Eamonn Clark, STL
In the past year, I’ve become immersed in the world of Catholic doctrine and discussion on marriage and sexuality. This adventure has undoubtedly just begun, but I have already reached a few conclusions. Let me share some of them.
- There is no excellent book available on marriage and sexual ethics that is readable for the average Catholic adult which is not simply a moral theology text. (Let me know if you know of one.) As close as it gets is Christopher West’s “Good News About Sex and Marriage,” revised edition, which does a pretty good job overall.
- There are few excellent moral theology texts focused on marriage which have been published in the past several decades. Dr. Fastiggi’s book “Catholic Sexual Morality” is on that short list (though it is not perfect).
- There are puzzles in sexual ethics which have not been satisfyingly solved.
- There is a strong but completely unjustified movement to change the understanding of the marriage goods to having a reformed version of “fidelity” (now “mutual help”) on par with the good of children, with Gaudium et Spes #50 serving as the alleged prooftext. (They appeal to the section, “while not making the other purposes of matrimony of less account,” etc., which presumes that “not making of less account” means “is not superior,” which is an invalid inferential conclusion – rather, it should be inferred that the mere reality of the superiority of the good of children does not affect the intrinsic goodness of fidelity/mutual help, just as the superiority of Christ does not “make of less account” the goodness of, say, Mary the Mother of God… They are not “competing” goods, despite being hierarchical – they have their own intrinsic worth which is not affected by the other good. This comes out in the surrounding text in the same document.)
- NFP/periodic continence is a deeply misunderstood topic which is almost universally given a lax treatment by the authors.
- The “marital debt” is also a deeply misunderstood topic, and there is an astonishingly minimal awareness of what this even is, let alone how it works.
It’s the 6th one I’m talking about here. The marital debt has a long juridical-moral tradition, reaching a kind of crescendo in Gratian, then being filtered through Peter Lombard into St. Thomas, then expounded on by the manualists (like Sanchez – it’s Book 9 in the 1st volume, which is linked to) and synthesizers up until quite recently. There are many points we could talk about, but in this post we’ll go through the basics and discuss why this topic so often gets butchered by both those eager to present the classical (and correct) doctrine on the matter and those who balk at it.
A lot of people want to appeal to St. Thomas on this, and they are right to do so. However, there is an issue with that – St. Thomas, in line with St. Augustine, presumes that requesting the debt, absent at least a habitual intention to have children, is always at least a venial sin. That’s not the doctrine of St. Alphonsus, modern popes, and other authorities – but we’ll just leave that question aside for right now.
First, let’s present the foundational text: 1 Corinthians 7:1-9.
“Now for the matters you wrote about: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’ But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. I say this as a concession, not as a command. I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that. Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”
So, St. Paul is saying that, if you are getting married, you are giving over your body to your spouse for his/her access at his/her will, and vice-versa. Otherwise, why would you get married? If you don’t need to have relations, stay celibate! And that’s precisely what he talks about later in the chapter.
“Are you saying marriage exists just to use and be used by someone to prevent sin?” No. But this is an understandable reaction given two points. First, most who present the doctrine of the marital debt do not give it the nuance required and/or are generally pastorally insensitive. Second, the world does not see marriage rightly anymore, which subconsciously warps our attitudes towards it even when we make the attempt to be pious and right-thinking. Marriage is primarily about multiplying the glorification of God by having children who will worship Him in spirit and truth – in other words, marriage is primarily about making saints, especially of your children, while working on yourself and your spouse as well. The spouse’s vocation is to be a domestic missionary. Marriage is not primarily about satisfying one’s personal hopes and dreams, even though that’s important. It’s also not primarily about slaking lust, but this is an important function of marriage. One has a more direct path to union with God as a celibate, and celibacy also enables one to make saints more easily on account of availability for ministry in addition to the interior spiritual goods it offers, so it is preferrable – unless one will struggle with concupiscence too much without relations, or unless there is some other special reason, as Paul indicates later in the chapter.
