Dialogika Resources

News Release: Catholic-Jewish Dialogue Says Ten Commandments Can Provide Basis for Secular Arguments on Contemporary Issues


WASHINGTON—The Ten Commandments can provide the basis for secular arguments on contemporary moral issues, members of the Catholic-Jewish Consultation noted at an April 30 meeting in New York.

The consultation, which includes representatives of the United State Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (OU)," and the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), meets twice a year. The recent meeting focused on religion and public morality in today's American society.

Co-founded in 1998, by the late Cardinal John O'Connor, the Consultation meets to discuss moral and cultural issues that impact Catholic and Jewish life in the nation. The April 30 session included two presentations, one Catholic and one Jewish, on the Ten Commandments as a basis for negotiating contemporary societal issues like abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and same sex unions.

Father Arthur Kennedy, rector of St. John's Seminary, Boston, examined how the Ten Commandments, or Decalogue, has functioned in the Catholic tradition not only as a means of forming Christian consciences, but also as a basis for making secular arguments in support of moral positions. Father Kennedy drew on the early Church Fathers and medieval doctors, and argued that the Decalogue has been a privileged expression of the natural law within both Christian and religiously pluralistic societies. For believers and non-believers alike, "it has been a reminder of the immutable and universally obliging principles which cultures dispense of at their peril," he said. He added that "civilization decays when the higher law written in the human heart is no longer taught."

Speaking from a Jewish perspective, David Berger, Ph.D., head of the Jewish Studies Department at Yeshiva College, New York City, drew a distinction between the religious character of the first four commandments and the "secular" character of the other six. "The Sabbath, for example, is a quintessentially religious commandment, a ritual observance, even though it also has the social values of rest, freedom from work, and bringing people together," he said. The Sabbath has also influenced secular views on human dignity and human rights. However, when it comes to codifying civil law in a country that upholds church-state separation, Berger argued that religious prescriptions carry little weight unless they are also based on secular reason and need.

Both scholars acknowledged the role that belief in God plays not only in motivating citizens to will the good for themselves and others, but also in giving public recognition to the transcendent source of authentic human values. Subsequent discussion among Consultation participants revealed a common desire to be faithful to one's own religious interpretations, while at the same time seeking the common patrimony that enables the two sides to speak together on public issues.

Previous meetings of the USCCB-OU Consultation have addressed school choice and education tax credits, anti-religious bias in the media and peace initiatives to resolve the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The consultation is co-chaired by Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre, New York, and Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld, Rabbi of Young Israel Synagogue in Kew Gardens Hills, New York.

The Consultation recently drafted a statement defending marriage between one man and one woman that will be published in the coming weeks. Both Catholics and Orthodox Jews view the efforts of courts and legislatures to broaden the definition of marriage to include same-sex unions as harmful to both family life and the common good of society.

Other Catholic members of the dialogue included Christian Brother David Carroll, Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen, Father Lawrence Frizzell, Father Walter Kedjierski, and Atonement Father James Loughran. Jewish community members included Howard Beigelman, Nathan Diamant, Betty Ehrenberg, Rabbi Basil Herring, Rabbi Yonatan Kaganoff, Rabbi Joseph Karasick, and Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb.