Sixth and Ninth Commandments
In examining the Sixth and Ninth Commandments, we follow the lead of Christ Himself, who took cognizance of the sixth law of the Decalogue and immediately connected it to that desire or lust which makes adultery possible and even probable (see Mt 5:27-28). The underlying psychology and theology of this portion of the Catechism is found in the assertion that “love is the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being” (2392). Not by accident, this line is a quote from Pope John Paul II, whose thought dots the landscape of this entire treatise. What emerges is a holistic and personalist view of sexuality which “affects all aspects of the human person, in the unity of his body and soul.” Sexual identity is likewise seen as requiring an appreciation of the difference and the complementarity of the sexes, both of which are equal, both made in the image and likeness of God, and both called in marriage to “imitate in the flesh the generosity and fruitfulness of the Creator.” In line with the constant Tradition of the Church, the Sixth Commandment concerns not only the question of adultery but the whole of human sexuality (2331-2336).1
Chastity and homosexuality
This discussion is situated within the overall context of “the vocation to chastity,” which is proper to every human being; it is also focused on the development of that “integrity” of life which occurs when one learns self-mastery and does not merely respond to norms imposed by some authority external to the person. The advice offered is at once sound theology and excellent practical pastoral counsel; the pursuit of virtue is stressed far more than the avoidance of vice. We are wisely reminded that chastity is not something achieved once for all, but involves consistent effort and constant recourse to the grace of God throughout one’s entire life.
Chastity should not be perceived as a negative but as the expression of friendship at its deepest level. St. Ambrose saw this clearly when he wrote that chastity existed in various forms, corresponding to the several states in life. The Catechism makes mention of the chastity important for the engaged, so that their pre-marital continence demonstrates “their mutual respect” and also serves as “an apprenticeship in fidelity and of the hope of receiving one another from God.” Prudently, it cautions them to “reserve for the time of marriage the manifestations of tenderness proper to conjugal love” (2350). Lust, masturbation, fornication, pornography, prostitution, and rape are all denounced as offenses against chastity (2351-56), with convincing rationale given for these positions.
A very forthright, nuanced, and helpful presentation on same-sex attraction is made. “Its psychic origin remains largely unexplained;” nevertheless, the moral conclusion is inescapable: “Homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered” because “they close off the sexual act to the gift of life” and hence can “receive approbation in no case.” The text continues: “Not a negligible number of men and women present some deep-seated homosexual tendencies. They do not choose their homosexual condition”; it is, for them “a trial. They must be treated with respect, compassion and consideration. One will avoid every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard.” Such people, “if they are Christians, are called to unite to the sacrifice of the Cross of the Lord the difficulties which they can encounter as a result of their condition.” They are called to a life of chastity and, taking advantage of all the aids of the interior life, “gradually and resolutely” should see themselves attain to “Christian perfection” (2357-9).
Once again, the Church’s moderation stands out against extremes which condemn or condone. In light of this teaching, we can see how harmful the approach of someone like Jesuit Father James Martin is. On the other hand, “Courage” and “EnCourage” have programs of outreach for those with same-sex attraction or their friends and relatives, rooted in the teaching of the Church and in truly helpful pastoral counsel. This perspective also explains why same-sex unions of any kind cannot receive a “blessing,” as recently taught by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Turning its attention to “the love of spouses,” the Catechism notes that this is not something “purely biological,” but concerns the human person in something more intimate since it signifies “the reciprocal gift by which spouses enrich each other in joy and gratitude.” The source of such joy and pleasure is sexuality, which has “a two-fold purpose” within Holy Matrimony: “the good of the spouses themselves and the transmission of life.” Soberly, the text stresses that “one cannot separate these two meanings or values of marriage without altering the spiritual life of the couple and compromising the goods of marriage and the future of the family.” This demands “fidelity and fruitfulness.”
By living marital fidelity, the Christian couple “give witness to this mystery of Christ and His Church before the world.” In regard to fruitfulness, the Catechism declares that “the child does not come from without as an addition to the mutual love of the spouses; it arises from the very heart of this mutual gift,” which is why Pope Paul VI was so right to teach in Humanae Vitaethat “every marital act must remain open to the transmission of life,” for no such act of man should ever contradict the express will of God who desires that it always signify the unitive and procreative at one and the same time.
