The Personalist Project

I just got this good question by email from a friend who studied personalist philosophy as an undergrad. It’s one that comes up often in Catholic circles.

Dear Katie,
Have just happened upon the excitement on your website as I was searching for a good definition of Personalist philosophy to send to someone here in—.
Just out of interest (and because I am working two jobs for the foreseeable future and don’t have time to explore all the good links on your website), can you tell me if the issue of “It is better to marry than to burn with passion” 1 Corinthians 7:9 has come up yet in your discussions. This has always rankled, as it seems to condone the using of one’s spouse as an object. However, in certain Church circles, I am told that this is morally acceptable. This is closely allied with the concept of “conjugal rights”, which also mystifies me. If a woman (and it is almost always this way around) has had her trust in her husband eroded by anger and/or violence, subjectively, for her, conjugal relations can become something akin to physical violation. As a sponsor [in a 12-step program], I come up against this problem a lot.

Here is the response I sent:

Our discussions are just getting off the ground, so only a few topics have been raised. Maria Fedoryka has some great thoughts on “conjugal rights”, which I’ll see if I can entice her to share. Basically the idea behind “better to marry than burn” and “remedy for concupiscence” is that true spousal love can overcome the tendency to treat sex as a mere appetite and another person as an object for my pleasure.
As for conjugal rights I see it this way: when a woman pledges herself to her husband she is his alone. She had no right to give herself sexually or romantically to anyone else. It does not mean that her husband has a right to enjoy her sexually whenever he pleases. He still has a duty in love to try win by his love a response of love in her. She has a duty to be open to his love, not necessarily his sexual advances—especially if she senses that they are impure.

Comments (24)

Michael Healy

#1, Jun 9, 2009 4:27pm

I think there is a much more literal meaning to conjugal rights and handing over the rights to one’s body to one’s spouse, remembering that the obligation is entirely mutual and equal. I have really given the rights to my body to my wife.  She has really given the rights to her body to me.  And unreasonable refusal of marital intercourse is a serious matter.  Nonetheless, to quote Germain Grisez from The Way of the Lord Jesus, Vol. II:

...each spouse’s right to intercourse has limits, and usually when either is reluctant, the other should not insist.  Still, sometimes a spouse has no justifying reason for being unwilling to cooperate.  Such unwillingness can be motivated by anger and hatred, an unreasonable desire to avoid offspring, the manipulative use of marital intercourse to compel compliance in other matters, excessive preoccupation with other activities, and so on.  In all such cases [i.e., of unreasonable grounds for refusal], when the spouse deprived of marital intimacy makes it clear, by saying so or in any other way, that he or she desires it, the other should cooperate lovingly, and refusal is a grave matter….
Of course, sometimes the spouses disagree about whether a refusal of marital intercourse is reasonable.  Then both should try to find a harmonious solution….  Moreover, such a spouse [i.e. the one deprived], should be tolerant, for even when a denial of intimacy is plainly unjustified, physical force, psychological coercion, nagging, and resentment are both incompatible with marital love and ineffective for obtaining the loving cooperation required for true marital communion.

Personally, I find it a very joyful thought my body is not my own but that Maria has literal rights to it.  It illustrates the seriousness and completeness of the marital vows, parallel to the way in which God Himself has complete rights to my being.
It illustrate radically that I do not simply stand in myself, but that I exist for another.

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Jun 9, 2009 4:34pm

Michael, I see nothing to disagree with in your post.  But what do you say to cases like the one my correspondent indicated?  I mean cases whose moral theme is not so much denial, but demand: a husband “standing on his rights” in a situation where his wife is feeling seriously misused and disregarded as a person?

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Jun 9, 2009 4:39pm

O wait!  Maybe I did find a disagreement, here: I think my interpretation of the meaning of conjugal rights is very literal.  :)

Michael Healy

#4, Jun 9, 2009 4:45pm

It seems to me unreasonable demands could be refused.  The guiding principle would seem to be that when the act is approached in such a way that it is not a personal act of love, or not a truly human act, then the obligation is not there—since a marital act has to be a truly human act.  However, my language may not be precise; there may be technicalities or ways of expressing things here which an expert moral theologian could help us out with.

