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The Ten Commandments: The rarest and purest gift
This is the seventh installment of a 10-part series looking at the Ten Commandments.
Thou shall not commit adultery. At the bare minimum, that means do not have intercourse with people who aren’t your spouse. That’s the bare minimum.
But our humanity is no “bare minimum” affair, and neither, therefore, are God’s commandments.
So rather than listing all the ways that someone could transgress the Sixth Commandment, I intend to lead us in pondering what this commandment reveres.
Procreation: Freedom For
It is well-known Catholic teaching that sexual intercourse is created to be both unitive and procreative and is proper to the conjugal love of man and wife.
Beginning from Genesis 1:27-28, we see that the two sexes are ordered to the mission and gift of generation, to engendering new human life. This touches on the procreative power of man and woman, which marriage captures as its potential and ideal.
Acting for the creation of new human life is in fact the mission of every generation, which is endowed with the God-given mandate to give rise to another generation, not just in creating that generation’s existence but also in endowing that new generation with what is most grand and most beautiful. Each generation has a responsibility to teach the next generation the way of life.
Husband and wife are the seed of an entire society. In marriage, the ideal of every generation is made present: two persons, equal in dignity though distinct in identity, cooperate both in causing new life to come into existence and in teaching the way of life to the next generation.
Openness to procreation is in that way a disposition of gratitude. By giving what you have received, you give thanks for what you have received. The free giving is a form of charity.
But procreation is also an act of faith and hope, because its full act is a pledge of future responsibility. This possibility brings the human person into contact with the character of God, which is precisely what the Catechism teaches:
“Each of the two sexes is an image of the power and tenderness of God, with equal dignity though in a different way. The union of man and woman in marriage is a way of imitating in the flesh the Creator’s generosity and fecundity.” (No. 2335, cf. No. 2367)
To give life in this way is to give thanks to God who has created life and to pledge yourself into the future in the duty to nourish the new life we have the power to create.
That is a rare and pure gift: to give life from your life.
Procreation: Freedom From
Conjugal love is ordered to create new life and nurture another generation.
It is true, therefore, that all sexual acts that are by their nature not open to life are impediments to the freedom this commandment seeks to protect. But we also have to keep in view the gift and duty of nurturing the next generation, of passing on what is good and beautiful — of inculcating the way of life.
To engage in sexual acts — even ones that may very well be open to life — that are outside of the bounds marriage severs the union of man and woman from their mutual pledge to the future. The committed, covenantal bond of man and wife is the genesis of the mutual responsibility to care for children, to raise them and educate them and prepare them to accept the gift of freedom
Thou shall not commit adultery prohibits us settling for anything less than the full dignity and power of the complementarity of the sexes — the dignity and power to engender new life and take responsibility for that life.
To ponder the unitive character of marriage, we can take up the conclusion of Genesis 2, where we read that the Lord God, who fashioned man out of the good earth and breathed the divine breath into him (2:7), now creates from this one earth creature, a second, and these two are ordered to each other. There is a name change that signifies this, which signifies their bond.
The names translated as “man” (‘ish) and “woman” (‘ishshah) in Gn 2:23 are distinctive: They are spoken for the first time right here. The man names her in reference to himself, and names himself in reference to her. The husband, in other words, is husband to this wife, and the wife is wife to this husband.
But I want to press on a little further to find something that will help us consider, quite deeply, the unitive character of this union. It has to do with their original and therefore natural condition as created.
Chapter 2 of Genesis concludes with the following line:
“The man and his wife were both naked [arrummim], yet they felt no shame” (Gn 2:25).
We might naturally think here of the two of them bearing their bodies to each other, without bashfulness and without lust, and we are not wrong to think that. And yet, I’ve included the transliterated Hebrew word next to the English word “naked” for a reason, which is that in the very next line that word reappears — or rather its opposite appears:
“Now the snake was the most cunning [arum] of all the wild animals that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God really say, “You shall not eat of any tree of the garden”?'” (Gn 3:1).
The serpent has actually completely flipped around the commandment God gave and, in doing so, planted the seed of doubt about the goodness of God. It is not difficult to recognize that the serpent is operating with ulterior motives. There’s some kind of hidden agenda here.
That is precisely what it means to be shrewd or to be full of guile. The serpent embodies the hiding of intentions. His motives are not transparent. He is arum.
To look back up to the original condition of man and wife, we can now think about what it means when it says that they were arrummim. To be arrummim is to be without arum, in the same way that to be guileless is to be without guile.
Naked without shame indicates that the man and woman know each other. They are “transparent” to each other. What they say and how they act, what they think and what they intend are all aligned. That is the condition of their union.
What is the sacramental grace of marriage, then? What is its gift and its task? It is, in terms of marriage’s unitive character, to practice together what is good for all human relationships. It is to become a source of healing for relationships in a fallen world. It is to learn to be transparent to each other.
Just like the husband and wife in the procreative character express together the generative mission of human society, so too, do husband and wife in their unitive character express and practice the renewal of human relationships in terms of trust and honesty, reconciliation and mutuality. As a small cell of society, every marriage — like a mustard seed — is called to establish in the most personal terms an alternative to the same old way of the world. This transparency between man and wife is the soul of intimacy and it animates their union. In human relationships, this is the rarest and purest gift.
If we want to put this in very simple terms, we could say that this gift of transparency, this intimacy, is about being there with each other, for each other. Truly being there: mind, body and soul. That might not really sound like much, but think about how bad most of us are at giving our attention to another person. Think about all the many, many ways we scatter our attention and preoccupy ourselves day-in and day-out.
The point here is this: the naked without shame of husband and wife is the call and mission of the married couple. And the best guard against adultery is practicing the acquired habit of attentiveness.
The mystery of divine love is thereby signified and made present in the abiding, constant, stable love of husband and wife. The Sixth Commandment reveres and preserves the sacramental life of marriage, wherein the unfathomably attentive love of the Father and the Son is made fathomable in the attentive love of husband and wife:
“Fidelity expresses constancy in keeping one’s given word. God is faithful. The Sacrament of Matrimony enables man and woman to enter into Christ’s fidelity for his Church. Through conjugal chastity, they bear witness to this mystery before the world” (CCC, No. 2365).
Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D., works in the McGrath Institute for Church Life and teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame. His new book is “A God Who Questions” (OSV, $12.95).