The Pursuit of Happiness and the Ten Commandments

By Regis J. Flaherty

The Sermon on the Mount, from the Sistine Chapel, c.1481-83 (fresco)

When you hear the word “commandment,” what first comes to mind? I suspect many of us think of a list of rules or “thou shalt nots.” When you hear the word “morality,” you may think of a code of conduct that limits our freedom and, well, fun. When asked once why he was studying the Commandments, the late comic W. C. Fields replied that he was “looking for loopholes.”  

The fact is that many of us have been trained to think of Christian morality as oppressive and outdated. At the same time, not an insignificant number of Christians are attracted to the person and the message of Christ—at least as they understand it. This leads some to consider themselves “spiritual” or even to want a “personal relationship” with Jesus. But they want no part of the Church, which is popularly perceived as the caretaker of all these oppressive and outdated rules. Some may want Christ without the Church; nobody wants the Church without Christ.  

Yet, the point of morality is not simply to follow a bunch of rules. Rather, morality is about the pursuit of happiness. God wired us for happiness and after the sin of our first parents has fathered the human family in such a way as to lead us back to Him. God’s saving plan culminated in the coming of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, who gives us the blueprint to happiness. As Jesus Himself said, if we love Him, we will keep His commandments (John 14:15).  

The Christian life, then, is principally about following Christ, not obeying commandments—but we must do both to be happy. Perhaps the world of sports provides a useful analogy. As Coach Herm Edwards once said, “You play to win the game.” The goal of football, basketball, and soccer is not simply to avoid fouls and penalties, but to play well and win. For good players, the rules become second nature. But they are important—a team that frequently violates the rules of the game will not experience success. 

We often hear that we are supposed to follow our conscience. Yet, a faulty view of conscience can be the source of errors of judgment in moral conduct (CCC 1792). For many, it seems that following one’s conscience simply means doing whatever one feels like doing. Yet conscience is about doing what we know is right (true and good) and not about doing what I might feel like doing at the moment—which can often be simply allowing our passions, rather than our intellect and will, to take the lead in our moral decision-making, often with disastrous results.  

Also, if we profess to be Catholic, and the Catholic Church officially teaches that a certain behavior is “intrinsically evil,” how can we rationalize that such behavior is “right for me”? As can be readily seen, an appeal to conscience can sometimes be relativistic and self-serving, and can be mistakenly used to justify dissent from authoritative moral teachings.  

Jesus said to the rich young man, “If you would enter life, keep the commandments” (Matt 19:17). Even though Jesus came to give us a new law and a new covenant, He makes it clear that His followers must keep the commandments. He did not come to abolish the Ten Commandments but to fulfill them (Matt 5:17–20).  

Our Lord invites us to discover the Ten Commandments anew. He lived them perfectly and revealed their full meaning. Even more, He now gives us His Holy Spirit so that we can keep the commandments, despite our fallen nature. He also has left us the Sacrament of Reconciliation, so that He can pour out His abundant mercy upon us whenever we fail to live according to the commandments.  

He interpreted the Ten Commandments in light of the twofold commandment of love: Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself (Matt 22:36–40). Traditional catechesis divides the commandments accordingly, first covering those that pertain to love of God (1–3), and then addressing the commandments that pertain to love of neighbor (4–10).  

Another word for the Ten Commandments is the Decalogue, which means “ten words” (Ex 34:28). These “words” summarize the law given by God to Moses as the blueprint for living a good life free from slavery to sin. We have free will—to a large extent we can do whatever we like. But when our choices violate the commandments, we are acting against our own best interests. In other words, we are choosing misery and slavery to sin rather than virtue and happiness.  

These “words” are perennially valid. For that reason Christians must keep the commandments. They express our fundamental duties owed in justice toward God and neighbor. Upon this foundation, the virtues of faith, hope, and especially charity are able to flourish in us. 


Regis J. Flaherty, director of the Gilmary Retreat Center, has over thirty years of experience working with Catholic organizations. He is a bestselling author of several books, including the Faith Basics series.