<The Virtues

The Virtues

The editor of the National Catholic Register decided to follow up the series on the sacraments with a series on the Seven Deadly Sins. Someone else wrote the longer articles on the sins, while I was asked to supply shorter pieces on the corresponding virtues. These are not the traditional cardinal and theological virtues, but a list picked to correspond to lust, sloth, pride, avarice, envy, anger, and gluttony. I also contributed to the culminating issue with a commentary on the Ten Commandments.

Chastity: An Unmentionable Virtue?

When was the last time you heard a sermon on chastity? Even Christians who recognize that chastity is a necessary part of living a righteous life don’t like to mention it. It reminds us of two things we’d like to forget: how different Christ’s standards are from those of the world, and how unruly our sexual urges can be. The world considers chastity a joke, an object of scorn, or simply impossible. At best we consider it an unpleasant duty. We don’t often think that chastity is something that we should, or can, actually love and desire, not because of the consequences of not doing so, but because it is actually good in itself.

Some of our unwillingness to discuss it comes from the misconception that chastity is abstinence from sexual relations. Therefore, goes the reasoning, decent single people don’t think about such things, and decent married people don’t need to be concerned about it. But chastity is broader than doing or not doing one act. Everyone has the need and the occasion to practice it. Furthermore, we live in a society that sins against chastity in great and little ways all the time, and whose basic presumptions are against it. Therefore everyone needs to be on guard.

Chastity is simply the proper use of human sexual powers. All the sorts of limits that this implies are summed up as follows: The purpose of human sexuality is to create a family. Therefore sexual arousal for its own sake, sexual relations outside of marriage, sexual relations not open to procreation, unnatural sexual relations in whatever context, are all sins against chastity. The tremendous energy of the sexual drive that God has put within us shows how much he loves the human race and wants it to multiply and grow. Fallen man, like a drunk behind the wheel of a powerful car, finds it easier to make it go than to keep it on the right track. Today so many people are hardened in their revolt against chastity that we drive on a freeway of drunks who are determined to run even relatively sober drivers off the road.

If chaste sexual relations exist to create family, then unchastity, in whatever form, in effect destroys it. Every unchaste act creates loneliness. For example, intercourse outside of marriage: Scripture tells us that when a man has sexual relations with a woman, even casually, “he becomes one body with her” (1 Cor 6:16). Then, if this act is not followed by the appropriate commitment, this relationship is torn apart. It is no longer the separate existence of two individuals, but the forceful dividing of had been one. It was, perhaps, a desperate search for a moment of comfort and love; but afterwards, the world is all the colder for the destruction of what ought to have been. The result is the abandonment of love entirely.

We can see this in our culture, in such a trivial but telling thing as popular music. Older popular songs were full of promises of undying love; the object was usually marriage. Since the Sexual Revolution, a new kind of song has taken over, one that denies the desire for any permanent commitment. Instead of passionate love, it promises passionate indifference: “Come and go as you please; don’t tie me down and I won’t tie you down; all I care about is the need of the present moment.” Love means sex means the scratching of an itch; and in the isolation of their cold, gray, elegant lives, they scratch it until they bleed.

Chastity is not in itself abstinence from sexual relations, although it makes abstinence possible and sometimes desirable. If we appreciate a good and valuable knife, we do not consider abstaining from using the blade as a hammer anything peculiar or difficult. But the abstinence that chastity does sometimes demand only makes sense as long as we know that we, and our desires, have a purpose greater than ourselves. It can demand it in marriage as well as outside. Therefore marriage is no vacation from the duty to be chaste.

Some people, for the sake of God’s service, permanently renounce having a family, and therefore all sexual relations. The Church Fathers compared them to martyrs. They lay down something almost as precious as life itself for the Kingdom of God. But chaste marriage makes no more sense than celibacy if sex has no purpose beyond pleasure. It requires no less grace, and so Christ has hallowed it and made it a sacrament.

