On her Facebook page, Rose Sweet, who has a wonderful ministry to divorced Catholics, posted the troubling story of a woman whose husband was cheating on her. The couple’s pastor counseled the wife that her decision to place a moratorium on her sexual relationship with her husband as long as he was cheating on him actually placed an undue burden on her cheating husband and was driving him away further in part, because sex is a “right” of marriage.
A little clarification might be in order. Yes, according to the Church, sex is a “right” of marriage. But the Church defines “right” a little differently than the world does.
To say that sex is a “right” of marriage means that marriage is the right place for people to have sex. It does not mean you have a license to demand sex no matter what.
Marriage is the normative–that is, “right”–place for sexual love to be expressed between a man and a woman. Assuming a healthy, loving respectful relationship, this is true. It is also true, as St. John Paul observed that a couple who does not love, respect and cherish each other could very well commit the sin of adultery even in marriage by using each other as objects rather than loving each other as persons.
Assuming you have a healthy, loving, cherishing relationship, marriage is the right place for sexual love to be shared. If you don’t have that kind of marriage, then you have a right to stop having sex and start learning how to actually love each other.
Older texts on moral theology and canon law tend to use words like “right” and “marital debt” when discussing sex. These words are technical terms and taking them at face value can lead to a lot of problems.
Properly understood, referring to sex as a debt that husbands and wives owe to each other means that, in a loving marriage, loving spouses do not have a right to withhold sex from each other. As St Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 7:5
The husband should fulfill his duty toward his wife, and likewise the wife toward her husband. A wife does not have authority over her own body, but rather her husband, and similarly a husband does not have authority over his own body, but rather his wife. Do not deprive each other, except perhaps by mutual consent for a time, to be free for prayer, but then return to one another….
All of this means that marriage is the right place for sexual love to be expressed–assuming the couple is living their marriage as the Church defines it. Namely, as an “intimate partnership.” (c.f., Gaudium et Spes).
But there is a deeper debt the married couple owes to each other that precedes sexual union. They owe each other the love, respect, cherishing that characterized their dating relationship—the relationship that continues to serve as the foundation for their marriage. Sex, if you will, is the house that sits on this foundation of love, respect, and cherishing. If the “foundation” (love, respect, and cherishing) is bad, the “house” (sex) is unsafe to live in. Why? Because if love, respect, and cherishing are absent, sex stops being sex and becomes mere lust and using. Marriage is no place for lust and use.
No one has a right to abuse someone else. No one owes someone else the “debt” of using them.
To discover more about how you can live the Catholic vision of love and sex in ways that are healthy and fulfilling, check out Holy Sex: The Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving.