Aquinas on Marrying to Support One's Parents

Is someone obliged to marry if that is the only way he can support his parents?


This article is from Quodlibetal 10, q. 5, a. 1.

Whether someone is bound to contact marriage in order to support his father by the marriage dowry, if he is not able to support him otherwise.


It seems that a son who cannot support his father unless by marrying he receives a dowry from which he can look after his father, is not obliged to contract marriage in order to support his father.

1. Since charity is orderly, he is obliged more to himself than to his father. But it would be praiseworthy for someone to face death in order to preserve his virginity. Therefore someone is not obliged to contract marriage in order to save his father's life.

2. Further, precepts are not opposed to counsels. But preserving virginity is a counsel, as is evident from 1 Cor. 7:25. Therefore the precept of honoring one's parents does not oblige someone to lose his virginity.

On the contrary: Affirmative precepts are binding at certain times and in certain places. But the time when one's parents are in need is a time when one is bound to honor one's parents. Therefore at that time someone is bound by this precept. And so it seems that he is bound to contract marriage, if he cannot otherwise support his father.

Response: It should be said that the case proposed does not seem to be readily possible, since it can scarcely happen that someone is unable to support his parents without contracting marriage, at least by manual work or by begging. But if this were to happen, the judgment to be made in this case concerning the preservation of virginity would be the same as concerning other works of perfection, such as entering religious life.

Now different people have different opinions about this. Some say that if someone's father is in need, he should give all that he has, if he has anything, for the support of his father, and he can thus licitly enter religious life, committing the care of his parents to the heavenly Father, who feeds even the birds.

But because this opinion seems too severe, it seems to me better to say the following: he who desires to enter religious life may see that he cannot live in the world without mortal sin, or cannot easily do so. If he fears the danger of his committing mortal sin, then, since he is more obliged to care for the salvation of his soul than for the bodily need of his parents, he is not obliged to remain in the world. But if he sees that he can live in the world without sin, it seems one should make a distinction: if his parents can in no way live without his services to them, he is obliged to serve them and to forego other works of perfection, and he would sin by leaving his parents; but if they can in some way be supported without his services, just not respectably, he is not therefore obliged to forego works of perfection. The case is different when someone has already entered religious life; for since he has already died to the world by religious profession, he is freed from the law by which he was bound to his parents in worldly services, as the Apostle teaches in Rom 7:6. But in other, spiritual matters, such as by prayers, etc., he is bound to serve his parents.

What has been said about entering religious life can also be said about the observance of virginity and other works of perfection.

Replies to Objections

Reply 1. To the first objection, therefore, it should be said that if someone has not professed virginity, he should not die of hunger before contracting marriage [but should marry if that is necessary in order to live].

Reply 2. To the second objection it should be said that nothing prevents a precept from being opposed to a counsel in a particular situation.

Commandments and Counsels

Are we obliged not only to do good, but to do what is best?

As I remarked in a previous post on Fr. Peter's article on discerning one's personal vocation, he gives as the first (and least) reason for discernment, that we are obliged to discern what is best.

If God has a preference, am I not obliged to try to discover what it is? After all, his preference is for whatever is best for me… Even though I am only considering morally good options, I should try to find out which one of them is best. Why is this reason the least helpful as a motivation? Since we are considering only morally good options, any failure to discover and choose the best one would not be the matter of a mortal sin [but only a venial sin].

Is it really true, though, that we are obliged to do what is most perfect, so that it is a venial sin to fail to do so? Isn't the difference between a commandment and a counsel, precisely that the commandment obliges us to do some good (or to refrain from some evil), while a counsel invites us to do something good. "A commandment makes the transgressors of it culpable; counsel only makes such as do not follow it less worthy of praise; those who violate commandments deserve damnation, those who neglect counsels deserve only to be less glorified." (St. Francis de Sales, Treatise on the Love of God VIII, ch. 6) Of course in a particular situation it may not be appropriate to follow a particular counsel. "God does not want each person to observe all the counsels, but only those that are appropriate to the diversity of persons, times, occasions, and abilities, as charity requires; for it is charity, as queen of all virtues, all commandments, all counsels, and in short, of all laws and all Christian actions, that gives to all of them their rank, order, time, and value." But supposing that in a particular situation a counsel is more in keeping with love, it seems that then it is still necessary to keep it. If love is commanded without limit, it seems that once we recognize that something is truly the better thing to do, more in keeping with love in a concrete situation, we are obliged to do it.

St. Thomas takes up this difficulty in his commentary on Matthew 19:10, "He who can take it, let him take it" (referring to the counsel of continence). He says, "Isn't every one bound to keep virginity? It seems so, since man is bound to what is better. In response it should be said that it is not a precept, but a counsel, as the Apostle says in 1 Cor. 7:25, 'Concerning virgins I do not have a precept from the Lord, but I give counsel.' But what is this? Isn't man bound to what is better? I say that one must distinguish that which is better in regard to act, and in regard to affection. Man is not bound to what is better in regard to act, but in regard to affection, since every rule and ever act is determined to something definite and certain; but if a man were bound to what is better, he would be bound to something uncertain. Hence with regard to external acts, since he is not bound to something uncertain, he is not bound to what is better. But as regards affection, he is bound to what is better. Hence one cannot not wish to be always better, without falling into contempt."

