What is Perfection – On the Perfection of the Spiritual Life I

I will be doing a series of posts commenting on the work On the Perfection of the Spiritual Life by Thomas Aquinas (parallel to the posts on evolution, faith, and theology).


Since certain persons, knowing nothing about perfection, have presumed to speak follies concerning the state of perfection, our purpose is to treat of perfection: what it is to be perfect; how perfection is acquired; what is the state of perfection; and what befits those who take up this state.
[Here Aquinas states the occasion that led him to write this work, his aim in writing it, and what he will consider in the main parts of the work. The occasion of this work was various attacks made on the religious orders, on the religious vows as means of attaining perfection, and on the occupations which religious could lawfully undertake. His aim is to treat of perfection [of the spiritual life] generally, and descend from there to consider how one attains perfection, what are the stable states of life oriented in a special manner to perfection, which are therefore called "states of perfection", and what works a religious community may take up.]

Chapter 1
The Perfection of the Spiritual Life Simply Speaking is Found According to Charity

We must first consider that "perfect" is said in several ways. For something may be simply speaking perfect, or something may be called perfect in a certain respect. Something is simply speaking perfect when it attains to the end that belongs to it according to its proper nature, while something can be called perfect in a certain respect when it attains an end in regard to things accompanying its proper nature, as an animal is said to be perfect simply speaking, when it reaches the end that it lacks none of those things that constitute animal life: e.g., when it lacks nothing in number or disposition of its limbs, or the proper size of the body, or the power by which the activities of animal life are accomplished; an animal can be said to be perfect in a certain respect, however, if it is perfect in something that accompanies animal nature: e.g., if it is perfect in whiteness, or in odor, or something like this.
[Thomas's first aim is to establish what perfection is, what it means to be perfect. It is taken as a given, something understood as a matter of course, that the perfection which ultimately matters to a human and to a Christian, is spiritual perfection, being perfect in the spiritual life. But because the spiritual life, just like animal life, comprises many aspects–knowledge, decisions, attitudes, love, Thomas makes a general distinction about what it means to be perfect. A thing that has many aspects can be perfect in some particular aspect, but be lacking in other aspects, and perhaps more important ones. We cannot then say it is perfect, without qualifying our statement. Only when a thing is perfect in the respect that is most important or essential to it, can we say that it is perfect without needing to qualify ourselves (if we do qualify our statement, it will be to make explicit, perhaps, that there is some aspect of perfection that it is lacking; e.g., no matter how perfect a man's health is, it lacks the perfection of being incorruptible; he is able to die).]

Thus also a man is said to be simply speaking perfect in the spiritual life, with respect to that in which spiritual life primarily consists, while he can be called perfect in a certain respect, as regards anything that is connected with spiritual life. [Thomas notes that the general principle applies to the spiritual life; a man who is perfect in that which is essential to the spiritual life can be called perfect without adding a qualifier to "perfect".]

Now spiritual life consists primarily in charity, and he who does not have charity, is regarded as spiritually nothing. Hence the Apostle says, "If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing" (1 Cor 13:2). Blessed John the Apostle also declares that the whole of spiritual life consists in love, saying, "We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death" (1 John 3:14). [The next step: to be alive spiritually means to share in the life of God, the God who "is love", and this share in God's life is attained in the love of God, in charity. The quotes Thomas chooses here seem to pertain immediately to love of neighbor, though ultimately it is the same gift of charity by which we love God and neighbor.]

