The Priesthood and Perfection by Garrigou-Lagrange - Chapter 4

The General Obligation of Christians to Seek Perfection

1. Introduction

We are not concerned with that lowest form of perfection which excludes mortal sins only, nor even with that middle grade of perfection which excludes mortal sins and deliberate venial sins. We are speaking of perfection in the proper sense of the word, which rules out deliberate imperfections and a careless way of living. And we are not speaking of the invitation to perfection strictly so called, because there is no doubt about this: all are invited to be fully perfect.

The question is whether all Christians have a general obligation to seek perfection in charity. We are not dealing therefore with that special obligation the violation of which would, as it does in the religious state, involve a special sin but with a general obligation.

A difficulty arises when we wish to harmonize certain statements of our divine Lord which at first sight seem to be opposed.

On the one hand, Christ said to the rich young man (Matt. 19:21): "If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast and give to the poor . . . And come follow me." The words: "If thou wilt be perfect," seem to express a counsel, not an obligation. Not all Christians, therefore, are bound to seek perfection. It seems obligatory only for those who have already promised to follow the evangelical counsel.1

Yet, on the other hand, Christ said to all (Matt. 5:48): "Be you perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect." In his Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew, discussing these words of our Lord, St. Thomas says: "Clerics more than lay people are bound to the perfection of an excellent life; but to the perfection of charity all are bound."

Moreover, St. Thomas proves2 that perfection consists essentially not in the counsels, but in the precepts, because the first precept has no limitation: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart and with thy whole soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind" (Luke 10:27). According to St. Thomas, therefore, the perfection of charity falls under a precept, as an end which must be attained.

St. Augustine, St. Thomas, and St. Francis de Sales hold that all must seek the perfection of charity, each one according to his condition. In this way, the perfection of charity, as an end, falls under precept.

How can we harmonize those words of our divine Lord: "If thou wilt to be perfect . . ." and "Be you perfect"?3

We may summarize our conclusion in four propositions:

1. All Christians are strictly bound to love God in appreciation above all things.

2. In virtue of the first precept all are bound to strive toward the perfection of charity, but each according to his condition, one in married life, another as a religious lay-brother, another as a secular priest.

3. Nobody is obliged actually to have perfect charity.

4. Not all are obliged to strive for it immediately and explicitly by following the counsels.

2. The obligation to love God above all things

It is the command of our divine Lord: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart and with thy whole soul and with they whole mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment" (Matt. 22: 37-39; cf. Deut. 6:5; Luke 10:27; Mark 12:30).

Everybody, therefore, must love God at least in appreciation or in estimation (amor aestimationis), if not in intensity, above all things, and more than he loves himself. And as St. Thomas says: "He who in any way whatsoever reaches the perfection of divine love observes this precept. The lowest degree of this love exists when nothing is loved more than God, or opposed to God, or equally with God; he who does not reach this degree of perfection in no way fulfils the precept."4

As Fr. Barthier points out,5 this divine precept condemns many of the so-called modern "freedoms" freedom of conscience, freedom of worship, absolute freedom of the press, of teaching which give the same rights to truth and falsehood, good and evil, as if God the Supreme Truth and the Supreme Good had not a very strict and inalienable right to the obedience of our intellect and will, the right to be loved above all things. To admit these liberties, therefore, and to defend them without any limit and without any subordination to God, is to turn oneself away from God and act against God. As a matter of fact, to be neutral in practice between liberalism and Catholicism is to love something equally with God. The love of God, even in its lowest degree, ought to rule all our affections, so that, in St. Thomas's formula: "nothing [may be loved] more than God, or opposed to God, or equally with God; he who does not reach this degree of perfection in no way fulfils the precept."

He who wishes to avoid every mortal sin already loves God in estimation above all things. Thus, the good Christian mother, although she may have a more intense love for her son whom she sees and touches, in estimation (aestimative) loves God more than her son.

3. Seeking perfection in love

All Christians must strive after the perfection of charity, each one according to his condition in life.6

This statement seems exaggerated to some Christians who wrongly think that only priests or religious are bound to advance in charity. Others admit this proposition in theory only, but do not realize what is means in practice.

Let us see: A. The scriptural basis for this proposition; B. How it can be proved theologically.

