States of Christian Life and Vocation, According to the Doctors and Theologians of the Church/Part 1/Section 1/Article 2/Chapter 1


WE have first to remark, with St. Thomas, that, " to constitute a state of perfection, there is need of a lasting obligation, contracted with a certain solemnity, to perform works of perfection. Now, these two requisites are found in the religious state and in episcopacy. And, indeed, real religious bind themselves by vow to abstain from the goods of this world, which they might have used without any sin ; and they do this, in order to devote themselves with greater freedom to the service of God, in which consists the perfection of this present life. Furthermore, they take this obligation upon them with some solemnity, namely, by their profession and the blessing, of the Church. Bishops also bind themselves to works of perfection, in assuming the pastoral charge, which entails for the pastor the duty of giving his life for his flock. To this obligation is added the solemnity of episcopal consecration."[1]

We find, therefore, in the religious state and in episcopacy, the two conditions demanded to constitute a state of perfection. But each of these states is distinguished, one from the other, in that the religious state, as we have already pointed out, " is instituted mainly for the acquirement of perfection through certain exercises which do away with the impediments to perfect charity."[2]This is the language of St. Thomas and of Suarez. "The religious state is therefore a school in which one trains himself to seek and aim at perfection;[3] "while the chief object of the state of bishops is to work with zeal for the salvation of the neighbor."[4] " The end for which episcopacy was instituted is to enlighten and perfect others, as St. Denis teaches, and as we infer from the words of our Lord : You are the salt of the earth : you are the light of the world. Neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel, but upon a candlestick, that it may shine to all that are in the house. (Matt, v, 13-15.) Consequently he who has received that order, though he should be perfect, does not receive from his state itself the means to acquire it for himself personally, but he receives from it the means to exercise perfection and to communicate it to others. "[5]

Having now set down wherein the religious state and episcopacy agree and differ, we can more easily examine which of the two states is the more perfect.

" No one," says St. Thomas, " is allowed to pass from a more perfect to a less perfect state, for that would be to look backward. But one can pass from the religious state to episcopacy. Therefore the state of bishops is more perfect than that of religious."[6]Here the comparison, as Suarez observes, is between states, and not persons.[7] The greater perfection of the state of bishops is proved from councils and the testimony of the fathers, who claim that bishops are not only in a state of perfection, but furthermore on an eminence that no other state can equal. [8]

Here is what the fathers say : " There is nothing greater in the Church than a bishop ; for he is consecrated to God for the salvation of the whole world."[9] "Bishops are the pillars that sustain the Church ; they bear its weight on their shoulders."[10] "There is nothing more sublime than bishops."[11] " No ministry is dearer to God than theirs." These last words are from St. John Chrysostom. This holy doctor, in contrasting bishops with religious, says that bishops need higher sanctity, and he develops this idea at great length.[12]

Indeed, Suarez teaches, with St. Thomas, that "episcopacy presupposes perfection in him who is raised to it, whereas the religious state presupposes nothing of the kind. Hence in the Council of Trent it is said : "According to the decrees of the venerable fathers, let no one be chosen to govern churches, a burden formidable to the shoulders even of angels, save those who are most worthy of the office : qui maxime digni. But in religion imperfect people and newly converted sinners are received, in order that they may tend to, and reach, perfection."[13] Hence we have to conclude, with Suarez, that in itself it is good to desire, to seek for, and to vow, the religious state, but that the same cannot be done for episcopacy : for there would be danger lest the desire for episcopacy should be accompanied by presumption, ambition, or attachment to the things of this world, so that, generally speaking, and in itself, such a desire is not praiseworthy, nor can it be counselled ; and for that very reason it is not a matter to be vowed. [14] " It seems presumptuous," says St. Thomas, "to aim at ruling over others in order to do them good."[15]

Still it would not be intrinsically bad to bind one's self by vow to episcopacy, without any view to the temporal advantages which accompany that office : and this would be far more allowable where the episcopal dignity would entail all manner of privations, as was the case in the early Church, or as it is to-day in many foreign missions. " I speak," adds Suarez, " of the vow to accept the office ; for that vow leaves to superiors the care of determining the worthiness or unworthiness of him who makes that vow, and consequently it wards off from him the danger of presumption. But to seek to become a bishop, even with all the limitations that we have mentioned, is to deem one's self fit for that high duty. Now, this is dangerous : it cannot be counselled, nor be vowed. There is, however, one case in which the seeking to become a bishop would be excusable. It is when, some particular church being deprived of her bishop, it would be difficult to find a successor, on account of severity of climate, distance, or imminent danger of death in that diocese. In such circumstances it might even be an act of perfection to offer one's self for the episcopal office in such a place."[16]


  1. Div. Th., 2, 2, q. 14, a. 5.
  2. Suar. ; lib. I, c. xiv, n. 4.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., c. iii.
  5. Ibid., c. vii.
  6. Div.Th., 2, 2, q. 184, a. 7.
  7. Suar., lib. I, c. xviii, n. I.
  8. Ibid., 2
  9. Ign. Mart. apud. Suar., ibid., 6.
  10. Athan., ibid.
  11. Ambros., ibid., 77.
  12. Chrysost., ibid.
  13. Suar., lib. I, c. xviii, n. 9.
  14. Ibid., n. II.
  15. Div. Th., 2, 2, q. 185, a. I.
  16. Suar., lib. I, c. xviii, n. 12.