Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Importance of Understanding "The Marriage Debt"

"What is the marriage debt?"

This ought to be a pretty straightforward question with a straightforward answer. However, the paragraphs of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on marriage might leave one a little confused; let's take a look at it from a traditional perspective.

People today talk about “the marriage debt” as something antiquarian along the lines of “it means you have to have sex with your spouse.” Most people don't see this as “Gee, do I have to?”, so it's a rather meaningless concept to them. Then, of course, slogging through the bog of “the unitive and procreative purposes of the marriage act” strips a concept like "the marriage debt" of all practical meaning. We are currently forced to swim through the thick molasses of the sexual mysticism and its attempt to focus on “the personal experience of marriage and the marital act”; but before that, we had the simple clarity of marriage defined as a contract rather than “a covenant of life and love” (which provides no guidance whatsoever for what it really means to be married).

Fr. John Hardon's Modern Catholic Dictionary, defines marriage this way:

As a natural institution, the lasting union of a man and a woman who agree to give and receive rights over each other for the performance of the act of generation and for the fostering of their mutual love.

Marriage is a contract whereby two people – a husband and wife – give each other exclusive rights to acts which are "per se apt" for the procreation of children.

That's it.

Marriage does not give the couple rights to treat each other's bodies any way they wish, or rights to have supper prepared on time, or rights to be treated as they would like to be treated, or rights to be as happy as they think they should be with each other. Marriage is a very simple contract which has very clear terms that make perfect sense within the understanding of the primary purpose of marriage: the procreation and education of children. Husbands and wives have rights to those acts which properly belong to marriage: acts which are "per se apt" for the procreation of children.

This clear and concise definition addresses and clarifies the issue of continence and the necessity of mutual agreement to be continent. For example, during former Lenten times, continence was part of the Lenten fast; mutual agreement would be required in this case.
Similarly, it helps to examine the “purpose” of sexual relations after menopause (or between couples who are “barren” or “sterile”). If the marriage contract bestows rights to particular acts, then these acts are “appropriate” no matter what the age or physical condition of couples because that is what the marriage contract stipulates.

Couples may choose to be continent when past child bearing age, but that requires mutual agreement between the spouses. Concupiscence doesn't disappear just because the specific purpose of the sexual act becomes increasingly difficult to fulfill. Couples maintain rights to certain acts until death. Charity, or asceticism, or whatever good spiritual reason may influence when and why couples decide to elevate their way of expressing love to each other beyond the purely carnal; however, the rights defined by the marriage contract remain until death. So if elderly couples still wish to engage in marital relations, they are within their rights. Maybe it would be better if they could get beyond that, but it is not inappropriate, nor is it anything to be discouraged. One of the purposes of marriage is as a “remedy for concupiscence”; therefore, if concupiscence is still present, you can't mandate that the marital act should stop at some point.

In the context of the clear definition of the marriage debt, the marriage of Mary and Joseph, and all other examples of “Josephite” marriages, or the marriages of couples unable to have children, become understandable as “real” marriages. Why? Because the marriage contract bestows rights on the couple, not obligations to exercise those rights. Mary and Joseph were not asked by God to procreate, but they were asked by God to be married in order to provide a “family life” for Our Lord (and each other). Therefore, they married, they had the same rights as other married couples, but they chose not to exercise those rights because of God's Will. They made the same contract with each other as all other married couples but, because God did not ask them to procreate, they did not exercise those rights.

Granted, “Josephite” marriages are exceptional, in no way normative, but the reality that those marriages are valid speaks to the reality that a “sex life” is not integral to marriage; rather, it is a way to fulfill that purpose of marriage which God expects of most married couples. There is, indeed, the “duty of motherhood”, which should be considered normative; but the marital act itself is ordered towards this “duty of motherhood” and should never be consciously exercised in a manner that seeks to defeat the purpose of the act and of marriage. The currently popular view that “We should get married and get to know each other for a couple of years before having children” is contrary to everything ever understood about marriage!

