Pope Pius XII on the Ten Commandments - I

Source: District of Asia

These notes present a summary (not a translation) of a discourse addressed by the Pope Pius XII, on 22nd February 1944, to the parish priests of Rome and to the preachers of the Lenten Conferences in the Eternal City (A.A.S., XXXVI, 1944, pp. 71-87). The subject set for the conferences was the Decalogue, and since the Holy Father points out in his discourse those aspects of the subject which he desired to be specially stressed, it has seemed to us that our readers will find therein useful material for their instructions. Here we present the first part that deals with the commandment in general.

(1) Lamentable contrast between theory and practice. 

In earlier times religious instruction was more simple than it is today; but this was compensated by the fact that men's minds were dominated by the fear of God and by a sense of their duty to keep the commandments. The standard of religious knowledge now available to Christians is much higher (in consequence of progress in theology and through the action of the Holy See in issuing frequent Encyclicals); but there has been no proportionate increase in the religious knowledge of Catholics, and no corresponding improvement in their moral conduct. Examples of heroic virtue there have been, and no fewer than in other times. But public life is becoming progressively de-christianized; the Christian way of life is being widely abandoned. Religion is no longer so powerful a factor in men's lives as it was. Those who try to put their religious principles into practice find themselves opposed by an overwhelming current of antireligious thought. 

"In order to breathe in the corrupt air of our modern cities and to live a Christian life in them without absorbing their poison, requires a profound spirit of faith and a power of resistance such as the martyrs possessed."

(2) The true meaning of mortal sin.

As usual when faith and morals come into conflict with error and vicious desire, a compromise is sought. Today it is sought in false notions of mortal sin. It is suggested that even a wilful breach of the commandments is not a mortal sin in the strict sense (i.e. does not involve the loss of grace and of God's friendship), unless the sinner intends expressly to offend God and to reject His love. Thus, sexual disorders, according to this view, are not mortal sins so long as the believer intends to remain united with God.

Answer. Any human act which is against God's law is against the end of that law, which is union with Him; any such act includes implicitly the abandonment of God, and thus destroys friendship with Him: "To say 'Yes' to the forbidden fruit is to say 'No' to God who forbids it." Con science reflects the divine law; and any act which conflicts with conscience conflicts with the divine law and the divine will. Those who invent this compromise would probably not apply it to such matters as perjury or homicide; but the principle is always the same.

(3) God wants deeds, not words.

"If you love me keep my commandments. . . Not every man who saith, Lord, Lord . . . “The only way to heaven is that of conforming our will to God by the observance of the commandments. And St. Paul warns us that any serious lapse from virtue-and not only direct hatred of God or explicit abandonment of Him-results in the loss of heaven (cf. I Cor. vi, 9-10; Gal. v, 19-20). To give the believer carte blanche, as it were, to commit any sin he likes would certainly not be to redeem mankind from moral degradation-which is essentially the task of the Church today.

(4) Conflict of the Church with paganism in the past.

From the earliest ages the Church has made a frontal attack upon the moral code of paganism. See the epistles of St. Paul; see how the Apocalypse (ii, 7, 11, 17, 26; iii, 5, 12, 21) represents the task of the Christian as one of hard conflict with the pagan spirit: "To him that overcometh I will give . . .”

The fervour of the early Christians inclined them sometimes to a rigorism which almost exceeded the reasonable limits set by the spirit of the Gospel. No wonder that Christianity wrought such a moral trans- formation; no wonder the Fathers condemned pagan amusements because of the evil they occasioned. Origen (Contra Celsum iii, 29-30) could say that even the most lukewarm among Christians were better than pagans. We often hear the cry "Back to primitive Christianity!" Let this return begin by a sincere reform in morals.

(5) The same conflict today.

Paganism is being reborn today, and the Church still wages war against its spirit. The task of the Christian is still one of strenuous combat. By his decree on Frequent Communion St. Pius X opened up abundant sources of grace to help in the fight. But let us beware of thinking that the efficacy of the sacrament ex opere operato dispenses us from the need to co-operate with grace. As the Council of Trent says, the Eucharist is a medicine which delivers us from daily faults and preserves us from mortal sin; but it does this by helping us to fight against sin. Quietism has always been a danger; and it is still a danger today. The life of the Christian is a struggle with the devil, the world, and the flesh. Let the faithful by all means learn more of their religion; but let their increase in knowledge be followed by more careful observance of the commandments, and by growth in grace.

No harsh rigorism, however; in unessential matters the pastor of souls will make allowances for individuals and circumstances. But there is a wide field in which there can be no compromise, a sphere in which "God's commandments hold sway, commandments which always and in all places oblige men to voluntary submission, to self-denial and self-control, to the task of overcoming their evil inclinations and strengthening conscience and will in preparation for critical decisions."

Christ did not find heroism in all; wherever He found a trace of good will He gave help and encouragement; but He still made great demands upon all: "If any man will come after me. . ." "Be ye perfect. . .” And today the Church is at hand to help us to reach this high ideal.

(6) God the foundation of the moral order.

In the Church is embodied the power of God and Christ against evil. It has been said that if there had been no God it would have been necessary to invent Him; for without God men would not clearly discern the distinction between good and evil. Where there is faith in a personal God the moral order remains; otherwise, it collapses, sooner or later.

Moreover, it is only when governed by the moral order that human life is worthy of a rational creature. Only when freewill operates within the limits set by the Decalogue is it seen to be God's best natural gift to man; loosed from these restraints it becomes a devastating torrent, more dangerous than the savage instincts of the beast. "When the masses know neither God nor religion, only fear in the long run can restrain them; and fear is the end and death of human dignity and freedom."

The present state of the world is a proof of it. Material prosperity may have disguised the ill-effects of irreligion in the past. Now they are obvious to all. And yet, just when men stand in greatest need of religious and moral influences, faith in God and observance of His commandments are on the wane. "He hath set water and fire before thee; stretch forth thy hand to which thou wilt. Before man is life and death; that which he shall choose shall be given him" (Eccli. xv, 17-18). Such is the choice set before the world today.