16th Friday in Ordinary Time
Alfred North Whitehead famously opined that “Religion is what a man does with his solitude”. That view seems to have influenced a series of Supreme Court decisions confining religion to the private sphere, and leading to what Fr Richard John Neuhaus used to call “the naked public square”. The Ten Commandments are fine for your private lives, we are told, but don’t try and impose them on the public.
The Almighty begs to differ. Indeed, he seems to have taken great pains (if He will pardon the expression) to reveal that morality is a very public thing. Here’s the passage immediately preceding the Ten Commandments, which we heard at yesterday‘s Mass: On the morning of the third day there were peals of thunder and lightning, and a heavy cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled…Mount Sinai was all wrapped in smoke, for the Lord came down upon it in fire…and the whole mountain trembled violently. The trumpet blast grew louder and louder, while Moses was speaking and God answering him with thunder. The impression given is that what follows is not meant for private consumption.
On the contrary, the Ten Commandments are a summary of the moral order ordained by God and governing all behavior, public and private. These ten thoughts are at the heart of civilized behavior; they form the basis for society. Without them, we are doomed to an uncivilized, anything-goes existence. The Ten Commandments are intended to govern our behavior at all times. There is no difference between public and private actions; they are all of the same piece.
Of course, all men and women are fallible. Mere mortals make mistakes, take wrongful actions, commit sins. The seed of God’s word may fall on rocky ground or among thorns. But the adult process of character building, taking personal responsibility for our mistakes and then accepting the consequences, requires an admission of bad behavior and a serious effort to change it.
The one who receives the seed in rich soil is the one who hears the word and honestly admits that he has sinned, sincerely prays for help, and commits himself to a clearly prescribed process of spiritual transformation: what monks call “continuous conversion”. Those who transgress the moral order do great harm not only to themselves but to others.
As for those Ten Commandments, the sooner we post them in public places, the sooner we can help bring the nation back to the moral vision of the Founding Fathers.