With this in mind, only “for just reasons” can couples decide “to space the birth of their children,” always ensuring that such a decision does not arise from “egoism but is conformable to the generosity proper to a responsible parenthood. . . . These methods relying on periodic continence respect the body of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them, and favor the development of an authentic freedom” (2370). Needless to say, any forcible action on the part of the State which intrudes into the sanctuary of marriage is to be deemed reprehensible.
Regarding large families, the Catechism observes that both Scripture and the Church’s perennial thrust regard them as “a sign of divine blessing and of the generosity of parents.” Moving on to couples incapable of child-bearing, the text speaks with compassion but also, echoing Donum Vitae, concludes that techniques like artificial insemination are “gravely dishonest” and cheat a child out of birth from an act of love. Artificial conception fails the moral test for the same reason as artificial contraception: Both dissociate the unitive and procreative elements of the marital act, albeit for opposite goals. Even given the noble desire to conceive, one must recall that “a child is not something owed but a gift” (2378). It goes on to emphasize that “physical sterility is not an absolute evil” and that it can actually become a source of spiritual fruitfulness, especially when couples “demonstrate their generosity by adopting abandoned children or by providing needed services on behalf of others.”
Not surprisingly, we read that “adultery and divorce, polygamy and free love are serious offenses against the dignity of marriage” (2400). Considerable space is given over to an explanation of the Church’s teaching on divorce, along with particular attention given to its implications for children and society. Taking on “trial marriages,” the text asserts that “human love does not admit of ‘trial’. It demands a total and definitive gift of persons between themselves” (2391).
To this point, we have been considering direct violations of chastity, but we must also give due attention to things which lead to such violations. Thus, when Our Lord spoke with such vehemence against lust, He was reflecting well the Jewish tradition of “building a wall around Torah,” that is, forbidding what could be seen as a less grievous offense, so as to guard against the commission of a more serious one.
It is in this light that we need to look at the proscriptions of the Ninth Commandment, which seeks to help humans control concupiscence, that drive which Christian theology has identified in a particular way with carnal desire. What is needed here is nothing less than “the purification of the heart,” declared “blessed” by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. “The battle against carnal lust (and human experience certainly confirms it is a battle) occurs through purification of the heart and the practice of temperance,” so that people begin to view all things according to the mind and heart of God Himself; similarly, it “demands prayer, the practice of chastity, purity of intention and custody of the eyes” (2532).
These are not puritanical suggestions but arise from common sense and the tried and true methods of growth in virtue, as well as a salutary respect for the dignity of persons. The text encourages modesty in dress, discretion, education in decency for children and adolescents, and the purification of the social climate. Those uncomfortable with such a program for fostering decency reveal “an erroneous conception of human freedom” (2526), for whatever leads people to moral degradation is the most enslaving of all.
Drawing out some further implications
Like it or not, all Bibles still carry the lines: “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” and “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.” Both commandments are rooted in the belief that sex is a good thing (see Gen 1:31). In fact, God’s law highlights this fact. Even St. Paul – dismissed by some as the most “puritanical” of all the sacred authors – based his sexual morality precisely on the dignity of the human person, whose body is a temple of the Holy Spirit (see 1 Cor 6:19f). In Catholic moral theology– and especially in the area of sexuality – negative-sounding laws are put forth to safeguard positive values. But these laws are always designed to ensure human freedom, never to deform it.
The Sixth Commandment holds that sex in marriage is sacred. To protect that sanctity, this commandment forbids adultery (sex with someone other than one’s spouse), or any actions outside the covenant of marriage leading to sexual union with another. Divorce should also be included here insofar as it can lead to adultery by encouraging people to consider themselves unmarried and thus free to enter another union.
For single persons (even the engaged), this necessarily means total abstinence. Premarital relations (fornication) or extramarital relations (adultery) are, in the final analysis, sins against truth: the truth of the dignity of the person, who can never be viewed – even within the context of Christian marriage – as an object of pleasure for another; the truth of the marriage covenant which has been divinely ordained as a permanent and exclusive commitment and a sign of Christ’s enduring love for His Church (see Eph 5:32).
No matter how appealing or tender the soap operas make “affairs” appear, a lie can never be the basis for a “meaningful relationship.” A sexual sin is always a serious matter at the objective level. Nor can it ever be seen as a private or personal sin. It has social consequences, precisely because it distorts the meaning of marriage as a social contract and a holy covenant. The betrayal committed in secret eventually has consequences in the public arena.