Katie van Schaijik

#5, Jun 9, 2009 4:46pm

I’m not sure I like the formulation “unreasonable demands.”  I wonder whether it doesn’t tend in the wrong direction—I mean tend to support an attitude toward the conjugal act that is basically unloving.  (I don’t mean to suggest it’s your attitude!)

Think of the concrete scenario my friend referred to in her letter to me, which anecdotal evidence makes me think is a commonplace one.  A husband who has injured his wife through (say) anger, approaches her for sex.  She feels strongly disinclined, even objectified and used.  Every time her husband comes to her seems to deepen the personal alienation between them. 
He, meanwhile, resents her refusal of sex and considers it unreasonable, since she is his wife.  He may even site Church teaching on conjugal rights.
What would you see as the solution to this sort of spousal stalemate?

Michael Healy

#6, Jun 10, 2009 2:59am

This is the kind of situation where each person involved has to go through Christ first in their approach to the other person; thus, each has to come to repentance for one’s own part in the stalemate and forgiveness for the other’s part.  Then generosity and mercy have to prevail over questions of justice alone.  This may sound too “general” as advice, but really it is the only way to settle disputes like this or roadblocks in personal relationships: generosity beyond justice.  Even on the natural level, we can see this is necessary.  I’m reminded of Josef Pieper’s discussion of the limits of justice in his great work on The Four Cardinal Virtues.  Here is my own summary of that section (Point 7 under Justice) that I give to my students:

The Limits of Justice.  Though only noticed or felt by the one striving to be just, it is evident that certain debts or dues can never be fully repaid: 1) the debt we owe to God in the religious bond.  This is perhaps the origin of the seeming “excess” of the religious man in giving praise, thanks, reparation, penance to God—an attempt to acknowledge or pay back what can’t truly be “equalized” between God and man without the perversity of the Pharisee.  2)  the piety or reverence that we owe: a) to our parents and family order (you owe them your life, upbringing, etc., and this can never be fully repaid) and b) the piety or reverence you owe to your country or nation as well (heritage of language and culture, order of law, participation in common goods, etc., can never be fully repaid).  3) “Observantia” or respect due to those in office, in authority with public responsibility, with the power and obligation to rightly administrate (legislators, administrators, judges, teachers, etc.), this debt too can never be fully repaid and we owe great thanks to those who use their power properly.  [Terrible to reduce these relationships to just “bossing” and “being bossed.”]  So, the world and human relationships are not kept in order by justice alone: more is required beyond strict justice, since, as we see, some obligations cannot be fully discharged (though again, only the just man will notice this).  So justice involves our obligations, including some never fully discharged (an excess here), and this already implies being willing to give beyond some minimalistic notion of strict justice alone.  It also involves being willing to give even where there is no strict obligation, and this in fact turns out to be necessary to the true peace and success of communal life.  Thus a certain loving friendliness is required in community (not reducing everything to strict justice): a liberality, generosity, kindliness, affability, and joy in living together.  Communal life [husband-wife, family, friends, relations to parents, children, wider society, etc.] becomes inhuman if man’s dues to man are determined by pure calculation; therefore, it is neither just nor right to restrict oneself to what is “strictly due.”  So, while “mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution,” it is also true that “justice without mercy is cruelty.”  So we see the limits of justice even on the natural level and the the opening of natural justice onto charity for its fulfillment:  “To be willing to watch over peace and harmony among men through the commandments of justice is not enough when charity has not taken root among them.”

Katie van Schaijik

#7, Jun 10, 2009 6:38am

Again I agree with all you say.
I agree that in all our close relations and spousal relations above all, we owe an unpayable debt to love generously.  (I remember the point well from Kierkegaard’s Works of Love, which you assigned to us in class 22 years ago.)

But I am not yet satisfied that my friend’s question is answered.  Let me try going at it from another angle.

Assume the scenario I mentioned above.  A wife has been injured by her husband’s abuse.  She feels objectified, not loved by him in his sexual advances toward her.  For that reason, she experiences their sexual relations as deepening the alienation between them and as harmful to them both. 