A. The above proposition is expressed in so many words in various parts of Sacred Scripture. We may quote the following examples: "Be you perfect as also your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt. 5:48). "He that is just, let him be justified still" (Apoc. 22:11). Similarly in various parts of the New Testament which are referred to in the Concordance under the word cresco: "Grow in grace and in the love of God" (2 Pet. 3:18). "Laying aside all malice . . . that thereby you may grow unto salvation" (1 Pet. 2:1-2). "Doing the truth in charity, we may in all things grow up in him who is the head, even Christ" (Eph. 4:15). "Being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God" (Col. 1:10). "Wherefore leaving the word of the beginning of Christ, let us go on to things more perfect" (Hebr. 6:1).

From these various quotations from Sacred Scripture, St. Thomas deduces: "As far as progress toward perfection is concerned, one should always strive to reach a state of perfection."7 And he puts himself an objection: Perfection consists in the counsels, because it is said (Matt. 19:21): "If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell what thou hast . . . But not all are bound to observe the counsels. How, therefore, can St. Paul say: "we are drawn to perfection"?

St. Thomas answers this difficulty: "Perfection is twofold: exterior, which consists in exterior (imperated) acts. These are the 'signs' of interior acts virginity, for example, or voluntary poverty. Not all are bound to this type of perfection. The second is interior perfection, which consists in the love of God and one's neighbor, to which St. Paul refers in the first Epistle to the Colossians (3:14) 'have charity, which is the bond of perfection.' Not all are bound to have this perfection, the perfection of charity, but all are bound to strive toward it because if one does not wish to love God more, one does not do what charity demands." That is why St. Thomas quotes the words of St. Bernard: "in the ways of God, not to advance is to fall back." Similarly, in his commentary on verse 12, c. 19, of St. Matthew's Gospel: "he who can hear, let him take heed," St. Thomas says: "he who does not always wish to be better is not free from blame."

B. The above proposition can be proved theologically in two ways: (a) from the precept of charity; (b) from the state of charity of those on the way to heaven.

(a). From the precept of charity.8 The first precept has no limitation: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul and with all thy strength and with all thy mind." It follows, therefore, that the perfection of charity is the end which we are commanded to reach. From this we may deduce, says St. Thomas that "all, both lay and religious, are bound to do, in some degree, whatever good they can."10 The words of Ecclesiastes are addressed to everybody in general: "Whatsoever thy hand is able to do, do it earnestly" (9:10). One way of fulfilling this precept is by avoiding sin, by doing what one is able to do according to the condition of one's state, as long as there is no contempt for the doing of better things a contempt which would lock one's soul against spiritual progress.

The entire third article of q. 184, 2-2, should be read carefully, because what we shall now say is implicitly contained in it.

(b). From the state of charity of one who is on the way to heaven. Just as grace is the seed of glory, so the charity of a person in this life is meant to blossom out into the charity of heaven. "Charity," said St. Thomas,10 "is perfected when it is strengthened." This supernatural life of charity is first in a state of infancy, then of adolescence, finally in a state of manhood. This development is essentially connected with the idea of a path, because otherwise the path would no longer be a means of reaching the destination, but would be the destination itself. In the Gospel of St. Matthew we read: "broad is the path that leads to destruction, and narrow the path that leads to life"; to walk spiritually is to advance. Similarly in the Gospel, charity is compared to a seed or a grain of mustard which must grow, or it is compared to talents. We read in Matthew's Gospel of the master who said of him who had received one talent, but had hidden it in the earth: "Take ye away therefore the talent from him and give it him that hath ten talents. For to every one that hath shall be given, and he shall abound: but from him that hath not, that also which he seemeth to have shall be taken away" (25:28-29).

This is true, in different ways, of the beginner, the advanced, and even of the perfect of whom St. Thomas says: "the nearer they approach the end, the more ought they to grow."11

4. Solving some difficulties

One may raise an objection: The conclusion does not follow, because St. Thomas himself says: "He does not break a precept who has not reached the middle grades of perfection, as long as he has set foot on even the lowest grade."12 Therefore not all Christians are bound to have a charity greater than what they actually have.

We can answer this objection by considering the precepts themselves.13

1. The perfection of charity falls under the precept of charity not as its subject (materia), but as the end to be attained. If this were not so, the precept would be limited and what is outside that limit would be a matter of counsel only. This however, is not true, as the wording of the precept shows.14 Therefore, for everybody the perfection of charity is commanded not as something to be reached immediately, but as an end toward which each one, according to his condition, should strive.

2. If one were to make no attempt to increase in charity one would not make any act of charity at all. This would be against the precept, because all Christians are bound to avoid sin, venial as well as mortal, and this cannot be done without meritorious acts by which the soul either disposes itself to advance or else actually increases in charity. On Sunday at least, all Christians ought to hear Mass, and perform some acts of charity and religion toward God.

