Christian Marriage and the Call to Perfect Love

The goal of every Christian life, however different they may be in concrete particulars, can be summed up in one phrase: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).[1] This command, the crowning precept of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, is further specified by his teaching on the two greatest commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:36-39). As St. John Paul II affirmed in the first encyclical of his pontificate, Redemptor hominis, this “vocation to perfect love is not restricted to a small group of individuals,” as if Christ had proposed perfection to the Twelve Apostles alone as a kind of supererogatory goal; on the contrary, it is “meant for everyone.”[2] Every genuine form of Christian life which has developed in the Church’s history, from the ascetics of the Egyptian desert to the Missionaries of Charity in the slums of Calcutta, from the ordinary parish priest to the families who fill the pews of his church, constitutes an attempt to live out this “vocation to perfect love” which is most essential to Christian discipleship.

It is from these fundamental teachings of her Lord that the Church derives the doctrine of the universal call to holiness, reaffirmed most recently by the Magisterium at the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council.[3] This doctrine, however, stands in a certain tension with another teaching. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is approached by a rich young man, asking what he must do “to have eternal life” (Mt 19:16). The Lord seems to give a two-fold response. “If you would enter life, keep the commandments,” he says, but when the young man answers that he has kept them from his youth and inquires what he still lacks, the Lord further adds: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess … and come, follow me” (vv. 17, 21). Gradually, there developed from this Scriptural encounter the doctrine of “two ways” of Christian life, one suitable for the masses, the other intended only for a spiritual élite. The former way, which demanded only the keeping of the commandments, was the minimum requirement for salvation; the latter, distinguished by the supererogatory self-offering of evangelical poverty, chastity, and obedience, was the “path of perfection”[4] leading to greater glory in the life to come. 

As early as the third century, the Alexandrian school cane to associate this “ordinary way” of Christian life with marriage and the way of the perfect with consecrated virginity. Thus Origen, the master of this school, teaches that “the benevolent God, who desires our salvation, has ordained two states of life for man: marriage and virginity, in such a way that he who is not able to rise up to the challenges of virginity, takes a wife.”[5] By the fourth century, the Origenist bishop Eusebius of Caesarea taught an identical doctrine: 

Two ways of life were thus given by the law of Christ to His Church. The one is above nature … it admits not marriage, child-bearing, property nor the possession of wealth, but wholly and permanently separate from the common customary life of mankind, it devotes itself to the service of God alone … Such then is the perfect form of the Christian life. And the other more humble, more human, permits men to join in pure nuptials and to produce children.[6]

Since marriage came to be considered the “common” or default Christian state of life, requiring only obedience to the precepts of the Decalogue, as opposed to the more perfect form of life lived by consecrated virgins, marriage naturally came to be regarded as lesser in dignity and sanctity than virginity. St. Thomas Aquinas, summing up the status quo ante of the tradition in the thirteenth century, identifies the “state of perfection” with the religious life, since the one who professes religious vows “bind[s] himself in perpetuity and with a certain solemnity to those things that pertain to perfection,”[7] namely, the practice of evangelical poverty, chastity, and obedience. By “state of perfection,” St. Thomas thus refers to a stable form of life, freely chosen, by which individual members of the Christian faithful set out to grow towards perfect charity, having professed public and perpetual vows to make use of the means of perfection—the evangelical counsels—recommended by the Lord. Characteristically, St. Thomas is quick to distinguish that “some persons bind themselves to that which they do not keep, and some fulfill that to which they have not bound themselves … Wherefore nothing hinders some from being perfect without being in the state of perfection, and some in the state of perfection without being perfect.”[8]

This doctrine on the state of perfection survived essentially unchanged in the life and teaching of the Church until the twentieth century, which inaugurated a true development of doctrine in the Christian conception of marriage, above all during the pontificate of St. John Paul II. As mentioned above, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church definitively proposed a new interpretation of Christ’s conversation with the rich young man. Radically prior to the distinction between the states of marriage and virginity, the Council implicitly recognizes one state of life common to all the Christifideles, marked by a common vocation: “In the Church, everyone, whether belonging to the hierarchy, or being cared for by it, is called to holiness.”[9] This vocation to holiness is by its very nature one, that is, there is not one standard of holiness for religious and another, less exacting standard for married people; there is only “the holiness of the Church,” which “is expressed in many ways in individuals, who in their walk of life [vitæ ordine], tend toward the perfection of charity.”[10] As St. Thomas teaches, “the perfection of Christian life consists radically in charity,”[11] for “charity, as the bond of perfection and the fullness of the law, rules over all the means of attaining holiness and gives life to these same means.”[12] Therefore, each Christian state of life which follows upon and specifies this first and universal state must be ordered to the perfection of charity, as a means is ordered to an end. 