In such a case, I think, a BAD TEACHING and a MISUNDERSTANDING of the content of “conjugal rights” makes matters worse for the couple.  If a husband thinks he has a moral right to have sex with his wife whenever he wants it (barring serious reasons like sickness or recent childbirth) then he will BLAME HER for her resistance (which may in truth be motivated by a genuine, loving concern for him and defense of their marriage).  She will feel conflicted in conscience.  She will sense that there is something fundamentally wrong in her husband’s treatment of her, but she will feel religiously pressured to ignore that sense and consent to what she can’t help feeling is unloving sex. 
A priest who advises her that she owes her husband generosity will likewise aggravate the situation.

Hence, it seems to me that a much clearer appreciation of the true nature of “conjugal rights” is urgently called for.

Michael Healy

#8, Jun 10, 2009 7:19am

Well, there might be several responses here.

1)  First, we are not simply bound by how we feel, so if she feels objectified (and assuming here this is justified), that still does not mean she has to leave this as the governing fact between them.  She is not a mere passive receptor.  She can work on her own, even if he does not cooperate, to try to change the atmosphere between them—starting in her own heart.  Heroic? Yes.  Impossible? No. 

2)  This means that she does not have to respond in kind, reciprocating the coldness and objectification projected by the other.  This requires patience, bearing with the other, long-suffering, etc.  Again, a difficult call, but the alternative—I can treat you just as coldly, cruelly, and indifferently as you treat me and I’ll do so until you wake up and change—seems totally self-defeating.  This is where generosity beyond justice alone is required for human love relationships to work at all.

3)  She also does not have to be “determined” by bad teachings or misunderstandings from others about conjugal rights.  She has the obligation to look into it more deeply for herself in attempting to humbly understand the truth here.  To feel “religiously pressured” on a social level (and to react against that) is no excuse for not discovering the truth herself about her obligations, though such outside pressure may be distracting and get in the way.  Thus a priest who advises her that she owes her husband generosity may or may not get in the way.  She doesn’t have to let him get in the way.  He may be right even if his understanding of his own words is superficial.  But she has the obligation to absorb the true call here on a deeper level even if her advisor in the case is superficial and an annoying impediment.

4)  Concerning illness, by the way, note that St. Thomas, in a famous line, says a woman owes her husband conjugal relations even if he has leprosy—though he says she is not required in the case of leprosy to live under one roof with him since the latter would involve a greater risk of catching it herself.  Obviously, these lines cry out for further qualification, and appear very stark and direct, and might be reviewed in light of personalist considerations, but I just mention it to recall the seriousness of the fact that real rights and debts are involved here.  But as Josef unfolds in his wonderful post on conjugal rights, what is involved here is not mere sexual obligations about the body in relation to the other but the obligation that all be informed by genuine love, conjugal love in Christ.  This remains her obligation even if the other fails in his.  As Plato already says in the Crito, one wrong does not justify another and as we stand before Christ we will each have to answer only for our own behavior and decisions.

5)  Thus if she feels something fundamentally wrong in her husband’s treatment of her, her answer is not limited to rejecting outside religious pressure from others, so as to avoid what she feels as unloving sex.  This is just letting herself be passively determined by the situation.  She can also recognize a continuing obligation to love even when it is not returned (Christ on the cross), to a generosity beyond the limits of strict justice (Christ on the cross), to a recognition of an inner religious and moral call here beyond just social pressures (us as we stand before Christ on the cross).  Certainly there are prudential limits here and occasions where one just has to say “No,” for instance, if morally wrong acts are demanded or if serious violence or bodily harm is intended by the other.  But the obligation to love remains and can never be reduced to questions of strict justice alone.

6)  In a very interesting evangelically oriented book, Love Life for Every Married Couple (reliable in most things though not all, and partly inspired by Van and Davy and A Severe Mercy), Ed Wheat argues here for a radical Christian view of our obligations in marriage.  Here he is talking about saving the whole marriage, not just sexual relations, but he has a chapter (and examples of success) on How to Save Your Marriage Alone.  At one point he writes,

But in the great majority of cases, the outcome depends squarely on the committed partner’s ability to behave consistently in accord with biblical principles designed by the Author of marriage.  So, in a very literal sense, it is all up to you.  You need not expect your partner to do anything constructive about the marriage if he or she wants out.

