Protecting Human Dignity:
The Ten Commandments
by Dr. Stephen Colecchi
Director, Office of International Justice and Peace
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
When most people think about protecting human dignity, they don't think of the Ten Commandments. They might point to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948. Or, if they are scholars of Catholic social teaching, they might reference the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (Compendium) (nos. 105-159). They might refer specifically to Pacem in Terris, the last encyclical St. John XXIII wrote in 1963. Most of us believe the concepts of human dignity and human rights are modern phenomena, but in reality, they have ancient roots, roots that can be traced back to the Ten Commandments.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explores the Ten Commandments, linking them to the Church's contemporary emphasis on human dignity and human rights. It is a prime example of how the "living tradition" of the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, anchors its teaching in the Scriptures but remains open to the complex realities of modern human society. This article will explore the link between the Ten Commandments and protecting human dignity today.
The First Commandment
"I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me" (Catechism, no. 2084).
At first blush, this Commandment seems purely religious in character, but it is profoundly related to the dignity of the human person. All people are bound to love and follow God with our whole hearts, minds, and souls. Nothing else gives life ultimate meaning and direction. Human dignity demands that people have the right to seek the truth. No government or societal restriction can legitimately limit this right, except to preserve the "common good" of society. A necessary corollary of this Commandment today is the defense of human dignity and the right to religious liberty (see nos. 2106-2109). The right to religious freedom is being seriously tested in the Middle East today, where Christians and other religious minorities face persecution. It is even challenged in our own nation as our culture becomes more secular and fails to respect the legitimate role of religious pluralism in the public square.
The Second Commandment
"You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain" (no. 2142).
The Catechism declares: "The second commandment forbids false oaths" (no. 2150). God's honor obliges us to treat his name with reverence, and human dignity requires that persons be told the truth.
The Third Commandment
"Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy" (no. 2168).
On the surface, this command seems to be solely a religious obligation with no relevance to human dignity or human rights. But of course, this was not the case in ancient Israel, nor is it the case today. In addition to its religious requirements, it was a basic labor law. The rest of the Commandment reads: "Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work" (no. 2167). Deuteronomy 5:14 reads in part: "You shall not do any work, either you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or donkey or any work animal, or the resident alien within your gates, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do." Even slaves got the day off for rest in ancient times!
The Catechism reminds us of a truth too often forgotten by employers today: "In spite of economic constraints, public authorities should ensure citizens a time intended for rest and divine worship. Employers have a similar obligation toward their employees" (no. 2187). Human dignity demands adequate periods of rest and respect for the rights of workers to rest.
The Fourth Commandment
"Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you" (no. 2197).
The Catechism reminds us that "the family is the original cell of social life" (no. 2207). "The political community has a duty to honor the family, to assist it" (no. 2211). So not only does human dignity require that we honor our parents, it requires that society and government support the institution of the family itself, an institution that is under great stress in today's world. Families suffer from an economic system that too often compromises the ability of parents to raise their families in dignity and from cultural influences that undermine basic values that families need to thrive. As our society ages, this command "reminds grown children of their responsibilities toward their parents" (no. 2218), responsibilities that society as a whole has an obligation to support through public policies that promote elder care.
This command also has implications for the "human family." We are not only members of an immediate or extended family; we are also members of local, national, and global families. Human dignity brings with it the "duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society" (no. 2239). "Co-responsibility for the common good make[s] it morally obligatory to pay taxes, to exercise the right to vote, and to defend one's country" (no. 2240).
The Fifth Commandment
"You shall not kill" (no. 2258; Compendium, nos. 488 -520).
The connection of this command to protecting human dignity is clear. Every person has the right to life from conception to natural death. The Catechism notes that this right also requires the "legitimate defense of persons and societies" (no. 2263) and goes on to say "the defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm" (no. 2265).