Theology of the Body and NFP have enormously complicated married life. When marriage is viewed as a contract, we can understand that “the marriage debt must be paid generously or it's not being paid at all” from within the original simplicity of the terms of the marriage contract. The terms are, basically, that if either the husband or wife want to have sex, their spouse must respond generously. It doesn't really matter whether the desire for sex is to procreate or to express love; the point is that one's spouse has rights in this area and there is an obligation to respond generously, charitably, lovingly.

Looking back on “olden times”, that's all sex really was within a marriage! People knew that sex causes babies, but I doubt too many married couples entered the marital embrace because they wanted babies. Perhaps the more holy couples did, recognizing the power of concupiscence in this area, but the overwhelming majority of couples just got married and did what married people do (and have always done), and babies came and they raised them.  It was exquisitely simple and uncomplicated! Day-to-day married life flowed from this fundamental premise, that marriage was for procreation, couples did what married couples do, babies came, and "family life" was lived. TOB and NFP have overlaid this fundamental simplicity with mystical-sounding language that makes sex far more important to marriage than it ever was in the past.

Today's “theologies” have turned marriage into something that is as much about the couple as it is about their children. There is an attempt to put the unitive and procreative ends of marriage on the same level. However, as we see in contracepting marriages and homosexual relationships, doing this allows concupiscence to completely separate the procreative and the unitive “ends” to the point that the unitive is more important than the procreative. Sex has become an end in itself in our society for couples today. Concupiscence has won!

It is difficult to imagine serious conversations occurring in the past about “responsible parenthood” as we have now come to define it (and, unfortunately, encourage it). This was due not only to the exquisite simplicity of the definition of marriage and its responsibilities, but also to philosophy and theology that started with reality rather than “what's inside your own head”. We no longer are encouraged to understand things in terms of their purpose, but rather, we are told to look at them in terms of how we experience those things. Purpose is then projected on to our experiences, rather than derived from the reality of things themselves.

So “the marriage debt” consists of allowing the exercise of rights the couple give to each other. One can desire sex to procreate, to express love, “just because”, etc., but the marital embrace must always be open to procreation, even if an 80-year-old couple has rather low odds of conceiving a child. This simple understanding of “the marriage debt” leaves all sorts of room for growth in virtue, while providing a safe remedy for concupiscence. Couples that want sex “just because” are more virtuous if they acknowledge, accept, and understand the purpose of the marital act, but they are not violating the terms of their marriage contract by engaging in sex “just because I want to”.

Here is an excerpt from an excellent blog post at “Mother in the Vale” last August:

…To see clearly the new orientation the Church has taken regarding marriage, I thought it might be easier just to present the fundamental concepts from the traditional Church and from the post-conciliar Church. (For the sake of simplicity I will use the True teaching vs. the New teaching.)

True Teaching:

Marriage Debt: St. Paul outlines in 1 Corinthian's that married spouses are bound by their marriage debt, or the conjugal act. The marriage debt is designed for 3 ends or purposes in order: procreation, calming concupiscence, and fostering love and affection. In other words, conjugal relations are designed for first, the couple to have children, then to keep the spouses from falling into sin, and what grows from that is a mutual fondness and enduring love, often developed through sacrifice, submissiveness, and selflessness. The husband and wife are both obliged to pay their "debt" whenever the other spouses requests, provided that the request is not unreasonable. In this way, the marriage debt protects the spouses from incontinence: the inability to control one's sexual appetite
Begetting Children: The principal object of marriage is to have children, to bring them up in the true faith, and to teach them service to God. In other words, couples need to have always in their minds the birth of a child. They wait for children to arrive when God sends them, no matter how small or large a number. They have the duty and responsibility to bring up these children for Christ.

Mutual Help: With the husband as head of the family and the wife as willingly submissive to her husband, the couple are able to work towards the common good of their family and the education of their children in matters of faith and morals.

Sacrament of Matrimony: Matrimony is a word that comes from the Latin word, mater, or mother. Why? Because marriage is designed to make a woman a mother. Christ elevated the state of marriage to a Sacrament thereby giving graces to the couple. These graces enhance their natural love, increases the strength of marriage bond, and sanctifies the spouses, so that they grow in holiness and help to bring each other, and their children, into Heaven.