Therefore, it is he who is perfect in charity who is simply speaking perfect in the spiritual life. [The primary conclusion of the chapter. "To be perfect" without qualification means to be perfect in charity.] But some can be called perfect in a certain respect, as regards anything connected with the spiritual life. [The other side of the conclusion: one can be perfect in other aspects of spiritual life, and then one is said to be perfect in a certain respect.]
This can also be clearly shown from the words of Holy Scripture. [The conclusion just drawn was based on Scripture, but attained in a more abstract way; here Thomas illustrates the truth more directly by Scripture.] For the Apostle in Col 3:14 attributes perfection primarily to charity: for having enumerated many virtues, such as compassion, benignity, and humility, he adds, "But above all these things have charity, which is the bond of perfection" (Col 3:14). [Charity is the bond of perfection of all virtues, and so it is by charity that we are perfect in the most fundamental sense.] But some are also said to be perfect as regards understanding; for the same Apostle says, "Be babes in evil, but in sense be perfect." (1 Cor 14:20). Elsewhere in the same epistle, he says, "be perfect in the same mind and in the same judgment" (1 Cor. 1:10), although as was said, no matter how perfect knowledge a man has, without charity he is to be judged as nothing. So also a man may be said to be perfect in patience, which "has a perfect work," as St. James says, and in any other virtues. [Having cited examples of Scripture using perfection in a qualified sense, even though such perfection without love is not really worth anything, Thomas proceeds to the most extreme examples, of "perfection" used in regard to something bad.] This need not be surprising, for someone may be perfect in a bad thing, as when one speaks of "a perfect thief" or "a perfect robber." And Scripture also sometimes speaks this way: for it is said, "the fool's heart heart will work iniquity to perfect hypocrisy” (Isa 32:6).

Aquinas on Sexual Sins – The Dangers of Speaking Formally

Which is worse: adultery or masturbation? Rape or masturbation? Did Aquinas teach that masturbation is a greater sin than rape, because masturbation is unnatural, and rape is not? If so, what did he mean by speaking in this? The suggestion that masturbation is ultimately a greater sin than adultery or rape is immediately repellent to us. In fact it is ridiculous, yet certain authors attribute precisely this position to Thomas Aquinas, reading him to be saying that the sin of masturbation is simply speaking, ultimately, worse than the sins of adultery and rape. Moreover, the further argument is made that the Church upheld this position for a long time, and this (false claim) is used to attack the Church's credibility in sexual ethics. Doubt is sometimes expressed regarding various teachings or practices of the Church, e.g., regarding the Church's affirmation that homosexual intercourse is wrong, or the restriction of priestly ordination in the Roman Rite to those who freely choose to embrace celibacy. The argument is made that if the Church "taught for a thousand years that masturbation is a worse sin than rape", its teaching on sexual matters can't be very sound.

This misunderstanding of the Church's traditional teaching on sins against nature seems to be more prevalent than I realized. I hadn't previously realized how many authors and teachers assert that not only many medieval theologians, but even Thomas Aquinas taught this. Here are some sample quotes from books discussing masturbation in Aquinas:

[In Aquinas's view], Because sins against nature were sins against God, they were considered more serious than sins against other people, such as adultery, seduction, and rape (John F. Schumaker, Religion and Mental Health [Oxford University Press US], 1992), 76).To make his point perfectly clear, Aquinas poses a question: are not rape and adultery worse than unnatural acts, since they harm other persons, while consensual sins against nature do not? The answer is unequivocal: the four non-procreative forms of sex are worse, since–though not harmful to others–they are sins directly against God himself as the creator of nature. According to this logic, rape, which may at least lead to pregnancy, becomes a less serious sin than masturbation (Louis Crompton, Homosexuality and Civilisation, [Harvard University Press, 2006], 188).

"A practice opposed to the pattern set for us by nature" exceeds in wickedness the seduction of an innocent of the opposite sex, adultery, and rape (II-II 154:12) (Sex from Plato to Paglia, by Alan Soble [Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006], 1053).

One unfamiliar with the scholastic manner of speaking formally about an issue, that is, addressing precisely the question at hand, might easily get this impression from Aquinas's treatment of sexual "sins against nature."

Here is the text itself. In the Summa Theologiae II-II, q. 154, a. 12, Aquinas says:

In each kind of thing the worst corruption is the corruption of the principle on which other things depend. Now the principles of reason are the things in accord in nature… and therefore, to act against what is determined by nature, is most serious and base. Therefore since in the sins against nature man transgress what is determined by nature in regard to sex, the sin in this matter is the gravest kind of sin. After this is incest… while by the other species of lust one transgresses only that which is determined according to right reason, but presupposing the natural principles. But it is more contrary to reason to have sex not only contrary to the good of the offspring to be born, but also with injury to another. And therefore simple fornication, which is committed without injury to another person, is the least kind of lust.

