Counsel of perfection

Bill-newby L. G. William Chapman, B.A., LL.B.

The way most people casually toss about the expression “Counsel of Perfection” you’d think they were talking about something unattainable or making reasoned excuses for what they have failed to accomplish.  Either way it is seldom meant to chronicle anything realistic or realizable, rather an ideal only and a remote one at that.  The further castigation is the underlying theme that the urging, though noble, is impracticable.

The three evangelical counsels or counsels of perfection in Christianity are chastity, poverty (or perfect charity), and obedience. As Jesus of Nazareth stated in the Canonical gospels, they are counsels for those who desire to become “perfect” (τελειος, cf. Matthew 19:21, see also Strong’s G5046 and Imitatio dei). The Catholic Church interprets this to mean that they are not binding upon all and hence not necessary conditions to attain eternal life (heaven). 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.


Anything approaching these traditional but archaic monastic vows is seldom considered either enviable or capable of implementation. Furthermore even the gloss upon the expression “Counsel of Perfection” is almost dismissive:

In ethics, an act is supererogatory if it is good but not morally required to be done. It refers to an act that is more than necessary, when another course of action—involving less—would still be an acceptable action. It differs from a duty (which is an act that would be wrong not to do), and from acts that are morally neutral. Supererogation may be considered as performing above and beyond a normative course of duty to further benefits and functionality.

The motivation, at least in the Roman Catholic Church, was that acts of supererogation were “actions believed to form a reserve fund of merit that can be drawn on by prayer in favor of sinners”.  As laughable as it may seem to have been able to purchase redemption, it came at a price, one which was beyond the sphere of most. Counsel of Perfection  included for example celibacy:

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.

As a practicing lawyer I was accustomed to reiterating to my clients that I merely provided advice which they were at liberty to take or not.  The original intent of Counsel of Perfection was however far less lax:

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” (1 Timothy 4:3), and imposing poverty as a duty on all.

Through time this “exaltation” of Counsel of Perfection has been diluted sufficiently to become little more than an apology for anything which is frequently far short of the mark.  While I agree that the strict original sense of the expression is possibly without foundation, I do not however accept that in the modern vernacular settling for anything less than perfection is worthwhile. Indeed I view compromise as virtually valueless even if contemporary.

I want to be clear that my objection is never pitted against concession as a negotiation tool or as a reasonable substitute for what is otherwise unattainable.  Where trade-off is imperative by the very nature of the proceedings, it is of course acceptable.  What irks me is the willingness to reduce one’s target for reasons such as impatient expediency or petty economy.  In those circumstances the deal is nothing other than selling oneself short. And I am convinced that it is inevitable that such conduct is destined to prove unsatisfactory sooner than later.  It is useful to remind oneself that Counsel of Perfection exacts standards which at first blush appear onerous or more extensive than desired but this should not be off-putting.  This preliminary view is but a glimpse of the whole which if seen in its entirety would disclose the utility of the fuller application.

At the risk of extrapolating to the ridiculous, I cannot help but think that the apologetic use of Counsel of Perfection is akin to what is being sold in the many popular department stores – products euphemistically described as “outlet” (whatever that means).  There is a growing trend to favour price over quality and to prefer imitations (“knock-offs”) to the real thing.  In the result we end by surrounding ourselves with trash and products with a built-in early amortization.  We have become willing to accept the price and quality of three synthetic products for the price of one authentic product, all the while shrugging off the subterfuge and bargain as imperative or otherwise necessary or acceptable.  What ever happened to the real wool sweater?  Since when does a toaster have an expected lifetime of two years only? Why do we tolerate fake wooden sculpture?  Were the real things only Counsel of Perfection?

The greatest loss is the diminution of standards generally.  By surrendering to less than perfection we imperceptibly erode the highest benchmarks of our human existence.  Mind and matter have forever been inseparable.  It isn’t purely an accession to the dwindling quality of materialism; it is a contamination of the purity of our world’s physical metaphor.  And this inevitably leads to the tainting of our characteristic criteria, an infection which bleeds into our psychological, spiritual and moral codes of behaviour. If we are not prepared to live by Counsel of Perfection, then by what yardstick or principle are we to measure our conduct and undertakings?  How far below the mark do we allow ourselves to decend? Is aiming high no longer axiomatic?  Have we altered the very principles of science when it comes to hitting the target?