This is mostly intended to be a bit of a record…
At the RCIA meeting last night, the topic of discussion was the ten commandments. Now, you’d think they’re pretty straight-forward, but, of course, the consequences of straight-forward commandments are pretty complicated. Here’s just what caught my attention:
From the first commandment, the This is Our Faith book talks about many things, including a reference to simony, as a sub-category of irreligion. Now, like me, you’re probably wondering what simony is. According to Apple’s dictionary, it is:
The buying or selling of ecclesiastical privileges, for example pardons or benefices.
Which is about the same as the brief definition given in that book. Summary: selling indulgences is A SIN. Good call, Martin Luthor!
Next up: taking the Lord’s name in vain. Now, what I found interesting about this is the varying interpretations of what that exactly means. I mean, the Lord’s name, strictly speaking, is Yahweh, not “Lord”. Actually, I suppose, the Lord’s name is also Jesus Christ, though to some extent that’s the name Mary gave him, not the name that is his inherently. So, does just saying “oh, God!” when surprised, frustrated, or whatever qualify? Probably not—-that’s taking the Lord’s title in vain. Essentially, like the difference between “George W. Bush” and “Mr. President”. Another question: what does it mean to take it in vain? I mean, if you’re shouting it in surprise or in glee, is that in vain? Next question: why is it phrased taking the Lord’s name? I don’t know that saying something has ever been referred to as “taking” in any other context. On the contrary, when we say “he took my name”, we generally mean that he assumed my name, and called himself by my name. This makes more sense as a commandment: don’t call your children God or Yahweh, because that name is reserved and your taking the name would be in vain because you are not God.
So why do we think of “taking” the Lord’s name in vain as using it as an exclamation?
The “This is Our Faith” book also describes failure to attend Sunday mass as mortally sinful. This seems interesting, and prompts the question: what is the difference between regular sin and mortal sin? According to Fr. Bill, regular sin weakens your relationship with God while mortal sin destroys it. Next question: does skipping mass on Sunday once destroy your relationship with God? Not going ever, that may be more of a mortal sin, but skipping for whatever reason? Hardly seems mortally sinful.
On the other hand, we have the fabulous example (and I use the term sarcastically) of megachurches, nationwide, deciding not to hold services on Christmas (Fort Wayne, IN and Miami, FL and Des Moines, IA and Kentucky and Texas to name a few). Yeah, that makes lots of sense.
An interesting note about some of the Laws of Moses: remember the whole eye-for-an-eye thing in there that seems kinda barbaric and unmerciful? Something to think about is that at the time, common practice was that if you poked out my eye I’d poke out six of your kinsmen’s eyes (minimum). In that framework it was shockingly merciful, and we’ve merely progressed as a society towards more and more mercy.
Anyway, the fifth commandment was, as always, a fun one. First up: abortion. Now, this is just a minor quibble with the This is Our Faith book, but it claims that Christians have always believed that personhood begins at conception and that killing a fertilized egg or an embryo or a fetus has always been considered murder. This is totally not true, as can be discovered by reading a little of Saint Augustine’s works. Specifically, he references Exodus 21:22-25:
When men have a fight and hurt a pregnant woman, so that she suffers a miscarriage, but no further injury, the guilty one shall be fined as much as the woman’s husband demands of him, and he shall pay in the presence of the judges.
But if injury ensues, you shall give life for life,
eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,
burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
And points out that the life within the woman is worth merely a fine, while the penalty for any injury to the woman is far more severe, indicating that the unborn child is not worth as much. Granted, there are plenty of good arguments to say that Exodus gives an incorrect balance of punishments (particularly in this case), but the fact of the matter is that the Church has not always felt that unborn children were living in the same sense that the mother is living.
Now, of course, when talking about “thou shalt not kill”, one always comes face to face with things like war and how the Church endorses the concept of Just War. And a straightforward, simplistic reading of this says: hey, the commandment is not ambiguous! It doesn’t say “thou shalt not kill, except when you really have to”, it just says “thou shalt not”. The concept of Just War is predicated on the concept of self-defense as a basic right. And I was originally a little confused about where such a so-called basic right comes from, until another RCIA member pointed out that lack of self-defense is murder! If someone is going to kill you and you do nothing, it’s no different than committing suicide. Killing is still wrong, of course, but when it’s unavoidable… then it’s a wash. Which is somewhat more firm ground, but illustrates just how limited a concept Just War really is.
Here’s another question I don’t have an answer to: is smoking morally equivalent to suicide?
Fr. Bill told us to look up Gerry Powers, Professor Emeritus of Boston College, who has made many interesting arguments about the concept of Just War, particularly as it applies to Iraq.
There was a little bit of talk about the Catholic sexual ethic, which I’ve already talked about (and no new issues were raised here). An interesting point came out of the This is Our Faith paragraph about masturbation. Specifically:
Inexperience, habit, or circumstances, however, can diminish our blameworthiness in this area as we grow to maturity.
When I asked him about it, Fr. Bill said that this concept holds true for just about every sin: sometimes there more to avoiding it than just not doing it (this even refers back to the ideas substantiating self-defense). This, of course, also points to the concept of the Primacy of Conscience, since circumstances are important in considering the blameworthiness of a person for any sin. Interesting, no?
The This is Our Faith book also outlines some pretty… strict prohibitions about the use of fertility and other pro-conception methods, such as using donated sperm (a no-no, because it interferes with the closeness of the couple (what? I think circumstances will bear out the un-blameworthiness of this one most of the time)). This prompts the question, for me (I didn’t raise it at the RCIA meeting) of: if an unborn child is essentially no different in any particularly important spiritual respect than a child that has already been born, what’s the difference between having a test-tube baby implanted in the womb of a mother and straight-up adoption? I think the Church (or the This is Our Faith book) is a little wrong here in banning anything but classical conception.
My last observation: The eighth commandment against bearing false witness does NOT specify that you may not knowingly bear false witness, it merely forbids bearing any kind of false witness. Specifically, that seems to me to be a commandment to verify whatever information you pass along before you do it (i.e. don’t spread rumors!). Fr. Bill didn’t seem to want to come with me on that one, but he may not have quite understood me (or I may be wrong in reading that into the wording).
Oh, and Fr. Bill read a bunch of amusing passages from Deuteronomy to demonstrate how really silly it could get. For example, Deuteronomy 23:10-12:
“When you are in camp during an expedition against your enemies, you shall keep yourselves from everything offensive.
If one of you becomes unclean because of a nocturnal emission, he shall go outside the camp, and not return until,
toward evening, he has bathed in water; then, when the sun has set, he may come back into the camp.
Yup, they even have rules for that.