On The Marriage Debt

Is a wife morally obligated to have natural marital relations open to life with her husband? Is he similarly obligated to her? The following answer to this question is taken from my book, Roman Catholic Marital Sexual Ethics:

Pope Pius XI: “By this same love it is necessary that all the other rights and duties of the marriage state be regulated as the words of the Apostle: ‘Let the husband render the debt to the wife, and the wife also in like manner to the husband,’ express not only a law of justice but of charity.” (Pope Pius XI, Casti Connubii, n. 25.)

The term ‘marriage debt’ refers to the mutual obligation between the husband and wife to engage in natural marital relations open to life. This obligation is mutual because it is a requirement of the moral law, that is the law of justice. The husband and wife are equal under the moral law. The reasons for the marriage debt, i.e. the obligation of the spouses to engage in sexual relations with one another, are several. First, the human race would not continue without sexual relations leading to the procreation of children. And children are best served by being conceived and born into a family with a father and mother. The emphasis in modern secular society on sexual relations for pleasure has led to a decline in the birth rate in many nations below what is needed to sustain the population.

Second, marital relations offers the goods of expressing and strengthening the marriage, and of binding and keeping the couple united in mind and heart by an outward expression of the body. The marital and unitive meanings offer goods to the marriage in addition to the good of the procreation of children.

Third, the aforementioned goods, by benefiting the husband and wife, also benefit the whole family. For when the spouses regularly express and strengthen their love, even in this bodily manner, the benefits to their souls and spirits then also benefit the whole family.

Fourth, marital relations quiets concupiscence, thereby protecting the spouses from the danger of sexual sins, including sins in the mind and heart, as well as bodily sins, such as masturbation or adultery. This purpose to marital relations, though certainly secondary to the primary threefold end of the marital, unitive, and procreative meaning, is nevertheless so important (for us poor sinners living in a sinful world) that the Apostle Paul emphasizes it when speaking about the marriage debt in Sacred Scripture.

[1 Corinthians]
{7:1} Now concerning the things about which you wrote to me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman.
{7:2} But, because of fornication, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband.
{7:3} A husband should fulfill his obligation to his wife, and a wife should also act similarly toward her husband.
{7:4} It is not the wife, but the husband, who has power over her body. But, similarly also, it is not the husband, but the wife, who has power over his body.
{7:5} So, do not fail in your obligations to one another, except perhaps by consent, for a limited time, so that you may empty yourselves for prayer. And then, return together again, lest Satan tempt you by means of your abstinence.

Scripture begins this passage by asserting the truth, also infallibly taught by the Council of Trent, that virginity and celibacy are better than marriage. But as our Lord also taught (Mt 19:12), some persons are called to the lower state of marriage, and other persons are called to the higher state of chastity as a single person.

Within the married state, natural sexual relations is not only a right and privilege given to married persons, it is also a duty. The husband and wife have a mutual obligation to one another, sometimes represented under the figure of a debt that is to be paid, to engage in marital relations for the good of the other person. The reason for this marriage debt is not to make certain that both spouses have ample sexual pleasure in their life, but rather so that all the goods of natural marital relations will benefit both spouses, and the family, and humanity.

Notice that the modern idea of sex for pleasure is absent from this passage about natural marital relations. Even some misguided Catholics today are loudly proclaiming that sexual relations in marriage is for the purpose of pleasure, is guided by that purpose, and is justified (even in unnatural acts) by that purpose. They even claim, by misuse of the term ‘theology of the body’, that their errors are merely the teachings of the personal theology of Pope John Paul II. They are like the Nicolaitans in this regard (Rev 2:6). [Nicolaitans preached and practiced utter sexual immorality; they falsely attributed this severe moral error to Nicolas, one of the first deacons of the Church (Acts 6:5).] But the teaching of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium contains no such assertions. And truly, neither did Pope John Paul II teach any of those errors, neither in his private theology, nor in any act of the Magisterium.

[1 Corinthians]
{7:6} But I am saying this, neither as an indulgence, nor as a commandment.
{7:7} For I would prefer it if you were all like myself. But each person has his proper gift from God: one in this way, yet another in that way.
{7:8} But I say to the unmarried and to widows: It is good for them, if they would remain as they are, just as I also am.
{7:9} But if they cannot restrain themselves, they should marry. For it is better to marry, than to be burned.

No one can be compelled to choose the married state; it is not a commandment that any particular person marry. Neither is the married state, and marital relations in particular, ordained for the purpose of self-indulgence, so that each person will have the pleasures that they desire. Paul would prefer, and Christ is also speaking to us through Paul, in the Holy Spirit, that the faithful choose the higher state of virginity and celibacy over the lower state of holy matrimony. But this gift is not given to all persons. Each person has their own gifts and their own calling, some to marriage and some to virginity and celibacy.

If any persons, due to their own sinfulness, find virginity and celibacy too difficult, then they should marry. For it is better to be married, i.e. to be in a lower but still holy state of life, than to burn with desire, which leads to sin, and which finally may lead to being burned in Hell. Illicit sexual acts are always gravely immoral, and so the danger of Hellfire should caution us in this area of life. Whoever preaches unrestrained sexual practices even within marriage, sins by formal cooperation with evil, harms the holy Sacrament of Marriage, and endangers many souls.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic moral theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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1 Response to On The Marriage Debt

  1. John Platts says:

    The Code of Canon law says the following regarding impotence: “Antecedent and perpetual impotence to have intercourse, whether on the part of the man or the woman, whether absolute or relative, nullifies marriage by its very nature” (Can. 1084, §1). A person who is permanently impotent and whose impotence is incurable is impeded from marrying in the future by his or her permanent impotence because he or she is unable to properly consummate the marriage and satisfy the marriage debt. On the other hand, a person who becomes permanently impotent after the proper consummation of a valid marriage remains validly married while his or her spouse is alive, even if his or her impotence is incurable. Impotence is the inability to engage in a completed act of natural sexual relations. A person who successfully engages in a completed act of natural sexual relations, but does not conceive a child as a result, is not impotent. In our society, some permanently impotent persons who are not currently married and suffering from incurable impotence (including practicing Catholics who are unaware of this impediment) do erroneously believe that they can validly marry. There are permanently impotent persons in our secular sinful society who try to justify having biological children by means of artificial procreation, despite the fact that these acts of artificial procreation are intrinsically evil, gravely immoral, and incapable of satisfying the marriage debt.

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