3. Finally, the precept of charity is the end of all the other precepts which are concerned with means to the end. All Christians, however, ought to fulfil these secondary precepts, with charity as their end, and this cannot be done without merit and the disposition to advance. The precept that we must have charity at least ordinary charity implies the precept that we must strive for greater charity.

At this point another objection may be raised. A person who merely makes remiss acts of charity does not sin, but merits, and yet according to St. Thomas he makes no progress.

Answer: "In the way of God, one advances not only when charity is increased by acts of charity but also when the soul is disposed for this increase."15 This happens in the case of remiss acts, in so far as they are meritorious; but in that they are remiss they cannot sufficiently oppose inordinate passions, and under that aspect, therefore, they dispose for sin. Thus "not to advance is to fall back." To impede the progress of charity would be to sin against the precept of charity.

5. Further clarification

Nobody is bound to have extraordinary charity, the charity of the perfect.16 It is sufficient that the beginner should aim at the charity of the proficient, and the proficient should aim at the charity of the perfect, each one according to his condition. Moreover, in every spiritual age there are many grades. It is certainly necessary for salvation that each one should die in the state of grace, even in its lowest degree. This is clearly stated by St. Thomas,17 when he says that the perfection which is necessary for salvation is that which excludes all mortal sin. Again he writes: "There is another perfection which is of supererogation, when one adheres to God in an extraordinary way, and this is done by removing the heart from temporal things"18 that is, by effectively observing the three counsels. The counsels do not bind as the precepts do.

All Christians are not bound to strive explicitly that is by using the properly proportioned means for the perfection of charity. Nor are all individually and immediately invited.19 But they ought to avoid all deliberate venial sins and increase in charity; and if they did this they would be called not only remotely but proximately, even efficaciously, to high perfection.

St. Thomas, indeed, teaches that the perfection of charity falls under precept, in that it is an end toward which one ought to strive in some degree, by increasing in charity.20 It is not, however, necessary that each and every one should strive explicitly toward it, by using means which are immediately proportioned to heroic virtues, even though all ought to, if occasion demands, suffer martyrdom rather than call their faith into doubt.

Similarly, St. Thomas teaches that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are necessary for salvation, but he does not say this about the higher grades of the gifts nor of the act of infused contemplation.21 All Christians should strive not toward the effective practice of the three counsels, but toward the spirit of the counsels that is, toward a spirit of mortification.

Thus our main conclusion is clear: All Christians, each one according to his condition, are bound to strive for greater charity, acting always for the supernatural motive of charity, as St. Paul says: (Col. 3:17): "Whatsoever you do in word or in work, do all in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, giving thanks to God the Father through him."

Those, however, who sin against this precept do not commit a special sin against perfection, because the obligation is a general, and not a special, one.

6. Christians and the counsels

Is each individual Christian invited to follow, according to his condition, any of the counsels? Yes, each individual is invited. Indeed, it is very difficult to observe all the precepts if one does not follow at least some of the counsels, in keeping with one's condition in life. These counsels help one avoid the imperfections which immediately dispose one to venial sin and help one seek for the good in keeping with his position in life. Thus some prayers which are not of precept are very useful. "It is very rare to find a Christian faithful to all the secondary precepts if he neglects all practice of the evangelical counsels."22

Is each individual Christian invited to keep the three general counsels? No, he is not, because not all are called to the religious life. But each one should strive to have the spirit of the counsels, i.e., the spirit of mortification. For our divine Lord says: "All men take not this word, but they to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who were bom so from their mothers' womb: and there are eunuchs who are made so by men: and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven. He that can take it, let him take it" (Matt. 19:11-12). In his commentary on this text, St. Thomas says: "It is true that it is fitting that some should not marry, but this is not true for all, because not all have that virtue which will enable them to abstain. But it is fitting for those who have that virtue, because to some it is given, not through any work of their own but through the gift of grace, according to what is said in the Book of Wisdom (8:21): 'I knew that I could not otherwise be continent except God gave it.' That man should be able to live in the flesh and yet not of the flesh is not man's work but God's."23 It is evident, therefore, as St. Thomas says in the same text in his commentary on St. Matthew, that all men are bound, each according to his condition, "to aspire to better things, so that he who does not always wish to be better is not without blame" (cf. Rom. 6:3-13).

