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In my first post on the Evangelical Counsels, I noted their difference from the precepts of the Gospel. Now we must consider the necessity of living the Counsels. Must one necessarily accept the invitation to practice the Counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience in order to attain eternal life? Not necessarily.
The heart of the Counsels
As a precept binding upon all, the unlawful use of any of the three goods of money, sex, and power is universally forbidden. However, the voluntary abstinence from what is in itself lawful is the subject of the Evangelical Counsels. So nobody can idolize money, but, in and of itself, it’s okay to have money. We need food, housing, etc.,—and money is how these necessary bodily goods are obtained. The Counsel of poverty, though, sells and gives all to the poor.
Again, nobody is permitted to sin against the marital act, but, in and of itself, it is okay for a married couple to avail themselves of such. After all, children are a blessing from God. The Counsel of chastity, though, renounces marriage for the sake of virginity.
Lastly, nobody is allowed to be power-hungry, but, in and of itself, it’s okay to have a position of ruling—somebody has to be in charge. The Counsel of obedience, though, completely subjects oneself to others.
In other words, everybody has to have money, sex, and power moderated according to virtue. Yet the Counsels renounce even that which is in itself lawful. For while the soul may be saved and attain eternal life without following the Counsels, that end is reached more easily and with greater certainty if we accept Jesus’ invitation to live the Evangelical Counsels and thereby not simply confine ourselves to performing the bare minimum.
Thus, while it may not be strictly necessary to practice the Counsels in order to attain eternal life, that end is more certain should we accept them. However, unlike religious life, these aids to perfection are generally not available to the lay state. We can’t sell everything and give to the poor because we have families to feed. The procreation and education of children is the highest good of matrimony, so virginity is not our state. We’re husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, bosses, and coaches, so we have roles of authority. As laypeople who live in the world, we cannot follow these three Counsels literally.
Living according to the spirit of the Counsels
Having said that, the saints still say that we who live in the lay state and might not be able to live the Counsels in their strict literal sense, nonetheless must still live according to the spirit of the Evangelical Counsels. Detachment from worldly goods, for example, is necessary for everybody: we may have worldly riches and goods, but do we really need them, would we really care if they were gone the next day, would we abandon our faith if we lost material comforts? And while we may licitly be able to engage in the marital act, can we control ourselves, can we abstain when necessary, can we pray with our spouse instead? Do I subject myself to people where I can, following the guidance of my confessor, spiritual director, parish priest, boss, etc.? If not literally, then all of us must still figure out a way to live these Counsels in spirit, because we cannot, no matter the state in life, become enslaved to the temporal goods of money, sex, and power, and watch them become our downfall. But if we live according to the spirit of the Counsels, we will be going above and beyond the bare minimum of the law in the lay state.
To illustrate this, let us reflect further on detachment from worldly goods as an example. First of all, let us note that it is a normal and healthy desire for us to want to provide material comforts for our families. The issue is that the natural desire to provide material comforts is just that—natural. That is, it’s a desire of our humanity and not a supernatural desire of grace. And the problem with the desire for material comforts is exactly as Christ says: you cannot serve two masters.
So then, we have a natural desire, but one that can very easily become idolatrous. This is why Scripture speaks of “the world” as our enemy: the world is a dangerous thing to a Christian because of our fallen nature, and therefore not to be trifled with. Why not? Because the world is very likely to attract us to take up more of our time, energy, attention, etc. than it deserves. Thus, we have a tendency of choosing lesser goods over higher goods: we love things that really are good, but in such disordered ways that these goods distract us from the better things in life. How do I support myself, get a better job, pay off the mortgage, balance the budget? The problem is not that these things are bad, but that these goods can become an enemy to our souls when we, as is typical, forget about God in the process of doing these things. After all, what does balancing the budget matter if it means that we never pray the Rosary? We don’t seek first the Kingdom, as Christ exhorts us to in the Sermon on the Mount, but rather we seek first the material comforts of life. This leaves us riddled with the anxiety that Christ speaks of.
First things first
It is not just a matter of loving what is good, but of making sure that we love what is good in a properly ordered way. Baseball is good, recreation is needed, but if we love baseball more than our spouse, then that good becomes an evil for us. Our spouse is good, marriage is a sacrament, but if we dare love our spouse more than God, then that good becomes detrimental to us. Hence, a major part of the moral life is not just making sure that we love what is truly good for us, but also that we don’t love what is good for us in disordered ways.
We must be detached, so as to not love temporal goods more than they deserve—and to our downfall at that. For like the rich man, material comforts incur attachments, attachments that can take us away from the love of God—the very thing that we should be giving our families above all else. It’s very simple: the more space that material comforts occupy in our hearts, the less space there is for the love of God, and vice versa. Detachment, however, frees us from these attachments, whether we have material comforts or not, therefore allowing grace more room to be operative in fostering the heroic virtue necessary for sainthood.
Read Part 3 on St. Joseph’s model of the Counsel of poverty here.