The advisory directives of Christ, as distinct from the moral precepts, given as guides to closer approximation to perfection and imitation of Christ Himself. Traditional Christianity has singled out poverty, chastity, and obedience from the whole complexus of such counsels, and these are the statements of Christ to which the term evangelical counsels usually refers.
New Testament Foundations. The evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience receive varying degrees of support from the New Testament. Virginity receives the clearest and obedience the least. Regarding virginity, Mt 19.11–12 and 1 Cor 7.7, 25–40 indicate that it is a gift from God not granted to all Christians. Luke 18.29 speaks of leaving one's wife along with lands, etc., for the sake of the gospel, and another text, Lk 14.26, speaks of hating one's wife. Only the Matthean passage is relatively free from difficulties. The Corinthian text has for its context the concern for an imminent Parousia, and the motive for virginity or celibacy is undivided attention to the Lord while expecting His coming. The world is about to pass away (v. 29) and is therefore most irrelevant (v. 30, 31). In Lk 18.29 the text is found in a slightly different form from that of the earlier Gospel of Mark (10.29), where "wife" is not listed as one of the goods left for the sake of Christ. Mark's omission—if it is such—is supported by the actual apostolic practice referred to by Paul in 1 Cor 9.5–6. Peter, the brethren of the Lord, and the other Apostles are described as accompanied by their wives (Schnackenburg, Die sittliche Botschaft des Neuen Testaments, 146).
Poverty has traditionally found its support in the incident of the rich man recorded by Mk 10.17–22. "One thing is lacking to thee; go, sell whatever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." In the later and less original version of Matthew (J. Schmid, Regensburg Neues Testament I, 223) we have the basis for what has come to be the traditional distinction between counsels and commandments. Matthew gives the impression that the more perfect thing is to sell all, etc., but this is corrected by "You therefore are to be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt 5.48). That which was lacking in the rich man was something personal and not true of him as man, but only insofar as he was this man, i.e., with this disposition and call. Obedience is implicitly contained in the invitation to be associated with those who are to follow Christ in preaching and then later without Him to be members of the hierarchical Church in union with Peter. Passages such as "If any man wishes to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all" (Mk 9.34) or "… the slave of all" (Mk 10.43) have provided motivation for "perfect" obedience (Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. J. Hofer and K. Rahner [Freiberg 1957–65] 3:1246), but do not record the institution of religious obedience.
Supererogation. Moralists usually consider that the counsels are works of supererogation whose purpose is to aid more effectively the generous soul in its effort to attain the perfection of Christian life. They are the means to overcome the three great threats to that life, namely, concupiscence of the eyes, and of the flesh, and the pride of life. They are the means of gaining more merit and are pleasing to God because of the sacrifices they impose on the individual. Between the counsels as works of supererogation and the fulfillment of the basic commandment "Love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart" (Lk 10.27) there is a relationship of means to goal. Certainly this command is fulfilled by the blessed in heaven where the total capacity of the soul for love is fully involved. In this life, the totality of love is always a relative totality, dependent on the actual graces of the moment, but always excluding any created good as a more beloved object. St. Paul (Phil 1.9) prays that the charity of the Philippians may more and more abound in discernment so that they may approve the better things. Paul rather carefully expresses this as a desire rather than as a command, consistent with his theme of freedom and spontaneity in the love of God. However, moralists agree that the better good must be chosen with some frequency in life in order that the precept of charity be fulfilled. This interpretation does not exclude the circumstance where the Holy Spirit has made it clear that here and now it is God's will that the Christian choose the better good. In this latter case, the option would be eliminated, and the objectively better good becomes the only good.
Love, as found in the context of supererogation, traditionally supposes no obligation, but rather signifies the desire to do more than the strictly obligatory. However, the possibility of supererogation ceases with the assumption that one must love according to the measure of grace given one and one's special awareness of the divine will. Perfect peace in love cannot obtain if mature invitations are rejected. The gifts (calls) of the Spirit, recognized by the virtue of prudence or the discernment of spirits, are mature invitations. As such they are indications of what the invited must do under pain of some degree of disorder (loss of personal peace) and loss or postponement of some degree of maturity in his Christian life.
New Significance. The Second Vatican Council gave the evangelical counsels new significance for our time (see Lumen gentium 42–46; Perfectae caritatis 5, 12–14). Amidst the boredom of affluence, voluntary poverty witnesses to the joy that springs from needing less and being more grateful; celibacy proves that the loneliness of the "lonely crowd" can be turned into joyful solitude; obedience points toward the dimension of meaningfulness which lies beyond our preoccupation with purpose. These values are brought nearer to all human beings as the evangelical counsels are now seen as anchored not primarily in the Gospels, but in what Thomas Merton called an imperishable "instinct of the human heart," channeled and brought to its fulfilment when it finds its focus in Christ.
See Also: asceticism (theological aspect); chastity; discernment, spiritual; existential ethics; obedience; parousia; prudence.
Bibliography: e. dublanchy, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., (Paris 1903–50) 1.2:2037–77;3.1:1176–82. In the Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiberg 1957–65), see j. schmid and l. hardick, 1:878–883; r. schnackenburg and b. hÄring, 3:1245–50; f. bÖckle, 3:1301–04; l. nieder et al., 4:601–606; h. gross et al., 4:640–642; j. michl and l. m. weber, 5:1213–19. r. schnackenburg, Die sittliche Botschaft des Neuen Testamentes (Munich 1954). k. rahner, Schriften zur Theologie (Einsiedeln 1954–) 3:61–104. b. hÄring, The Law of Christ: Moral Theology for Priests and Laity, tr. e. g. kaiser (Westminster, Md. 1961–). f. wulf, "Decree on the Appropriate Renewal of the Religious Life," Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, h. vorgrimler et al., eds. (New York 1967–69) 2:301–370.
[j. d. gerken/
d. f. k. steindl-rast]