The first objection of the article argues that sins against nature are not the worst, because they are not the most contrary to charity: "The more a sin is contrary to charity the graver it is. Now adultery, seduction and rape, which are injurious to our neighbor, seem to be more contrary to the love of our neighbor, than unnatural sins, by which no other person is injured. Therefore sin against nature is not the greatest among the species of lust." St. Thomas replies to this objection: "As the order of right reason is from man, so the order of nature is from God himself. And therefore in sins against nature, in which the very order of nature is violated, injury is done to God himself, the one who ordains nature."

Aquinas is focusing on the sins precisely as a violation of the right use of sexuality, and abstracting from other aspects of them. As justice is a greater virtue than chastity, so injustice is a greater evil than unchastity, and thus all things considered, Aquinas would consider rape a greater evil than masturbation or contraception. This formal way of speaking is recognized by some more considerate authors:

The teaching of medieval theologians that such sexual sins as masturbation, sodomy, and contraception are more perverse, as sexual sins, than fornication or adultery or even rape (the former were said to be contra naturam whereas the latter were said to be praeter naturam), angers many people today. But this teaching must be understood properly. The medieval theologians are claiming that certain kinds of sexual sins more seriously offend the virtue of chastity than do others. They are not saying that these sins are for this reason less grave as sins than adultery or rape, for instance. After all, adultery and rape are very serious violations of the virtue of justice as well as being violations of the virtue of chastity. Thus, as a sin, rape is far more serious than masturbation or homosexual sodomy because it not only offends chastity but also gravely violates justice. (Ronald David Lawler, Joseph M. Boyle, William E. May, Catholic sexual ethics: a summary, explanation & defense).

It is important to understand this formal way of speaking, considering one aspect of human behavior and abstracting from other aspects. But as Aquinas himself says in another context, "where such a manner of speaking is found in the writings of an authority, one should not continue to speak in this manner, but should piously explain what is said" (Summa Theologiae I, q. 31, a. 4, loose translation).

In regards to the comparison between fornication and masturbation, St. Thomas may have in mind fornication in an instance where there is a potential marriage between the two persons (even if they are not engaged), since otherwise it would be contrary to the good of the offspring who might be born. Whether he had this in mind or not, it does seem to me that there are many cases where fornication is worse than masturbation, on account of the harm done to the other party, and on account of the potential harm of children conceived and born as a result (e.g., if they are thereby deprived of the presence of one parent in the home).

The Reception of Thomas Aquinas

I would agree that Thomas Aquinas's classification of sins as received by moralists in following centuries became a problem, in part because it was not used formally, but materially; that is, the descriptions of sins and the various gravity of different sins or aspects of sins were applied directly to physical, material acts. Even Alphonsus Liguori, named the patron of confessors and moralists by Pope Pius XII, seems to have fallen into this error. And in this respect I do see problems with the Church's usual approach to sexual morality for centuries, not sexual morality in particular however, but simply morality in general, the tendency being to take an extrinsic, legalistic approach to morality, and to focus on sins, rather than an approach focused on the real nature of human goods. This was to some extent an outgrowth of nominalism, which made of natural law a kind of arbitrary imposition by God's will. In another post I'll come back to this general topic of legalistic morality.


I gather from the questions that bring people to this post that this anachronistic reading of Thomas Aquinas (and the other scholastics) is a common one. Aside from some general queries such as "contra naturam in Aquinas," or "Aquinas' thoughts on rape," or "Aquinas on sexual morality," "Thomas Aquinas on masturbation," "Aquinas' views on rape," there are a number of questions that suggest having encountered such a view:

1. When did rape become worse than masturbation? (Related questions: Rape is not as bad as masturbation? Is masturbation a greater sin than rape? Masturbation worse than incest? Which is worse, masturbation or adultery?)

It was all along. But if the question is meant in the sense "when did people stop making technical lists of how fundamentally an act goes against the sexual purpose of the genital organs?", the answer is, "when they in general stopped making such technical lists."

2. Is masturbation worse than fornication? (Similar related queries: Is masturbation a greater sin than having sex? [This must mean "having sex" outside of a marital relationship.]; is masturbation better or worse than actual intercourse?)

In most cases not. First, as noted above, in the many cases where the present relationship or the capacity for a committed and unselfish relationship in the future is seriously harmed, or where danger to offspring is present, fornication is objectively graver. Moreover, masturbation requires, and in most cases involves, a much less deliberate act of will than fornication does, and therefore the sin is any case subjectively less bad.

