleasures of the flesh which appeal to the appetites, and, lastly, there are honours and positions of authority which delight the self-love of the individual. These three matters, in themselves often innocent and not forbidden to the devout Christian, may yet, even when no kind of sin is involved, hold back the soul from its true aim and vocation, and delay it from becoming entirely conformed to the will of God. It is, therefore, the object of the three counsels of perfection to free the soul from these hindrances. The soul may indeed be saved and heaven attained without following the counsels; but that end will be reached more easily and with greater certainty, if the counsels be accepted and the soul does not wholly confine herself to doing that which is definitely commanded. On the other hand, there are, no doubt, individual cases in which it may be actually necessary for a person, owing to particular circumstances, to follow one or more of the counsels, and one may easily conceive a case in which the adoption of the religious life might seem, humanly speaking, the only way in which a particular soul could be saved. Such cases, however, are always of an exceptional character. As there are three great hindrances to the higher life, so also the counsels are three, one to oppose each. The love of riches is opposed by the counsel of poverty; the pleasures of the flesh, even the lawful pleasures of holy matrimony, are excluded by the counsel of chastity; while the desire for worldly power and honour is met by the counsel of holy obedience. Abstinence from unlawful indulgence in any of these directions is forbidden to all Christians as a matter of precept. The further voluntary abstinence from what is in itself lawful is the subject of the counsels, and such abstinence is not in itself meritorious, but only becomes so when it is done for the sake of Christ, and in order to be more free to serve Him.
To sum up: it is possible to be rich, and married, and held in honour by all men, and yet keep the Commandments and to enter heaven. Christ's advice is, if we would make sure of everlasting life and desire to conform ourselves perfectly to the Divine will, that we should sell our possessions and give the proceeds to others who are in need, that we should live a life of chastity for the Gospel's sake, and, finally, should not seek honours or commands, but place ourselves under obedience. These are the Evangelical Counsels, and the things which are counselled are not set forward so much as good in themselves, as in the light of means to an end and as the surest and quickest way of obtaining everlasting life. (See ASCETICISM; MONASTICISM; RELIGIOUS ORDERS.)
All writers on dogmatic or moral theology touch on the subject more or less directly. The following especially may be consulted: ST. THOMAS, Summa Theol., I-II, Q. cviii; II-II, Q. cxxiv; SUAREZ, Opera (ed. 1858), XV, p. 38; MIGNE, Dict. d'ascéticisme, s.v.; MALDONATUS, Commentary on Matt. xix.
APA citation. (1908). Evangelical Counsels. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04435a.htm
MLA citation. "Evangelical Counsels." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04435a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Bob Elder.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.
Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is webmaster at newadvent.org. Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.