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Our readers asked:

If I cheated on my wife and I admitted it to my pastor in confession am I now also required to tell my wife as well?

Richard G. Malloy, SJ Answers:

The theologian Bernard Lonergan argues the innate operations of our being human, i.e., our experiencing, understanding, judging, deciding and loving, contain inherent transcendental precepts or norms.  We should be attentive, intelligent reasonable, responsible and loving in all we do and are.  To the degree that we are authentic, and live attentive, intelligent reasonable, responsible and loving lives, we progress and grow.  To the degree that we are unauthentic, and fail to meet the challenges of being attentive, intelligent reasonable, responsible and loving, we decline.  Our relationships with God, others and our deepest, truest self, falter and stall.  We are in danger of losing all we need and love.

When we have not lived up to the norms, how do we set things right?  Sin breaks the bonds and relationships that constitute who we truly are.  Sacramental confession reestablishes our relationship with God and the community and heals our bruised heart.  Our conscience tells us what we ought to do, and when we fail to do so, we know it (cf. Rom 7:14-8:13).  We have to honestly and ruthlessly let our conscience confront ourselves in these situations, repent, and choose anew to live according to the teachings of Jesus.

Infidelity is certainly a failure to honor and respect oneself, one’s spouse and the person with whom one cheats.  Repentance, true contrition, and the commitment to set things right can include informing one’s spouse.  I have been in conversation with a couple whose marriage is stronger and deeper than ever, largely because he was able to forgive the revelation of her infidelity of years earlier.

Still, I don’t think one size fits all in these matters.  We enjoy the freedom of the sons and daughters of God.  It is a prudential judgment whether or not telling your spouse will make things better, or cause irreparable pain and harm.  If the infidelity was a stupid, one night slip (the infamous and demeaning “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”), maybe telling the spouse will be less than helpful.  If the infidelity is long term, one may need to address with one’s spouse the underlying motives and reasons for the betrayal.

The Author : Richard G. Malloy, SJ
Richard G. Malloy, S.J., Ph.D., is Vice President for University Ministries, the University of Scranton, Scranton, PA, and author of A Faith That Frees (Orbis Books).
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  • cathyf

    A really important question to ask in this sort of situation is “what do you expect to gain by telling your spouse, and what do you expect your spouse to gain?”

    Do you blame your spouse for your actions? (“If you had been a better spouse I wouldn’t have gone looking elsewhere…”) Are you trying to punish your spouse further by using the “confession” as a tool to reproach him/her for his/her real or imagined inadequacies? In that sort of situation telling the spouse is an act of aggression, and a compounding of the prior infidelity. A huge and necessary part of sincere repentance is to take responsibility for your actions. And that’s really hard. Is telling the spouse an attempt to “change the subject” and avoid facing up to your own guilt?

    Do you have some feeling of entitlement when it comes to the spouse’s forgiveness, and if the spouse refuses to give it, or does not give it on the exact terms that you think he/she should, are you going to decide that this somehow “makes up for” your sin? You are not entitled to anyone’s forgiveness, including God’s. And no one else’s sins in any way lessen yours.

    One of the hardest things to come to grips with when confronting your own sinfulness is that you alone are responsible for what you have done. Telling will be sure to hurt the spouse, and keeping it secret will also do so. The question is which will hurt the spouse less, and the comment is that it’s well past time to put the spouse’s best interest first…

  • Steve

    Boy, this is a tricky question. In my opinion (as if anyone asked), I would say that the spouse deserves to know if any of the following criteria are met: 1. If your spouse may be exposed to an STD. 2. If there is reason to expect that you may cheat again. 3. If you yourself feel like your marriage would be eventually strengthened by coming clean.

    Also, if I could add an additional question, what would be the obligation to tell one’s spouse if it were a part of your penance, Father? Is that a condition that a priest could include as part of a penance in the confessional?

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