3. The catholic church taught that masturbation is worse than rape because at least the latter might result in conception. (Related questions: Rape is much less a sin than masturbation. Masturbation is worse than rape? [Did] Aquinas [teach that] rape is better than masturbation?)

No, it didn't.

4. Is masturbation worse than adultery?


Judging, Part 2 (Aquinas)

This post continues the last one, which spoke of “judging” in Scripture and the inseparability of truth and love.

In this connection I would like to look at an article of St. Thomas Aquinas. St. Thomas in the Secunda Secundae of the Summa Theologiae, has an article on judgment in cases of doubt. The question as a whole (question 60) concerns judgment as an act of justice, as in a court, but in this article (the fourth article) he treats the more general question of judging, which concerns all people, not only judges. The question is whether we should interpret cases of doubt in the way that is more favorable to the person concerned. (Read the complete article of Aquinas: On Charitable or Favorable Judgment)

The first objection he raises against this concerns the truth of judgment. The objection is that we should judge in such a way as to be correct as often as possible. But since men are more often inclined to evil—according to Ecclesiastes 1:15 (Vulgate), “The number of fools is infinite”, and Genesis 8:21, “the imagination and thought of man's heart are prone to evil from his youth”—we will be more often right if we interpret doubtful cases on the worse side rather than on the better side.

The second objection similarly is that we should simply judge according to the truth, and not be more inclined to one side then another.

The third objection concerns love. As far as we are ourselves are concerned, we should suppose the worst (According to Job 9:28, Vulgate, “I feared all my works”). But we should love our neighbors as ourselves, and so we should also suppose the worst of them. Therefore in doubtful cases we should be more inclined to judge on the unfavorable side.

In his response to the question and these objections, Thomas sets forth two principles. First, a false judgment by which someone thinks something bad about someone else, is contrary to love of neighbor. Secondly, (and this becomes clear in his response to the objections), a false judgment by which one thinks something good about someone, which is not actually so—e.g., when someone thinks that a person has a good motivation when he does not—is not something very bad and that we definitely need to avoid, but is only a minor evil, very slight in comparison to a false judgment about someone's badness.

That all seems clear: easy to understand, even if not always easy to put into practice. But things get more complicated with Thomas's response to the third objection. There he says, on the one hand, insofar as a judgment is necessary or helpful in order to improve something bad, we should rather be inclined to imagine or suppose what is worse. On the other hand, insofar as a judgment does not lead to action, we should rather be inclined to imagine or suppose what is better about a person.

In both respects the judgment is to be made in favor of love, but in one respect in favor of love in itself, so to speak, and in the other respect in favor of love as effective, as a principle of action. Love, in order to be love, must also act against what is bad and evil. In a famous passage (In Tractate 7 on the First Letter of John), St. Augustine says, “A father beats his Son, a slave-dealer caresses him…. Many things can be done that seem good, but do not spring from the root of love, and in contrast, many seem hard, aggressive, which are done for the sake of discipline, at the command of love. Once for all, therefore, a short commandment is given: Love, and do what you will.”

I believe this is more or less the direction of the entire Christian tradition. To the extent a hypothetical judgment is necessary as principle of action, one should try to judge accurately, even when the judgment is in a certain sense “against” someone or his action. But insofar as a completely definitive judgment is not necessary for that, we should make no definitive negative judgment about someone or his action, unless we cannot avoid such a judgment, because the matter is perfectly evident, which as regards interior motivations, is never the case. In this sense St. Paul says, “Do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then every man will receive his commendation from God” (1 Cor 4:5).

But the question, to what extent negative judgments are necessary in order to act rightly, and how these negative judgments, which should never be definitive, are to be kept provisional, is a practical question, not one that can be solved purely theoretically, but is answered through experience, in community with others, and through the impulse of the Holy Spirit.

I made a few more comments on this, and then we discussed it. I will give some of these practical points in the next post.

Seven Principles of the Spiritual Life

I've added Br. Thomas's description of Seven Principles of the Spiritual Life to the website. The principles, based on the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Therese of Lisieux, are the following:

1. To keep God in mind at all times.
2. To trust in God as much as possible.
3. To do all things for the love of God.
4. Not to trust in oneself.
5. Not to seek oneself.
6. To do all things with joy.
7. To be as energetic as possible.

