Should a man insist on his marital rights if his wife finds him repulsive?

This dilemma was inspired by the discussion over at The Thinking Housewife here.  I don’t want to focus on the specifics of the cases discussed there, though.  I’d rather think of the more general question.  I’ve showed before that wives have a duty to render the marriage debt to their husbands–that this is the unambiguous position of Christianity and that it has an important natural function.  That was looking at things from the wife’s point of view.  Now let’s look at things from the husband’s point of view.  Given that his wife usually must comply with his requests, when is it right for him to make them?  As the head of the household, the husband must not privilege his own desires; if anything, he should disfavor himself so that his authority will more clearly seem to be motivated by the common good.

I think the answer is, a husband may command his wife to have sex with him only for the explicit purpose of begetting children.  He must limit such requests to her fertile period, and he must stop altogether when they are not trying to have children.

Let us admit that this problem of men’s and women’s mismatched libidos is entirely caused by the abomination of birth control.  Although men desire sex more often, they’re also, as the family provider, more sensitive to the difficulties in having additional mouths to feed.  Without the accursed practice of sterilized sex, men would be restrained by prudence to the same degree as women are restrained by nature.  The end of infant mortality should also have been the end of sexual intercourse as a regular part of married life.

There is a law of conservation of tolerance.  When one starts tolerating something, one must stop tolerating something else.  While accepting contraception and celebrating the sexually voracious woman, society has ceased to tolerate the frigid woman, a far more common type.  There’s nothing wrong with a woman never being interested in sex.  It’s perfectly normal.  It’s also perfectly normal for a woman to be married to a man she’s not attracted to.  Women’s standards in men for physical attraction tend to be very high, and there aren’t enough “alphas” to go around.  Women with low libidos can have perfectly normal lives, including a husband and (if she will only agree to just lay there occasionally while her husband does his thing) children.

Women’s magazines in the supermarkets are all about how to increase one’s desire and have more orgasms.  At first glance, one gets the idea from them that women must be obsessed with sex.  On further consideration, one realizes the real issue:  women are not obsessed with sex, but they think that means there’s something wrong with them, and they’re trying to fix it.  (Men never read about how to get more pleasure from sex.  We only read about how to get more sex.)  Feminist society has told them they should have the same sexual appetites as men, but they don’t.

Of course, it’s not just women who have been made to feel inadequate.  Men are now told that just being a  good provider and companion isn’t enough–they have to “perform” and make their wives enjoy sex as much as men do.  Frequent sex is also bad for relationships.  It makes wives suspect that every gesture of affection from their husbands–every hug, kiss, or cuddle–is really a sexual advance.  Some may even deny their husbands these affections because they don’t want to “give him ideas”.

Reducing sex to pleasure is making people miserable.

62 Responses

  1. great post, Bonald

  2. I wonder, Bonald, if you have ever admired de Maistre’s well-known words:

    “Now, there is no such thing in the world as Man…. As for Man, I declare that I have never met him in my life. If he exists, I certainly have no knowledge of him.”

    They were not written in this context, but I believe that they have some application in this sort of discussion. One might add:

    “Now, there is no such thing in the world as Woman…. As for Woman, I declare that I have never met her in my life. If she exists, I certainly have no knowledge of her.”

  3. I’m going to set the the contraception, fertile period, prudence question to one side in order to make a simple point. How hard is it to have sexual intercourse with one’s spouse? Really? Unless you find the act intrinsically disgusting, or have come to regard your spouse as physically revolting, we’re talking about something that is no more tedious than washing dishes and no more strenuous than some very mild exercise. Sex within marriage should be casual sex, meaning a normal part of married life that is sometimes very satisfying, sometimes less so, that sometimes happens, and sometimes does not. But when your spouse asks for intimacy, it should be given as a rule, and withheld only for reason.

    When St. Paul wrote that it is better to marry than to burn, he may have meant burn with lust or burn in Hell, but he clearly meant that marriage was one legitimate way to handle the problem of sexual desire (celibacy being the other).

    You’re partly right in what you say about contraception, but that’s really part of the bigger issue of fertility control. How did we get there? Mortality control. We’ve wound up afraid of sex because we began to be afraid of death.

  4. “The end of infant mortality should also have been the end of sexual intercourse as a regular part of married life.”

    A radical statement. It asks for a civilization at a high level of spiritual development; if we accept the idea, why has God enabled us to reach greater and greater heights of physical technology demanding more and more virtue for proper use while retrogressing us further and further in spiritual technology? (e.g. the ability of individuals of average self-centeredness to near sainthood). If only He had given low infant mortality to Byzantium or Counter-Reformation Spain; instead He gave it to the Protestant-degrading-to-atheist Anglosphere. Is He toying with us?

    Dare we hope God has lower salvation standards for corrupt societies given no pious structuring?

  5. “The aeroplane is like the woman, to get the best out of her you must seduce, not rape her.”

    Polish Pilot, Second World War.

  6. What a joyless world you all seem to live in…

  7. So is a man absolved from his godly responsibility to provide for his wife if he finds he doesn’t like to? Because that’s what your argument boils down to, she is absolved from her responsibility if she no longer wants to carry it out. I’m struggling to recall where those concepts are located in the canon. Fail.

  8. I have already argued at length that a woman has a duty to render the marriage debt when her husband asks for it. That’s not the issue here. What I’m discussing now is when a man should ask for it. My answer is hardly out of keeping with the tradition. Thomas Aquinas, for example, regarded it as venially sinful to engage in intercourse with one’s wife for pleasure rather than for children.

  9. The traditional teaching was that sex in marriage was for (1) children, (2) the control of lust, and/or (3) the encouragement of love between the spouses. Those were the 3 purposes that one tends to find in the pre-Vatican II literature. In the situation you posit, 3 is clearly out if sex is going to be upsetting for the wife. 1 is the reason you invoke in the second paragraph of your post. However, that still leaves 2. If the man was (say) tempted to look to his secretary for sexual satisfaction instead, that would, on traditional Catholic principles, justify asking for the marriage debt.

