Our culture pretty much winks at adultery these days. It winks sort of like Maurice Chevalier, lecherously ogling “girls, girls, girls” in some old musical number. Adultery is sold as a charming but lovable fault, as with that adorable rascal Bill Clinton. Or else it is sold as exciting and sexy, as with Brangelina.
Citing “You shall not commit adultery” in our culture is Bad Form among the wine and cheese crowd, like farting in church—if such clever and cultivated people went to church. Vast swaths of our culture rush to reply to such embarrassing displays of crude moralism with scarcely a movement of the grey matter. “Judge not!” they shout from the commanding heights of culture and media. This most popular of biblical verses, trotted out to excuse every sin under the sun, has double the impact on Christians who oppose our culture of serial polygamy since it was, after all, an adulterous woman our Lord defended from the mob in John 8.
Result: huge numbers of biblically illiterate people repeat the only verse they know while the biblically literate feel guilty, think of John 8, and have no clue what to do about adultery. Any contemporary suggestion that adultery is, you know, evil and a grave sin is seen by both believers and secularists alike as reprehensibly Pharisaic and we all act as though the only real sin is the pruney frown of disapproval leveled at a heart that, in words of Woody Allen, “wants what it wants.”
In all this we pride ourselves on having, ‘ow you say? “grown.” In reality, it is but further testimony to the fact that ours is, hands down, the most sexually deranged culture in the history of the world. Rome, in its final stages of decadence, nonetheless confined the decadence to its upper classes. We have achieved the unprecedented marvel of making sexual depravity a broadly middle class phenomenon.
Such feats are not achieved in a day. They take long periods of conditioning and progressive steps of “pushing the envelope”. Back in the 30s and 40s, the Manufacturers of Culture loved making movies about “gay divorcees”. As a general rule, the divorced couple would get back together at the end of the movie. But the idea was still instilled in a broad audience of would-be sophisticates that divorce was rather a cheery thing than otherwise, undertaken by witty adult individuals like Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn who bantered cleverly and understood that the breakup of a marriage was mostly an occasion for brilliantly scripted repartee.
As time went on and the culture of divorce began to permeate the membrane of the movie screen and work its way out into pop culture, we saw an increasingly warm acceptance of philandering and Seven Year Itch thinking until, in the disastrous decade of the 70s, we put a bullet to the family by approving the catastrophe of No Fault Divorce. Now every ninny who watched a movie of the week about somebody Doing What I Need to Do for Me could abandon his or her family and go hive off to some new trophy wife or boy toy in their unending quest for personal fulfillment. And this warm and winking approval of adultery (coupled with occasional chin-pulling about statistics on the breakdown of the family) continues to this day. Whole businesses are devoted to helping facilitate adulterous “flings” as they are called. And the press coverage of such enterprises is of the puff piece variety, full of the frisson of “Ooh! How controversial and naughty!” All this has been assisted, of course, by the advent of the Pill, the tendency of the media to trot out the word “taboo” every time some fresh depravity is being contemplated by the Envelope Pushers, and our own addiction to the sins of the flesh. After all, how can you condemn the next perversion without risking the possibility that somebody will condemn you for embracing the last one?
Now it is certainly the case that there are invalid “marriages” which are entered into by people who had no business attempting marriage. Our culture has, among other things, distinguished itself from all previous human societies by inventing the concept of the teenager: a useful marketing demographic by which the servile consumer state has managed to create about two and a half generations of people who are encouraged to embrace all that is worst about both childhood and adulthood and prolong themselves in this state for as long as possible. Imbued with a sense of childish irresponsibility for far too long and a sense of adult rights to sexual thrills far too early, the Boomers of Generation Narcissus (for whom the man-child Bill Clinton really stands as a sort of eternal emblem) managed to inculcate in themselves and their children a fatal formula for irresponsibility that has had disastrous consequences for the family such as a 50% divorce rate). So I have little trouble understanding a major spike in invalid marriages and annulments given such radical immaturity.
But the fact remains that there is real adultery taking place as well: that is, real betrayal of real vows made by people who knew what they were doing on their wedding day. And that whole trail of tears begins in the heart with real sinful choices. The moment we commit ourselves to the proposition that real happiness can only be found through selfishness and betrayal is the moment that all bets are off for any sane sexual ethic. The gospel of Judas is the enemy of the gospel of Christ.
Indeed, the Sexual Revolution of the ’60s and ’70s was a tremendous boon for traitors and Judases. Adultery was euphemized with perky, upbeat words like “affair” and “fling” while the Manufacturers of Culture tended to downplay the whole “stab in the back/knife to the heart/shredding children’s lives” aspect of it. But as Pope John Paul II pointed out, we speak with our bodies as well as our tongues. The highest pledge of fidelity and love we can make to another person is the sexual act. When we make that pledge we speak, with our bodies, a promise of total self-giving to the other. When we break that pledge by adultery we commit one of the greatest betrayals a human being can commit against another. It is a lacerating act of cruelty aimed at the heart of the family, at children, and at all human trust, with repercussions that are felt for generations and which send out waves across all layers of society.
That is why Jesus forgave the woman caught in adultery. You don’t forgive people who are not guilty, you excuse them. The woman taken in adultery was guilty as sin, taken in the very act. She was hauled out of the sack and brought before Jesus, covered in the shame of what she had done and when she looked Jesus in the eye (if she could bear to), she had enough sense not to say, “The heart wants what it wants”, nor to chirp “Life is short. Have an affair” nor to burble “Don’t judge”. Instead, she felt the reproaches heaped upon her, insincere as the mob was. She knew that, however much she was being used as a pawn in a game to destroy Jesus, nonetheless somewhere there was a heartbroken wife or her own cuckolded husband. She knew the betrayal she’d committed against her family.
Jesus knew it too: and forgave her. When he spoke to her he did not say, “Yours was a beautiful love misunderstood by harsh and judgmental prigs.” He said, “Go and sin no more.”
Adultery, like all other sins, can be and is forgiven by Christ every day. The deep bleeding wounds and scars it leaves behind can be healed by the power of Christ’s mercy. But mercy is for sinners. And adultery remains what it has always been, a grave and cruel betrayal. If we do not see this—if we fill our minds with rubbish about how the children will be “resilient” and the new girlfriend or boy toy will help us self-actualize better, we will not receive the mercy because we will not admit that we need it. A sense of shame for the sin of adultery is the necessary pre-requisite for the forgiveness of the sin. Let us pray we recover that sense of shame so that we may know the grace, not just of forgiveness, but of never sinning so as to need it. Generations yet unborn with thank us for it.