The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church further links this universal call to perfect charity with “the practice of the counsels.”[13] Indeed, as noted above by St. John Paul II in his commentary on the call to perfect love, “Christ proposes the evangelical counsels, in their great variety, to every disciple,”[14] although “an eminent position among these [disciples to whom they are proposed] is held by virginity or the celibate state.”[15] The “particular honor” and eminence afforded to the state of virginity is due to the Church’s grateful recognition that those who profess it “devote themselves to God the more easily, with an undivided heart,” that this undivided devotion is a most effective “incentive to charity, and is certainly a particular source of spiritual fecundity in the world.”[16] It is certainly no incidental fact that the Lord Himself was celibate, nor that St. Paul counseled those who were unmarried to remain so, since “the unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided” (1 Corinthians 7:32-34).[17] Both the Church’s praise for virginity and St. Paul’s hesitancy towards marriage hinge on the recognition that the human heart is in some sense “divisible,” that the professed virgin, on the one hand, belongs entirely to God, while the married man or woman, on the other, seems to belong only partially to Him and partially to his or her spouse. 

What is most essentially praiseworthy in the state of consecrated virginity, then, is the integration of the heart that naturally results from its single-minded focus on the Beloved God: it is “the full flowering of the humanity given to us by God,” as one consecrated virgin puts it, “and the fulfillment of all of its authentic desires … through a super-affirmation that allows these desires to find their free expression and consummation on a deeper and even more real level.”[18] It is above all the practice of the evangelical counsels in the state of virginity which affords this integration, since the human person, made in the image and likeness of the all-loving, self-giving God,  “cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”[19] Living the counsels means living a life of total self-gift, “offering to God all that one has”[20]in a holocaust of love. Like Mary, the consecrated virgin who professes poverty, chastity and obedience gives God a “total ‘yes’ … a yes that wants to give everything to the beloved in order to become totally dispossessed of one’s self.”[21] It is this dispossession of self at the deepest level of the heart which effects the integration of the human person and opens up into perfect charity and spiritual fruitfulness. The final and definitive words of Lumen gentium on the universal call to holiness, however, leave no doubt that the practice of the evangelical counsels, as the Church’s treasured means of integrating the human heart and nurturing perfect love, belongs not just to those called to the highly esteemed state of virginity, but to the common state of life of all the baptized:

Therefore, all the faithful of Christ are invited to strive for the holiness and perfection of their own proper state. Indeed they have an obligation to so strive. Let all then have care that they guide aright their own deepest sentiments of soul. Let neither the use of the things of this world nor attachment to riches, which is against the spirit of evangelical poverty, hinder them in their quest for perfect love.[22]

“Even those in marriage,” Bishop Andrew Cozzens allows, “must learn not to be ruled by the threefold lust [of the flesh, the eyes and the pride of life] and live a kind of chastity, poverty, and obedience proper to their state.”[23] We might go one step further and argue that Christian marriage itself presupposes and demands the practice of the evangelical counsels in order to attain the goal of perfect love. As Hans Urs von Balthasar notes, the attitude of absolute self-dispossession which is inculcated by the practice of the counsels and which integrates the human heart “has only one analogy: the indivisibility and indissolubility of the yes given in marriage.”[24] Significantly, the praenotanda to the Rite of Matrimony teach that “the true development of conjugal love and the whole meaning of family life, without diminishment of the other ends of Marriage, are directed to disposing Christian spouses to cooperate wholeheartedly with the love of the Creator … They glorify the Creator and strive for perfection in Christ, as they carry out the role of procreation with generous, human and Christian responsibility.”[25]