    Of course, the larger issue is why on earth a man would marry a woman who finds him repulsive, but I guess in times and cultures other than our own he might not have much choice in the matter.

  10. Frequent sex is also bad for relationships. It makes wives suspect that every gesture of affection from their husbands–every hug, kiss, or cuddle–is really a sexual advance. Some may even deny their husbands these affections because they don’t want to “give him ideas”.

    There is nothing wrong with frequent sex in a relationship and some women actually like to feel sexually desired by their spouses. If she is not wanting to “give him ideas”, this is a problem in the relationship. She is either not attracted to him and doesn’t want to admit it, and/or has sexual hang-ups. It’s one thing to have waxing and waning, it’s another to go for months on end without sex in a marriage, unless that’s truly what both partners want. I acknowledge that it can be tricky in the months after a new baby is born, with not wanting to have another too soon (or at all) and how that can put a woman off sex for a while, but it should come back eventually.

  11. I hear that you may have sex more than twice per month if you have a note from the Pope.

    Ignore Aquinas. Look at your own wife. Do you desire her just when she is ovulating? What is the natural progression of desire in the sanctified union: satisfaction or want? What is the natural progression of denial: contentment or discontent? This is not even a hard question.

  12. “I think the answer is, a husband may command his wife to have sex with him only for the explicit purpose of begetting children. He must limit such requests to her fertile period, and he must stop altogether when they are not trying to have children”

    Rubbish! Sex is for both unitive and procreative purposes.
    A wife is duty bound to have sex with her husband because she has taken a vow to do so..

    What happened to love?

    Your view is a cold and clinical one. Not all women see sex with their husbands as a chore. I enjoy sex with my husband and often initiate. It brings us closer together and deepens our bond.

    I am a Catholic woman who married for love and sex…It’s not unusual. We had children(who we love very much) but it was not the sole purpose of our marriage.

    From the Catholic Catechism.

    2362 “The acts in marriage by which the intimate and chaste union of the spouses takes place are noble and honorable; the truly human performance of these acts fosters the self-giving they signify and enriches the spouses in joy and gratitude.”145 Sexuality is a source of joy and pleasure.

  13. Reducing sex to pleasure is making people miserable.

    Spot-on.

  14. Taking the pleasure element out appears to have the same effect.

  15. Agreed Thag,
    There is something very wrong with Bonald’s post. It conflates some elements that are true in society at large (and within non-marital relationships) with other components that are false within the bond of marriage. Your selected quote above is an excellent example. I hate to say this, but Bonald’s extra-biblical musings give ammunition to those who think Christians are joyless scolds.

  16. Taking the pleasure element out appears to have the same effect.

    It depends on what you mean by pleasure. If you’re meaning hedonism (the typical meaning for pleasure) then a marriage is better off without endless pleasure.

  17. It should be obvious, but I guess it isn’t, that the options are not “endless hedonistic pleasure” or “lie back and think of England”. Hedonistic pleasure is not endless anyway, unless you consider endless to be ever increasing needs for stimulation until you’re so numb you need jumper cables to get going.

    Let’s be sensible though; sex is supposed to be pleasurable, it’s in the nature of the act that it’s pleasurable. If you remove that completely and pretend it’s only for procreation and not also for unitive or pleasure purposes, that will also result in misery for most people.

  18. Hello Kathy,

    If a woman likes, or at least doesn’t mind, having sex with her husband, than sure, he can ask for it more often. What I’m thinking about are those cases, and they’re actually quite common I believe, where a wife really dislikes the marital act. Surely her husband should show her some consideration? I’m actually on the “sex-positive” side here compared to the culture at large. The current social consensus is that a woman should never be pushed for sex when she doesn’t want it. I’ve made an exception, saying that a wife’s desire to avoid sex is trumped by a husband’s desire for children.

  19. “Let’s be sensible though; sex is supposed to be pleasurable, it’s in the nature of the act that it’s pleasurable. If you remove that completely and pretend it’s only for procreation and not also for unitive or pleasure purposes, that will also result in misery for most people.”

    Thag is dead right. :)

    alcestiseshtemoa:

    “It depends on what you mean by pleasure. If you’re meaning hedonism (the typical meaning for pleasure) then a marriage is better off without endless pleasure”

    You have a very cynical view of the physical side of marriage for such a young woman.(you are 19?) Why?

  20. One wonders why a woman so averse to sexual intercourse would get married in the first place. Nevertheless, if this comes up after the fact for some reason, I would say the onus is on her to find some way to desire her husband more, not to expect a married man to live a life of celibacy with her for no other reason than “I find sex [with you] icky”. Surely they ought to meet in the middle somewhere (no pun intended, heh heh) so that it’s not such an all or nothing deal.

    I find it hard to believe that once things get going, it’s common for a wife to get absolutely no pleasure out of it, but if that’s the case, I don’t really know what to say except to feel pity for both of them. I think a lot of the time people get complacent more than anything, but I could be wrong.

  21. I suppose a woman might get married for companionship or to have children even if she found intercourse icky. Regardless, I agree with you that the solution would have to be some kind of compromise. I suggested what I thought was the ideal, most equitable compromise: the husband gets sex, but only enough for them to get their children.

  22. Yeah I guess that’s OK if the husband doesn’t mind a rather spare sex life, but I’m pretty sure most men wouldn’t want that for themselves. That sounds pretty insane to be honest and not very loving behaviour on her part. Fair enough if you’re single, of course.

  23. Thomas Aquinas, for example, regarded it as venially sinful to engage in intercourse with one’s wife for pleasure rather than for children.

    Thomas Aquinas is not the Catholic Church. Reading through the Catholic Catechism will dispell the notion of sex being venially sinful in marriage when one engages in said act simply for the purpose of love and mutual pleasure.

    It is an act that does indeed further deepen a couples love and cement their bond. It’s ludicous to suggest a husband only have sex with his wife in order to procreate. Unrealistic.

    The couple will eventually grow apart. After all it would be no different to having a friend.. being in a sexless marriage.

