Chestertonian Common Sense on “Uncommon” Adultery

In The Superstition of Divorce, G.K. Chesterton notes the absurdities of transfiguring marriage into an “ideal,” a “counsel of perfection” akin to monastic life. “A man might be reverently pointed out in the street as a sort of saint, merely because he was married,” Chesterton says. “A man might wear a medal for monogamy; or have letters after his name … let us say L.W. for ‘Lives With His Wife,’ or N.D.Y. for ‘Not Divorced Yet.’ We might, on entering some strange city, be struck by a stately column erected to the memory of a wife who never ran away with a soldier.”

We need Chesterton’s great sanity today; we need him to remind us that ordinary men and women can and must honor those “violent and unique thing[s]” called marriage vows. We need him to tell us that, amidst the world’s “luxurious madhouse,” its “riot of irresponsibility,” we must find “refuge in the high sanity of a sacrament.”

We need him to tell us, unequivocally, that we must seek “for something divine” if we want “to preserve anything human.” Recently, following the Argentine bishops praised by Pope Francis, the diocese of Rome indicated that certain divorced and remarried persons may receive Communion if continence “is difficult to practice for the stability of the couple.” Priests must continue “proposing the full ideal of marriage” (Amoris Laetitia 307), and Communion can’t be claimed if the couple’s “condition is shown off as if it were part of the Christian ideal.”

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So, in Chestertonian terms, those who fail to attain the lofty “full ideal of marriage” by having sex with non-spouses may claim no shiny medals, no reverential salutes, and no stately columns, lest confusion about marital indissolubility somehow arise.

So, even though the Church’s constant position on Eucharistic inadmissibility can’t change, many still propose a lesser honorary title: “C.A.U.”—“Committing Adultery Uncommonly.”

So Dan Hitchens responds to arguments that “uncommon” (as opposed to “common”) adulterers might take the Eucharist because they’re tragic in some way. He imagines the travesty of distributing Holy Communion by this strange, nebulous distinction: Anna receives the Eucharist because she needs to sleep with her partner to prevent custody issues (“uncommon” adultery). But Barbara doesn’t because her partner would merely leave (“common” adultery). Chris receives the Eucharist because continence would make his relationship “go downhill” (“uncommon” adultery). But David doesn’t because his relationship would “probably be OK” (“common” adultery).

What might Chesterton call this? A “nightmare of nonsense”?

Hitchens warns that promoting this “incoherent,” “dehumanizing” distinction will facilitate “the mass desecration of the Eucharist”—the “abandonment of the Church’s discipline,” which is “already happening in some places.” Having written elsewhere about this terrible issue of sacrilege, I’ll ask here: why are we fixated on still admitting a certain textbook “uncommon” adulteress to Communion?

Chesterton said that countenancing divorce and remarriage benefits the “guilty party,” “especially if he be sufficiently guilty”—the “romantic rascal” who loves serially and selfishly. Let’s imagine a remarried “uncommon” adulteress who sincerely desires continence but is involved with a rascal.

Deploying the Argentine bishops’ guidelines, he tells her that continence is not “feasible” in her “complex circumstances.” He’ll desert the children if she denies him sex; her shiny idealism will make her guilty of “a subsequent fault by damaging the children.”

Chesterton would verily wonder why this “maternal face of the Church,” in a new display of tenderness, enables rascals to guilt mothers into adulterous sex. “A man has only,” Chesterton said, “to commit the crime of desertion to obtain the reward of divorce.” And now, according to proponents’ textbook case of tragic adultery, a man has only to threaten the desertion of children to obtain illicit relations.

And yet, as others show, our adulteress can’t claim “diminished imputability”—she’s “freely choosing to do evil that good may come—something totally forbidden by both divine revelation and the natural moral law.” Fr. Murray calls it “unacceptable” and “untruthful” to “confuse” sinners by claiming they aren’t “considered guilty of mortal sin for future acts of adultery” because of “mitigating factors.” Others warn that offering Holy Communion without a firm purpose of amendment is a doomed “experimentation with souls”—one “of the very worst kind.”

How, then, can we let sentimentalism about sin masquerade as mercy? Chesterton thought it bizarre that his contemporaries made “a vast parade” about freeing the poor man to get a divorce: “Now why are they so mortally anxious that he should be free to get a divorce, and not in the least anxious that he should be free to get anything else?”

He said: “I should not primarily condole with the poor man on the high price of prussic acid,” for divorce resembles suicide in being only a “luxur[y] in a rather rare sense.” He said we “specialize” in these two “freedoms”: ending love and ending life. We try to terminate two divine gifts that remain good, even when they try us: the gift of marriage and the gift of birth.

So why are we so mortally anxious that the adulteress be free to sleep with the rascal, and not in the least anxious that she be free to never again be used sexually in adultery, to never again commit an intrinsic evil against her husband and God? Why are we not anxious to preach, with Cardinal Caffarra, that the indissolubility of marriage is not an “ideal” to achieve but “a gift from God who never reneges on his gifts”?

