The Real Issue, The Anchor, August 22, 2008

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
August 22, 2008

The recent disclosure of former Senator and presidential candidate John Edwards’ marital infidelity has revealed much about him as a person, but much more about how far many in our culture will go to avoid confronting the real evil he did.

This latter point is seen, first, in the terminology most used to describe what Senator Edwards did. Those in the media as well as ordinary people on talk shows and internet commentaries described that he had an “extramarital affair,” a “forbidden liaison,” a “mistress scandal,” a “secret relationship.” It was stunning how few called what he did “adultery” or stated that he had “betrayed” his wife and family. These word choices are meaningful. They expose, it seems, that those in the media and many people in our society consider the terms “adultery” and “betrayal” too negatively value laden to be used in any objective description of what Senator Edwards did, as if the evil were no longer inherent in the action but rather only perhaps in the eye of the commentator.  

This flight from admitting the real evil was seen to an even greater degree by the extent to which people tried to attribute their outrage to other, lesser evils.

Various Democratic leaders expressed indignation that Senator Edwards was so egocentric that, had he been their presidential nominee, this scandal would have totally compromised their chances in November. They’re probably right, but that would have been an effect of the evil, not the real evil itself.

Others focused their attention on the other aspects of the scandal, like the corruption of the political process by using contributors’ funds to pay exorbitant funds to a totally unqualified woman to shoot a video that almost no one would have ever seen were it not for the scandal; a campaign aide’s seemingly lying to protect the candidate and say that he was the father of the woman’s child; and a rich benefactor’s paying for both the aide’s family and the woman to move to posh surroundings in southern California and receive substantial monthly allowances. All of these are unethical, too, but they flow from as ripples of the first and real evil.

Several of his former staff members as well as many political reporters focused at length on how he had betrayed them by lying to them repeatedly about the original National Enquirer claims. These deceptions are clearly immoral, but people generally lie to cover up other evils, and they did not want to discuss the evil he was trying to hide.

The vast majority of the wrath was saved for the fact that he had cheated on a wife who was heroically battling cancer. Senator Edwards himself seemed to acknowledge how despicable such an action would be by repeatedly emphasizing that his wife was in remission at the time he was carrying on the adulterous union. But while his wife’s condition aggravates the offense, it’s not the offense. People who cheat on sick spouses are doing something just as wrong as those who cheat on healthy ones.

The real evil on which few, it seems, want to focus is the adultery, because that discussion would bring many people into uncomfortable waters. To condemn adultery means to get into the whole subject about whether sex outside of marriage is wrong, and this questions one of the fundamental premises of the sexual revolution that seeks to rend asunder the bond between sex and marriage. To condemn adultery also means to confront the even deeper question of what marriage is, why it is legitimately considered sacred, and why its vows of fidelity, love and honor have no expiration date, even for sickness, or poverty, or worse. This is a subject, too, that our culture wants to avoid; if marriage means something, then it may not coincide with what judges and activists in Massachusetts and California want it to mean, or even what people who are afraid of making or keeping their marital commitments want it to mean.

The larger implications of most people’s ducking the central issue of the evil Senator Edwards committed were spelled out very effectively by syndicated columnist Kathryn Jean Lopez in an August 14 column. “If we think what John Edwards did with Rielle Hunter is wrong,” she wrote, “why do we think it’s wrong? Is it because marriage is at the foundation of our society and we should do what we can to protect every last one? Or is it simply because having fun while your wife is fighting a fatal disease is a lousy thing to do? I don’t know how we can condemn John Edwards when Americans have been known to cheer for cheaters in movies, watch celebs do it all the time as a form of perverse entertainment and even insist we’re not sure what exactly ‘marriage’ means. … In our daily lives and in our culture, we’re not all that much better than John Edwards. So why should he be better than us?”

In other words, the public diversions from the real evil committed by Senator Edwards are attempts, perhaps mostly unconscious, to get us to avoid looking in the mirror and making difficult personal applications. It’s easier to focus on his cheating on a wife with cancer, because our spouses are healthy; on the corruption of the political process, because we’re not politicians; on his repeated mendacious denials of the allegations in the Enquirer, because we’ll never have reporters waiting to photograph us at a hotel at 2:40 am.

But our culture, and many of us as individuals, need to confront the real evil adultery head on. According to a recent Associated Press poll, 22 percent of married men and 14 percent of married women in America have committed adultery. Extrapolated, that means 19 million married men and 12 million married women — one out of every ten Americans — are guilty of what Senator Edwards did. Most of these cases never make the headlines, but the life-altering destruction wrought by their marital infidelity is enormous.

Adultery, like the marriage it violates, is never merely a private act, but has huge public consequences in terms of the broken and wounded marriages that flow from it, not to mention all those who suffer as a result, from the spouses to their grown children, to children conceived through adultery, to mutual friends and colleagues, as well as to society as a whole, which must pick up so many of the emotional, social and financial pieces left by its calamitous path.

Even if an adulterer is never caught, or even if his or her adultery remains “in the heart” as Jesus described in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:27-28), it still damages one’s marriage and family. Intentional and physical adulterers both place their own “needs” and “lusts” over the good of their family and the consequences of this selfishness — what Edwards called “egotism” and “narcissism” — wound almost every bond.

Because of the tremendous damage done by adultery, some societies still consider it a crime against the common good so serious that the adulterers can be executed. In the second-century Church, it was considered, alongside apostasy and murder, as one of the sins so evil that it could be forgiven only once in a lifetime, and only after years of penance.

While it is clearly good that most societies and the Church more liberally offer a chance of redemption for those who engage in adultery, at the same time we need to recover a sense of just how evil and damaging marital infidelity is. This issue transcends political parties, candidates, and particular faith traditions. Adultery is an enormous social scourge that not only candidates and Churches but all of us need to work to eliminate.