The case against adultery seems clearly spelled out in the sixth commandment: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Even if that does not prove sufficient, we can always quote Jesus Himself: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Mt 5:27-28)” For Catholics, as for any who profess that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, this seems to rest the case. What more is there to say?
If it is so clear cut, though, why then do so many, especially professing Christians, fall into the snares of adultery? The answers to this are varied. Some fall into adultery without every having realized they were at risk. They’ll claim that it just happened. Others will cite an unhappy marriage that was effectively over anyway, and the tryst was justified by the pursuit of happiness. Others still will commit acts of adultery that they don’t even realize is adultery.
How does this happen? Perhaps we’re not as clear as we can be on what adultery actually is. If we just imagine it as “Don’t sleep with another man’s wife”, we have a head start on the idea, but that by itself is insufficient.
At the core of adultery is unfaithfulness, infidelity. That is why God and prophets continually refer to the unfaithfulness of Israel as adultery, calling the nation of Israel as a whole an adulteress. Unfaithfulness, then, is much more than just copulation with another’s spouse. In fact, the Catechism speaks of all sexuality under the heading of the sixth commandment, and links all sexual sin to adultery.
Does that mean that fornication and masturbation, topics we have discussed already, are forms of adultery? In a sense, they are. By nature, they are the claiming for oneself what rightfully belongs to one’s spouse, even if one is not yet married. Masturbation turns the sexual act inward, perverts from an act of giving to act of selfish gratification. While it may be overdramatic to say that one is cheating on his spouse with himself, it is accurate to say he has betrayed the very meaning of his marriage. And that is just in the act of attaining sexual pleasure; it does not even consider whatever fantasies a man uses to aid stimulation.
Fornication, too, constitutes to an act of adultery by way of anticipation. This is most obvious when a man sleeps with a woman who will not ultimately be his wife. Here he very obviously gives away to another woman (assuming that there’s even any giving involved) what rightfully belongs to his spouse. In a sense, he’s betrayed her before they even had a chance to build a relationship. Our society has tried to become increasingly blasé about having multiple sexual partners before marriage, even moving from tolerating and condoning the act to actually applauding it. But the damage is apparent: in the precedent that is set, in the ill-conceived notions of what marriage truly is, in the failed marriages and fractured families. Is it really any wonder that having multiple partners prior to marriage is a good predictor of unfaithfulness later on?
But wait, some will cry. How could we possibly denounce sleeping with someone prior to being married when we—hypocritically it seems—condone it in certain cases? These people will object that we allow remarriage after a spouse has died. At that point, at least one person is coming into the marriage with carnal knowledge of another. Doesn’t that somehow invalidate the notion that we Catholics have of needing to remain a virgin until marriage? A similar case could be made when a declaration of nullity is made and one or the other marries, or even for cases of rape.
This confuses what is actually at stake, which is chastity. Chastity isn’t simply the absence of sex, and is not a synonym for virginity. Certainly the unmarried are called to refrain from sexual activity in order to be chaste, but chastity is actually fulfilled in the loving marital embrace (though married couples can chastely refrain from ever having sex, as well). On the flip side, even married couples can violate chastity by engaging in sexual activity that is contrary to the loving, unitive, and procreative nature of sex.
Yes, that’s right. A man can be unfaithful to his wife with his wife. All that is required is that inward turning of the sexual act, the moving it from a self-giving and life-giving act to an act of self-gratification. The reservation of self betrays the marriage vows, is in itself an infidelity.
Now, before anyone protests, I’m not trying to say that taking pleasure from sex constitutes unfaithfulness. That’s always the complaint people like to level at Catholics: if we take pleasure in something, we must be doing something sinful. Far from it! We Catholics know how to enjoy life and take pleasure from it. There are times for seeking pleasure, such as when a long day at work demands some form of recreation in the evening for relaxation. But we also know that when pleasure becomes our ultimate goal, and such trivialities like worship of God and devotion to our spouses become secondary, then we are doing something very wrong.
The point of this tangent is that a man who lives in a chaste relationship with his wife—and being married, that includes loving, marital sex—does not at all betray his second spouse by having had sex with his first. On the contrary: his chaste first marriage betokens a chaste second marriage; his fidelity to his first wife translates then into a greater possibility of fidelity to the second. Why? Because his dedication to chastity, not his virginal status, is the key factor. If he was chaste prior to marriage, chaste during marriage, and chaste after marriage, he has maintained faithfulness to God, his spouse, and anyone he marries afterwards.
For this reason, a man who was granted nullity has not necessarily lived unchastely by having relations with the woman he believed was his wife, though this depends on what led to a declaration of nullity. If he, in good faith, acted chastely in his marriage, that did not betray any future spouse. For the case of rape, the matter is even clearer: as the victim chose against sexual congress, her chastity was not violated.
So a man is unfaithful to his wife not only by sleeping with another woman while married, but also by behaving unchastely in other means. We have discussed fornication and masturbation. Another grave means of committing adultery—one that at times is glossed over in the name of “as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone”—is pornography. While we more or less know that we’re not supposed to look at the woman sitting at the table across from us and think of how nice it would be to sleep with her, we have more trouble when she’s in a magazine or on the computer screen.
The justification we use is that the picture has already been taken. We’re just looking at an image. And while that image is of a real woman, she’s not physically present. We can’t actually copulate with her. But again, that goes back to thinking that we only commit adultery when we actually have sex with someone other than our spouses. Even worse, though, is that we even try to slip past Jesus’ warning against adultery of the mind. Okay, we say, this is a picture of a real woman, but for all we know she could be twenty years dead. Thus she’s not even around to lust after. We’re just looking at a picture.
The point we miss, though, is not whether or not we can carry out the sexual act, but where our desires are, what we are doing with sexual impulses. When we look at pornography, we are once again turning sex inwards, even if we don’t masturbate. We’re taking sexual gratification from the image, placing that pleasure above our fidelity to our spouses, and above the human dignity of the person we’re viewing. That’s why Jesus warned us of adultery of the mind. We do indeed take sexual gratification from looking lustfully, be she right there before us, in a picture, or even purely imaginary. This violates the natural ordering of sex, violates chastity, violates fidelity.
As a final note, adultery isn’t just unfaithfulness to one’s spouse. It breaks trust with both God and the community, as well. For Catholics, this is a natural conclusion, because the Church is the mystical Body of Christ. When we break faith with the Son of God, we break faith with the full Christ, both the Head and Body. More mundanely, though, it becomes a matter of trust. If we have shown ourselves willing to betray the promise of marriage by placing selfish gratification over any other consideration, what other promises are we willing to break? The harm, the disillusionment, the scandal, and the betrayal we cause with adultery affect our children, our extended families, our friends, and our associates.