We have seen that Christian perfection consists principally
in charity, and that Christ describes it for us in all its loftiness
in the eight beatitudes. We must now ask whether Christian perfection
thus conceived is only counseled for all Christians, or whether the
supreme precept makes it their duty to strive for it. This is
equivalent to asking the exact meaning and import of the double
precept of the love of God and of neighbor.
IS THE FIRST PRECEPT
Some have thought that for even the perfect observance of the
supreme precept of the love of God and of neighbor, a high degree of
charity is not necessary. From this point of view the precept would
not be directed toward perfection; rather perfection would go beyond
the precept and would consist in the accomplishment of certain
counsels of charity, which would be superior to the first precept
itself.(1) Were this so, the supreme precept would have a limit.
This may seem true if we consider the matter superficially. In
stating this problem, St. Thomas carefully notes this likelihood,
remarking by way of difficulty or objection: "If, therefore, the
perfection of the Christian life consists in observing the
commandments, it follows that perfection is necessary for salvation,
and that all are bound thereto; and this is evidently false." (2) St.
Thomas answers this objection in a manner that is both simple and profound, by declaring
that all are obliged in a general way to tend to perfection, each
according to his condition, without being obliged to be already
perfect. It is surprising to find that modern theologians, and not the
least among them, failing to comprehend the doctrine of the greatest
masters on this fundamental point of spirituality, have turned this
objection into their very thesis.
St. Thomas shows plainly that the supreme precept obliges all in a
general way to tend toward the perfection of charity, at least
according to the common way, although the vows of religious oblige
only those who have made them to tend to this perfection according to
the special way of their vocation.
The holy doctor offers the following explanation: "It is written
(Deut. 6: 5): 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart,'
and (Lev. 19: 18): 'Thou shalt love thy neighbor (Vulg., friend) as
thyself'; and these are the commandments of which our Lord said (Matt.
22: 40): 'On these two commandments dependeth the whole law and the
prophets.' Now, the perfection of charity, according to which the
Christian life is said to be perfect, consists precisely in loving God
with our whole heart, and our neighbor as ourselves. Therefore it
seems that perfection consists in the observance of the precepts (and
not precisely in the fulfillment of the counsels of poverty, chastity,
"Perfection is said to consist in a thing in two ways: in one way,
primarily and essentially, in another, secondarily and accidentally.
Primarily and essentially the perfection of the Christian life
consists in charity; primarily in the love of God, and secondarily in
the love of our neighbor. This charity is the object of the two chief
precepts of the divine law. Now, the love of God and of our neighbor
is not commanded according to a measure, so that what is in excess of
the measure be a matter of counsel. This is evident from the very form
of the commandment, pointing, as it does, to perfection, for instance
in the words, 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart
(where is the limit?): since the whole is the same as the
perfect, according to the Philosopher (Phys. III, text. 64), and
in the words, 'Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,' since
everyone loves himself most (maxime). (3) The reason for this is that
the 'end of the commandment is charity' according to the Apostle (cf.
I Tim. 1:5). Now, the end does not present itself to the will in a
fragmentary manner, but in its totality. In this it differs from the
means. Either a person wills the end, or he does not will it; he does
not will it by halves, as the Philosopher observes (Polit., 1:6). Thus
a physician does not measure the amount of his healing, but how much
medicine or diet he shall employ for the purpose of healing.
Consequently it is evident that perfection consists essentially in the
observance of the commandments; wherefore Augustine says (De perf.
justit., VIII): 'Why, then, should not this perfection be
prescribed to man, although no man has it in this life?'.
"Secondarily and instrumentally, however, perfection consists in the
observance of the counsels; in other words, they are only precious
instruments to attain it. In fact, all the counsels, like the
commandments, are ordained to charity, with one difference, however;
the commandments, other than the two great precepts of love, are
intended to remove whatever is contrary to charity, whatever might
destroy it; while the end of the counsels is to remove whatever
hinders or prevents the perfect exercise of charity without, however,
being opposed to it, as for example, marriage, the necessity of being
occupied with secular affairs, and things of this sort. This is what
Augustine teaches (Enchir., chap. 21): 'Precepts. . . and
counsels. . . are well observed when one fulfills them in order to
love God and one's neighbor for God in this world and in the next.'"
