10 Ways Religious People Break the Commandments

We know how to follow the rules...but also how to skirt them.

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By Tom Hoopes


Churchgoing people know how to follow rules. We also know how to skirt them. We know exactly where the line is, and how to stay technically in-bounds, even while we indulge in exactly what that commandment forbids. So here is a crash course on the Ten Commandments, focusing on the unique temptations we “religious” people have against them. Included are quotes from the Catechism and Compendium of the Catechism, because we are also the kind of people who want to know that this is “official” stuff.


First commandment: Do we follow God or religion?

Have no other gods before me: “To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand, is to fall into superstition.”

 

It has been said that to break the first commandment you don’t need to worship idols—you just have to look to something other than God for salvation or happiness. It can be maddeningly easy for religious people to fail here. We often look to religion itself to save us. We fulfill our Sunday obligation—by sitting through Mass while we plan our week. We go to confession—and repeat the list we always repeat, with no real plan to change.


Remedy: Read the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:9–14). What we need is the gift of the Holy Spirit called “fear of the Lord”: reverence and awe of God. Make religion a way to God, rather than vice versa.


Second commandment: Do we practice, not just preach?

Do not take the Lord’s name in vain: “The faithful should bear witness to the Lord’s name.”

 

We good church people probably already instinctively say “jeesh” and “gosh” to avoid taking the Lord’s name in vain. But there is a way that we might often use his name in vain: by preaching what we don’t practice. The too-easy fix for this is to not preach, and maybe we do overdo religious talk a bit. But an even better fix is to practice more, not preach less.


Remedy: Start doing those things we urge in others. Avoid our favorite sin. Serve at the shelter. Pray the daily Rosary. As someone once said, “Your life is the only Gospel many people will ever read.”


Third commandment: Do we have God-free Sundays?

Keep holy the Lord’s Day: “Bless the Sabbath and declare it sacred.”

 

You may know someone like my friend’s pious aunt who goes to Mass every day except Sunday. She goes twice on Saturday, once to the daily Mass and once to the Vigil. There is nothing wrong with going to Saturday vigil. But doing so shouldn’t make Sunday a “God-free” day, either. Neither should Mass in the morning make the rest of the day just like any other.


Remedy: Have a Sunday routine that makes the day special: a family activity, a special meal (we do a big family breakfast), a family Rosary, or a “pro-Catholic” movie.


Fourth commandment: Is our family devoted to “human mercy?”

Honor your father and mother: “As they grow up, children should continue to respect their parents.”

 

“Dear Mom, I’ve never told you how much I love you,” begins the letter many wish they had written. Another begins: “I’m so sorry.” Or perhaps it’s time to write the one to our children that says: “I just want you to know that all is forgiven.” We religious people are rightly great admirers of Divine Mercy. But sometimes human mercy is what a situation really needs.


Remedy: Say a Divine Mercy chaplet for the grace of human mercy in our life.


Fifth commandment: Do we ruin people’s good name?

You shall not kill. “The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor’s tempter…he may even draw his brother into spiritual death.”

 

As good churchgoers, we know we aren’t supposed to engage in judgmental gossip. So we have our own rules. We would never say, “So-and-so sure is steeped in sin.” Instead, we say, “You should pray for so-in-so. She sure seems to be steeped in sin.” Worse is when we say, “You should pray for Father. My brother’s friend’s sister heard this terrible rumor about him.”


Remedy: Some Catholic friends of ours have a code word to politely remind each other when they start gossiping. Others are armed with ready-made subject changers to derail gossip: “I’ll pray. But before I forget, how is your mom doing?” or “Before I forget, what local restaurants are good?”


Sixth commandment: Do we bond with our spouse through intimacy?

You shall not commit adultery: “In marriage the physical intimacy of the spouses becomes a sign and pledge of spiritual communion.”

 

We churchgoers are not immune to any of the usual ways of breaking any of the commandments, including this one. But even if we guard our relationships, our thoughts, and our entertainments, we still might fail on the positive side of this commandment. Do we appreciate and woo our spouse? Do we behave, dress, and speak in ways to encourage the bond of intimacy?


Remedy: There are many resources that can help jump-start your marital relationship. Look at the “Marriage & Relationships” section under the “Family” tab at CatholicDigest.com to get started.


Seventh commandment: Is our tithe up to date?

You shall not steal: “Christian life strives to order this world’s goods to God and to fraternal charity.”

 

Even those of us who would never dream of slipping a watch into our pocket and walking quickly out of a store can break the seventh commandment: The Catechism stresses that it is about what we give, not just what we take. How is our tithing? Maybe we used to give but then stopped during a time of financial hardship. Is the hardship past? Maybe our gift used to be generous, but we make more money now. Or maybe we have just never gotten around to fulfilling our good intention to give.


Remedy: Why not sign up for the automatic pay program with the parish today? Base it on current financial circumstances!


Eighth commandment: Are we Facebook braggarts?

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor: “One should practice moderation and discipline in the use of the social communications media.”

 

Pope Benedict XVI addressed Facebook and Twitter in a very thorough way, though not by name, in the address he wrote for 2013’s World Communication Day. He said to be the same person online as we are in real life. He said not to share sensational, almost-true-but-not-quite information. He said not to seek popularity, but to witness to the beauty of Christian life with a modest voice of reason and love.


Remedy: Boasting violates the eighth commandment. Our online activity should be about sharing with others, not looking to feed our ego with “likes.”


Ninth commandment: Do we see souls or just bodies?

You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife: “Purity of heart…enables us to see according to God, to accept others as ‘neighbors.’”

 

Purity of heart means seeing everyone’s real worth. C.S. Lewis once wrote that if we truly understood what people are, we would realize as we were talking to someone that 100 years from now they will either be so beautiful in heaven that we would be tempted to worship them, or so horrible in hell we would be tempted to flee them. How could we look at someone with lust or any other ulterior motive when so much is at stake in their life?


Remedy: Every “religious person” should have a bit of what Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa had: They would “look at you like you were the only person in the room.” When seeing others, we can pray, “Lord, help me love my neighbor as I love myself.”


Tenth commandment: Do others’ spiritual gifts make us sad?

You shall not covet your neighbor’s possessions. “Envy is sadness at the sight of another’s goods.”

 

Keeping up with the Joneses happens in church circles, too. We start out wanting to be holy, but soon want to be the holiest. So we hide the less holy things that happen in our lives and promote the good things. Do we only volunteer or give money only when we foresee that we will get public recognition for it? Do we keep the messiness of our life away from our church friends, even though we could get real help there? Worst of all: Are we sad when we see someone succeed in their religious life because they surpass us?


Remedy: We should pray specifically for those who inspire the most envy in us. Pray: “Lord, may others be holier than I, provided I become as holy as I should.”


And we can add another prayer:

“Lord, help me be like Mary and Joseph, who followed you both religiously and personally. You know I love you. Help me to love you more each day by following your commandments with honesty, passion, and joy.”

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. Contact him at thoopes@benedictine.edu