Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife. – Deuteronomy 5:21
The ninth and tenth commandments command against covetousness and ought to be read together, as the tenth commandment expands upon and completes the ninth commandment. In the traditional numbering of the commandments, the ninth commandment forbids coveting another’s spouse, and the tenth commandment forbids coveting someone else’s posessions. The sin of covetousness is to desire something that you know you don’t have a right to and to make an act of the will to possess it.
Merely desiring somthing isn’t a sin. Only disordered desires can be sinful. Desires can become sinful when we desire something that is bad, when we desire something in the wrong circumstances, or when we desire something too much. Wanting to eat an entire quart of ice cream is an example of desiring something too much. Wanting to eat fried chicken on Good Friday is an example of desiring something in the wrong circumstances, because we ought to be fasting and abstaining from meat on Good Friday. Wanting to do something because we know it’s a sin is an example of desiring something bad. All of this can be and is debated by moral theologians, but my main point is that desiring something isn’t wrong by itself, because our appetites are a natural part of human nature. However, we also shouldn’t think that something is okay just be we want it. We have to examine our desires and appetites to see if they accord with what is truly good.
However, desiring something isn’t a sin, even if we very strongly desire it; just like being tempted to sin isn’t a sin, even if you’re strongly tempted. We sin as soon as we make an act of the will. The sin isn’t desiring something that is wrong; the sin is in deciding to act on that desire. Notice, this is a sin even if you don’t actually do it. So, the sixth commandment forbids adultery, while the ninth forbids coveting your neighbor’s wife. Actually committing adultery is a sin, but deciding to commit adultery is also a sin, even if you don’t get the opportunity to act on it or you later change your mind. As Jesus said, “But I say to you, that whosoever shall look on a woman to lust after her, hath already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt. 5:28).
We all have temptations to sin, which are basically disordered desires. The question is how to deal with them. In relation to temptations of lust, we ought to practice modesty and custody of the eyes. On modesty, the Catechism says,
Modesty protects the mystery of persons and their love. It encourages patience and moderation in loving relationships; it requires that the conditions for the definitive giving and commitment of man and woman to one another be fulfilled. Modesty is decency. It inspires one’s choice of clothing. It keeps silence or reserve where there is evident risk of unhealthy curiosity. It is discreet. There is a modesty of the feelings as well as of the body. It protests, for example, against the voyeuristic explorations of the human body in certain advertisements, or against the solicitations of certain media that go too far in the exhibition of intimate things. Modesty inspires a way of life which makes is possible to resist the allurements of fashion and the pressures of prevailing ideologies (CCC 2522-2523).
Therefore, out of respect for human dignity and love for our neighbor, we ought to practice custody of the eyes by controlling what we look at, not treating others as mere objects, and promoting media that respects the dignity of the human person. Out of modesty, we should try not to lead others into sin by the way we speak, dress, and behave. This is not a limitation on our freedom, but instead a way to open ourselves to truly loving relationships.
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Fr. Bryan was pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes from July 3, 2017 to June 2022.