Counsels vs. Commands in Vocational Discernment

Anxiety. Fear. These words frequently come up in commentary about young Catholics and vocational discernment.1 As one recent writer puts it: “Devout young adults — even not-so-young adults, in their late twenties and thirties — often get stuck in discernment, unable to commit either to marriage, priesthood, or religious life for fear they might actually be called to a different vocation.”2 Whence this anxiety? Among the many causes of this phenomenon is a culture of vocational discernment — which we can term “vocational rigorism” — that took clear shape during the seventeenth century and that still informs much of the advice given to young Catholics.3 One key element in vocational rigorism is the loss of a distinction between counsels and commands (also called precepts). How might distinguishing counsels from commands serve the needs of anxious souls?

The counsels-commands distinction itself has roots in the New Testament (e.g, 1 Cor. 7:25, 35–38, 40) and was explored more thoroughly in the patristic and medieval eras. Commenting on 1 Corinthians 7, St. Ambrose (c. 339–c. 397) wrote that precepts were “imposed” on “subjects,” whereas counsels are “proposed” to “friends”: “Where a command is, there is law; where a counsel is, there is grace.”4 St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) further developed these principles, noting that “the difference between a counsel and a command is that a command implies obligation, whereas a counsel is left to the option of the one to whom it is given.”5 Both commands and counsels express God’s will, but in different senses: “Goods are related in diverse ways to the divine good. For there are certain goods without which we cannot attain the enjoyment of the divine goodness, and with respect to these there is command. There are certain goods by which we can attain it more perfectly, and with respect to these there is counsel.”6 In short, violations of commands are, by definition, sinful. Taking up a particular counsel is, by definition, optional. Counsels are, by definition, not commanded by God.

St. Francis de Sales (1567–1622), in book 8 of his Treatise on the Love of God, offers his characteristically gentle approach to the role of counsels in the spiritual life, reiterating that “commandment obliges us, counsel only invites us” and that “in commanding we use authority to oblige, but in recommending we use friendliness to induce and incite.”7 He strongly urges his reader to take up counsels and to value them, but he insists that omitting them should never be treated like the violation of a command.

The term counsels, in his usage, applies both to individual actions and to the choice to take up certain kinds of permanent commitments. For instance, almsgiving is a matter of command when we face someone in grave need of our help, but giving alms to every poor person who asks is a counsel (one which, by the way, St. Francis de Sales hopes his readers will take up). Yet to enter a religious order dedicated to serving the poor, offering one’s whole life by way of a vow, is also a counsel — “the highest” “degree of perfection” in the counsel of almsgiving.8

This last example brings us to the question of vocation. Though St. Francis de Sales holds that God inspires particular individuals to enter one state of life or another, he insists that such an expression of God’s will is never a command, never a matter of sin. Some states, some counsels are more “suitable, according to the diversity of persons, times, occasions, strengths, as charity requires,” but none are commanded.9

Although all, he argues, should take up some counsels, nobody can take up all of them. To choose a state of life is to choose a set of counsels, a concrete manner of exercising charity through specific practices and obligations. Yet his doctrine expands our definition of counsels, so as not to limit them to the formal vows of many religious orders, the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The “universal call to holiness,” to use more recent terminology, is fittingly expressed through commitments to some counsels, fitting with one’s particular state of life and circumstances. Less formal and perhaps less permanent commitments are accessible to all (and indeed necessary for growth in charity beyond the mere fulfillment of commands), regardless of whether they are connected to vows of religion or marriage. Moreover, to live by some counsels is necessarily to leave others aside. Though there is some overlap, the exercise of charity in marriage differs from the exercise of charity in the single state and from the exercise of charity as a parish priest and from the exercise of charity as a cloistered religious and from the exercise of charity as an active religious. And that’s okay.

How to know which counsels to choose, including the choice to enter a state of life, is another question, on which St. Francis de Sales had further insights.10 While one state of life might be the most fitting one for a given individual, God’s loving will for one’s vocational choice always remained an invitation, a counsel, never a command.

