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Josef Seifert

Conjugal rights: a further Comment

Jun. 10, 2009, at 4:02am

As far as Saint Paul’s passage cited in the letter to Katie van Schaijik (it being better to get married than to burn) (1 Cor. 7:9) is concerned, I believe that what she indicates in her reply is the deepest, truest and most personalistic interpretation (also found in Pope John Paul II) of this text and of the teaching on marriage as “remedium concupiscentiae”: that the true remedium against concupiscence is the inner transformation of human sexuality into a mutual gift of love that is not just for lust or concupiscence and that, being informed and transformed by “love for the sake of the other person herself”, becomes thus “healed.” Nevertheless, there is still another more obvious and literal meaning of this text that has also to do with the marital rights and duties. If the refusal of marital intercourse leads one’s spouse to sin because of his or her “burning,” it is also for this less noble reason and less sublime meaning of “remedium concupiscentiae,” a serious matter to refuse the spousal act to one’s spouse directly or indirectly by leaving him or her against the other’s will. Also Christ refers to this, and not to marriage as highest spousal communion of love, when he says that a husband who dismisses his wife (which is the most radical way of such refusal), “makes an adulteress of her”.
But of course, to the utmost extent possible to a person, the spousal act should never be just sought and even less conceded just for the sake of stilling the sexual desire of oneself or of the spouse, but be an expression and unique fulfillment of spousal love, a love which Christ compares with the supreme self-giving love of Christ and the Church.
Thus fully agreeing with Michael Healy’s and Grisez’s remarks on “a more literal meaning” of the married person’s rights and duties, I would regard it, like they do, as a grave violation of my married love and marriage vows ever to refuse this “right of my wife over my body” for less than serious reasons, and like Healy I would understand this quite personalistically: not as having myself made into my wife’s sex-slave, but as being part of the “totality” of the gift of my married love, a gift I give to no one else until death shall part us (this of course does not exclude but include the consideration which especially the husband owes to his wife in this regard).

I would only add to all these excellent remarks of Healy that it is a false though widespread idea that Pope John Paul II’s and Hildebrand’s personalist and grandiose vision of marriage as a communion of love has, because they hardly speak of it ever, abolished the meaning of what Saint Paul expresses when he says that no longer the man has a right over his body but his wife and quite equally not the wife but her husband. To bestow this right on the spouse is itself, or ought to be, a unique act of deep love: a perpetual and undivided self-donation.

Hence, while a personalist understanding of marriage and spousal rights will more radically exclude any kind of slave-interpretation of Paul’s words as if the spouses would have an unrestricted right over the other body, to use the other as a mere sex-object, for sex-games or for impure and unworthy acts, that are opposite to the dignity of the marriage act, the personalist understanding implies even more than just a right over each other’s body: namely a certain right over the soul and heart of a person that ought to be given with and in this act: correspondingly, the spouse’s duty is not only to lend his or her body to the other coldly “for the purpose of intercourse,” or “for the purpose of acts which by their nature are capable of being procreative,” but he or she is bound to do so lovingly, to give his or her heart, as deeply as he or she is capable in a certain moment, to the other. Thus, the right I give to my spouse in the consensus involves much more than giving her a right over my body: namely a claim over my loving will and intention, and even over the love of my heart, inasmuch as the voice of my heart, the actualization of my superactual spousal love, even in its affective dimensions, depends on my indirect or cooperative freedom. Therefore, the fulfillment of the spousal duties never must be just that: fulfillment of duties; and the rights over the other’s body are never just that: a right over a body.

In this double way (of excluding a right over the spouse’s body for impure or perverted acts, and of demanding infinitely more than “merely being ready to have intercourse”), I see the personalist vision of love and marriage as a perfection of the traditional teaching on the marriage rights and duties, but as a perfecting it that does not cancel and does not even change but fulfill this teaching such that in its highest form, the spousal act includes but goes beyond all rights and duties, and show itself truly to be that “great mystery” of which Paul speaks and a true image of the perfect loving union and desire for union between Christ and the Church , and a true reflection of God’s own inner-trinitarian, freely given, uncoerced, mutual and perpetual love.

Josef S


Michael J. Healy • Jun 10, 2009 - 10:10 am

Bravo!

Josef Seifert • Jun 10, 2009 - 10:32 pm

Thank you for your own comments that I wanted just to support and expand because I think that too little reflection on this is found - particularly among “personalists”.

Katie van Schaijik • Jun 11, 2009 - 4:26 am

Josef, thank you for this analysis, with which I fully concur.  Yet I still feel somewhat dissatisfied.  The personalist vision of spousal love you unfold is beautiful and true.  But I am looking for a more definite repudiation of the idea (which I fear is widespread among Catholics) that “the marriage debt” means that a wife sins if she declines sex.  Someone just posted this comment on another one of our threads:

“I have been having a conversation with two or three
people—I presume they are men—on another blog who…say that the Church says that in marriage if a husband asks for marital intimacy, the wife is obliged to acquiesce except for a few very limited circumstances. This has to do with the “marriage debt”. Spacing children and emotional exhaustion are not acceptable reasons.”

To me, this interpretation of the marriage debt is radically de-personalizing.  Like my friend says she feels: it objectifies the wife.  It tends in practice to dis-relate sex and love.

Would you agree?

Katie van Schaijik • Jun 11, 2009 - 4:47 am

Let me add another question.  Would you agree with this formulation?

We owe our spouses our hearts and our love as well as our bodies, and this emotional dimension has a distinct priority in marriage, such that if a husband demands sex in a heartless way, he commits a serious offense against his wife and against conjugal love?

Would you agree that the husband who insists on sexual relations as his right in the face of his wife’s shrinking from him because of his anger and coldness toward her wrongs her and increases the alienation between them? 

If we have hurt our spouse emotionally, should we not “leave our gift at the altar and go and make amends” before approaching her or him for intimacy?

Would you agree that a husband who uses his physical strength to overpower his undesiring wife commits a grave moral offense against her?

Would you agree that a man has a responsibility to try elicit desire in his wife, just as a wife has a responsibility to try to open herself to his desire? (This can go the other way, too, in the less usual cases where the wife is more sexually desirous than her husband.)

Joan Drennen • Jun 12, 2009 - 9:56 am

Katie, I fully agree.
A husband who demands sex from his wife in a legalistic way not only shows he doesn’t know what sex is, but that he doesn’t know who she is. He is as foolish as a gardener who tries to force a bloom from his rose bush without watering, pruning, staking and nurturing it.

Katie van Schaijik • Jun 12, 2009 - 12:32 pm

Well said Joan!

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