The sixth and seventh principles may be a bit of a surprise. Is it even in our power to do things with joy? What does "energy" have to do with spiritual life? Yet St. Paul tells us to "Rejoice in the Lord always" (Phil 4:4), and St. Therese says that energy "is the most necessary virtue; with energy one can easily reach the height of perfection" (LT 178). These and the other principles are explained at greater length in the article. Comments are welcome!

The Gifts of the Holy Spirit according to Thomas Aquinas

All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. (Romans 8:14)
If you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law. (Galatians 5:18)

What are the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and what do they do? This post proposes an interpretation of St. Thomas Aquinas's teaching on "being led by the Spirit", and of the way that the gifts of the Spirit are active in Christian life.

The Seven Gifts of the Spirit

In Isaiah 11:1-3, we read "There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord."

The last part, according to the Latin tradition, reads "the spirit of knowledge and of piety [pietas], and the Spirit of the fear of the Lord shall fill him."

From this text derives the tradition of the Church regarding the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. The Catechism of the Catholic Church does not say much about the gifts. The main text is in numbers 1830 & 1831.

1830 The moral life of Christians is sustained by the gifts of the Holy Spirit. These are permanent dispositions which make man docile in following the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
1831 The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. They belong in their fullness to Christ, Son of David. They complete and perfect the virtues of those who receive them. They make the faithful docile in readily obeying divine inspirations.

This understanding of the gifts follows the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, as he is usually understood. I would like, however, to propose a more radical interpretation of Aquinas.

Thomas Aquinas on the Gifts of Holy Spirit

Selections from the text of Aquinas himself:

Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 68, a. 1

Human virtues perfect man insofar as man is naturally moved by reason in the things that he does within or without. Higher perfections must therefore be in man, by which he is disposed to be moved by God. And these perfections are called gifts, not only because they are infused by God, but also because by them, man is disposed and made more ready to be moved by the divine inspiration, as is said in Is 50:5: “The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I turned not backward.”

Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 68, a. 2

Hence, in those things in which the impulse of reason is not sufficient, but the impulse of the Holy Spirit is necessary, then a gift is also necessary.
Now man’s reason is in two ways perfected by God: first, with a natural perfection, namely the natural light of reason; secondly, with a supernatural perfection, by the theological virtues, as was said above. And although this second perfection is greater than the first, nevertheless man possesses the first perfection in a more perfect way than he possesses the second perfection. For man possesses the first perfection as his full possession, while he possesses the second as an imperfect possession; for we imperfectly love and know God. Now it is manifest that everything which perfectly possesses a nature or form or power, can of itself act according to it—though not apart from God’s action, who acts interiorly in every nature and will. But that which has a nature or form or power imperfectly, cannot act of itself, if it is not moved by another. Thus the sun, which is perfectly bright, can give light of itself, while the moon, which has the nature of light only imperfectly, cannot give light unless it is illuminated [by the sun]. Again, a doctor, who perfectly knows the medical art, can act on his own; but his student, who is not yet fully instructed, cannot act on his own, but only with the guidance of his instructor.
Thus, with regard to the things that are subject to human reason, i.e., in relationship to man’s natural end, man can act by the judgment of reason. If in this action, man is nevertheless helped by God by means of a special impulse, this will pertain to God’s superabundant goodness. Hence according to the Philosophers, not everyone who has the acquired moral virtues, has heroic or divine virtues. But in relationship to the last supernatural end, to which reason moves us insofar as it is in in a certain manner, and imperfectly, formed by the theological virtues, the motion of reason itself is not sufficient, unless the impulse and movement of the Holy Spirit comes from above, according to Rom 8:14, 17, “They who are led by the Spirit of God, are sons of God,” and “if you are sons, then also heirs.” And in Ps 142:10 it is said, “Your good Spirit will lead me into the right land,” i.e., because no one can arrive at the inheritance of the land of the blessed, unless he is moved and led by the Holy Spirit. And therefore in order to attain that end, a man must have the gift of the Holy Spirit.