    What about all the couples who are infertile or who are too old to have children? What is the point of marriage for them, then?. The Catholic Church does indeed sanction and encourage such unions, knowing full well that no children will result from these unions. Know why, because sex is first and foremost for unitive purposes. If a woman married a man just to have children, and not because she loved him, that would be grounds for annulment, just as it would be if she married a man because she loved him yet refused to have children.

    For some reason many Catholics(and I don’t mean you bonald) play down the very important unitive aspect of marriage.

    “Understand, sexual intimacy is not just a carnal act for procreation or for physical pleasure. It is the ultimate act of fusion that a husband and wife can ever possibly have. It is the glue that holds a marriage together. Sex is the act that brings in its wake an overwhelming tidal wave of positive emotion that is capable of sewing a husband and wife together as one flesh” Rabbi Shmuley.

    True dat. :D

  24. I don’t think it’s right to say that sex is “first and foremost” unitive. The unitive aspect of sex derives from its procreative telos and is therefore subordinate to it in a very real way. Otherwise, it’d be perfectly reasonable to sanction all kinds of illicit sexual acts because it brings people closer together.

  25. Hello Kathy,

    Thank you for making these points.

    I don’t see why a woman not being attracted to her husband–or even not loving him–would be grounds for an annulment. The only question would be whether she truly intended to fulfill her vows. This does mean she has to agree to the conjugal act (unless she and her husband agree to have what used to be called a “spiritual marriage”) from time to time, but she doesn’t have to like it. Of course, it’s easier on her if she does, but if she doesn’t we shouldn’t make her cross heavier by telling her there’s something wrong with her.

    Also, it seems that my ideal of infrequent sex is actually the more realistic one, in that very few couples could support all the children that would come from “doing what comes naturally”. Even if it’s the “unitive aspect” you’re after, the procreative one is going to be there too. Even in an entirely sexless marriage, husband and wife would be far more than friends. The nonsexual intimacy, the shared residence, the husband’s authority, the shared family, and other such things would mark off this relationship as unique.

  26. These kinds of posts reinforce the image of Christianity I have already formed, or at least my image of Traditionalist Catholicism.

    Whereas Protestantism tends to be much more emotional, Catholicism has more of a history and is perceived as having more intellectual heft. This attracts beta males (nerds, if you will) who can get lost in Catholic Doctrine. These beta males then marry and father children in the conservative, traditional mode (because that is what unattractive, uncharismatic men HAVE to do), and this reinforces their already anal retentive Catholic tendencies.

    In short, I have never seen or met a Catholic traditionalist who wasn’t a relatively unattractive, schlubby looking middle aged white male. (With the sole exception of Michael Voris, who wears a laughably bad toupee.)

  27. “Even in an entirely sexless marriage, husband and wife would be far more than friends. The nonsexual intimacy, the shared residence, the husband’s authority, the shared family, and other such things would mark off this relationship as unique.”

    That’s poppycock, bonald. You are not married are you?

    Let me explain this another way for you, from a personal aspect. I married because I loved my husband and I wanted SEX.
    (my first marriage was annulled by the Catholic Church)

    We had children. Our youngest a boy 10 is autistic. It put a huge strain on our marriage. He needs constant supervision We never went anywhere we couldn’t go camping fishing or to football matches. Even weekly Sunday mass we could not share together, because one of us would have to stay home and look after our son.

    It put an enormous strain on our marriage.. It was like being in a prison.. Know what saved our marriage? SEX!! That’s right. It was the only thing that we had, that we could do together. The more sex we had the better the relationship became. The less we argued. It released tension, put us both in a good frame of mind. Deepened our love.. Strengthened a bond I once felt was slowly slipping away.. I became more tolerant, towards my children. Stopped snapping at my husband. In short we both became happier and closer.

    After making love with my husband the roof could cave in for all I care, such is the power of unitive sex. The two really do become one.. The relationship you desribe is a loveless and joyless one.. Most definitely not stimulating nor satisfying. It brings me back to my point of why marry if all you want is a friend. Marriage is so much more than that!

  28. “I don’t think it’s right to say that sex is “first and foremost” unitive.”

    It is first unitive. Out of that unity that deep love (the two shall become one) children may (or may not ) be born. Thus it becomes procreative. Some people cannot have children. It is not valid grounds for annulment however, because the unitive aspect is just as important as the procreative aspect of a marriage

    Would you say that a couple marrying where the wife had just gone therough menopause were marrying for procreative reasons? Hmmmmm..

    2337:Chastity means the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being. Sexuality, in which man’s belonging to the bodily and biological world is expressed, becomes personal and truly human when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another, in the complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman.

  29. Bonald : “I don’t see why a woman not being attracted to her husband–or even not loving him–would be grounds for an annulment The only question would be whether she truly intended to fulfill her vows. ”

    If the wife married the husband just to fulfill her desire to have children, and, she DID NOT LOVE HIM, then she is living a lie How can she keep the vows ” I will love you and honor you ” when she enters the marriage in bad faith and under fraudulent terms. How can she say she will love him when in fact she never did and it was a means to an end.. Misrepresentation is indeed grounds for annulment.

    2361: Sexuality, by means of which man and woman give themselves to one another through the acts which are proper and exclusive to spouses, is not something simply biological, but concerns the innermost being of the human person as such. It is realized in a truly human way only if it is an integral part of the love by which a man and woman commit themselves totally to one another until death.”143

    Read the above carefully.

    “AN INTEGRAL PART OF THE LOVE BY WHICH A MAN AND WOMAN COMMIT THEMSELVES TOTALLY TO ONE ANOTHER UNTIL DEATH”

    A woman who does not love a man in the first place when she marries him(and does so only to have children by him) cannot possibly make a genuine commitment to love him.The marriage would of course not be a valid one in the eyes of God, as the woman would be making a mockery of her vows

    So, for a marriage to be truly valid (with the Catholic understanding of covenant) both parties must be capable of such a commitment, fully aware and freely giving consent. Sometimes one of these conditions is not present and therefore something is wrong from the beginning, something is lacking. In such a case there never was a valid marriage bond from the beginning.

