Warning: This is a little more technical and academic than most of my posts.
This semester I am taking a class at the seminary called Human Sexuality and the States of Life. The main textbook for the course is Pope Saint John Paul II’s (I’m just gonna write JP2 for the rest of this) Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body. That is, the original reflections that he delivered that became what we now call “Theology of the Body.” One of the huge hurdles that the Theology of the Body has had to overcome to gain the popularity it has garnered to date, and the reason that popularizers like Christopher West (even when he makes mistakes in interpretation) are so important is that JP2 was a scholar and a philosopher – probably one of the most brilliant of the contemporary era. What that means, is that His text is, at the same time, insightful and enlightening as well as dense and complex.
Anyway, enough with vague introduction. Something came up in the text (and in class) the other day that I thought was interesting enough to share. It was a question that JP2 chose to explicitly address in his catecheses.
Can a husband commit adultery with his wife?
Obviously, on the surface, the answer is no. Obviously. The definition of adultery is specifically sex with a person other than one’s spouse. However, the late and sainted pope asserted otherwise. Adultery is possible with a person’s own spouse, as long as we first make a distinction that is essential in Christian anthropology, a distinction that goes all the way back to Aristotle, actually. In fact, that adultery is even more vicious when directed at a spouse.
Now seems as good a time as any to add a quick note for reading this entry. I’m going to start using sexes as my example; that is, I am going to start talking about a man committing adultery with his own wife. The same reflection works in both directions, but it’s just easier for me to write if I’m not trying to remain gender-neutral.
I have said this once or twice before, but, as Christians, it is imperative that we realize that we are not a body with a soul. Nor are we a soul with a body. Rather, we are a soul and a body. That has been the Christian anthropology almost universally since the beginning. If you think about it, it is also a necessary relative of the idea of the resurrection of the body. Such a belief is necessary to the Christian faith because, in a way, when we die, and our soul (hopefully) enjoys the beatific vision, we remain incomplete. It is the natural and divinely-created state of man to be a soul and a body, united in an indivisible way without doing violence to either.
So, JP2 spends quite a while reflecting on the words of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount regarding adultery: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you, everyone who looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Mt 5:27-28) This is absolutely essential for us to understand the gift of our sexuality and how it is meant to be used. This is essential to understand that this was not really a new law that Jesus added; indeed, it is already implicit, at some level in the 9th Commandment (for anyone reading with the Protestant numbering in mind, that’s part of the 10th Commandment). This teaching, and others like it, is what Jesus meant when he said that he had come to fulfill the Law. It was not that the Law was to pass away, but the externals were to give way to internals; the external human punishments (e.g., stoning) were to give way to spiritual and internal punishment, that is, salvation or perdition.
So, with all that, how can we suddenly say that a husband can commit adultery with his own wife? Well, it boils down to the simple fact that, if he is seeking to fulfill only his own needs and desires, if he is using or viewing his wife to lust for her, that object (I chose that word on purpose) is not his wife. If a man does this, he has reduced his wife to an object, a thing, no more valuable to him than a stripper or a prostitute or a fancy car. Her only purpose is to look on her and receive pleasure from the viewing of this object of feminine beauty. In this case, in the conjugal act, in this situation, he seeks only to be pleasured, and maybe even to give pleasure, but even then, pleasure is the goal, not gift; and it is in gift that the conjugal act has meaning. That is the purpose of sexuality. JP2 spends something of the first third of the book explaining this – you’ll have to take my word for it for now.
In a Christian context, a wife is the woman who has received the sacrament of matrimony from her husband, and a husband from his wife. The body alone, to which the wife is reduced if the husband looks at her or engages in the conjugal act with her for the purpose of pleasure rather than gift, cannot receive a sacrament. That is why we cannot baptize a corpse; it is why, if a priest cannot arrive quickly enough to anoint a person for the Last Rites, the body cannot be anointed. In this illustration, the husband has divorced the body and soul of his wife, and he is intimate only with her body; her soul is unimportant to him. Hence, he is not looking on or sleeping with his wife; he is doing so with merely a body, no different from any other body. He is committing adultery.
Let me make a quick distinction, here, though. There are those who take this so far that a husband should not feel physically attracted to his wife. He should not be aroused by her, and anything he feels in that realm is the result of giving in to his sinful flesh. This is a no more accurate view of sexuality than a man looking to lust for his wife. JP2 suggests two extremes in interpreting human sexuality that are prevalent, if not near universal, in the modern world: utilitarianism, which sees the body as something to be used for pleasure divorced from the soul, and puritanism, which sees bodily pleasure in sexuality as something to be shunned in favor of the soul. Both are just plain wrong. God gave us bodies and created our sexuality as something to be nurtured, enjoyed, and given – but only in the proper context. If a man is in no way physically attracted to beautiful women, and especially to his wife, there is something wrong. People often ask me questions that reveal this tendency when they find out that I am a seminarian. “Don’t you like girls?” “Won’t you miss having a wife?” Of course! I’m normal. I am a man. I like girls, and I am aware that, in priestly celibacy, I am both giving something up and embracing something bigger for the sake of the Kingdom.
Let me say that again because it is very important. Men, you should find women attractive. You should be sexually attracted to your wife as a whole person, not just by lusting for her body and the pleasure it can give you. Women, you should find men attractive. You should be sexually attracted to your husband as a whole person, not just for his body and the pleasure it can give you.
I’d like to take this one step further. A husband who does this is actually committing an even worse crime than if he should look on a woman other than his wife. I think that we all understand that there is a difference in the responsibility we have to strangers versus that to our family. In this case, a man has made a vow to love and cherish his wife; he has entered a perpetual covenant with her. She is meant to be the single most important person in the world to her, and he has offended her dignity be reducing her to an object to be coveted. When he looks at her for the primary purpose of lusting after her, of desiring her, of arousing himself, she is no more than a prostitute or a body in the way he is approaching her.
So, what’s the TL;DR of all this (even though I know if you have reached this point, you already did read)? Can a man commit adultery with his own wife? Yes, but not in the way that is normally meant by the word. When he reduces the human dignity of his wife to merely an object, she is, in his eyes and treatment, no longer the person to whom he gave himself and who gave herself to him.
So what do we do? If you are married, remember, each time you look at your spouse that it is your responsibility to never allow your look to reduce them in dignity. It is your right to expect the same from your spouse. If you are not married, remember this for when you are. Until then, practice never seeing another person, much less one with whom you share a relationship deeper than friendship, as merely an object.