While Paul’s precept is in one place framed as a negative statement (“do not deny each other”) it is really better seen as a positive precept – “do this” – as he gives first (“should fulfill his marital duty” etc.). Positive moral precepts of the “do this” variety (i.e., “give alms to the poor”) admit of exceptions, unlike negative moral precepts (“do not blaspheme”). This is for two reasons. First, because positive obligations can interfere with each other. Suppose a church is on fire and one’s child is trapped inside. One has the duty to reverence Christ in the Eucharist by bodily signs, especially by genuflection – but one has a higher duty in this moment to save one’s child from being killed in the fire. God wants “mercy, not sacrifice” in this case – run to the place where your child is, don’t bother to genuflect, and get him out of the fire! Second, because positive obligations are sometimes impossible. A man who witnessed a murder has the obligation to testify in court to act as a key witness, but if he is in a coma he is excused.
Given this, there are several cases when the marital debt need not be fulfilled. While authors will disagree about some particular points, we’ll take an obvious case. A woman has a heart condition which is aggravated by sexual intimacy such that a single conjugal act could be fatal. She would not only be not obliged to acquiesce to a request for the debt from her husband, she is obliged to refuse.
St. Thomas discusses another kind of case, where the woman requests the debt after having just received it. There is no obligation to pay it, because biologically it cannot be paid by the man, and the woman in this case is acting like a harlot, not a spouse – which she shouldn’t do.
So there we have two kinds of obvious cases of being able to say, “No.” These are not controversial. But what about… “I have a headache.” “I’m tired.” “I’m not in the mood.”
Here we have to pause and clarify something, as this is the space where the zealous go awry, and the anti-zealous rightly pounce. Simply proposing the idea of relations, or even asking for them, does not constitute a strict appeal to one’s marital right. Consider the following exchange between husband and wife at 10:30 P.M.
Husband: “Can we go to bed? You know…”
Wife: “Oh… I’m sorry, I’m trying to get the checkbook to balance before calling it a night and have a bad headache. Can we wait until tomorrow night?”
Husband: “I know, and I can appreciate that and I’m sorry about the circumstances. It’s just that I’ve been having such a hard time at work, it’s been so stressful and we haven’t slept together in a month because I’ve been coming home so late, and you’ve been up so early with the baby. Are you sure you can’t?”
Wife: “I just don’t the energy right now. I’m totally exhausted and feel a cold coming on.”
Husband: “Please, I really, really need this tonight.”
Wife: “No, not tonight, sorry.”
Husband: “I’m telling you I need you to sleep with me tonight. Please.”
Wife: “No. Goodnight.”
So… at what point in the conversation was the debt refused? Certainly not in the first response of the wife. If the husband had taken that and gone off, she could reasonably assume that his request was not really that serious, at least not as serious as her reason for declining. With the second exchange we are getting a little closer, but it’s still reasonable to see the request not as a strict appeal to his right as a husband, especially given that in her response she is still leaving things open for him to make a decision of whether to continue to ask or to decide to let it go. With the third exchange, we are now toeing the line, if not crossing it. With the fourth and final exchange, the line has clearly been crossed – at this point, there can be no lack of clarity about the appeal to his right, which would indeed overcome the appeal to the mild physical discomfort of the wife. On St. Thomas’ view, if the husband tomorrow takes an impure glance at that pretty secretary at work he’s been trying to avoid getting close with, while it is his sin, his wife is partially to blame due to having illegitimately increased the occasion of sin, as it’s her responsibility to help her husband with this precise kind of thing… Remember, nobody else can. But the refusal itself is grave matter – one signs away one’s body when getting married. Actually, all things being equal, strictly refusing a perfectly legitimate request for the debt for a completely frivolous reason is worse than adultery. In the exchange of marriage vows, one implicitly makes a negative promise (“I will not sleep with others”) and a positive promise (“I will sleep with you”). To violate the positive promise is in itself a worse offense than to violate the negative one – one isn’t simply giving too much to someone else, one is denying what one promised to give to one’s spouse. “This is mine, and it is only mine.” It’s the “is mine” part that is the most important, our psychological and social dispositions to think otherwise notwithstanding. That’s not to say that adultery isn’t a terrible sin – it is – it’s to say that the completely unjustified refusal of a reasonable request for the debt is even worse. (As an aside, today we might struggle to explain why adultery is really all that immoral – I won’t descend into that discussion here, I just want to note in passing that the mistaken appeal to Gaudium et Spes about the equality of marriage goods which I noted in the introduction is perhaps more significant than it might at first seem.)