    Cannot you see that it is wrong to marry just to have children, if a woman didn’t love the man in the first place?

    If one marries for love and the expectation that, through that love, a child will be born, then that is indeed a good and right reason to marry.

    It should also be noted, that a couple who are in love when they marry but find that out the wife cannot have children, for example, are unable to have the marriage annuled. Infertility is NOT grounds for annulment, proving beyond doubt the importance of the unitive aspect (the two shall become one) of thje marriage.

  30. I don’t think that’s right, David. I’m not a conservative Catholic myself (or a conservative at all), but I don’t think you’re doing that community justice.

    If we’re dealing in stereotypes, there are several that are more plausible than the unattractive conservative male nerd:

    – The devout woman. Traditionalist Catholicism, like other religious traditions, has a disproportionately large number of practising female adherents. The reason you might not come across them is that they tend not to seek a public role (there are a few exceptions, like Alice von Hildebrand and Ann Widdecombe).

    – The gay man. It is an open secret that the more traditional brands of Catholicism – with their fine vestments, elaborate ceremonies, fraternal religious orders, etc – attract homosexual men. Some are celibate. Some are not. I happen to know several of them myself. In Britain, Protestant Anglicans used to depict Catholicism as effeminate and homoerotic.

    – The rebel. Young people often have countercultural tendencies. Some find their outlet in far-left campus radicalism. Some find it in ultraconservative religion. Guys in this category aren’t nerds who enjoy reading Aquinas, they’re chasing a high from the esoteric, countercultural aesthetic of right-wing Catholicism, which they admire from the safe distance of Western liberal democracy. (I’ve noticed that some people on this site put Bonald in this category, but I think that’s a mistake.)

    – The saint. You may find this surprising, but some otherwise normal people, of both sexes, embrace conservative Catholicism because they sincerely believe in its doctrinal and moral teachings, and succeed in putting them into practice in their lives in a way that is genuinely worthy of respect.

    I’d agree that there are many unattractive aspects to ultraconservative Catholicism, but I don’t think you can write off its adherents as easily as you do.

  31. Kathy,

    From a natural law perspective, the couple isn’t required to be fertile so long as they’re capable of completing the sexual act in a manner consistent with its procreative telos.

    That’s all natural law demands of us, after all — that we use our faculties in a manner consistent with their respective ends. That’s what’s meant when the Church says the sexual act must be “open to life.”

    Thus fertile couples can marry so long as they’re capable of completing the sex act. Eunuchs, to my knowledge, cannot marry.

    This is why, as you said, infertility is not grounds for annulment. CONCEALMENT of infertility, however, is.

  32. Reggie, I think you are also missing the Narcissist, the guy who uses the authority of the Church as a means of aligning himself with someone powerful to feed his own ego. I suspect that is the case with Michael Voris.

  33. “From a natural law perspective, the couple isn’t required to be fertile so long as they’re capable of completing the sexual act in a manner consistent with its procreative telo”

    No one is arguing against that, Proph. You are missing the point. Go read the Catholic Catechism. Sex is for unitive and procreative purposes. For both.. .

    This is why the Catholic Church allows infertile couples to marry..

    To say that marriage is just for procreation is incorrect.

    It’s why I use the example of a woman marrying a man she doesn’t love for the specific purpose of using him just to have children.
    The unitive part is missing there.

    The marriage would not be a valid one.

    She must first love her husband with her whole heart as she would love Jesus, and as Jesus would love her. This is a prerequisite.

    I never married because I wanted to have children. I married because I loved my husband to be. “I burned”

    Our marriage of course was open to children, and they were born out of a deep and mutual love that we had for one another.

  34. You could be right….

  35. I understand there is a unitive aspect to sex. I’m simply saying it’s not primary — the procreative is. This is why sex not intended for procreation (e.g., sex simply out of desire or love) is still expected to conform to the procreative end of sex, hence, no contraception, etc.

  36. Dude, it’s like you’ve just peered into my soul! (Except maybe the middle aged part. I’m 35. Is that old enough for middle age?)

  37. Hi Proph,

    That’s very well put. Sex is unitive because procreation is its natural end. It’s telos is what gives it its distinct meaning. (If shaking hands felt really, really good, that wouldn’t make hand shakes a natural sign of lifelong self-donation.) The procreative end is thus primary, which of course doesn’t make other meanings that derive from that one less real.

  38. My guess is that the Narcissist is actually the same as the Rebel. Just about anywhere in the world today, there are institutions more powerful than the Church (e.g. the state, the press, business or professional elites). These are nearly always hostile to traditional Catholicism, for various reasons. Someone wanting to feed his ego by ingratiating himself with the powerful would be barking up the wrong tree if he came to the Church. On the other hand, someone who likes to feed his ego by “separating himself from the herd”, by imagining that he has seen past the petty lies that ensnare the minds of his fellows, and thus that he is justified in looking down on them, such a person may well find traditionalist Catholicism of my sort attractive.

  39. “If a woman likes, or at least doesn’t mind, having sex with her husband, than sure, he can ask for it more often. What I’m thinking about are those cases, and they’re actually quite common I believe, where a wife really dislikes the marital act. Surely her husband should show her some consideration? ”

    Ah, Bonald, I understand now why you made that comment above. I had a look at some of your other posts and I see that you are indeed married with a seven month old baby girl.. The startling thing, was that you have been celibate for seven months(well that post was back in June, gosh I hope the drought has broken for you, you poor guy)

    I really don’t care if your wife dislikes the marital act or not. She should be having sex with you it’s her duty. It is also a way of deepening the marital bond. It has nothing to do with lust, though, after a 7 month wait I think that you would be gnashing your teeth, and with good reason.

    A man needs to have sex with his wife. That’s natural.. A wife needs to have sex with her husband because it makes her husband feel loved and wanted.

    I am sorry but I am a straight shooter, Bonald, and I have to say that your wife is a very selfish woman indifferent to your needs.

    Making excuses about not using NFP (which is extremely reliable if a woman knows her cycle-have been using this method for fifteen years has never failed – also fell pregnant the first month of trying with each of my four pregnancies using NFP) because it is unreliable, etc just doesn’t cut it.

