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A thing is perfect in which nothing is wanting of its nature, purpose, or end. It may be perfect in nature, yet imperfect inasmuch as it has not yet attained its end, whether this be in the same order as itself, or whether, by the will of God and His gratuitous liberality, it be entirely above its nature, i.e. in the supernatural order. From Revelation we learn that the ultimate end of man is supernatural, consisting in union with God here on earth by grace and hereafter in heaven by the beatific vision. Perfect union with God cannot be attained in this life, so man is imperfect in that he lacks the happiness for which he is destined and suffers many evils both of body and soul. Perfection therefore in its absolute sense is reserved for the kingdom of heaven.
Christian perfection is the supernatural or spiritual union with God which is possible of attainment in this life, and which may be called relative perfection, compatible with the absence of beatitude, and the presence of human miseries, rebellious passions, and even venial sins to which a just man is liable without a special grace and privilege of God. This perfection consists in charity, in the degree in which it is attainable in this life (Matthew 22:36-40; Romans 13:10; Galatians 5:14; 1 Corinthians 12:31, and 13:13). This is the universal teaching of the Fathers and of theologians. Charity unites the soul with God as its supernatural end, and removes from the soul all that is opposed to that union. "God is charity; and he that abideth in charity abideth in God, and God in him" (1 John 4:16). Francisco Suárez explains that perfection can be attributed to charity in three ways: (1) substantially or essentially, because the essence of union with God consists in charity for the habit as well as for the endeavour or pursuit of perfection; (2) principally, because it has the chief share in the process of perfection; (3) entirely, for all other virtues necessarily accompany charity and are ordained by it to the supreme end. It is true that faith and hope are prerequisites for perfection in this life, but they do not constitute it, for in heaven, where perfection is complete and absolute, faith and hope no longer remain. The other virtues therefore belong to perfection in a secondary and accidental manner, because charity cannot exist without them and their exercise, but they without charity do not unite the soul supernaturally to God. (Lib. I, De Statu Perfectionis, Cap. iii).
Christian perfection consists not only in the habit of charity, i.e. the possession of sanctifying grace and the constant will of preserving that grace, but also in the pursuit or practice of charity, which means the service of God and withdrawal of ourselves from those things which oppose or impede it. "Be it ever remembered", says Reginald Buckler, "that the perfection of man is determined by his actions, not by his habits as such. Thus a high degree of habitual charity will not suffice to perfect the soul if the habit pass not into act. That is, if it become not operative. For to what purpose does a man possess virtue if he uses it not? He is not virtuous because he can live virtuously but because he does so." (The Perfection of Man by Charity. Ch. vii, p. 77).
The perfection of the soul increases in proportion with the possession of charity. He who possesses the perfection which excludes mortal sin obtains salvation, is united to God, and is said to be just, holy, and perfect. The perfection of charity, which excludes also venial sin and all affections which separate the heart from God, signifies a state of active service of God and of frequent, fervent acts of the love of God. This is the perfect fulfilment of the law (Matthew 22:37), as God is the primary object of charity. The secondary object is our neighbour. This is not limited to necessary and obligatory duties, but extends to friends, strangers, and enemies, and may advance to a heroic degree, leading a man to sacrifice external goods, comforts and life itself for the spiritual welfare of others. This is the charity taught by Christ by word (John 15:13) and example. (See THEOLOGICAL VIRTUE OF LOVE).
Christian perfection, or the perfection of charity as taught by our Saviour, applies to all men, both secular and religious, yet there is also religious perfection. The religious state is called a school (disciplina) of perfection and it imposes an obligation, more strict than that of the secular state, of striving after perfection. Seculars are obliged to perfection by the observance of the precepts or commandments only; while religious are obliged to observe also the evangelical counsels to which they freely bind themselves by the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The counsels are the means or instruments of perfection in both a negative and positive sense. Negatively: the obstacles in the way of perfection, which are (1 John 1:16) concupiscence of the eyes, concupiscence of the flesh, and pride of life, are removed by the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, respectively. Positively: the profession of the counsels tends to increase the love of God in the soul. The affections, freed from earthly ties, enable the soul to cling to God and to spiritual things more intensely and more willingly, and thus promote His glory and our own sanctification, placing us in a more secure state for attaining the perfection of charity.
It is true that seculars who also tend to perfection have to perform many things that are not of precept, but they do not bind themselves irrevocably to the evangelical counsels. It is, however, expedient only for those who are called by God to take upon themselves these obligations. In no state or condition of life is such a degree of perfection attainable that further progress is not possible. God on his part can always confer on man an increase of sanctifying grace, and man in turn by cooperating with it can increase in charity and grow more perfect by becoming more intimately and steadfastly united to God.
BUCKLER, The Perfection of Man by Charity (London, 1900); DEVINE, A Manual of Ascetical Theology (London, 1902); IDEM, Convent Life (London, 1904); ST. FRANCIS DE SALES, Treatise on the Love of God (Dublin, 1860); SUAREZ, De religione, tr. 7, L. I.; ST. THOMAS, Summa, II-II, Q. clxxxiv; IDEM, Opus De perfectione vitæ spiritualis; VERMEERSCH, De religiosis institutis et personis tractatus canonico moralis (Rome, 1907); RODRIGUEZ, The Practice of Christian and Religious Perfection (New York); HUMPHREY, Elements of Religious Life (London, 1905).
APA citation. (1911). Christian and Religious Perfection. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11665b.htm
MLA citation. "Christian and Religious Perfection." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11665b.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Thomas J. Bress.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. February 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
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