The Marriage Debt: the obligation of spouses to have sex

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.” [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 and charity. 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 virginity as a single person, or celibacy as a cleric or religious.

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. 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. But the teaching of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium contains no such assertions.

[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/or 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.

Q and A

Is the payment of the marital debt a grave obligation?

Yes. The primary good of the married state is the procreation of children, which requires marital relations. Natural marital relations open to life also strengthens the unity of the spouses, and guards the marriage against every kind of division and unfaithfulness. Natural marital relations is a physical and spiritual expression of love, which further strengthens spiritual love. Therefore, married couples have a grave obligation to have sexual relations in their marriage.

Is the requirement to have marital relations a positive precept or a negative precept?

It is a positive precept, since it enjoins the married faithful to engage in an act, rather than to refrain from an act. The negative precepts forbid immoral acts (“You shall not….”). The positive precepts require moral acts (“You shall….”). Positive precepts include the requirements to worship God, to keep holy the Sabbath, to honor your father and mother, to pray, fast, and give alms.

Can the spouses mutually agree not to have marital relations for a length of time?

Yes. Just as Sacred Scripture says: “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.” (1 Cor 7:5).

As a positive precept, payment of the marital debt admits of prudential judgment, as to where and when and how often the moral requirement is to be fulfilled.

Pope Saint John Paul II: “It is right and just, always and for everyone, to serve God, to render him the worship which is his due and to honour one’s parents as they deserve. Positive precepts such as these, which order us to perform certain actions and to cultivate certain dispositions, are universally binding; they are ‘unchanging’. They unite in the same common good all people of every period of history, created for ‘the same divine calling and destiny’. These universal and permanent laws correspond to things known by the practical reason and are applied to particular acts through the judgment of conscience.”

“The negative precepts of the natural law are universally valid. They oblige each and every individual, always and in every circumstance.”

“In the case of the positive moral precepts, prudence always has the task of verifying that they apply in a specific situation, for example, in view of other duties which may be more important or urgent.” [Pope Saint John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, n. 52, 67]

Can one spouse morally refuse to have marital relations, on occasion or for a limited number of days?

Yes. Since the marriage debt is a positive precept, it allows for a prudential judgment of conscience in order to apply the obligation to a specific situation. At times, other duties may be more important or may be required given the circumstances. And this consideration applies even if the spouses disagree in making the prudential judgment as to where, when, and how often to have marital relations.

For the payment of the marriage debt is not entirely and sufficiently described as a type of debt. As Pope Pius IX teaches in the first quote of this article [Casti Connubii, n. 25], the obligation to have marital relations is not solely of justice but also of charity. The spouses express their love for one another; they do not merely engage in a physical act. This expression is physical, spiritual, and intimate. Therefore, it requires not merely consent, but also a willing participation in heart and mind. If either spouse is unwilling, then it would be contrary to charity and contrary to the very nature of the marital act for either spouse to be compelled to consent by obligation alone.

Spouses should have marital relations because of the goods provided by the marital act. But these goods do not require marital relations to take place with any particular frequency. Having marital relations with a certain frequency (e.g. daily or weekly) is not necessary to obtain the procreative and unitive goods of marriage. The fulfillment of any positive precept is not continuous, but takes place from time to time. For example, he obligation to attend holy Mass is weekly, plus holy days of obligation, not daily. The obligation to support the Church financially, does not require daily payments, nor any set schedule. Similarly, one spouse is not obligated to submit to frequent requests for marital relations by the other spouse. The obligation is limited, just as any obligation has reasonable limits.

If one spouse wishes to have marital relations frequently, to avoid temptation to sexual sin, is the other spouse always obligated?

No, not always. One of the secondary purposes of natural marital relations is to avoid sinful sexual acts (interior or exterior sexual sins) by engaging in moral marital relations. But since there are other moral ways to quiet desire, aside from having marital relations, the obligation to have relations with one’s spouse for this purpose is not absolute. This purpose of marital relations is secondary, and so it is necessarily less weighty and admits a greater latitude in a prudential judgment of conscience.

