Skip to main content

Perfection, Spiritual


The concept of perfection, as applied to Christian life, is scriptural in origin. Christ admonished His disciples: "You therefore are to be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt 5.48). The word translated into English as "perfect" is the Greek τέλειοι, which fundamentally implies the attainment of goal or end.

Notion. The term perfection as applied to human life in general, however, was used in antiquity even by the barbarians, who thought of it as fortitude, as is frequently evidenced in their legends. The idea that human perfection consists in fortitude has reappeared in recent times. Indeed, some have explained Christian perfection as the supreme act of fortitude, which is martyrdom. Others would have had the essence of perfection consist in penance and mortification. Quietism, on the contrary, rejecting all human efforts in the struggle for perfection, made it consist, rather, in a complete passivity that suppresses personal mortification as well as acts of charity toward one's neighbor. Some Greek philosophers explained perfection in terms of wisdom. Their error has been revived in modern theosophy, which makes perfection a consciousness of the divine in man. Something analogous to this is found in the doctrine of those who hold that the essence of Christian perfection consists in the contemplation that issues from the gift of wisdom.

In opposition to the above explanations, the majority of theologians have insisted upon charity as the formal element in true Christian perfection. In so doing, they are merely following the doctrine of the Scriptures which teach that "God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God and God in him" (Jn 4.16). St. Paul confirms this by his insistence upon charity as "the bond of perfection" (Gal 3.14). These words of St. Paul only summarize the teaching of Christ that the whole law depends on these two precepts of love: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole strength, and with thy whole mind; and thy neighbor as thyself" (Lk 10.27).

In order to understand this explanation more clearly it is necessary to understand the two senses in which the term can be used. St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of a first and second perfection. "The first perfection is the form of the whole, the form which results from the whole, complete with all its parts. The second perfection is the end, which is either operation, as the end of the harpist is to play the harp; or something that is attained by operation, as the end of the builder is the house he makes by building" (Summa theologiae 1a, 73.1). Applying this division of perfection to Christian life, one is said to possess first perfection, or is substantially perfect as a Christian, when he possesses sanctifying grace, through which he participates in the supernatural life of God. As the human soul constitutes a body truly human, and brings with it the powers necessary for human development, so sanctifying grace elevates the soul to supernatural life and brings with it all the infused theological and moral virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Considered integrally or as the sum total of things necessary, second perfection will require all the virtues and gifts. But in the operation of which virtue does man attain his end, or union with God, while still on earth? Not in the operation of the moral virtues, since they are concerned rather with the means to the end than the end itself; nor can it be found in the operation of faith, which no longer exists in one who enjoys heavenly vision of God; nor in hope, which also disappears in the possession of the Divine Good in glory. Charity alone remains as the source of effective union with God in this life. "A thing is said to be perfect in so far as it attains its proper end, which is its ultimate perfection. Now it is charity that unites us to God, who is the last end of the human mind, since 'he who abides in charity abides in God, and God in him' (1 Jn 4.16). Therefore the perfection of the Christian life consists chiefly in charity" (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 184.1). Thus St. Thomas concluded: "Primarily and essentially, the perfection of the Christian life consists in charity, principally as to the love of God, secondarily as to the love of neighbor, both of which are the matter of the chief commandments of the divine law" (ibid. 2a2ae, 184.3).

Although everyone in a state of grace receives the virtue of charity, which gives him the capacity for supernatural friendship with God, the mere capacity for such friendship does not make him a perfect Christian in the proper meaning of second perfection. When charity is referred to as second perfection, which is perfection in the formal and proper sense, it is not the habit but the act of charity which is meant. Charity is a virtue, a power ordained by its nature to make the Christian capable of loving God as the supreme Good. But power is made perfect only in actual operation. For this reason the formal or second perfection of the Christian life consists in actual charity, not in the mere capacity for love. Nevertheless, in order to be perfect in charity in this life, one need not be engaged at all times in the actual exercise of the love of God; such uninterrupted love of God will be possible only in heaven. What is required for such perfection in this life is that all the other activities of Christian life should flow from the love of God.

It is precisely because man cannot always be actually loving God in this life that the other virtues have a role to play in Christian life here on earth. In this life the Christian, according to his state in life, must be concerned with actions and objects other than God. Nevertheless, he must preserve the state of grace and concern himself with other occupations in such a way that charity is not lost. The virtue of charity should rule over the acts of all the other virtues, for it is from charity that such acts receive their supernatural merit.

