March 4, 2018
On the third Sunday of Lent, the church directs our attention (in the first reading of the Liturgy) to the Covenant with Israel that goes by the name of its principal human participant: the Mosaic Covenant and specifically, the Ten Commandments
In a certain sense, the Mosaic Covenant is a kind of second installment on the one made with Abraham. The latter promised offspring and a native land; this one declares that God has fulfilled that Covenant and brought the children of Abraham out of the land of Egypt, that house of slavery (the long form of commandment 1). The Ten Commandments, then, are rules and regulations imposed on the Children of Abraham that they may have long life on the land the Lord their God is giving to them (the long form of commandment 4).
If we agree to call the Noah Covenant an ‘ecological’ one, then, the Mosaic covenant is distinctly ‘political’. There is not a single commandment that does not involve the relationship of each and every Jew to each and every other Jew – this in addition to the relationship with God that the first three commandments treat.
People who think they can be ‘good people’ without being religious may well live up to their own moral standards. They have failed to understand this fundamental fact of morality as it is understood by ‘religion’: morality is the pattern of behavior the must prevail between freed persons so that they can continue to live in the freedom for which God has freed them. In other words: only those individual actions have moral value which leave the entire community free-er than it was. Thus, although the last six commandments are phrased as negative, as prohibitions of certain individual acts, they are not fulfilled according to the framework of the covenant unless their fulfillment actually benefits the whole community.
To cast this in American terms: the common good belongs to every individual; it is also the responsibility of every individual. (I told you that this was a political covenant). Indeed, the Constitution sets out as its governing purposes a more perfect union and the common good. The drafters of this document may or may not have favored the establishment of religion, but they could not have written it without a long history of western cultural inculturation of the Mosaic Covenant.
Only totalitarian regimes think that the good of one individual is sufficient to insure the good of all the others. It is a distinct fault of the moral training that most Catholics received in the last century to think that sins of omission don’t count or that victimless crimes are not really sins. It is even more mistaken to think that a clear conscience is an indicator of true righteousness.
If one must ask the relevance of the Mosaic Covenant to contemporary thinking and living, then, surely, the exaltation of consumerism as a style of life and a ‘moral good’ must be counted as outside the pale. Similarly, the 20th century’s fascination with individual rights and the expansion of their ‘penumbras’ must leave one to wonder what common good is actually served by such legal thinking and political positioning and how much a Catholic can simply assume that defending one’s rights is not a kind of anarchy, a totalitarianism of every individual.
Really truly and positively yours,