The spouses can avoid sexual sin, while refraining from marital relations for a limited time, by prayer, fasting, other types of self-denial, and by engaging themselves in works of charity. Concupiscence can also be quieted, from a practical standpoint, by the proverbial cold shower, or by engaging moral activities such as physical exercise, an interesting hobby, or some moral type of entertainment. Since concupiscence can be quieted in many moral ways, the obligation to quiet it by marital relations is limited.

Is it a mortal sin for one spouse to refuse marital relations for a lengthy period of time?

Sometimes it is, and other times it is not.

To be moral, an act must have three good fonts of morality. To be sinful, and act must have one or more bad fonts of morality. The three fonts of morality are: intention, object, circumstances. The spouse who refuses must have only good intentions. A bad intention makes any act sinful. But if the only thing making your act immoral is your own intentions, then change your intentions. If this proves difficult, then fast and pray.

The failure to fulfill a positive precept can be intrinsically evil. For example, the refusal to worship God is inherently immoral because its object is the deprivation of a good required by the love of God: to worship our Lord and Creator. But since positive precepts are only fulfilled intermittently, we do not sin gravely by our failure to worship constantly (or even daily).

When a spouse refuses to have marital relations on occasion, or for a brief period of time, this choice is not intrinsically evil. Positive precepts do not need to be fulfilled daily, and a space of several days between acts which fulfill a positive precept is not unusual. For example, a person might attend Mass only once per week. A parishioner might donate to the parish by a monthly payment. And lest anyone claim that the payment of the marital debt differs, and so requires frequent payment, I will cite the examples given by St. Thomas Aquinas. He opines that the marriage debt need not be paid on holy days, because the spouse might wish to focus on prayer and devotion to God [Supplement, Q 64 A 7]. And he also says that a wife might refrain from marital relations, morally, during her time of menses [Supplement, Q 64 A 3]. A holy day is generally a single day, but menses lasts several days. Therefore, refraining on occasion, for a day or for a brief period of several days is moral and reasonable. Refusing to pay the marital debt for a day or a number of days does not constitute mortal sin. And the reasons for the refusal are not limited to the mentioned examples.

The decision not to fulfill a positive precept can be moral, for a period of time. Positive precepts are not fulfilled continuously, but intermittently. But as the length of time increases without fulfillment of any positive precept, the reason that justifies the delay must be weightier. Accordingly, if a spouse wishes to refrain from marital relations for weeks or months, the refusal must be motivated by only good intentions, and must take into account the reasonably anticipated good and bad consequences. If the other spouse would likely fall into mortal sin, the refusal cannot be lengthy without a grave reason (such as that conceived offspring would miscarry, or be born with a disease, or that the pregnancy would endanger the life of the mother). Since marital relations offers goods important to the purpose of marriage, spouses need a grave reason to refrain from relations for a lengthy period.

When is refusing marital relations intrinsically evil?

Intrinsically evil acts are immoral due to the object toward which the knowingly chosen act is directly ordered (inherently ordered). Intrinsically evil acts are immoral, in and of themselves, regardless of intention or circumstances.

The decision (an interior act) not to fulfill any positive precept becomes intrinsically evil when that act is ordered toward a deprivation of some good required by the love of God above all else, or by the love of neighbor as self. Spouses have marital relations to fulfill the purpose of marriage, as ordained by God, and to express their love for one another. They also have marital relations to procreative and raise children for God and for humanity.

When the decision to refrain from fulfilling the positive precept of marital relations (the marriage debt) is ordered toward avoiding grave harm to the offspring or the wife, it is not intrinsically evil. When the decision to refrain is for the purpose of devoting oneself to prayer and the worship of God, it is not intrinsically evil, for the moral object is good. Thus, the spouses can choose to refrain for some length of time, even several weeks (e.g. Lent), without sin, if they both agree.

Throughout the history of the Church, when a married man was ordained as a priest, he was permitted to remain in the married state, or to separate from his wife, if both consent. So here is an example of refraining from marital relations perpetually, without sin, because the act is ordered toward the worship of God and the good of one’s neighbor who are served by the priest.