Why accept such a seemingly one-sided responsibility to love?  Because of a vow taken before God until death do us part, but mostly because we stand truly before Christ on the cross, not just before our cold-hearted, indifferent, blunted, injurious louse of a spouse.  We must always go through Christ to get to the other.

Katie van Schaijik

#9, Jun 10, 2009 11:18am

I feel like we’re talking past each other here.
My concern is essentially with bad teaching: with a very widespread misunderstanding of the meaning of conjugal rights which in practical effect is seriously harming marriages, particularly wives.  You respond by speaking of the debt to love and the possibility of a wife achieving heroic love of her husband even in cases where he does not love her and is not really committed to her.  But I don’t dispute this. 
1. I do not see why you would see cold, cruel, indifferent treatment of the husband as “the alternative” here.  Are there no ways of refusing to allow yourself and your marriage to be mistreated that are nothing like this—that are in fact motivated by love as well as justice?

2. You write: “She also does not have to be “determined” by bad teachings or misunderstandings from others about conjugal rights.”  I answer, no, of course not.  But we can’t forget the fact that bad teachings distort and malform the conscience.  And I think it is a very serious problem that so many women struggling with this issue go to a priest and get misunderstanding and bad advice based on a reductive, de-personalizing notion of conjugal rights.  Don’t you?

3.  That teaching of St. Thomas’ does not endear him to me.  I find it shocking and appalling, to be honest—sufficient evidence in itself of the seriousness of the problem we are facing.

To be clear, I am not speaking of instances like the ones Germaine Grisez spoke of, where the wife’s refusal is a kind of manipulation or revenge.  Nor do I speak of a permanent denial, i.e.: “That’s it; never again; I’m moving to another bedroom.”  That, as I see it, WOULD be wrong, except as a temporary measure in very serious cases.

I also grant that a wife can be wrong in sensing that she is being objectified, and should resist that conclusion as best she can consistent with the truth of her experience.

UPDATE: Let me give a for instance.  I know of more than one woman who, when she and her husband had had a bad day together or a tense argument, thought that a sexual advance from him that night was all out of step with the emotional reality between them at the time.  She thought it showed a kind of indifference to their relationship.  She felt used.  He, on the other hand, experienced the act as restorative—as putting their relations back on a footing of love.  “It’s like coming into harbor after a stormy day at sea.”  Learning this about their husbands’ experience dramatically changed the wives’ view—made them more sympathetic, more open, more generous, and more conscious of the marvelous complementarity between male and female sexuality.
But this was something that had to be learned.  It also had to be true.  (I mean true of her husband’s experience.)


#10, Jun 10, 2009 12:13pm

I hope you don’t mind if I jump in here in the middle of your most interesting conversation.  I am going to speak from a very personal perspective—my own marriage.  And my husband I believe will agree with me on this since we have often discussed this.  I hope I will not be embarrassingly personal for you but I believe it may help in your discussion. 

Because of infertility from chemotherapy, my husband and I never had to have what would be considered a “normal” marital relationship. That is, we never had periods of abstinence due to childbirth, spacing of children, etc.  My husband, due to abuse of himself from an early age had habituated his body to certain things.  As our marriage progressed, it became obvious to me that our physical relationship was due to these habituations much more than anything to do with our relationship to one another.  Hence, the sense on my part of being used.  We talked about this a lot but were not really able to make much progress until we began to read the Church’s teaching on these areas—the Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality—as well as TOB in conjunction with some good counsel—finally—from a priest in the confessional.

This is something that took place over many years, more than twenty, so it was a long process.  Finally, after much struggle, we came to the realization that something needed to be done and began using Lent and Advent as times of continence to try to gain mastery over this disorder.  As we began to understand more deeply what TOB was teaching, my husband was able to gain mastery over himself, begin to see women as persons rather than objects, and experience a great freedom from his disordered desires.  He is extremely grateful, but this would not have been possible if I had continued to acquiesce to his advances.  This takes a lot of honesty and humility from both parties but I believe that this freedom is possible for most if they but make a decision to strive for it—a firm purpose of amendment. 

