Monday, 31 January 2011

A traditional Catholic theologian on sex in marriage - Part 1

Cross-posted at Reggie's Reviews

Further to my recent post on casuistry, here is a sample of a traditional Catholic moralist's teaching on sex in marriage.  It is taken from Giovanni Maria Chiericato (Joannes Clericati), Decisiones de Matrimonio, Venice 1716, XXXVIII.11.  The translation is mine.  I have changed the format of the text to make it more easily readable, and I have removed a number of references to other works.

These are the main themes of Chiericato's work:

1.  It is somewhat technical and legalistic, and is written with a view to assisting priests in hearing confessions.  In these respects, it is typical of traditional Catholic moral theology.

2.  It affirms that marital sex is a good thing.  Marital sex is ordained by God and forms an inherent part of the marriage relationship.  It is an act of justice and charity.

3.  However, it must be done for the right reason.  This principle derives from the Aristotelian idea of fulfilling one's telos or purpose and the notion that what is natural is good.  These ideas permeate Catholic sexual morality.  The result is that, while taking pleasure in having sex with one's spouse is not an inherently bad thing, it can be bad if it forms the sole or main purpose of the act.

4.  The primary object of marital sex is to produce children for the glory of God.  This is not the only object of the act, however: in particular, it is sufficient if the spouses have sex purely in order to avoid the temptation of looking for sexual satisfaction elsewhere.

5.  A spouse is bound to have sex if the other spouse requests it, with certain exceptions.


Here is the translation:

The first question is whether marital intercourse is a good deed

It seems that the answer is that it is not.

I.  Because carnal intercourse between spouses separates them from God.
-  This is why in Exodus 19 the Jews who were about to see the Majesty of the Lord on Mount Sinai, where he was about to descend amid fire, were told not to consort with their wives.
-  Also, in 1 Kings 21, before Ahimelech gave the Bread of the Presence to David and his servants, he asked them whether they were undefiled by women, meaning whether they had abstained from contact with their wives.
-  Also, it is laid down that those who are going to receive Holy Communion must abstain from conjugal intercourse for several days; the same is the case on solemn feast days and days of fasting.
-  Also, in the Eastern Church it is the custom among the Greeks that married people abstain from conjugal intercourse for the whole of Lent, or else they are forbidden from taking Holy Communion at Easter.

II.  Because St Jerome said: "There is no sin indeed in legitimate marriage, and the presence of the Holy Spirit is granted, excepting, however, those times when conjugal intercourse is carried on".  So marital intercourse is not a good deed.

III.  St John Chrysostom also says: "Those who have marital intercourse do not incur a penalty, but they do not however receive any reward".

IV.  St Gregory also writes: "A man who sleeps with his own wife should not enter a church unless he has been washed with water."  It is not, therefore, a good deed.

In spite of the foregoing, it must be said that marital intercourse is a good deed in itself.  There have indeed been many heretics since the beginning of the Church who have denied this, including Saturninus in 120 AD, who alleged that the marital bond was an invention of the Devil, and that random coupling was enough to propagate the species.  Marcion later taught the same in 146 AD, saying that married people could not be saved.  So did the Manichaeans, the Hieracitae, the Cathars and others.

Yet the truth is to the contrary.  Marital intercourse was indeed ordained by God, as it says in Gen. 2, "A man shall hold fast to his wife, and the two will be one flesh", meaning through marital sex, as Pope Benedict I explains.  St Paul said: "The husband must pay the debt to his wife, and the wife to her husband".  The confirmation of this is that God's will in operation cannot be evil, and the production of children is God's objective as the result of marital sex.  Moreover, an act of justice is intrinsically good, and carnal intercourse between spouses is an act of justice and charity.  This is because the spouses, through the marriage contract, direct their bodies to the act of intercourse, both to propagate children and to avoid fornication.  Therefore, whenever they engage in the act, they carry out an act of justice and charity.  It is therefore a good deed.

The contrary arguments may be replied to as follows.  Firstly, it may be replied to the first objection that the abstinence from marital relations referred to was commended with a view to encouraging greater reverence in receiving Holy Communion and in reflecting spiritually on God as people do in times of prayer.  The examples for this were the Vision of the Majesty of God shown to the Jews amidst fire on Mount Sinai and the Bread of the Presence given by Ahimelech the priest to David.  It seems that the pleasure and enjoyment which marital sex is associated with, and without which no-one would be induced to engage in it, somehow obstruct this reverence.  However, this pleasure is not bad in itself unless it is carried to excess or taken as the main purpose of the act.

