We are apt to regard the Ten Commandments as rather a legalistic approach to morality, a list of “shalls” and “shall nots.” The authors of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, however, have taken great care to integrate the specific relevant virtues with each commandment, giving us a truly balanced understanding of the place of the commandment in the moral life. Jesus tells us clearly that the commandments are telling us that we must love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and mind, and we must love our neighbour as our self (Mt. 22: 37–40). St. Paul adds “Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13: 9–10). So the Catechism approaches each commandment positively, indicating the path of life we are to follow, before dealing with “offences” against it, which show us how to avoid the slavery of sin. Our freedom from this slavery of sin, is of course not something we can acquire or merit ourselves, but is a free gift of God’s grace; however our acceptance of that gift is to be a lived acceptance in faith and action.
In dealing with the Sixth Commandment: “You shall not commit adultery,” (Ex. 10: 14), the Catechism, in keeping with the tradition of the Church, understands this as encompassing the whole of human sexuality. Therefore, it begins by presenting the Christian vision of the person in “Male and Female He Created Them,” in order that we might not only know, but also understand the reasons for the Church’s teaching in this area. Following this, the virtue of chastity is expounded and its relevance explained, and the section concludes with a beautiful exposition on marriage. In each section, there is a positive presentation of the demands made by the commandment, followed by a look at the “offences” against it.
I. “Male and Female He Created Them…”
The presentation of the Christian vision of the person begins with God, as we have to understand who God has revealed himself to be, in order to understand the human person made in his image and likeness. That “God is love and in himself he lives a mystery of personal loving communion,” helps us to understand the true nature of love, and in turn, we can begin to see that the mystery of sexuality stems from the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. The human vocation to love is about the human vocation to be like God, to share in the life of the Trinity. The Trinity—God being three in one—is a mystery of unity in diversity.
Sexuality affects all aspects of the human person, who likewise is a unity in diversity of body and soul, and concerns the capacity to love and to procreate. Men and women should acknowledge and accept their sexual identity, as their physical, moral and spiritual differences and complementarities are ordered for the good of marriage and family life, and for society. Men and women have equal personal dignity, both being created in the image and likeness of God; both being images of the power and tenderness of God although in different ways. The marital union of man and woman imitates, in the flesh, the Creator’s generosity and fruitfulness.
II. The Vocation of Chastity
Having looked at our dignity and our sexuality in terms of our being created in the image and likeness of God, the Catechism looks in turn to our calling to chastity. This it defines as the successful integration of our sexuality within our person: “an inner unity of man in his body and spirit,” and a successful integration of our sexuality in being able to offer ourselves, as man and woman, in a complete and mutual lifelong gift of one to another.
Due to the fall, we no longer have mastery over ourselves. Our nature is wounded by our desires, which no longer correspond to what is good for us, that is sensual pleasures, greed and power. The option is clear: “either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy.” So endlessly seeking to fulfill our sexual desires, does not bring us peace, this only comes with order. We need to have self-discipline in sexual matters, which will restore the right order for our sexual desire to what is truly good. This is the “integration” referred to above. Our dignity requires us to act out of conscious and free choice, not by blind impulse or by mere external constraint. We must rid ourselves of all slavery to the passions and freely choose what is good, and secure for ourselves the means best suited to this end.
We need to use our sexuality to express truth rather than falsehood. Honesty in this area means maintaining, “the integrity of the powers of life and love placed in us.” In other words, sexual honesty means not deliberately acting against the two purposes of our sexuality, namely to express and communicate love and to pass on new life. To do otherwise would be to suppress the truth.
Only if we have self-mastery over our passions can we make a true gift of ourselves to another. The reason we have to make a gift of ourselves is that God is like this, his nature as self-gift is revealed to us in Jesus. To work for this self-mastery, this purity of heart, we need to practice asceticism to train our mind and body; that is, self–denial, fasting etc. We need also to observe the commandments, exercise growth in virtue, and resort to constant prayer. As married couples, we are called to conjugal chastity, expressing our vocation of mutual self–gift to one–another, in honesty and integrity.
Having extolled the beauty and desirability of chastity, the Catechism then looks at those things which “offend” against this virtue, that prevent us from living out the full meaning of self-gift; that is, maintaining the integrity of expressing and communicating love, and passing on new life.
Lust, masturbation, fornication, pornography, prostitution, rape, and homosexual acts, all exclude this true gift of self. They all contribute to the disorder in our lives, and they prevent us from growing in chastity. The desire for pleasure replaces the gift of self, and becomes the purpose of the action.