Subsequently to St. Francis de Sales, however, western Catholic culture of vocational discernment took a rigorist turn, and, in so doing, lost the distinction between counsels and commands. A systematic approach to vocational discernment, one that was theoretically universally applicable, took shape around the middle of the seventeenth century. The great Jesuit preacher Louis Bourdaloue (1632–1704), for instance, claimed that “there is nothing on which salvation depends more than on the choice of a state of life.”11 This assertion was rooted in a rigorist theology of grace. Bishop Claude Joly (1610–1678) put it this way in one of his sermons: “Although God gives ordinary, common, and sufficient graces to those who have chosen for themselves a state of life without his participation, it is to be feared that he will refuse them the extraordinary and chosen graces to which their salvation is attached. . . . You have stopped your ears when God has called you; you will have common and sufficient graces, but do not rely on having extraordinary graces; you have not responded to the grace of your vocation, perhaps God will again give you another one, but, if he does not, how will you save yourself?”12

This tradition endured through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, exemplified for example by Belgian bishop Jean-Baptiste Malou (1809–1864), who stated: “The good or bad behaviour of men depends almost entirely upon the state they have embraced. . . If . . . they embrace . . . a state to which God does not call them . . . their behaviour will be blameworthy and evil.”13 The learned theologian Malou was actually quite explicit in teaching that vocation was, at least in some instances, a command rather than a counsel, because “certain souls . . . cannot save themselves in the world,” but “they can find in the priesthood or in the religious state sure and plentiful means of salvation.”14

This vocational theology makes bold assertions about the workings of God’s grace. From all eternity, it is said, God has planned for each individual a specific set of graces, matched to the temptations inherent in a particular state of life. Receiving those graces was conditional. If we correctly ascertain and then willingly embrace the state to which we are called, then we receive the graces needed to live well in our state. Otherwise, we will receive, as Joly put it, only “common and sufficient graces.” But these “sufficient graces,” in the context of the overall rhetoric, are far from sufficient to keep us from continually falling into sin and ultimately being eternally damned. Hence, the distinction between counsels and commands was abandoned in favor of the claim that failing to choose the correct state of life was perhaps the single most consequential kind of sin.

Related threats of temporal consequences, like those of eternal consequences, were also a common theme of seventeenth-century vocational rigorism. François Nepveu (1639-1708), a Jesuit, compared one who entered a state of life “without consulting God, without a vocation,” to a “bone which is out of its place” that “suffers much and makes the whole body suffer.”15 Charles Gobinet (1613–1690) said that a man who entered a state other than that willed by God would be “in perpetual disquiet and melancholy, which renders him as insupportable to others as he is to himself.” Moreover, the consequences were communal, for bad vocational choice was “the cause of the disorders reigning in every state, whether ecclesiastical, religious, or secular.”16

This vocational rigorism remains with us. We still hear real, even if muted, threats of damnation to those who choose a state of life to which they have not been called.17 More often, however, in our therapeutic age, we hear threats of unhappiness freely issued from many pulpits. If you don’t go to hell for entering the wrong state of life, then your life will be a living hell. And, as Gobinet had asserted, your unhappiness in and unreadiness for your state of life will deeply afflict others. For example, we sometimes hear or read that those who married despite a call to the priesthood or the religious life would have difficult marriages, perhaps leading to divorce.

Although such threats of temporal misery can be subtle enough to preserve the command-counsel distinction in letter, they often render the distinction meaningless. If the wrong choice is not technically a sin, but God providentially plans that any other choice is full of suffering and entails much greater perils to salvation, then it may not be a formal command, but it’s something more than a counsel.

Furthermore, this approach, though it became a strand within the diverse tradition of western spirituality, has little to no foundation in magisterial teaching. Which is to say that, while Catholics are somewhat free to advocate this approach, they are not free to present it as Catholic doctrine or as obligatory in any way.

