Catholic Moral Theology: the Marriage Debt

The marriage debt is the mutual obligation that the spouses have, within a valid marriage (natural or supernatural) to have marital relations. The term is based on an Epistle of St. Paul in the New Testament:

[1 Corinthians 7]
{7:1} Now concerning the things about which you wrote to me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman.

~ Celibacy and virginity are each better and more blessed than marriage. Also the Apostle gives the example of a man refraining from marital relations, it applies also to women.

{7:2} But, because of fornication, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband.

~ In order to avoid the grave sin of fornication, human persons may marry and have moral marital relations. Although celibacy and virginity are better than marriage, for any particular fallen sinner, marriage might be the state of life to which he or she is called. Notice that this teaching applies equally to a woman as to a man. Furthermore, monogamy is implied for Christian marriage: a man has his wife, and a woman has her husband. They may NOT have relations with anyone else.

{7:3} A husband should fulfill his obligation [Latin: debitum] to his wife, and a wife should also act similarly toward her husband.

~ The term marriage debit comes from this verse, since the word translated as “obligation” is from the Latin “debitum” from which we also have the word debt. And that obligation is reciprocal. The husband has an obligation to his wife, and she has the same obligation to him. Marital relations is an inherent part of the Christian Sacrament, since the primary purpose of marriage is the generation and education of children (“generatio et educatio prolis”).

~ But a secondary purpose is the quieting of concupiscence, a term referring to the tendency of fallen sinners to desire sexual union. As implied in verse 7:2, a couple avoid the sin of fornication by marrying, so that they do not sin by sex outside of marriage. But once they are married, the same principle applies. They have sexual relations with each other, and this helps keep them from committing sexual sins.

~ Therefore, the obligation of the marriage debt has more than one purpose. It serves to increase the chances that the couple will conceive children. It helps them avoid sexual sins, by having the only moral type of sex: natural marital relations open to life. And it also strengthens the marital bond, since marital relations also has the purpose of expressing and confirming the love of the spouses. Marital sex is, at its best, a physical expression of love. These purposes and their importance are what result in an obligation. Otherwise, the couple might be acting contrary to the purposes of marriage, as intended by God.

{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.

This is said figuratively. It is not the case that the husband can demand sex from his wife, nor vice versa. One spouse may request the marriage debt (ask for sex), and the other may say Yes or No on any given occasion, freely.

{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.

Either spouse may deny the other spouse marital relations, for a short time, with little or no reason. But as the length of time without sex increases, the denial of relations may present a temptation to the other spouse to commit sexual sins. Verse 7:5 speaks of this temptation to sin, which is avoided by paying the debt (as they say) to one’s spouse, i.e. by having natural marital relations open to life.

By mutual consent, the spouses can refrain for a short time, perhaps for prayer. But continence (abstaining from sex) for a longer time is only moral for the spouses of they both consent and there is no danger of mortal sin — or if there is a grave reason.

The moral weight of the reason for one spouse to deny the other, or for both to mutually decide to refrain, increases with the length of time of the denial or refraining. So the reason is proportionate to the degree of harm that might occur (the bad consequences). These bad consequences include: fewer children (for spouses who are recently married and have few if any children), temptation to sexual sin, the absence of that good effect of marital relations, i.e. the strengthening of the marital bond. These bad consequences must be weighed against any good consequences of refraining, such as: avoiding harm to the wife, if pregnancy might adversely affect her health; avoiding pain, if one spouse has a medical problem; reducing the number of children to fit the resources of the spouses and their family. So the morality of the marriage debt is greatly affected by circumstances.

Denying your spouse marital relations can be a venial sin, if one refuses him or her without a reason proportionate to the length of time and the harm of refraining, or it can be a mortal sin, if the denial is longstanding and lacks a proportionate reason.

Denial of the marriage debt can be a mortal sin, not only due to circumstances, but also possibly due to a bad intended end, such as malice toward one’s spouse. Denial can also be an intrinsically evil act, if it is ordered toward compelling the spouse to commit an intrinsically evil sexual sin, for example, a spouse who denies relations until their partner consents to contraception, or abortifacient contraception, or a gravely immoral type of sex.

The Summa Theologica contains a section on the marriage debt. However, it is in the Supplement, which was not written by St. Thomas, rather it is based on his works. The Supplement is a big step down from the reset of the Summa in insightfulness and depth of knowledge.

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

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8 Responses to Catholic Moral Theology: the Marriage Debt

  1. Matt Z. says:

    Thanks for writing this. As far as demanding the marriage debt on Holy Days found in St.Thomas Summa. I personally do not ask nor demand the debt on Holy Days, but render the debt if asked. I wonder if there is a difference between asking for the marriage debt and demanding the marriage debt. One can ask politely for the debt or one can demand the debt as in the case of someone having a hard time with concupiscence due to the lack of intercourse.

    • Ron Conte says:

      It is not a sin to have marital relations on a holy day. However, it is preferable to spend the day in prayer and rest. A spouse should generally render the debt when asked on a holy day, as it expresses love and helps the spouse to quiet concupiscence. A spouse should ask for the debt, even on a holy day, if needed to help quiet concupiscence — and in this case, there would perhaps be a benefit to prayer later in the day.

      One cannot demand the marriage debt, in most cases, as each spouse does have the grace needed to avoid mortal sin. Marital relations is a help to avoid certain sins, but mortal sin is not unavoidable without it. A spouse can refuse the debt for a proportionate reason, proportionate to the circumstances and the length of time their partner would be without relations. However, as the length of time increases, the obligation on one’s spouse increases, by degrees. It is not a case of either asking or demanding.

  2. Matt Z. says:

    When using the word “demand” I mean not to force but to strongly encourage. Different from mere asking.

  3. Tom Mazanec says:

    They may have relations with anyone else.
    You mean NOT have relations?

  4. Matt says:

    Also resentment can creep up in a marriage when one spouse often refuses to have marital relations. It seems unfair that one spouse has to endure long periods of no martial relations for poor or no legitimate reason. One spouse has a high sex drive while the other has a low drive. It is like a cruel twist of fate for some men especially and then some divorce and marry someone else. However, they commit adultery in the eyes of God when they divorce and marry someone else.

    How can the a marriage be considered even valid when there is hardly any or no marital relations at all?

    • Ron Conte says:

      The Sacrament of marriage is not for the purpose of satisfying the sex drive (to put it mildly). A ratified and consummated marriage is a lifelong commitment. Yes, that means some persons will suffer, in a marriage that is far from ideal. We Christians have to carry our crosses.

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