10 or 10,000 Commandments?

Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent, Year B.

When I was growing up, the Catholic Church was frequently stereotyped as being a Church of rules and commandments. Now that I’m older, and hopefully wiser, I realize that the Catholic Church actually has far fewer rules and commandments than the rest of the world. In fact, if you were to open up the Catechism of the Catholic Church, you’d realize that basically the entire moral teaching of the Catholic Church can be summarized by, and categorized under, the Ten Commandments. Basically, only ten rules govern our moral lives as Catholics. These rules can be memorized quite easily, and they never change.

Now we may be tempted to say that 10 rules is still 10 too many. “No one tells me to do, not even the Catholic Church. I was born free, and I will die free.” But the alternative to living by these ten rules is actually far more restrictive. Instead of limiting our freedom, the Ten Commandments actually help to preserve it. “If men will not be governed by the Ten Commandments,” G.K. Chesterton once said, “they shall be governed by the ten thousand commandments.”

The Catholic Church has only one rule which commands us to tell the truth: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” The modern world has a thousand rules about what we can and cannot say: at work, at school, in books, and on the internet. One rule commanding truthful speech is far less burdensome than the tyranny of a thousand rules which can never be memorized, and which change every day.

The Catholic Church has one rule commanding us to use our sexuality in a rightly ordered way: “You shall not commit adultery.” The modern world has a thousand rules about what is and is not acceptable in the realm of gender and sexuality. The Catholic Church has one rule commanding us to respect the dignity of human life: “You shall not kill.” The modern world has a thousand rules about what lives are and are not worthy of our respect. Once again, these rules can never be memorized, and they change every day.

I could go on, but the point is obviously clear: Far from restricting our freedom, the Catholic Church and its moral teaching on the Ten Commandments are the last and best defense against the tyranny of living under 10,000 commandments—and commandments, moreover, which we can never memorize, and which change every day.

I know what kind of world I want to live in. I want to live in world that is governed by the Ten Commandments. But if I want to live in that world, I need to follow these ten rules. My own failure to follow them has contributed to the mess we are in today. These rules are not burdensome, and they are not restrictive. They are liberating: “I, the LORD, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery. You shall not have other gods besides me.” God gives us these rules in the context of liberating His people from slavery. If I want to remain a slave to sin, if I want to be a slave to ten thousand commandments, then I should ignore these rules. But if I want to be set free from slavery to sin, if I want to live in the freedom of the children of God, then I should follow them.

My challenge to all of us this week is this: Pick one of the Ten Commandments and look up what the Catholic Church teaches about it in the Catechism. If you don’t own a hard copy of the Catechism, you can find an electronic copy online. Let’s all work this Lent at doing a better job of following these ten rules. If we do so, we will find the kind of freedom we so desperately long for, and we will contribute in a meaningful way to building a better and freer world. Amen.