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The Seventh Commandment

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Our exploration into the commandments continues with the Seventh Commandment- Thou shalt not steal. On the surface this may seem like a relatively straightforward one, and in essence it is- do not take anything that does not belong to you. Yet many “redefine” the word stealing and justify it by entitlement. In our country, the bad word ‘stealing’ has been replaced with ‘negotiating.’ This commandment covers many other aspects of concern. Underlying this commandment, like most of them, is acknowledging the dignity for another person. Everyone is made in God’s image and as such deserves the same dignity and respect we offer and expect for ourselves. There are also inherent general caveats which come with this commandment with respect to society and the common good. Underlying this commandment is the understanding that God created the world for all of humankind and entrusted the stewardship of this earth to everyone. This does not mean that we will live in harmony by sharing of everything, we already proved that we cannot do that. What it does mean however, is that despite a right to private property and security, we have an obligation to help and support and provide for the basic needs of others. In other words, the things we have and claim as our own are first to be used in helping the needs of others. Those that have been blessed with much, “much will be demanded of us.”

At the heart of this commandment is our attachment to material things. It has often been said that we don’t have possessions, they possess us. Having lived a life from the perspective of one of eight children, going through the educational commitment to become a physician, having and wanting a lot, then losing what meant most to me, I have a somewhat unique perspective about this commandment. When we have the notion that other people exist only for an opportunity for exploitation, we justify stealing. What is often not understood or appreciated is the emotional theft that occurs when someone steals. Our justice system attempts compensation for the physical loss, but we seldom address the emotional violation which has occurred. This is where “owning-up” to the theft is critical. It is not enough to just confess that we have stolen, we much make the injured party aware and perhaps others as well. This is a none too pleasant part of retribution, but something which could have been avoided in the first place by not stealing.

This commandment also includes not stealing a person’s good name, their naiveté, their innocence, their intellectual property, or their dignity. These are thefts which persons cannot recover and as such make stealing more heinous. There is a social dimension to this commandment, one we often lose sight of in our individualistic society. We often justify an action acceptable, “if nobody gets hurt.” We think we can steal if no one was going to use it, we can rationalize much of our greed and envy, diminishing the seriousness of the act, in everyone’s eyes, except God’s.

I remember when I was a teenager. I worked as a maintenance person for a White Castle hamburger restaurant. I was sweeping the floor, and in line was a woman who had her purse open. Out on the floor lay a twenty dollar bill. Hanging out of her purse was several more bills waiting to fall out. Just to let everyone know I was not a saint from birth, here is what I did. I discreetly placed my foot over the twenty so none would see it, and informed the lady that her purse was open and that money was falling out. I thought I would at least perform some good deed in addition to my stealing. I was twenty dollars richer, but to recall the problem of sin, I could not tell you what I did with the twenty dollars. What I do I remember now, fifty years later, is taking it. Through some of my stories, I try to tell children, you don’t forget your sin, especially unconfessed ones. They stay with you. I could confess my stealing, but I could never return the money to a woman. I can “make up for it” by giving twenty dollars to a good cause, and that is what I often recommend in confession. To offer even better retribution, I could give back forty. Just to let you know that I have reformed, this last week I was getting my yogurt and fruit parfait for breakfast. I often go to Sendick's after the 6:30 AM Mass and get this treat and a coffee for breakfast. I noticed that the label said Cheese and Cracker Tray. The price was significantly less than what I usually pay. I noticed all the parfaits had been mislabeled. The Old Dennis would have just taken it to some young unsuspecting check-out clerk, hoped they wouldn’t notice, and considered myself luckily. But Fr. Dennis went to the cashier and informed them that these had been mislabeled. It cost me a few dollars more, but I sure feel better than I would have if I had chosen the other route.

That’s one good thing about the commandments, not only are we following God’s law, but they are meant to help us become better persons. I feel good when I follow God’s commandments. You should too, and perhaps that is the best reason to not sin, even little sin…you may get forgiveness later, but you never forget.

The Sixth Commandment

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Better put the kids to bed because we are going to talk about the Sixth Commandment- Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery (I kept it in the Old English for emphasis). The fourth commandment is to honor our parents, this one is to honor marriage. Of all the broken commandments people mention in confession by number only, this is it. Not that everyone is going around committing adultery, at least I hope not, but rather they understand this commandment in its wider implications which we will discuss. “The tradition of the Church has understood the sixth commandment as encompassing the whole of human sexuality (CCC# 2336). I really like the approach to this commandment the catechism takes, as it doesn’t immediately speak of, “thou shalt not…” Instead, it speaks of chastity as a vocation and looks at it as a successful integration of human sexuality both bodily and spiritually. The call for chastity as part of this commandment recognizes that we are all born with sexuality and as such, have sexual energy. When we use this sexual energy to maintain our own human integrity as well as preserve the dignity of others, we have positively used this virtue. When we have used the energy for self-gratification, or for our own benefit outside a sacred, committed, marital relationship, we have miss-used the gift of sexuality given by God. For many, this proper direction of our sexual energy can easily be accomplished. For others, the deadly sin of lust makes it a lifelong-trial. We lose this sexual energy when we die, and unfortunately, not before. Although some may argue that because there is this sexual energy tension, a man and a woman cannot truly become just friends. I do not think that is true, as I have many women friends; maybe this is a function of age and experience. We, as a society, however, would go a long way by adopting the Church’s position on men and women being created equal but complimentary.