The Catechism takes up some special cases in which human dignity and the right to life are threatened. The Church's teachings on abortion and euthanasia are well known, if not always well understood and respected. Likewise, the Church is clear in its teaching against euthanasia. Less well known is the opposition to the use of the death penalty when incarceration is available to protect society from murderers (no. 2267). Based on this Commandment, the Church rejects kidnapping, terrorism, and torture, noting that torture "is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity" (no. 2297).
This Commandment also has implications for the protection of human dignity from the scourge of war. Noting that "respect for and development of human life require peace", the Catechism argues that peace is not "merely the absence of war;" it is build on justice (no. 2304). Beyond this positive obligation to be "peacemakers," the Catechism acknowledges the right of the state to employ force for the purpose of defense, but only under the "strict conditions" of the just war tradition. Human dignity demands that the use of force be a last resort and only be employed in carefully limited ways (no. 2309). The just war tradition does not exist to justify war but rather to limit recourse to war and to limit loss of life. The protection of human dignity may require the use of force, but human dignity is also profoundly threatened by war. In a reference to weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, the Catechism is clear. Such weapons are incompatible with the protection of human dignity. Their use is a "crime" (no. 2314).
Protecting human dignity and the right to life under this Commandment also suggests that the world needs to take a serious look at the "arms race" and the injustices and "excessive economic or social inequalities" that lead to war. Paradoxically, the vast sums spent on defense rob humanity of the resources needed to address the underlying causes of war (nos. 2315, 2317).
The Sixth Commandment
"You shall not commit adultery" (no. 2331).
This command is not simply about infidelity, although it is certainly about that. A lack of faithfulness in marriage compromises the human dignity of both partners, but there is more to this Commandment. The prohibition has implications for sexuality more widely and for the relationship between the two sexes. The Catechism says that men and women have "equal personal dignity" (no. 2334). This Commandment implies this equality since either partner can be wronged by its violation.
Fornication between unmarried persons, pornography, prostitution, and rape degrade the human person and harm human dignity (nos. 2353-2356). In our culture today, tragically there is a commercialization of sexuality that leads to an objectification of persons. People are treated like things that can be discarded, and too often they are. No one should be treated like an object, especially as an object for another's pleasure. Human dignity demands more.
All persons, including both heterosexual and homosexual persons, are called to chastity (no. 2337 ff.). The disciplines of chastity protect against the exploitation of another person as an object. The Catechism notes that persons with a homosexual orientation should be treated with the respect due every person by virtue of the human dignity: "Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided" (no. 2358).
The Seventh Commandment
"You shall not steal" (no. 2401).
Like the Sixth, the Seventh Commandment has an obvious application to the protection of human dignity. You don't steal from others. They have a right to their possessions. But as it turns out, the application of this principle is more complex.
The goods of the earth are destined for the entire human family. The "right to private property" does not do away with this fundamental truth (no. 2403). Political authorities have the right to regulate private property rights in order to serve the "common good" of all (no. 2406). Stealing is wrong, but it is also "a sin against the dignity of persons and their fundamental rights to reduce them by violence to their productive value or to a source of profit" (no. 2414).
Pope Francis has frequently spoken about our "throw away" culture that undermines human dignity and the integrity of creation itself. The Catechism teaches: "The seventh commandment enjoins respect for the integrity of creation" (no. 2415). Often people contrast respect for persons with respect for creation, but they are in fact interdependent. A society that considers creation disposable is likely to consider people disposable, too, and vice versa. We cannot "steal" creation from future generations by exploitative practices any more than we can "steal" the dignity of a human person by treating him or her as a cog in the wheel of the economy.
Under the rubric of this Commandment, the Catechism articulates the "social doctrine" of the Church, especially as it relates to the economy (no. 2419 ff.). Rejecting both the "totalitarianism" of "socialism" and "communism" as incompatible with human dignity, the Catechism also acknowledges that the "market" has its limitations and requires "regulation." According to the Catechism, "A just wage is the legitimate fruit of work" (no. 2434). To deny a worker wages sufficient to support a family in dignity is to "steal" from him or her.
