Adultery has always been with us – but normalising it is a very modern mistake

Why are we finding novel ways to accommodate sin? (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

Father John Hunwicke has just asked some Big Questions on his entertaining and scholarly blog, and I thought I would try and answer one of them. The first question is this:

BIG QUESTION: Is this the first human age in which people have felt sexual temptation, and have sometimes fallen victim to it?

If not, why does this age demand novel ways of circumventing the objective sinfulness of adultery?

One must assume that human nature has not changed very much over the centuries. If one wants proof, one only has to read the literature of yesteryear. The way that Chaucer, for example, writes about love and passion strikes me as an indication that nothing has changed. Shakespeare too: aren’t Romeo and Juliet just an archetypal couple in love, which is one reason that modern dress productions of the play work so well?

Well, yes and no. My contention would be that feelings have not changed, but what has changed is the way we deal with them. Romeo and Juliet conceive a passion for each other, and decide to get married at Friar Laurence’s cell. The first bit is something we all understand, the second is not something that we would ever dream of doing. For Romeo and Juliet, love means marriage, because love involves the complete union of man and woman. Romeo and Juliet are passionately in love, but they commit no sin. Indeed they are horrified by the prospect of sin, otherwise Juliet would have married the County Paris in a bigamous union, but that is one thing she cannot do, despite the Nurse’s urging, and the tragic outcome of the play turns on this one fact.

Certain people, who claim to be historians, but who never produce any real evidence for their views, take the line that in Medieval and Early Modern England, the vast majority of people never got married in the sacramental sense. Instead of this, they lived in common law unions. I have never seen a convincing study that proves that this is so. But one thing is clear, and that is, in the families we know about, people did take care to regularise their situations in the eyes of the Church, and correspondingly, many were deeply involved in efforts to declare certain unions null and void.

We all know about Henry VIII’s matrimonial adventures; while that King did commit adultery with ladies like Bessie Blount and Mary Bullen, he was also very keen to be in a regular union with Anne Bullen, and was eager to have the ‘marriage’ with Anne annulled, and her executed, just to make doubly sure that no one could ever impugn the validity his marriage to Jane Seymour. But Henry was not the only one: his grandfather Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was also the subject of much discussion. And his forebear John of Gaunt took the trouble of marrying his mistress Katherine Swynford, showing that he clearly cared about not living in a state of sin.

One key concern in all these matters was the question of the status of the children of these unions. Illegitimate children could not inherit the throne, or any title of nobility. One could argue people were keen to regularise their unions in the eyes of the Church (the only authority that counted in those days) in order to have legitimate heirs.

However, one thing that no one ever tried to do was justify or sanitise adultery. Louis XIV of France was one for the ladies, but it is notable that he spent the last three decades of his life as an exemplary married man, and one of his chief mistresses, Louise de la Valliere, subsequently entered a convent and lived a life of exemplary piety. Even Louis XV, who lived most of his adult life in a state of mortal sin, did repent at the end, and did, before he met Madame de Pompadour, have recourse to the confessional between bouts of passion with his mistress Madame de Mailly (who also ended up in a convent where she became very devout).

There was certainly lots of sin about at Versailles, but lots of repentance too, and no one, but no one at all, even the King, would have dreamed of approaching the sacrament of Holy Communion while in a state of sin. This idea, that one can somehow justify going to communion when you are living with someone who is not your lawful spouse, is an utterly modern idea.

So, to get back to Father Hunwicke’s question, where did this modern idea come from? One suspects that the sexual revolution of the 1960’s has something to do with it, and that period saw a real change in the way people viewed their sexual sins. Or put this way: what was seen as sin suddenly did not seem sinful any more, thanks to what Saint John Paul II eloquently called the loss of the sense of sin. Back in the eighteenth century there were people who had no sense of sin, who were called libertines, but they were always in a small minority. Now libertinism has become the majority position, and those who try to justify adultery and see it as something that can exist alongside the grace of God are effectively trying to conform the Church to the world.

This project – the reconciliation of the Church to the ways of the world – has, to put it mildly, not got a good track record. Moreover, it is something that the Saviour of Mankind clearly rejected. If He had thought well of the project He would never have set aside Moses’ provision about divorce, and He would never have died on the Cross, because people like Herod, Pontius Pilate and Caiaphas would have seen Him as someone they could work with. But He wasn’t. And neither should we be.

To go back to Fr Hunwicke’s question. Human nature has not changed. We seek novel ways of circumventing the sin of adultery because we have embraced a creed at variance with the teaching of Jesus. What was once seen as a sin we now regard as a right, the right to sexual satisfaction. We need to go back to the Gospel, and to the vocation we have received from the one and only Master.