One of the few ecclesiastical interventions in the theology of vocational discernment, in fact, militates against this seventeenth-century tradition. In 1912, with the approval of St. Pius X, Svt. of God Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val issued a judgment of the Holy See on Canon Joseph Lahitton’s theology of priestly vocation. Against Lahitton’s (mostly Sulpician) theological opponents, Merry del Val commended the former’s views as orthodox and praiseworthy. Merry del Val confirmed with Lahitton that ordination candidates did not need “inducements of the Holy Spirit to enter the priesthood.” Rather, “in order that one may be rightly called by the bishop, nothing further is necessary than the right intention together with fitness (based on the gifts of nature and of grace and sufficiently confirmed by a good life and the required learning), which give well-founded hope that he will be able to fulfill the duties of the sacerdotal state properly and observe the obligation of that state holily.”18 In other words, one need not have a vocation, in the sense of discerning the existence of a call. The calling to the priesthood is an ecclesial act of the bishop, involving the prudential decisions of multiple individuals. It requires of the candidate right intention, good moral and spiritual habits, and the hard work of formation. It requires of formators observation of “a good life and the required learning.” It requires of the bishop a good-faith decision. Nowhere in Lahitton and Merry del Val’s view was a priestly vocation a “thing” in itself, such as a grace or an “attraction,” as Lahitton’s Sulpician theological opponents held. Insofar as entry into the priesthood did involve graces, no particular “grace of vocation” was necessary, much less did it need to be “felt” or “discerned.”

While this judgment does not answer all questions and only applies directly to the priesthood, it is difficult to square with vocational rigorism. If the discernment of an interior command or counsel is unnecessary to make a good choice to pursue the priesthood, then vocation cannot be conceived of as a command. Jesuit theologian Arthur Vermeersch (1858–1936) put it this way: “The [Cardinal’s] letter confirms the simple and true idea of vocation which should be held by all. If there had been no departure from that idea, the human race would have been spared many errors and much useless writing.”19

We do well to attend to Vermeersch, a first-rate theologian who loved and honored all the states of life while affirming special places for religious vows and the clerical state. After documenting positions on vocation promoted in recent centuries, including by fellow Jesuits, he concludes with a reductio ad absurdum: “If we accept the opinions of these theologians, the divine call scarcely differs from a command.”20 The very idea of there being One Right Answer was anathema to him: “We do not admit this . . . premise, that, God has designated a particular state for each individual human being. On the contrary, . . . any honest state can be called a ‘gift of God,’ even if it is chosen by one who has been invited to a state of higher perfection.”21 He goes on: “Divine Providence . . . proposes to us several alternatives which are all good, and all acceptable in so far as they are good, but among which some are more acceptable, inasmuch as they are better. . . . Those who are invited should not be hindered in their free choice by threats. Otherwise the choice left to us by God becomes fictitious or counterfeit. How could that be called a counsel which imposes a virtual command?”22

Like St. Francis de Sales, Vermeersch highlights the universal vocation to holiness: “All Christians ought to represent and to follow Christ in his life upon earth; they should follow Him as teaching, when they believe; as commanding, when they obey divine and human laws; as counseling, when they order their life, with greater generosity, according to the wishes of the Master. Therefore, the different states should not be too widely separated, since all converge to the same end. Neither can the power, the utility, and the practice of the Evangelical Counsels be confined to the religious state alone.”23

On this question of vocation as counsel or command, Vermeersch had his intelligent critics as well as his fellow travelers.24 Hans Urs von Balthasar offers an intriguing argument, worth contemplating, that an overemphasis on the counsel-command distinct is a rather parsimonious result of the fall:

If we look forward and upward, love’s wish will seem to us not less important than its command; we will free ourselves of our tendency to regard this wish as “merely a wish.” . . . Since it was the absolute love of God that manifested itself to us acting and suffering in the actions and sufferings of Christ, we can learn from it what it means to overcome the dichotomy between the Father’s wish and his law, between counsel and command, between choice and obligation. Since the Son has no other wish than to fulfill every wish and will of the Father, he has bridged the gap between ethical time and loving eternity.25

The implication is that a regenerate Christian, freely loving and responding to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, worries not whether God has actually commanded a particular action, including the embracing of a state of life. Why would we resist any desire of the one we love and the one who loves us infinitely? Something is gained by Balthasar’s intervention here, and yet applying it to vocational choice might lead us to the same problems as the less nuanced rigorist approaches. In the mind of the impressionable young Catholic, the unintended subtext of this kind of rhetoric may be this: What kind of ungrateful, unloving wretch are you, who would reject your divine lover’s wish? If you really loved God, you would do x (usually, enter the priesthood or religious life).