This is the sort of thing, from what I understand, that Christopher West experienced himself and is excited to proclaim this to the world.  I can imagine the frustration he must feel hearing all of the pious excuses for not stepping out into the deep and pursuing this goal.
C.S. Lewis has a wonderful explanation of this in Chapter 11 of The Great Divorce.  Men can go on to do such great things if they but master this disorder within themselves.  My husband had women coming to him all of the time at work with their problems and seeking counsel because they could discern in him a man that could be trusted.  They knew by his behavior that he was not objectifying them and being tempted by them.  Of course this, at times, subjected him to some inappropriate behavior from the women but he had the freedom to not be tempted by those things and could continue to treat them in a truly Christian manner and help them with their problems.  If we could but order ourselves rightly in the area of male/female relationships, we could be of so much more help to one another.  We wouldn’t need to be afraid of one another—and I don’t mean that we should put ourselves into situations in which we may be harmed by another—but that we can have the peace knowing that we have mastery over our own selves.

I anxiously await your responses!

Katie van Schaijik

#11, Jun 11, 2009 7:24am

Lauretta, this is a very helpful and illuminating post, concretely expressing the point I was trying to make too abstractly.  Many, many thanks!
You’re welcome here any time.

Michael Healy

#12, Jun 11, 2009 7:33am

Excellent post Lauretta. Thank you for your openness in sharing your concrete experience.

Katie van Schaijik

#13, Jun 11, 2009 7:37am

I appreciate especially—and if you have more to say on this point I’d love to hear it—the role that temporary and religiously-lived sexual renunciation played in the transformation of your husband’s mind and habits. 
What a gift that you have this experience and are willing to share it!


#14, Jun 11, 2009 7:47am

OK, I will try this again.  One of these days I am going to remember to type my comments somewhere else and copy and paste them to these blog sites.  They seem to have a habit of losing my most inspired ;-) comments somewhere in cyber space!!

My husband and I will be happy to answer any questions that you may have about our experiences.  My husband is very open to discussing these things, he just hates computers and trying to express himself on paper, so to speak!

Concerning the use of religiously-based continence to order problems in the sexual sphere, the first thing that one has to do is to admit that there is a problem.  My husband’s habits were formed ignorantly, and in a sense innocently, many years before we even met.  During our first few years of marriage none of this was an issue since we were contracepting and basically mutually using one another.  After time, and dealing with the infertility from cancer treatment, his lack of mastery of self began to have its toll on our relationship.  We could sense this wall coming between us and desired to not have this situation, but it took awhile, through much discussion to pinpoint the source.  Admitting the problem is difficult because one has to admit to sin as well as to the harm done to the other person by making them an object of use. 

As we continued to grow in our knowledge of the faith, and beginning to seek the Church’s teaching on relationships and the marital act, it seemed that periodic continence might be a way to undo years of habituation.  In many ways this is a physical addiction like other substances in that the body comes to expect and need certain “substances” so to speak.  The body needs to be trained to overcome this addiction.

Continence for this issue is very difficult at first.  My husband was not even able to touch me during these periods, not even to hold my hand.  This was difficult and a sacrifice for me as well since I enjoyed those affectionate actions.  One also has to fight against resentment upon seeing how much one has really been an object of use.

I need to add that my husband before and during this time was a very spiritual man.  He had experienced some rather mystical things in his relationship with our Lord.  We actually believe that he was supernaturally healed of his cancer many years before—but that is another story!

I can understand why people could get discouraged over this issue since they can be very sincere and prayerful and committed to receiving the Sacraments but yet unable to overcome this problem.  I think that it can lead to guilt and shame and looking for ways to justify the behavior because it seems so impossible to overcome.  Might we possibly be looking at this as a totally spiritual problem when it may very well be a physical one as well?  Just as any addiction has definitely got a physical component.

For my husband, it seemed to me that immense progress was made when, after receiving good counsel in Confession, he made a firm purpose of amendment.  He said that he was not going to do this any more and did not waver from that decision, no matter how much his body was telling him otherwise. Sometimes it seems to us that God is waiting for us to make the first few steps and then He gives us the grace to complete the journey.

I hope this is helpful and please let us know if we can offer any more of use from our years of experience doing everything the wrong way!