Like the other virtues, chastity demands faith: faith in God who gives grace to practice it, and faith to see the truth about love and sexuality to desire it. The man or woman formed in chastity is formed in love, and can, when God wills it, cooperate with Him in the creation of new life.

Back to the top


Nose to the grindstone!

Shoulder to the wheel!

The idle mind is the devil’s playground.

Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy and wealthy and wise.

That’s the usual picture of diligence: the “work ethic,” Ben Franklin, worn-out proverbs, and barely disguised avarice. Being diligent means keeping busy all the time, never resting, never enjoying anything, and making as much money as you can. Right? Wrong.

According to one historical theory, sober, long-faced Puritans built the capitalist system on diligence and “worldly asceticism.” But diligence is just beating the air if it is merely worldly, or, for that matter, long-faced. In fact, the word “diligence” comes from a Latin word meaning “to love.” A related Latin word gives us “delight.” In its original meaning, diligence is attentiveness, care, and concern in what we do, and eagerness, quickness, and zeal to do it. In consists in making the most of God’s gifts out of love for him and his Kingdom.

Jesus issued a call to Christian diligence in the parable of the talents (Lk 19:12-28). This parable has so entered our language that it has transformed an ancient unit of money into a term for natural or God-given abilities. But do we think, when we use the word, of the fate of those talented servants? In the end, each had to give back to the king—representing the Lord—what he had been given as well as the gain that had come from it. Our “talents” have to be used in the world, but the fruits of them go back to God.

A modern version of the parable might be to say that we are brokers. If you give your broker money to invest, you expect that he will invest it, and you will get the profits or dividends. If he should fail to invest it, you will take your affairs out of his hands and give them to someone else. The broker does not expect that he will get to keep your money or spend it on himself; if he tries to do so, he could be prosecuted for embezzlement. We are the same way with God. If we do not use the gifts he has given us, and use them in a way pleasing to him, but try to keep them for ourselves, we are simply embezzlers.

Generally, the talents in the parable are taken to refer to natural gifts, skills like singing or carpentry. Use of these gifts we associate with diligence in work. But the most important gifts the Lord gives us are spiritual: the gifts and graces that flow from the Holy Spirit. It is most important that we return these spiritual gifts to him increased by use.

This is why the contemplative life of, say, cloistered religious is not a form of laziness. As it ought to be lived, the contemplative life makes use of the greatest of God’s gifts: union with Him in prayer. Even those of us who are not contemplatives need to be fruitful in using this gift. If we are not diligent in our spiritual life first, our other activities are are not offered to God and are so much useless motion. We are like a child who, on being told to pick up his clothes, simply flings them into another corner of the room.

While the pain and difficulty of work are a result of the Fall, work itself is not. Adam and Eve were put into the Garden “to till it and keep it.” Jesus promised a renewal of that blessing when he said, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me. . . . For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt 11:28-30). This doesn’t seem, at first, like a very good way of getting a rest: taking on a burden. But the important thing is that it is Christ’s burden, taken in love.

Jacob worked seven years as a sheepherder for Rachel’s father to earn her hand, “and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her” (Gn 29:20). That’s what it’s like when you’re in love. You say to the one you love, “Nothing is too hard to do for you.” That is the source of our diligence—our attentiveness, our concern, our quickness, our zeal—to do the tasks that God has given us: our love for him.

Therefore inner spiritual diligence comes before outer diligence. If we work hard and are attentive to our tasks merely because they are our duty, or because we will not be fed unless we work, or for selfish gain or ambition, they will be the burden that we associate with work ethic. But as Jacob looked forward to his wedding with Rachel, we can look forward to a far greater wedding, the eternal wedding banquet of heaven. There we will hear God say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master” (Mt 25:23).

Back to the top

One of Those People

Humility is the greatest of Christian virtues, and the greatest of examples of humility traditionally presented to us is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. St. Paul exhorts the Philippians to take Christ as a model of humility as follows: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:5-8). There is a particular kind of humility we can learn from this: the willingness to be one of them.

