The Ten Commandments (in Polish)

The seventh graders I teach Confirmation classes to every Saturday morning finished their test on the Ten Commandments last week (though a few will be doing retakes!).  As I graded lists of the Ten Commandments, two things came to mind.  The first was a question an agnostic friend posed to me a few years ago:  how useful are the Ten Commandments, really?  Can morality be boiled down to ten rules?

The second was a film—or more precisely, a series of films—I watched at the end of last semester, Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue (1989).  If you haven’t seen The Decalogue, add it to the list—along with the Brideshead Revisited miniseries—of really long films you really must see.

The Decalogue is a series of ten short films, each of which relates thematically in some way to one of the Ten Commandments.  Actually, most of the films relate to more than one of the Commandments, and their way of relating is never quite the same in each case.  In some—for example, murder—the crime at the center is obvious, the clear axis of the plot.  For others—like blasphemy—when exactly (and how many times and in what way) the Commandment is violated is open to interpretation.  In Decalogue VII we are left wondering who is stealing from whom.

Each of the films is only about an hour long, but the characters in every story are powerfully and memorably portrayed.  The main characters in each film are different, but some characters reappear in later films with bit parts.  All of the films involve the residents of a rather nondescript Warsaw apartment complex.  The architecture is gray—the flower of late-Communist aesthetics—but the visual details Kieslowski shows us are stark and haunting:  a partially-finished church, a car abandoned in the middle of a snowy square, the shattered glass of a broken door.  There are bits of humor and poignant losses; the films are, in short, remarkably human.

The Decalogue is anything but a series of morality plays, and Kieslowski himself was a man of ambiguous religious beliefs.  Each of the films asks more questions than it answers, and each could be analyzed for hours.  But The Decalogue does, I think, begin to answer my agnostic friend’s question.

In his introduction to the series, Roger Ebert said that The Decalogue portrays the Commandments not so much as a rulebook but as an art, and I think he’s on to something.  In life we don’t often face one of the Commandment in isolation, and we never face them in an abstract way outside of our living relationship with God and with each other.  To give just one example, the first Commandment—to honor God above all else—undergirds all the other nine, and it is impossible to honor God apart from the concrete moral norms these latter nine set out.

And while many of the Commandments are framed as prohibitions—thou shall not—taken as a whole they are an invitation into a way of life with God at its center and harmony among men.  The Commandments are the canvas and the easel for the art of being human.

There are a lot of colors on that canvas.  Black and white to be sure—for in life we do encounter evil, as well as God’s pure goodness.  But this goodness illuminates a whole spectrum of colors, individual and beautiful, blending into one another.  We live among these colors, among this art.  I think I told my agnostic friend that each of the Ten Commandments covers rather a lot of territory when understood correctly.  I should have recommended The Decalogue as a demonstration of just what a beautiful mess striving to follow those ten rules can be.

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7 Responses to The Ten Commandments (in Polish)

  1. Qualis Rex says:

    Excellent post, Anthony. I think as Christians, the answer to “can morality be boiled down to 10 rules?” is resoundingly: no. Our Lord said specifically when He walked among us to “keep the commandments”, but when pressed, He gave one more: the “golden rule”.

    My personal, humble and totally unsubstantiated opinion on the 10 commandments is that I believe they were in effect necessary to encapsulate morality for the Israelites “on the move” from Egypt to wherever they were going. Meaning, they addressed the biggest problems arising from that group at that time and provided structure and authority to prevent the breakdown of that fledgeling/evolving society.

    Does that mean they are now irrelevant relevant? Absolutely not, since Our Lord told us specifically they were (are) very relevant. But while they have a kind of historical sentimental significance, they are simply not the cornerstone of our morality and faith as Christians, specifically now that we have the new covenant.

    Once again, I’ll turn it back to you as the expert on this though.

