|Major events in Jesus' life from the Gospels|
The three evangelical counsels or counsels of perfection in Christianity are chastity, poverty (or perfect charity), and obedience (see e.g. The Code of Canon Law, canons 599–601). As Jesus of Nazareth expressly stated (cf. ; = = , see also Mark 10), they are counsels for those who desire to become "perfect" (τελειος, cf. , see also Strong's G5046 and Imitatio dei). This means that they are not binding upon all, hence not necessary conditions without which heaven (eternal life) cannot be attained. Rather they are "acts of supererogation" that exceed the minimum stipulated in the Commandments in the Bible. Christians that have made a public profession to order their life by the evangelical counsels, and confirmed this by a public religious vow before their competent church authority (the act of religious commitment called "profession"), are recognised as members of the consecrated life.
There are early precedents of religious vows in the Christian monastic traditions, for example the Rule of St Benedict (ch. 58.17) stipulates for its adherents what has come to be known as the "Benedictine vow" promising "stability, conversion of manners and obedience", which to this day is made by the candidates joining Benedictine communities. But specifically in the form of the three evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty, and obedience religious vows were first made in the twelfth century by Francis of Assisi and his followers, the first of the mendicant orders. These vows are made now by the members of all Roman Catholic religious communities founded subsequently (cf. Code of Canon Law, can. 573) and constitute the basis of their other regulations of their life and conduct.
Not only those wishing to dedicate their life to God in the consecrated life, but every one of Jesus's followers is invited to observe chastity, poverty and obedience, since he exhorted all to "be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (cf. Dom Columba Marmion (cf. Christ the Ideal of the Monk, ch. VI) attribute to the religious "profession".). Nevertheless, only the members of the consecrated life confirm their intention to observe the evangelical counsels by making a public vow before the competent church authority. Outside the consecrated life Christians are free to make a private vow to observe one or more of the evangelical counsels; but a private vow does not have the same binding and other effects in church law as a public vow and does not bestow the spiritual benefits that spiritual teachers such as
A young man in the Gospel asked what he should do to obtain eternal life, and Jesus told him to "keep the commandments", but when the young man pressed further, Christ told him: "If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor". (It is from this passage that the term "counsel of perfection" comes.) Again in the Gospels, Jesus speaks of "eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven", and added, "He that can receive it, let him receive it". St. Paul presses home the duty incumbent on all Christians of keeping free from all sins of the flesh, and of fulfilling the obligations of the married state, if they have taken those obligations upon themselves, but also gives his "counsel" in favour of the unmarried state and of perfect chastity (Celibacy), on the ground that it is thus more possible to serve God with an undivided allegiance.
Indeed, the danger in the Early Church, even in Apostolic times, was not that the "counsels" would be neglected or denied, but that they should be exalted into commands of universal obligation, "forbidding to marry" ( ), and imposing poverty as a duty on all, see also Legalism (theology).
These counsels have been analyzed as a way to keep the world from distracting the soul, on the grounds that the principal good things of this world easily divide themselves into three classes. There are the riches which make life easy and pleasant, there are the pleasures of the flesh which appeal to the appetites, and, lastly, there are honours and positions of authority which delight the self-love of the individual. These three matters, in themselves often innocent and not forbidden to the devout Christian, may yet, even when no kind of sin is involved, hold back the soul from its true aim and vocation, and delay it from becoming entirely conformed to the will of God. It is, therefore, the object of the three counsels of perfection to free the soul from these hindrances. The love of riches is opposed by the counsel of poverty; the pleasures of the flesh, even the lawful pleasures of holy matrimony, are excluded by the counsel of chastity; while the desire for worldly power and honour is met by the counsel of holy obedience. Abstinence from unlawful indulgence in any of these directions is forbidden to all Christians as a matter of precept. The further voluntary abstinence from what is in itself lawful is the subject of the counsels, and such abstinence is not in itself meritorious, but only becomes so when it is done for the sake of Christ, and in order to be more free to serve Him.
The Catholic Encyclopedia article ends with the following summary:
|“||To sum up: it is possible to be rich, and married, and held in honour by all men, and yet keep the Commandments and to enter heaven. Christ's advice is, if we would make sure of everlasting life and desire to conform ourselves perfectly to the Divine will, that we should sell our possessions and give the proceeds to others who are in need, that we should live a life of chastity for the Gospel's sake, and, finally, should not seek honours or commands, but place ourselves under obedience. These are the Evangelical Counsels, and the things which are counselled are not set forward so much as good in themselves, as in the light of means to an end and as the surest and quickest way of obtaining everlasting life.||”|
- Religious vows
- Sermon on the Mount
- Ministry of Jesus
- Among the Cathars, the Perfecti also led an ascetic life of chastity and abstinence, but most of the followers followed easier rules of conduct.
- The Complete Gospels, Robert J. Miller ed., notes for Mark 10:17–22, page 36: "To the traditional biblical commandments Jesus adds the mandates of personal sacrifice and becoming his follower."
- This article incorporates text from the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913, a publication now in the public domain.