Saturday, March 03, 2018

The Ten Commandments and the Natural Law—18 Years Later

Moses with the Ten Commandments on the Supreme Court Building in Washington, DC.

(Third Sunday of Lent (B): This homily was given on March 3, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Exodus 20: 1-17; Psalm 19: 8-11; 1 Corinthians 1: 22-25; John 2: 13-25.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Third Sunday of Lent 2018]

What am I?  (Try to answer that question for yourself as you listen to this …)

Chances are you’ve never even heard of me, but I’ve been around since the dawn of creation.  I first dwelt in Adam and Eve, and since then I’ve been engraved in the soul of each human person—although not everyone has followed my dictates.  Amazingly, nearly everybody believed in me until a few hundred years ago.  The Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle certainly did; so did Cicero, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.  Thomas Jefferson even began the Declaration of Independence by making a reference to some of my truths.  So, as you can see, it’s not only Christians who have followed my precepts over the years.  Pagans, Deists, and many others of various cultures and religious backgrounds have recognized my existence and wisely given me a hearing.  And I’ve responded by giving them guidance, order, and peace.  But please take note: nowadays, if you wish to be considered politically correct, you’d be well advised either to ridicule me, or to ignore me completely.  Learn from the experience of Clarence Thomas.  In 1991, he was nominated by President George Bush to serve on your Supreme Court.  Earlier in his legal career, Judge Thomas had publicly expressed great esteem for me.  A fatal mistake, according to some of your liberal senators.  They attacked him viciously for this during his senate confirmation hearings, and he was nearly rejected.  Believe it or not, I was almost as troublesome for him as Anita Hill!  And yet, my friends, if you and your culture want to survive, you had better start listening to me, because I’m your only hope!  Without me, you each become your own ruler, and that’s the formula for anarchy and disaster.  You’re already seeing the consequences of leaving me out of your lives.  Why do you think there’s so much violence in your society?  Why are your young people senselessly killing one another with growing frequency?  It’s because they’ve been taught to reject me!  It’s because they’re consciously ignoring one of my most important precepts!

So—what am I?

I’m the “natural law.” 

The natural law is the law of God which a person can discern by human reason alone, apart from any special revelation from the Lord.  Until a few hundred years ago, almost everyone believed in it (at least implicitly), but now very few do.  Thomas Jefferson was referring to this law when he wrote the now famous line: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  Jefferson said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident”—in other words, “These truths should be clear to anyone who is thinking properly: the truth that all people are created equal, and that they have certain rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  These truths are not known because they’ve been revealed by a particular religion.  They are, in a certain sense, written on the heart of every human person.  Thus, even pagans who are using their faculty of reason properly will admit that these things are true.  They will also tell you that killing and stealing and coveting your neighbor’s wife are wrong.” 

This should help us to understand why the Founding Fathers of our country—who believed in the separation of Church and state—had no problem with teaching the Ten Commandments in public schools and displaying them in public places.  They rightly understood that the Ten Commandments did not promote the establishment of any particular religion; they were simply the expression of some of the primary tenets of the natural law!  This, by the way, is precisely what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us in paragraph 1955: “The natural law states the first and essential precepts which govern the moral life. . . . Its principal precepts are expressed in the Decalogue [i.e., the Ten Commandments].”

This means that it would have been possible to figure out the Ten Commandments, even if God had never formally given them to Moses on Mt. Sinai.  Let me now demonstrate this to you, by showing the rational basis of the Decalogue.  The first commandment, as we heard a few moments ago in that text from Exodus 20, is this: “I, the Lord, am your God . . . You shall not have other gods besides me.”  The existence of God (the fact upon which this commandment is based) can be discerned by reason alone.  You don’t need the Bible, or any special revelation from the Lord to figure out that he exists.  Just by looking around at the world, people over the centuries have come to the reasonable conclusion that there’s a Supreme Intelligence behind it all.  In this regard, the writer of the Book of Wisdom said that God’s creation is like a great work of art, and that only a foolish person would fail to see a great Artist behind it.  Listen to Wisdom 13:1—“For all men were by nature foolish, who were in ignorance of God, and who from the good things seen did not succeed in knowing him who is, and from studying the works did not discern the artisan.”  St. Paul said something very similar in Romans 1:20—“Since the creation of the world, invisible realities, God’s eternal power and divinity, have become visible, recognized through the things he made.”

So God’s existence can be established by reason alone.  And once his existence is recognized, my brothers and sisters, certain things reasonably follow: he should be worshipped, and all false gods must be rejected (commandment #1).  His name should be honored and not used rashly in oaths or spoken as a curse word (commandment #2).  If God exists, and he is the source of all we have and are, then it’s reasonable to set aside one day a week to praise, worship and thank him in a special way (commandment #3).  If God is our ultimate authority, he is to be respected as such, and so are all those human beings who share in his authority [e.g., parents, clergy, civil officials, teachers and employers] (commandment #4).  If God is the creator of every human person, then it is wrong to rob an innocent human being of the life which God gave him as a gift (commandment #5).  It’s also wrong to take things from others which don’t belong to you (commandment #7) or to misrepresent the truth (commandment #8).  If God has designed the sexual act to be an expression of total self-giving and for the continuation of the human race (two facts which can be discerned by reason alone), then it’s wrong for such activity to take place outside of a permanent, exclusive, lifelong marital relationship (commandment #6).  Consequently, it’s also wrong to want to sever a marital relationship to satisfy your own disordered sexual desires (commandment #9).  And since stealing from others is wrong, so is cultivating the desire to have what doesn’t belong to you (commandment #10).

You know what the sad irony is, my brothers and sisters?  What I just said to you about the rational basis of the Decalogue would make more sense to some ancient, pagan philosophers than it would to many contemporary Christians!  That’s how far our culture has distanced itself from the natural law.  One of the obvious challenges we will face in the new millennium is the challenge to bring this idea back, and to help others understand it properly.  Because without an acceptance of the natural law, we have no common basis of morality; consequently, the culture of death will continue to grow in our midst.  Incidents like the tragedy at Columbine High School will happen with ever-greater frequency. 

Now before I close today I’ll share with you a little secret.  The homily you just heard—this homily on the natural law and the Ten Commandments that I just preached to you—was not prepared by me during this past week.  I prepared this homily and I gave this homily from this very pulpit 18 YEARS AGO—in the year 2000!  When I came across it on my computer a few weeks ago—just a few days after the Parkland, Florida school shooting—I said, “My goodness!  How I wish I had been wrong!  How I wish I had been wrong about the terrible consequences that come from rejecting the natural law and the Ten Commandments.”

But I wasn’t wrong.

And the sad reality is that our culture, morally speaking, has decayed even further in the last 18 years!  Think about it: things like gay marriage, and the normalization of homosexuality and transgenderism—those things weren’t even on the radar screen back in the year 2000.

Can our culture be saved from total collapse at this point?  Of course it can.  But it ain’t gonna happen with a magic wand!  For our culture to be saved, people like us need to believe in the Ten Commandments, and live the Ten Commandments, and teach others the Ten Commandments—and the natural law.  We need to bring back the truth.

If enough people do that, then the good news is that 18 years from now (if I’m still around) I’ll be able to give another homily on the natural law and the Ten Commandments with a much happier ending.