From the main conclusion of this Chapter: All Christians are bound to strive after greater charity, each according to his condition, we may derive certain corollaries:

1. On the path to God, not to advance is to fall back.

One must advance just as a child must grow physically if he is not to become stunted and deformed. The carriage which delays too long at its stopping-places will be late.

2. Progress in charity should gradually become more rapid. "The closer a naturally moving body (like a stone falling) gets to its goal, the faster is its speed. But grace works like nature. The closer, therefore, those in grace approach their end, the more ought they to grow."" In another work, L'amour de Dieu et la Croix de Jésus, t. I, 150-162, we have explained this corollary at greater length, and applied it to Holy Communion and to our Lady's progress in charity during her lifetime.

3. Even though perfect charity is the object of a precept (that is, it falls under a precept as its end), great actual graces are offered to us, proportioned to this end, because God does not ask the impossible. Thus Christ has said: Be you perfect as also your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:48). Similarly, St. Paul says: "This is the will of God, your sanctification" (I Thess 4:3). "God chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and unspotted in his sight in charity" (Eph. 1:4). Therefore we ought to hope for that goal, and we should not say: it is against humility to aspire to such heights. Perfect charity, therefore like that in the transforming union which is the perfect disposition for the beatific vision is the normal term of progress in charity, or baptismal grace.

We have sufficiently indicated, therefore, that Christian perfection consists essentially in the observance of the precepts, and that the perfection of charity falls under the supreme precept, not as its subject matter something to be immediately achieved but as its term, toward which all must strive, each one according to his condition, one person in the married state, another as a priest, another as a religious.25

Christian perfection, therefore, only accidentally and instrumentally consists in the evangelical counsels strictly so-called; they are means by which one may more easily and speedily rise to sanctity. But a person in the married state can, without the effective practice of the counsels, be a saint, as long as he has the spirit of the counsels and is prepared to observe them if it were necessary to keep absolute chastity, for example, after the death of a wife, or poverty in the case of financial ruin.

As a complement to this doctrine, it should be noted that when we compare counsel with precept and say that the counsel concerns "a greater good" this does not mean a good greater than what is prescribed by the precept, because even very great charity falls under a precept (as its term), and martyrdom can, if occasion demands, be of precept also. A "greater good" means greater than the corresponding legitimate activity. In other words:

poverty consecrated to God is better than the legitimate use of riches.

absolute chastity dedicated to God is better than the legitimate use of matrimony.

religious obedience is better than the legitimate exercise of our freedom.

This doctrine is confirmed by the division of counsels made by St. Thomas.20


1. See S.T., 2-2, q. 184, a. 3, ad 1.

2. See Ibid.., corpus.

3. See Cajetan's commentary on 2-2, q. 184, a. 3; G. L. Pas-serini, De Statibus Hominum; Barthier, De la Perfection chrétienne et de la Perfection religieuse; P. A. Weiss, O.P., Apologie des Christentums, vol. 5, index "Vollkommenheit" Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., Christian Perfection and Contemplation and The Three Ages of the Spiritual Life.

4. S.T., 2-2, q. 184, a. 3, ad 2.

5. Barthier, op. cit., vol. I, p. 218.

6. See Ibid., pp. 315, 419; Passerini, op. cit., p. 758, number 13.

7. St. Thomas Aquinas, In Hebr. 6:2.

8. See ST., 2-2, q. 184, a. 3.

9. Ibid.,q. 186, a. 2, ad 2.

10. Ibid., q. 24, a. 9.

11. St. Thomas Aquinas, In Hebr. 10:12.

12. S.T., 2-2, q. 184, a. 3, ad 2.

13. See Barthier, op. cit., vol. I, p. 317.

14. See S.T., 2-2, q. 184, a. 3.

15. I bid., q. 24, a. 6, ad 3.

16. See Barthier, op. cit., vol. I, pp. 279 ff.

17. See ST., 2-2, q. 184, a. 2.

18. St. Thomas Aquinas, In Phil. 3:12.

19. See Barthier, op. cit., vol. I, p. 284; St. Thomas Aquinas, In Hebr. 6:11.

20. See ST., 2-2, q. 184, a. 3.

21. See Ibid., 1-2, q. 68, a. 2.

22. Barthier, op. cit., vol. II, p. 219.

23. St. Thomas Aquinas, In Matt. 1911-12; see S.T., 1-2, q. 108, a. 4, ad 1.

24. St. Thomas Aquinas, In Hebr. 10:25.

25. See ST., 2-2, q. 183, a. 3.

26. See I bid, 1-2, q. 108, a. 4.