Wednesday, 1 February 2012

A strange silence...

A few days ago, I wrote a post about my understanding of marital consent, and the use of the word ‘rape’ in that context.

I went to some lengths to point out that:

a) it was my understanding, and if faulty I was open to correction;  (I wrote: My point is very specific: as I understand it, (and of course I am open to correction if I have misunderstood)

b) I was not in any way condoning any behaviour in marriage that falls short of a very high standard of charity (for example, I wrote: Use of threats, force or violence in that context are  sinful, and also may well be criminal.)

A number of people have reacted very strongly to that post.  Some have misread or misunderstood it and then denounced me, some publicly and some privately, for ‘condoning rape’.  I had thought that I had made it quite clear that I was doing nothing of the sort.

Some seem to have read it more carefully and said it is wrong.

Nobody has told me why it is wrong.

The nearest I have had to any explanation of that view is that ‘it is even worse in marriage’ and that I risk ‘giving some men the idea that they can force their wives into sex.’

Neither of these wholly understandable objections address the issue I was raising.  It may be that I was imprudent in raising the issue at all, of course, but that is different from my understanding being wrong.
The question I still have is: is one of the undertakings of the marriage vows the total self-giving of the body to the other in all things not inconsistent with Christian piety,’ as Trent has it.

The background to my understanding is that this is what I was taught at an early age: to be honest I don’t even remember by whom or when.  It has always been part of my understanding of marriage.  Given that, I then look at things like the Catechism of the Council of Trent, and find sentences that seem to point to the same idea: that the gift of each to the other, specifically of their body, is at the heart of the marital covenant: the marriage contract is not a mere promise, but a transfer of right, by which the man actually yields the dominion of his body to the woman, the woman the dominion of her body to the man.

Now as with all Church teaching, one must not take a single line as a proof text and build too much on it.  Trent also says: ‘marriage is not to be used for purposes of lust or sensuality, but that its use is to be restrained within those limits which, as we have already shown, have been fixed by the Lord. It should be remembered that the Apostle admonishes: They that have wives, let them be as though they had them not, and that St. Jerome says: The love which a wise man cherishes towards his wife is the result of judgment, not the impulse of passion; he governs the impetuosity of desire, and is not hurried into indulgence. There is nothing more shameful than that a husband should love his wife as an adulteress.

I hope that I expressed that part of the teaching when I wrote:  Indeed, the standards of love expected of either spouse are very high indeed: husbands must be prepared to give their lives, not just sacrifice their lust, for the love of their wives.  Wives, likewise, must love their husbands.

Clearly, if I am wrong in this, it is a serious misunderstanding. As I say, I am open to correction on this, as on anything I write. Some while ago I wrote about the dangers of making absolute truth claims.  The only truth-claim I made for that post was that it was my understanding of Catholic teaching: and that was true.

UPDATE: see subsequent post


Part-time Pilgrim said...


I was going to try to expand on my rather colourful (and perhaps unhelpful) metaphor in response to your last post but I don't think I could say anything as erudite and accurate as Vincent. I too will think further on what he has posted

Vincent said...

I think you are basically correct that the Church believes marriage to involve the transfer of the ius in corpus. However, that does not completely address the issue which you seemed to ask, “is rape in marriage possible?”.

Firstly, the Church knows that her definition of marriage is not universally accepted or understood. