The Priesthood and Perfection by Garrigou-Lagrange - Chapter 5

The Obligation of Religious to Seek Perfection

1. Introduction

We are speaking of religious as such, even though they have not received any sacred orders—lay brothers, for example, or sisters, or nuns. In Chapter 6, we will discuss priests in particular. We are speaking, too, of perfection, properly so called, as distinct from that lowest form of perfection which excludes mortal sins only, and that medium perfection which excludes mortal sins and fully deliberate venial sins, but not a lukewarm way of acting. We are dealing, therefore, with that higher perfection of the perfect which excludes deliberate imperfections and a careless way of acting or receiving the sacraments. Such perfection implies the observance of the counsels and works of supererogation. We are discussing a special, and not a general, obligation. There is a notable distinction between them, because, as we have said, all Christians have a general obligation of striving after greater charity, and because this obligation is a general one its violation is not a special sin distinct from those sins which spring from a violation of the precepts. We now ask: Is there for religious a special obligation of striving after perfection strictly so called, so that its violation would be a special sin?

The normal answer to this question is: Religious, by virtue of their profession, are bound to strive after perfection strictly so called, by using the general means—the three counsels and the corresponding vows of obedience, poverty and chastity—and those special means which are the rules of each one's Order or Institute.

To explain this doctrine, we shall consider this special obligation in relation to: (1) its basis, or efficient cause; (2) its nature, or formal cause; (3) its purpose, or final cause; (4) its subject matter, or the general and particular means for achieving this purpose; (5) its excellence.

2. Basis of this obligation

The basis of this special obligation is the religious profession by which one embraces the religious state, a state of perfection. "One is in a state of perfection, properly so called, not because one has made an act of perfect charity, but because one has bound oneself perpetually, with a certain solemnity, to those things which are of perfection. It can happen, of course, that some do not observe that to which they have bound themselves, and others observe that to which they have not bound themselves. . . . Therefore it is quite possible that some of those not in a state of perfection are perfect and others are in a state of perfection without however being perfect."1

"State of perfection," however, is sometimes used not in a juridical or canonical, but in a spiritual sense. Thus St. John of the Cross speaks of the "state of perfection" in a spiritual sense, as being a stable perfection.

Similarly, St. Thomas says: "By an interior spiritual growth one reaches a state of perfection in the eyes of God; but canonically one reaches a state of perfection only by a change in those things that are exterior."2 In another passage he says: "A perpetual obligation, taken with a certain solemnity, to observe those things which are of perfection is essentia] for the [juridical] state of perfection. Religious and bishops have both these essentials. Religious, in order to give themselves more freely to God, bind themselves by vow to abstain from certain temporal things which they might otherwise lawfully use. Similarly, bishops, by-assuming the pastoral office, which implies 'that the pastor lay down his life for his sheep,' bind themselves to those things which are of perfection."3

Thus, religious are in a state for the acquisition of perfection, and bishops are juridically in a state for the exercise of perfection.

According to modern legislation, simple vows are sufficient to constitute the religious state. This was stated by Gregory XIII.

The supreme precept must always be kept in mind. It glorifies, enlarges, intensifies, and enlivens religious life, which must of its very nature observe charity or love for God and neighbor. Religious life is wholly guided by the three theological virtues, and the reason is simple. Those three virtues constitute the life of a Christian and are in themselves of a higher order than the three religious vows which constitute the characteristic element of the religious life.

3. Nature of this obligation

It is a special obligation to strive after perfection. "[Religious] men enter a state of perfection, not as it were professing themselves to be perfect, but professing that they will strive for perfection. St. Paul says, therefore, in his Epistle to the Philippians (3:12): 'Not as though I had already attained, or were already perfect; but I follow after, if I may by any means apprehend . . . ' The person, therefore, who enters a state of perfection does not lie or simulate, if he is not already perfect, but he does so by withdrawing his intention of striving for perfection."4 St. Thomas also says: "It is not necessary that the person in a religious state should already be perfect, but that he should strive after perfection."5 If a religious revokes his intention of striving after perfection, he sins, not only against the general obligation binding all Christians to advance in charity but also against a special obligation. The religious, however, is not bound actually to reach perfection in this life.