You know who they are. It’s those people you wouldn’t be caught dead agreeing with or associating with. They’re the ones you snub for good reasons—those stuck-up intellectuals; those uneducated boobies; those petit-bourgeois puritans; those health nuts; those conventional businessmen; dirty people; boring people; those wimps; those jocks: you know, those people. You see them waiting when you go in to confession, and you think, “How can I sit with them? Could I be in the same Church with those people?”

Our Lord showed this humility when he became one of us. Imagine God, perfect in holiness, creator of all things out of nothing, actually becoming part of his creation. Even more, he became one of a race that had already produced some remarkably cruel slave societies, and was one day to produce Auschwitz and the Gulag. The powers of heaven stood back in awe to see the Lord of all descend to become one of them. And not only did he become one of those people, he let them humiliate and kill him by torture, offering no resistance.

For what did he do this? For a pearl of great price, for a treasure hidden in a field: for your immortal soul. And, incidentally, for every one of them. What he gave us was a life with him forever and a share in his eternal glory, something unimaginably greater than anything we could gain on our own.

So you wouldn’t want anyone to think that you were one of them; after all, you have position to maintain? What do you count as something to be grasped? What position have we to maintain but that where Christ has put us, reigning with him in heaven, and whose opinion matters more than his? He allowed people to think he was a sinful man; the Pharisees called him a glutton and a drunk, a friend of hookers and quislings. But the heavenly Father had a different opinion: he “highly exalted him, and bestowed on him a name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow” (Phil 2:9-10).

Of course, he could afford it; he was God. We can afford it too, because we are children of God. We can be willing to be thought of as one of those people because our life is not ours but Christ’s: he has given us an inheritance that we cannot lose. We need have no fear of the judgment of men, because we have confidence in the judgment of God.

Paul even says, “in humility count others better than yourselves.” Yes, he means those people. This does not mean comparing earthly accomplishments, or saying that we are of less worth than someone else. It means rather to treat others as our social “betters,” before whom we must act as servants. Jesus Christ took the form of a servant and endured for us the most painful and humiliating service that it is ever recorded one person did for another.

Problems of self-image often come from pride, since we want to be judged, and judge ourselves, on what we can do or what we have. But these things are garbage compared with what Christ has given us. If a tax assessor wants to know what a house is worth, he looks at what was paid for it. If you want to know what you are worth, look at the price that was paid for you: the precious blood of God’s only-begotten Son. And as with a house, our value affects our neighbors’: the same price was paid for them. It does not diminish our true worth to be the servant of the lowest bum on the street, or even to listen patiently while some hayseed tells dull, corny jokes.

It takes faith to be humble. Outside of faith in Christ, being one of those people would be about the worst thing that could happen. We would lose what makes us worthwhile: our obvious superiority and the esteem of really knowing people. But we have traded our obvious superiority, and everything else in our life, for a far greater glory in heaven. The one whose esteem makes an eternal difference has made us his own forever. Therefore we need not be afraid to be one of them, since He became one of us.

Back to the top

Money: Letting It Go

There is a command of Jesus in the Gospel that almost no one obeys. When he dined at the home of a wealthy Pharisee, he told him, “When you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you” (Lk 14:13-14). Notice that Jesus does not tell people not to give feasts; they are rather to be occasions of a virtue much neglected today: liberality.

We tend naturally to have two attitudes toward money. The first is to disapprove of wealth entirely; the second is to hang on to it. Neither is what the Lord teaches us. The problem with money is the use to which it is put. St. Thomas Aquinas puts the right use very simply: “The use of money means letting it go.” Money is a medium of exchange; it does no good unless it is changing hands. As we spend it or give it away, we provide the means of life for others. Those who have more can provide more jobs, more benefits, for others; they can also provide things for those who cannot work, even, the Lord tells us, feasts for the seriously disabled.

