Marital Debt: No Need for a Name Change

We need not fear the name “marital debt,” and there is good reason to keep it as it is.

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It is cause for great happiness that we learn, in an end-of-year retrospective, that Adam Lucas, fellow writer at Crisis, has accepted the wisdom of the Church’s teaching on the marital debt. However, he still takes issue with one aspect: he seems to propose changing the name. 

In a recent article entitled “From Marital Debt to Marital Credit,” Mr. Lucas makes the practical observation that “frequent lovemaking is good for a marriage,” and he admits that marriage is a “sexual relationship,” which is “why spouses are not just friends.” 

He goes on to suggest, logically, that in the vicissitudes of life, marital intimacy will not occur if people wait until the perfect moment or act only on their whims. Spouses should, he rightly advises, make sacrifices for the good of their marital union. 

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However, Mr. Lucas claims “the non-misogynistic/non-control-freak proponents of marital debt” (evidently meaning people like me who accept the moral teaching of the universal Church and see no need to change the name) “wrongly formalize it [willingness to engage in sexual intimacy] in the language of obligation and sacramental rights.” 

We need not fear the name “marital debt,” and there is good reason to keep it as it is. Because we are created by God, we come into the world indebted. We owe God gratitude for our very existence, and our gratitude is properly expressed in worship. We also fall under the obligations of the moral law in our conduct toward our fellow man. 

Fulfilling our obligations and paying the debt for our sin sets up a standard that we can meet only through Christ’s blood on the Cross. The fact that we, of our own power, cannot fulfill the moral law does not excuse us from striving to follow it. The obligations put upon us are not burdens but the path to freedom; the moral law is for our happiness. And this applies to marital debt no less than other requirements and obligations of the moral law.

Consider another example: the obligation to attend Sunday Mass. Would it be better to call it the Sunday Credit Opportunity to emphasize the potential spiritual growth of regularly attending Mass? Should we change Holy Days of Obligation to Holy Days of Invitation lest people feel merely obligated to attend Mass on High Feasts and Holy Days? Absolutely not! 

Being obligated to attend Mass does not prevent us from reaping the benefits of fulfilling the duty to worship God. Of course, there are reasons why we may have to miss Mass—violent stomach bug, unforeseen travel, blizzards—but if we are not reminded of our obligation, we could invent any number of invalid reasons not to take advantage of the opportunity—wanting to sleep in, for starters. 

Many Catholics worry that the marital debt entails some outside imposition of timetable or frequency, which is a concern not based in reality. While the obligation to attend Sunday Mass is, obviously, weekly, the fulfillment of the marital debt relies on the prudential judgment of the spouses in individual marriages that should not be open to the prying eyes of the world. Scrupulosity and disorder exist in the individual, but the moral principle remains the same: spouses have an obligation to each other that can be fulfilled with great love, even if accomplished sometimes with a sense of obligation.

The name “marital debt” signifies a sacramental reality: in marriage, our bodies do not belong to us as individuals but to our spouses. Entering into a sacramental union requires us to recalibrate expectations from the rom-com world surrounding us. The name “marital debt” signifies a sacramental reality: in marriage, our bodies do not belong to us as individuals but to our spouses. Tweet This

In an email, Ellen Holloway, Catholic sexuality and intimacy coach, wrote, 

Marriage isn’t for the individual, marriage is for the other. Our current society treats marriage as the solution to my needs and wants, but that’s actually opposite of the point of marriage, and when we focus on marriage as fulfilling our own wants and needs, that is when we get into trouble.

Holloway continued, 

Sex is exactly the same. Sex is for the other. It is a total and complete gift of self, an opening of yourself to the other. When we come together in marriage, we are literally saying in our wedding vows that I will give the gift of myself over to you totally and completely. 

That does not mean that every time a spouse suggests intimacy it will unquestionably occur—as so many people fear—but that both spouses should cultivate an openness to the desires of the other in order to grow in intimacy. 

Drawing an analogy, Holloway writes, 

All God wants is for us to say yes to his initiation of love. Sometimes we really don’t want to, sometimes we choose not to. God is never angry with our choice to say no to him. He patiently waits for another opportunity to give himself to us. This is what should be imaged in a loving marriage. One spouse initiates and the other ideally says an emphatic yes, but sometimes the answer is no. In continuing that image, the spouse who initiated would lovingly accept that no and continue to offer the gift of himself or herself in the hopes of a loving and holy union at another time.

What does that look like in real life? 

On her podcast, Charting Toward Intimacy, Holloway and co-host Kathleen Chovanes explore the realities of daily life striving to live out the Catholic moral teaching on sexuality. Rather than viewing the obligations of married life as a chore to be gotten through, they offer practical insight into the challenges, pleasures, sacrifices, and joys of Catholic married life. Applicable to the discussion of the marital debt is their episode on “Characteristics of a Mature and Healthy Sexual Relationship.”

Some of the reluctance to terms like “marital debt” displayed by many undoubtedly stems from controversial statements on the internet. It is freeing to realize we need not fret about the #tradwives and #chads and #simps and what they have to say about the marital debt. (If you don’t know what any of those hashtags mean, count yourself blissfully ignorant.) We can rely on millennia of consistent moral teaching and the lived experience of wiser and more experienced married couples.

Much is also to be gained from the perspective of good priests who have counseled married couples in times of joy and sorrow. In addition to Mr. Lucas’ proposal that we embrace a recommitment to our vows in the holiday season, I propose we all sign off from the internet for a while. Experiencing reality as it exists in the lives of countless faithful Catholics striving, however imperfectly, to live out the moral teaching of the Church is a better teacher than hashtags. In many of these holy lives, we find great beauty to be gained through the exercise of obedience to moral precepts we may not always fully understand. And we could all do with fewer Barbenheimer memes.

Author

  • Anna Reynolds

    Anna Kaladish Reynolds attended the University of Dallas and received an MA in Theology from Ave Maria University. She is a wife and mother, who lives in the great state of Texas, and she writes at InspireVirtue.com.

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