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Grace J. WojdakOctober 12, 2023
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When we talk about consent in the context of sexual relationships, we are referring to the moral principle that any and all sexual contact must be freely chosen and welcomed by both partners. But isn’t consent merely something that the secular world cares about? Not so. Consent is the fundamental prerequisite for sex to be unitive, just as openness to life is the fundamental prerequisite condition for sex to be procreative. And both should matter deeply to Catholics.

Despite their conspicuous absence from much of the Catholic discourse, discussions around consent should become a commonplace feature of Catholic conversations about sexual ethics. They can serve especially as a corrective to the harmful use of “marital debt” rhetoric within Catholic culture.

What are we to make of the confusion within Catholic culture about whether spouses’ ability to give or withhold their consent is fully retained within marriage?

Consent should have a prominent place within the Catholic Church’s traditional elaboration of sexual morality; implicitly, it already does. In the 1960s, the world was waiting for the church to respond to the larger cultural conversation about contraception after the development of “the pill” in the 1950s. To aid in the magisterial deliberations on this issue (which ultimately culminated in the encyclical “Humanae Vitae”), Pope Paul VI appointed a commission of bishops, cardinals and theologians (including lay participants) who considered the matter in depth and then put it to a vote. When the majority of votes were cast in favor of changing the church’s teaching to allow contraception, two opposing reports were written and submitted to the pope. As Michael Lawler recounts in Marriage and the Catholic Church: Disputed Questions:

The minority report, which became the controverted part of the encyclical, argued that “each and every marriage act [quilibet matrimonii actus] must remain open to the transmission of life.” The majority report argued that it is marriage itself (matrimonium ipsum), not “each and every marriage act,” that is to be open to the transmission of life.

The pope famously sided with the minority position and determined that the church should “not repudiate its long-standing teaching on contraception,” leading to the doctrinal proclamation that the procreative dimension of sex must indeed be honored and upheld in “each and every marital act,” not merely in the marriage itself. Catholic couples were therefore exhorted never to consider contraception as a viable option for spacing births within their marriages.

This ruling about “each and every marital act” has important implications for our understanding of the inherently unitive nature of sexual acts, in addition to clarifying the proper disposition toward procreation in each and every marital act. Consider this ruling in light of the theology of sex presented in “Humanae Vitae”:

This particular doctrine, often expounded by the magisterium of the Church, is based on the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act.

Since there are two inseparable ends or purposes of sex (the procreative and the unitive), and since openness to the procreative end pertains to each and every marital act (not simply to the marriage in general), it follows that each and every marital act—and not simply the marriage as a whole or marital consent considered abstractly—ought also to be unitive. This means that according to church teaching, each and every instance of non-unitive sex (even if it occurs within the context of a loving marriage or a generally unitive sex life), ought to be condemned as sinful and wrong—just as a single instance of contraceptive sex would be considered sinful and wrong.

In basic terms, this means asking first and always accepting a “no,” if that is the answer one receives.

Sex as Reciprocal Self-giving

Could a non-consensual marital act, or sex that one or both spouses have not freely chosen, ever be a means toward greater unity between husband and wife? I would unequivocally answer in the negative. Sex without free consent could never be unitive. This conclusion becomes self-evident, especially when considering that the Pontifical Council for the Family defines the unitive end of sex as “the reciprocal self-giving of the spouses.” Freely given consent from both partners would seem to be the most basic requirement for any instance of sex to be truly unitive.

In other words, consent is a necessary (but perhaps not sufficient) condition for any instance of sex to be unitive. Therefore, joining this conclusion to the moral injunction above (regarding each and every marital act), I would contend that any instance of sex that occurs without the full and free consent of both partners is gravely sinful—an instance of marital rape.

This conclusion lends great weight to the central place of consent in any properly Catholic sexual ethic. And it inspires the conviction that we must foster a richer dialogue about the importance of sexual consent in Catholic culture.

In light of the doctrinal importance of consent, what are we to make of the confusion within Catholic culture about whether spouses’ ability to give or withhold their consent is fully retained within marriage? Part of this confusion is due to the promotion among a small but vocal minority in the church of the notion that a spouse’s free will might instead be overridden by “the marital debt.” One example occurs in a recent book entitled Ask Your Husband: A Guide to Catholic Femininity, in which the author, Stephanie Gordon, suggests that “according to St. Thomas, the wife assumes mortal sin upon her soul for denying what is rightly owed to her husband” unless she has “a legitimate reason,” giving moreover no real indication of what exactly (outside serious illness), might constitute such a “legitimate reason.”

Ms. Gordon claims that married persons “made promises before God to dedicate their bodies to their spouses for the marital debt,” and she elaborates in a footnote that “marital debt, also known as conjugal debt, is the sexual obligation one spouse owes to the other.”

This kind of rhetoric is not only misleading; it is downright dangerous. And it is taken seriously by a growing ultra-conservative movement within the church. Both Ms. Gordon and her husband are published authors within this sphere. Timothy Gordon wrote a book titled The Case for Patriarchy. The Gordons urge Catholic couples to join the movement they represent, and to embrace their ideology on such matters as “the marital debt.”