Pharisees were not the only wealthy people Jesus ate with. In Jericho, he stayed with a rich tax-collector, Zaccheus. This little man had grown rich by betraying and defrauding his countrymen in the interest of an occupying foreign power. When Jesus entered Jericho, he called this little crook down from his perch in a tree and invited himself to his house for the night, an action that shocked the proper people, who knew just how much misery to others Zaccheus’ wealth had caused. Zaccheus responded, first by welcoming the Lord with joy, and second by giving another example of liberality: “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold” (Lk 19:8). One wonders how much Zaccheus had left after doing this; even before he restores his illicit fortune—fourfold—he gives half of the gross to the poor.

Jesus said to Zaccheus, “Today salvation has come to this house.” That is what happens when the Lord enters into a person’s life; other things find their proper order. And the proper order for money is liberality. One would think that the first thing a man like Zaccheus would have to do would be to satisfy the demands of justice by restoring what he had stolen. More basic than that, however, is the attitude toward money, the avarice that grasps at wealth and holds on to it. This is what needed to change; once the great wave breaks the dam, it is easy to let the rest of the water out.

Anyone can practice liberality; anyone can fail to practice it. We hide our avarice behind a mask of prudence. Ben Franklin’s gospel of thrift sounds louder in our ears than the precepts of Christ. We think of the hard-working man with his nose to the grindstone, denying himself and his family pleasures to save up something for the future, as the model of virtue. He is not commended in Scripture. If anything, he is condemned. “I have so little; I need to save for a rainy day; how will I support my family?” These can be legitimate concerns—or excuses. No one has so little he cannot give some of it away; if not money than other things: time, service, hospitality. The most hospitable families I know are also among the poorest.

Liberality depends on faith. We need not fear letting go of our money, because God knows our needs and will supply them, and more than our needs: “Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap” (Lk 6:38). The end result will be more, not less. But it is God who will provide it, not our money. To look to money to give us security is quite simply to put it in the place of God, to commit idolatry.

St. Paul gave Timothy this instruction to pass on to the rich: they should not “set their hopes on uncertain riches but on God who richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous, thus laying up for themselves a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life which is life indeed” (1 Tm 6:17-19). What would your broker think of this? Looking for a growth stock? Try good deeds; they have a high yield—better than market rates. The security is God’s own word, that it is he and not Mammon who has the power to save.

The gray-faced miser, scrimping and saving and enjoying nothing, is not the picture of the Christian. God gives us “everything to enjoy”—but only if we let go of that to which we would hold on. Jesus did not tell his hearers not to give parties: he only told them to be sure to invite the poor.

Back to the top

Brotherly Love or Sibling Rivalry?

Being an unemployed Ph.D. in history is no fun. I had been in that position over a year when a friend and I were candidates for the same teaching job. For most jobs there might be fifty or a hundred qualified candidates; in this case we knew that we were the only two under serious consideration. Our qualifications were about equal. Both of us had been waiting a long time; the pressure of poverty was taking a toll on both our lives. He got the job. That was hard.

The easy and natural reaction was clear. He really wasn’t the right man for the job; there had been blatant prejudice on the part of the committee; I could just kill that so-and-so. I knew that reaction was wrong. On this occasion, by God’s grace I had prepared myself for this outcome, so that I was able to be almost as happy that he had gotten this job as he was himself. It was an opportunity for me to grow in that virtue of brotherly love that is the opposite of envy.

Brotherly love is God’s answer to sibling rivalry. The biblical writers, when they used the term, did not have any illusions about family relationships. How could they? They had the examples of Cain and Abel, of Jacob and Esau, of Joseph and his brothers to undeceive them. It is precisely those closest to us whom we have the most trouble loving if they have something we want or feel we deserve.

Think about it. If someone from another department becomes your boss, that’s not much of a problem. Not at least compared to the problem you’d have if the man who used to work next to you is promoted over your head. Without a healthy dose of brotherly love you won’t be able to look him in the face for months, even for years. You may even start looking for another job. It’s as bad as the time your brother got a new bicycle and you didn’t, and your mother’s reminder that your bicycle was a perfectly good one sounded pretty hollow.