St. Thomas adds that this is why the abbot Moses says
(Conferences of the Fathers, Bk. I, chap. 7): "Fasts, vigils,
meditation on Holy Scripture, penury, and the loss of all one's wealth
are not perfection but means to perfection, since not in them does
perfection consist, but by them one attains it" (6) more rapidly and
more surely. (7) A man can be voluntarily poor for other than a
religious motive, through philosophical scorn of wealth, for example;
likewise one, can be poor for love of God, as St. Francis was, but this is not
indispensable to perfection. Thus a soul may reach sanctity in the
married state without the effective practice of the counsels, but on
condition that it have the spirit of the counsels, which is the spirit
of detachment from worldly goods for love of God.
All this shows
that perfection lies principally in the more and more generous
fulfillment of the supreme precept, which has 'no limit. No one can
find a limit in the statement in Deuteronomy: "Thou shalt love the
Lord thy God with thy whole heart and with thy whole soul and with thy
whole strength," (8) and not by halves. In other words, all Christians
to whom this precept is addressed, must, unless they already have the
perfection of charity, at least tend toward it, each according to his
condition, whether it be in the married state or in the sacerdotal
life or in the religious state. For all, it is not only better to tend
toward this perfection of charity, it is a duty identical with that of
continually advancing toward heaven where the love of God will reign
fully, a love which nothing will any longer be able to destroy or
THE LOVE OF GOD DOES NOT CONSIST IN A GOLDEN MEAN
this heading declares, the doctrine, that the supreme precept has no
limit, is greatly confirmed if we consider that the end in question
here is not an intermediary end, such as health, but the last end, God
Himself, who is infinite good. If a sick person desires health without
limitations, with greater reason we should desire the love of God,
without limiting our desire to a certain degree. We do not know the
degree to which God wishes to lead us and will lead us if we are
faithful and generous. St. Thomas says: "Never can we love God as much
as He ought to be loved, or believe and hope in Him as much as we
should." (9) In contrast to the moral virtues, the theological virtues
do not consist essentially in a happy mean: their object, their formal
motive, their essential measure is God Himself, His infinite truth and
We are far from the aurea mediocritas of which
Horace spoke. As an Epicurean, he even seriously reduced the golden
mean of the moral virtues. The truly golden mean of these virtues is
not only that of selfish calculation, which, without love of virtue,
avoids the disadvantages of vices that are opposed to each other; the
truly golden mean is already a summit, that of right reason and of
virtuous good loved for itself, over and above the useful and the
delectable. But this summit has not an infinite elevation; it is the
reasonable rule determining the measure of our acts in the use of
exterior goods and in our relations with our fellow men. For example,
in the presence of certain dangers we must be courageous and even not
fear death if our country is in danger; but to expose ourselves to
death without a just motive would not be courage but temerity.
Moreover, there are some sacrifices that our country cannot rightly
require of us. Our country is not God, and consequently cannot demand
that we love it above all else, sacrificing to it our Christian faith,
the practice of the true religion, and our eternal salvation. Such a
course of action would be an excessive love of country.
and above the moral virtues, the theological virtues, which have God
immediately as their object and motive, cannot essentially consist in
a golden mean. We cannot love God too much, believe too greatly in
Him, hope too much in Him; we can never love Him as much as He should
be loved. Thus we see more clearly that the supreme precept has no
limit. It asks us all ever to strive here on earth for a purer and
stronger love of God.
If hope is the mean between despair and
presumption, this is not because the presumptuous man hopes too
greatly in God, but because he displaces the motive of hope by hoping
for what God could not promise, such as pardon without true
repentance. Likewise, credulity does not consist in believing too
greatly in God, but in believing what is only human invention or
imagination as if it were revealed by Him. (10)
We cannot believe
too strongly in God, or hope too greatly in
Him, or love Him too much. To forget, as the Epicureans do, that the
rational, golden mean is already a summit, and to wish to make the
theological virtues consist essentially in a golden mean as the moral
virtues do, is characteristic of mediocrity or tepidity, erected into
a system under pretext of moderation. Mediocrity is a mean between
good and evil and, indeed, nearer evil than good. The reasonable,
golden mean is already a summit, that is, moral good; the object of
the theological virtues is infinite truth and goodness. This truth has
at times been brought into relief by the comparison between the
mediocre man and the true Christian.(11)
THE DUTY OF ADVANCING ON THE WAY TO ETERNITY
Finally, another reason
why the precept of love has no limit is found in the fact that we are
travelers on the way to eternity, and that we advance by growing in
the love of God and of our neighbor. Consequently our charity ought
always to grow even to the end of our journey. Not only is this a
counsel, that is, something better, but an obligation. Moreover, a
soul here on earth not desirous of growing in charity would offend
God. The road to eternity is not made to be used as a place for rest
or sleep, but rather to be traveled. For the traveler who has not yet
reached the obligatory end or term of his pilgrimage, progress is
commanded and not only counseled, just as a child must grow, according
to the law of nature, under pain of becoming a dwarf, a deformed
being.(12) Now, when it is a question of advancing toward God, it is
not by the movement of our bodies that we advance, but rather
spiritually, by the steps of love, as St. Gregory the Great says, by
growth in charity which ought to become a purer and stronger love.