Would it be a mortal sin for a religious to withdraw his intention of tending toward perfection? (cf. 2-2, q. 184, a 9). It would be a mortal sin in either of the following two cases: (a) If a religious, or even a simple Christian, were to despise the pursuit of perfection; (b) If in some grave matter he were to break his religious vows. Such an act implies a withdrawal of the intention to strive after perfection. The transgression of external observances is not a mortal sin unless done through contempt of the rule, or unless there is a formal precept either specially made by the Superior or contained in the Rule.

Some rules, like the Rule of the Order of Preachers, do not bind either under mortal or venial sin, but only to the penalty prescribed. This is true of the transgression of the rule as such; but in fact (or per accidens) there will often be a sin of negligence. When the rule is not observed the reason may be an excessive attachment to something created —like the rich young man who did not reply when our Lord called him, because he was too much attached to temporal things.6 Moreover, it rarely happens that a religious can keep his vows if he neglects in practice the various observances of his Institute, just as it very rarely happens that the ordinary Christian can keep all the precepts if he neglects to practice any of the counsels.

Is the obligation which a religious has of tending to perfection distinct from the obligation of keeping the three vows? And does the obligation bind under pain of mortal sin? Several theologians hold that this obligation is distinct from the obligation of the three vows, and that it binds under pain of mortal sin. The Thomistic teaching is that which is defended by the Salmanticenses, who quote Cajetan and others in its favor. This teaching is: It is an obligation binding under pain of mortal sin, but not distinct from the obligation to observe the three vows.

(a) "A religious is bound under pain of mortal sin to strive for perfection, because this is the substantial and principal obligation of his state." And why? "Such an obligation consists in a certain continuous movement toward perfection, so that a religious can never stop in this movement and progress, nor can he ever say that he has gone far enough. He must always aspire to higher things; in the path toward God not to advance is to fall back.

"A religious, however, is not for that reason bound to strive after perfection by every work of supererogation— i.e., by all the works recommended by the counsels—but by those means only which are prescribed in the rules of his religious institute; he has not bound himself to any other perfection. Consequently, this obligation is not distinct from the obligation of keeping his vows and observing the rule of his profession; it is the same obligation or is included in it. There are not, therefore, two distinct sins. A religious cannot strive toward perfection in a more perfect way than by a careful observance of those things which are proper to his state. They are the most suitable means for reaching his goal, and they lead to the height of perfection. Perfection does not consist, for example, in extraordinary penances.

(i>) "When does a religious sin mortally against his obligation of striving after perfection?—(1) When he breaks the vows in some serious matter; (2) When through formal contempt he neglects the counsels which lead to perfection; (3) When he breaks the rule precisely in order to impede perfection; (4) When he firmly makes up his mind not to bother about perfection, saying that it is quite sufficient to remain in a lower state—for example, if a religious were to say: 'It is sufficient to remain in my present state of mediocrity'; (5) When by his bad example he induces others to lead a depraved life or relax the rule— i.e., in a grave matter."7

4. Purpose of this obligation

It is quite clear from St. Thomas that the fullness of perfection which is the purpose of this obligation is found only in intimate union with God through the virtues and the gifts. This is perfection strictly so called, consisting in perfect union with God and one's neighbor, through the imitation of Christ—the perfect fulfilment of the first precept to which are subordinated the evangelical counsels.

St. Thomas says: "Religious bind themselves by vow to abstain from worldly things which they might [otherwise] quite legitimately use, in order more freely to devote themselves to the things of God. In this dedication consists the perfection of the present life. That is why Dionysius says (Eccl. Hier. vi) of religious: Some call them θεράπενται, i.e., servants of God, on account of their pure service and bondage, others call them μόναχοι on account of the indivisible and single minded life which by their being wrapped in [contemplating] indivisible things unites them in a Godlike union and a perfection beloved of God."8

St. Thomas says also that perfection consists essentially in the precept of charity to which are subordinated the other precepts and counsels.9 And in another text he says: "The religious state is a kind of holocaust by which one gives oneself and what one possesses to God."10

The religious should reach this perfection of charity by the imitation of Christ, because Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. As man, Christ was completely withdrawn from the spirit of the world and completely united to God, totally consecrated in His human nature, and in all His faculties and actions, to God. Thus it is said particularly of religious: "You are dead, and your life is hidden with Christ in God" (Col. 3:3). St. Thomas comments: "Do not taste the things of this world, because you have died to the world; your life is hidden in Christ, because Christ, being in the glory of the Father, is hidden for us: and so the life which is given to us through Him is hidden with Him in the glory of God the Father: according to what is said: 'How great is the multitude of your sweetness which you have hidden from those who fear you, etc.' (Ps. 30:20): 'To the conqueror I will give a hidden manna' (Apoc. 2:7)."11—This life hidden in Christ is found perfectly, however, only in the mystical life.

