Denial of the Biblical Origin of the Evangelical Counsels

Denial of the Biblical Origin of the Evangelical Counsels


Interest in the Biblical foundation of the evangelical counsels is not something exclusive to the modern era. Nevertheless, it is certain that with the renewal of religious life promoted by the Second Vatican Council this interest has become the subject of much theological speculation.

Many progressive theologians insist on denying the doctrine and practice of the evangelical counsels as presented in the example of Our Lord and in the preaching of the New Testament. For these theologians, accepting the evangelical counsels is equivalent to introducing two forms of morality: one that is a maximum and aristocratic for those who keep the counsels and another, minimalist and plebian, for everyone else. It is obvious that religious life is destroyed with this approach, and this is done by whittling away its revealed foundation.

Some of these authors, such as Tillard and Matura, use the term “radical” in order to explain the beginning of religious life. The usual meaning of this term, as something beyond what is usual, ordinary, or typical in the world, is applicable and is even present in the recent teachings of the Magisterium. For example, Paul VI said that religious “embody the Church in her desire to give herself completely to the radical demands of the beatitudes.”[2] We have analogous expressions in the writings of John Paul II: “The treasure of the evangelical counsels and the commitment—taken after mature reflection and irrevocable—to make them the charter of a Christian existence cannot be relativized by public opinion. . . . This radicalism is necessary to proclaim prophetically, but always very humbly, this new mankind according to Christ, completely available for God and completely available for other men.”[3] The Bishops of Latin America spoke of religious life in this same sense in Puebla (3rd General Conference of CELAM). What is wrong is to imagine that religious life had its beginnings in a radical vision, in a new way of life with a base or root completely distinct from that of ordinary Christian life.[4]

A principle that progressive theologians start from is that while the evangelical counsels constitute the path for those who are perfect, that is, for those who are part of a select group called to the maximum, the precepts, on the other hand, are the path of minimal effort; they are indispensable for salvation. However, this is certainly not present in the doctrine of the Church nor in that of Saint Thomas, who condenses all Christian perfection into the precepts, more concretely, in charity, which is open to endless development.

A. Erroneous Interpretation of the Biblical Texts

As early as 1969, J .M. Tillard began to use the notion of radicalism in order to explain the origin of religious life. His starting point is a return to the Biblical text “in light of the acquisitions of contemporary exegesis.”[5]

In this way, he erroneously interprets some texts. For example, he interprets Mt 19:1012 (the discussion regarding the voluntary “eunuchs”) as indicating a husband who, having separated from his wife, understands that, in light of the Gospel imperatives, he cannot remarry.[6] Another text Tillard manipulates is 1 Cor 7, saying that it deals with a personal reflection of Saint Paul and not with a teaching given with apostolic authority. What this author proposes is certainly an interpretation of the Bible without any valid arguments behind it.

The same can be said about his reflection on poverty. Here, Tillard follows S. Légasse,[7] who argues that the New Testament does not recognize two forms of morality, one for a select few and another for the masses. If we admit that the Gospel contains the counsels (practiced by some and not by others), we will necessarily end up with a double standard of morality. Consequently, then, there is nothing in the Gospels that is merely a counsel; everything must be a precept for everyone. Using these premises as a foundation, Tillard affirms that there are many radical expressions or phrases in the New Testament that demand detachment from and renunciation of everything in order to follow Christ, and these refer to the duties of every Christian. However, there are some Christians who are not content simply to have this attitude occasionally and the disposition for a heroic stance only when their particular situation requires it; accordingly, these Christians freely choose to live in a continual state of detachment.

However, in response, it must be said, firstly, that the permanent state of evangelical radicalism does not come primarily from a personal decision, but rather from the intention of Jesus Himself.

Secondly, making heroism the distinctive mark of religious does not overcome the categories between Christians but rather makes those differences all the more intense. Thirdly, for common Christians, it reduces the possibility of practicing the radicalism of the Gospel to rare situations and to the obligation of limited instances. Hence, those who do not choose religious life cannot be sanctified by their specific vocation; rather, they must seek a monastic spirituality.