The Sixth Commandment demands chastity of all persons – married and unmarried alike. Some people think that chastity automatically means sexual abstinence, but that is false. Chastity is the virtue by which people use their sexual faculty in accord with their state in life. Therefore, married couples can – and must – be chaste, because their love is sexually expressed in acts which sacramentalize a covenant that is permanent, exclusive and fruitful. For the unmarried, chastity calls for abstinence.
Sex, in the Catholic scheme of things, must never deliberately separate the unitive and procreative elements of love, for this does violence to the original plan of the Creator (see Gen 1:28). Certain acts, then, are always disordered at the objective level of morality: masturbation (which is neither unitive nor procreative); homosexual intercourse (which has no possibility of the procreative); contraceptive intercourse (which suffers from the same problem as homosexual intercourse).
The difference between the Sixth Commandment (wrong sexual actions) and the Ninth Commandment (wrong sexual thoughts and desires) can best be grasped by understanding the difference between sexuality and genitality. All people, married and unmarried, are sexual beings and, by their very nature, relate to others as sexual beings – that is, male or female. In fact, our sexuality is as important to our personality as our race or ethnic background – maybe even more so. Sexuality is almost an attitude of mind; genitality seeks to act out that orientation in physical ways. In a sense, then, we can say that right sexual behavior is governed by the Ninth Commandment, while right genital behavior is formed by the Sixth Commandment.
Modem society operates under a serious delusion here. Prevailing wisdom argues that sexuality must always be expressed in genitality, thus reducing intercourse to a mere biological function, like sneezing, or an animal instinct, over which one has no control. But good psychology and good theology both challenge that view and argue that wholesome sex requires a conscious choice on the part of the human actor – if the act is to carry meaning. Catholic theology would go a step further and say that sexual intercourse can have a truly sacramental meaning only when it is a conscious, loving act performed within the covenant of Christian marriage. In this way, a merely human and natural act takes on a supernatural meaning.
To protect our understanding of marriage, the Ninth Commandment forbids any thoughts and desires, deliberately indulged in, that might lead to a violation of the Sixth Commandment. Our Lord certainly shared this view: Again, read His thoughts on lust in the Sermon on the Mount (see Mt 5:27-30). By setting this teaching of Jesus within the Sermon on the Mount, St. Matthew places before the Lord’s followers Christian chastity as an ideal worthy of emulation for those who would be perfect like our Heavenly Father (see Mt 5:48).
Many years back, President Jimmy Carter had the “sophisticates” of the nation howling for days when he confessed, in a self-revelatory moment, that he had “lusted” after other women. Pope John Paul II drew the scorn of the secular media when he said that a married person may not “lust” for his or her own spouse. Both men were using the word in its precise Christian meaning, whereby our sexual desire for another is pursued exclusively in terms of self-fulfillment and personal pleasure, so that even though two people are involved, the act of intercourse becomes essentially masturbatory. This has the effect of making others into mere objects for personal enjoyment. It’s an unsettling commentary on our sexual mores when a condemnation of lust results in the mockery and rejection of those who call for integrity in human relations.
It’s often been noted, with good reason, that while the Church’s sexual morality is completely right, her packaging of the message is pretty poor. Without agreeing in so many words, John Paul II launched himself on a two-year campaign to remedy the situation. Using his addresses at Wednesday audiences, the Pope dealt with a Christian “theology of the body,” demonstrating how Church teachings are grounded in the very best of Scripture, Tradition, psychology, phenomenology, personalism and sociology. As the priest-sociologist (and unfortunately, author of “soft-porn” novels!) Andrew Greeley observed, by reading these talks we encounter a Pope who has no fear of sex. Thanks to John Paul, that wholesome presentation of sexuality for more than two decades now has formed the curriculum in Catholic high schools around the country, as well as in marriage preparation programs.
One cannot pass through consideration of the Ninth Commandment without adverting to the contemporary epidemic of pornography. In times past, pornography chiefly afflicted adult men; in recent times, the plague has spread its contagion to adolescents (even children) and women. It is a veritable addiction, as any confessor can attest. It is not uncommon even for married couples to use the poison when they engage in marital relations (or worse, in order to engage in marital relations).
