Living the Evangelical Counsels in marriage

In 1981, a group of Baton Rouge, La., couples petitioned their mayor, governor and bishop to proclaim St. Valentine’s Day as “We Believe in Marriage Day.” The officials agreed, and the idea caught fire, with 43 governors proclaiming the second Sunday of February “World Marriage Day,” in 1982.  

The purpose of the day, which will be celebrated Feb. 10 this year, is to honor husband and wife as the foundation of the family, the basic unit of society, and to salute the beauty of their faithfulness, sacrifice and joy in daily married life, according to the World Marriage Day website. 

Also in 1981, Blessed Pope John Paul II issued Familiaris Consortio (On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World), in which he extolled the value of marriage and family and warned against the threats to its vitality, urging the faithful to recognize as urgent and compelling the need to proclaim to all people God’s plan for marriage and family and thus contribute to the renewal of society and the people of God. He imparted his apostolic blessings on World Marriage Day in 1993. 

On Dec. 28, 2003, Pope John Paul petitioned for marriage and family in his Angelus address on the feast of the Holy Family. “In our day a misunderstood sense of rights sometimes troubles the very nature of the family institution and of the conjugal bond. People who believe in the importance of the family based on marriage should join forces at all levels. The family is a human and divine reality that should be defended and promoted as a fundamental social good,” he said. 

Pope Benedict XVI has shared his predecessor’s views, tirelessly advocating marriage and family, particularly in response to the efforts throughout the United States to legalize same-sex marriage and to the Department of Health and Human Services mandate that forces Catholic institutions to provide health insurance plans that cover contraceptives and abortifacients. He addressed this vital issue in his message for the World Day of Peace on Jan. 1, 2013, noting the traditional family as the root and assurance of peace, not only in the home, but worldwide. 

“There is also a need to acknowledge and promote the natural structure of marriage as the union of a man and a woman in the face of attempts to make it juridically equivalent to radically different types of union; such attempts actually harm and help to destabilize marriage, obscuring its specific nature and its indispensable role in society,” he said.

Protecting the institution

Popes and national organizations aren’t the only ones called on to promote marriage and family. All of the faithful are called to do so, in whatever way they are able. If we don’t strive to protect the institution and holiness of marriage, we face the real possibility of losing it forever, at least in terms of law and secular society. 

One way — perhaps the best way — to counteract the threatening trends is to start from the inside out, to speak, by demonstrating our own commitment to marriage in a daring and pronounced way. For married couples, this can include striving to live in the spirit of the Evangelical Counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience — ascetical means that most people think are meant only for the consecrated religious. The basis for the counsels is not religious consecration, but rather the New Law, or the Law of the Gospel, that urges perfection here on earth of the divine law, both natural and revealed and given by Jesus himself.  

The New Law is for those who want to do more than the minimum to achieve eternal life, works primarily through charity, reforms the heart, and includes the Evangelical Counsels. It’s exemplified by the rich young man in the Gospel of Mark, “As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up, knelt down before him, and asked him, ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” (Mk 10:17). 

“Gradually in this culture, one comes to understand as a married person that our faith calls us to be really ‘other.’ We are in the world, but not ‘of’ it and eventually it dawns on each Christian couple that our following Jesus Christ puts us — at least interiorly — outside of the mainstream,” said Lydia LoCoco, director of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s Nazareth Project, which provides an authentic, Catholic vision of sacramental marriage through a variety of programs and events. LoCoco has been married for 28 years and has eight children.  

Most people envision gaunt monks living an austere life in a desolate monastery when they think about the Evangelical Counsels, but it’s not the complete picture. Religious do include poverty, chastity and obedience in their vows, but others can live them, too, according to their state in life. 

A look at the counsels

Generally, the counsel of poverty is assumed to be the surrender of earthly goods, with the exception of communal property and the necessities of life, but that’s not practical for most married couples. Their lifestyles, no matter how simple, require that they own certain property and maintain a certain level of comfort for the sake of children.  


Yet, they still can live the counsel of poverty by adjusting their view of material goods and comforts. Members of the Secular Franciscan Fraternity, a public association of the faithful, includes lay members and seeks to follow in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi. For secular Franciscans, living the counsel of poverty means recognizing that we are not self-sufficient and that all things ultimately come from God, even life itself, according to the website of Our Lady of the Pearl Secular Franciscan Fraternity. 

“Poverty allows all of creation to stand on its own merit. Instead of being seen with functional or avaricious intent, people and things are seen and respected as sacraments of an encounter with God,” the site states. 

Like the Secular Franciscans, couples of all backgrounds and affiliations can live in the spirit of poverty by simplifying material needs and being mindful that they are stewards of the goods they received and are called to use them to benefit all of God’s children. 

Chastity and marriage may seem to be contradictory terms, but they’re not. It’s not only possible, but also advisable to live the spirit of chastity within marriage. There are times in every couple’s life during which they must abstain from sexual relations, and that could be a part of it. However, living in the spirit of the counsel goes beyond that to the way they guard their senses from sinful sexual content in conversations, recreation and entertainment and the way they perceive and treat their own and their spouse’s bodies. 

Observing the counsel of obedience can be trickier for some couples, as the word obedience can connote dominance and subjection. However, that’s not the kind of obedience intended in the counsel. Rather, by obedience is meant that husbands and wives obey God’s will through and for each other.  

Carmelite Secular Kathryn Mulderink of Grand Rapids, Mich., said she sees obedience as an integral part of our beings as married persons. Mulderink has been married for 28 years and has seven children.  

“The promise of obedience is a pledge to live with openness to the will of God in whom we live and move and have our being,” she said. “It is an exercise of faith, in which we search for God’s will in every event and challenge in our personal lives and in the life of our family.”

Year of Faith

While consecrated religious make vows binding them to the Evangelical Counsels and lay associations of the faithful make promises to do so, striving to live in the spirit of the counsels is something that all married couples can — and should — do, according to their state in life.  

It’s especially pertinent in this Year of Faith, during which Pope Benedict XVI has called the entire Church to a greater conversion and understanding of the Faith. The counsels take us beyond simply doing the minimum required by the Ten Commandments. They help us in perfecting ourselves while on earth and the conversion of all toward the sanctity of marriage. 

“These three counsels come with the wisdom of age and maturity and show the depth of what it means to live a life in Christ,” LoCoco said. “You never completely ‘get it,’ yet it’s something worth striving for. You never achieve perfect union with him on this earth, but it certainly is a journey together toward God.” 

Marge Fenelon writes from Wisconsin.