By Dr. Donald DeMarco
“The Ten Commandments are not an arbitrary imposition of a tyrannical Lord. They were written in stone; but before that, they were written on the human heart as the universal moral law, valid in every time and place.”
Pope St. John Paul II spoke these words at St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai on Feb. 26, 2000.
In just two sentences, the former pontiff displays his keen sense of philosophy. In effect, he is saying that the basis for morality is real, objective, inescapable, and valid for everyone and for all time. He is also drawing attention to two fundamental paradoxes that warrant further explication.
The first paradox involves the relationship between God’s freedom and his love. Throughout the ages, several theologians and philosophers maintained that God’s commandments were a testimony to his freedom alone and that he could have just as well issued a completely contradictory set of commandments and they would have been equally binding.
This notion, however, errs in separating God’s freedom from his love. God cannot be compartmentalized. His freedom is inseparable from his love. Therefore, his commandments were issued with our interest in mind. When we obey them, we are doing something that is perfective of our being.
If a doctor prescribes a particular medicine, we do not suspect that he is acting in an arbitrary way. We know that his prescription is based on his careful diagnosis of our condition. God knows exactly what our human condition is and wants us to behave in a way that is consonant with our needs as moral beings. God is not “tyrannical,” but loving.
The second paradox represents the unification of the singular with the universal. God’s commandments were written on the human heart, not only on that of the individual, but on every human heart.
In speaking to his audience at the monastery, John Paul is also speaking to the world and his message is relevant far beyond the year 2000. If I ask my dinner guest to pass the salt, my words are relevant to one person and only for the moment.
But philosophy transcends both the individual and the moment. It should not be surprising that we human beings, possessing the same nature and equipped with two arms, two legs, two eyes, one mouth, one head, and one heart, should also possess the same moral nature.
The commandment “Thou shall not kill,” for example, is valid for everyone. Its disregard comes at a very heavy price. An amoral philosophy cannot immunize us from the dire effects of transgressing any of the commandments.
We find a powerful confirmation of St. John Paul’s words in an astonishing case that the noted psychiatrist, Carl Jung, records in his book, Memories, Dreams, Reflections.
A woman came to see Dr. Jung for the specific purpose of confessing and relieving herself of an unbearable torment. She had been a doctor and belonged to the upper levels of society. Twenty years prior to her visit with Jung, she poisoned her best friend in a gambit to marry the friend’s husband. At the time, she had no qualms about her action and felt that as long as it went undetected, everything would be fine.
Her amoral philosophy, however, could not shelter her from the dire spiritual consequences of her act. She did marry the husband, but he died soon afterward and relatively young. The daughter of her marriage endeavored to get away from her as soon as she could, until the mother lost all contact with her.
The woman was a passionate horsewoman and owned several riding horses. One day she discovered that her horses were growing nervous under her and even her favorite horse shied and threw her. Her pet dog became stricken with paralysis. She could no longer abide the silent verdict of her animal companions. As a result, she was plunged into un-relievable loneliness. Her crime could not remain a secret.
Jung’s account makes it clear that morality is not an arbitrary set of rules, but grafted in our being. The fact that animals recoiled from the woman cannot be explained in terms of a subjective morality. Also, the woman’s utter misery for what she had done provides additional testimony to the objective nature of morality.
It is commonly believed that in obeying a commandment we are sacrificing our freedom. But we should obey God’s commandments freely, just as we would take the medicine that our doctor ordered, freely.
It would be ungodly for God to make mere suggestions. When the Queen of England sends out invitations, she “commands” her guests to appear. It would be unqueenly for her to do otherwise. A “command performance” is more fitting for a member of royalty to issue than meekly asking someone to perform.
We “observe” traffic laws, but do not need to do so happily. The law is not concerned with our personal dispositions. It asks nothing more than adherence. But we should “obey” God’s commandments freely and cheerfully. In so doing, we our honoring God and nourishing ourselves at the same time.
St. John Paul’s words reflect his keen awareness of misconceptions that are prevalent in the modern world. He is well aware that people misinterpret God’s commands as acts of tyranny and how they often show a preference for inventing their rules for behavior.
But God knows who we are in our essence better than we do ourselves. We should be wise in heeding the wisdom of our Master. Also, we should not be reluctant in following the example and the wisdom of a saint.
Dr. Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International, professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College in Cromwell, Conn. This editorial appeared in the Oct. 5, 2017 edition of The Wanderer.