One very traditional (and important) Church teaching that has all but disappeared from Catholic consciousness in recent decades is that of “the marital debt”, also known as “the conjugal debt”. This teaching has to do with the obligation that spouses have to acquiesce to the marital act when it is reasonably requested by the other spouse. I suppose movies and TV shows typically depict this as one-sided: the husband wants intimacy but the wife “has a headache” and declines the request. But in real life it probably goes both ways, with husbands sometimes refusing also. Indeed, it would seem that one of the problems afflicting some married couples in our very workaday and confused world at present is that of the “sexless marriage” — not because the couple is at odds with each other, but because they are just so busy and preoccupied with other pursuits.
The term “marital debt” sounds so… sterile — perhaps. It is certainly the language of legal contracts. But marriage does have a contractual quality to it, even if it is not only or merely a contract. And regardless of whether we like the term or not, we should recognize that it has biblical roots. See what St. Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians:
The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does. Do not refuse one another except perhaps by agreement for a season, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, lest Satan tempt you through lack of self-control. (1 Cor 7:3-5)
The original Greek, echoed in the Church’s official Latin translation of this passage, says something more like, “Let husbands pay the marital debt to their wives”.
As I said, the Church’s understanding of the marital debt is that spouses who are in a presumably valid marriage may not refuse the marital act to each other when it is reasonably requested. Our trusty moral manual by Fr. Heribert Jone helps us to understand this teaching better:
Rendering the requested marriage debt is a grave obligation, especially when the petitioner is in danger of incontinence or would have to make a great sacrifice to overcome temptation.
[…] It is only a venial sin to refuse the debt (provided the other party is not placed in danger of sinning gravely), if the petitioner will readily renounce his right, or if rendering it is only briefly postponed, or if the use of the marriage right is frequent and its refusal is only rare…
So Fr. Jone emphasizes that refusal to acquiesce to marital intimacy in some cases could lead to other problems — i.e., some form of incontinence (for example, the denied spouse resorting to solitary acts instead, because of frustration).
But what are some cases where it would be unreasonable for one spouse to request the marital debt, and therefore the other spouse could refuse it?
Some of them could be:
- When the requesting spouse seeks sexual acts that are unnatural or repulsive.
- When intercourse is painful (of course, medical help may and possibly should be sought for this also).
- When intercourse is requested too often (spouses should discuss this and come to an agreement).
- When the petitioner has committed adultery with another person — a grave violation of his or her marriage bond.
- When the petitioner is seriously negligent in fulfilling his or her other marital obligations (support of spouse and children).
- When there is other danger to health (for example, certain heart conditions).
From the foregoing it emerges that spouses may not “lightly” refuse “the debt” — refuse legitimate marital intimacy to their spouse — without sinning (and possibly contributing to the others’ sinning). Indeed, for some, this may well be one of the areas of married life where one did not expect to have to make sacrifices (!), if it happens that one spouse has to acquiesce sometimes for the good of the marriage, even though he or she is not otherwise “in the mood”.
So much of the difficulty that some experience in the area of the marital debt could be avoided through better communication. Some couples find it very difficult to discuss their intimacy, or they never formed good habits about doing so. If one spouse feels that the other spouse seeks intimacy too often, he or she should have a frank but charitable discussion with the other about it. If one spouse experiences discomfort of one kind or another, s/he should let the other know. And so forth.
Spouses who use Natural Family Planning often (not always) learn to communicate better in the sphere of intimacy. Couples who use no family planning method, while they do not sin, might also end up not communicating well enough about this part of their marriage. Couples who have marital acts that are not open to life also may not communicate effectively about their marital intimacy — besides the fact that they also sin by using contraception or forms of sexual intimacy that are not open to life.
Yes, the language of “the marital debt” may sound rather legalistic, sterile, cold. But it comes straight from the pen of St. Paul the Apostle. And has been constantly taught by the Church. In spite of all the emphasis on sexuality in modern times, even with things like the Theology of the Body, this particular teaching for some reason has fallen by the wayside. When I mention it in marriage preparation some couples look at me like I’m crazy. They imagine that sex in marriage will be easy, free, no sacrifice involved, always synergistic… little do they realize that one or both of them may have to make sacrifices for the good of their marriage bond, and that those sacrifices flow from the fact that through the contract of marriage they gave a right over their person to the other spouse, and vice-versa.
I did a Google search on “the marital debt” and found surprisingly few web sites that discuss it. In fact, more of them focused on questions of finance! There is more that I could say, but I have wanted to share something here of what I’ve picked up along the way and now attempt to communicate to those whom I prepare for marriage.
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ADDENDUM, 5/23/19, 9:15am
This type of post usually encourages a lot of objection and even upset, because it calls to mind for some the exceptional and difficult cases they are either aware of in the lives of their friends or even in their own marriages.
One point that needs to be emphasized in the foregoing is that of COMMUNICATION. Spouses need to be able to communicate about their intimacy and work through the issues in that area, just as they try to do in the other areas of married life. Many people today are simply unprepared to do this. This post does not propose to offer solutions on how one can more effectively communicate in that area — it just signals the problem.
Another point to be emphasized is that this teaching should not be used as a pretext by those who just want to be selfish and who do not really care about the good of their spouse. St. Paul has an extensive teaching on marriage that goes beyond the issue of the marital debt. One of those areas that he teaches on is, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church” (5:25). Intimacy in marriage is not meant to be a chore, even if we can identify aspects of it that have the nature of “duty” or “obligation” — “debt”. Intimacy should be sought for the good of both, not for the good of only one. A spouse who mis-uses this gift fails to live up to the standard of love set by Christ himself.
Those who have difficult cases should seek counseling or the advice of a prudent priest, as is appropriate. Teachings like this also become very painful when they are received in the midst of a difficult situation where no help is being sought. Again — COMMUNICATION, COUNSELING, etc. The teachings don’t change. We have to work through our difficulties and do what we can. A good priest and a trusted counselor can help a couple navigate that and find the way forward in the midst of their particular circumstances.