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“Adultery”, and the Problem of Heterosexuality, Revisited

My recent post, “The Problem Of Heterosexuality“, has drawn a comment from my reader David, who refers to the desire of the pope and bishops to protect the sanctity of sacramental marriage. In his response, he raises two important questions. The first, I think goes right to the heart of the matter:

“..how can the beauty and sacredness of the sexual relationship within the context of marriage, and the ability to produce children be promoted, and sex outside of a sacramental relationship be promoted without appearing to judge those outside of the relationship?”

How, indeed? Orthodox Catholic doctrine simply avoids this challenge entirely by falling into the binary trap of insisting that “sacramental marriage+ children = good” implies that “any other erotic relationships = bad”, which is a complete logical fallacy. The problem is that this simplistic thinking is not based on Scripture, which in fact contradicts it, as does the practice and teaching of the Church in history.


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I have absolutely no quarrel with the value of sacramental marriage, with children. My own mother (“Doreen Weldon, RIP“) lived within just such a sacramental marriage with my father, in full accordance with the Catechism, and bore and raised seven children in defiance of severe warnings of her medical advisers. Not one of us would have wished the family any smaller. However, none of us has followed her in this strict observance either. My objection is to the idea that all alternative models of sexual behaviour must necessarily be rejected, ranging from occasional adolescent masturbation to full scale adult philandering, under the catch-all commandment on adultery.

As David puts it,

“On the other hand, unbridled sex is clearly a societal and moral problem. In fact, unbridled sex was undoubtedly one of the bases for the commandment not to commit adultery. Don’t lie, cheat, steal, and covet are still solid commands. Why does it seem that don’t commit adultery has become a debatable commandment?”

This is where the confusion begins – by extending a clear commandment much further than its original ambit.

I am not remotely suggesting that we should condone either adultery or unbridled sexual appetites. Just like other appetites which are important in sustaining our physical health but need to be exercised in moderation, at appropriate times, and in suitable places, the sexual drive is a natural human appetite which when used correctly, fosters physical as well as mental and emotional health: but it also needs to be restricted to use which is moderate and appropriate. The challenge is to locate exactly where that lies.

In biblical usage, “adultery” emphatically did not mean no sex at all outside sacramental marriage. In Jewish law, if referred only to sex with another man’s wife – a crime of property. It did not apply to sex between an unmarried woman and a married man – Hebrew patriarchs freely kept concubines as well as multiple wives, and were also free to have sex with slaves or prostitutes. Nor did it apply to sex between unmarried persons, although sex with an unmarried virgin was taboo, as a crime against her father, as it would reduce her value in the marriage stakes. There is nothing at all in the Jewish bible to restrict a young man from having sex, as long as he could find a partner who was not married, an unmarried virgin, or restricted by incest. Divorced women, prostitutes, or slaves were accessible to him sexually without restriction of the commandment.

The bible as a whole not only does not exclude sex outside procreation, it even celebrates it. The Song of Songs is an extended biblical elegy to the joys of sheer erotic, physical love between two people, with not even a suggestion that they are married, let alone intent on producing off-spring.

In the Gospels, Christ too has remarkably little to say on sexual matters, beyond a few words on adultery and divorce. He most certainly said nothing at all against sex between unmarried persons. Paul did write about sexual matters, but has frequently been misrepresented. (However, I am less familiar with Paul than I should be, and reserve comment for now.)

In Christian history, the emphasis on sacramental marriage is a relatively modern development. The earliest Church fathers did not even mention masturbation. For many centuries, there was not even a requirement for lay people to marry in church. Marriage was primarily a civil matter for the wealthy, in order to protect inheritance rights and confer legitimacy on any children. Even the prohibition on contraception and abortion was not always of concern to the early Church fathers. (One pope in his earlier career wrote a medical treatise recommending the best methods of both, as well as recipes for making aphrodisiacs.) The restriction on all sex outside of marriage was so flexible that at times the Church even promoted the founding of brothels, so that unmarried men could have sexual outlets without contravening the Old Testament prohibitions on relations with other men’s wives or daughters. The sexual appetites and foibles of several popes and cardinals through history are legendary. The indications are that even today, a sizeable proportion of the cardinals and bishops, just as ordinary priests, do not keep scrupulously to their vows of celibacy. As these are obviously not married, any sexual practices are obviously outside the bounds of sacramental marriage. For those clergy who do avoid sex with others, its a fair bet that many resort to masturbation to avoid more serious temptation – again, contravening formal teaching.

Within sacramental marriage, the emphasis on procreation has also been distorted, both to the detriment of the unitive value of sexual love, and to the detriment of some children. The obsession with procreation led Pope Paul VI to reject the findings of his own expert advisors, and to insist in Humanae Vitae that all sex must be open to procreation – while inconsistently conceding that “natural” contraception was acceptable.