Degrees. While man can never exhaust God's capacity to be loved, for He is the Infinite Good, nor can the Christian always be actually loving God except in heaven, there are recognizable differences of degree of perfection that depend upon the extent of man's efforts to remove the obstacles to the love of God in this life. The first and lowest degree consists in the removal of all that is directly contrary to charity, i.e., the avoidance of mortal sin. A higher degree of perfection is achieved in the effort to remove whatever in man's affections might hinder him from tending wholly to God. St. Thomas summarized the traditional teaching concerning these degrees when he wrote: "The various degrees of charity are distinguished according to the different pursuits to which the increase of charity brings man. For it is first incumbent on man to occupy himself chiefly with avoiding sin and resisting his concupiscences, which move him in opposition to charity. This concerns beginners, in whom charity has to be fed or fostered lest it be destroyed. In the second place, man's chief pursuit is to aim at progress in good, and this is the pursuit of the proficient, whose principal aim is to strengthen their charity by adding to it. Man's third pursuit is to aim chiefly at union with God and enjoyment of Him: this belongs to the perfect who 'desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ' (Phil 1.23)" (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 24.9). Even in this final degree of charity in this life, perfection is only relative, however, because, in a true sense, there is no limit to growth in the love of God in this life.

Perfection and the Counsels. Although some have held that the perfection of charity goes beyond the precept to love God with the whole heart, this opinion does not follow from the above explanation. Were this opinion true, the perfect love of God would go beyond the precept and require certain counsels of charity (Súrez, De statu perfectionis, 11.15, 16). The perfection of charity is not a matter of counsel, which the individual Christian is free to choose, but is commanded as the end to which all Christians must tend. As indicated above, the perfection of Christian life consists in the love of God and neighbor. But precisely in this love the whole of the law is summarized. The precept to love God is a command to love with the whole heart. Christ, by these words, explicitly excluded the placing of a limit beyond which one need not advance in love by reason of the commandment. Since the very perfection of Christian life terminates in being united to God as perfectly as possiblea union possible only through charitythe precept to love God is without limitation. "Now the love of God and neighbor is not commanded according to a measure, so that what is in excess of the measure be a matter of counsel. This is evident from the very form of the commandment, pointing, as it does, to perfectionfor instance, in the words: 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart'since 'whole' and 'perfect' are synonymous. This is so because, according to the teaching of the Apostle, 'The end of the commandment is charity' (1 Tm 1.5). Now the end does not present itself to the will subject to a measure" (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 184.3).

Hence, with regard to the perfection of charity, one must distinguish what is essential and what is not. Perfection consists, primarily, in a program for all Christian life; namely, the observance of the commandments, which are directed to removing obstacles to charity. One attains the lowest degree of charity by doing nothing contrary to charity. Secondarily, however, it consists in the observance of certain counsels which remove the primary obstacles to the actual exercise of charity, even though these obstacles might not be directly contrary to charity. The counsels are good works, better than their omission, proposed to the faithful by our Lord, and commended by Him as useful for the attainment of the perfection of charity. In general, they are reducible to the three evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. While without the counsels one cannot reach the higher degree of the perfection of charity, the counsels are free from precept and hence of obligation. Religious make the counsels an obligation by reason of vow.

One must note the distinction between Christian perfection and the state of perfection. Christian perfection is subjective and personal, a most intense habit of charity, hence a grade of perfection; the state of perfection is objective and external. A lay person who has supernatural charity and is keeping the commandments has personal perfection. One enters the state of perfection by binding himself solemnly to those things that pertain to Christian perfection.

Bibliography: j. aumann and d. l. greenstock, The Meaning of Christian Perfection (St. Louis 1956). r. garrigou-lagrange, The Three Ages of the Interior Life, tr. t. doyle, 2 v. (St. Louis 194748). j. de guibert, The Theology of the Spiritual Life, tr. p. barrett (New York 1953). a. a. tanquerey, The Spiritual Life (Westminster, Md. 1945). t. aquinas, Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 184. b. hÄring, The Law of Christ, tr. e. g. kaiser, 3 v. (Westminster, Md. 1961).

[r. masterson]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Perfection, Spiritual." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . 18 Feb. 2019 <>.

"Perfection, Spiritual." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . (February 18, 2019).

"Perfection, Spiritual." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved February 18, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.