Open main menu

States of Christian Life and Vocation, According to the Doctors and Theologians of the Church/Part 1/Section 1/Article 1/Chapter 3

< States of Christian Life and Vocation, According to the Doctors and Theologians of the Church‎ | Part 1/Section 1‎ | Article 1

Chapter 3: Is Marriage CounselledEdit

THE word " counsel" may have two meanings the one broad, the other precise and restricted. "Taken in a broad sense, counsel may apply even to commands," says Suarez. Every day we counsel ourselves and others to keep the commandments; and God counsels the same by continual inspirations, and even exhortations, such as are to be found in the sacred writings.[1] In this sense we advise marriage in the few cases in which it is obligatory ; and those who fall within these cases may validly bind themselves by vow to marry, though such a vow is usually null, as not having for object a good greater than the one it removes : for celibacy, in itself, is better than wedlock.[2] "Still," continues Suarez, "in a precise and rigorous sense, the counsel that God gives with respect to certain good works has no precept in view, but only what is not commanded. Every good work not commanded is not thereby a matter of counsel."[3]

It must, besides, surpass in goodness the opposite work, which cannot be performed simultaneously with itself. He who gives his daughter in marriage does well, but he who does not give her does better, says the great apostle. Virginity is then counselled, because it is opposed to marriage, and better than it. Among actions not commanded there are some that are simply good, but in a lower degree : such is marriage. As all hold this view to be certain, marriage is not among the counsels.[4] Hence, St. Liguori wrote as follows to a young man who consulted him about his vocation : "As to the married state, I cannot counsel it you, since St. Paul does not counsel it to any one, unless there is a necessity from habitual faults : which, I am confident, is not your case." The holy doctor, as remarkable for his piety as for his great experience and vast erudition, wrote in the same spirit, and almost in the same words, to a young lady, who had asked him for light.[5] St. Paul, under divine inspiration, wrote : " If they do not contain them selves" (i.e., cannot observe chastity), " let them marry. For it is better to marry than to be burnt" by the fires of temptation, (i Cor. vii, 9.) " Remember," says the learned commentator, Cornelius a Lapide, " that to be burnt does not mean to be tempted, but to give way to the tempter."[6] On these words of St. Paul, St. Augustine, in a book published for the special purpose of defending marriage against heretics who assailed its holiness, writes: " It appears to me that, in these times (under the law of grace,) only those who cannot observe chastity ought to marry."[7]

Even for those in such a condition, marriage is strictly obligatory only in so far as they do not wish to take other means against relapses, as we have previously stated.

After noting that the passage of St. Paul, to which St. Augustine alludes, is applicable to those only who have not vowed chastity, as the context manifestly proves, Suarez goes on to say : "The apostle does not assert that it is better to marry than to keep continency, for continency is better ; but he asserts that it is better to marry than to fall into sin ; so that, absolutely, he counsels continency as better, and declares without restriction : "I wish that all men were like me ; but he sets marriage before sin."[8] However, as the eminent theologian pursues, men can always, with the help of divine grace, refrain from both marriage and sin and do what is better than either of them, to wit, "observe complete chastity."[9] Since then, according to Suarez, the apostle counsels celibacy as the better, marriage, its opposite, is not of counsel in the strict sense of the word.

Doctrine like this should, it seems, influence the conduct of parents, and of all whose state may cause them to be consulted on a vocation. Cornelius a Lapide relates that St. Augustine, like St. Ambrose, would never advise any one to marry.

In his life of the great doctor, Possidonius tells us that he recommended a pious man to observe three things : first, never to seek a wife for any one, for fear that, after marriage, the couple would curse him that brought them together.[10] We make no mention of the other two points, because they do not concern our subject.

In presence of such teaching and such examples, have we not reason to wonder when virtuous young people of both sexes receive, without any reason, and in a tone of authority, from parents, in other respects Christian, or from others, decisions like this : " You are called to the married state : it is God's will that you enter it"? We suppose that these young persons do not come under any of the cases wherein marriage is binding, nor even under the case of which there is question in the passage quoted above from St. Liguori. We ask what is to be understood by that pretended vocation to the married state, so peremptorily decided on, which would impose upon the young persons in question an obligation of conscience to contract marriage? Is that vocation commanded ? Then, what commandment of God or Church ordains it? Can it be only a counsel? But have we not just seen that, according to St. Liguori, the apostle counsels marriage to none save those afflicted with guilty habits? Even supposing such habits, "who ever pretended that marriage is an essential means to guard against sin?"[11] says the same holy doctor. Are we to forget that, in times wherein practical faith is often wanting, and, at least, one of the spouses may disregard it altogether, marriage is not always a sure preservative against temptations and relapses? Is there not, in many cases, reason to inquire whether there be not some other remedy for human frailty more efficacious than marriage contracted in certain conditions? Once more, what is this vocation? Is it, perhaps, a natural inclination? Marriage being a holy state, it is ordinarily allowable to follow such an inclination, provided a virtuous end is kept in view. But, can it be said that inclination to marriage, even when joined with aptitude for the state, is such a mark of divine vocation as to entail obligation? Can it be inferred that the person experiencing an inclination of this nature would do better by entering the married state, than by choosing a more perfect life, and triumphing, through virtue, over natural tastes and leanings ?

Have all who live happily in virginity or the religious life resisted grace, and perchance missed their vocation, because, though fit for marriage, they felt, at certain times in their lives, a leaning which they put away as a temptation? Who does not see that aptitude and inclination for marriage do not prove any more a supernatural call to that state, than the appetite and vigorous stomach of a man arc evidence that God does not wish him to fast or mortify his tastes. To explain, then, and to justify decisions of this sort, we must suppose an inspiration or a revelation of the Holy Ghost. But, we may well ask, is it easy to believe in a divine inspiration impelling in a way contrary to evangelical counsels?

Let us keep before our eyes the following saying of St. Ignatius of Loyola: "More signs are required to decide that God intends a man to remain in a state wherein the observance of the commandments alone suffices, than to believe the same man to be called to the practice of evangelical counsels ; for our Lord openly exhorts us to follow these counsels."[12]


  1. Suar., De statu perf., lib. I, c. vii, n. 6.
  2. St. Liguori, Theol. Moral., lib. 3, tr. matrim.j lib. I, Disp. 4.
  3. Suar., ibid.
  4. Non est opus consilii, ut apud omnes constat. Suar., Ibid., lib. 1, 2. vii, nn. 6, 7. t
  5. S. Liguori, OEuvres ascetiques, ad Casterman, t- 3, pp. 503 et 511.
  6. In loco
  7. St. Aug., De bono conjugii, c. x; "Mi hi videtur hoc tempore solos eos qui se non continent conjugari oportere;;" In c. ix, De sancta virginitate, he says: " Nunc autem . . . ea tantum quae se non continet nubat." Ed. Migne, c. 400.
  8. Suar., De voto cast., lib. 9, c. ii, n. 8 ; et I Cor. vii, 7.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Corn, in I Cor. vii, 28.
  11. St. Lig., Theol Mor. lib. 6, n. 75.
  12. Directorium t c. xxii, n. 4.