In turning vocation into a command — or even in attaching grave consequences to it as a counsel — we assume premises that have never been taught by the Church and are themselves theologically inelegant.

Is God’s vocational plan determined antecedently to each individual’s choices? An alternative would be to emphasize the free, graced actions of the Christian, making choices among various supernatural goods, exercising faculties of reason and will that are themselves gifts from God. We are getting into difficult theology of grace, free will, and divine providence here, and we may run the risk of losing sight of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, prompting us in all our good works. But the point stands, if we have a God who is “both immanent and transcendent in the highest degree,” whose causation in our lives does not compete with our own, and whose providence transcends our limited experience of the progress of time.26 In other words, God’s causality and our own are of wholly different orders, and his will is not that of an authority who stands “over (or perhaps up) there.” Rather, as we act under the influence of divine charity, his will is made real in our very acts of deliberation and decision-making.

Furthermore, do we not have an incoherent sacramental theology, if the graces to live well in marriage or in holy orders come not in the reception of the sacrament but only if we have chosen the right state of life? The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that “spouses are strengthened and, as it were, consecrated for the duties and dignities of their state by a special sacrament.”27 Furthermore, by “the grace proper to the sacrament of Matrimony” spouses “help one another to attain holiness in their married life and in welcoming and educating their children.”28 Referring to episcopal consecration, the catechism states: “By the imposition of hands and through the words of the consecration, the grace of the Holy Spirit is given.”29 Priestly ordination gives the grace “to stand without reproach before your altar, to proclaim the Gospel of your kingdom, to fulfill the ministry of your word of truth, to offer you spiritual gifts and sacrifices, to renew your people by the bath of rebirth.”30 Deacons are “strengthened by sacramental grace” for their “service (diakonia) of the liturgy, of the Gospel, and of works of charity.”31 It is true that “the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them,” and the fruits would be hindered, for example, in seeking ordination with a malicious intent or, more simply, while unrepentant of grave sin.32 But never has the Church demanded, as part of one’s disposition, the specific reality of a call, whether conceived of as a grace, an attraction, an inspiration, or any identifiable “thing.”

We similarly impoverish the theology of the consecrated life if we deny that the free, graced act of profession of religious vows and the free, graced effort to live out those vows, is what facilitates sanctification. Does one need to “have” a thing called a “vocation,” in order for this life to be sanctifying? St. Thomas Aquinas would have found the question strange, for he insisted that it is “praiseworthy to enter religious life without consulting many persons and lengthy previous deliberation.”33 The reason for this is the abundance of God’s grace, for “those who enter do not trust in their own strength for perseverance, but in the help of the divine power.”34 He concludes, “To those who take upon themselves this sweet yoke, he promises the delight of divine fruition and eternal rest for their souls.”35 All this rhetoric to exhort readers to enter religion, however, comes in the context of his clear teaching that it is always a counsel, rather than a command.

This is not to say there is no gainsaying St. Thomas; other saints surely did.36 He is not the beginning or the end of theology. And yet his view reminds us that there is not one immemorial Catholic approach to vocational discernment. What is often presented in pastoral contexts as “the right way to discern” is of recent vintage in the long history of the Church and can itself be questioned and analyzed.