I want to add that this is a wonderful sight and I am in awe of the many prominent intellects who are sharing their knowledge here.  A very humbling experience to be sharing blog space with you all!

Katie van Schaijik

#15, Jun 11, 2009 7:52am

thank you again!  I am simply blown away by your testimony, which I think will be a great source of hope and encouragement to many suffering couples.
I do have a further question for you and your husband.  Can you explain more about what your refusal to acquiesce in your husband’s desires at some point, as you grew in a sense that they were disordered?  And (if this isn’t too much to ask you to reveal), were they disordered in objective fact or just in subjective approach?  I mean, was he asking you to do things or submit to things that were in themselves immoral, or was it a case of your sensing that his fundamental attitude was impure, so that even otherwise unobjectionable acts were felt by you to be wrong?


#16, Jun 11, 2009 8:14am

The problem stemmed from the fact that the request for marital intimacy was not based on his feelings for me but for other reasons.  Either he had seen something, well, someone would probably be a better word, that would arouse him, possibly at work, on the street, on TV, etc., or his body was manifesting “symptoms” that he felt he had to respond to.  It got to the point where he didn’t even want to engage in the marital act but these physical manifestations made him think that he had to.  Interestingly, after he made a firm purpose of amendment, these “symptoms” almost immediately stopped manifesting themselves.  We could never figure out if they were from mental stimulation or, at times, we wondered if they might be satanic!  All we know for sure is that a man who could not abstain for more than a day or two can now be continent forever if he needed to be.

Unless you have experienced it, a person cannot really understand what it is like to be used in that way.  JPII was so correct in seeing that use was the opposite of love.  Use is so dehumanizing to a person—it just crushes the ego.

As a side note, this extends to one’s relationships outside of marriage as well.  I remember as a teenager becoming so discouraged because it seemed as though there were no males that I could just have a healthy relationship with.  I was the recipient of inappropriate advances from teachers and family members as well as peers.  The peers were not that big of an issue but the others were just devastating—and I was never sexually abused.  It is just the fact that you cannot trust or be close to almost anyone of the opposite sex.  How sad that is.  I long for everyone to come to understand the truth about human sexuality so we can live in the freedom of that truth.  How much more we could be for one another if we could just learn to think and live rightly in this area.  I am so thankful to JPII because I truly believe that TOB is the key to bringing about this revolution in the male/female relationship.

Katie van Schaijik

#17, Jun 11, 2009 8:41am

Thank you again, Lauretta. May your experiences help and inspire the many, many couples out there struggling in similar situations. 
How we all need help and healing!!

Katie van Schaijik

#18, Jun 11, 2009 8:50am

One more thing—not a disagreement but a point to consider.  The exchange of selves that is marriage is fully mutual, but (I propose) not exactly equal.  In the context of this question, for instance, it makes a difference that male sexuality has an urgent, demanding quality that is untypical of female sexuality, and also that most husbands have the strength to physically overpower their wives, which gives the idea of “conjugal rights” (as it is commonly interpreted) a problematic character.

Michael Healy

#19, Jun 11, 2009 8:51am

Katie, I suppose we are talking past one another, so let me try to meet you better in terms of your particular points.  Certainly bad teaching, misunderstanding conjugal rights, will seriously harm marriages.  But it is also bad teaching to think the marital debt is not a very serious matter—I know you don’t dispute this. 

I think the husband’s problem in trying to “force” the matter one way or another is utter stupidity and imprudence; this is no way to get one’s spouse ready to make love.  Even physically the woman will be unable to relax, unable to be naturally brought along to receptivity and openness, such that the act may even then be painful.  Thus even if the husband gets his wish, this only makes matters worse and cannot be what he really wants.  Thus they have to sit down and talk about it and try to mutually understand, as in the case you mention in your update.  Here I would say that any husband with a modicum of respect and sensitivity should be willing to wait until some of these things are worked through.  However, if the projected wait is open-ended with the implication that it may be for quite a long time or until the wife feels fully convinced that the husband’s “got it” finally, then this may be experienced by the husband as judgmental, rejecting, and hopeless.  Therefore, if a husband’s approach on a given day is obtuse and a complete turn-off, discuss it all, but with the idea that very soon thereafter—like tomorrow perhaps—we will prepare ourselves for the romantic feast and renew the days of exciting courtship and wooing.  There’s not a man alive (if he has any sense at all) that would not gladly trade cold sex tonight for full romantic encounter—anticipated tonight and all day tomorrow and then consummated tomorrow night.  But then it really has to happen tomorrow night and not be continually delayed.  So it seems to me saying “No” on a given day can be fully justified and prudent, where the “Yes” would really end up hurting both parties and their relationship; but I think under guidance of the scenario give above.