Chesterton said that advocates of divorce superstitiously hold that vows can “be disposed of by a mysterious and magic rite.” Today, many hold that a valid marriage can be disposed of by a mysterious and magic recourse to the “internal forum.” With no annulment from an ecclesiastical tribunal, a person can allege his marriage’s invalidity in the confessional.

And who profits most from this merciful dispensation from the annulment process—the tragic adulteress who desperately needs permission for sex, or the rascal whose “conscience” discerns marital validity? If we adopt a position that the CDF called “inadmissible,” might the internal forum become, as one writer puts it, just “the ecclesiastical equivalent of ‘no-fault divorce’ with all its faults and lies,” just a stop “on the way to the next ‘marriage’”?

So why, finally, our urgent desire to admit our “uncommon” adulteress to Communion, despite St. Paul’s warnings against sacrilege? Because the Eucharist will empower her to become, after much “accompaniment,” a liberated “common” adulteress? Or because the Eucharist will comfort and affirm her as she keeps violating her vow—for, as Fr. Murray puts it, the events surrounding the Synods on the Family confirmed that “Kasper proposal proponents” want a “redefinition of sin,” an eradication of “guilty feelings” about unchastity?

Yes, Cardinal Kasper tells us that while “justice alone can be very cold,” “mercy sees a concrete person.” But our “uncommon” adulteress is anything but a “concrete person” in this greater fight against “cold” commands.

For far from being lifted up by the Good Shepherd’s shoulders, far from being elevated to the chaste dignity for which she yearns, far from being defended as a “unique and unrepeatable” gift from God, a human person who must never be used sexually, only loved within marriage, she is, ultimately, a dehumanized piece of emotional reasoning to many.

She lets us unleash a swelling, easy sentimentalism—lets us emote our way out of being sinners needing repentance. She lets us “caricature” our chilly Church—and then caricature the Good Shepherd as he rescues us not from sin but from “exclusion.” She creates a rising emotional imperative to invite every remaining “lost sheep” to the Eucharist—for how can the Good Shepherd remain complacently with the ninety-nine?

Yes, she’s being treated not as a “concrete person” but almost as a kind of contrived Trojan Horse. We may sincerely believe she’s the “one lost sheep” we’re admitting to Communion—only to find that other hidden “lost sheep” come in with her, too.

Let’s note, with some, that the Argentine bishops’ term “exceptional status” comes with no “clear principles” of distinction. Let’s note, with others, that their “account of conscience … makes it indifferent to objective truth.” Let’s note that our rascal may have ignorance-based “mitigating factors”—he (and many others) may “have great difficulty in understanding ‘[the] inherent values’” (AL 301) of “rules” about chastity.

Let’s note that the bishops want the “community” itself to be “accompan[ied]” so it can “grow in a spirit of understanding and welcoming.” Let’s note that individual bishops can “complete” the guidelines’ “minimal criteria.”

Let’s ask: to what final form of “integration” is the community being accompanied, if the bishops envision it as “an instrument of mercy that is ‘undeserved, unconditional, and free’ (AL 297)”?

Amidst such confusion, Archbishop Alexander Sample issued a recent pastoral letter reaffirming Church teachings and shielding the woman caught in adultery (Jn. 8:1-11) from false mercy. We yearn to paralyze her into an object of perpetual pity, to make her a kind of shorthand argument for why the tragic adulteress just needs sympathy and Communion. But Archbishop Sample writes that Christ’s “powerful gesture of mercy” helps her accept a command “to live in a way that honors [that] mercy,” a command to no longer be “lost” in sin, “unhappiness,” and “unfulfilled desire.”

Our “uncommon” adulteress, too, deserves Christ’s clear command to live virtuously, beautifully. Perhaps her partner will leave her when she refuses to sin, and sufferings will come; perhaps she will live chastely, and her estranged husband will not; perhaps, in her new one-sided fidelity to a vow before God, she will always bear tinges of the tragic. But, says Chesterton, suffering virtuously for a marital vow is “a noble and a fruitful tragedy; like that of a man who falls fighting for his country, or dies testifying to the truth.”

It is indeed a “dreary” time, as Chesterton would say, if we join the “dance of divorce”—“as fantastic as the dance of death”—because, as Cardinal Kasper explains, such is “the mercy of God.” It’s dreary if we want to honor a marriage vow only if it’s “feasible” or it won’t disturb an affair’s “stability”; only if the circumstances aren’t “complex” or the internal forum appointment isn’t here yet; only if we don’t bear the peculiar distinction of being “uncommon” adulterers.


  • Julia Meloni

    Julia Meloni writes from the Pacific Northwest. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Yale and a master’s degree in English from Harvard.

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