"You don't want to go back to that, do you?" said the lady surprised. Back to what?
Well, I had just (foolishly) mentioned the Ten Commandments. That was about the time an American survey found that only 13% of people there still believed in the Ten Commandments.
Like so many others over the last 40 years, the lady I mentioned thought the Commandments were too negative. Most of them begin with
"Thou Shalt Not......" Negative? Well, think about this. How often do parents say "Thou shalt not, " in other words say "no" to their children so they won't hurt themselves? "Don't climb up there!" "Don't touch that hot stove!" and so on.
What we are actually saying to our children is "Restrain yourself!" That is what the Commandments are all about - restraining ourselves from things that harm us. Is that negative? Try telling the policeman who has pulled us up for speeding that he is being negative.
It is worth thinking about how many problems we would NOT have in modern society if everyone restrained themselves. From speeding, for example. Or drinking and driving. What would that restraint do to the road toll? Or if would-be drug users restrained themselves from starting on drugs in the first place. Or if people restrained themselves from sex out side marriage. There would be many fewer marriage breakdowns, abortions and heartbreak. From reacting violently. Fewer muggings and murders.
Maybe even fewer police would be needed, and much less public spending on trying (often in vain) to put right what should not have gone wrong in the first place.
You get the idea? Of course, people have always broken the Ten Commandments since Moses came down from Mount Sinai with them. But somehow, breaking them now seems to be the rule rather than the exception. How come?
Well, the last 40 years or so have seen an outbreak of "do your own thing" in the name of freedom, self-assertion, choice, independece, etc, etc. Our schools, in particular are widespread with "self expression" (and consequently, disorder). Our parishes have not escaped this either. In this situation, is it too idealistic to expect people to take any notice of the Ten Commandments? Let alone to accept any suggestion of restraint?
The irony is that the Commandments are actually all about freedom. They are God's agreement to freedom, because restraint is really what gives us freedom in our lives. If we keep to the road rules, we are free to come and go safely, for example, (as long as the other person does, too). A horse, or any animal, is not much use unless it is restrained.
Back in 1985, the then Cardinal, Ratzinger wrote, referring to soccer, the following:
"The fascination with soccer lies essentially in that it forces a man to discipline himself, such that, through training, he acquires dominion over himself. Through dominion, he achieves superiority. And through superiority, freedom. Soccer teaches us to play a fair game in which the common rules of play are the source of what binds and unites all players, even when they face each other as adversaries."
The trouble is that, because of our fallen, bent human nature, we can have a bent view of freedom, thinking it means we can do what we like. And there are plenty of attractive things out there that we want to do. So what is the answer? Actually, it is there in the commandments as summed up by Our Lord.
In the first Commandment - first because it is the most important, and by the way, it is not one of the "negative" ones - God tells us, commands us, to love Him with all our heart and mind and strength. Why? Because He loves us and wants us to love Him in return. Looking at the Commandments as the instructions of a loving Father, we can begin to see the Commandments are not "negative" at all. But to see them this way, we need to love God. The Holy Father has been emphasizing this recently as the basic source of true human life and conduct, and showing us that we can find this love in the face of Jesus. There we find true sacrificial love.
There is nothing like a love in ordinary human behavior to induce restraint - a restraint that is lovingly embraced. In marriage, for example, as in the priesthood. No amount of laws and regulations, fines, inquiries, welfare organizations, rehabilitation centers and all the rest of society's responses to the downward moral spiral will accomplish much at all. The Church can not transform society overnight, but it can transform society. It has done it before, and it is doing it today in some areas, notably Africa. It does it by making individual people holy, one by one, by bringing them to see the face of Jesus Crucified.
Too often, unfortunately, we tend to put the Second Commandment "Love Thy neighbor as thyself" first and concentrate on helping others in the name of "social justice". But if we put the First Commandment first, the Second will flow from it in love, and the world will see how these Christians love one another - and everyone else!
Fr. P. Macleod.