The biggest change in our society, with regards to this commandment over the last fifty years, has been the easy and pervasive availability of pornographic material. Along with changes in morality in television and movies, the exposure of any age person to two persons having sex, basically just because they can, has dulled our ability to declare chastity not only as desirable, but attainable. Somehow when we are saturated with visual images of two people “doing it,” it seems to weaken our innate desire for dignity, for ourselves and others. We have woefully thought that making love is being loved. The recurrent pain caused by people pretending intimacy, is responsible, in my mind, for an inability for many to, in a healthy way, relate to the opposite sex. When we have led a promiscuous life, we have a hard time ever trusting another to be chaste with us. The other wrongly held belief is that pornography is not harmful to a marriage. Many engaged couples (mostly men) will admit to watching pornography, but then their betrothed will state that it doesn’t bother them. In truth, pornography is as damaging as alcoholism or any other soul-killing addiction. I just think the other person doesn’t want pornography to be a “deal breaker", and besides, they feel that he will change once he is married. If I can make any plea in my communique, it is to take the viewing of pornography seriously. It hurts the people you are watching, and the people you love.

A word about homosexuality, as it falls into this category. We do not know why, but, let me state it from the catechism, “The number of men and women who have deep seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible (CCC#2358).” The bottom line for the Church is that it understands these tendencies exist, but if you do have them, you are called to chastity. So are unmarried couples called to chastity, yet we, and I include the Church, has not treated engaged couples living together with the same fervor we do the concept of homosexuality. We “allow” our children to shack up with their honey, but will become a bit more agitated when that honey is of the same sex. The expectation that two people, men, women, or one of each, who love each other cannot be expected to be chaste, fascinates me. If that premise is true, then why does marriage afford any protection against adultery? Is it just because I promised? My argument is that if you DID love each other, you would also respect each other, and hold off on exchanging an intimacy until you can offer yourself totally and without “strings."

I must say that I never read the catechism in regards to divorce until I was preparing this communique. I will tell you that I have some problems with the way they state things in relation to divorce. I cannot explain in detail here, but having experienced a divorce, I have equated it to having gangrene in a limb. You could keep the limb and die, or you can cut it off and live. You will live without an arm or a leg, but you will live. Nobody thinks a divorce is good, but I can attest that sometimes the alternative is worse, even when children are involved. The key is not to lose fact that you remain a parent and should make it your life goal- married or divorced- to be a good example to your children. I have never seen two people so mean to each other than some divorced adults. Okay, I probably upset some people, and it was not my intent. If we all just gave each other the dignity we have been given by God, a lot of our relational problems would be gone. I also feel that if our society today understood sex as the super-power it is and recognized that if you play with fire…you will get burned, we would love better. If your aim in life is not to be chaste, it tells me you just don’t think to highly of yourself.

The Fifth Commandment

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(This reflection was written after the Waukesha Christmas Parade tragedy in November 2021.)

It is not coincidental that we are at the fifth commandment. THOU SHALT NOT KILL. I don't know if I can say anything of wisdom in the backdrop of our experience of someone to whom this commandment meant nothing. I surely do not want to just run off a series of caveats which this commandment covers, because those who do those things know they are wrong. To tell all of you about this commandment, I would be preaching to the choir. It is enough to remember and ponder that the very first act we hear about in our new fallen world, our world of grasping at the knowledge of good and evil, is murder. And not just any murder, but the murder of a brother by a brother, Cain murdering Abel, out of envy. In that one event, we see an unleashing of a myriad of sins which we have all become familiar: envy, lying (“I do not know,” when Cain is questioned by God as to the whereabouts of Abel), lack of compassion (“Am I my brother’s keeper?”). Since God is the giver of life, and we are saddled with a brain full of self-concern, only God has the right to end life.

Jewish tradition teaches that, “if a person saves one life, it is as if a whole world has been saved. And, if a person destroys one life, it is as if a whole world has been destroyed.” As we celebrate our Thanksgiving, with or without our families, we often recall our “family tree.” We go back to our father’s father and his before that. We take note of who “begot” who. Think of how the murder of your great-great-great grandfather would have effected your existence. To just think of this shakes our core as to the depth of this sin. 

This prohibition against murder also contains within it the sin of gossip. Publicly humiliating someone is akin to murder. Tarnishing someone’s good name is destroying that person. And it is plain cowardice. To not be able to say something to someone’s face, but be willing to put that person down to another, is spineless at its core. But the damage done with gossip is also to the person who speaks ill of another. We think we are hurting the other person, but we are hurting ourselves. Anyone who hears gossip wonders, “What does this person say about me when I am not around?” That is the dual nature of sin, but especially this commandment. When we kill, we are killing ourselves because when we bow to taking another’s life, whether literally or through a harsh tongue, we have taken God out of our own soul. Remember the three rules before speaking: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?