Catechism Commentary: The Ninth Commandment

Julie Hanlon Rubio, St. Louis University

The ninth commandment seems redundant, sexist, trivial, and maybe even impossible. Why, “Do not covet your neighbor’s wife,” when we already have the sixth commandment, “Do not commit adultery”? Why do women appear in the same list with animals and houses? What is so bad about desire? Can a person really control his or her thoughts?

The Catechism interprets the ninth commandment as forbidding “concupiscence” and requiring the disciplining of sexual desires that can lead to sin (#2515).  It urges Christians to cultivate “purity of heart” (#2517).  To be pure of heart is to treat all others as neighbors with love and respect (#2519).  The quest for purity is described as a “battle” that can only be won with great effort.

An emphasis on the heart is present both in the commandment and the Catechism.  The ninth commandment differs from the sixth because it treats desire as a part of the moral life, indicating that both emotion and action are important.  Interestingly, the Hebrew word translated as “covet” can mean greed (especially when used in relation to possessions) or craving (in relation to sex), but there is overlap between the two. The desire for more and better things is not unrelated to the desire for more and “better” partners.  A consumer society encourages both kinds of coveting and makes it more difficult to be satisfied and to live up to the demands of this commandment (#2525).

Although women are not directly addressed in the text, subsequent tradition applies the duty to avoid concupiscence to both men and women.  Even in Hebrew Bible, women are depicted as capable of destructive lust (e.g., Potiphar’s wife in Gen. 39). Scholars acknowledge that the inclusion of wives in the list of what may not be coveted means that women were considered, along with cattle and houses, as a kind of property.  Some claim that the separate mention of wives places women in a different category and may indicate that relationships are a part of what belongs to a person.  Contemporary Christians may reject the common listing while sharing the sensibility that when anyone desires a person who is already in a committed relationship, a violation occurs.

Though coveting may not seem to be as fundamental as killing or stealing, it is similarly related to the good of community. The word for coveting in Hebrew suggests not simply desire but desire that leads to action.  The Hebrew Bible is full of stories of the social chaos that results when relationships are violated. For example, because David covets a married woman, he sends her husband to his death in battle (2 Sam. 11-12).  If followed, the commandments provide a framework for realization of the common good.

Is it possible to control desires? The Catholic tradition claims that it is.  Desires are not simply given. They can be shaped by prevailing cultural norms or directed toward self-giving love.  Attending to one’s ultimate end of resting in God’s embrace can inspire a redirection of desire. Eros, as Benedict XVI has written, is not to be denied but purified by agape.  If we read this as a denial that sexual desire and sex itself are good, then we misread the contemporary tradition.  The idea is to avoid the kind of desire that treats people as objects or is incompatible with chastity, while cultivating rich sexual relationships within marriage.