In response to the objection that the theological virtues enable us to reach out to God, believing his word, trusting in him, and loving him, St. Thomas responds: “The theological and moral virtues do not perfect man in relationship to the last end, in such a way that he does not always need to be moved by a certain higher impulse of the Holy Spirit, for the reason just stated.” [emphasis added]

Garrgiou-Lagrange interpreting the “always” says the following:

To say that the gifts of the Holy Ghost must intervene in every meritorious act, even though it be imperfect (remissus et quantumvis remissus), would be to confound ordinary actual grace with the special inspiration to which the gifts render us docile. In the text which we have just quoted, St. Thomas means that man is not perfected to such a degree by the theological virtues that he does not always need to be inspired by the interior Master (semper not pro-semper), as we say: "I always need this hat," not however from morning until night, or from night until morning. Similarly a medical student not so well instructed that he does not always need the assistance of his master for certain operations. The need we experience is not transitory but permanent; all of which goes to show that the gifts should be not transitory inspirations, like the grace of prophecy, but permanent infused dispositions. (The Three Ages of the Interior Life, "The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit", footnote n. 33)

A text that lends support to reading the “always” as referring to every moment, however, may be found in the Secunda Secundae. St. Thomas says: "The gifts of the Holy Spirit are the principles of the intellectual and moral virtues, as was said above" (II-II 19:9 ad 4). He seems to have in mind his treatment in I-II q. 68, although in that article he does not thus articulate it. But if the gifts of the Holy Spirit are principles of the infused intellectual and moral virtues, and not just perfective and supporting of them, then the movement of the Spirit through the gifts seems to be presupposed to all the acts of the virtues, to all acts of Christian life.

The role of the gifts of the Holy Spirit according to this reading of Thomas Aquinas

If we follow this reading, we can explain the need for and role played by the gifts of the Holy Spirit as follows: first, we need to be constantly moved and led by God; yet because we are not merely moved passively by God, like limp dolls, but are ourselves involved in our own actions, and thus can be either open or closed, ready for or resistant to God's movement, we need the gifts to make us open and ready to receive God's movement and guidance.

We need God's movement because the divine love poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit is essentially a participation in God's own living love, just as grace is essentially a participation in God's own nature. Thus I cannot simply take my share of God's knowledge and God's love that I receive in the gifts of faith, hope, love, and run with them, as it were—i.e., simply make use on my own of these abilities by my empowered nature. If I were to do this, it would no longer be God's love present within me, but a mere parody of it; no longer a share in God's knowledge, but my own notions and whims.

This way of looking at the gifts of the Spirit would explain why St. Thomas calls them principles of the moral virtues. To have theological virtues and moral virtues without gifts would mean that I have no problem putting into practice the way I determine and choose to shape my life in accord with Christ. But I would still be living according to precisely my choice. Without an openness to “Christ who lives in me”, without an openness to being guided by God in living out divine life, my determination and readiness to carry out what seems to me to be fitting to Christian love would not be truly virtue simply speaking, but only in a limited respect. Thus the gifts are principles of the moral virtues insofar as they are virtues.

This interpretation of the gifts, which would hold the gifts to be active all the time, in making us open to the constant leading of the Holy Spirit, does not necessarily exclude an understanding of the gifts as making us ready to receive special inspirations of the Spirit, given only in times of special need or difficulty. We could understand the gifts as opening us up to all movement of the Spirit, whether (1) the movement of the Spirit involved in all activity of the children of God; (2) the special help of the Spirit when we especially need it; (3) and even in a certain way charismatic graces (though the gifts of the Holy Spirit are not necessary in order to receive charismatic graces, which can be had without charity).

Levels of love of neighbor

This is a summary of Aquinas's division of love of neighbor in his work On the Perfection of the Spiritual Life. His aim here is explaining the perfection of the religious state and the episcopal state.

Necessary love of neighbor
The basic commandments is "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." From these follows three points regarding the love of our neighbor we must have:

First, it must be true love, that is, we must love him or her not in the sense that we may love chocolate or wine. When we love these we refer them to ourselves, whom we properly love. We must love our neighbors so as to will them good for their own sake, and not only inasmuch as they are pleasant or helpful to use.