Brotherly love is the same love of neighbor Jesus called the second great commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk 12:31). As yourself: that means looking on your neighbor’s harm as your harm, on his good fortune as your own. Among Christians this should be enhanced because we are all members of the body of Christ, and “if one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor 12:26). The alternative is murder: “Any one who hates his brother is a murderer” (1 Jn 3:15), like Cain whose envy of Abel made him the first murderer.

In a family, brothers and sisters may bicker and fight, but let some outside threat come, or some permanent separation threaten, and all that is forgotten. Jacob and Esau were twins, and the most hostile pair of brothers in scripture. They fought from their mother’s womb. Jacob had the promise from God that Esau must have felt he deserved. Esau could say to Jacob, “Mother always liked you best” with perfect truth. Jacob cheated Esau first of his birthright, then of his father’s blessing (Gn 27:36). Small wonder that Esau resolved to avenge these wrongs when they were still fresh by killing Jacob. Jacob escaped to his uncle Laban’s, and true to form, got very rich, with two wives and two concubines, eleven sons, flocks of sheep, and herds of cattle. After twenty years, things got too hot for him in Paddan-aram and he went back to Canaan where he met his brother Esau again. Because he had reason to fear Esau, he took precautions against ambush, and offered him large portions of his flocks as a present.

But after twenty years all that Esau could remember was that Jacob was his brother. “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept” (Gn 33:4). Both were well on their way to becoming great nations; they took their separate parts of the land and lived side by side. In giving the Law to the descendants of Jacob, God said concerning the descendants of Esau: “You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother” (Dt 23:7).

It took Esau twenty years to realize that it was far less important that Jacob had what he wanted than that Jacob was his brother. It should take us far less time, indeed no time at all. The things that we want on this earth are temporary, of no lasting consequence compared to the eternal life that Christ has won for us. On the other hand, those we envy will either eternally perish—in which case they are to be pitied, not envied—or they will be forever united to Christ and to us, in a brotherhood that will infinitely outlive any other object of our desire. To deny that eternal relationship for the sake of some perishable thing is idolatry, putting something else in the place of God. Unless we exchange resentment for brotherly love, we cannot live together forever, filled with God’s own love.

Back to the top

The Quality of a Servant

Most Americans today have never met a real old-fashioned servant. But we know them from books or movies. Picture the butler of the fine old household, always deferential to the master, always polite to outsiders. He seems quiet and mild-mannered enough, but try to get past him to crash a party; you find yourself politely but very firmly shown to the door. He does not raise his voice, because he does not need to. He knows he has the full authority of his master behind him, and he is carrying out the master’s orders. This servant can be what he is because he has what we call “meekness.”

We find some rather surprising examples of meekness in the Bible. Moses, we are told, was “very meek, more than all men that were on the face of the earth” (Num 12:3). But what did this meek man do? He defied Pharaoh in his own house; he led the people of Israel from Egypt to the borders of the Promised Land; when he found the people worshiping the golden calf, he ground it to powder and made them swallow it. He was not weak, ineffectual, or incapable of decisive leadership. Yet he was the meekest of men.

Our Lord called himself meek: “I am gentle and lowly of heart” (Mt 11:29) uses the same Greek word found in Mt 5:5: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Yet he taught with great authority, condemned the Pharisees roundly, and when he saw his Father’s house become a den of thieves, took a whip of cords and drove out the merchants and money-changers. He was not soft or passive or a coward.

Meekness, whether in our Lord or in Moses or in a household servant, is not weakness. It is part selflessness and part obedience. Moses is called the meekest of men while he is facing a personal attack from his own family, from Aaron and Miriam. He makes no attempt to defend himself, but trusts in the Lord, who calls them all into his presence. The Lord reaffirms his commission to Moses, and asks the others, “Why were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” Because Moses was God’s servant, meekly following God’s commands, to speak against him was to speak against God. The proper response was fear, as to God himself.