The picture they paint is one of control and entitlement within marriage, holding up a distortion as though it were the ideal. For them, a man’s wife is not seen in light of her God-given freedom and personal dignity, but rather under the degrading light of ownership, as if she were a kind of property to be invoked at will. This is dehumanizing and wrong. And it is a far cry from “the reciprocal self-giving of the spouses.”

Whatever its form, coercion leads to sexual contact that is unwanted or unwelcome, and it is always wrong. This fact is upheld by both the sacred and secular rule of law.

Although proponents of this understanding of spousal relationship tout their unique fidelity to Catholic teaching, their ideology is antithetical to what is expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is utterly incompatible with relating to one’s spouse respectfully as a moral agent on equal footing, capable of the very act of self-gift in which spouses are called to participate.

In real life, couples who practice a fertility awareness method as an alternative to contraception will choose to abstain from sex during fertile periods whenever they are not open to the possibility of procreation. What is needed, then, is simply to extend this principle to encompass the inseparable unitive end of sex as well. This would mean choosing to abstain from sex whenever full and free consent is lacking.

The marriage vows (or consent) pronounced by the couple on their wedding day are not a one-and-done pronouncement guaranteeing that the spouses will have access to each other’s bodies for sex anytime, anywhere, no matter what. As Pope Paul VI confirmed, considerations of sexual morality pertain to the essence of each individual marital act, not to the marriage in general.

And recall that each and every marital act must be unitive—so each instance must be weighed on its own merits and circumstances—and that without consent, unitive sex is utterly impossible.

Consequently, since both spouses are morally obligated to uphold the unitive nature of sex, both spouses must truly respect each other’s personal freedom to give or withhold consent each and every time they wish to have sex. In basic terms, this means asking first and always accepting a “no,” if that is the answer one receives.

If a husband insists upon sex without his wife’s consent even once, he sins against justice, against charity, against his wife’s spiritual and bodily freedom and integrity, and against the very nature of sex and marriage.

Coercion Is a Crime

In marriage, both spouses retain their God-given right to say no to sex, and neither has the right to force the other into sex against their will. So spouses need not feel pressured to have sex whenever their partner asks. Again, from “Humanae Vitae”:

Men rightly observe that a conjugal act imposed on one’s partner without regard to his or her condition or personal and reasonable wishes in the matter, is no true act of love, and therefore offends the moral order in its particular application to the intimate relationship of husband and wife.

Sometimes coercion is overt and obvious, as in the case of physically overpowering someone. But it can often appear in any number of more subtle forms, such as not asking for consent in the first place, ignoring someone’s verbal refusals or physical resistance, making threats, pressuring, manipulating (whether emotionally or physically) or claiming false ownership over someone else’s body, as if it were a possession.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of coercive tactics. Whatever its form, coercion leads to sexual contact that is unwanted or unwelcome, and it is always wrong. This fact is upheld by both the sacred and secular rule of law. If anyone ever pressures a spouse into any kind of sexual contact, whether through subtle or overt coercion, this likely constitutes sexual assault. This is serious, and it should always be taken very seriously. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us (No. 2356):

Rape is the forcible violation of the sexual intimacy of another person. It does injury to justice and charity. Rape deeply wounds the respect, freedom, and physical and moral integrity to which every person has a right. It causes grave damage that can mark the victim for life. It is always an intrinsically evil act.

If consent is a basic prerequisite for good, unitive sex, then any violation of consent constitutes sex that is non-unitive and therefore morally wrong. In common parlance we refer to these kinds of evil acts as “sexual coercion” or “rape.” And we should do so in discussions about Catholic morality, too. Again, juxtaposing this issue to the more commonly discussed sanctity of procreation: Just as we consider the ultimate offense against the procreative end to be abortion, the ultimate offense against the unitive end of sex is rape.

To give an illustration: If a husband insists upon sex without his wife’s consent even once, he is guilty of serious sin. He sins against justice, against charity, against his wife’s spiritual and bodily freedom and integrity, and against the very nature of sex and marriage. Therefore, if a husband wants sex and his wife does not, and she says no to his request but nevertheless he coerces her into a sexual experience without her consent, he is guilty of the “intrinsically evil act” of marital rape.

Lest anyone mistakenly object that I am making too much of the problem, consider the alarming incidence of marital rape in the United States: “Approximately 10 to 14 percent of married women are raped by their husbands,” and “approximately one third of women report having ‘unwanted sex’ with their partner,” according to a study in 2006 by Raquel Kennedy Bergen and Elizabeth Barnhill. Further, “women who are raped by their husbands are likely to be raped many times—often 20 or more times.”

In response to the disturbing prevalence of marital rape, the Catholic Church should make frequent use of its public voice to decry the evil of sexual coercion and treat it as an affront to the unitive end of sex. This can help to dispel any confusion about the integrity of spouses’ free will, which has been unfortunately created by harmful deployment of “marital debt” language, and to explicitly and continually re-assert the absolute necessity of freely given consent in all sexual encounters—without exception.

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