Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Marital debt

In the comments another site was cited as follows:
"In the Catholic Church, there is an understanding of the "marital debt." When you're married, you no longer belong to yourself - you belong to your spouse. So if one of you wants to have sex, the other is obliged to give him or herself. You are only allowed to withhold for a serious reason."
I have to say that I'm with the Catholic church here. A marriage is a sexual relationship and anyone entering into it is making a vow that includes sex. And if you look around at Catholic writings on the subject you'll see serious reasons includes most or all the reasons a reasonable person would want to refuse sex. No one is obliged to have sex on Tuesday night at 7:30 just because their spouse has asked for it at that moment. It's quite reasonable on Catholic teaching to put your spouse off because you don't feel like it. What I can't do is use not feeling like it as a reason to persistently refuse sex to my spouse. We might not agree on every point but there is no denying the church has thought this through in a serious and thorough-going fashion.

Actually, I'd make it even more difficult. I'd say the marital debt is not just an agreement to allow your spouse to have sex with you but an agreement to cultivate your sexual desire for your spouse. It's not just "you can have me" it's "I will make sure that I want you to have me and that I want to have you". If all a married person ever does is agree to go through the motions to satisfy their spouse they have broken their marriage vows.

And that opens up a whole other issue, the notion that sexual pleasure is a positive good that brings married people closer together. It is only relatively recently that the Catholic church has begun to grapple with the moral implications of this positive good in a serious way and in doing so there is a lot of left over Augustinian* error that needs to be purged**. That said, it is relevantly recent by Catholic terms and I think it will take a while to work out all the issues here.

In this regard (as I noted in the comments of an earlier post), there is an odd contradiction in past Church teaching on marital debt. If you bash your way through Butler's Lives of the Saints you will find several examples of female saints who unilaterally decided to have a celibate marriage and then sprung this news on their husbands as an ultimatum. These stories are rich in detail of husbands using all sorts of evil means in an attempt to break their wives' will to do this and then ultimately breaking down in the face of their wives' sanctity.

But if there really is a marital debt then any unilateral decision to have a celibate marriage is a sin. You could approach your spouse with such an idea but only with a very serious reason as no such thing was implied at the time of your marriage and if they say no, that should be the end of it.

By the way the Puritans recognized the debt going both ways and there are documented historical examples of men being put in stocks in the public square for failing to meet their wives' sexual needs. Catholics don't seem to have believed that such a thing was possible. And here, I think, we have the mark of a  double standard.

* Reading this again four years later, it seems unfair to use the term "Augustinian" here for while there are many (including me in this post) who attribute the error to Augustine, he was far more intelligent about sex than that.
** I was reminded by a reader just the other day that I promised to return to Alice von Hildebrand and I will. I mention here that she is one of those who is quite overtly determined to continue to impose an Augustinian perspective.


  1. That's right, in Catholic teaching there is a double standard, and for that reason I can't help but believe that the entire notion of the "marital debt" and "belonging" to your spouse is a relic or holdover--and has its theological origins in--the days when women were considered the property of their husbands. The idea of one person belonging to another is dehumanizing, like owning a car or a refrigerator. There's an American folk song that the great mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne would sing as an encore called "I Bought Me a Cat," in which the last verse is "I Bought Me a Wife." Of course we laugh at that today, but not so long ago that's what some people apparently thought they were doing when they got married. Its not so far-fetched actually, when you consider that until recently women were expected to bring a dowry to the marriage, and even some orders of women religious required that. In exchange, the husband (or the Order) supported her and children in the case of married women for the rest of their lives. Its no wonder that even today women--both married and unmarried--use sex as barter. Human relationships can't or should not be codified, it does a disservice to the humanity of the individuals and the very idea of relationship. People who marry choose to spend their lives together as equal partners--a relationship--not a contract to acquire another person. The Puritans might have modified it to make it more egalitarian or equal, but it still amounts to ownership of another person, and that's slavery. A little known fact is that until the last half of the 20th C., in the US rape was not considered a personal crime but a crime against property, because the woman was the property of either her father or her husband.

    Having said that, I agree that married couples should vigorously cultivate and nurture their sexual relationship because it can become stale over time. There are many things that couples can do to avoid that, but as you correctly point out, the errors of Augustine, as well as the legacy of Jansenism, still live on. Maybe if that were not the case fewer couples would look outside their relationship for excitement.

  2. "What I can't do is use not feeling like it as a reason to persistently refuse sex to my spouse."

    That sounds to me like the symptom of a problem, either in the relationship or with the individual who is refusing. For the "agrieved partner" to say "Get over it, the Church says you're obliged to put out for me" isn't going to help the problem, it will probably make it worse. Intimate human relationships can't be codified like a contract to buy a house. Entering into an intimate human relationship requires taking a risk, the risk that your partner might not feel in 10 years the way she or he feels today. The Church is acting like an insurance company here to minimize that risk. History--and the scores of people who divorce, get Church annullments, and have extra-marital affairs, or just live lives of quiet desperation--has proven it doesn't work.