This is what we ought especially to ask in prayer; this is the import
of the first petitions of the Our Father.
Does it follow that a
person who does not yet fulfill the precept perfectly, transgresses
it? Not at all; for, as St. Thomas says, "To avoid this transgression,
it is enough to fulfill the law of charity to a certain extent as
"The perfection of divine love falls entirely (universaliter) within
the object of the precept; even the perfection of heaven is not
excluded from it, since it is the end toward which one must tend, as
Augustine says (De perfectione justitiae, chap. 8; De
Spiritu et littera, chap. 36). But a person avoids the
transgression of the precept by putting into practice a little love of
"Now, the lowest degree of the love of God consists in loving
nothing more than God or contrary to God or equal with God, and he who
has not this degree of perfection in no wise fulfills the commandment.
There is another degree of charity which cannot be realized in this
life and which consists in loving God with all our strength, in such a
way that our love always tends actually toward Him. This perfection is
possible only in heaven, and therefore the fact that a person does not
yet possess it, entails no transgression of the commandment. And, in
like manner, the fact that a person has not attained the intermediate
degrees of perfection, entails no transgression, provided only that he
reaches the lowest degree." (13)
But evidently he who remains in
this lowest degree does not fulfill the supreme commandment in all its
perfection: "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 would be an error to think that only imperfect charity is of
precept, and that only the degrees of this virtue superior to the
lowest degree are of counsel. They fall under the precept, if not as
something to be realized immediately, at least as that toward which we
must tend.(14) Thus, by virtue of the law of his development, a child
must grow in order to become a man, otherwise he would not remain a
child, but would become a deformed dwarf. The same is true in the
spiritual life.(15) The law of growth has serious demands. If the
divine seed, placed in us by baptism, does not develop, it runs the
risk of dying, of being choked out by weeds, as we read in the parable
of the sower. In the spiritual life these abnormal souls are certainly
not the true mystics, but the retarded and the lukewarm.
is an end toward which all must tend, each according to his condition.
This capital point of spiritual doctrine, forgotten by some modern
theologians, was highlighted in 1923 by Pius XI in his encyclical
Studiorum ducem, in which he presents St. Thomas to us as the
undisputed master not only of dogmatic and moral theology, but also of
ascetical and mystical theology. Pius XI draws particular attention to
the doctrine of the Angelic Doctor, namely, that the perfection of
charity falls under the supreme precept as the end toward which every
Christian must tend according to his condition in life.(16)
same year Pius XI, in another encyclical, recalled the fact that St.
Francis de Sales taught the same doctrine.(17)
which we shall develop farther on, result from this doctrine: (I) In
the way of salvation, he who does not advance, goes back. Why is this
so? Because it is a law that one must always advance, under penalty of
becoming a retarded soul, just as a child who does not develop as he
should, becomes abnormal. (2) The progress of charity should indeed be
more rapid in proportion as we approach nearer to God, who draws us
more strongly. Thus the movement of a falling stone is so much the
more rapid as the stone approaches the earth which attracts it. (3)
Lastly, since such is the loftiness of the first precept, assuredly
actual graces are progressively offered to us proportionate to the end
to be attained, for God does not command the impossible. He loves us
more than we think. In return, we must give Him our love.
have succeeded in loving Him with all our heart, even with an
affective love, we must love Him with all our soul, with an effective
love, with all our strength, when the hour of trial strikes for us,
and finally, with all our mind, progressively freed from the
fluctuations of the sensible faculties, that, henceforth
spiritualized, we may become truly "adorers in spirit and in truth."
All this doctrine shows that sanctification must not be too greatly
separated from salvation, as is done by those who say: "I shall never
become a saint; it is enough for me to be saved." This statement
contains an error of perspective. Progressive sanctification is, in
reality, the way of salvation. In heaven there will be only saints,
and, in this sense of the word, each of us must strive for sanctity.
||1. This is the opinion expressed by Suarez, De
statu perfectionis, chaps. 11, nos. 15, 16. He admits that St.