But if someone knowingly fails to do what is better, doesn't that show a lack of will to become better, to grow in love? St. Thomas says in Quodlibetal I, q. 7, a. 2, "those who are perfect in the sense of having perfect charity are bound by an interior law to do that which is better, a law that binds by way of inclination." To this we must admit that it does show a weakness of the will to grow in love, but weakness of that will does not mean a simple absence of it. As St. Francis de Sales says, "we may indeed without sin not follow the counsels, on account of the affection we may have to other things… it is lawful for a man not to sell what he possesses to give to the poor, because he has not hte courage to make so complete a renunciation."

Mortal sin, venial sin, and imperfection

There is a difference, then, between mortal sin, venial sin, and imperfection. A mortal sin means turning away from God, loving something else in a manner incompatible with the love of God above all things, so that one's life becomes totally directed to something other than God (e.g., pleasure, power, fame) or at least dispersed and no longer centered on God; a venial sin means loving something in a manner that doesn't quite fit with the love of God, yet is compatible with it–one's final end remains God, but one is too much attached to something which is a means to God. An imperfection means only choosing something that is not as well directed towards God as something else would have been, choosing something that is a longer and slower way, as it were, towards God–but still a good choice, act, and way towards God.

Consequences of failing to follow a vocation

Is not following a vocation a sin? If someone does not follow his vocation, is it more or less impossible for him to live a holy life? Sometime ago I received such questions by e-mail, and now post them here (in edited form), with responses, with the hope that they will be helpful to others.

Are the harsh conclusions [drawn by St. Alphonsus de Liguori and Hans Urs Von Balthasar] that we risk even our salvation if we do not respond to a vocation (which seems to imply that it is a sin to say no to a vocation) is really a consequence of taking the personal approach to vocation? Don't these conclusions rather overlook a distinction that should be made within the personal approach? Don't they somehow present a unilateral idea of God's will or God's call? Even with God, there is a difference between His commanding something and offering something, between an invitation and a law. This is a rudimentary distinction and obviously these authors knew this: perhaps rejecting even an invitation from God, whose knowledge and will are perfect, must somehow come from a preference for something other than His will. But then what is the difference between a commandment and an invitation? There is clearly a difference in kind? One must be done and the other may be done. What does "may" really mean if rejecting it is saying no to God's will or loving something else in place of God's will? How can anything that comes from God really be an invitation?

Those conclusions don't really follow from the "personal approach" to vocation, but follow from misunderstandings that are often associated with the personal approach. But indeed, the mistake is not as simple as overlooking the distinction between a command and a invitation. (St. Ignatius is the only one I've seen who suggests that the words, "he who can take it, let him take it," may be a precept, rather than an invitation. This is possibly just an inexactness of language–something he said on the basis of a kind of intuition regarding the matter, but because he was not a learned theologian, articulated without the most precise terms.)

The severe conclusions seem to follow from a twofold narrow view of God: first, thinking of God as though his plan's for man were made independently of men's choices, and so are "ruined" by them; secondly, thinking of God as a human lover, who is really moved by disappointment or anger, and acts on this basis.

Both Alphonsus and Von Balthasar suggest strongly that it is often a mortal sin to knowingly reject a vocation. But even supposing this to be true, it would not follow that such a rejection would have the severe consequences they speak of–God could forgive this sin just as he forgives other sins, if one repents. Actually, for Alphonsus it seems to be rather the other way around: it is not so perilous because it is a sin, but it is a sin because it is so perilous for our salvation.

The difference between a commandment and an invitation is that a commandment is something imposed as necessary in order to be in loving union with the one commanding, an invitation is something presented as a way to be better united with the one inviting, but not necessary for such union. And therefore disobeying the commandment implies that one values something else more than one values union with God, and is a mortal sin, while rejecting the invitation implies only that one values something other than God without entirely referring its value to God. In itself, this is only a venial sin, or even only an imperfection.

The positions of Alphonsus de Liguori and Von Balthasar are presented in the book Paths of Love: The Discernment of Vocation According to Aquinas, Ignatius, and Pope John Paul II. You can also read more texts of Alphonsus on vocation and Von Balthasar on Vocation.

See also the post on Commandments and Counsels.

Law, counsels, virtue, perfect virtue

An analogy occurred to me between the relationship between law and virtue, and the counsels and perfect virtue, which may be helpful in considering the role and necessity of the counsels in attaining spiritual perfection. A lawmaker intends to lead those who are subject to the law, to virtue, so that from within themselves, from inner principles, their own reason and will, they do right deeds. Thus virtue has a certain priority as the end of the law. Again, when it comes to particular actions, virtue also has a priority as regards leading someone to act well, since it is not possible to consider thoroughly all of the elements involved, and thus one must act from one's inclination… and it is virtue which makes this good.

Similarly, the counsels aim to lead those who follow them to a perfect state of virtue, so that from within themselves they act with a fully spiritual attitude… to do all for God, and rely entirely upon him. Thus this habitual spiritual attitude is the end of the counsels, and also in concrete life has the priority as regards actually turning one's attention to God.