06 May 2011

On the Term "State(s) of Perfection"

On a list serve for those interested in Catholic eremitical life the concern about the danger of terms like "states of perfection" was raised. I want to try to explain the term, not least because Canon 603, the Church's response to Church Fathers at Vatican II, established diocesan eremitical life as a "state of perfection" which has a unique sign value to the whole Church. The term is so widely misunderstood that it has led to all kinds of destructive tendencies in thinking about vocations --- not least, the notion that some vocations are "better" than others! (This attitude, unfortunately shows up at all levels of the Church.) It has also, therefore, led to simply rejecting the meaning and import behind the actual term, rather than to attempts to clarify its meaning and embrace this accurately.

State of perfection as we are speaking of the term (e.g., eremitical life or other forms of consecrated life as "state(s) of perfection") is not the same as being (subjectively) perfect. Even so, the term is a helpful one which says something significant about certain vocations in the Church. We need to preserve the notion of states, I think --- i.e., stable ways of living the mystery of the Church --- since (perpetual) profession and consecration, as well as marriage, baptism, etc, establish persons in a stable state (status) of life which is a gift to the church via the grace of God. (Note that status or state does not mean higher and lower; it is not a comparative term.) The term "state of perfection" has been especially problematical, however, and yes, the danger of misunderstanding is huge and of significant consequence. Again, however, it does not mean that the person established in this state of life is more perfect than those who are not so established, but that the way chosen is a more perfect MEANS of achieving the goal of witnessing to the poor, chaste, and obedient Christ. Since this is true, this state of life can therefore witness to the values of poverty, chastity, obedience, in a more effective and edifying way than some other states will necessarily do. This witness serves to call all Christians to embody these values and the shared and universal goal to which they point. Persons in other states of life are challenged by and benefit from this witness. The entire Church does.

Again, this does not mean one's own discipleship of Jesus (which is not the same thing as a state of life) is necessarily better than another person's if one is vowed/consecrated, nor especially that discipleship in married life (for instance) is defective compared to that of religious life. Of course not! It does mean that mirroring the poverty, chastity, and obedience of Christ is something this (consecrated) state of life makes more truly or radically possible and more clearly visible because the entire life is structured through and around these values. Married life will embody these values, but not to the same degree or extent --- not, that is, in the radical way religious or consecrated life does, because, at the very least, one can neither have nor raise children well in the same celibate, poor, or essentially insecure situation signaled by religious or eremitical profession and consecration. I would agree we absolutely must avoid characterizing the consecrated life as a better way of life, or otherwise buying into competitive mindsets (x is "higher" than y, etc), but I understand why it is characterized as a state of perfection. If Christ had been married and raised children, we would no doubt be calling marriage a "state of perfection," not because the married couple is perfect or in a subjective state of perfection, but because marriage as a state of life would then be a more perfect MEANS to mirroring Christ's own life than celibacy would be. In fact, it would witness to values or realities consecrated celibacy (celibate love) could not witness to --- values or realities like sexual or married love, parenting, etc.

Now, it may be that the term "state of perfection" has been misunderstood and misused for so long and so thoroughly it cannot be rehabilitated, but that is another question. (I do acknowledge that it might not be salvageable; it certainly almost invariably causes misunderstanding and always requires explanation --- even amongst those who belong to states of perfection. However, I sincerely believe we must at least try to truly understand it before deciding this!) Certainly it is destructive if misunderstood, but helpful if explained and understood accurately. My own question, the one I use to help explain the meaning of the term "states of perfection" is, "Which states of life most perfectly point to the poor, chaste, and obedient Christ in a way which challenges everyone to embrace these values in some way and to some degree in their own discipleship?" Given this question, I think the answer is "those states of life which the Church has, for good or ill, therefore termed 'states of perfection.'"