Promoting Life: Teaching the Fifth Commandment

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by Kate Ristow

[CLICK HERE] for a Scripture-related reproducible that will help students reflect on what the Bible says about living the Fifth Commandment.

Page through a daily newspaper. Watch the evening news. You can’t miss it: murder, violence, poverty, abuse and neglect, injustice, abortion, drunk driving. Our world is filled with a seemingly endless array of assaults on the sanctity of life. It is so pervasive, in fact, that we’ve become almost hardened to the everydayness of it all.

But then something happens—a tornado strikes a; tower falls; bullets riddle a grammar school; bombs explode—and once again, we are reminded that life is a precious gift that we are called to preserve and protect.

We all know the Fifth Commandment: You shall not kill. On its face, it seems an easy Commandment to keep. We are forbidden from taking the life of another person. Yet, the Fifth Commandment goes far beyond these four words. The Catechism of the Catholic Church devotes fifteen pages to what this Commandment forbids and the implications of what it means to promote life—the heart of this important teaching (see nos. 2258-2330). As catechists, we must emphasize both elements. See the section titled “You Shall Not” toward the end of this article for a summary of serious violations of the Fifth Commandment.

Keeping, Not Just Violating

“The Gift of Life” (Donum vitae, 1987), from the Congregation of the Faith, states: “Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end” (see CCC, n. 2258; emphasis in original).

Although it is important that our students learn the acts that violate the Fifth Commandment, it also is essential that they develop a reverence for life from its beginning until its natural end. We must help them find ways to affirm life as sacred at every stage and every age.

If children are able to see every life—including their own—as a gift from God, it is more likely they will understand that we are called to live the Fifth Commandment. The Commandment is something we support because life is precious; it is not just a series of things we are forbidden to do. Although kids must learn the don’ts, they will profit greatly by learning the do’s. They need to know as much about keeping the Commandment as they do about violating it.

Promoting Respect for Life

In teaching the Fifth Commandment—beginning even with the youngest children—emphasize the importance of respect. We show respect for life because we are God’s children, and each of us is made in God’s image and likeness.

Ask students to brainstorm the different ways we show respect for ourselves (i.e., we look both ways before we cross the street, we eat healthy food and avoid junk food, we don’t smoke or take drugs, we wear helmets when we ride bikes, we attempt peaceful means to resolve differences, etc.).

Next, have students work in small groups to create lists of ways they can show respect for others (i.e., be polite, treat classmates as friends, be fair, don’t make fun of others, stand up for or get help for anyone who is being bullied, etc.). Depending on the age of the students you teach, the lists will vary greatly. But if we want the kids to live the Fifth Commandment, we have to help them break it open so that they can understand the nuances of actually living it.

The Importance of Age-Appropriate Catechesis

Because the Fifth Commandment covers a broad range of behavior, it would be good to decide as a staff when different elements of the Commandment will be taught. For example, primary students are too young to be taught about suicide, in vitro fertilization, abortion, and other issues; it’s best to help them focus on caring for themselves and their bodies and protecting the lives of all people, especially the youngest and the oldest members of our human family.

Then decide at what age it is appropriate to teach the tougher issues and how much detail you want to provide without infringing on parents’ rights. Tread carefully. While we do have a definite responsibility to fully teach the Fifth Commandment, certain elements are hot-button issues in many parishes, especially when parents feel that only they have the right to discuss anything that touches on sexual behavior. In all cases, look for activities that enable you to help students affirm and celebrate life.

Activities that Promote and Nurture Life

Baby Bottle Campaign: The Knights of Columbus councils in many dioceses sponsor Baby Bottle Campaigns. Students can work in conjunction with the Knights to collect funds in the same way. New, capped baby bottles (without nipples) are purchased, or used bottles can be donated. Students distribute the bottles to families participating in the program, explaining that the family is to place money in the bottles. The money collected is used to purchase specific “big-ticket” items that babies need (car seats, cribs, baby swings, etc.). These items can be donated to an infant lending closet or a pregnancy help center.

You Are Special! Have students write five things on index cards that are special about themselves. Join the children in this activity by making your own list. Over the next several sessions, invite a few volunteers to come to the front of the room to read aloud their lists, pausing after each statement. Have the class reply, “(student’s name) is special!” at each pause. Conclude the reading of each list with applause. Don’t forget to take your turn!

Baby Shower in a Box: Help students make a list of items that newborns need, and then allow students to choose the item(s) they want to purchase. Send a note home explaining the project and asking parents to help their children finance the purchases. Have the children bring in their items at the next class, wrap and assemble the items, and place them in a decorated box. Deliver the box to the parish ministry that works with pregnant teens. Include a note of encouragement from the class, signed by all the children—first names only!

Pat on the Back: This activity is designed for older kids. It encourages them to affirm one another. Schedule it for later in the year so that the children know each other well. Tape a 9” x 12” piece of light-colored construction paper on each child’s back. Invite each student to roam about the room and write on each person’s paper a trait he or she admires about that classmate. (Use fine-line markers with washable ink for the activity.) Before beginning, emphasize that they are to write only positive comments and that you will be supervising them during the activity. Afterward, allow time for students to read all the positive things their classmates wrote about them. Then discuss with the class how this activity affirmed them and how it helps us to show respect for life.