    You have a right to ask her for sex, she should comply. If she does not then she is in effect commiting a sin.. You are not being unreasonable.
    Abstaining during the fertile period is one thing, having to go without sex for seven months is shocking and unnatural for a married man of 35 who obviously wants “it” Gosh you are married, man! In any case the less she has sex with you the less she will want it.. The reverse is generally true.

    One more thing. Because of your sexual frustrations, you are more likely to succumb to lustful thoughts. etc..Which in itself is sinful.

    What is happening to the unitive part of your marriage? The two shall become one.. That part of the marriage is unfulfilled. The marriage must be unitive and procreative. If you are “burning” within marriage there is something most definitely wrong there.

    You need to sit down and have a serious discussion with your wife. Marriage is a two way street. It would appear at this stage, however it is just a one way st(your wife’s)

    I agree with the commenter on that particular thread who said that your wife’s actions seemed punitive.

  40. Hello again Kathy,

    I appreciate your concern, but you needn’t worry about my wife or I. We’ve been very lucky–our baby is doing very well–and we haven’t had to go through the sort of hardships you and your husband heroically endured. The current arrangement was my idea, in that I’ve insisted we wait a little while before the next pregnancy and that birth control is out, although it’s true my wife won’t consider NFP. None of that matters much, though, since we’re hoping to start work on baby #2 this winter. The scenario of this post isn’t modeled on my own life, or anyone I know. It was inspired by a discussion at The Thinking Housewife (see the link–you may find it interesting as well).

    By the way, thanks for reading my old posts!

  41. Hi Reggie,

    That’s a very good list. I actually don’t know many traditionalist Catholics (TC) personally, but what I have noticed, especially reflecting on my own case but also seeing hints of it in others, is an overdeveloped self-consciousness. The TC is vividly aware that his is a small minority opinion, especially among the intellectual elites who he would think it more natural to appreciate his tradition. This is a constant irritant, like a scratch he itches but can’t make go away. The Leftist academic also has strong opinions, but he’s more comfortable with them and doesn’t need to think about them as much. He sees that the brightest intellects and the most idealistic humanitarians are on his side, which seems natural to him. Because things seem unnatural to the TC, he keeps digging deeper into historical and apologetic arguments to satisfy himself that–appearances to the contrary–his beliefs aren’t stupid or wicked. Hence the TC mind is often deep but narrow. It’s always working to ease this status anxiety, but no matter how strong the arguments it manufactures, it is never satisfied. After all, the smart set aren’t convinced. Something must still be wrong.

  42. Might the husband insist upon sex for its unitive purpose, in respect of his duty to lead in the marriage? This could be done without damaging the idea of sex being primarily a procreative act, as the act would be as accepting of its procreative nature as it would be were the husband consciously to be insisting upon it for procreative purposes. In this scenario, perhaps he sees the danger to the marriage if he does not act in this way, regardless of whether the wife finds it repulsive, and regardless of whether the act is performed with the conscious effort to procreate.

  43. I realize that my scenario of a man insisting on the marital act for unitive purposes to the marriage is much more likely to be nebulous than if he could only rightly insist upon it for procreative purposes. Still, it seems like something that is within the husband’s jurisdiction as leader of the marriage.

  44. Best wishes to you and your wife Bonald. You ARE a good man.

    Better self control than I could ever hope to have.. ;)

    “and we haven’t had to go through the sort of hardships you and your husband heroically endured. ”

    Thanks for your kind words, but nothing heroic there Bonald.

    There but for the grace of God… I place my trust in him. He gives us the strength. :D

    Ps Have a good break.

  45. Alcest, sex is unitive, procreative, pleasurable. Feeling pleasure from sex within the bonds of a marital relationship is not hedonism. In fact, the main purpose of sex is unitive, not procreative. However, sex must be open to procreation.

  46. The purpose of sex doesn’t necessarily tell us how often we should be having it.

    Our goal is to get our spouses and ourselves to heaven. Sex is one tool in many that can help. How much is “too much” depends on the individual spouses.

    I feel that the “tone” of this post is too high minded for any earthly good. Married people don’t have the luxury of being this moralizing. MAYBE it is better to do X than to do Y but if Y isn’t objectively sinful and it enhances the marriage then we don’t have the luxury to choose X because it makes us feel more righteous.

    I don’t concern myself with my husbands venial sins and I hope he doesn’t concern himself too much with mine. I am sure they are innumerable for both of us, but we know that to get to heaven we have to avoid mortal sins and receive the sacraments frequently. Keeping a strong prayer life, getting to Church every Sunday and Holy Day, keeping our tempers under control, avoiding mortal sins, and all the temporal concerns of keeping 6 kids alive, teaching faith and morals, keeping the bills paid and the stomachs full is more than enough to keep me dependent on God’s Providence.

    If me or my husband commit venial sins here and there I am not going to overly fret about it because there are just SO MANY..I feel that this level of scruples is a luxury for those who are single and those who take holy orders. Us married folk need to be pragmatic.

  47. Bonald,

    Sometimes you write such unwarranted conclusions I can only advise you not to comment on controverted questions of morality at all. Leave it to a priest; you don’t seem competent. Find me a priest, *any* priest, who says that the only context under which a man may morally request the fulfillment of the marriage debt is such as you describe, i.e. with the explicit, conscious, primary goal of begetting a child.

    “The end of infant mortality should also have been the end of sexual intercourse as a regular part of married life.”

    This is truly one of the stupidest things supposedly written “from a Catholic perspective” I’ve ever had the displeasure of reading on the Internet. The more authentic Catholic position is that the the end of infant mortality should have resulted in high numbers of very fertile marriages, a normal sex life yielding a higher number of infants who survived to adulthood. The fact that you currently are not in the position to support such a large family yourself (I imagine from your own posts in the past) should not in any way lead to a generalization dictating that a sexless marriage should be the norm. (Shudder.)