In order to realize this goal, the Church extends to Christian spouses the means of perfection, the evangelical counsels, to be lived in accord with their state in life. As one married couple remarks, “The family provides countless opportunities for practicing community of goods, for sharing, for poverty of spirit. It’s our house; not my house. They are our children, not my children,”[26] and so on. Conjugal poverty is lived out in the willing dispossession of what was one’s own for the good of the family. Conjugal chastity entails a true “chastity of the heart: an undivided clinging to God with the affections of the heart,”[27] such that the heart of husband and wife each remains united to God and “refrains from delighting in union with other things against the requirement of the order established by God.”[28] In effect, the spouses must remember—and remind one another—that their final end and ultimate fulfillment lies in union with God, whose love is mediated through their chaste conjugal love for one another and for their children. Finally, Christian marriage is lived in mutual obedience: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). The same spouses remark, 

The myriad acts of self-denial demanded by family life may not be commanded by obedience, but … is it not true that the voice of God speaks to us, the married, no less authoritatively in the midnight cry of our baby in pain or discomfort, the hungry plea of our preschooler, the worried questions of our teenagers, the desire of our son to be read to or taken for a walk than it does in the measured tones of the superior?[29]

Though Christian spouses do not profess the evangelical counsels as public vows, the whole orientation of their conjugal state in life, understood in light of the Magisterium of the Church in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, demands and indeed presupposes the exercise of the counsels in order to achieve their supernatural end. Therefore, while the state of marriage may not meet the formal definition of the state of perfection, it is certainly a state of life wholly conducive to the perfection of love for those called to live it. As St. Francis de Sales advised his lay directees, “it is not necessary that vows be made, provided they be observed.”[32] May the Church in our century be enriched with the flowering of many holy Christian couples and families, following the example of Ss. Louis and Zélie Martin, for the building up of a civilization of love in anticipation of the coming Kingdom of God. 

[1] Revised Standard Version, Second Catholic Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006).

[2] St. John Paul II, Redemptor hominis [The Redeemer of Man] (4 March 1979), §18.

[3] St. Paul VI, Lumen gentium [Dogmatic Constitution on the Church] (November 21, 1964), §39.

[4] Redemptor hominis, §16.

[5] Origen, “Homily on the Renunciation of the World,” qtd. in Rev. Blaise Berg, lecture on Marriage and State of Life (Menlo Park, CA: St. Patrick’s Seminary & University, September 25, 2022).

[6] Eusebius of Caesarea, The Proof of the Gospel, vol. 1, 8, trans. W. J. Ferrar (New York: Macmillan, 1920).

[7] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, II-II, q. 184, a. 4, corpus, trans. Rev. Laurence Shapcote, at 

[8] Ibid.

[9] Lumen gentium, §39.

[10] Ibid.

[11] ST,, II-II, q. 184, a. 1, corpus.

[12] Lumen gentium, §42.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 915.

[15] Lumen gentium, §42.

[16] Ibid. Emphasis added.   

[17] Emphasis added.

[18] Joshua Elzner, “Spiritual Senses: You Touched Me and I Burned for Your Peace,” Thoughts in Solitude: Reflections of a Beloved Child of God, March 3, 2019,

[19] St. Paul VI, Gaudium et spes [Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World] (7 December 1965), §22.

[20] ST, III, q. 186, a. 7, corpus.

[21] Most Rev. Andrew Cozzens, A Living Image of the Bridegroom: The Priesthood and the Evangelical Counsels (Omaha, NE: Institute for Priestly Formation, 2020), 145.

[22] Lumen gentium, §42. Emphasis added.

[23] Cozzens, A Living Image of the Bridegroom, 152-3.

[24] Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Laity and the Life of the Counsels: The Church’s Mission in the World (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003)188.

[25] The Order of Celebrating Matrimony (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016), no. 10.

[26] Clarence and Kathleen Enzler, “Sanctity in Marriage: It’s the Same Difference,” in Sanctity and Success in Marriage (Boston: National Catholic Conference on Family Life, 1956), accessed at

[27] Cozzens, A Living Image of the Bridegroom, 172.

[28] ST, II-II, q. 151, a. 2, corpus.

[29] Enzler and Enzler, “Sanctity in Marriage.”

[30] St. Francis de Sales, An Introduction to the Devout Life (Dublin: M. H. Gill and Son, 1885), 154. 

[31] José Cardinal Saraiva Martins, “Witnesses to Conjugal Love,” homily on the occasion of the beatification of Louis and Zélie Martin (October 19, 2008), at

[32] St. Francis de Sales, An Introduction to the Devout Life (Dublin: M. H. Gill and Son, 1885), 154. 

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