February 10, 2006


Ten Commandments teach us how to live

When the Catechism of the Catholic Church was being drafted, there was vigorous debate among the bishops who were responsible for the catechism’s contents about whether it was appropriate to include the Ten Commandments.

Some argued that negative, proscriptive laws were out of place in a compendium of Church teaching designed to “recover joy in the beauty of the faith and wonder over its vital energy.” Others were concerned that the Decalogue’s origins in the Old Testament, with its strong emphasis on the Law (Torah), would undermine the catechism’s responsibility to call attention to New Testament themes of liberty and love.

In the end, the majority of bishops decided in favor of including the Ten Commandments in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

As an integral part of the catechism’s third section, “Life in Christ,” the Ten Commandments find their rightful place in the context of a thorough discussion of themes of freedom, conscience, virtues, sin (personal and communal), and the Old and New Testaments’ views of law and grace.

Before exploring each of the Ten Commandments, the catechism makes it clear that each human person is called to holiness, which is understood to be “full collaboration between God’s gracious help and human freedom.” The old Law has been fulfilled in Christ, and it is possible now to live freely (in conformity with the Law) through cooperation with God’s grace.

Today, we mainly read about the Ten Commandments in the context of arguments over public displays of religion in courthouses and other civic buildings. How do these ancient prohibitions (the top 10 list of “Thou shalt nots” that Moses presented to the Hebrew people as God’s will for them) help us to live freely and lovingly today?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church does not gloss over the negative—even harsh—tone of the Ten Commandments. The sins that are prohibited in the Decalogue are serious. Unchecked, these deadly vices can cause profound injury, unhappiness and death (spiritual and physical) to individuals and communities. These commandments are not meant to be mere “guidelines” or “helpful suggestions.” They are absolutes. Without them, we are morally lost. Without them, we do not know how to live—as individuals or as communities.

At the same time, the catechism teaches that the Ten Commandments can be seen as “laws of growth.” Their faithful observance leads to the maturation of personality and to an increased sense of responsibility (stewardship) for the gifts we have been given by a good and loving God.

The Ten Commandments are summarized by Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ question about the first (most important) commandment. Jesus says, “The first is: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Mk 12:29-31). Love is the fulfillment of the law. We hear this in the words of Jesus. We see it concretely in his life and in his death on the cross.

Catholics who want to grow in their understanding of their faith should prayerfully consider the catechism’s positive interpretations of the Ten Commandments (#2084-#2550). They are an amazing source of guidance and direction for daily living. Yes, they tell us what not to do if we want to be happy, holy people living in a state of grace. But the catechism’s loving exposition of the positive values reflected in each Commandment also offer wonderful insights into who we are (human persons created in God’s image) and how we are supposed to live (as a free people called to love God and one another).

Ever since Pope John Paul II solemnly presented the Catechism of the Catholic Church to the universal Church on Dec. 7, 1992, pastors and catechists throughout the world have been gifted with what the Holy Father called a “sure norm for the teaching of the faith.” Church teaching is not meant to be sterile or cold—especially in reference to the vital moral and spiritual challenges of daily Christian living.

We suggest that all Catholics re-read the Ten Commandments as presented in Part Three (“Life in Christ”) of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. We think those who do will be delighted by the positive tone and by the insights given into living life fully and freely in Christ.

— Daniel Conway

(Daniel Conway is a member of the editorial committee of the board of directors of Criterion Press Inc.)

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