The drug of pornography gains its power through its visual dimension and drags its victims into a vortex. We are told that it is so pervasive in Japan that women complain about being unable to find men for sex since the men prefer their videos to live contact; it is also now a leading cause of divorce in the United States. Parents must be vigilant in placing blocks on the devices of their children (and their own), lest they fall prey to this allurement, which leads to all kinds of further perversions. Spiritual direction and psychological counseling should be sought when the first signs of addiction appear. An online organization like Covenant Eyesis credited with bringing many people out of this dark hole. The “supply chain” for pornography not infrequently comes from sex traffickers. Truth be told, both actors and viewers are victims – whether they know it or not.
From “Catholic guilt” to “Catholic appreciation”
Human sexuality and sexual activity are important matters which cannot be passed over in silence. That having been said, we must add that moderation and perspective in our judgment are needed as well. Sex is not the overriding issue in human life. Too often in the 1950s, Catholic young people got the impression that the only real sins were violations of the Sixth and Ninth Commandments. This, despite the fact that Jesus said some prostitutes would get into the kingdom before many others (see Mt 21:31). Now these cultural distortions have come back to haunt us as the so-called Catholic “hang-up” on sex. But St. Thomas Aquinas did teach that, while all sexual sins are serious at the objective level, subjective guilt can be diminished because of the presence of mitigating circumstances, especially the basic weakness of the flesh as shown in human passion or habit.
St. John Paul II wanted to move the Church from a feeling of “Catholic guilt” in regard to sex to “Catholic appreciation” for the divine gift of the body, the complementarity of the sexes, and the language of love. Ponder these stirring words spoken by him on January 16, 1980 as part of his Wednesday audience series:
The human body, oriented interiorly by the sincere gift of the person, reveals not only its masculinity or femininity on the physical plane, but reveals also such a value and such a beauty as to go beyond the purely physical dimension of sexuality. In this manner, awareness of the nuptial meaning of the body, connected with man’s masculinity-femininity, is in a way completed. On the one hand, this meaning indicates a particular capacity of expressing love, in which man becomes a gift. On the other hand, the capacity and deep availability for the affirmation of the person corresponds to it. This is, literally, the capacity of living the fact that the other – the woman for the man and the man for the woman– is, by means of the body, someone willed by the Creator for his or her own sake. The person is unique and unrepeatable, someone chosen by eternal Love.
That is the very insight which replaces guilt with appreciation – and indeed, reverence.
2392 “Love is the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being” (FC 11).
2393 By creating the human being man and woman, God gives personal dignity equally to the one and the other. Each of them, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity.
2394 Christ is the model of chastity. Every baptized person is called to lead a chaste life, each according to his particular state of life.
2395 Chastity means the integration of sexuality within the person. It includes an apprenticeship in self-mastery.
2396 Among the sins gravely contrary to chastity are masturbation, fornication, pornography, and homosexual practices.
2397 The covenant which spouses have freely entered into entails faithful love. It imposes on them the obligation to keep their marriage indissoluble.
2398 Fecundity is a good, a gift and an end of marriage. By giving life, spouses participate in God’s fatherhood.
2399 The regulation of births represents one of the aspects of responsible fatherhood and motherhood. Legitimate intentions on the part of the spouses do not justify recourse to morally unacceptable means (for example, direct sterilization or contraception).
2400 Adultery, divorce, polygamy, and free union are grave offenses against the dignity of marriage.
2528 “Everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (⇒ Mt 5:28).
2529 The ninth commandment warns against lust or carnal concupiscence.
2530 The struggle against carnal lust involves purifying the heart and practicing temperance.
2531 Purity of heart will enable us to see God: it enables us even now to see things according to God.
2532 Purification of the heart demands prayer, the practice of chastity, purity of intention and of vision.
2533 Purity of heart requires the modesty which is patience, decency, and discretion. Modesty protects the intimate center of the person.
Related at CWR:
• “God’s Law of Love: A Spirituality of the Ten Commandments (Part 1)” (Feb 23, 2021) by Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas
• “God’s Law of Love: A Spirituality of the Ten Commandments (Part 2)” (Mar 2, 2021) by Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas
• “God’s Law of Love: A Spirituality of the Ten Commandments (Part 3)” (March 10, 2021) by Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas
• “God’s Law of Love: A Spirituality of the Ten Commandments (Part 4)” (March 17, 2021) by Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas
1 It needs remarking that the Catechism consistently refers to “sex” or “sexuality,” and not “gender.” Gender is grammatical construct, whereas sex concerns a biological/natural reality.
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