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

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


IN the first place, we suppose, with Suarez, that pastors are not in the state of tendency to perfection; that is, that they are not religious. For, in virtue of their functions, they are not bound to practise the counsels of poverty and of obedience ; and their office, in itself, has not for scope to lead them to perfection, but by their ministry to promote the perfection of the faithful.[1]

We suppose, in the second place, that bishops have the pastoral charge in a far nobler and more perfect degree than parish priests. This is evident. The bishop's dignity and office are distinct from the office and power of a priest ; and this distinction is of divine institution, of divine right. The bishop differs from other priests in that he occupies a higher rank and order.[2]

This being laid down, let us now come to our question : Are priests having charge of souls in a loftier state of perfection than religious ?

St. Thomas, having quoted a passage; from canon law, which permits a secular priest to enter religion in case the Holy Ghost urges him thereto, concludes with the following words : " It appears that religious are more perfect than archdeacons and than priests having care of souls." He next enters into distinctions, which to us appear calculated to elucidate the inquiry :

" In a pastor of souls three things can be considered : his state, the sacrament of order which he has received, and the office that he fills. By state he is secular, by order a priest, and by office he has care of souls. If, alongside of this parish priest, we place a religious who is also a priest, and has care, too, of souls, as it often happens, particularly in the case of regular canons, he will be equal to that pastor in orders and office, inasmuch as he is a priest, and has charge of souls as well as the pastor ; but he will surpass him in state, because the pastor is a secular, and the religious is a regular. When the religious is a priest without care of souls, he is still superior to the parish priest by his state, which excels the former's state ; he is inferior to him in functions, and equal to him in priesthood. It remains, then, for this last case, to examine which is the better: superiority of state, or superiority of functions. To determine the inquiry, two things have to be considered, namely : the moral goodness and the difficulties of the religious state, and of the care of souls. The moral goodness of the religious state is greater than that of the parish priest s state, because the religious binds himself to consecrate all his life to striving after perfection, whereas the pastor does not bind himself, as does the bishop, to devote all his life to the care of souls. Wherefore, in regard to parish clergy, the religious state is as the holocaust to a mere sacrifice. A sacrifice is less perfect than a holocaust. Hence, we read in canon law this text, which is taken from the Fourth Council of Toledo : " Bishops must leave free to enter monasteries those clerics who wish to be come religious, for they seek to embrace a better life."

" It is well understood that here, too, we consider only the states themselves, and not the persons who enter them. There are pastors who, on account of the charity wherewith they are filled, are more perfect than religious that are not fervent.

" But, if we now compare the difficulties to be met with in the religious state with those attendant on the care of souls, it is more arduous to lead a holy life amid the care of souls than it is in the religious state, by reason of the dangers by which the exercise of such a ministry is surrounded. On the other hand, the religious life is more painful to nature, on account of the various practices which it imposes.

" If now we take a religious who is not a priest, a lay brother, for instance, it is clear that, in point of dignity, he will be inferior to a priest. For, by the reception of holy orders a man is appointed to those most august ministries whereby Jesus Christ himself is served in the sacrament of the altar, ministries which demand greater interior holiness than does the religious state. Wherefore, all else being equal, a cleric in holy orders, who would do anything contrary to holiness, would sin thereby more grievously than a religious who is not in orders."[3]

In the foregoing remarks we merely rendered, as clearly as it was in our power, the ideas of St. Thomas. Let us now hearken to Suarez :

" The state of parish priests and the state of religious can be contrasted from two different points of view, according as we consider them in themselves, or with reference to man. Taken with reference to ourselves, the question comes to this : Which of these two states can a man choose in preference to the other, as contributing more efficaciously to acquire purity of conscience, to progress in virtue and the worship of God, and to win eternal life ? From this point of view, there is no doubt that the religious state is better, more perfect, and more advantageous. So that, the more spontaneously and readily we enter religion, the more prudent and perfect is our action ; but, on the other hand, we are all the more secure in the care of souls, the less has been our ardor to enter upon it of our own accord. For this reason, St. Gregory did not content him self with exhorting religious to accept a cleric who asked to be admitted among them, but he wrote to them these words : Urge that cleric, and encourage him in every possible way with admonitions full of tenderness, so that the ardor of his desire may not grow cool. And he added words deserving of notice here: Let him not implicate himself anew in the tumult of church affairs, since, in separating himself from the whirl of worldly cares, he aspires to that calm repose which is found in the harbor of a monastery.

" From all this we draw only one conclusion, and it is, that the religious state is a state of tendency to perfection, whereas such is not the case with the care of souls. This latter state is not as safe as the religious state : no one can deny it. The comparison instituted between these two states, considering them in reference to man, is more moral and practical. It enlightens those who have to make choice of a state of life."[4] From another standpoint, we could also inquire whether the state of parish priests viewed in itself contributes more to the glory of God, requires by itself more perfect works, and consequently outstrips the religious state. From this point of view, we can say that, speculatively, it is more perfect than the religious state ; but this superiority is rather speculative, as I have just said, than practical. Indeed, though it is true that the care of souls demands greater perfection, and though the works that it necessitates are of high merit when properly performed, nevertheless, in practice, it is hard to comply with this latter condition--difficillime et raro--for the reason, that in that state obstacles to perfection are not removed as they are in religion."[5]

"But, besides all this, the religious state does not exclude priesthood, and it aids the growth of charity toward God and toward our neighbor. It does not, therefore, necessarily confine itself to procuring the personal perfection of him who enters it, but it serves also to enlighten and perfect others. The perfect charity which it fosters, and leads religious to acquire, enkindles zeal."[6]

The foregoing remarks make us feel the necessity of not applying to the religious career those rules that are to be followed when we advise or allow a person to enter the clerical state. In itself, the religious state is safer ; and, as we have already shown, St. Thomas teaches that those who encourage others to enter it, not only do not sin, but merit a glorious reward. The holy doctor adds that the religious state is admirably suited to repentant sinners, that there is no need of long deliberation before embracing it, and that vocation to the priesthood should not be compared with the religious vocation.

Let us listen to St. Liguori : " When a young man," says he, " wishes to become a secular priest, his confessor must not easily give consent, unless he has acquired a long and convincing experience of the young man's purity of intention, of his knowledge, or of his capacity to acquire it. Secular priests are under even greater obligations than religious, and still, withal, they continue exposed to the dangers of the world. Hence, in order that a priest may be good in the world, he must have led a very exemplary life before his ordination. Without that, he would lay himself open to imminent danger of damnation, especially if he took orders to obey parents who had nothing higher than worldly motives in view."[7] For this reason, we consider it useful to go here into some details with reference to the qualities and conditions that an aspirant to the sublime dignity of the priesthood should possess. In this matter, too, St. Liguori will once more be our guide, and, while listening to his words, the faithful will learn greater respect for the priest. For the eminence and holiness of the priesthood are better understood, when we know what perfect dispositions Catholic theologians require in those who intend to receive holy orders.


  1. Suar., lib. I, c. xvii, n. 19.
  2. lbid., n. 21.
  3. Diy. Th., 2, 2, q. 184, a. 8.
  4. Suar. ; lib. I, c. xxi, n. 5.
  5. Suar., lib. I, c. xxi, n. 6.
  6. Ibid., n. 8.
  7. St. Lig., Praxis confess., n. 93.