  2. Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

    Thanks, Qualis. I think you make a valid point: calling the commandments themselves the “cornerstone” is probably going a bit too far. But maybe “framework” would be better? That seems to be how the Catechism uses them, and I think they retain their real catechetical usefulness in giving us a kind of outline in which to discuss the Church’s moral teachings. We have to be understanding them broadly in order for this to work, and it’s probably valuable to flesh out what sort of positive virtues stand behind the prohibitions. So for example, underlying “thou shall not kill” is a notion of the value of human life, human dignity, etc. I guess here I’m probably thinking more as a catechist than as a systematic or moral theologian.

    Pointing to the New Testament, as you rightly do, makes us look at the Lord’s positive commands to love God with all our heart, mind, and soul and to love our neighbor as ourselves. In Veritatis Splendor (#52) JPII made, what I think is an interesting point, namely that there is no upper limit to these commandments. The negative precepts of the law (negative in the sense of prohibiting) give us a kind of bottom floor we can’t fall below, but the positive precepts are limitless. Keeping this limit/limitless dynamic in mind, I think, shows how living in obedience to the commandments can be a really creative act. It’s not just saying “no” to bad behavior, but there is room for real human growth and striving in Christian morality too. When I taught the fine young gentlemen of Marquette High a few years ago, this was a theme I tried to convey in class — that being obedient to God doesn’t mean a negation of freedom and creativity.

    That’s probably not an expert opinion (unless teaching 7th graders qualifies one as an expert). It would be interesting to know what frameworks other than the 10 Commandments have been effective in terms of presenting Catholic moral teaching…

    • Henry says:

      Anthony,

      Krzysztof Kieslowski is a great director and I encourage you to continue to use film with your students – it’s a great way to catechize.

      I am provoked by the last sentence in your post and so I will offer a quick reply. I catechize adults and when I am teaching them about Catholic moral teaching I always link it to the desire for wholeness and healing. For example, when I talk about the 5th commandment, which encourages us to take care of our health, I always ask them a simple question: If you cut off your arm, would you say, “Oh look, I violated the 5th commandment!” They say, of course not! And I ask them, what would you say, or better, what would a child say: “I hurt myself.” I then point out the link between the commandment and the self, and the heart’s desire for wholeness (i.e., healing), etc.

      I realize that this may not be the most theologically profound way of explaining the beauty of our moral teaching but I find that it eliminates the shackles of moralism that we are tempted to embrace when teaching this subject. Sorry if this doesn’t make sense but it’s late.

      Lastly, these sentences are stunning: “Keeping this limit/limitless dynamic in mind, I think, shows how living in obedience to the commandments can be a really creative act. It’s not just saying “no” to bad behavior, but there is room for real human growth and striving in Christian morality too.”

      Pax,

      Henry

  3. Qualis Rex says:

    Anthony,

    thanks for your response. Sometimes my English is lacking and I have trouble forming cohesive analogies, so I REALLY like your substitution of “Framework” rather than cornerstone. That works quite well : )

    After reading Henry’s post (well done!) a thought came to mind; while we as Christians are certainly grafted into the vine of Judaism via the OT, I believe Jesus’ message and example radically shifts the paradigm of the 10 Commandments and morality as was known at the time. For instance, in the stories of the woman caught in adultery and Jesus and the apostles working on the Sabath, when confronted, Jesus’ response was in essence “Yes, I know the commandment in question…I gave it to you. You missed the point.” Meaning, in both these cases, there was a distinct notion at the time of commandment = law and breaking it = punishment. Jesus now shifts this paradigm to show that yes, these commandments are still valid, but their adherence is between the individual and God– we as a society should not go around policing them like taliban.

    So, this framework (thanks again : ) of the 10 commandments, plus Jesus’ new commandments (thanks Henry) are half of the morality equation. The other half is how we enforce the morality or try and influence others to do so. And we as Christians (true Christians…not talking sects here) do not stone people to death for not adhering to our morality.