    You cite Sts. Augustine and Thomas on the (at least venial) sinfulness of seeking sex out of pleasure only. Okay, well, Elizabeth Anscombe a long time ago demonstrated why *your* conclusions do not follow from what they wrote(http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles/AnscombeChastity.php):

    “Augustine holds up as an ideal something which he must have known didn’t happen all that much: the life of married people who no longer seeking children are able to live in continence. He considers it a weakness that few ever do this. There’s a sort of servitude to fleshly desire in not being able so to abstain. But marriage is so great a good, he said, that it altogether takes vice out of this; and what’s bad about our weakness is thereby excused. If one partner demands sexual intercourse out of the pressure of sexual desire, he says, the other does right in according it. But there is at least venial sin in demanding it from this motive, and if one’s very intemperate, mortal sin.

    All this part of his teaching is very uncongenial to our time. But we must notice that it has been a bit misrepresented. It has been said that for Augustine sexual intercourse not for the sake of getting children involves actual sin, though not mortal sin – a little bit of sin – on the part of at least one partner, the partner who demands it. What he seems to say however is not that, but some thing different; that if one seeks it out of mere fleshly desire for the sake of pleasure, there is such sin; and this latter teaching has in fact been constant among all the saints and doctors of the Church who have written on the matter at all. (I will be coming back to this.)

    St Augustine indeed didn’t write explicitly of any other motive than mere sensuality in seeking intercourse where procreation isn’t aimed at. What he says doesn’t exclude the possibility of a different motive. There’s the germ of an account of the motive called by theologians “rendering the marriage debt” in his observation that married people owe to one another a kind of mutual service. Aquinas made two contributions, the first of which concerns this point: he makes the remark that a man ought to pay the marriage debt if he can see his wife wants it without her having to ask him. And he ought to notice if she does want it. This is an apt gloss on Augustine’s “mutual service”, and it destroys the basis for the picture which some have had of intercourse not for the sake of children as necessarily a little bit sinful on one side, since one must be “demanding”, and not for any worthy motive but purely “out of desire for pleasure”. One could hardly say that being diagnosable as wanting intercourse was a sin! St Thomas, of course, speaks of the matter rather from the man’s side, but the same thing could be said from the woman’s, too; the only difference being that her role would be more that of encouragement and invitation. (It’s somewhat modern to make this comment. We are much more conscious nowadays of people’s complexities and hang-ups than earlier writers seem to have been.)

    . . .

    And here we’re in the region of that constant Christian teaching, which we’ve noticed, that intercourse “merely for the sake of pleasure” is wrong.

    This can mislead and perturb. For when is intercourse purely for the sake of pleasure? Some have thought this must mean: when it’s not for the sake of getting a child. And so, I believe, I have been told, some Catholic women have actually feared the pleasure of orgasm and thought it wrong, or thought it wrong to look for it or allow oneself to respond to feelings of physical desire. But this is unreasonable and ungrateful to God. Copulation, like eating, is of itself a good kind of action: it preserves human existence. An individual act of eating or copulation, then, can be bad only because something about it or the circumstances of it make it bad. And all the pleasure specific to it will be just as good as it is.

    A severe morality holds that intercourse (and may hold this of eating, too) has something wrong about it if it is ever done except explicitly as being required for that preservation of human life which is what makes intercourse a good kind of action. But this involves thoroughly faulty moral psychology. God gave us our physical appetite, and its arousal without our calculation is part of the working of our sort of life. Given moderation and right circumstances, acts prompted by inclination can be taken in a general way to accomplish what makes them good in kind and there’s no need for them to be individually necessary or useful for the end that makes them good kinds of action. Intercourse is a normal part of married life through the whole life of the partners in a marriage and is normally engaged in without any distinct purpose other than to have it, just as such a part of married life.

    Such acts will usually take place only when desire prompts, and desire is for intercourse as pleasurable; the pleasure, as Aristotle says, perfects the act. But that does not mean that it is done “purely for pleasure”. For what that expression means is that sensuality is in command: but that one has intercourse when desire prompts and the desire is for pleasure, does not prove, does not mean, that sensuality is in command. One may rightly and reasonably be willing to respond to the promptings of desire. When that is so, the act is governed by a reasonable mind, even though no considering or reasoning is going on. The fact that one is thus having intercourse when, as one knows, there’s nothing against it, makes it a good and a chaste marriage act and a rendering of the marriage debt.

    There is indeed such a thing in marriage as intercourse “purely for pleasure”; this is what the Christian tradition did condemn. Marks of it could be: immoderate pursuit of, or preoccupation with sexual pleasure; succumbing to desire against wisdom; insisting against serious reluctance of one’s partner. In all these cases but the last both parties may of course be consenting. For human beings often tend to be disorderly and extreme in their sensuality. A simple test of whether one is so is this: could one do without for a few weeks or months in case of need? For anyone may be faced with a situation in which he ought to do without; and he should watch that he does not get into a state in which it is impossible for him. But we ought to remember also, what isn’t always remembered, that insensibility and unjustified abstention is also a sin against moderation, and is a defrauding of one’s partner.

    Well now, people raise the cry of “legalism” (one of the regular accusations of the present day) against this idea which I have taken from the old theologians of “rendering what is owing”, the giving the other person this part of married life, which is owing. It embodies the one notion, I would say, that is honest, truthful and quite general. People would rather speak of the expression of mutual love. But what do they mean by “love”? Do they mean “being in love”? Do they mean a natural conjugal affection?

    Either of these may be lacking or onesided. If a kind of love cannot be commanded, we can’t build our moral theology of marriage on the presumption that it will be present. Its absence is sad, but this sadness exists, it is very common. We should avoid, I think, using the indicative mood for what is really a commandment like the Scout Law (“A Boy Scout is kind to animals” – it means a Boy Scout ought to be kind to animals). For if we hear: “a Christian couple grow in grace and love together” doesn’t the question arise “supposing they don’t?” It clears the air to substitute the bite of what is clearly a precept for the sweetness of a rosy picture. The command to a Christian couple is: “Grow in grace and love together.” But a joint command can only be jointly obeyed. Suppose it isn’t? Well, there remains the separate precept to each and in an irremediably unhappy marriage, one ought still to love the other, though not perhaps feeling the affection that cannot be commanded. Thus the notion of the “marriage debt” is a very necessary one, and it alone is realistic: because it makes no assumption as to the state of the affections.