Why do I say that this is may be detrimental to children? First, by the obvious consequences of avoiding reliable contraception, there will be many unplanned pregnancies, not all of them within marriage. Further, Salzmann and Lawler (in “The Sexual Person”) make an important point I have not seen elsewhere. “Procreation” means more than the simple biological production of offspring. It also implies their subsequent care and nurturing. Some of the children from unplanned pregnancies will indeed be raised with love and care, by their biological parents or adoptive ones, but not all will be so fortunate. In some cases, children will be deprived of suitable nurturing homes by the inexcusable hostility of Catholic bishops to any possibility of gay or lesbian adoption, in spite of abundant evidence, even from their own experts, that gay parents as a group are just as good at parenting as any other – and specific individuals will be superb parents. (My own daughters certainly think so.)

The obsession with sex as procreation is sometimes even detrimental to marriage itself. In the words of one comment to Andrew Sullivan’s post on masturbation, anxiety to exercise human sexuality only within church teaching, some young couples may rush into inappropriate, unsuitable early marriages. (This was certainly true in my own life. I do not believe that I was in any way unique in this.) Bad marriages are an obvious leading cause of divorce – and even the Catholic church recognizes that in some cases, these unsuitable marriages may have grounds for annulment.

So, let me now recap:

I fully accept the value of sacramental marriage, with children. I respect the interest of the Church in recommending and protecting it. However, I reject the idea that protecting one form of relationship means excluding all other erotic activity.

I do not endorse either unbridled sexual activity, nor adultery. However:

  • Married couples who choose contraception to avoid unwanted children, either for financial reasons or out of respect for the planet and fear of a population explosion, are not committing adultery, but are condemned by the Catechism.
  • Married couples who use condoms to reduce the risk of transmitting the HIV virus from one partner to the other, are not committing adultery, but are condemned by the Catechism.
  • Loving and committed young adults who express their love sexually prior to marriage, are not committing adultery, but are condemned by the Catechism.
  • Those who have neither spouses nor loving partners and practice masturbation, are not committing adultery, but are condemned by the Catechism.
  • Same sex couples in committed, loving relationships but denied the possibility of formal marriage, are also not committing adultery, but are condemned by the Catechism.

This discussion with a post on the “Problem of Adultery”. Here then, is a summary of that problem.

In extolling the virtues of marriage, with children, orthodox Catholic doctrine outlaws a wide range of practices which were accepted or even recommended in Scripture and in early Christian history, as they are today by the vast majority of ordinary Catholics and many clergy. Yet the public rhetoric about “protecting marriage” selectively picks out for public condemnation, discrimination, and even violence only those whose contraventions of the Catechism are publicly visible – those with the courage and honesty to live in open same sex relationships. All those whose departures from orthodoxy can be more discreetly hidden, are simply ignored.

The search for a sound sexual ethic is an important one, precisely because “unbridled sexuality” is unhealthy (I believe) for both the individual and for society. However, the simplistic approach of the Catechism is not helpful, and simply serves to bring Catholic ethics into disrepute, as does a simplistic dismissal of all unapproved sexual activity as “adultery”.


3 Responses

  1. […] “Adultery”, and the Problem of Heterosexuality, Revisited (opentabernacle.wordpress.com) […]

  2. Terence,

    Just so it is clear, I meant to say, ” … and sex within the marital relationship be promoted…”

  3. Terence,

    Let me respond to your summary, which is contained in the last 3 paragraphs using language similar to your own.

    Here is a summary of the problem of the “Problem with Adultery”.

    In extolling the virtues of non-marriages or marriages without children, un-orthodox Catholic doctrine permits a wide range of practices were unaccepted or even expressly rejected in Scripture and early Christian history, as they are today by the vast majority of ordinary Catholics and almost all clergy. Yet, the public rhetoric about the Catechism, the Vatican, and Catholic teaching selectively picks out, for public condemnation, discrimination, and repression those whose conformance to the Catechism are publicly visible – even those who, with the courage and honesty, attempt to live a life free from those practices which have been unaccepted or expressly rejected. Any conformance with orthodoxy, and the rationales for so conforming are not talked about, or are simply ignored.

    The search for a sound sexual ethic is an important one, precisely because ordered sexuality is healthy (I believe) for both the individual and society. The simplistic approach of rejecting the Catechism is not helpful, and simply serves to bring Catholic ethics into disrepute, as does a simplistic acceptance of all sexual activity as “normal”.

    I have done so not so much to win an argument but to suggest that conversation has to happen somewhere in the middle. (This assumes that you have an interest in working with the Church in arriving at a “better” sexual ethics, which I have to assume is an interest of yours.)

    To suggest that the Catechism is too simplistic does not mean that its teachings should be rejected, that they are unsound, or that they are wrong. It just means that they are too simple.

    A fuller and broader teaching on sexual ethics may be the type hinted at by Pope Benedict on the use of condoms. While the use of condoms can never be said to be intrinsically ordered to the ends of sexual activity (i.e. procreation), the use of a condom may nevertheless be more ordered than its non-use depending upon the particular circumstance.

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