Adultery in the Heart

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 22, 2012

One reads the darndest things. Grabbing up the quarterly journal of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars (Winter 2011), I chanced upon a review of T. M. Doran's novel, Toward the Gleam, which was of interest since I reviewed the same book last year.

Imagine my horror when I found the reviewer lambasting Doran for missing an opportunity to be truly Catholic by failing to introduce the sacrament of confession when the main character, who plans at one point to commit adultery, decides in the end not to do so. “He has, however, objectively committed mortal sin, and not even the idea of confession comes up, much less the sacrament.”

But this is nonsense, and very sad nonsense to boot. Whatever we may think Our Lord's admonition against committing adultery in the heart may mean, it certainly does not mean that full consent of the will to a grave evil is implied by the process of being severely tempted, even to the point of consenting provisionally to the idea of sin, but then breaking the grip of temptation and avoiding the sin.

The error is so egregious that, to avoid embarrassment, I will not give the writer's name. One recalls, in this context, the twenty-first chapter of St. Matthew's Gospel, in which a father asks his two sons to go work in the vineyard. Which was commended for doing the Father's will? Truly “the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before” critics like this.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: demark8616 - Mar. 18, 2012 4:35 AM ET USA

    "At one point the protagonist spends time with a dashing woman not his wife and, finding himself smitten, agrees to commit adultery with her. To his credit, the protagonist thinks it over later and never meets her for the tryst—" This is an extract is from the review mentioned above. Well worth looking it up. He makes the point - "If Catholic fiction wishes to aspire to great literature. ." - the author must 'cling to the truth' and not try to please both God and Mammon

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Feb. 23, 2012 9:25 AM ET USA

    There is no question that "planning" requires full advertence of the intellect, but does it equally require full consent of the will? I teach that it does. To plan is to focus, to concentrate, to turn away from other considerations. It is deliberate. There is no question as well that adultery is a grave moral evil. To willfully "plan" adultery, no matter what may in the end frustrate accomplishment of the physical act, is to already have crossed the line of sinning against chastity of the mind.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Feb. 22, 2012 5:50 PM ET USA

    An interesting dialogue to be sure. A correct blend of passion, intellect and discretion. But how was it that Augustine put it, “In essentials, unity..., in non-essentials liberty, and in all things, charity...” May the good Doctor pray for us!

  • Posted by: - Feb. 22, 2012 1:58 PM ET USA

    What exactly DOES constitute 'committing adultery in the heart' if planning an adultery does not constitute as such? I'm really interested in what you think Jesus meant because this example seems so textbook to be exactly what He was talking about.

  • Posted by: - Feb. 22, 2012 1:02 PM ET USA

    But though Doran has "consenting provisionally" to the act, he has consented fully to the idea of the act, and isn't the idea itself (when consented to) mortally sinful? You seem to suggest that all ideas of sins that don't result in acts are light sins.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Feb. 22, 2012 12:37 PM ET USA

    It is possible that deliberate indulgence of a sinful pleasure in the mind and emotions could be mortal. But we would have to agree that a bad thought is "grave matter", which in many (most?) cases will be too long a stretch. But when contemplating a specific sinful action, the surest sign that full consent of the will has not been given is the ultimate decision not to engage in that action. Our Lord wanted to call attention to the sin of lust and the importance of purity of heart, and did so effectively. He did not say that every lustful look is a mortal sin. We must beware of scrupulosity. I may be tempted to steal a car. In the grip of that temptation, I might even plan how I will do it. If I ultimately reject the temptation and do not fulfill the plan, I have not committed the sin.

  • Posted by: - Feb. 22, 2012 11:10 AM ET USA

    "...when the main character, who plans at one point to commit adultery, decides in the end not to do so." What the heck are you talking about? He plans to commit the adulterous act, this is called a consent of the will. He "willed" to do it. The actual act becomes a supplement, not a replacement. Either you have not given us enough information or you are the one who is committing the egregious error. This is exactly the type of situation that Jesus was talking about.