The basis of the Sixth Commandment in the CCC

The general program of the (Vatican II) Catechism is to explain how the blessedness of human life is a sharing the blessedness of the divine life and, to this end, they explain five of the commandments as finding their source in divine attributes. The fifth commandment arises from God’s dominion over the earth (as Plato argued in Phaedo, we are the possessions of the gods and so cannot kill either ourselves or others) the seventh commandment arises from the benevolence of God who has disposed goods in an order that must be respected, and the eighth commandment arises from the fact that God is truth. The account of the fourth commandment makes “The divine fatherhood is the source of human fatherhood; [which] is the foundation of the honor owed to parents.”

The commandment against adultery, however, is unique in being based on the interpersonal communion of the persons of the Trinity. This marks the only time where a commandment is based on God as known, not by reason, but by revelation. Here are some hypotheses to consider in light of this.

1.) Teachings on sexuality are more dependent on revelation than other teachings. Given their foundation in God as Triune, sexual teaching is harder to get to the bottom of by reason alone. This does not mean attempts to base sexual morality on natural law will be unconvincing and ineffective, but they will always come with the sense of leaving out something fundamental.

2.) Sexual morality manifests the Trinity more profoundly than other aspects of morality. Here the beatitude “blessed of the pure of heart, for they shall see God” takes on a much deeper and more literal meaning. On the basic creedal level, the first procession of the Trinity comes forth by birth and the second comes forth by the union of persons as a single principle; and the two great mysteries of the faith are mysteries of birth, i.e. the Second Person is born of the father and then conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin. The nexus point of this mystery and the world is through the Eucharist which is, again, the act of a father.

3.) There is a sexual dimension to all vocations in the Church. Here it is important to point out that the second thing the Catechism says about sexuality is that it is ordered to procreation but “in a general way to all human relationships and to all vocations. How else to explain the Church placing a crucial importance to sexual differentiation in religious vocations (e.g. its insistence that all monks are male)?

To develop this point is the most constructive response to the “contraceptive mentality”. The Church does in fact allow for a sense in which sexuality can be developed outside of the demands of procreation. The religious life does this. It is not asexual (in which case the absence of female priests could have no basis) but transcendently sexual. Sexuality is ultimately ordered not to orgasms but to the physico-spiritual unity of persons, and this happens in a more perfect way in the religious life than in the married one. The confection of the Eucharist is an obvious way in which this is the case.



  1. Zippy said,

    December 18, 2015 at 3:13 pm

    A very interesting post. But I would also point out that adultery pertains to a sacrament, so it is natural (hah!) that divine revelation would be more intimately involved than with for example “thou shalt not steal”.

  2. December 18, 2015 at 3:23 pm

    I’m not sure what you mean by the “insistence that all monks are male”. A female would be called a nun rather than a monk, but this seems pretty verbal. There are in fact religious communities which are accepted by the Church which include both men and women, including for example praying office together. Most communities are not like this for obvious reasons, namely because it leads to a loss of vocations.

  3. December 18, 2015 at 4:28 pm

    I think the Catechism’s explanation of the fourth commandment can also be seen as connecting it with a divine attribute — divine authority.

    • December 18, 2015 at 5:02 pm

      I missed that. I’ll include it.

      • December 18, 2015 at 8:04 pm

        Thinking about this, it actually ends up being a surprisingly nice structure:

        The first commandment is concerned with God who reveals Himself.
        The second and third commandments are concerned with things that pertain immediately to God’s revelation (the Name, the Sabbath as memorial of creation and redemption).
        The fourth through eighth commandments are concerned with ways in which our actions as God’s people reflect God’s attributes.

        This leaves the ninth and tenth, which I think could be understood as avoiding things that contribute to the violation of the rest, in the same way that temperance, to which a link is explicitly drawn, is the virtue for avoiding things that corrupt virtue.

        If this is taken to be the structure, though, it perhaps suggests that it is God’s revealed attributes that are specifically in view all the way through — it just happens, of course, that some of God’s revealed attributes are also partly knowable by reason. Perhaps then, though, we should think of the relevant attribute as “God is love” (also noted in 2331), with the interpersonal communion being that in which revelation goes well beyond what reason can know of that attribute? It would still leave it as the most drastic case of the gap between reason and revelation, though.

        This would get us something perhaps like:

        4. God is Father
        5. God is Lord of Life
        6. God is Love
        7. God is Good?
        8. God is Truth

        But (7) I’m not sure about; it seems to me to also concern God’s dominion, but in a different way from (5).

      • Aron Wall said,

        December 19, 2015 at 3:21 pm

        What you Catholics call the 7th Commandment (but which as a Protestant, I consider to be the 8th!) has always seemed to me notable as the least *paradisical* of the set.

        In Eden, there would have been revelation of God, a perpetual Sabbath (work was not labor until after the Fall), life (and immortality) marriage (and presumably exclusive fidelity when there were more poeple), truth-telling, and thoughts directed towards love. But I expect there would have been no private property… so this commandment seems like an (admittedly necessary and important) concession to fallen humanity.

        Of course, the 10 commandments were not necessary in Eden to safeguard goods (the law was not made for the righteous), but the goods which they protect were still there.

      • robalspaugh said,

        December 19, 2015 at 8:24 pm

        Even if private property were unknown in the pre-lapsarian state, there would still be perpetual need to render to another his due–to do justice. I think Brandon has the right idea with the divine attribute of Goodness, although it feels a little weird to use that (or Justice) as paradigm for just one of the ten laws.

  4. robalspaugh said,

    December 20, 2015 at 8:37 am

    I ran out of time to teach Aquinas on the ten commandments this semester; this will be an excellent counterpoint to that presentation when I find time for it in the spring.

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