III. The Love of Husband and Wife
The Catechism again makes a very positive approach in this section. It gives first, a very beautiful exposition of the nature of marriage, before it draws attention to what “offends” against the goodness of marriage.
Three essential points are made concerning marriage. Firstly, that it is good, and that sex within marriage is likewise good and should be a source of joy and pleasure. The Church speaks about this with a language of great dignity, saying that sex within marriage is noble and honourable. Secondly, the Church understands sexuality to be an integral part of the sacramental nature of marriage. “It concerns the innermost being of the human person” (Familiaris consortio), so it is a sign and pledge of spiritual communion, the couple’s spiritual life is at stake. Sex is holy, and holy things must be treated with reverence. Thirdly, the Church wants us to understand that the good of a couple and the good of a family are inseparable. That is saying that the two goods of marriage, the good of the spouses themselves and the transmission of life are two inseparable purposes of marriage from which the goodness of sex within marriage springs. The Catechism examines these two purposes, in more detail, in turn.
Marriage is for the good of the spouses, an “intimate partnership of life and love established by the Creator and governed by his laws.” It is natural and as such is not a specific Christian reality. Christ has however made it sacramental. Marriage is rooted in an irrevocable, free, personal consent of a man and woman, who marry themselves to one another as ministers of the sacrament. Included in this, is an irrevocable life long commitment between the spouses, an unbreakable bond, in which marriage becomes a living state. “The couple are no longer two; from now on they form one flesh. The covenant freely contracted between them imposes on the spouses the obligation to preserve it as unique and indissoluble.” The spouses through adultery, contraceptive intercourse, abortion etc, can violate the good of this marital unity, but cannot destroy it. Faithfulness is called for in marriage, because in sharing this sacrament, the spouses share, and should reflect, Christ’s faithfulness towards the Church, and witness to this in their own faithfulness.
Married love should be a reflection of God’s love, and God’s love is perfect love and that means perfect self-gift. From this conjugal love, of self-gift to one another, springs forth fruitfulness. Love and life are inseparable, because they are inseparable in God, and we are made in that image and likeness.
The Catechism explores this second good of marriage, the transmission of life, which is the “fruit” and “fulfilment” of the first good of marriage that is love. As it beautifully puts it: “A child does not come from outside as something added on to the mutual love of the spouses, but springs from the very heart of that mutual giving, as its fruit and fulfilment.” The child, in other words, is the incarnation of the love the parents have for one another; to oppose the coming into existence of a child, to act against it, is to act against the love of the couple itself. In Humanae Vitae it says, “God has entrusted spouses with the extremely important mission of transmitting human life. In fulfilling this mission spouses freely and deliberately render a service to God, the Creator.” Couples should not, therefore, avoid taking on this mission unless for extremely serious reasons, for to do so would be to act immorally. However, the Church teaches that couples may need to space the births of their children, but the family size, it emphasises, must be a decision of the parents based on seeking God’s will through prayer. So “periodic continence,” that is natural family planning, is permissible to help achieve this.
The Catechism then explains the differences between natural family planning, which is permissible, and artificial contraception, which is not; although the motives for each may be the same, it is the means by which these are achieved which is important; it is never permissible “to do evil so that good might result, not even for the most serious reasons” (Humanae Vitae). Three related arguments are presented to show that artificial contraception is wrong: there is the need to respect God’s dominion over life, to recognise that family planning is for the whole person, and to preserve the full meaning of the conjugal act. Natural Family Planning satisfies all three arguments.
In looking at the “goods” of marriage, the Catechism points out that: “a child is not something owed to one, but is a gift.” In other words, the child is not an object to which one has a right, nor can it be considered as an object of ownership. A child is truly a gratuitous gift of marriage.
This section of the Catechism finishes with a look at the offences committed against the dignity of marriage: adultery, divorce, polygamy, incest, free unions and trial marriages. These all involve attacks against one or more of the goods of marriage. They either break the sacramental sign, involve injustice against the spouse or children, deny the equal dignity of the spouses, betray or make impossible the free donation of total self-gift to the spouse, or undermine the very institution which God has established.
A prayerful reading of the Sixth Commandment in the Catechism is a very rewarding, worthwhile and positive look at marriage and sexuality. It should be read alongside the section on “The Sacrament of Matrimony” (CCC §1601-§1666).