Every religious life, therefore—whether active or contemplative—can of itself lead the perfectly faithful soul to intimate union with God and sanctity, so that it can enter heaven immediately after death.

In the active life, the genus "religious life" is of greater dignity than that which makes it specifically different— those things which are directed to external works of mercy. Every religious life, whether active or contemplative, leads directly to the perfect fulfilment of the first precept to which are subordinated the counsels and the Rule.12

And so, in order that this purpose of religious life may appear in a more concrete and complete way, one should say that Christ wishes to restore in it, as far as possible, the triple harmony which existed in the state of original justice, and which has been restored in Him and in the Blessed Virgin Mary.

In the state of original justice there were:

(a) Perfect harmony between God and the soul, which was completely subordinated to Him through the three theological virtues, the corresponding gifts and humble obedience;

(b) Perfect harmony between soul and body, by the perfect subordination of the passions to reason and will, and by the subordination of the body to the soul, particularly through perfect chastity;

(c) Perfect harmony between man and external things which were meant to help man. In this way, harmony descended from God to the lowest things.

After original sin, which destroyed the highest harmony, and consequently the other two, in their place came the concupiscence of the eyes, the concupiscence of the flesh, and the pride of life—that is, the immoderate desire of external things; there came also the immoderate desire of carnal pleasure and the use of one's liberty without humble subjection to God.

To restore this triple harmony, Christ gave three counsels concerning a greater good, counsels to abstain from the use of lawful things in order more easily to avoid any excess, using the world and yet not using it. These three counsels are: (a) The counsel of poverty, by which one surrenders the dominion over, or at least the use of, exterior goods, and consecrates them to God; (b) the counsel of absolute chastity, by which one renounces and consecrates body and heart to God; (c) the counsel of obedience, by which one surrenders the use of one's own will and consecrates it to God. These three virtues of poverty, chastity and obedience are subordinated to the virtue of religion, from which the vow proceeds. In this way, the triple harmony of the state of original justice is, as far as possible, restored:

Triple Harmony of Original Justice
Triple Concupiscence
Three Vows:
1. Between God and the soul: perfect obedience.
1. The pride of life, the source of disobedience.
1. Religious obedience consecrated to God.
2. Between the soul and the body: perfect chastity.
2. Concupiscence of the flesh; the immoderate desire for carnal pleasure.
2. Religious chastity.
3. Between man as a whole and external things which ought to serve him: perfect poverty.
3. Concupiscence of the eyes; the immoderate desire for external riches.
3. Religious poverty

5. The three vows

The means of perfection in the religious life are:

(a) The evangelical counsels of obedience poverty, and chastity, which are the general means—sure, very useful, though not absolutely necessary—of reaching perfect charity;

(JO the rules of one's Institute, which are the special means adapted to the particular end of this or that religious order.

When we speak of the counsels, it must be remembered that the three vows are essential to the religious state. These three counsels are given by our divine Lord: "If thou wilt be perfect, go, sell what thou hast and give to the poor . . . and come follow me" (Matt. 19:21): "there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 19:12).

The religious state consists in the exercise of those things which lead to the perfection of charity. Two things, therefore, are necessary: separation and consecration: (1) Man must separate himself from those things which may prevent him from giving his entire affection to God (the negative aspect); (2) Man must offer himself to God in holocaust, or perfect sacrifice (the positive aspect).

Three things can prevent one from giving one's entire affection to God:

—greed for external goods, or a seeking after them, which is removed by the vow of poverty;

—a desire for sensible pleasures and the care of wife and children, which is removed by the vow of chastity;

—the disorder of the human will, which is removed by the vow of obedience.

