This takes us back to the earliest biblical accounts, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church even today organizes sinful moral acts using the outline of the Ten Commandments. There are places where the Ten Commandments have been engraved in stone in public courthouses and the like, at least until ACLU lawyers arrived upon the scene. I wonder, though, if those who use the Ten Commandments as the last word on morality have actually read the full elaboration of the Law as spelled out in the very Biblical texts.
Take the Fifth Commandment, for example. “Thou shalt not kill” seems like a fairly straightforward command—until we read its full context. This commandment better reads “thou shalt not kill another freeborn Israelite male” because the full commentary of Deuteronomy provides a number of exceptions justifying the taking of life for a variety of punitive reasons that even Jesus did not condone. For example, if upon marriage a man discovers that his bride is not a virgin, and this “fact” is “proven” by the condition of the wedding night bed linen, the woman (probably all of 14 years-old) is to be stoned by the townspeople. (Deut. 22:13-21) An unruly (“incorrigible”) son may be stoned to death at parents’ request as well. (Deut. 21: 18-21)
Again, the Sixth Commandment seems straightforward enough until we read Deuteronomy 21: 10-17 and its variety of contradictions, including the directive that a woman taken captive after the death of her husband in battle must be given thirty-days to mourn before she is taken to bed by her captor. My point here is not to belittle the text or the belief behind it; Deuteronomy itself observes that the execution of an unruly son or a promiscuous woman is the manner of “purging evil from your midst.” Rather, any fair-minded individual of this century will make allowances for (1) the limitations of understanding at the time of composition; and (2) the evolution of moral thinking and religious observance.
Jesus himself revered the Law, and quoted the Scripture with emphasis, as with regard to marriage and divorce from Genesis 1, for example. He also commented on the Law’s interpretation and development, as when he observed that Moses permitted divorce “because of the hardness of your hearts.” He, like at least some of his confreres in faith, did not apparently embrace a literal application of Deuteronomy, as in the case of the woman caught in adultery during Jesus’ ministry. It is hard to imagine that the Judaea of Jesus’ lifetime was unaffected by Roman law or Greek philosophy. In fact, the Judaism of Jesus’ time was considerably divided on the struggle of past versus present versus future.
The passage of time and the evolution of knowledge and circumstances is precisely the reason we call morality a “science” today. It is not that religions create morality from age to age, like drawing up plays in schoolyard football. Rather, religion attempts to translate the core of its beliefs into the language and understanding of its time. Moreover, there are circumstances and developments in human history that a religious tradition is encountering for the first time, and thus the moral challenge is application: how would God want us to deal with this set of circumstances?
Often these “circumstances” are of a social nature. The Catholic Church, for example, continues to struggle with democracy, where public conduct and policy is shaped by the electorate in what is admittedly a messy process at times. In 1864 Pope Pius IX basically condemned democracy in favor of a theocracy or a religious (Catholic) state. On the other hand, democracy has enlightened the Church’s moral process, too. There were a number of sitting Catholic bishops in the southern United States when slavery was legal. Para. 2414 of the Catechism forbids slavery—and its sole footnote is Paul’s Letter to Philemon; the Catholic history of moral teachings on the subject is simply not very deep.
It would be a wonderful thing if there was a golden box of moral answers to every possible moral situation, but God has not ordained it so. Rather, He sent his Son whose “golden box” is his life, his beatitudes, and his death upon the cross. It is the Catholic moral project in every age to sort this out for its time. It is, as we will see, an intriguing process. While I will focus on our own recent century, I will also lay some groundwork of New Testament morality, the third century’s definition of sin, the emergence of confession and the books for confessors originated by the Irish monks of the later first millennium, and the “manuals” of sin that emerged after the Council of Trent and remained the primary sources of Catholic morality until the Vatican II. As older Catholics we are products of the Manualist era of moral theology; those born after the Council came into an era when moral theology was reconnected to the full discipline of theology and based upon the foundation of Baptismal conversion. That we as a Church currently function with a foot in each epoch accounts for much of the moral controversy we see today.