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Christ’s Teaching on the Sixth and Ninth Commandments

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Our present meditation is the first of a number on the Sixth and Ninth Commandments of the Decalogue. And specifically, the present meditation is on the teaching of Christ on the Sixth and Ninth Commandments.

Over the centuries, there has been no aspect of Christianity that has been more tested, more tried than the Sixth and the Ninth Commandments of the Decalogue. Since the time of Christ, this has been the most contested issue on the moral level of human behavior. If the most sublime feature of Christ’s teaching is His doctrine on charity, His most challenged teaching is on the subject of chastity.

We may say the Catholic Church has remained the one true church with God’s grace because She has remained firm in preserving the teaching of Christ on chastity. Basically, we will look at two aspects of this gigantic subject. First, briefly, what was the Old Testament understanding of the sixth and ninth commandments of the Decalogue? And then, what was Christ’s teaching on these commandments?

First, then, the Old Testament understanding: The Sixth Commandment declared one simple statement, “You shall not commit adultery.” And the Ninth Commandment, in its longer version, declared, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. You shall not set your heart on his house, his field, his servant, man or woman, his ox, his donkey, or anything that is his.”

We see immediately that in the Old Testament, it was assumed there was no question of depriving anyone of anything that belongs to him; forbidden to alienate another person’s property, including another person’s spouse because she or he was also that person’s property. It is impossible to emphasize too strongly that the very concept of chastity, as we now know it since the time of Christ, was not known before Christ came into the world. I do not mean was not known among those who are not Jews -- the Romans, Greeks. It was not known even among the Jews.

As far back as we have Jewish religious history, the Jews of the Old Testament allowed, or were allowed, divorce, remarriage and even polygamy. Consequently, the Old Testament understanding of adultery, whether actual adultery or adultery by intent, was essentially a sin against justice. Even the ninth commandment forbade the stealing of another person’s spouse by intention. Both Sixth and Ninth Commandments were basically prohibitions of robbery.

Over the years I have been teaching either Protestant theology or teaching Catholic morality and comparing the Church’s teaching on chastity with that of those who are not Catholic, notably the descendants of the Protestant founders of Lutheranism, the free churches and Anglicanism. Basically, the understanding of Old Testament morality has become the morality of those churches that broke with the Roman Catholic Church. So much so, that one of my favorite, call it, definitions of Protestantism: it is Old Testament Christianity. And there is no question that the Old Testament did, what a mild verb, allow, the Old Testament allowed what is absolutely forbidden in Catholic Christianity, namely, divorce, remarriage, and, I repeat, even polygamy.

What then was Christ’s teaching on the Sixth and Ninth Commandments? The teaching of Christ on these two commandments covers three areas of Christian morality. He taught internal chastity, he taught marital indissolubility, and he taught consecrated chastity.

In the present meditation, all we will do, and it’s plenty, is read the appropriate passages from the New Testament, and then briefly explain each of these three levels of Christ’s teaching on the Sixth and Ninth Commandments.

All three teachings of Christ, by the way, are found in detail in the Gospel of Matthew. And understandably, because Matthew’s Gospel was written for the converts from Judaism. And if there was one thing those converts had better know, it was what Jesus did, should I say, to the Sixth and Ninth Commandments of the Decalogue?

Internal Chastity

This is Matthew 5:27-30. It is part of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. And as we saw before, Christ repeated what the Old Testament taught, forbade the killing of an innocent person. Then Christ went on to explain what He understood by the Fifth Commandment. “And now, you have heard it was said to the ancients, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But,” and behind that adversative, but, stands the most demanding part of the teaching of Christ in the moral order, “But, I say to you that anyone who so much as looks with lust at a woman had already committed adultery with her in his heart. So, if your right eye is an occasion of sin to you, pluck it out and cast it from you. For it is better for you that one of your members should perish than that your whole body should be thrown into hell. If your right hand is an occasion of sin to you, cut it off and cast it from you. For it is better for you that one of your members should be lost than that your whole body should go into hell.”

What is Christ doing here? He is contrasting the Old Testament prohibition of adultery in act, an overt, external act, with His own prohibition of even lustful thoughts and desires. This, needless to say, was never thus forbidden by the Old Testament. Why? Obviously, the very permission to divorce and remarry could not forbid what we call internal adultery. However, Christ’s teaching is deeper than that. He says, “Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” And, how I liked the present pope saying publicly to thousands, “And Christ meant that for women, too.” Thanks, Holy Father, thanks. If a woman looks at a man lustfully, she’s already committed adultery with him in her heart.

In other words, it is not only the prohibition of coveting someone else’s spouse. It is even looking with one’s eyes or thinking with one’s mind, or desiring with one’s will to have sexual experience with someone who is not one’s lawfully wedded spouse.

Christ, moreover, goes on to explain to what lengths we should go in avoiding occasions of sin against chastity. Since Christ spoke these words, a library has been written telling us that it’s worth any sacrifice, no matter what it costs us, rather than eternal damnation, watch it, even because of fully deliberate unchaste thoughts and unchaste desires. May I tell you this is the test of the survival of the Catholic Church in any country, in any diocese, in any parish in our day.