Similarly three things are appropriately offered to God so that the sacrifice may be perfect:

—external goods, offered through the vow of poverty;

—the good of the body, offered through the vow of chastity;

—the good of one's will, offered in the vow of obedience.

These three vows, therefore, are essential to the religious state,

—both as it is a state of separation from the world,

—and as it is a state of consecration to God.13

The acts of the three religious virtues are offered to God in the higher virtue of religion, the virtue to which vows pertain and whose proper object is the worship of God. This life, therefore, is truly a perfect sacrifice, in imitation of the life of Christ; and the religious who sins against the vows of religion commits a sacrilege.

The virtue of religion is commanded by charity; consequently all religion acts, whether they pertain to poverty, chastity or obedience, are directed through the virtue of religion to growth in charity and its perfection.

It is more meritorious to do something through a vow than without a vow: (1) because it thus gains the merit of a higher virtue, the virtue of religion; (2) because man thus offers to God not only the act but also the power to make it; (3) because by a vow the will becomes more firmly fixed on what is good and so has greater merit.14

6. Excellence of religious life

The excellence of religious life appears in its relation to the theological virtues, by which we are united to God.

Poverty, whereby we abandon all human help, leads us to a perfect hope, grounded on divine help. Hope, therefore, gives life to the vow of poverty.

Chastity, whereby we renounce legitimate sense pleasures and the strength of married love, leads us to a perfect love of God. As a consequence, charity vitalizes the vow of chastity.

Obedience, by which we renounce our own will and judgment, leads us to the perfect life of faith, a life in which all we are and have is confidently placed in the hands of God. We may then say that faith is what makes alive the vow of obedience. The religious must obey his superiors as he would obey our divine Lord; he looks upon the rules of his community as rules given by God Himself; by his ready obedience he becomes like Abraham, the father of those who believe, who obeyed God by preparing to sacrifice his only son Isaac.

As you can see, there is an intimate relation between the three religious virtues and the three theological virtues, in that hope is like the soul of poverty; faith, the soul of obedience; and charity, the soul of chastity.

The excellence of religious life when compared with the ordinary Christian life may be judged under three headings: (1) In relation to God, Christ, and the Church; (2) In relation to the religious himself; (3) In relation to one's neighbor.

(1) The religious life is a state which gives more glory to God, because it offers to God a perfect sacrifice or holocaust. The glory of God requires a clear knowledge of God and praise of Him (clara Dei notitia cum laude). But God is more perfectly known and praised in the religious life, in which are fully verified the words of the Lord's prayer "hallowed be thy name."

The religious life shows forth better the virtue of Christ, and the redemption or restoration which He brings us.

The religious life helps considerably in manifesting brilliantly and continually the sanctity of the Church, which is one of its "notes."

(2) Religious life is more secure, more free from sin— free, that is, from the concupiscence of the flesh, the concupiscence of the eyes and the pride of life.15 The vows impose a new obligation, but they help more than they burden.16

It is a more meritorious life, because he who fulfils the counsels advances more in charity, the principle of merit.

It is a life more holy and more Godlike, because it unites the soul more closely to God.

(3) The religious life is more useful than a secular one because of the example which it gives and the prayers and satisfaction which religious ought to offer for others; it is also more useful because of various works of mercy, both spiritual and corporal.


1. ST., 2-2, q. 184, a. 4.

2. Ibid., ad 1.

3. Ibid., a. 5.

4. Ibid., ad 2.

5. Ibid., q. 186, a. 1, ad 3. The second article of this question should be read. It is certain that the religious is bound by the three evangelical counsels, but only to those exercises of the counsels prescribed by his own religious rule.

6. See St. Thomas Aquinas, In Matt. 19:21.

7. The Salmanticenses, Theologia Moralis, t. 4, De Statu Reli-gioso, pp. 4 ff.

8. S.T., 2-2, q. 184, a. 5.

9. See Ibid., a. 3.

10. Ibid., q. 186, a. 7.

11. St. Thomas Aquinas, In Col. 3:3.

12. See S.T., 2-2, q. 152, a. 4.

13. See Ibid., q. 186, a. 7.

14. See Ibid., q. 88, a. 6.

15. See Barthier, De la Perfection chretienne et de la Perfection religieuse, vol. II, pp. 202, 245.

16. See S.T., 2-2, q. 186, a. 10.