This is why meekness is opposed to anger. We can be zealous and aggressive only for God’s righteousness; if we are angry on our own account, it is not his justice, but our own sin. When the people committed idolatry, Moses took action for the Lord; but when he was attacked personally, he did not get angry. St. James tells us, “Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of men does not work the justice of God.” Rather, we should “receive with meekness the implanted word” (Jas 1:19-21), that is, obey God and not our own self-will. He will take care of our rights: “Never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Rom 12:19).

Our natural inclination is to be more concerned for our own rights than for God’s or for anyone else’s. If something of ours is taken away, if things do not go as we want them to, we are angry. But Jesus told us not to be concerned about our rights. “Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if anyone would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (Mt 5:39-41).

He himself gave us the greatest example of this behavior. As Isaiah prophesied of him, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth” (Is 53:7). When he was being unjustly condemned, he did not insist on his rights, because he was acting in obedience to the Father, and suffering on our behalf.

If God the Son, who had all the rights in the world, let them go by for our sake, then we should be willing to surrender what little we have out of service to him. As Moses was vindicated so will God vindicate us, who are members of the Body of Christ. Our strength comes not in doing our own will or enforcing our own rights, but in doing God’s will and seeing that his justice is accomplished.

Another prophecy of Isaiah, quoted by Matthew, says of Jesus, “He will not wrangle or cry aloud” (Mt 12:19); nor need we. The good servant does not need to raise his voice, because it is not his own authority he acts on, but his master’s. So we can meekly go about our service to the Lord, obedient to him, gentle and polite to those around us, but firm and zealous in doing the will of God.

Back to the top


My great-grandmother was interested in what she called “temperance.” She left a whole scrapbook full of newspaper clippings devoted to it. What she meant was total abstinence from alcoholic beverages, and the efforts of similarly minded persons produced Prohibition during the last years of her life. This is not what we mean when we talk about the virtue of temperance. To be sure, strong drink is one of the most important things to be temperate in using, and one of the most difficult. Some people, because of mental or physical infirmity, must totally abstain in order to be temperate in drinking. But temperance is not abstinence from, but rightly ordered use of, the good things of this world, in particular food and drink.

When we oppose temperance to gluttony, we think first of eating. Some people might therefore equate temperance with being thin. But some people who strive to be thin fall into what the moral teachers call the “gluttony of delicacy.” I once knew a very thin woman. She would eat nothing but the crispest of crisp salads, or drink anything but the lightest of white wines. In judging anyone’s personal worth, her first consideration was what he ate. She was also given to vicious slander and gossip concerning anyone not immediately present, engaged in several unchaste sexual relationships, and proudly recited the foulest limericks I have heard on the lips of a human being. She might be one of those of whom Paul speaks when he says, “Their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame” (Phil 3:18).

Temperance is more than a medical judgment concerning what is and is not healthy. While such a consideration may have some value, temperance is in fact a Christian moral virtue. Its guiding principle and rationale is to be found in 1 Timothy 4:4: “Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.” Temperance means receiving created things, not as instruments of our own pleasure, but as gifts of God.

As with all virtues, there are two contrary vices to temperance. One is gluttony; the other goes by a name something like “unfeelingness.” It is the unwillingness to appreciate and take proper pleasure in the good things God has made. The typical modern form of this vice is a tendency to look at created goods not as whole gifts, but solely in terms of what they are made of. We look at our food, our surroundings, even our own bodies, merely as collections of chemicals, not appreciating that it is what they are that makes them good. Touch, taste, and smell, and the legitimate pleasure that comes from them, are part of God’s gift, which we have must receive and for which we must to thank him.

Part of growing in temperance is training our tastes to appreciate God’s gifts in the right way. This requires a discipline, since our natural tendency is to overindulge, either in quantity or quality. This is not the same thing as “dieting.” Some people think that not indulging in sweets means eating and drinking artificially sweetened things. Certainly they don’t make you fat; but they don’t discipline your taste either. In fact, artificial sweeteners are to temperance what contraceptives are to chastity: you can indulge without the natural consequence. The proliferation in modern America of food and drink that has been deprived of its natural effect (decaffeinated coffee, nonalcoholic beer) may reflect fastidiousness or even concern for health; it does not promote temperance.