To the second objection it may be replied that St Jerome meant by what he said that there is no requirement for the special grace of the Holy Spirit in the act because common grace is sufficient to carry out any good deed.  He adds that, if the spouses orient their intention in having intercourse to its supernatural purpose and to the glory given to God by producing children, they will obtain the special assistance of God's grace.  We must believe that this is what happened to St Joachim, St Zachary the father of John the Baptist, St Ludwig the King of the Franks, and the other holy men in the Old and the New Testaments who lived married lives in the holiest manner.

To the third objection it may be replied that St John Chrysostom was talking about the substantial rather than the accidental reward of glory.  Married people can be deserving of the latter when they engage in intercourse for the correct reason.

It may be said in response to the fourth objection that because married people often commit excesses when having intercourse, the early Christians adopted the practice of washing themselves in holy water.  Holy water was then placed at the doors of churches so that the people, in making the sign of the cross with it, might be washed from the stain of venial sins.  I argued this at greater length in my Decisions on Baptism, where I posited four principal effects of holy water, namely (1) to remit venial sins, (2) to put demons to flight, (3) to heal the sick, and (4) to ward off adversity.  The reader who wants to know more on this subject can read what I say there.

From what I have said above experts draw the inference that marital intercourse is not an evil act if it is carried out purely for the purpose of avoiding fornication.  Even though this is not the primary purpose of marriage, it is nonetheless the secondary purpose.  This is shown by these words of the Apostle in 1 Cor. 7, "Let him who cannot be self-controlled get married in the Lord", and also by these words, "Because of fornication (that is, in order to avoid it) each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband".  So a spouse who has sex for this purpose does not commit even a venial sin.  Nonetheless, if marital intercourse is carried on only for reason of pleasure and enjoyment, as is very often the case, it involves venial sin.  This is not because moderate pleasure is itself a sin, since it is inherent in the nature of the act, just as enjoyment is inherent in eating and drinking, and, as I said above, if there was no pleasure in sex no-one would engage in it.  It is rather because someone who uses marriage for this purpose alone experiences excessive pleasure and enjoyment.


The second question is whether marital sex constitutes an obligation

All the experts reply to this question in the affirmative.  A spouse is bound to have sex consensually when the other spouse reasonably requests it.  This is in accordance with the precept of the Apostle in 1 Cor. 7: "The husband must pay the debt to his wife, and the wife to her husband".  If they refuse without a legitimate reason, they commit a serious sin.  This obligation is binding not only when a spouse expressly asks for sex but even when it is done tacitly, by some sign or indication, as is often the case with wives, who through embarassment or modesty do not venture to ask their husbands openly to pay the marital debt.

The reason why this obligation exists under pain of sin is that spouses, by virtue of the marriage contract, are bound to pay the marital debt to each other in this way because by virtue of the contract each spouse gives power over their body to the other for the purposes of marital intercourse, and so out of justice they each have reciprocal obligations to discharge the debt.  Just as in the case of other contracts a person who refuses to hand over an item which he is required by justice to hand over sins gravely, the situation is the same with a spouse who denies the marital debt to the other spouse when they ask for it.  It follows from this that spouses who render themselves incapable of paying the debt by too much abstinence, fasting and austerity of life are gravely culpable.  It is even a sin for women to make themselves ugly through excessive penances and to lose their good looks.  This creates a danger that their husbands will fall into adultery with other women.  But I think that this situation is rarely encountered in practice by confessors.

There are a number of cases in which spouses can refuse to pay the marital debt without sinning:

I.  If their life is in imminent danger or they are seriously ill.  The order of nature requires that attention be given to the safety of one's own person in priority to the production of offspring.  It is different in the case of minor illness, such as a toothache, a headache or a mild fever.

II.  The wife is not bound to pay the debt if her husband has leprosy, has a serious case of syphilis, or suffers from another contagious disease.

III.  If the couple are struggling with poverty and have several children whom they find it difficult to provide for, one of the spouses can abstain from sex.

IV.  If the woman has a history of still births because of some physical defect, although in this case many scholars teach the contrary.

V.  If the spouse unjustly or wrongfully asks for sex.  This may be because the husband has committed adultery with another woman, or because he has had sex with a relative of his wife in the first or second degree, or because he is bound by a vow of chastity, or he asks for it within half a month of the day on which the marriage is contracted, or if a spouse has entered into a spiritual kinship with the other spouse by lifting him from the baptismal font.

VI.  If the wife is pregnant and she fears that the foetus will be killed in the womb or will miscarry if she has sex, she can then refuse to pay the marital debt.

VII.  If a mother has not yet weaned a child whom she has recently given birth to, she can refuse to pay the marital debt.  Pope St Gregory says: "A husband should not sleep with her (i.e. a new mother) until she has weaned the child whom she has given birth to".

VIII.  If the wife is found to be menstruating.  It is only a venial sin for a man to have carnal knowledge of his wife while she is menstruating.

IX.  If the spouse is doubtful and thinks that the marriage is probably invalid.

For Part 2, see here.