The Church uses a wide-angle lens to look at the requirements of the Commandment. Just as rich people have obligations toward poor persons, rich nations have obligations toward poorer developing nations (no. 2437 ff.). The Catechism quotes the particularly powerful words of St. John Chrysostom: "Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life" (no. 2446).
The Eighth Commandment
"You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor" (no. 2464).
Protecting the dignity of other persons requires that we reject not only "false witness and perjury" in legal matters, but that we also reject "rash judgment" and "detraction" that destroy "the reputation and honor of one's neighbor" (no. 2476 ff.). Pope Francis has repeatedly warned of the dangers of gossip, and once drove this point home in a meditation: "Gossip kills more than weapons do" (September 13, 2013, w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/cotidie/2013/documents/papa-francesco-cotidie_20130913_love-others.html).
This command has social implications for human dignity and rights as well. In our media age, the Catechism affirms: "The information provided by the media is at the service of the common good. Society has a right to information based on truth, freedom, justice, and solidarity." The right to accurate information creates special responsibilities for "journalists" to convey the truth and avoid "defamation," and requires governments to regulate the media appropriately so as to protect the availability of information and avoid its manipulation or misuse (no. 2494 ff.). With the rise of the Internet and the World Wide Web, these responsibilities also fall on all of us as we post stories and photographs to social media sites. Protecting human dignity necessitates protecting persons' reputations and conveying truthful information.
The Ninth Commandment
"You shall not covet . . . your neighbor's wife" (no. 2514).
In this age of equality between the sexes, we might add: you shall not covet your neighbor's husband either. This Commandment seems similar to the Sixth, but the Catechism notes that this Ninth Commandment has more to do with "purity of heart" and that it is closely related to the Tenth. It also recalls the connection to the Sixth Beatitude, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" (no. 2518). Like the other Commandments, there is both a personal and a social application: purity of heart leads to modesty that "protects the mystery of persons and their love" and "requires a purification of the social climate" (nos. 2522, 2525). Purity is sadly not as valued in our culture as it once was. Its absence can lead to an objectification of persons and to manipulation of baser instincts through advertising and the media, which leads to violations of the dignity of the human person.
The Tenth Commandment
"You shall not covet . . . anything that is your neighbor's" (no. 2534).
The Tenth Commandment completes the Ninth, and in dealing with "intentions of the heart," together with the Ninth, summarizes all the Commandments. Money and power must not become false idols in our lives and culture. Possessions should not possess us. The Catechism is quite direct about the dangers: "The tenth commandment forbids greed and the desire to amass earthly goods without limit. It forbids avarice arising from a passion for riches and their attendant power. It also forbids the desire to commit injustice by harming our neighbor in his temporal goods" (no. 2536). Envy is a grave sin that robs life of its true meaning—love of God and love of neighbor. The Gospel calls us to "detachment" from material possessions and power, to a poverty of heart that sets us free truly to love God and other human persons. Human dignity is wounded by a quest for what does not truly satisfy. Envy and greed can fracture relationships and, on a social and global scale, can drive grave injustices and inequalities.
Protecting human dignity and human rights, especially of those at the margins of societies, can be a daunting task. To help give U.S. Catholics a handle on poverty issues at home and abroad, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recommends two initiatives: Poverty USA (povertyusa.org) and Catholic Relief Services - Lead the Way (crs.org/get-involved/lead-way). These programs help Catholics to pray, learn, act, and connect.
Some people think of Commandments as simply DOs and DON'Ts, but they are much more. The living tradition of the Church finds in them signposts along the road toward greater personal and social respect for human dignity. They have a profound relevance for both individuals and societies that seek to promote the human dignity and human rights of all.
Copyright © 2015, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to duplicate this work without adaptation for non-commercial use.
Scripture excerpts used in this work are taken from the New American Bible, rev. ed.© 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.
Excerpts from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, second edition, copyright © 2000, Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV)–United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Excerpt from Pope Francis, Meditation, September 13, 2013,copyright © 2013, LEV; Pope Francis, Address, March 22, 2013, copyright © 2013, LEV. Used with permission. All rights reserved.