Catholic Doctrine Regarding The Ten Commandments - History


The Ten Commandments are recognized as a moral foundation by Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They first appear in the Book of Exodus, according to which Moses, acting under the orders of God, freed the Israelites from physical slavery in Egypt. According to Church teaching, God offered a covenant—which included the Ten Commandments—to also free them from the "spiritual slavery" of sin. Some historians have described this as "the central event in the history of ancient Israel".

The coming of Jesus is seen by the Catholic Church as the fulfillment of the destiny of the Jews, who were chosen, according to Peter Kreeft, to "show the true God to the world". Jesus acknowledged the Commandments and instructed his followers to go further, requiring "more, not less: a 'righteousness (which) exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees'". Explaining Church teaching, Kreeft states, "The Commandments are to the moral order what the creation story in Genesis 1 is to the natural order. They are God's order conquering chaos. They are not man's ideas about God, but God's ideas about man." The Church teaches that Jesus freed people from keeping "the burdensome Jewish law (Torah or Mosaic Law) with its 613 distinct regulations not from the obligation to keep the Ten Commandments", because the Ten "were written 'with the finger of God', unlike written by Moses". This teaching was reaffirmed at the Council of Trent (1545–1563) and at the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965).

Although it is uncertain what role the Ten Commandments played in early Christian worship, evidence suggests they were recited during some services and used in Christian education. For example, the Commandments are included in one of the earliest Christian writings, known as the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles or the Didache. Scholars contend that the Commandments were highly regarded by the early Church as a summary of God's law. The Protestant scholar Klaus Bockmuehl believes that the Church replaced the Commandments with lists of virtues and vices, such as the seven deadly sins, from 400–1200. Other scholars contend that throughout Church history the Commandments have been used as an examination of conscience and that many theologians have written about them. While evidence exists that the Commandments were part of catechesis in monasteries and other venues, there was no official Church position to promote specific methods of religious instruction during the Middle Ages. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) was the first attempt to remedy this problem. Surviving evidence reveals that some bishops' efforts to implement the Council's resolutions included special emphasis on teaching the Commandments in their respective dioceses. Centuries later, the lack of instruction in them by some dioceses formed the basis of one of the criticisms launched against the Church by Protestant reformers.

Catechisms produced in specific dioceses from the mid-fourteenth century emphasized the Commandments and laid the foundation for the first official Church-wide catechism, the 1566 Roman Catechism. Commissioned by the Council of Trent, it provided "thorough discussions of each commandment" but gave greater emphasis to the seven sacraments to emphasize the Catholic belief that Christian life was dependent upon the grace solely obtained through the sacramental life provided by the Catholic Church. This emphasis conflicted with Protestant beliefs, which held the Commandments as the source of divine grace. While more recent papal encyclicals offer interpretations of Church teaching on individual commandments, throughout history official Church teachings on the Commandments are based on their mentions in the Old and New Testaments and the writings of the early Church Fathers Origen, Irenaeus and Augustine. Later, theologians Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure offered notable commentaries on the Commandments. Aquinas, a Doctor of the Church, considered them to be the "primary precepts of justice and all law, and natural reason gives immediate assent to them as being plainly evident principles."

The most recent Catechism of the Catholic Church—the official summary of Church beliefs—devotes a large section to the Commandments, which serve as the basis for Catholic social teaching. According to the Catechism, the Church has given them a predominant place in teaching the faith since the fifth century. Kreeft explains that the Church regards them as "a path of life", and a "path to freedom" just as a schoolyard fence protects children from "life-threatening dangers".

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