What’s On? Divide the class into small groups and give each group two or three issues of television listings. Also provide the groups with scissors, glue sticks, markers, and paper. Instruct each group to make two columns on the paper and label the left column “Choosing Life” and the right column “Not Choosing Life.” Have students look through the listings, cut out descriptions of various programs, and paste them in the appropriate column. Afterward, invite volunteers to share their choices. Then discuss with the class how they can show support for television shows that affirm life. For example, students might write or email the stations or the advertising sponsors to express appreciation for supporting life-affirming programming.

Mirror, Mirror: Print the words “I am made in the image and likeness of God” on a piece of tag board and place the tag board sign above a mirror you have hung in your learning space. Invite students to look in the mirror at themselves and then to read to themselves the words on the sign. Tell them they can do this activity at home, too. Help students appreciate that God loves all his children and wants us to love ourselves and one another as he does.

Working Together: Invite members of your parish seniors’ group to join you for one class session. Pair up the students and seniors and have each pair make a poster that celebrates life at different stages and ages. Have on hand magazines and old textbooks as sources of pictures that can be used to celebrate all the stages and ages of life. Have the pairs make up titles for their posters and encourage them to use their own drawings and words as well. Conclude the session with a social. Display the posters in public areas of the parish.

Bully for You! Have students form small groups and have each group come up with a situation in which someone their age might be bullied. Then allow time for each group to create a role-play that demonstrates how the group thinks the situation should be handled. Invite each group to perform its role-play for the rest of the class. As you discuss each situation, emphasize the importance of standing up for others and acting with love toward our neighbors.

Good News! Give students construction paper and crayons and have them make greeting cards for parishioners who are hospitalized or restricted to home due to illness or old age. Talk with the children about why it is important to honor and show care for those who are elderly and vulnerable. If possible, obtain the names of specific individuals from your Ministry of Care so that the students’ cards can be personalized. Encourage students to include positive, upbeat messages in their cards. Help them by printing several appropriate Scripture passages on the board for them to use in their cards. For example, “Be glad in the Lord” (Psalm 32:11), “I thank God for you always” (based on 1 Corinthians 1:4), or “Rejoice in the Lord always!” (Philippians 4:4). Have students sign their first names and last initials (Suzie R.) and information that identifies your class (Gr. 4, Tuesday, Room 212). You’d be surprised how many people will want to write the children back! Arrange for ministers of care to deliver the cards.

This article has touched on only a few of the hundreds of ways in which we can affirm and cultivate a culture that nurtures life. Help your students appreciate that each time they help others and celebrate life, they are living the Fifth Commandment.

You Shall Not

The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults identifies nine life issues that violate the Fifth Commandment. They are listed below. For further clarification, see “Life Issues That Confront Us” in Chapter 29 of the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, and nos. 2258-2330 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Murder: Except in cases of self-defense or in the defense of others, murder is forbidden.

Abortion: Modern technology makes clear that life begins at conception, the moment the egg is fertilized. The Church’s condemnation of abortion can be traced back to the Apostles.

In vitro fertilization: This practice is against God’s law because fertilized eggs are discarded or destroyed in the process.

Stem-cell research and cloning: Although the human embryo may be regarded as the best source of stem cells, retrieving the cells requires that the embryo be destroyed. Every embryo is a human life that must be protected. Cloning is forbidden because it also involves the destruction of embryos. It is important to note that the Church approves of medical treatments and research using adult stem cells, bone marrow, and placentas and umbilical cords—all of which offer great potential in curing or treating many medical conditions.

Euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide: “Mercy” killing and suicide are always wrong. In the 1995 encyclical titled “The Gospel of Life” (Evangelium vitae, n. 47), Blessed Pope John Paul II wrote, “No one…can arbitrarily choose whether to live or die; the absolute master of such a decision is the Creator alone, in whom ‘we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28).”

The death penalty: The Church does not forbid the imposition of the death penalty, but it does insist that the death penalty be used only when the death of the individual is the only way to protect society. When the death penalty is carried out, it should be done with compassion and mercy, not anger and vengeance. The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults emphasizes that violence does not prevent violence (see “The Death Penalty” in chapter 29).

War: Church leaders have consistently pointed out that the best way to avoid war is to promote and safeguard peace and to work for disarmament among all nations. We must also recognize that poverty, injustice, and the denial of basic human rights often lead to war. However, the Church has identified conditions under which war is justified. This would include, for example, when one’s homeland is invaded or threatened, as long as moral principles—such as the just treatment of prisoners, wounded soldiers, and civilians—are upheld.

Terrorism: There is no valid reason for acts of terror. They cannot be justified by any moral code or religious principle. We must do all we can to eradicate circumstances such as poverty and discrimination that make people vulnerable to engaging in terrorism (see “Terrorism” in Chapter 29 of the USCCA).

Scandal: Scandal occurs when someone tempts another person to commit an evil act. Jesus called these tempters “false prophets” or “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (see Matthew 7:15). We are called to love and help one another to lead moral lives, not to lead others to sin.

Kate Ristow, Contributing Editor to CATECHIST, has worked in Catholic publishing for over 25 years as a national speaker and writer, building on a wealth of experience in the religious formation of children and catechists in both parish and Catholic school programs

Copyright 2014, Bayard, Inc. All rights reserved. This article is protected by United States copyright and other intellectual property laws and may not be reproduced, rewritten, distributed, redisseminated, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast, directly or indirectly, in any medium without the prior written permission of Bayard, Inc.

This article was written by the Catechist Staff and appeared in Catechist magazine, May 2014.

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