Indissolubility of Marriage

Christ’s teaching, now, on the indissolubility of marriage. It occurs in two places in Matthew’s Gospel: in the fifth chapter, again, our Lord is contrasting the Old Testament teaching and His own. And also the 19th chapter that I will quote verses 3-9.

In context, as we know, Christ had already taught that marriage is absolutely indissoluble for His followers. That’s in chapter 5. By chapter 19, the Pharisees thought they would bring this out into the open. Let me tell you, this was one reason why Christ was crucified, His intolerable teaching on the indissolubility of marriage.

So now, in chapter 19: “There came to him some Pharisees, testing him, and saying, ‘Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for any cause?’ But he answered and said to them, ‘Have you not read that the Creator, in the beginning, made them male and female and said, “For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?” Therefore now they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.’ They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command to give a written notice of dismissal, and to put her away?’ He said to them, ‘Because Moses, by reason of the hardness of your heart, permitted you to put away your wives; but it was not so from the beginning. And I say to you, that whoever puts away his wife, except for immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and he who marries a woman who has been put away commits adultery.’”

What is Christ saying? Notice the Pharisees had no doubt that a man could put away his wife, assumed, in Jewish law then, and in Jewish law now for nineteen hundred years. Judaism, for now four thousand years, has not budged. Married people can divorce and legitimately remarry.

And in the fourteen years I spent in New York, I learned many things about the Jewish people. Many, I am told, when they marry sign two contracts -- the marriage contract and the anticipated conditions for divorce.

Christ did not answer their question. They were testing him to trap him between the two schools of Jewish thought, both then and now, the liberal and the conservative. The liberal, you can put away your wife for any reason. The conservative, you have got to have good reasons. You may even have to consult your rabbi whether you should put away your wife. And Christ told them, you have got it all wrong. When two people marry, they must remain two for life. And even though, if one is unfaithful, they may separate, but even though separated, and even the innocent party, as the Church has infallibly defined, even the innocent party in adultery is not allowed by divine law to divorce and remarry.

Christ, therefore, as he explained, was restoring the law on monogamy to what it had been, as we may say, before the Fall. We know there had been widespread polygamy already in ancient times. The Jewish law did not even forbid polygamy. Christ, therefore, could not have been more drastic in elevating the Sixth and Ninth Commandments than by restoring monogamy to the human race. And, for the record, the Church teaches that since the time of Christ, polygamy is forbidden to every person in the world, and not only, say, to those who believe in and follow Christ.

Clearly, if Christ was going to make monogamy obligatory to His followers, as with charity, He had to institute, and I use the verb advisedly, he had to institute the sacrament to provide for the practice of charity, and that’s the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. So, once He restored monogamy to marriage, again He had no choice in sheer divine justice, except to institute the Sacrament of Matrimony. Why? To provide the married spouses with the grace they would need, and how they would need it to remain faithful to another, just two, until death.

There is no single aspect of Christian morality on which the Church has more lengthily and specifically legislated than on the Sacrament of Matrimony. Remember, Christ’s teaching on monogamy binds, strictly speaking, the baptized. Consequently, both must be baptized to receive the Sacrament of Matrimony. If one or both are not baptized, then neither receives the Sacrament of Matrimony. That is why, absolutely speaking, where one party is not baptized and the other is at the time of marriage and the marriage is valid, but it is not a sacramental marriage for either marrying partner. And then, again, and I keep using the word absolutely speaking, that marriage can be dissolved.

What, then, are the conditions with now almost twenty centuries of the Church’s teaching on an utterly, totally dissoluble marriage? Three conditions: and let me tell you, we had better know what Christ’s teaching is in the light of so many, dare I use it, “annulments” in a country like the United States today.

The first condition is that both are baptized when they marry. Do they have to be Catholic? No. Can they Protestant? Of course, provided they had been validly baptized before marriage. Secondly, provided their marriage contract was valid, they were each free to marry. They both knew what they were doing. They both wanted, how, what a condition in today’s America, they both wanted to remain married for life. And they both wanted to have children. If then, they really knew what they were doing, wanted to marry, were free to marry, it was a valid contract. Second condition. Thirdly, after the marriage, if one act of natural intercourse would consummate that marriage so that, in the language of the Church’s teaching, a sacramental, valid, consummated marriage is not dissoluble by any authority on earth. No bishop, no conference of bishops, no pope. And the most traumatic exercise of papal authority on the indissolubility of a sacramental, valid, consummated marriage, as we all know, was Henry VIII, as a result of which, not only was England lost to the Catholic Church, but also so many countries that for centuries belonged to Great Britain.