    Looking at the rightness of the marriage act like this will help in another way. It will prevent us from assuming that the pleasant affection which exists between a happy and congenial pair is the fulfilment of the precept of love. (It may after all only be a complacent hiving off together in a narrow love.) We ought absolutely not to give out a teaching which is flattering to the lucky, and irrelevant to the unhappy. Looked at carefully, too, such teaching is altogether too rigorist in a new direction. People who are not quite happily married, not lucky in their married life, but nevertheless have a loyalty to the bond, are not, therefore, bound to abstain from intercourse.

    The meaning of this teaching “not purely for pleasure” should, I think, have a great appeal for the Catholic thinking of today that is greatly concerned for the laity. We want to stress nowadays, that the one vocation that is spoken of in the New Testament is the calling of a Christian. All are called with the same calling. The life of monks and nuns and of celibate priesthood is a higher kind of life than that of the married, not because there are two grades of Christian, but because their form of life is one in which one has a greater chance of living according to truth and the laws of goodness; by their profession, those who take the vows of religion have set out to please God alone. But we lay people are not less called to the Christian life, in which the critical question is: “Where does the compass-needle of your mind and will point?” This is tested above all by our reactions when it costs or threatens to cost something to be a Christian. One should be glad if it does, rather than complain! If we will not let it cost anything; if we succumb to the threat of “losing our life”, then our religion is indistinguishable from pure worldliness.”

  48. I’m already doubting whether I should have commented so sternly above, as it comes off as the writing of an enemy instead of a friend. So let me reduce it to this: the conclusion of yours I disputed above is seriously unwarranted and invites vigorous correction.

  49. Hi Bonifacius,

    Your zeal is always admirable, even when I’m on the sharp end of it. However, I think you have misunderstood my position. Lots of other people did too, even though I tried to be clear in the title. I said that a man shouldn’t ask for the marriage debt except for the explicit purpose of begetting children in the particular case that his wife finds the marriage act repellent. Anscombe herself acknowledges this as a special case: “Marks of ['purely for pleasure'] could be: … insisting against serious reluctance of one’s partner.” Obviously the bar of justification is a lot higher in this case.

  50. Also, I would say that there’s some value in having someone like me, who is not a priest and has no authority, to throw ideas out for discussion. The Church gains by having issues explored from all presently orthodox points of view, even if some of them end up being rejected and thus moved beyond the bounds of orthodoxy. Nobody is getting spiritual direction from me, so it’s better that I make suggestions on areas where the teaching authority of the Church has not yet spoken (such as the case of what a man is to do if his wife finds him unattractive), and maybe they later get shot down or refined by someone with spiritual authority. The Church’s definitive statements usually follow rather than preempt debate. I am always willing to submit to correction from the Magisterium.

    You may be glad I’m not Pope, but not half so glad as I am.

  51. I think it would be a seriously sad state of affairs if your spouse finds the marital act repulsive and actually TELLS YOU. How cruel!

  52. Hi Morticia,

    At last! I was hoping to entice at least one of the “Traditional Catholicism” crowd over with this post.

    It seems to me that such a woman would be in quite a dilemma. I can’t imagine how she could let her husband know that she finds the idea of sex with him yucky. On the other hand, is she going to conceal that from him forever? Hopefully this doesn’t happen too often.

  53. Hi, Bonald,

    I’m glad my harsh tone has not shut down conversation. Anyway, the point of the latter section of Anscombe’s writing that I posted above is that *the reluctant* spouse had better have a very substantive reason for abstention lest he or she be guilty of defrauding the other spouse of her or his due. I.e., frigidity taken in and of itself, or reluctance born of physical repulsion are simply *not good* in a marriage. They may be common but they are not “normal” in the sense of being normative, equally conducive to the good as a woman having a healthy sexual desire, specifically for her husband. It seems that there is a greater onus on the wife to overcome simple displeasure for sex or for her husband than there is an onus on the husband to accept a “sex-only-for-procreation” marriage. My Catholic grandmother encourged her daughters to be generous in such matters — “If he’s not getting it at home, he’s getting it somewhere else.” I’m not saying the more sexually active partner should force the other one, I’m saying that the burden of accomodation simply cannot rest so heavily on the person seeking intercourse as on the one resisting. If so, the marital debt is one of sexual forebearance and not one of sexual giving.

    Incidentally, Pope Pius XI did in fact speak on the matter of the secondary ends of the marital act:

    “Nor are those considered as acting against nature who in the married state use their right in the proper manner although on account of natural reasons either of time or of certain defects, new life cannot be brought forth. For in matrimony as well as in the use of the matrimonial rights there are also secondary ends, such as mutual aid, the cultivating of mutual love, and the quieting of concupiscence which husband and wife are not forbidden to consider so long as they are subordinated to the primary end and so long as the intrinsic nature of the act is preserved.”

    From Casti Conubii 59. Now if the primary end of marriage — procreation — is sufficient to justify requesting the marital debt, then so should be the secondary ends. You seem to treat these as *so* secondary that they cannot be morally sought when one of the partners is reluctant on account of subjective problems — and they are problems you describe, not simple facts. I’d say, if the reluctant partner must submit for legitimate, prudent pursuit of procreation, then it would seem the same applies for the other ends of marriage, i.e. that there may be times when it is prudent to seek sex from a frigid partner for these secondary ends. If it’s your wedding anniversary, it shouldn’t matter whether you’re seeking children or not, or if your wife thinks she got stuck with a 98-pound weakling, you should not even have to *ask* on your anniversary (or your birthday, all things being equal), it should be offered generously.

    Plus, I would add that the claim I most strenuously objected to (“The end of infant mortality should also have been the end of sexual intercourse as a regular part of married life”), makes no reference to frigidity or physical repugnance.

    Thanks for chatting with me about this, though.