Augustine and St. Thomas seem to teach clearly that perfection is no
only counseled, but commanded by the first precept, as the end toward
which all must tend. But he himself replies in the negative: "Respondeo
nihilominus si proprie et in rigore loquamur, perfectionem
supererogationis non solum non praecipi, ut materiam in quam obligatio
praecepti cad at, verum etiam neque per modum finis in praeceptis
contineri." Suarez thus admits, above the precept of the love of God,
which in his opinion is limited, counsels of charity superior to those
of poverty, chastity, and obedience, virtues which manifestly are
inferior to charity. In his opinion, perfection consists, therefore,
essentially in these counsels of charity, and instrumentally in the
other three which are subordinated as means (cf. ibid., no. 16).
This doctrine of Suarez is criticized at length by the great canonist
Passerini, O.P., who was also a profound theologian and most faithful
to St. Thomas. Cf. his De hominum statibus et officiis, in IIa
IIae, q. 184, a.3, nos. 70, 106, where he shows that this doctrine of
Suarez is opposed to that of St.. Augustine and of St. Thomas which
was preserved by St. Antoninus, Cajetan, and Valentia. St. Thomas
occasionally uses the expression "perfection of supererogation," but
in a different sense from that in which Suarez uses it. When St.
Thomas uses the phrase, he means that the three evangelical counsels
of poverty, absolute chastity, and obedience are not obligatory.
The sound basis of Passerini's conclusion will be easily seen by
examining St. Thomas' article, IIa IIae, q. 184, a.3, which we are
going to translate.
2. See IIa IIae, q. 184, a.3, 2a obj.; "Whether perfection consists
in the observance of the precepts or of the counsels."
3. In fact, everyone ought, through charity, to wish for himself
salvation, eternal life, and not only an inferior degree of glory, but
eternal life without setting any limit; for we do not know to what
degree of glory God wishes to raise us.
4. St. Augustine means that even the perfection of heaven falls
under the precept of the love of God, not as something to be realized
immediately, but as the end toward which one must tend. It is thus
that Cajetan explains it (Commentary on IIa IIae, q.184, a.3).
Summa, IIa IIae, q.184, a.3.
7. This is what our Lord had
in mind when He said to the rich young man: If thou wilt be perfect,
go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have
treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me" (Matt. 19: 2 I). As St.
Thomas remarks (loc. cit., ad mm), this is the road which leads to
perfection; and then he explains that perfection consists in following
Jesus through love.
8. Deut. 6:5; Luke 10:27.
9. See Ia IIae,
q.64, a.4: "Whether the theological virtues observe the mean."
Ibid.: "It is possible to find a mean and extremes in theological
virtue, accidentally (not essentially) and in reference to us" (i.e.,
faith is per accidens a mean between incredulity and credulity, hope
between despair and presumption).
11. Cf. Ernest Hello, L'homme, Bk.
I, chap. 8: "The truly mediocre man admires everything a little and
nothing with warmth. . . . He considers every affirmation insolent,
because every affirmation excludes the contradictory proposition. But
if you are slightly friendly and slightly hostile to all things, he
will consider you wise and reserved. The mediocre man says there is
good and evil in all things, and that we must not be absolute in our
judgments. If you strongly affirm the truth, the mediocre man will say
that you have too much confidence in yourself. The mediocre man
regrets that the Christian religion has dogmas. He would like it to
teach only ethics, and if you tell him that its code of morals comes
from its dogmas as the consequence comes from the principle, he will
answer that you exaggerate. . . . If the word 'exaggeration' did not
exist, the mediocre man would invent it.
"The mediocre man appears
habitually modest. He cannot be humble, or he would cease to be
mediocre. The humble man scorns all lies, even were they glorified by
the whole earth, and he bows the knee before every truth. . . . If the
naturally mediocre man becomes seriously Christian, he ceases
absolutely to be mediocre. . . . The man who loves is never mediocre."
12. See IIa IIae, q. 184, a.3 ad 3um.
13. Ibid., ad 2um.
is the opinion of Cajetan (Commentary on IIa IIae, q.184, a.3) and
also of Passerini, De hominum statibus et officiis, on lIa lIae, q.
184, a. 3, nos.70, 106.
15. St. Thomas, loco cit., ad 3um.
Studiorum ducem, June 29, 1923: "That the love of God ought always
to grow was most certain doctrine. 'This is evident from the very form
of the commandment, pointing, as it does, to perfection. . . . Thou
shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart. . . . The reason of
this is that the
end of the commandment is charity, according to the Apostle (I Tim.
1:5); and the end is not subject to a measure, but only such things as
are directed to the end' (lla lIae, q. 184, a.3). This is why the
perfection of charity toward which every Christian must tend according
to his condition, falls under the precept".