In their best-selling book on The Ten Commandments, Dr. Laura Schlessinger and Rabbi Stewart Vogel reproduce a letter from a listener to Dr. Laura's radio phone-in show. The listener, Jason, was a student in a university class where the professor asked the students if they had to "downsize" the Ten Commandments which commandment they would remove.
The majority opted to get rid of the proscription against committing adultery. "When the instructor asked why the majority felt this way, the responses were typically that this commandment was outdated and that nobody obeyed it anyway," Jason wrote (p. 304).
When the Church is accused of "imposing its morality" on people, it is perhaps this commandment which is in the back of the accusers' minds. What right does the Church have to tell consenting adults that they should not engage in sexual activity with those who are not their spouses?
Indeed, the Macleans-CBC Decima Research poll of December 1998 found that 72 per cent of Canadians believe adultery is very unacceptable. But the vast majority also felt that adults should have the right to have sex or cohabit with other adults without outside interference.
The instincts of the 72 per cent are right -- adultery is gravely immoral. It is immoral not because a group of people want to impose their morality, but because it violates and shatters all sorts of human relationships.
The Church teaches the immorality of extramarital sexual activity not only because it is one of the Ten Commandments but also, by their very nature, such actions upset the natural order of human relations.
The Church is providing a guideline to help us live happy and just lives.
If you don't believe the Church, listen to country music. Much of our media, especially movies and TV, glamourize adultery. The Bridges of Madison County, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and The English Patient were but three top movies in recent years which presented adultery as an exciting and morally legitimate activity.
But some country musicians have perhaps experienced or at least seen the pain associated with adultery to name it for what it is -- a self-centred activity by self-centred people which does untold damage both now and for decades to come. The most effective way to hurt a whole bunch of people without getting thrown in jail is to commit adultery.
Adultery is a major cause of marriage breakdown. Teenage premarital sex is a major cause of women and children living in poverty. Together these two sins -- which many believe are nobody's business but the people committing them -- mean that hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of Canadian children are being raised without the benefit of two parents in their homes.
Children raised in single-parent homes are more likely to be involved in crime, have generally lower academic achievement, and are at far greater risk in later life to have children out of wedlock or to experience marriage breakdown themselves.
The single "social reform" which would have the most overwhelmingly positive effect on the present and future of our nation would be for all men and women to restrict their sexual activity to within the marital bond. It would vastly improve the emotional and spiritual well-being of those above the age of puberty and create a much sunnier future for those below that age.
Legislating against non-marital sexual activity is not likely to ever be accepted in the Western world. And so that leaves one way to change the climate of sexual morality -- education and a personal commitment to chastity.
For all the bad press the Church gets for "imposing" a restrictive sexual morality, it has had surprisingly little to say -- from the pulpit or in other ways -- about sexual sins.
In a sense, the Catechism of the Catholic Church continues that tendency. It gives only very brief descriptions of the immorality of sins against chastity and against marriage -- lust, masturbation, fornication, pornography, prostitution, rape, adultery, divorce, polygamy, incest and living common law.
But the Catechism does address at some length the positive virtues which the sixth commandment strives to uphold -- chastity and fidelity within marriage.
It describes chastity in terms of the integration of sexuality within the person -- in effect, as part of a sort of Catholic medicine wheel. "Chastity includes an apprenticeship in self-mastery which is a training in human freedom. The alternative is clear: either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy" (no. 2339).
The Catechism does not downplay the strength and power of the sexual drive. It notes that the self-mastery it recommends "is a long and exacting work. One can never consider it acquired once and for all. It presupposes renewed effort at all stages of life" (no. 2342).
The Catechism also describes the sexual love between husband and wife, not primarily in terms of making babies as many assume, but as "a sign and pledge of spiritual communion" (no. 2360). It describes this love not as something filthy and degrading, but as "noble and honourable" (no. 2362).
Out of this mutual love between woman and man come children. They "spring from the very heart of that mutual giving, as its fruit and fulfillment" (no. 2366). By giving new life, "spouses share in the creative power and fatherhood of God" (no. 2367).
The Church greatly esteems human sexuality. It views it not as beastly, but as a God-like capacity. The problem is that we are prone to turn ourselves into beasts.
By trying to downsize the sixth commandment out of existence, we defile our own dignity. We try to bulldoze the fence around sexuality which God created, not to diminish or repress us, but to help us share in his divine act of creation. In fact, if we strive to respond positively to this call from God, we will build much happier lives for ourselves and for those around us.
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