I should add as a matter of history that the English-speaking world has been especially affected for what happened in the sixteenth century when Henry VIII decided he would be pope in his own country. And the martyrs John Fisher and Thomas More are evidence of the utter incompatibility of believing that, I repeat, a sacramental, valid, consummated marriage is dissolvable and being a Catholic. That is why, for years now, I have been teaching that the Catholic Church will survive only, that’s the verdict of history, only where there are still dioceses, bishops, priests and the laity who still believe in that uncompromising teaching of Jesus Christ.

Consecrated Chastity

Christ’s third area of teaching on the Sixth and Ninth Commandments. The moment that Christ told the Pharisees that you’ve got it all wrong, it’s not a question whether you can divorce your spouse for any reason, that’s not the issue, you just do not divorce your spouse and remarry -- we’re not even sure the Pharisees walked away after Christ told them that. The disciples immediately reacted.

Matthew, same chapter 19, this time verses 10-12. The Disciples of Christ could not believe their ears. If, they objected, “The case of a man with his wife is so, it is not expedient to marry.” Lord, it seems to us, if you are saying we are not free to divorce our wives, Lord, we hate to say it, seems to us, we’d better not marry. Christ answered, “Not all can accept this teaching; but those to whom it has been given.” Not everyone has the grace; not everyone has the faith.

But then, taking up where the disciples left off, Christ then announced what silenced even the disciples, and among them even Peter, were speechless. “There are eunuchs who were born so from their mother’s womb”; who cannot have sexual intercourse; “and there are eunuchs who were made so by men.” One of the favorite punishments of nations that would take over other countries was to sterilize, especially the men of the conquered nation. “And there are eunuchs who have made themselves so for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” And it’s this declaration by Christ that is what we now called consecrated chastity. Christ ended, “Let him accept it who can.” Thanks, Lord, thanks. We need to hear that.

Consecrated chastity will be the subject of our next meditation. There are certain aspects of Christ’s teaching as we have just read it that I think should be noted immediately. Christ, in context, is answering the objection of His own apostles. Lord, if we are not allowed to put away our spouse and remarry, they did not really mean it, but they said it, we’d better not marry. Oh, they wanted to marry, all right; have no doubt about that. Christ wanted to make clear that marriage is holy. It is not, as so many over the centuries, including not a few heretics who claim that marriage is, well, a concession to human nature.

And, for almost five hundred years, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, the very terms unchastity or impurity have left the impression on many people’s minds that there is something inherently wrong or sinful in sexual pleasure. Emphatically, no! The reason why it is forbidden to even deliberately either indulge or arouse sexual pleasure outside of marriage is not because sexual pleasure is inherently wrong. It is, on the contrary, because sexual pleasure is holy, but only within the precincts of matrimony. It is, in fact, so holy that to either arouse or indulge that pleasure outside of marriage is profanation of the state, and, for us Catholics, the Sacrament, of Matrimony.

Christ, as we have said, elevated marriage to the level of a sacrament. But then, it was to be a sacrament on the conditions that He, who is God, determined that sacrament should be lived, in indissoluble monogamy. But then, once Christ declared that He would provide the grace for His married followers to remain faithful to one another, two in one flesh, until death, then, we may say, He instituted the state of consecrated chastity in order to make it plain that the same grace that enables married people to remain faithful to one another until death is the grace that Christ confers on the sum of His followers who even forego marriage.

And that, that is the essence of consecrated chastity. The essence of consecrated chastity is the sacrifice of marriage. How that needs to be said. In other words, marriage is pleasing to God, so pleasing that God became man to institute the sacrament, to ensure that His married believers would remain faithful to one another, and thus to Him, all through life. However, Christ did more, and that’s the third and for us, the most sublime teaching of Christ on the Sixth and Ninth Commandments.

The Sixth and Ninth Commandments are not only the observance of fidelity in a matrimonial union, but the Sixth and Ninth Commandments also provide for those who have the grace to sacrifice the very state of marriage itself. Over the years in dealing with priests, who vow themselves to a lifetime of celibacy, and religious, who vow a lifetime consecrated chastity, it is impossible to exaggerate the importance of understanding of the essence of both celibacy and consecrated chastity is sacrifice of marriage. In other words, it is not, as if the person bound him or herself to remain faithful to the Sixth and Ninth Commandments by not indulging in sexual pleasure outside of marriage. No! That is not consecrated chastity.

It is the sacrifice of, oh, the God-given pleasures of body and joys of spirit that are involved in and the reward of the state of matrimony. The sacrifice of something which is good, which is holy because, and only God become man could tell us, there is something, and we have to use the word, holier. And how do we know? Because when God became man, though, absolutely speaking, he might have married, absolutely speaking, He did not. He had to make sure He was even conceived of a virgin mother.


Lord Jesus, You elevated the Sixth and Ninth Commandments to heights that are beyond human comprehension and certainly beyond human obedience. That is why to live these commandments faithfully we need Your grace to see with the eyes of faith how pleasing to You is internal chastity for every one of Your followers. Absolutely indissolubility for those of Your followers who are married and for some, how pleasing to You is consecrated chastity, since You Yourself, dear Jesus, lived a consecrated chaste life during Your stay on earth to inspire us to follow Your example. Amen.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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