B. The Claim that Revelation Doesn’t Say Anything about the Evangelical Counsels

L. Gutiérrez Vega argues that the question about whether or not revelation says anything regarding the counsels is an inquiry that makes no sense. To affirm the existence of the evangelical counsels is to pretend that there are two kingdoms, two Gospels, and two Christs. The explanation of the Biblical texts that he proposes is essentially same as Tillard’s.

According to Gutiérrez, the diversity of Christian vocations must not be sought in impossible counsels but rather in the different possibilities that man has to serve the Kingdom brought about by Jesus. The Kingdom can be served from within the realities of the world and through the possession of temporal goods, or from Christ’s way of life which was a prophecy in action. These modes distinguish the lay person from the religious. In any event, both are called to follow Christ to perfection, and both have charity as their supreme law. Consequently, there is no difference between the different categories of Christians and it is Christ’s way of life that gives rise to a virginal way of love, a complete detachment from goods, and to forms of community where obedience is practiced. Accordingly, Gutiérrez categorically affirms that religious life has a justification as service to the Kingdom (it is the existential design of Christ), but the idea that there are counsels, and that these counsels are concretely justified in Biblical texts, must be rejected.

However, this brings a consequence with it. Upon the analyzing Jesus’ words to the rich young man, it must be affirmed that his is not simply a particular case; rather, the rich young man’s “perspective is universal.” Thus, Jesus’ response on that occasion is applicable “not only to those concrete cases which present themselves today, but rather to all those who, in one way or another, are present in the course Christian life throughout the centuries.” This brings Gutiérrez to support the contradictory position of affirming that the Christian is obligated and is not obligated to renounce his goods.

C. In the Same Erroneous Line, Others Affirm that Religious Life Is Unknown in the Bible

T. Matura and L. Cabielles de Cos have the same basis for their rejection of religious life: there is only one Gospel, and the moral norm that it imposes is the same for all. Two categories of Christians, like the ones imposed by making a distinction between precept and council, is simply not of evangelical origin. According to Matura, the traditional vision of the counsels “wrongfully reduces its radicalism to three points: chastity, poverty, and obedience. . . . It then comes to forget entire sections of the radical Gospel: absolute preference for Jesus, love for one’s neighbor, community, and participative communication, etc. Furthermore, rather than just reducing its radicalism in this way, it monopolizes it in favor of one class: that of the religious.”[8] He concludes that “religious life is unknown in the Bible.”[9]

If the distinction between the counsels and precepts is unknown in the New Testament, it would be contradictory to affirm that it will be necessary to make an exception from this general principle for the idea of the celibate. However, Matura does just this, saying, “For the first time–and it will be the only time in the Gospels–we find ourselves with words of Jesus that present an attitude or situation as a possible option that–also said explicitly–is not imposed on everyone.”[10] Matura falls into what he rejects, namely, the distinction between precepts (for everyone) and counsels (optional, for some).

The same is true regarding the practice of poverty, which is presented as something clearly obligatory for all Christians. However, in the face of the fact that the majority of Christians have not lived in this way, Matura says that the concrete form of living out these demands “has been left, as a sort of unsettling plea, to creativity and ingenuity.”[11] However, this goes against the evangelical texts by affirming that the only definite saying Jesus left His disciples about this topic was “an unsettling plea.”

As a consequence, religious life and Christian life become one and the same life. “Religious life is identified with an integral Christian life. This perspective, stripped of its secondary elements, affirms that the monastic life is simply the desire to carry out what has been asked, in its entirety, of all Christians. To be a monk means to take the entire Gospel seriously and to make an effort to live it, both as an individual and in community.”[12] However, Matura doesn’t realize that this would be equivalent to supposing that the majority of Christians don’t fulfill the duties inherent to their vocation, and that the monk lives in order to compensate for a sort of universal infidelity. For that matter, why can’t Christian married and family life also be called integral?

Matura denies that there is a specific vocation to the religious life, because this would mean introducing a more perfect vocation into Christianity, a vocation not within the reach of the majority of Christians. However, this brings with it the conclusion that the creativity and ingenuity of each person is what determines their way of fulfilling that Gospel radicalism, especially regarding the topic of poverty. Now then, this remedy to doctrinal radicalism can only lead to a practical laxity, as it leaves aside all aspects of specific renunciation and every limit imposed on a person who wants to consecrate themselves to God: a religious cannot be obligated to renounce anything that the rest of the faithful aren’t obligated to renounce either.

