Acts of the Apostles 15:7-21
After the discussion had gone on a long time, Peter stood up and addressed the apostles and elders.
"My brothers," he said, "you know perfectly well that in the early days God made his choice among you: the pagans were to learn the Good News from me and so become believers. In fact, God, who can read everyone's heart, showed his approval of them by giving the Holy Spirit to them just as he had to us. God made no distinction between them and us, since he purified their hearts by faith. It would only provoke God's anger now, surely, if you imposed on the disciples the very burden that neither we nor our ancestors were strong enough to support? Remember, we believe that we are saved in the same way as they are: through the grace of the Lord Jesus."
This silenced the entire assembly, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul describing all the signs and wonders God had worked through them among the pagans.
When they had finished it was James who spoke. "My brothers," he said, "listen to me. Simeon has described how God first arranged to enlist a people for his name out of the pagans. This is entirely in harmony with the words of the prophets, since the scriptures say:
After that I shall return
and rebuild the fallen House of David;
I shall rebuild it from its runs
and restore it.
Then the rest of mankind,
all the pagans who are consecrated to my name,
will look for the Lord,
says the Lord who made this known so long ago.
"I rule, then, that instead of making things more difficult for pagans who turn to God, we send them a letter telling them merely to abstain from anything polluted by idols, from fornication, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For Moses has always had his preachers in every town, and is read aloud in the synagogues every sabbath.
Jesus said to his disciples:
"As the Father has loved me,
so I have have loved you.
Remain in my love.
If you keep my commandments
you will remain in my love,
just as I have kept my Father's commandments
and remain in his love.
I have told you this
so that my own joy may be in you
and your joy may be complete."
A catechumen once cited today's first reading to me, asking why the Catholic Church must make it so difficult for a pagan who turns to God to enter the Church. Why must the Catholic Church make him go through one year of RCIA before allowing him to be baptised? And today, four years later, he is still asking that question. Why must the Church make it so difficult for pagans who turn to God to enter the Church?
And to this day, I still don't know. The answers that RCIA sponsors and priests give just don't satisfy. It always comes down to the same answer: because the Church says so. And this former catechumen friend of mine, now a full-fledged Catholic, despite his disagreement with this rule, submitted himself to the rule of the Church and underwent that one year of RCIA in order to be baptised. That is something that I continue to admire in him… even though he still makes the same complaint: why must the Church make it so difficult for pagans who turn to God to join the Church?
It is the same complaint that St. Paul made to the elders and they listened to him. He proposed that a letter containing some basic commandments be sent to the pagans who had turned to God, for the bulk of the commandments of the Church followed the commandments in the Old Testament which were read out in the synagogues at that time, every sabbath.
The bulk of the commandments of the Church are read out in at the pulpit every Sunday too. Why then is there the need for an unbaptised person to go through one year of RCIA before he can be baptised? It's not like the average Catholic has more knowledge about what he does and why he does it than the catechumen. It isn't about knowledge, is it? What then?
Lest I stray too far from my reflection, let me just rest this unsolved case for now, and focus on the commandments of the Church.
There is a law that we all live by, and it is called natural law. You don't have to be a believer of any faith to be able to see and understand that there is such a thing as natural law.
If I were to give you a colugo, and ask you to take care of it for me, would you be able to? The first question you'd ask me is, "What is a colugo?" A colugo is an animal that eats fruits. So now you know that, and you know that if you feed my colugo meat, it will die because it is not in the nature of a colugo to eat meat.
The first commandment of natural law:
1. Thou shall not feed the colugo meat.
What else do you need to know about my colugo before you can take care of it? You need to know it is a living, breathing, warm-blooded animal, so you would not put my colugo into the fridge or in an aquarium. There we have more commandments:
2. Thou shall not keep the colugo in the fridge.
3. Thou shall not drown the colugo.
If you were to take good care of my colugo, would you find it difficult to follow these commandments? Of course not, because these commandments are guidelines for you, teaching you how best to take care of my colugo and enhance its freedom. In fact, you'd ask me for even more commandments, because the more you know about my colugo, the more commandments you have, the better care you can take of my colugo.
It is the same way with human beings. All you need to do is to be able to look at yourself as a human person, and ask yourself, "What does it mean to be a human person? What is the dignity of a human person? How can I take care of myself as a human person?"
What is nature of a human person? The nature of a human person is something that if taken away from the human person, the person would no longer be human.
Thus, natural law seeks to preserve the nature of a human person.
If I were to cut off my fingernails, would that destroy my nature as a human person? No.
But if I were to cut off my head, would that destroy my nature as a human person? Yes, because I would lose my life and thus my humanity.
So some simple commandments come from preserving the life of a human person:
Thou shall not kill. (murder, suicide)
Thou shall not starve a dying person. (euthanasia)
Thou shall not kill an unborn child. (abortion)
Thou shall not play with human life. (eugenics, embryonic stem cell research, cloning)
Going further, we can also say that we shall not harm the person's physical body so as to harm his nature. Thus we have more commandments:
Thou shall not mutilate.
Thou shall not sterilize.
Thou shall not sell body parts.
But man is comprised of more than just his biological self; he is also comprised of his spiritual self… and it would seem that the field of psychology has silently given up on trying to isolate and determine what this spiritual self is.
Thus we have another commandment that tells us that we are not to affect the human person in a way that harms the human nature at superior levels (spiritual levels).
All these principles come not from scripture of any faith, but from the nature of things, the reality of things. Furthermore, they are not subjective i.e. they are not applicable to just one person, but is applicable to you, to me, to anyone reading this, and to anyone in Africa, America, Australia, Europe, India anywhere. It is applicable to all human persons. It is objective.
Finally, it is not religious, because not all religions are universal. But just because it doesn't come from religion means that it contradicts religion. On the contrary, it agrees with the common principles of religion and common sense.
This is what it means to take care of human nature. This is the purpose of the commandments that we have been given. All humans, no matter who they are or where they live, they tend towards happiness. Some people commit suicide, because they believe that this is what will make them happy. Warped, but if running away from reality seems to make them happy, then they will try to do so.
The thing is, now we go back to religion and the gospel reading, Jesus tells us that if we keep his commandments – to love one another as he has loved us – then we are doing that which will bring us complete happiness, complete joy.
It will not be difficult for us to obey the commandments, provided we really want to take care of ourselves as human persons. It will be easy, and we will want more commandments because this is how we can learn to take better care of ourselves, just like when we want more commandments to learn how to take better care of the colugo.
The Church is that which gives us the commandments, not from God alone, but from reality. The Church looks at reality and sees the natural law and she translates that natural law into commandments for us to follow, simply because the Church wants all human persons to be happy.
(content and examples borrowed from Father David Garcia, OP)