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February 12, 2017

Father James F. Keenan, SJ

Two moral pillars of the Bible

On Jan. 29, at churches across the world, Catholics heard the Beatitudes from Matthew’s Gospel. It made me think of what my late friend Lúcás Chan called the “two moral pillars of the Bible”: the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes.

Let’s start with the first pillar, the Ten Commandments. If you look in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, you will find the moral teaching of the Catholic Church completely in the key of the Ten Commandments. What might surprise you, however, is that using the Ten Commandments as the fundamental pillar of moral teaching is a fairly new approach.

Though early church teachings on morals were normally about faith, hope and charity, from the fifth through the 16th century most texts dealing with morals were usually catalogued according to the Seven Deadly Sins.

By the 16th century, both Catholic and Protestant reformers argued that the Seven Deadly Sins should be replaced by the Ten Commandments. A nice round number.

Reformers gave three interesting arguments for this change. First, the Ten Commandments come from revelation, right from the Book of Exodus, while the Seven Deadly Sins have no biblical roots.

Second, the Ten Commandments are not directed solely toward other human beings; the first three center on what we owe God. The Seven Deadly Sins reflect on the human person and her or his weaknesses, but not on any relationship with others. Worse, they are not at all focused on our relationship with God.

Third, the Seven Deadly Sins simply prohibited wrong conduct; on recommending right conduct, they were oddly mum. The Ten Commandments, meanwhile, start with four prescriptions and then turn to six prohibitions. “Do this,” not just, “Don’t do that.” When Martin Luther and John Calvin wrote about the moral teachings derived from the commandments, they always began with what the law prescribed and then moved to what it prohibited. So the first prescribed worshiping the Lord, and then prohibited idolatry. The fifth prescribed respect for life and then prohibited killing.

When the Council of Trent concluded and the Catechism of the Council of Trent subsequently appeared, it followed the same format. Protestants and Catholics have been giving moral instruction that way ever since.

After that catechism was published in 1566, Catholic theologians began writing textbooks to teach morals in seminaries. These volumes, known as “moral manuals,” were in existence from the mid-16th century until the mid-20th century. Like the catechism, they catalogued all of moral theology according to the Ten Commandments.

If I were to ask you, among the Catholic texts, which commandments got the most attention, you might be surprised again. No, it wasn’t the Sixth Commandment. Theologians hardly dwelt on the Sixth Commandment because almost everything related to sexuality was prohibited. Interestingly, the theologians discussed a great deal the Seventh and Eighth Commandments. Almost every question concerning the legitimacy of differing forms of banking, financing and pensions were debated and resolved through the positions on the Seventh Commandment. Similarly most of the questions regarding confidences, truth telling and fiduciary responsibilities for courts of law were settled by texts on the Eighth Commandment.

Clearly the Ten Commandments have influenced most of the basic social institutions that we have today. But are they enough?

When Lúcás Chan posited the Beatitudes as the other pillar of the church, he was effectively suggesting that the commandments alone are not enough. They offer minimal guidelines for Christian conduct, but they do not take us sufficiently along the way of the Lord.

As Chan noted, while Moses taught the law, the Jesus of the Beatitudes is the true lawgiver who takes us to a deeper understanding of what God expects from us, in light of the Cross and Resurrection.

If it took us 1,600 years to appreciate the Decalogue, doesn’t 20 centuries of delay suggest that it’s time to turn to the Beatitudes?

Chan wasn’t the only one worried about the “sufficiency” of the commandments. In “Veritatis Splendor,” St. John Paul II insisted on the interconnectedness of the two biblical texts and more recently, in 2008, the Pontifical Biblical Commission argued that the two texts were the foundations for their work on “The Bible and Morality: The Biblical Roots of Christian Conduct.”

What difference does this make? Think, for instance, on the recent executive order that closed the United States as a sanctuary for many refugees. Many responded that the order violated basic Christian principles. I think they were right. But I am not sure invoking the commandments would help the cause. That’s why, in these days, we might appreciate with greater urgency the words of Jesus on the mount.

Keenan is the Canisius Professor of Theology at Boston College.