  4. Ellen says:

    I home schooled 7 of my 8 children for about 25 years and now the last two are attending a local Catholic high school for a year preparatory to applying for university. I always taught my children that the first 3 of the Commandments specify how we are to live the Commandment to love God and the remainder give us specific instructions on how we are to put into effect our love of neighbour. The Church has fleshed out the Commandments by giving more depth to increase our understanding so that we know what is forbidden, but also what is positively commanded. The Church teaches that some of the Commandments should be incorporated into the laws of the State, e.g. the Command not to murder, but that it is prudent that some should not, e.g. the Command to worship God. Obviously, the State must punish murderers but it is equally obvious that the State should not punish people for not going to church. However, the Church also teaches that the punishment should fit the crime, should be proportionate to the best of our ability. So while the Church would not suggest that stoning is an appropriate punishment for adultery, the Church does teach that adultery is a sin against justice and that it hurts the family which is foundational to a healthy society. So it would seem there should be some form of “punishment” in the form of social sanctions at least. This is not “our morality”, this is objectively true. Now that my children are in a Catholic high school they are seeing first-hand the huge problems caused by not knowing and understanding the Church’s teachings about morality. There is widespread ignorance of the Catholic Faith not only amongst the students, but also with most of the teachers. I left school when I was 16 years of age and, obviously, never went to university. Yet with the help of a Catholic Home School program (Seton) and my own reading I have been able to teach the Faith (not necessarily pass it on, but that’s another story). I say this not to boast, but to show that if I can do it, anyone can with the help of God’s grace.

  5. Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

    Henry, Qualis, Ellen, thanks for your great comments and insights. Qualis’ basic insight that we have to view the OT Commandments and law through the prism of Christian love is right on. My own sense is that this means a deepening of what the Commandments mean, and the challenge to interpret them all as coming out of, and leading back to, love. I think Henry’s idea of “wholeness” is also right on — think of Irenaeus’ maxim “The glory of God is man fully alive.”

    The question also of how society and the state should “enforce” or at least reflect the Commandments is a very, very interesting one. I would throw out two ideas — not to resolve the issue, but to muddy the waters a bit more: first, once we start talking about civil legislation, especially in a secular society, do we have to shift from talking about the Commandments to talking about the natural law?

    And the second is this idea, which I think can be traced back at least to Aquinas and pops up a few times in papal encyclicals in the 20th century: the law is a teacher. In other words, any sort of law, civil or otherwise, plays a role in shaping how people think about morality. This is perhaps more an empirical observation than a theological principle, but I think there’s quite a bit of truth to it. If you accept it as valid, how might this change the equation in terms of what falls under the category of civil law?

    As an aside, it’s also encouraging, Henry and Ellen, to hear of your efforts to pass on the faith to others — no easy task today!

    • Henry says:

      Thanks for the encouragement Anthony – please pray that I can be a conduit of Christ’s magnetizing Beauty when I catechize.

      Regarding your questions, here are some off the cuff replies:

      1. Once we start talking about civil legislation, especially in a secular society, do we have to shift from talking about the Commandments to talking about the natural law? Hmm…maybe but the way the question is posed seems to imply that they are opposed to each other and that they prevent the authentic development and enhancement of the human person and I don’t think that’s true. So it’s not an either/or but rather a both/and situation. In fact, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states the following about the Ten Commandments: “They ‘teach us the true humanity of man. They bring to light the essential duties, and therefore, indirectly, the fundamental rights inherent in the nature of the human person’”.

      2. In other words, any sort of law, civil or otherwise, plays a role in shaping how people think about morality. This is perhaps more an empirical observation than a theological principle, but I think there’s quite a bit of truth to it. If you accept it as valid, how might this change the equation in terms of what falls under the category of civil law? Your observation is extremely valid and your assertion is so true! To further muddy the waters, I offer the text of a talk that my friend gave – “Faith and Politics, do they mix?” – as an answer. The talk can be found here: http://www.crossroadsnyc.com/files/Albacete_Faith_Politics.pdf

      Pax,

      Henry

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