Therefore, no particular length of time for a decision to refrain from marital relations is intrinsically evil, if the decision is mutual.

However, if one spouse wishes to refrain, and the other does not, the length of time must be limited, due to the danger of sexual sin, and the harm to the marriage if it is deprived of the goods of marital relations. Absent a good moral object, which would make the refusal moral (such as the health of the woman), the deprivation of marital relations from a marriage for a lengthy period of time would be intrinsically evil, as a deliberate choice to deprive the married state of its primary goods. Positive precepts must be fulfilled, at times and places in accord with prudential judgment, unless the person is unable to do so without causing grave harm.

Either spouse can refuse the other, on occasion, for little or no reason. But as time passes, this refusal requires some reason, and the weight of the reason must be proportionate to the length of time. A grave reason is needed to refuse marital relations for a long time, as the other spouse might be tempted to commit a grave sexual sin. Also, a grave reason is needed because certain weighty goods of marriage depend on marital relations, especially procreation and the strengthening of the marital bond by the union of the spouses.

Are the justifiable reasons for refusing or refraining mutually from relations many or few?

They are many.

The Council of Trent: “Canon VIII. — If anyone says that the Church errs, in that She declares that, for many causes, a separation may take place between husband and wife, in regard of bed, or in regard of cohabitation, for a determinate or for an indeterminate period; let him be anathema.”

The phrasing “a separation … of bed” is a discrete reference to marital relations. The spouses may decide to live separately, or to live together but without marital relations, for a determinate or indeterminate period, for many various reasons.

The above quote from the Council of Trent implies that the use of NFP (natural family planning) is moral, since NFP requires refraining from relations for a determine period of time (the time when the woman is most fertile). And the reasons for doing so, the Church teaches, are many.

Summary

It is not intrinsically evil to refuse one’s spouse marital relations, whether on occasion or for some length of time. So it depends on intention or circumstances. Given a good intention, and the reasonable anticipation that the bad consequences will not outweigh the good, one spouse can refuse the other, for a time. But the longer the time, the weightier the reason needs to be, since as the time lengthens, the bad consequences increase (lack of procreation, danger of sin for the other spouse, etc.).

The wife is not a slave to her husband. She can refuse her husband, for a day or several days, with no particular weighty reason needed. She can morally decide to limit marital relations to once a week or to once or twice a month, for example. The reason for choosing less frequent marital relations can include the fact that the couple already have several children, reducing the need for procreation in the marriage, as well as her own preferences for when and how often to fulfill the marriage debt. In any just relationship involving debt, one party cannot demand payment when, where, and as often as he wishes. The reasonable desires of the other party to fulfill the debt are inherent to its just fulfillment — all the more so when the “debt” is a loving intimate act between spouses and not merely a fulfillment of justice.

It is not a mortal sin for one spouse to refuse the other, on occasion, for any just reason, e.g. the spouse does not feel like it, or is busy with other tasks, etc. The marital obligation is of grave weight overall. For the purpose of marital relations, the procreative and unitive meanings are of grave weight. But this grave weight does not imply that marital relations are required daily or weekly. Similarly, refusing one’s spouse on occasion does not harm the purposes of marriage and marital relations, and so it is not a grave matter.

Furthermore, it is contrary to justice and love between the spouses to claim that either commits a mortal sin by denying relations at any particular moment, in any and all circumstances, without regard to the will of each person. For although each has power over the body of the other, it is not the power of master over slave. Charity does not merely ask, but absolutely requires, each spouse to consider the willingness of the other. So if either is unwilling, on occasion, even for a slight reason (e.g. doesn’t feel like it), it is not in the least contrary to the love of God and neighbor to refuse to pay the debt. For this type of refusal is merely a reasonable delay in payment, not an absolute denial of the marital rights.

Only when the refusal has a sinful intention, or an evil moral object, or reasonably anticipated bad consequences that outweigh any good consequences, is a refusal of the debt a sin, even a grave sin.

A slight failure to fulfill a grave obligation is never a mortal sin. Only a grave failure to fulfill a grave obligation can be mortal.

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

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