If we abandon all forms of vocational rigorism, we are still left with many questions to answer. What might make it more fitting for a Christian to enter one state rather than another? To what extent is God’s plan knowable by us, especially since the Church teaches that even our knowledge of the grace of our individual justification and salvation “escapes our experience and cannot be known except by faith”?37 How might the history of Catholic cultures show us how Christians have variously approached prudential questions, such as the choice of a state of life? Indeed, what might it mean if most Christians throughout history lived largely in a world of unchosen obligations, with concrete experiences of vocational discernment and choice being uncommon? What might it look like if, instead of trying to figure out God’s plan, we asked, with St. John Henry Newman, to be a “blind instrument . . . not to see . . . not to know . . . simply to be used”?38 Can we go back to the sources and seek a renewal of vocational theology rooted in scripture, similar to (and connected to) the renewal of moral theology exemplified by Veritatis Splendor and the Catechism?39

Whatever we do, let’s start with a moratorium on subtly — or overtly — threatening young people that they will have an unhappy life if they make the wrong vocational choice. In the context of pastoral care of the young, maybe we should be a little less confident in our claims about whether and how God’s will for us can be known in advance of our concrete choices. Maybe we should, echoing St. Francis de Sales, emphasize that divine charity can be expressed in varying degrees through any number of good choices among the various counsels. It is true that we still need to entice more people to offer their lives in charity as priests and religious. But if we stop considering vocation as a “thing” we might “have,” then perhaps we might speak more often as if the same Christian man could potentially to lead a good and holy life loving in the manner of a priest, loving in the manner of married man, loving in the manner of a single man, or loving in the manner of a non-ordained brother. All of this with the caveat that no one ever has the right to demand to be received, whether by a bishop, a religious superior, or a spouse. For those concrete realities — reception or lack thereof, external to the individual’s choices and abstract desires — are among the most important manifestations of God’s will.

Ultimately, any choice in this life among particular goods—any choice among particular loves—requires tradeoffs. We need to teach the young that tradeoffs among goods (even supernatural goods) are normal. Any truly Christian choice among loves is an expression of the gift of divine love. For love, in the words of St. Thérèse, is our vocation.