The thoughts of Cabielles de Cos, expounded primarily in an article,[13] follow the same lines of argumentation as Matura, even if de Cos distinguishes himself by proposing to replace the notion of the counsels by that of charisms (especially in reference to celibacy and virginity).

All of this is opposed to the most basic sense of the evangelical texts, to the Magisterium of the Church (above all, that of the Second Vatican Council), and the entire monastic and religious tradition.

Dear brothers and sisters:

To attempt to remove the Biblical support from the evangelical counsels, as progressivism attempts, is to want them to be undervalued; this has dreadful consequences, as we can see especially in today’s statistics. The number of religious vocations continues to plummet, and this is seen particularly in women’s religious vocations.

Once again, under the guise of wanting to reform the Church, the only thing that Christian progressivism accomplishes is the destruction of the colossal work constructed over the centuries by men and women saints, by doctors of the Church, and by the Magisterium.

Let us know that this intent exists out in the world in order to know how to defend the Biblical nature of the religious life, confirmed by the Second Vatican Council and by all of the post-conciliar Magisterium. The Word of God reveals the excellence of the religious life to us, and God knows more than all the theologians of the world combined!

May the shrieking of those false sirens whose pretty words hide the horrible paths to destruction fall on our deaf ears!

[1] Taken from A. Bandera, La vida religiosa en el misterio de la Iglesia. Concilio Vaticano II y Santo Tomás de Aquino, Madrid 1984, 292320.  

[2] Evangelii nuntiandi, 69.  

[3] John Paul II, Address to Members of the International Union of Superior Generals, Nov 16, 1978. 

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn. 915916, makes this clear: “Christ proposes the evangelical counsels, in their great variety, to every disciple. The perfection of charity, to which all the faithful are called, entails for those who freely follow the call to consecrated life the obligation of practicing chastity in celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom, poverty, and obedience. It is the profession of these counsels, within a permanent state of life recognized by the Church, that characterizes the life consecrated to God. The state of consecrated life is thus one way of experiencing a ‘more intimate’ consecration, rooted in Baptism and dedicated totally to God. In the consecrated life, Christ’s faithful, moved by the Holy Spirit, propose to follow Christ more nearly, to give themselves to God who is loved above all and, pursuing the perfection of charity in the service of the Kingdom, to signify and proclaim in the Church the glory of the world to come.” Likewise, see nn. 19731974: “Besides its precepts, the New Law also includes the evangelical counsels. The traditional distinction between God’s commandments and the evangelical counsels is drawn in relation to charity, the perfection of Christian life. The precepts are intended to remove whatever is incompatible with charity. The aim of the counsels is to remove whatever might hinder the development of charity, even if it is not contrary to it. The evangelical counsels manifest the living fullness of charity, which is never satisfied with not giving more. They attest its vitality and call forth our spiritual readiness. The perfection of the New Law consists essentially in the precepts of love of God and neighbor. The counsels point out the more direct ways, the readier means, and are to be practiced in keeping with the vocation of each: (God) does not want each person to keep all the counsels, but only those appropriate to the diversity of persons, times, opportunities, and strengths, as charity requires; for it is charity, as queen of all virtues, all commandments, all counsels, and, in short, of all laws and all Christian actions that give to all of them their rank, order, time, and value.”  

[5] J. M. Tillard, El proyecto de Vida de los Religiosos, Madrid 1974, 153.  

[6] However, in the cited text, there is no allusion to separated spouses that grants this hypothesis a foundation. Moreover, in this text, the condition of the eunuch is understood as a gift from God, and not as a duty. It would be a duty if it were speaking of separated spouses who cannot get married again.  

[7] L’appel du riche. Contribution à l’étude des fondaments scripturaires de l’état religieux, Paris 1966.  

[8] El radicalismo evangélico. Retorno a las fuentes de la vida cristiana, Madrid 1980, 267.  

[9] El radicalismo evangélico, 259.  

[10] El radicalismo evangélico, 91.  

[11] El radicalismo evangélico, 256.  

[12] El radicalismo evangélico, 265.  

[13] Vocación universal a la santidad y superioridad de la vida religiosa en los capítulos V y VI de la constitución «Lumen gentium», Claretianum 19 (1979) 4690.  



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