You shall not covet . . . anything that is your neighbor’s. . . . You shall not desire your neighbor’s house, his field, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s (Ex 20:17; Deut 5:21).
I always find it a bit perplexing when I hear people argue that the Ten Commandments are foundational for American civil law, and thus appropriate to display on public property, especially court houses. Besides the fact that the first three commandments deal directly with God, the tenth deals not with action, but rather with desire, which seems far beyond the purview of the law’s reach. You simply cannot legislate how people feel, and yet, this is the subject of the final commandment.
The tenth commandment concerns the intentions of the heart; with the ninth, it summarizes all the precepts of the Law (2534)
The Tenth Commandment is the climax of the Law, revealing its comprehensive scope. God is not just concerned with human action; his primary concern is human agents, that is, who His people are. In contemporary ethical parlance, we often contrast action-based theories of morality with agent-based theories of morality. Utilitarian and deontological theories of ethics are examples of the former while virtue ethics is an example of the latter. Catholic ethics is an example of an agent-based approach to ethics. The moral theology section of the Catechism emphasizes again and again that good actions are not sufficient; God demands that we are also good people (1755, 1770).
The Tenth Commandment challenges the way we typically think about morality. How often have you heard someone say something along the lines of “It’s just the way I feel. I can’t control my feelings!” And yet, God demands that we do precisely this, that we control the way we feel. The fulfillment of the law rests on the fact that we are able to control our appetites, particularly our sensitive appetite which “leads us to desire pleasant things we do not have, e.g., the desire to eat when we are hungry or to warm ourselves when we are cold. These desires are good in themselves; but often they exceed the limits of reason and drive us to covet unjustly what is not ours and belongs to another or is owed to him” (2535).
In Aquinas’ virtue ethics, it is the virtue of temperance which gives us the power (virtue literally comes from the Latin word meaning “power”) to control our sensitive appetite and bring it in line with reason. Note that neither the Tenth Commandment nor the virtue of temperance is about suppressing or obliterating desire, but rather about expressing desire in the way appropriate to our human nature. As Aquinas writes in his treatise on temperance,
Nature inclines everything to whatever is becoming to it. Wherefore man naturally desires pleasures that are becoming to him. Since, however, man as such is a rational being, it follows that those pleasures are becoming to man which are in accordance with reason. From such pleasures temperance does not withdraw him, but from those which are contrary to reason. Wherefore it is clear that temperance is not contrary to the inclination of human nature but is in accord with it. It is, however, contrary to the inclination of the animal nature that is not subject to reason (II-II, Q. 141, art. 1, ad. 1).
God wants human beings to have desires and appetites. It is our desire which ultimately leads us to God: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you,” St. Augustine wrote in The Confessions, that great treatise on human desire. The Catechism echoes this sentiment in affirming the integral role desire plays on our journey back to God: “Desire for true happiness frees man from his immoderate attachment to the goods of this world so that he can find his fulfillment in the vision and beatitude of God. ‘The promise [of seeing God] surpasses all beatitude. . . . In Scripture, to see is to possess. . . . Whoever sees God has obtained all the goods of which he can conceive'” (2548). But our human desire is also what most endangers us from finding God, when we desire excessively those goods which lead us away from God or which replace God. This is what is meant by the word “covet”: an inordinate desire for what is not God.
The Tenth Commandment finds its fulfillment in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus reveals the way to controlling desire: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Mt. 6:21). We cannot simply will that we feel a certain way. We cannot just will our heart be right. Instead, we must train (or habituate) ourselves to desire the right things in the right way: “Jesus enjoins his disciples to prefer him to everything and everyone, and bids them “renounce all that [they have]” for his sake and that of the Gospel” (2544). The invitation to discipleship is an invitation to renounce the goods of this world, not simply to be poor, but to be poor in spirit as well, that is, to have the right sort of heart which desires the right sort of treasure.
The Tenth Commandment, and its fulfillment in the Sermon on the Mount, is a reminder that human beings are a holistic unity of body and soul. Action and desire are integrally related. The way we live will determine the way we feel. Our heart cannot be right with God unless our actions are right with God, but in the same way, our actions cannot be right with God unless our heart is right with God. The Tenth Commandment is also the most challenging to obey in our world today. Everywhere and always, advertisements teach us to want more and to want better all that which comes to replace God. A culture of “keeping up with the Joneses” turns our attention to our neighbors’ houses, cars, kids, and recreation for more things to desire if we are to be happy. Even the Christian calendar has been reduced to an opportunity to buy, have, and want more as Christmas and Easter have become major boons for big business.
In the midst of this, Jesus tells those who accept the invitation to follow him to give all this up: “The Lord grieves over the rich, because they find their consolation in the abundance of goods. ‘Let the proud seek and love earthly kingdoms, but blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.’ Abandonment to the providence of the Father in heaven frees us from anxiety about tomorrow. Trust in God is a preparation for the blessedness of the poor. They shall see God” (2547). And God does not leave us alone in our struggle, but offers us the grace necessary to not only relinquish our hold on those things which end up holding us, but also to heal our wounded hearts so that they may begin to desire above all things God who is the fulfillment of desire.