Can a Person Be Forgiven for Adultery?

DIFFICULT MORAL QUESTIONS: No matter what you’ve done, you can rise from spiritual death and put your life back together. Go to confession.

Guercino, “The Woman Taken in Adultery,” c. 1621
Guercino, “The Woman Taken in Adultery,” c. 1621 (photo: Public Domain)

Q. I broke my marriage vows. I had an affair. My wife found out and kicked me out. I've ruined my life. I've yet to confess it. My question is: How can a priest purport to forgive me, assuming he does, if my wife doesn’t? She never will. I'll never forgive myself. — C., Pennsylvania

A. If we as Christians can’t be forgiven, we are lost; we’re as empty and desperate as we sometimes feel. But “if we confess our sins, Christ is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1.9).

The Council of Trent infallibly teaches: “If anyone says that the man who has fallen after baptism cannot rise again through God’s grace, let him be anathema” (Denzinger 1579).

We can rise from spiritual death and put our lives back together.

Although it is true that you won’t be reconciled to your wife unless and until she forgives you, you can be reconciled to God. Your sins can be wiped out. You can be free from the spiritual bonds caused by your bad choices. Jesus forgives sins, all sins, unilaterally. He has the power. And he gives that power to men, to priests. Inasmuch as the priest is sacramentally conformed to Jesus through his ordination, he is able to act in Christ’s person.

So go to confession. Trent also teaches that the sacrament of penance is necessary for those who commit mortal sin after baptism (Denzinger 1579; 1668); that the complete effect of the sacrament “consists in reconciliation with God;” and that “in persons who are pious and receive this sacrament with devotion, it is likely to be followed at times by peace and serenity of conscience with an overwhelming consolation of spirit” (1674).

On the penitent’s part, contrition, confession and satisfaction are necessary (see Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, III, q. 90, a. 2-3). Contrition consists of our sorrow for and detestation of the sins we have committed, joined to a firm resolve to sin no more. Detestation is added to sorrow because our feelings of sorrow can easily consist of no more than sadness and embarrassment at getting caught.

Our sorrow should be for our sins: for the fact that I violated God’s Commandment and so broke friendship with him; that I violated my marriage promises and so betrayed my wife; that I harmed my children (if I have any), caused scandal, undermined my Christian witness to the Gospel and contributed to a culture of moral license and promiscuity.

Humbly confess all your sins to the priest who stands in God’s place. And submit yourself to his judgment and carry out your penance done in satisfaction (i.e., done to repair the wrongdoing). Finally, gratefully receive absolution.

After this, you can and should return to Mass weekly (at least) and regular confession. You might also consider a spiritual adviser, someone to walk this difficult road with you and assist you to grow in the self-mastery you need to overcome sexual sins in your life.

If it would not cause more harm than good, you may consider repenting from the heart to your wife (and family), perhaps writing a letter as a tangible expression of your contrition. Express your profound sorrow for and detestation of your sins, the harm and pain they caused, and your firm resolve to sin no more. God can use your example of repentance and humility as a means of salvation not only for yourself but for your loved ones.

Finally, resist despair. The devil wants you to believe you are unforgivable and so unforgiven. He is a liar and the Father of Lies. Resist him. Remain solid in your faith in the all-sufficient merit of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ by which all sins — from Adam’s sin down to the last sin before the second coming — can be forgiven, washed away, wiped out.

Pentecost is a most apt time to initiate this reconciliation with God. Pray to the Holy Spirit to send you power from on high to remain firm in your resolve, to lead you into all truth concerning Jesus’ good news of repentance, to make known to you the loving forgiveness of God, and to advocate before the throne of God for the ultimate salvation of your soul and the souls of those you love.