All humans struggle with moral perfection. Jesus even tells us, “Temptations to sin are sure to come…” (Luke 17:1). Yet, the Catholic Church and Scripture call us to perfection even in this life. Jesus says, “You, therefore, must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), a precept sandwiched between passages that command stricter moral adherence than was taught in the Old Testament (Matthew 5-7).
In these passages, Jesus clearly tells us that not only must our exterior actions be holy but also our interior impulses and desires. To help us move closer to moral perfection, this article will look at the Church’s teachings, select scriptural passages, and St. Thomas Aquinas’ elucidation on this topic.
Catholic Church’s Teaching on Perfection
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity. All are called to holiness: ‘Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’”
In order to reach this perfection, the faithful should use the strength dealt out to them by Christ’s gift, so that . . . doing the will of the Father in everything, they may wholeheartedly devote themselves to the glory of God and to the service of their neighbor. Thus, the holiness of the People of God will grow in fruitful abundance, as is clearly shown in the history of the Church through the lives of so many saints. (CCC 2013)
The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle. Spiritual progress entails the ascesis and mortification that gradually lead to living in the peace and joy of the Beatitudes. (CCC 2015)
Select Scriptural Verses
Holy Scripture contains numerous verses and passages on moral perfection. I have counted at least seventy of them in the New Testament alone. Below are six verses in which Scripture commands perfection. Notice that verses two through four reiterate Jesus’ words in Matthew 5.
- Matthew 5:48 – You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
- 1 John 3:3 – And everyone who thus hopes in Him purifies himself as He is pure (be pure as your heavenly Father is pure).
- 1 John 3:7 – Little children, let no one deceive you. He who does right is righteous, as He is righteous (be righteous as your heavenly Father is righteous).
- 1 Peter 1:16 – …it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (be holy as your heavenly Father is holy).
- 2 Corinthians 7:1 – Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, and make holiness perfect in the fear of God.
- Hebrews 12:14 – Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.
St. Thomas Aquinas’ Explanation
In his Summa Theologiae, Thomas clarifies that one can attain moral perfection in this life. Moral perfection consists in charity and “implies a certain universality because ‘the perfect is that which lacks nothing.’” Then he examines a threefold perfection.
The first perfection is absolute and belongs to God alone, who is infinite and eternal.
The second perfection belongs to the saints in heaven whose affections, desires, and actions “always actually” tend toward God, since they have nothing to hinder or distract them.
The third perfection pertains to those of us in this life. Thomas says this perfection concerns the “removal of obstacles to the movement of love towards God….” “Such perfection as this,” Thomas writes, “can be had in two ways.” First, we can remove all that is contrary to charity, (i.e., mortal sin) and “there can be no charity apart from this perfection.”
Additionally, we must remove “whatever hinders the mind’s affections [i.e., disordered attachments and impulsive acts, commonly called venial sin] from tending wholly to God.” Until one removes all venial sins, charity can exist in the soul, but perfect charity cannot.
Removing Mortal and Venial Sin
The proper order of charity is to love God above all else and then others as ourselves, which implies we are to love God above ourselves. When one sins mortally, one places the created object and oneself above God by preferring the created object and oneself more than God.
Therefore, mortal sin removes grace (i.e., God’s favor/life) and supernatural charity (i.e., God’s love) from the soul. Mortal sin is our way of saying, I do not want grace right now. When this happens, a sin cannot be forgiven outside the confessional (certain exigencies along with perfect contrition excepted) because sanctifying grace and charity no longer exist in the soul.
Conversely, since venial sin does not remove grace and charity from the soul, one can be forgiven outside the confessional by the very grace and supernatural charity that continue to inhere in the soul. Because these supernatural qualities inhere, we are forgiven the moment we are contrite (i.e., sorrowful out of love for God). It occurs immediately because God’s grace remains in us. In other words, we have the “stuff” in us that forgives sin, God’s grace and love.
With mortal sin, however, we willfully separate ourselves from grace, charity, and Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church, and no longer have the “stuff” in us to forgive our sins. Accordingly, we must come to Christ’s Body, the Church, in the confessional for re-entry. If we enter the Church via the Sacrament of Baptism, which the Church administers, we re-enter via the Sacrament of Confession, which the Church also administers.
The Church always has the “stuff” to forgive sins because it is Christ’s Body, ever connected to the Head, Christ (Matthew 16:18). The Church has also been given the mission to forgive sins (John 20:22-23) and carries out that duty faithfully in every generation. Thus, sacramental grace flows from the Head to the Mystical Body so that the Body can heal its members.
Lord, heavenly Father, from the depths of my being, I pray that my thoughts, words, deeds, and desires accord with Your will. I want to love You above all else, and I ask that You conform me to You. Help me cooperate with the grace that You give me to identify and root out all sin, including the defects that lead to my daily faults. I know that I fall short of perfection, but out of respect for your Son’s words, “Be perfect,” and Your will that I be “very good” (Genesis 1:31) I ask that You make me perfect. I make this prayer in the Name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.