Chestertonian Common Sense on “Uncommon” Adultery
by Julia Meloni
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.”
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”?