A description of the soul's journey to full union with God

The sources of the interior life and its end (cont)


Ch 12: Perfection and the Precept of the Love of God

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.


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, and obedience).

"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.'" (5)

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 render tepid.


As 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 goodness.

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.

But, over 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)


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 beginners do.
"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 God.

"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.

Perfection 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)

That same year Pius XI, in another encyclical, recalled the fact that St. Francis de Sales taught the same doctrine.(17)

Three consequences, 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.

When we 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).

5. Summa, IIa IIae, q.184, a.3.

6. Ibid.

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."

10. 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.

14. This 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.

16. 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".