Wednesday, March 25, 2009

God said WHAT? Part 2: The Ten Commandments

In one of the more amusing scenes in “El Crimen del Padre Amaro”, Amaro’s lover Amelia is teaching the Ten Commandments to her First Communion class. As she and her fellow catechist chant “El sesto mandamiento: No fornicarás”, a little tyke raises his hand: “¿Que quiere decir ‘no fornicarás’?” After a brief moment of confusion, Amelia recovers and quickly replies: “Quiere decir que no vas a comer carne en la Semana Santa”. (“It means you don’t eat meat during Holy Week.”)

We laugh because Amelia’s answer is clearly wrong and for more than just the obvious reason. The Church does not require abstention from meat during the entire Holy Week – only on Good Friday. But I have thought about it some more.

Where did this “No fornicarás” come from? I checked all the Bible translations I own and the word Moses received from God on Mt. Sinai was “No cometerás adulterio” – a much more limited concept. The official Vatican version of the catechetical formula is even broader: “No cometerás actos impuros”. Now, the Church considers both sins against chastity and sins against marital fidelity to fall under the sixth commandment, but revising the phrasing of the commandment itself seems a bit exaggerated to me. The official English catechetical formula adheres pretty closely to the second iteration of the Decalogue in Deuteronomy 5:6-21.

The ninth commandment, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife”, also gets reworked in Spanish. Some Spanish versions have it accurately as “No desearás la mujer de tu prójimo” but in the official Catechism of the Catholic Church it has somehow become: “No consentirás pensamientos ni deseos impuros.” We know that Jesus broadened the original teaching handed down via Moses: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’ (Mt. 5:21-22). So we are counseled against impure thoughts, but it was NOT part of the original Decalogue.

The eighth commandment, “You shall not bear false witness
against your neighbor”, has an additional dimension when translated into Spanish: “No darás falso testimonio ni mentirás.” You are not to give false testimony against ANYBODY (not just your neighbor) AND, moreover, you may not lie.

The third commandment has also been expanded in Spanish to the point that its original meaning and intent have been distorted. In English we say: “Remember to keep holy the Lord’s Day.” That would be the Sabbath, which Catholics do not celebrate on the seventh day but rather on Sunday. The Spanish catechism says: “Santificarás las fiestas” – not just the Sabbath, but any day the Church has deemed a holy day of obligation. This phrasing both departs significantly from the Decalogue and diminishes its original intent – that the people of God remember and honor the day on which God rested from His labors.

Neither the English nor the Spanish catechetical versions of the Ten Commandments –as these follow the Deuteronomy rather than the Exodus 20:2-17 version – includes the caution against making graven images (what the Protestant churches consider to be the second commandment) and this omission has been duly noted by the evangélicos who (wrongly) accuse Catholics of worshipping Mary and the saints and deplore the presence of their images in our churches.

Incidentally the catechetical formula also changes in the other Romance languages. In Italian, it is similar to the Spanish, except that it does not include "lying" under the 8th commandment.

The Portuguese and French catechetical versions include even more tampering than the Spanish one. To the fourth commandment, "Honor your father and your mother", they add a requirement to honor one's superiors, although -- to the Portuguese credit -- they limit this to "legitimate superiors" (whatever that means). Talk about a Church at the service of the existing social order!

Each of these languages also has an extrapolation on the 5th commandment ("You shall not kill"). The Portuguese add "nem causar outro dano, no corpo ou na alma, a si mesmo ou ao próximo" (nor cause any other harm to the body or the soul either of yourself or your neighbor). The French add an admonition that "...scandale éviteras, haine et colère également" (you will avoid scandal, hatred and anger too).

Finally, they modify the 7th commandment ("You shall not steal"). Both Portuguese and French versions add that you will not unjustly hold on to what is not yours, and the Portuguese take it a step further, cautioning us against damaging our neighbor's property.

So why does any of this matter?

1. We are supposed to be a universal Church. We should not be teaching our children a different catechism depending on what language they speak. It may not have been noticeable when the Catholic churches in the different countries were essentially monolingual (except for Canada, but in that case there tends to be a dominant language in the different provinces or diocese) but now the Catholic Church in the United States is significantly and increasingly bilingual in many areas and we need to start to look at these issues.

2. When we restate the Ten Commandments to include other Church teachings while continuing to call them the "Ten Commandments", we give additional ammo to the evangélicos who argue that Catholics are rewriting the Bible. In researching this post, I found literally hundreds of pages on the Internet that make this argument and they were countered by only a few rather weak apologetics pages.

Can it be so difficult to standardize the Ten Commandments in the official Catechism of the Catholic Church and bring them into line with what the Book of Deuteronomy says was on those old clay tablets?

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