In a recent essay here at Crisis musing on “the marital debt,” Adam Lucas suggests that the topic is in the category of “fun-to-consider-but-ultimately-irrelevant theological questions.” On the contrary, the question of the marital debt is practical and immediately applicable for married Catholics—or anyone seeking a fulfilling and lifelong marriage, for that matter.
The conjugal or marital debt, a concept in moral theology, refers to the obligation of spouses to offer their bodies to the other to avoid illicit outlets for concupiscence. Few subjects raise such ire and disgust as the marital debt, but it is the teaching of the universal Church. Pace Mr. Lucas, the truth or falsity of this moral teaching does, indeed, matter. Moral questions become more difficult to discern as we move to the particular, but that does not render the moral teaching irrelevant. A reexamination is in order.
You will likely be told at this point that if you do not have four years of advanced study in philosophy, if you are not reading St. Thomas Aquinas in Latin, if you have not recently brushed up on your Greek, you are unfit to address this lofty question. It is true; only those qualified should weigh in.
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However, on the subject of the marital debt we have clear and consistent moral teaching, including in Sacred Scripture itself, and faithful theologians have explicated how to apply the moral teaching to difficult situations, such as when there is a physical impediment to intercourse or serious health reasons for avoiding pregnancy. We are not adrift, oarless, on a sea of unknowns. The trouble is that people do not like the teaching.
Why then do people object so strenuously? Thinking of marriage as a transactional agreement can seem to undermine the reality of the mystery at the heart of marriage. This has led to a caricature of a lustful and undisciplined husband making demands of a tired and unfulfilled wife. It’s high time we look past the caricature to consider more practical questions.
The objections to the marital debt are often like the pro-abortion hypothetical of the famous violinist. The attempted analogy, dreamed up decades ago and still offered by abortion activists today, proposes that a woman wakes up in the hospital with a famous musician hooked up to her and living off her organs. When she objects, she’s told that they cannot pull the plug because the violinist is so valuable. Her autonomy is ignored and her organs depleted in the service of a parasitic invader society has foisted on her. Which is, of course, exactly what it is like to be pregnant.
Except that it is not like that at all. The preborn child is intimately related to his mother and, in justice, deserves nourishment in her womb. Just so, the objections to the reality of marital debt often frame the spouse as an outside imposition, some stranger with vicious desires inflicted on a random bedmate. This ignores the purpose of the vocation of marriage. The sacramental reality of marriage exists specifically in the unique, procreative union of spouses. It’s not simply an add-on or afterthought; it’s the glue that makes a marriage.
Others express concern that the marital debt gives men license to be savage brutes. This concern is unfounded for normal and healthy husbands. Ordinary life will provide many opportunities for the development of chastity in marriage. Separation through travel, illness, pregnancy complications, and chronic disease will all offer the chance to practice abstinence. It is only the contracepting Protestants who still envision St. Paul’s admonition to marry as an invitation to orgiastic carnal free-for-all. No, married people will have plenty of chances to develop restraint.
In his essay, Lucas addresses the most common scenario portrayed in popular culture: what if the wife is just “tired.” Lucas makes a worthwhile point about human relationships with his analogy of picking movies and makes amusing use of the footnote. However, his point is applicable to relationships generally, not to marriage specifically.
Marriage offers an exclusivity that is unique, and the sine qua non of marriage, the marital act, is unique. The question of whether to watch one movie or another is nothing like the question of whether to behave like married people or not. Assuming you are not living in a Josephite marriage (and if you’re reading this, you’re almost certainly not), enjoying the pleasures of marriage will always be better than not, all else being equal.
Lucas’ framing of non-specific “loving self-gift” muddies the waters. It would seem almost that the wife is doing her husband a favor by objecting to marital union. Denying a spouse out of some inflated sense of providing the opportunity to exercise virtue is to invite disdain and resentment into the marriage bed, diseases that can be fatal to the marriage itself.
Lucas reasonably notes, “Invoking the language of marital debt seems completely out of place in a healthy relationship and a sure signal of a bad one.” Anonymous Catholic men of the internet attest on Reddit and other forums that when a wife was uninterested and her husband invoked the marital debt—literally—the results were a fight and not a passionate renewal of marital vows. Who could have seen that coming?
Nevertheless, a few men of low emotional intelligence do not justify abandoning two millennia of moral teaching. Articulating the truth has the power to encourage greater happiness and fruitfulness in marriage.
Catholics are not the only people to figure this out. The subject of the marital debt, though not identified as such, comes up in secular contexts. For example, you will find it all but explicitly defined on Dennis Prager’s radio show a few years ago or in countercultural self-help books like Laura Schlessinger’s The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands.
The accusations immediately start flying whenever a cultural commentator wades into these perilous waters, but there seem to be broadly applicable principles worth considering. Prager, a twice-divorced man who is not Catholic, is not himself a paragon of marital bliss; but, having talked to hundreds of men and women over the years, he still has insights that coincide with moral truth as elaborated by the universal Church.
We live in a society in which “everyone knows” that young, unmarried people cannot be expected to remain abstinent and that marriages are boring and devoid of physical intimacy. In other words, we are swimming upstream in an upside-down world. Now is not the time to jettison the perennial teaching of the Church but to rediscover its wisdom.
Chastity speakers frequently warn young adults of the powerful influence of physical intimacy. Its ability to bond partners and smooth over differences and conflict make it a dangerous elixir for the unmarried and immature. Shouldn’t we also encourage married couples to take advantage of this natural and beneficial effect?
If you seek advice on keeping a tidy home, successfully tidy people will tell you to begin with the kitchen sink. If you want a happy marriage, almost universally the happily married will advise that you continue to date your spouse. Discussing the marital debt in the abstract with your spouse is probably unhelpful, but trying ever more fully to live in accord with its truth will bless your marriage and, in turn, the world. If poor health or serious difficulties arise, this striving becomes much more complicated. If you are in a time of life when your greatest challenge is being a little tired, don’t let Satan divide you from your spouse.