The Internet is abuzz with a duel of sorts between Patheos blogger Simcha Fisher and young, engaged-to-be-married Emma Smith, who wrote on Catholic Exchange that she knows for a fact that she and her husband will never have to face the issue of infidelity.
“God is faithful, but we’re not marrying God,” proclaimed Fisher. “What do we know about human beings? They sin. They sin, and they sin, and they sin. Sometimes they enter into a valid marriage and then they cheat. Sometimes they understand fully what they are supposed to do, and they just don’t feel like doing it,” she explained.
I’m inclined to agree with Fisher. Because the issue in Catholic marriage is not whether anything will go wrong, but how will you handle it when it does. In pre-Cana marriage prep classes, many engaged couples fill out the FOCCUS questionnaire, which asks if you “could not under any condition remain married” to your spouse “if he/she were ever unfaithful.” If you agree with that statement, then there’s a big problem. You can’t annul a Catholic marriage for infidelity. Marriage is for life, remember? So no matter how much it hurts, a betrayed spouse has to search deep inside themselves and find a way to forgive and trust and rebuild a relationship that seems irrevocably shattered.
Infidelity can be overcome. My husband has seen it in his psychiatric practice. When both spouses want badly enough to save a marriage even from repeated sexual infidelity, it can happen. There needs to be absolute honesty, a commitment to avoid temptation, and a system of accountability. Therapy helps, spiritual direction helps, and Sexaholics Anonymous can help. It’s not easy, but a marriage can make it through that firestorm.
My husband’s courtship of me gave me complete confidence that he would be faithful to me. We were young, wildly attracted to each other, and yet managed to stay chaste until the wedding. I figured I would never have to worry about his self-control. But as we get older and our bodies bulge and sag in funny places, I wonder what he sees in me sometimes. And I thank God that my husband has never strayed.
“There but for the grace of God go I” expresses perfectly the awareness that we and the ones we love, when pushed to our limits, are capable of the direst deeds. Temptation strikes the young and the old, the weak and the strong, and it never rests. As one story goes, a priest leaned over a man on his deathbed to give him last rites. The man reached up to touch the cross hanging over the priests’ vestments, greedily whispered “gold,” and then died.
That’s why we’re invited to spiritual combat. Growth in holiness doesn’t proceed along a smooth incline from base to summit until we step easily through the doors of heaven. Holy marriages aren’t formed that way either. They’re formed by perseverance in good times and bad, through periods of infatuation and anger, and sometimes through forgiveness in the face of infidelity. Infidelity is horrible, but it’s not unforgivable, and doesn’t have to be the end.