God gave Moses the Ten Commandments He engraved on two stone tablets, setting forth the basic principles governing the lives of the Israelites. We cannot repent of our sins unless we know when and how we violate God’s law. We cannot begin to transform the culture without the moral clarity of the Commandments.
Good Christians know the Ten Commandments by heart: There is one God, do not abuse His name, go to church on Sunday, obey your parents, and don’t murder, commit adultery, steal, lie, lust, or covet. It is quite surprising how many of us cannot identify the Commandments with precision. So our views on morality quickly become “private opinions,” swept up in what Pope Benedict XVI calls “the dictatorship of relativism.”
Children, at a very early age, have a budding sense of right and wrong. As they prepare for First Confession, they know that disobedience, violence, evil thoughts, lying, and stealing are wrong even before they learn the Ten Commandments. Young criminals – usually, but not always, from seriously dysfunctional families -- still run away from the police. God inscribed the Ten Commandments on our hearts before He inscribed them on those two tablets. So why do catechists bother to teach anyone the Ten Commandments? As one precocious child responded, “to remind us.” Bingo.
Most of us are not as precocious as that kid, because most of us get along just fine with only a vague sense of the Ten Commandments. Maybe we think we’ve grown beyond them. Perhaps we don’t feel the need to pray the Psalms that direct us to meditate on God’s law.
But Mary’s Magnificat reveals the Mother of Jesus prayed and memorized many of the Psalms. So did her Son. Jesus prayed at least one of them from the Cross: “My God, my God, why hast Thou abandoned me….” (Psalm 22). Among the 150 Psalms, Jesus assuredly prayed Psalm 119, a lengthy hymn pondering the beauty of God’s law. If deliberating on God’s law is good enough for Jesus and Mary, it must be good for us, too.
But we tend to keep our morality private. So we seldom – if ever -- invoke the Divine authority of the Ten Commandments over public morality. When we effectively divorce our political views from the Ten Commandments, we begin to allow personal preferences and opinion focus groups to redefine good and evil. Without attention to the Decalogue, harmful ideologies entangle our politics.
Some politicians resist the trend. A famous “notable quotable” of Abraham Lincoln is: “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side, for God is always right.”
But most public figures – including, alas, the clergy --rarely invoke the Ten Commandments and too easily surrender to cultural norms. A century ago, President Woodrow Wilson accepted prevalent notions of racial superiority and inferiority. He showed the movie “Birth of a Nation,” which glorified the Ku Klux Klan, at the White House.
Eugenics is population control, excluding people judged inferior, and promoting groups judged superior. Eugenics had a reliable reputation among the elites before the Nazis ruined it. The influential economist, John Maynard Keynes, helped form the Cambridge Eugenics Society. Intellectuals like H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger were among its early supporters. But eugenics always violates the Fifth Commandment, and its professed benefits are merely nicely packaged lies.
Great evil needs appealing slogans. Mao cloaked his ideology in progressive language and got away with mass murder. (Who could disagree with the rights of workers?) Today, BLM wraps its violence in the same type of Marxist “progressive” language, and it too literally gets away with murder. Athletes – and many Catholic and Protestant clergy – have become their “useful idiots” (to borrow Lenin’s phrase). (In a generation or two, historians may wonder why so many churchmen neglected the Commandments and collaborated with BLM.)
If more of us (including the clergy) would more frequently invoke the Sixth and Ninth commandments, we might have fewer activist groups meddling in our public schools promoting various forms of perversion. One of their slogans reads “hate is not a family value.” Our response should be “God’s Commandments teach us to love.”
Godly slogans of the Ten Commandments – memorized and in order – can counter the manipulative slogans that disguise evil. The Ten Commandments allow us to look at the world through God’s eyes. We would save ourselves a lot of time in our debate if we would measure every political position against the Ten Commandments: “I’m sorry, Mr. Politician, but I can’t vote for you because your 'reproductive freedom' policies violate the Fifth Commandment. Your policies on marriage and family violate the Sixth and Ninth Commandments. Your tax policies violate the Seventh Commandment, and you want to take away our right to abide by the first three Commandments. And every time you speak, you break the Eighth Commandment!” (No wonder they got rid of the Commandments in the public schools.)
As a young man, I stopped attending Sunday Mass for the usual immature reasons. (I’m doing better in recent years.) When my godmother (the wife of a hard-working truck driver) asked why, I gave the usual punk-kid excuses. Her response was piercing:
“Go to Mass. It’s the Third Commandment.”
I still remember the effect. As a child, the nuns required that I memorize the Commandments, but I allowed the precepts to get rusty. It wasn’t my aunt talking to me; God Himself was speaking to me through His Commandments.
So memorize the Commandments. Ponder them and don’t be ashamed of them: “Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today. Drill them into your children. Speak of them at home and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest. Bind them at your wrist as a sign and let them be as a pendant on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates.” (Dt. 6:6-9)
Father Jerry J. Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington. He is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Great Falls, Va.