There are some competing principles here, and it is important to appreciate them to have a not-totally-crazy understanding of the marital debt. Spouses should in fact be eager to serve each other. That of course includes the desire to have relations when requested. It also includes the desire to be considerate of one’s spouse’s condition. Because of this, a healthy sexual dynamic between spouses includes communicating about oneself – like being sick, having work to do, etc. The appeal to one’s right should only come as a last resort – and can itself be excessive and thus sinful. Suppose, for example, that the husband in the conversation above is simply an intemperate man, and it’s not stress from work or lack of intimacy that is occasioning the request but just his out-of-control libido which he makes no effort to reform. If mixed with a lack of care for the welfare of his wife, the situation becomes very bad very quickly. And yet, except in the limited cases where it is acceptable to refuse the debt flatly, or in cases where the holistic reality of the marriage is abusive (a more complex topic), she will have to give in to the requests.
This goes both ways. Oddly, St. Thomas primarily talks about the woman having excessive requests for the debt, and we usually only talk about the man having such a problem. Anyway, husbands too must respect legitimate requests from their wives, even when inconvenient or uncomfortable.
Initiating a conversation about a request for relations does not amount to refusing the debt, which is the sense one gets from some presentations of the issue. However, at the “bottom” of such conversations there is the possibility of appealing to the debt, and in such a case it must be accepted, unless a very serious reason exists. And there is often sin in such requests for the debt.
To know whether refusing a request is sin or not can sometimes be difficult. (For the nerds, what we are talking about is the quasi-potential part of prudence called “gnome.”) But the larger point is this: don’t be selfish, and don’t marry someone selfish.
In the end, navigating the marital debt is actually not that hard to figure out in general. It’s only the very special cases of when flat refusal is justified which can get complicated (and which we won’t explore here). As a good husband or wife, you want to help your spouse – either by giving over your body to your spouse at his or her request, or by holding your body back so you can respect the reality of the presently unsuitable condition of your spouse, even when you could legitimately insist on your right. Good spouses are eager to help each other. St. Paul gives this principle, albeit in a different context but which nevertheless applies here: “Outdo one another in showing honor.” (Romans 12:10) And when in doubt about the legitimacy of a reason to refuse the debt strictly speaking, lean towards paying it. That’s pretty much the whole rule summed up.
Much more can (and ought to be) said. But this will suffice for now. I leave you with two recent sources which give decent formulations of the principle:
Fr. McHugh and Fr. Callan (#2614-#2616)
Fr. Dominic Prümmer (#860-#861)
For the nerds, there are many older manuals on this website in the Research tab which will go through this kind of stuff and more in all the deliciously casuistic nauseating detail which you and I so crave.
St. Joseph, pray for us.
4 thoughts on “Thoughts on the “Marital Debt””
This is timely and important. Thank you.
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Yes… I have a particular podcaster in mind…
Im unplugged from a lot of that so I don’t know who you are referencing, unfortunately.
However, I did just get married (3 months ago) and these topics were not really discussed or taught in our marriage prep. The “everyone knows that” basics but the idea of giving our bodies up is much different and is a challenging way of thinking about marriage.
What is striking to me is that none of this is really dramatic either. It makes sense, but your starting point cant be “my body my choice” or “my pleasure my choice”. Marriage and relationships have to start from a deeper well and unfortunately we just havent had great catechesis on this. Your article is challenging and thought provoking but not kore challenging or thought provoking than “love your neighbor” or “give alms to the poor”. Virtue ought to be challenging and a little bit confronting.
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Tim Gordon is the podcaster (you can easily find this episode on YouTube, from a few days ago) – but it’s been something I’ve been peripherally aware of as being a major pastoral issue for a while.
I’m almost done with a book on NFP. Should be very interesting to see how that gets received – as it’s proposing a somewhat more rigorous doctrine than is common (developed in line with St. Alphonsus – I think I talked about it in passing a few months back on these pages).
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