Fasting and abstinence, on the other hand, are a part of temperance. In the past the Church set apart more times for fasting and abstinence than she does now; but these disciplines are still part of the overall program. Fasting is a scripturally based way of crying out to God in prayer and of atoning for sin. It also trains our disordered appetites and helps us grow in temperance, saying “no” to our desire. This would not be fasting unless that from which we were abstaining were good, a gift that needs to be used in its proper order.

Practicing temperance is part of finding our place in the universe. Creation is not dead matter, but alive with God’s love. Our food and our drink and everything we consume are proofs of that love. In the Old Covenant, the Israelites worshiped God with sacrifices of meat and bread and wine and all the fruits of the earth. Christian worship, in spirit and in truth, is our gratitude and thanksgiving to God as we receive the gifts he gives us. But while we receive good from the Lord, it is not the good thing to which we should be attached, but the Lord himself, so that we thank him whether we receive or not. “He who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God; while he who abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God” (Rom 14:6).

Back to the top

The Ten Commandments

“We’re hearing a call for going back the basics in education; well, we need to go back to basics in religious education. There’s a great need for children to know these commandments—at least as far as they can understand them.” Thus Fr. Michael Wrenn, director of the Archdiocesan Catechetical Institute, a graduate school in religious education for the Archdiocese of New York, stresses the importance of the Ten Commandments.

“The Ten Commandments are absolute norms that admit no exceptions,” says Fr. Wrenn. “They are laws given by God for right living and order. These are pivotal areas of life. The Commandments have been part of the basic catechesis from the earliest days of the Church. Anyone who isn’t following the commandments is not going to be able to love God or neighbor, and may find it very difficult even to believe in God.”

In the past twenty years, religious education has laid less stress on the Ten Commandments. Fr. Wrenn traces this decline to trends in moral theology. “There are certain theologians and writers who think that under some circumstances we can break the commandments. This is the influence of situational ethics, consequentialism, especially in the case of the sixth and ninth commandments. But they are wrong. They don’t represent the teaching of the Church.” That includes confessors who tell penitents that sin is now excusable, he says.

“Kids aren’t being trained the same way we were,” he notes. “When I was young, we went to confession regularly. That helped us learn about sin. Now in some places they’re very laissez-faire about confession. The experiment of allowing First Communion before confession was supposed to have been ended in 1973, but some places that didn’t happen. So now you have eighth, ninth—even eleventh and twelfth—graders who don’t know how to go to confession. It was a reaction against an excessive sense of sin, but an overreaction. Sin suddenly disappeared. No one has taught them what sin is.”

Another reason for neglect of the Ten Commandments is confusion about their relation to the New Testament revelation of grace and love in Christ. “Those who oppose the Old Testament religion of law with the New Testament religion of love are naive,” says one professor of sacred scripture at an East Coast seminary. “The commandments are endorsed in the New Testament. For example, when the rich young man came to Jesus and asked him, ‘What should I do?’ the reply was to observe the Commandments. Jesus’ teaching to love the Lord and to love your neighbor is simply a compendium of the Ten Commandments. There’s no softening of these commandments in the New Testament.”

To understand the Ten Commandments in relation to Christ, it is essential to remember that they are part of God’s covenant with his people. The first three commandments define man’s relationship with God. Fr. William Heidt, O.S.B., in Major Old Testament Themes (no. 30 in the Old Testament Study Guide series) points out that the reason God brought Israel out of Egypt was not mainly so that they could be free from slavery, but so that they could come into a relationship with him. The distinction between the commandments given to Israel and the law codes of other peoples was that God chose a people, rather than a people choosing a God. The religion of the Covenant was based on God’s absolute demand of loyalty, and an expression of his will: not a people forming a god in the image of their own desires.

“I am the Lord your God . . . You shall have no other gods before me” is a true religious revolution. Instead of the many gods of paganism, created by human need out of the many elements of nature, Israel is to have one God, creator of all things, who reveals himself in his unity beyond all human thought. Monotheism has become so much a part of Western culture that we may think of it today as natural, but it took God himself to reveal it.