New Teaching

Marital Embrace: This is a concept defined by Dietrich von Hildebrand. According to von Hildebrand, the marital embrace, or the conjugal act, is designed for the couple to grow in mutual love for one another. While procreation is naturally a purpose of the marital embrace, it is not the sole purpose or even primary purpose. He taught that the marital embrace has two designs, one unitive and one procreative. In other words, through the marital embrace couples grow to understand, respect, and love each other and then, as a secondary but equal consequence, they procreate. Couples can not engage in the conjugal act without first considering the "personal" and "reasonable" wishes of the spouses. Couples are encouraged to practice self-discipline in matters of conjugal relations through periodic continence. Only through self-control can spouses truly express their love for one another.

Responsible Parenthood: The concept of responsible parenthood first appears in Catholic thought in Pope Paul VI's Encyclical Humanae Vitae. Responsible parents are always aware of their social and physical conditions and "prudently" decide whether or not to have children, even for an indefinite period of time.

Separate Interests: There is emphasis on personal respect and dignity of the spouses. Each spouse in encouraged to grow in understanding the other spouse and respecting his or her interests. Often times spouses are counseled to develop personal hobbies separate from their spouses. The education of the children, especially in matters of faith, is secondary. Often times there is a focus on the development of the children's personal interests as well.

Sacrament of the Marital Embrace: In the marital embrace, the spouses are united spiritually. Through the conjugal act, the spouses "gift" themselves to each other. It is taught that the marital embrace, the conjugal act itself, is grace giving and sanctifying. The unity of the spouses is perfected and strengthened through sexual relations. And children are a "fruit" of this oneness. Sexual relations are to be enjoyed for the sake of their pleasure and through this pleasure, the spouses grow in love for each other. (Here a writer discusses what she has learned from her parish and Theology of the Body.) [Visit that site at your own is an occasion of sin in many ways!]

Ultimately this new orientation of marriage has had a huge impact on the Church. In a prior time, large Catholic families were not only a fairly normal occurrence, but they pointed to a healthy and vibrant faith. In his Allocution to Large Families in 1951, Pope Pius XII said this:

Whenever you find large families in great numbers, they point to the physical and moral health of a Christian people, a living faith in God and trust in His Providence, the fruitful and joyful holiness of Catholic marriage.

In the modern civil world a large family is usually, with good reason, looked upon as evidence of the fact that the Christian faith is being lived up to...

Read the whole post here.

If we return to the simple concept of “the marriage debt” as it has traditionally been defined (and still is!), then concepts like “responsible parenthood” and “an NFP lifestyle” become unnecessary and even harmful. If we return to the simple concept of “the marriage debt”, perhaps we will see a resurgence of large Catholic families… resulting in a resurgence of vocations… hopefully resulting in a tradition-based renewal of the Church.


  1. Great presentation. It has the virtue of simplicity -- like all true Catholic doctrine.

    Good point about Dietrich von Hildebrand. Traditional Catholics underestimate the damage he caused.

  2. Well done, Dr Boyd. You have done more good than you know.

  3. It's hard to imagine TOB without DVH. Josephite Marriages vs. the Marriage Debt were very humourously explained by Fr. Duddleswell to his curate in Beddings and Weddings set in 1950. That was a different world. Watch it and laugh.

  4. I don't see any way to actually see the video - just "episode summary" and such. ??? I would love to watch it, though!

  5. Oh, it was a great episode. Young Fr. Boyd counsels an older couple that they can't really be married unless there's "that sort of a thing."

    The wise pastor assures them that their marriage would be like that of St. Joseph and Our Lady and that Fr. Boyd was operating from the usually sound Catholic principle that "everything is forbidden until it becomes mandatory." LOL

    Ÿou have to be a traditional Catholic to even find the series funny. The sad part is that the author was a Jesuit who became the English version of Gary Wills after the Council.

    Watch it on Hulu or do yourself a favor and buy the whole series off Amazon.

  6. Dr. Boyd, this is an amazing post once again. Your reference to my blog post on the marriage debt is profoundly humbling. I am honored, though, to have you read my occasional blog post, but especially that you consider my thoughts worth the time to read. Thanks again and God bless you.


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