Do we Really Need Commandments?
By Fr Joe Babendreier
The other day I saw a book titled: The Lawless People of God. I was in a retreat center. The book was lying on a shelf near the chapel, obviously meant for spiritual reading. I thought: “What’s this book doing here?”
Saint Paul uses the term “lawless” to describe the Antichrist: “Then the Lawless One will appear and the Lord Jesus will slay him with the breath of his mouth” (2 Th 2:8). Some English translations use the phrase “Wicked One”. The original Greek uses the word “anomos”, literally meaning a lawless person.
I noticed that The Lawless People of God was written by Father Cormac Burke, who worked in Rome for many years during the days of Pope John Paul II. The priest now lives in Kenya, so I had a chance to ask him: “What do you mean when you talk about the ‘lawless people’ of God? What about the Law of God? Aren’t Christians supposed to obey the Ten Commandments?”
The priest said, “Many Christians are confused. They think each person should be free to construct his own belief system, taking what he wishes, omitting what he wishes, and still calling his beliefs Catholic.”
As the priest goes on to explain in the book, many Christians have been infected with this error, often without realizing it. They think that, to be happy, “each person must free himself from the yoke of an objective moral law—in other words, any law that he himself has not created or chosen. According to this view, each man is a law to himself.” Such people may think they are good Christians, but they are not. They are “lawless”.
Where did this attitude come from? Where did Christians get the strange idea that each person must decide what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil? Where did people get the idea that the Church has no right to tell anyone that some actions lead us towards God and some actions destroy our union with God?
Pope Benedict XVI called it the “dictatorship of relativism”. It’s a philosophy—a false philosophy—that assumes all is relative. It says there is no absolute truth. If there is no absolute truth, who am I to tell anyone: “This is good and that is evil”? In this philosophy, I determine for myself what I think is good and evil. Other people are also free to choose for themselves what they think is good and evil.
This philosophy is a “dictatorship” in the sense that it forbids people from saying in public that certain lifestyles are evil. I can be punished for declaring in public that abortion necessarily does harm to the woman has the abortion or that living a gay lifestyle necessarily does harm to the man who lives that way.
This is ridiculous. If someone insists that there is no absolute truth, a logical person will ask: “Are you absolutely sure there is no absolute truth?” That’s why people who follow the philosophy relativism end up contradicting themselves.
On one hand, they want me to refrain from saying: “I know with certainty that some actions always cause harm and are always evil.” They say I’m being intolerant because I am imposing my morality on others.
On the other hand, these same people do not hesitate to impose their morality on me. They do not hesitate to tell me what I can do and cannot do. They do not hesitate to tell me what is right and what is wrong. They do not hesitate to tell me that I am wrong, using the absurd argument that it is always wrong to tell others that they are wrong.
LAW IS A GIFT
God does not “impose” laws on us. Those who speak in his name—as the Church does indeed speak in his name—are not imposing laws. The attitude of God’s people towards law has always been the one we find in the Old Testament: “He reveals his word to Jacob, his statutes and judgements to Israel. For no other nation has he done this. No other nation has known his judgements” (Ps 147:19-20).
We are fortunate that God reveals the difference between good and evil. He is basically telling us: “Do this because it will make you happy (even though it’s hard to do), but avoid this because it will destroy you (even though you think you need it).”
In theory, each person should be able to use human intelligence to figure out what is good and what it evil. Some people do. This is why, after looking at God-fearing men and women who never heard of the Ten Commandments, St Paul said: “Pagans who never heard of the Law are led by reason to do what the Law commands” (Rom 2:14). Notice the phrase “led by reason”.
However, many easily get confused. Looking at today’s world, I would dare say that very many people are very confused. So, when God reveals that murder, adultery and stealing are wrong, he is helping us figure out what should be obvious.
WHY IS THE LAW FIXED?
For some people, the Ten Commandments seem designed to fill us with fear. It’s as if God is trying to control us and make life difficult. They have the false notion that God’s law reduces to traffic laws. Why does God tell us we have to drive on the right? Why can’t we drive on the left?
Some laws made by man are clearly arbitrary and therefore flexible. Driving on the right versus driving on the left is the classic example. It could be either one. It just can’t be both. It could change, but only if everybody changes at the same time.
Some laws are not flexible. They are based on nature. We call this set of laws “natural law”, for instance, the laws that forbid murder, rape and robbery. They are different from traffic laws or any other set of rules based on convention.
Natural law remains fixed. It is not flexible. If a government wants to protect its citizens, it must have laws that forbid murder, rape and theft. If a government gives murderers a right to murder and thieves a right to steal, that government is a disaster. It is doing harm to its citizens by making laws that contradict human nature.
No one has the right to kill an innocent person. This is written into our nature as human beings. Because of the way God created us in his image and likeness, all people, even the weakest, have a right to life. No earthly authority can take away that right—no government, no church and no individual; not even a father or mother, a brother or sister.
LIVING LIKE A VIRTUOSO
Instead of simply “obeying the law”, Christian are called to a different kind of life. It’s called a life of virtue. Virtue means acquiring the habit of doing something good. Perhaps the best way to explain this is to use the example of a virtuoso, like an expert in playing the violin.
Someone just beginning to play the violin will make many mistakes, struggling to make the music flow smoothly. No one will be impressed if a violinist insists: “I play better when I pay no attention to hitting the right notes.” The notes are not written on the page to keep a violinist from feeling free. They are there to help the violinist learn how to make good music.
Once a violinist learns how to play perfectly, after years of practice, the music is pleasant and perhaps inspiring. The violinist is doing something more than simply hit the right notes, more than simply avoiding mistakes. We call such a person a ‘virtuoso’. The musician still has to practice every day, and that takes effort. But during a performance, the audience has a sense that the music flows effortlessly.
Something similar is meant to happen in the life of a Christian. Initially, trying to be patient, trying to conquer laziness, trying to be pure of heart or trying to overcome pride feels like climbing up a cliff. But, after years of practice—being open to God’s grace—a Christian can practice virtue like a virtuoso. Patience, hard-work, chastity and humility become instinctive. Compared to the struggle endured in earlier years, living a virtuous life feels natural—almost effortless.
This what St Paul meant when he wrote these words to the Galatians: “When you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. When self-indulgence is at work the results are obvious: sexual vice, impurity, and sensuality, the worship of false gods and sorcery; antagonisms and rivalry, jealousy, bad temper and quarrels, disagreements, factions and malice, drunkenness, orgies and all such things. And about these, I tell you now as I have told you in the past, that people who behave in these ways will not inherit the kingdom of God. On the other hand, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control. No law can touch such things as these” (Gal 5:18-23).