Thoughts on Ten Commandments Monument
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director
North Dakota Catholic Conference
July 2007

The decision by the City of Fargo to remove – and then not remove – a Ten Commandments monument on city property became one of the hot issues of the summer. Depending on your point of view, the original decision to remove the monument was either a triumph for constitutional principles, an erosion of our nation's traditions, or a silly distraction from more pressing issues.

The wisdom of the city council's decision or its subsequent reversal is not the subject of this column. Instead, I want to take the opportunity to examine the issue, and particularly the Ten Commandments, in their proper perspectives.

The question the City of Fargo leaders – and indeed all of us -- must answer is: Are the Ten Commandments religious or secular? The difficulty people have with the issue is that the answer to the question is “both.”

For the Catholic, the Ten Commandments are first and foremost religious. The Catechism teaches several important lessons about the Commandments. First, unlike other laws and prescriptions of the Old Testament, the Ten Commandments came directly from God. Second, the Commandments take on their full meaning, and should not be considered separate from, God's covenant with the people of Israel. Third, the Commandments find their fulfillment and completeness in Jesus Christ. (Incidentally, the Pope elaborates on this point in his new book,
Jesus of Nazareth.) Fourth, the Commandments form a coherent whole. A person cannot separate the seemingly secular commandments from the seemingly religious commandments.

These lessons reveal the essential religious dimension of the Ten Commandments. The Catholic should never think of the Commandments outside of their religious significance. Doing so leads to an deficient understanding of the Commandments. Downplaying the religious significance of the Commandments provides an imperfect picture and is arguably an offense to God.

Supporters of the Fargo monument probably failed to realize this point when, at rallies and activities, lamented the absence of religious leaders publicly joining the call to keep the monument. Religious leaders, more than most, are probably more sensitive to the dangers of portraying the Commandments as something other than religious. There is, of course, always a danger of secularizing God's Commandments.

All this does not mean, however, that there is not a valid argument for posting the Ten Commandments in an area which is supposed to be essentially free of religious indoctrination. As already mentioned, the Commandments are religious
and secular, in the sense that their truths are not dependent upon acceptance of any religion or God.

The truths of the Commandments are part of the natural law, meaning they are understandable and acceptable through the use of reason alone. Even the Catechism explains that although the Commandments belong to God's revelation, they express fundamental truths about the human person that anyone can accept. I sometimes explain the dual source of some truths this way: God, through the Ten Commandments tells us “Thou shall not steal,” but one does not need to be religious to conclude that stealing is wrong.

This difference between revealed and natural law, by the way, is the key to understanding why the Catholic Church, through bodies like the North Dakota Catholic Conference, is not seeking to establish a theocracy. The Church only seeks in the civil law that which is knowable through the natural law.

One could argue that some of the Commandments are solely religious. Admittedly, some look like that at first glance. However, thoughtful reflection on all the Commandments would reveal fundamental truths for all persons.

Given that the truths of the Ten Commandments are part of the natural law, it is not surprising that they have formed the basis of law in Western civilization and have their counterparts in non-Western law. This fusion of fundamental truths and history form the justification for posting the Ten Commandments in public, even government-owned, spaces.

Unfortunately, much of society has lost an understanding of natural law and the ability to identify dual sources of truth. Some of this loss is due to increasing secularism, but much is also the result of our nation's history of biblical literalism and “Bible alone” theology. As a result, debates like that involving the Fargo monument become muddled. The two sides cannot agree because they, in a sense, do not even speak the same language. The whole event demonstrates the need to restore and renew the natural law tradition in our country. It is as task uniquely suited for Catholics.