By Fr. Max Oliva, S.J.
“You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14)
A few years ago, the CEO of a medium-sized company hired me to give three workshops on ethics to all of his employees. At the start of each of the sessions he introduced me and spoke of his commitment to a workplace built on a strong ethical foundation. He told his employees that the issue that most concerned him was inter-office romances. There are a lot of attractive, single, women in the company while most of the men are married. It seemed to me at the time that he was not only concerned with the morale of the company, which can be damaged by such liaisons, but also for its morality.
Adultery has been in the newspapers and tabloids a lot in the past two years because of the behavior of some politicians and some prominent sports figures. So, it is timely to reflect on this commandment.
We have seen in previous issues of this series on the commandments that they help us both in our understanding of God and what God wishes of us as moral persons. Professor of moral theology, James F. Keenan, in his insightful book, “Moral Wisdom,” points out that the moral code for the Jewish people was something naturally good for them: “…the law that God gave was a law not primarily for God’s benefit and delight, but for ours. By the law, we could become freer and happier” (page 113).” In the Christian tradition, Thomas Aquinas held that “nothing bothered God about human conduct except when human beings brought harm to themselves” (Keenan, p. 114).
Adultery, or marital infidelity, brings grievous harm not only to the spouse that is betrayed but also to the betrayer because this immoral act is an offense against the virtue of integrity. Integrity is about wholeness and unity; adultery is about selfishness and division. Fidelity in marriage involves constancy in keeping one’s word and commitment to the sacred union that unites the couple. Adultery is an injustice to one’s partner in marriage and to the welfare of children who need their parents’ stable union for their own moral and spiritual growth.
Temptations against the sixth commandment are many. One needs self-knowledge, the wisdom to know when one is vulnerable, the willingness to seek counsel if one’s marriage is in trouble, the courage to say “No” to adultery’s enticements, and fidelity to prayer. Self-awareness and self-possession are the gatekeepers of a well ordered, integral, moral life.
Actress Kathryn Hepburn describes the kind of love that needs to be at the basis of any marriage:
“It seems to me I discovered what ‘I love you’ really means.
It means I put you and your interests and your comfort ahead
of my own interests and my own comfort because I love you.
Love has nothing to do with what you are expecting to get –
only with what you are expecting to give – which is everything.”
(May 2010 Newsletter)