Secondly, we must love our neighbor with an ordered love. Everyone loves his spiritual nature more than his bodily nature. This is evident from the fact that no one would prefer being an idiot to being blind. So also we must love the spiritual good of our neighbor more than his bodily good, and again, we must love his bodily good more than his external goods.

Thirdly, we must love our neighbors with a holy love, inasmuch as we must love both ourselves and them as made in the likeness of God, as ordered to God, and as called to communion with him. Since what is ordered to God is called holy, loving our neighbor for God's sake is a holy love.

Fourthly, we must love our neighbor with an efficacious love, that is, a love that proves itself by deeds, as St. John says, "let us not love in word or in speech, but in deed and in truth."

Perfect love of neighbor that is counseled
Love of neighbor can be perfect in three ways which are not obligatory

1. Love can be perfect with respect to its extensiveness, when we show love to all men, even when we are not strictly required to do so. Aquinas distinguishes three degrees of love with respect to extension: (1) the lowest degree is when we love only those who are close to us; (2) the second degree is when we love not only those who are relatives or are close to us in some other way, but men and women everywhere; (3) the third degree is when we show love even to our enemies, to those who hurt us–even when we wouldn't be obliged to show a particular love for them. E.g., when we could with justice wait for them to make amends, to go out of our way to seek reconciliation.

2. Love of neighbor can be perfect with respect to its intensity. This perfection is shown by what a person is ready to give up for the sake of his neighbor. Thomas distinguishes three levels here, corresponding to the three evangelical counsels: (1) some give up possessions for the sake of their fellow men and women; (2) some expose their body labor and fatigue, or to persecution for the sake of others; (3) some lay down their life for others; the closest thing to this dying for others is giving up one's own will for the sake of others. For since to be alive means to act on one's own, to give up one's will is like a kind of death.

3. Love of neighbor can be perfect with respect to its works. (1) Some procure the bodily good of others, by feeding them, clothing them, or healing them; (2) some procure the spiritual good of others, as by teaching, but such spiritual good as is on man's own level; (3) some procure the spiritual good of others that is on a divine level–giving them the divine teaching, bestowing the sacraments, etc. This belongs above all to bishops.

Aquinas on Degrees of Love for God

Three levels of love of God
St. Thomas Aquinas, in his work On the Perfection of the Spiritual Life distinguishes three essential levels of love of God: (1) God's love for himself; (2) The love of the blessed saints and angels for God; (3) The love of those in grace and charity on earth.

(1) God is infinitely good and infinitely lovable, but no creature can love infinitely, and therefore only God himself can love himself as he deserves: the Father's infinite love, which he shows to and bestows upon the Son and Spirit, is supreme love.

(2) Creatures love God perfectly in heaven, inasmuch as all of their power and activity is turned to God: their attention is upon him, they see him as he is, their hearts embrace him, and they do all things for his sake.

(3) We here on earth can love God perfectly in the sense that we give ourselves to God, and thereby, since all our actions belong to us, we implicitly give all of them to God and do them for him, even if we don't and can't think of God at every single moment. Again, we love God perfectly inasmuch as we submit our minds entirely to him, believing his Word which he speaks to us, and give our hearts to him, loving things for the sake of God, and acting out of that love.

A basic form of this third level of love is required of all of us; it is wrong to disbelieve even a single word of God, to refuse to follow even a single one of God's precepts, to love anything other than God as though it were our ultimate happiness.

Yet within this third level there are various degrees. We may approach more or less closely to the second level of love, inasmuch as we strive to have our hearts and minds always turned actually towards God. St. Thomas explains that this is the purpose of the evangelical counsels: to take away everything that could distract us from giving this actual attention to God.

The more man's affection is withdrawn from temporal things, the more perfection will his mind be drawn towards the love of God. Therefore all the counsels, by which we are invited to perfection, aim at turning away man's affection from temporal things, so that his mind might more freely tend towards God, contemplating him, loving him, and fulfilling his will.

In summary:
1. God's love for himself is absolutely perfect and infinite.
2. The most perfect love possible to creatures is the love of created persons for God in heaven; the whole strength of their nature is directed towards God.
3a. Perfect love possible on earth (generically): we refer everything to God, but not necessarily consciously at every moment.
3b. Most perfect love possible on earth: to strive to imitate the perfection of love in heaven; to seek to act at every moment out of love.