The Sixth Commandment: Marital Fidelity
When we work with engaged couples in marriage preparation, we always ask them, what are your hopes and dreams for your marriage? Usually, they say they want friendship with each other; they want to be able to trust one another; they want children. Then we tell them that is exactly what the Catholic Church wants for their marriage also! The Church calls the two purposes of marriage unity and procreation, but those are only more formal terms for friendship, trust, and children.
The sixth commandment is not just about adultery but about a whole host of sexual behaviors that can get in the way of true friendship, lifelong faithfulness, and a healthy family life. We learn as children that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. It is our job to treat them with respect and to expect others to treat them with respect. We keep ourselves clean; we eat the right foods and the right amount of food; we get enough sleep and enough exercise. And, we try to keep the sexual part of our life in proper perspective to the rest.
Sexual behavior is not just about faithfulness in marriage; it’s about living a chaste life. And chastity is not the same as virginity. It means that our sexual thoughts and actions reside within God’s creation, within God’s plan for us, and within God’s love for us. It’s tricky because God gave us the gift of sexuality to enjoy but also to treat with reverence. So, we are expected to be chaste, as we grow and mature throughout our adult life.
Sometimes, it seems that, in our culture, we have a better sense of reverence for our bodies in terms of the food we put into it than we do for it in its function as an instrument of intimacy and procreation. Is that apple organic? Are your eggs free range? Was that cabbage locally grown? It is wonderful to want the best for our bodies in terms of healthy food, and it may be that we can learn something from the food purists. It’s not just avoiding foods with poisons and chemicals that make us healthy; it involves making positive changes by eating a well-balanced diet of properly grown food.
And obeying the sixth commandment is not just a matter of being faithful to our spouse (as important as that is). It means that we need to move toward the things that will make our sexuality more intimate, more intentional, more loving.
An author named Dr. Shirley Glass did a study on infidelity a few years ago, and she discovered that the workplace was a very likely place for husbands or wives to become attracted to others. It could begin by working hard together on a project or with conversations at a coffee break. She claimed that when a person began telling their coworker things they weren’t telling their spouse, they had begun an emotional affair. In her book, NOT Just Friends, she advised taking a walls and windows approach to one’s marriage. Keep walls up around your relationship with your spouse and the window always open between your spouse and you.
Her wisdom reminds us that chastity does not only have to do with the body, but also with the mind and the emotions. Keeping our minds free from the clutter of pornography is a way to honor the sixth commandment. Keeping our feelings of sexual attraction turned toward our spouse is honoring the chastity to which we are called.
A Jesuit writer, Father David Paternostro, S.J., speaks of the commandments not as a list of rules but as ways to protect our relationship with God. “The Ten Commandments,” he says, “flows out of the relationship that God had with Moses and is a guide…for how to share in that relationship.”
Isn’t that a little like the walls and windows Dr. Shirley Glass proposes for husbands and wives? The commandments provide the walls that work to guard our relationship flowing out of the love that God has for us. Our prayers and our best intentions are the windows that allow us to pray to God without fear or shame.
We all want to live the life that God intends for us, and yet, we all fail to live that way all the time. But, if we see that God continues to nudge us to be our best selves, then maybe, it will become easier to embrace those ideals.
By:Steve and Kathy Beirne
About the authors
Steve and Kathy Beirne are the publishers of the Foundations newsletter for newly married couples and the creators of FACET, a learning tool for couples preparing for marriage. Steve and Kathy have lived in Maine for 30 years and are the parents of seven children and the grandparents of five. They serve the Portland Peninsula and Island Parishes by coordinating its UNITAS marriage preparation program. If you would like to receive the Foundations newsletter, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.