  1. For example, S. E. Greydanus, “Rethinking Vocational Discernment,” HPR, June 23, 2023,; Maria Mellis, “Seeking Vocation: Choosing Freedom Over Anxiety,” Radiant Magazine, March 2, 2023,; Fr. Bryce Sibley, “Searching for Clarity in Vocational Discernment,” HPR, March 24, 2014,
  2. Rachel Hoover Canto, “Why aren’t young Catholics marrying?” Catholic World Report, January 13, 2023,
  3. For an extensive history, see Christopher J. Lane, Callings and Consequences: The Making of Catholic Vocational Culture in Early Modern France (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2021). See also Christopher J. Lane, interview by Rachel Hoover Canto, “Callings, consequences, and vocational crises,” Catholic World Report, February 2, 2023,
  4. St. Ambrose, “On Widows,” sec. 72,,
  5. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 1-2.108.4.c,,
  6. Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 4,,
  7. St. Francis de Sales, Treatise on the Love of God, bk. 8, ch. 6,
  8. St. Francis de Sales, Love of God, bk. 8, ch. 9.
  9. St. Francis de Sales, Love of God, bk. 8, ch. 6.
  10. See Christopher J. Lane, “Trusting in God with St. Francis de Sales,” Crisis Magazine, December 30, 2013,
  11. Louis Bourdaloue, “Instructions on the Choice of a State of Life,” in Instructions on the Holy Communion; On the Choice of a State of Life; and On Death, trans. a Catholic priest (Dublin: James Duffy, Sons, & Co., 1874), 96. Louis Bourdaloue, “Instruction IX. Sur le choix d’un état de vie (1),” in Collection intégrale et universelle des orateurs sacrés, ed. Jacques-Paul Migne, 102 vols. (Paris, 1844–1866), XVI, 396.
  12. Claude Joly, Prones de messire Claude Joli, vol 1 (Paris: Edme Couterot, 1693), 303–04.
  13. Jean-Baptiste Malou, On the Choice of a State of Life, trans. Aloysius del Vittorio (London: Burns and Oates, 1874), xl. Jean-Baptiste Malou, Règles pour le choix d’un état de vie, 2nd ed. (Brussels: Goemaere, 1865), ii.
  14. Malou, On the Choice, 19. Malou, Règles pour le choix (1865), 27.
  15. François Nepveu, Pensées, ou réflexions chrétiennes pour tous les jours de l’année, 3rd ed. (Lyon: Antoine Boudet, 1700), 3:360.
  16. Charles Gobinet, The Instruction of Youth in Christian Piety, trans. unknown (Boston: Thos. B. Noonan & Co., nineteenth century), 201. Gobinet, Instruction de la jeunesse en la pieté chrestienne (Paris: François le Cointe, 1655), 521, 522.
  17. Calling wrong vocational choice a sin implies that it endangers salvation. For example, Germain Grisez wrote that not accepting one’s “personal vocation” (an even more exacting concept than a vocation to a state of life) was inherently a grave sin, though it might be effectively venial only because “the Church has not clearly warned against such sins.” Living a Christian Life, ch. 2, question E, 4b. While emphasizing the availability of God’s mercy for those who repent, a recent discernment book states that “it would be a sin knowingly not to choose the vocation to which God is calling you.” Fr. George Elliott, Discernment Do’s and Don’ts: A Practical Guide to Vocational Discernment (Charlotte, NC: Tan Books, 2018), xviii–xix.
  18. Quoted in A. Vermeersch, SJ, Religious and Ecclesiastical Vocation, 2nd ed., trans. Joseph G. Kempf (St. Louis: Herder, 1925), 76–77.
  19. Vermeersch, Religious and Ecclesiastical Vocation, 82.
  20. Vermeersch, Religious and Ecclesiastical Vocation, 36.
  21. Vermeersch, Religious and Ecclesiastical Vocation, 42.
  22. Vermeersch, Religious and Ecclesiastical Vocation, 44.
  23. Vermeersch, Religious and Ecclesiastical Vocation, 85–86.
  24. See an interesting discussion of the debate in Charles A. Schleck, CSC, The Theology of Vocations (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1963), 207–228.
  25. Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Christian State of Life, trans. Sr. Mary Frances McCarthy (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2012), 34–35.
  26. Robert Barron, The Priority of Christ (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2007), 220.
  27. CCC 1638.
  28. CCC 1641.
  29. CCC 1558.
  30. CCC 1587.
  31. CCC 1588.
  32. CCC 1128.
  33. Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 2–,,
  34. (1) Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 2–2.189.10.ad2,,
  35. Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 2–2.189.10.ad3,,
  36. For example, St. John Paul II held that “the profession of the evangelical counsels . . . presupposes a particular gift of God not given to everyone, as Jesus himself emphasizes with respect to voluntary celibacy (cf. Mt 19:10–12)” (Vita Consecrata 30), suggesting that the consecrated life is open to fewer Christians than St. Thomas argued it was. As elsewhere, behind this discrepancy, at least in emphasis, may lie further questions about the theology of grace.
  37. CCC 2005.
  38. St. John Henry Newman, from Meditations on Christian Doctrine,
  39. See Servais Pinckaers, “Scripture and the Renewal of Moral Theology,” in The Pinckaers Reader: Renewing Thomistic Moral Theology, eds. John Berkman and Craig Steven Titus (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press).
Christopher J. Lane About Christopher J. Lane

Christopher J. Lane, PhD, is a Professor of History at Christendom College in Front Royal, Va. His book is entitled Callings and Consequences: The Making of Catholic Vocational Culture in Early Modern France (McGill-Queen’s Univ. Press, 2021), and he continues to write about vocational discernment in historical, theological, and pastoral perspective. His recent pieces include “Rigorism and Clericalism in the Vocational Discernment Culture of the Nineteenth-Century Catholic Revival” (The Catholic Historical Review, 2023), “Augustine and the Bullfight” (co-authored with Dixie Dillon Lane,, 2023), and “Newman and a Historian’s Craft” in Vélez, A Guide to John Henry Newman: His Life and Thought (CUA Press, 2022). He is an Oblate of St. Benedict and a layman of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.

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