Sunday, January 6, 2008

Committing Adultery

No, not me. Our first assignment for my Constitutional Law class is an exercise with the following facts (I'm paraphrasing; some relevant information will be added in the discussion):

You are in charge of a fund established seventeen years ago by a group seeking to "return to the 'old-time religion' of the Ten Commandments." To do this, they put together a program where on a person's eighteenth birthday, he or she could pledge to obey the Ten Commandments (no further elaboration or clarification was provided by the group). If they did this faithfully for seventeen years, they could collect $10,000 from the fund [this is an older exercise; perhaps $25,000 would be the equivalent today] and some of the first pledge-takers are now coming to you and seeking payment. Here are their situations (assume that the issue of adultery is the only part of the Ten Commandments in question and the contract between the fund and the claimants is unquestioned):

1. Claimant A is a married man. He has had sexual intercourse with women other than his wife while married, but cites the Jewish Encyclopedia, which says that adultery is "voluntary intercourse of a married woman with a man other than her husband." All of Claimant A's partners were unmarried women.

2. Claimant B is A's wife. She has also had affairs, but with the consent of her husband.

3. Claimant C is a man in a bigamous marriage with two women. He has been faithful to these two women.

4. Claimant D is a married man (and a "practicing Christian" aware of Matthew 5:28) who has lusted after other women, including a co-worker with whom he often holds hands, but has never consummated this lust. One reason for this is that his family needs the $10,000.

5. Claimant E is a married man (and a Catholic aware of Pope John Paul II's statement that "adultery in your heart is committed not only when you look with concupiscence at a woman who is not your wife, but also if you look in the same manner at your wife" [Googling this doesn't seem to work, although I suspect it's in Theology of the Body]) who has never lusted after another woman from the day of his marriage, but occasionally has lustful fantasies about his wife.

The big question here is what "adultery" means. It may mean different things to Moses, to a modern Jewish rabbi, to a modern Evangelical, to a modern Catholic, to a modern Mormon, to a modern Muslim, or to a modern agnostic (among others). According to, the primary meaning of the word "adultery" is this: "voluntary sexual intercourse between a married person and someone other than his or her lawful spouse." Under this, Claimants A and B would be denied for cheating on their spouses, Claimant C would be denied because bigamy is illegal in the United States and so one of his partners isn't legally his wife, and Claimants D and E are eligible in that they did not have extramarital sexual intercourse.

If the Jewish Encyclopedia is correct, then Claimants A, C, D, and E would certainly appear to be eligible for the payout, while Claimant B would not be, as polygamy was tolerated for men only and there is no recognition of the Christian views of adultery. Had Claimant B had nonconsensual sex only, she would have been eligible.

If we take a sola scriptura approach (and whose Bible do we use, do we only use the Book of Matthew, and which translation of Matthew do we use?), the question turns on whether we apply ancient Jewish custom or the modern American definition of adultery. If the former, we can definitely say that Claimant B is still denied because she is a woman, and Claimants A and D are denied for each lusting in his heart. Claimants C and E are problematic. In Matthew 5:8, does it mean "another woman" (E would be eligible), or "any woman" (E would not be eligible)? Also, has polygamy been prohibited under all circumstances in the New Testament under a sola scriptura reading? Most commentators, including the Church Fathers, seem to agree that it has been, but these writings are extrabiblical. Claimant C's eligibility hangs on this question of legal marriage in two ways: what the Bible allows and what the government allows. Having not taken a class in contract law, I don't think I can analyze this part properly.

An understanding of adultery as put forth by the Pope would be the same as above except that Claimant E would definitely be ineligible. Claimant C would also be ineligible (if eligible above) if your acceptance of the Pope's statement included an acceptance of all Catholic doctrine.

Ideally, the group that established the fund would have clarified what they meant. Absent this, however, it's a tough question for you, the fund manager.

I find Claimants C (bigamist) and E (Catholic lusting after his wife) to be most sympathetic, especially as, according to the fact pattern, the pledge was taken prior to the Pope's statement. In the United States, Claimant D (Christian lusting after another woman) would probably be able to collect in that he didn't violate the plain reading of the Commandment (although if I knew he and his co-worker had rented a motel room for the night after he collected the $10,000, I'd deny his claim), while Claimant C would not as bigamy is illegal (although if he immigrated from a country where polygamy is legal and was married prior to coming over, I'd grant an exception). Claimants A and B have clearly violated the modern American understanding of adultery. While all of these people may be guilty in God's eyes of breaking the Commandment, American law (which these Claimants will surely resort to if they disagree with your decision) tends to require an act of some kind to verify the intent.

1 comment:

Naftali said...

I don't see how the issue depends on the true meaning of the word adultery. i think it depends on A. the meaning of the term as understood by the giver. He has given a conditional gift. The gift is only a gift upon the fulfillment of the condition as he laid it down. If his understanding of the issue cannot be ascertained. Then I would argue, we go after the most common definition, as it's more reasonable to assume he is like the majority than to assume he is like the minority.

Interesting post.