Moreover, the one Lord is not to be worshiped under any visible form. He is so utterly beyond his creation, “totally Other,” that any image formed of him is a lie. Not until he became incarnate in Jesus, and sent the Holy Spirit to live in his Church, could an icon or image represent divinity.

The second commandment concerns the true dwelling-place of God in Israel, the Name that he has revealed. A name in scripture contains both power and identity; by revealing it to Israel, God has entrusted his people with his credit, as it were, and this credit must not be misused.

In setting apart the Sabbath in the third commandment, God commands a perpetual sign of the covenant, as the prophets later stressed. The covenant includes all the people of Israel; Sabbath rest includes servants, male and female, as well as the free men of the assembly. The very animals must rest in remembrance of God’s rest at the conclusion of Creation.

By the covenant, Israel became a people “holy to the Lord.” As such, they must reflect his character, which the last seven commandments outline. He is a God of authority, life, committed love, creativity, truth, purity, and equity.

The fourth commandment sets up God’s authority within Israel. The father and mother are the most basic authorities and stand for all the others that God establishes within his people. By this commandment, the father and mother have not only the natural authority of their biological role, but God’s authority as well. This is expressed by the promise, “that you may live long in the land”: only God could guarantee that.

Human life, indeed all life, is a concern of the God of life throughout all his dealings with man. The covenant with Noah deals chiefly with life, represented by blood; man is not to eat the blood, or life, of animals, but must return it to the earth whence it was made. This covenant also forbade murder, providing that whoever sheds human blood “by man his blood shall be shed.” By demanding the ultimate sanction, God makes life an ultimate value. Therefore the commandment, “Thou shalt not murder,” is not new, but a reaffirmation of what God had already revealed.

Human marriage is so close to God’s heart that he used it to symbolize his own covenant with Israel. He incorporates its inviolability in the sixth commandment to demonstrate that it is not merely a natural institution, but a reflection of the divine character. The commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” includes all acts against chastity, which are offenses against the marriage commitment established as unique, permanent, and fruitful in Paradise.

God the creator gave man work as a reflection of his own creative power. The seventh commandment, “Thou shalt not steal,” protects the rights of each person to the fruit of his labor. Like the other commandments, it is elaborated in the covenant code in a whole series of regulations protecting real and personal property, workers, debtors, and the poor.

“Thou shalt not bear false witness” forbids first of all false testimony in court, but includes all offenses against truth, indeed all offenses of speech, as well. Lies, slander, calumny, detraction, and false promises could never reflect the character of the God who is Truth itself. This truth is the basis of the whole covenant relationship. The Psalms and other wisdom literature pay especial attention to sins of speech; St. James reaffirms this teaching, calling the tongue “a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (Jas 3:8).

The last two commandments forbid forms of “coveting”; they differ from the previous eight in that they govern not outward acts, but the dispositions of the heart. In so doing, they demonstrate two qualities of God’s own heart—purity and equity—that he demands of human relationships. Although these commandments are closely linked, and use the same word “covet,” the tradition of the Church rightly considers them separately. The ninth commandment forbids any deliberate designs against chastity, reflecting the purity of God’s love. The tenth likewise manifests God’s desire for justice, banishing any contrary desire from his covenant people.

Examining the commandments in the light of the fundamental covenant relation makes it clear that they could not be superseded by the New Covenant in Christ. God’s nature and character have not changed, nor has his desire to have a people holy to himself. What has changed is the nature of worship, the basis of salvation, and the expressions of our dedication to God. We no longer follow the prescriptions of Old Testamant law that define an external holiness—“regulations, ‘Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch’” (Col 2:20-21)—because our holiness is defined by faith in Christ and love of the brethren (1 Pt 1:22); nor do we need Old Testament feasts and sacrifices. But the Ten Commandments concern our fundamental relationship with God and one another: they stand firm, and we must stand on them, or fall.

Back to the top