Every so often, the topic of “marital debt” comes up in the Catholic infosphere, causing much consternation and debate. Someone says something inflammatory, someone calls them an idiot, and before long “marital debt” is all over Catholic social media.
Anyone on the Catholic internet space knows it is back in vogue again, with hundreds of posts a day. The subject has dominated my timeline, as seen below:
…OK fine, so maybe “marital debt” isn’t such a hot issue right now.
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In fact, I’m late to the party, as the controversy mainly blazed almost a year ago with the release of (the aptly attributed) Mrs. Timothy Gordon’s book, Ask Your Husband. Nevertheless, enough embers remain scattered throughout the Catholic world that fires pop up periodically. And the topic has been on my mind personally as my wife and I prepare for our first child, and (if my friends are to be believed) I prepare to forgo marital relations for the next 18 years.
Marital debt, generally speaking, refers to the obligation of spouses to provide exclusive sexual relations to the other. And, generally speaking, this is uncontroversial. After all, a refusal to consummate the marriage is grounds for annulment even in secular law, and adultery is grounds for divorce.
The controversy comes whenever this term is used in more particular, theological ways. The debt isn’t just a requirement to be a sexual partner in general, some say, but an obligation to make love to your spouse each and every particular time they request it, under pain of mortal sin, unless you have a legitimate reason not to.
Obviously, we can’t give into a spouse who is asking us to sin, so you can deny your spouse’s request to make love in view of a crowded playground. Bodily harm should be avoided too, so you can probably turn them down if you’re convulsing in a hospital bed. But such discussions on marital debt invariably restrict “legitimate reasons” to such rather extreme circumstances, pointing out that the common reasons of being too tired or not in the mood are not legitimate.1
People who endorse this view of the marital debt largely lean on St. Thomas Aquinas, who appears in the Summa Theologica to take a similar stance.2 Aquinas is basing himself on St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:4-5, which states (among other things):
The wife does not have power over her own body, but the husband. Likewise, the husband does not have power over his own body, but the wife. Do not deprive each other, except by mutual consent.
Subsequent popes, it is argued, confirmed both Aquinas and St. Paul, and so (they say) it is Catholic teaching required of all the faithful.
And then after that, as is expected, you soon have people yelling either 1) that this isn’t really Catholic teaching, or 2) that rejecting this teaching will plunge the American economy into a recession.
Now, I have my own doubts about whether this really is Catholic teaching. But they don’t matter. For the purposes of this article, let’s even grant that the narrative is correct; that in some official and technical way, Catholics are bound to sleep with their spouses whenever insisted upon, under pain of sin.
The trouble with subsequent discussions of such a debt is they overlook the larger context of human relationships that render the truth or falsity irrelevant.
Everything within marriage takes place in the context of loving self-gift. In adult relationships, love drives us to give as much room as possible to the desires and preferences of the other; if both spouses are really aiming for a gift of self, the requesting party would back down after hearing their partner’s reluctance. Everything within marriage takes place in the context of loving self-gift. In adult relationships, love drives us to give as much room as possible to the desires and preferences of the other.Tweet This
Any situation where one party starts insisting upon their “rights” means that relationship has already broken down. Consider the classic sitcom scene of a husband testing the waters with his wife:
Me: Maybe we could…
Wife: I’m sorry honey, but I’m exhausted and have to wake up early. Let’s try tomorrow instead!
Me: Nope, too bad! St. Paul says our bodies are not our own but belong to our spouse. I have power over your body as your husband, and so you must respect my sexual rights, under pain of Hell.
Wife: Hmm. Well, with my power over your body you better sleep on the couch tonight, under pain of losing a valuable digit, if you catch my drift.
Invoking the language of marital debt seems completely out of place in a healthy relationship and a sure signal of a bad one.
Now, there’s a special vulnerability in sexual preferences that can complicate things, but we easily see this truth if considering any other activity within marriage.
Say it’s movie night, and my wife wants to watch Citizen Kane. I much prefer Jason Eisener’s Hobo with a Shotgun; and after discussion, it becomes clear that she really does not want to watch my movie. Maybe, in love, we find a compromise. Or, maybe one of us sacrifices their preferences, and, in love, watches the other’s film.3 But the one possibility that love does not allow for is someone to unfeelingly demand the other’s compliance with their desires. Even before we consider moral theology or the “rights” of either party, such brashness is discarded as foreign to that gentle camaraderie integral to human friendship, especially the friendship of marriage.
This is the trouble with talking about the marital debt. The discussion poses as being about what Thomas says, or what Scripture means, or what the Magisterium preaches about a very specific aspect of moral theology. But in reality, it’s about whether we’re human or not. Those who insist upon the marital debt as some important Catholic teaching, or even a teaching at all, come off as total weirdos for reasons that have nothing to do with their arguments from historical theology. Who knows, and who cares, if they are being bad Thomists; what causes alarm is instead an apparent lack of sensitivity to healthy relationality.
A neighbor who constantly insists that local stand-your-ground laws make it legal for him to shoot me if I set foot on his property might be correct, and yet I’ll still be upset. I’m not scared because I think he’s wrong. I’m upset because it sounds like he’s planning to shoot me the next time I try and borrow a cup of sugar.
Similarly, the marital debt discussion is best left for those interested in the fun-to-consider-but-ultimately-irrelevant theological questions. If we are living our relationships in love, it won’t need to be considered.