In response to your numbered points:

1. The reason I laid out the alternatives so starkly is not that they are the only alternatives but that I think we are always somewhere along the continuum between these two extremes (or fundamental options) and tending in the one direction or the other.  I’m reminded of a poster I used to have on my wall at college (before rediscovering Christ).  With accompanying “horror” picture, it said “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil—For I am the meanest son of a bitch in the valley.”  I thought it was funny at the time, but it is really the attitude of the devil—vs. Christ.  I think we are always somewhere along these kinds of continua and pointing toward one or the other goal.
2. Yes.
3. Note that the teaching of St. Thomas here holds also for the husband in relation to the wife—the marital debt is a perfectly mutual and equal right.  I have really given the rights to my body (and all that should inform this level from above, conjugal love in Christ, as Josef elaborates, but still also literally the right to my body) to Maria.  If she were terribly ill, even with a contagious disease, and even after discussing it between us, she desperately wanted me to make love to her for her own peace of mind, validation, reassurance, etc., do I have the right to say “No?”  Personally, I don’t think so.  I should answer the call and put myself in God’s hands as far as the rest of it goes (i.e., my own health, etc.).  I am not my own, but belong to God and to Maria.
4. Concerning your additional comment in the new reply, I cannot speak for all men, but personally I have always been deeply offended by this talk that male sexuality is urgent and demanding—as if I can’t control myself and just have to give in to my instinctual urges.  This may have been true at age 15, but should certainly not be true a mature Christian husband, so I just say that’s a bunch of crock!  As far as who could physically overpower the other, I suppose it depends on the individual persons in question, but it has nothing essential to do with conjugal rights.  No one has the right to force the other, even if one has the power.

Katie van Schaijik

#20, Jun 11, 2009 2:49pm

Well, we are close to agreement if not yet fully there. In general your points seem to take for granted a basically healthy and loving spousal relationship, while I was mainly referring to one that is basically disordered by a wrong understanding of sex and its place in marriage.
On point 4, I am surprised by your response, though open to the correction if you think I still need it after I explain further.  I thought I was stating the obvious, and didn’t mean to suggest that men are not fully capable of and responsible to master their urges, channeling them into the service of true love.  I rather meant that male sexuality seems to have a natural quality of urgency that female sexuality doesn’t typically have until stirred by love.  I take it for granted that THROUGH love and over time this natural difference between male and female sexuality diminishes.  But if love is not present where it OUGHT to be present, the difference can rather become aggravated over time: the husband becoming more demanding and the wife becoming more reluctant. 
What do you think?
Wojtyla goes into the ethical significance of the differences between male and female sexuality toward the end of Love and Responsibility [which point I add for the benefit of readers who may not know the book as you do.]

Michael Healy

#21, Jun 11, 2009 3:34pm

Certainly each sex has some natural “matter” to deal with that is normally somewhat different.  But I just mean: 1) that the man’s challenge of ordering his more immediately arousing desires is no more daunting than the woman’s challenge of being more open to allowing hers to be aroused; and 2) the idea that the male’s “powerful urges” and “demands for release” create some special obligation on the woman to acquiesce is real poppycock.  Any guy who uses such an argument just needs to grow up!

Katie van Schaijik

#22, Jun 11, 2009 3:35pm


Katie van Schaijik

#23, Jun 11, 2009 7:22pm

I should add that I think your interpretation of St. Thomas’s teaching (which I will have to think about more) is very different from its first face meaning, which is the one that I fear many take into their marriages.

Katie van Schaijik

#24, Jun 12, 2009 11:49am

Michael, don’t miss the fascinating and very helpful post above by Lauretta, which I think throws a lot of light on the issue we’re discussing.  Looking forward to your thoughts on that.

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