The Sixth Commandment

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.

Mark Shea


Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog and regularly blogs for National Catholic Register. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.

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  • The woman that Jesus said to “Go and sin no more” is presumed to be Mary Magdalene. And tradition has it that she was not married.

    For her, it may have been easier to go and sin no more. For many people who are actually in such a sin and if discovered, their marriage end in divorce (most of the time). It’s a very difficult thing to forgive a spouse who has committed adultery (and I speak from experience).

    I think we continued in our marriage because of a combination of embarrassment (because we had been married only 4 months!) and maybe God gave us the grace.

    Some time ago I came across a book that helps people to save a marriage. I wish I had this book when we were going through the post-adultery trauma to piece our marriage back together.

    If anyone needs help to save a marriage, you can get the book here –

    God Bless.

  • elkabrikir

    As a person who tries to be just and merciful, how am I to live in a world that winks and nods at adultery? I have been in many social situations where the “Newly Weds” first kissed while married to another. Now, we’re supposed to socialize with or receive professional services from these people.

    One such woman pushes her baby, conceived in adultery, (but now they’re married and respectable) past my house every day. Four children, of the Christian marriage, were thrown on the trash heap by their father…..and talk about bitter messed up kids……’s heartbreaking.

    I don’t acknowledge the “other woman”, and I don’t stick my tongue out at her. Yet I don’t smile or wave either, which is unilke me. So, I feel discourteous.

    Letting these literal “homewreckers”, and by that I mean both parties, back into “society” without stigmatizing their relationship seems like tacit approval of the behavior. What’s a Christian to do?

    Jamespereira, it was God’s grace. And thanks for the link.

    One more thing, I’m looking to find a book I once owned, but loaned out, called
    The Marriage Repair Manual. It talked about the stages through which all relationships pass. But, the part I like best was a conversation “Jesus” has with each of the spouses in the final chapter. Finally he asks each one of the spouses,

    Jesus: “Do you love your children enough to do anything in the world for them?”

    Spouse’s eager reply: “Oh yes!”

    Jesus: “Well then, love your spouse.”

    Does anybody know where I can get a copy of that book? It’s published by an offbeat Catholic publisher.

  • I am a survivor of two divorces before I turned 18. To this day, at the age of 40, I see a psychiatrist and a therapist, and take enough daily medication to anesthetize a good-sized horse. Life has been an overwhelming struggle just to break free of the chains that were imposed upon me by the chaos of my childhood. I can attest to the damage that divorce does to kids. But what I wonder is, is anyone listening?

  • daddylarry

    jamespereira, Just a small comment concerning the time of Jesus. Adultery was defined then as a married woman having sex with someone other than her husband. The married man was not considered an adulterer unless he had sex with a married woman. Jesus actually introduced the novel (at the time) concept that adultery applied equally to husband and wife. (Mark 10:11)

  • fishman

    daddylarry. I don’t think you are correct. Do you have some kind of primary documentation. I know that if a married man had sex with a virgin he was expected to marry her.( not sure if that was considered ‘adultery’ as opposed to ‘fornication’). To my knowledge ‘fornication’ is not explicitly called out in the 10 commandments , but has always been considered to also be an offense against the 6th commandment by Jews and Christians.

    Also, what you are saying would be inconsistent with the tradition Mary Magdalene was considered an adulterer and unmarried. Prostitution was certainly viewed as a an offense against the 6th commandment. I have a doubt most prostitutes were often married women.

  • daddylarry

    First of all, I was not arguing as to the legality of fornication. It was clearly sinful, at least as shown by the letters of St. Paul. Fornication and adultery were not the same sin, although they were both covered under the sixth and ninth commandments. The big difference was the punishment given for each. Fornication resulted in forced marriage while adultery resulted in death by stoning. The Old Testament is filled with examples of married men having sex outside of marriage with unmarried women without the punishment given them for adultery. King David was one who would have been given the death penalty for his adultery with Bathsheba (Bathsheba was married) if God hadn’t forgiven him. His sin did result in the death of his first son by her.

    Tradition shows Mary Magdalene as a prostitute and unmarried, not necessarily as an adulterer. Perhaps our view of her as an adulterer comes from our current view of adultery.

    This discussion notwithstanding, Mark Shea’s article here makes very valid points. Christians, unfortunately, are just as guilty as non-Christians when it comes to the destruction of the family by divorce and remarriage. I have heard from some of my Evangelical friends that if you repent of your divorce, then remarriage is not a problem. Of course repentance means to turn away from. If it were true, then they would return to their spouses and obey Jesus.

  • fishman

    daddlarry – I understand what you mean. thanks for clarification.

  • Xaviertrth312

    Mark Shea,

    Thank you for this article. I wish I could ask you a lot of questions.

    In my family, which considers itself a conservative Catholic family, my SIL is “engaged” to a man she developed a romance with before she filed for divorce and the man had not filed for divorce, and they were both living with their spouses and families. Now, they are both not living with their spouses and have filed for divorce. For my SIL it has been over 2 years since she filed. She is married in the Catholic Church, he is not. The problem is that my MIL and FIL actually nurtured this romance, I guess because they felt bad that my SIL has an unhappy marriage. My MIL and FIL know how my husband and I feel about this – that my SIL’s timing is not apropriate. But, my in-laws are trying to legitimize this relationship in our family. I am not opposed to socializing with my SIL and her “fiance”, but I feel my family wants to force me to accept it, rather than acknowledge that it is innapropriate, and socialize in spite of it. Basically because we are not jumping for joy for them – it is tearing up our family in a way. Now the ‘finace’ is leaving angry messages for my husband, saying “you are not God- you can’t judge us, I always defeat my enemies, you are hurting the people I love and I won’t accept it”, etc. etc.

    Well, I wish someone in my family frequented Catholic Exchange, but I am pretty sure no one is going to read this!! I just don’t know how to respond. We are being scapgoated as jerks. I wish you could give me advise on how to proceed.


  • There’s nothing in Scripture that supports that Mary Magdalene was either a prostitute or an adulterer. Tradition may have assigned her those possibilities, but all that’s said in Scripture is that she was a woman “from whom seven devils were cast out.” At some level it’s not really important that she was or was not a prostitute or an adulterer. She’s not more of a saint just because she might have been a sexual sinner. If you read every place in Scripture where Mary Magdalene is named (as opposed to presumed), she was a disciple always present to Jesus. That’s no less impressive than being a reformed prostitute. I’ve done research and found that she wasn’t described in such terms for a couple of centuries. It wasn’t the opinion of anyone in the early Church.

  • Xaviertrth312,

    I wish my family read Catholic Exchange too. It is very difficult being a faithful person when the rest of the family does whatever it wants. I could go on about my family, but I won’t here. I will only say to trust in God, do what seems best in every situation (use your spiritual gift of Counsel), and remember that just one faithful person in a family can be enough for God to save the entire family, even one that is determined to shipwreck itself. I will say a prayer for you and yours.


  • fishman

    “you are not God- you can’t judge us, I always defeat my enemies, you are hurting the people I love and I won’t accept it”

    the proper response to this is simply to say.
    No, I’m not God and you don’t need me to tell you what you are doing is wrong,he already has in you hart, which you have hardened.
    You already know it and are ashamed , which is why you are so angry.

  • Xaviertrth312

    Thank you PrairieHawk and Fishman. I will trust in God and pray for the gift of Counsel I have said a prayer for your families as well.