    Best,
    Bonifacius

  54. I suppose you’re right that the secondary ends of marriage would trump physical repulsion, but it seems to me that if a wife dislikes sex that much, it’s not going to have much of a “unitive” effect. More likely, it will create resentment in both partners. Now, you might say that extended abstinence will also cause resentment, at least in the man, so it’s a real dilemma. But it seems that, since the husband is the one making the decision, he should weigh his own resentment, over which he presumably has some control, less than his wife’s.

  55. I guess I did create some confusion by mixing in several topics under one subject. The comment about infant mortality and sexual frequency didn’t have anything to do with female reluctance, but with concerns about the Earth’s carrying capacity. If couples had an average of four children, the population would double every generation. No matter what the limit on how many people the Earth can support–ten or one hundred times the current population even–with an exponential increase, one would hit that limit very quickly. The equilibrium point would be when the world is crowded enough that couples can only afford two children on average. It is often pointed out that overpopulation is not turning out to be the problem we once thought it would be. Fertility rates have dropped precipitously throughout the non-African world. But that’s only because of the massive use of sinful means to frustrate conception (or frustrate birth). It’s important that we’re able to argue that, if the world were to suddenly repent and convert to orthodox Catholicism, that wouldn’t create a crisis. My answer to this challenge, is that, in such a world, most couples would be abstinent or on NFP most of the time. Morticia has argued that we should colonize space instead. That may sound fanciful, but it’s at least an acknowledgement of the issue and an attempt to answer it.

  56. I grew up on the Space Coast of Florida… I could see the shuttle go up from my house. My grandmother worked for NASA and most of my friends fathers were in some way employed through the space program. To me..space exploration with the intent to colonize isn’t “fanciful” at all but rather just good common sense. You don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

    I do think that we have plenty of time til we get to that point though..especially now that we are creating better and better technology for food production. If we can grow good food in sky scrapers then we don’t need large plots of land devoted to it.

  57. “To me..space exploration with the intent to colonize isn’t “fanciful” at all ”
    Well, it is to me, Paige. Fanciful indulgence, I’d call it.

    What was achieved by putting man on the moon in 1969? Just a goodly amount of back slapping, nothing else.

    What a complete and utter waste of money. Not to mention loss of lives.

    Look at the the space shuttle explosions. Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003. Each had seven crew members all killed. shakes head. And all for the glorification of mankind.. Nothing to do with God..

    It was a traversty. That money could have been spent for the betterment of mankind. Perhaps we would have had a cure for cancer, by now. Helped feed the starving poor of the world by focusing on better farming tecniques etc..

    Instead huge amounts of money were squandered for little return.

    The focus should have been on the planet we already inhabit.

    Btw, have you had the baby yet, Paige? :)

  58. Due in December.

    There are all things that can go wrong here on planet earth. Besides it getting overpopulated in a few hundred years we could also be faced with a meteor and various other natural disasters.

    I also think that space exploration does honor God.

    There might be a good argument for not subsidizing space travel, but why not have private enterprise do it? It is there money to do what they want with.

    Here is some stuff about the economics of space travel:

    http://www.freakonomics.com/2008/01/11/is-space-exploration-worth-the-cost-a-freakonomics-quorum/

    Here are some of the technologies that the space program helped produce:

    Throughout its 40-year history, our space program has set goals that required innovation and technology yet to be developed, and the results have been astonishing. Miniaturized integrated circuits, satellite technology, GPS navigation systems, bone-density measurements, miniaturized heart pumps and other technologies derived from NASA research and development have saved and improved our lives. New spin-offs include water filtration systems that turn wastewater into drinkable water, wireless light switches, remediation solutions for sites contaminated by chemicals, the development of Liquidmetal and sensors on reconnaissance robots used in Afghanistan and Iraq to deal with improvised explosive devices. The list goes on and on.

    from:

    http://thehill.com/special-reports/technology-july-2009/50201-numerous-benefits-of-space-exploration

  59. I myself am particularly excited about NASA’s unmanned space exploration and astronomy program, which has done far more to advance human knowledge than manned space flight. I’d trade a base on Mars for a space-based gravitational wave observatory and a terrestrial planet-finder, for example.

    Space colonization would presumably eliminate the (remote) danger to humanity of extinction-level disasters on Earth. It can’t permanently eliminate overpopulation because of Malthus’ main insight: an exponential curve will eventually overtake any power law. Even if mankind could assimilate all the matter it contacted, its amount of raw material could only increase like time to the third power (imagining the human empire as sphere expanding at the speed of light).

    I admit that it’s hard to rationally justify the Apollo manned moon missions. If I’d been in Congress at the time, I would probably have voted against it. But I’m very glad that the actual congressmen in the sixties thought differently. The pyramids and cathedrals are also hard to justify rationally; the lunar program was our cathedral, a gift to all future generations, who will get the exhilarating knowledge that men have walked on the moon.

  60. “I also think that space exploration does honor God. ”

    How so?

    Did you think that the race between the Russians and the Americans to put a man on the moon had anything to do with honoring God?

    In any case there can be no justification for the billions upon billions of dollars wasted on space programs. GPS, bone density measurements, and other technologies and MUCH more could easily have been developed without a space program.

    Call me a cynic, Bonald , but as for man landing on the moon, it’s like your favourite football team winning the grand final. A momentary feeling of elation..
    But in the scheme of things it don’t amount to a hill of beans. :)

  61. “The pyramids and cathedrals are also hard to justify rationally;”

    Not the Cathedrals. The beautiful artwork, statues and stained glass windows depicted God, Our Lady and the Angels and Saints. Inspiring stuff, compared to the bare and sterile modern Churches, where people disrespectfully talk amongst themselves prior to and after mass.

    These beautiful awe inspiring Cathedrals, that were indeed built to honor God and his creations, were indeed instrumental in aiding in contemplation and prayer, and increasing fervour. Back in those days, people were respectful and silent, too. ;)

  62. [...] honest–for academic writing–ruminations on sexual economics.  I’ve also raised the issue before.)  In today’s perverse world, it’s actually easier to get laid outside of marriage [...]

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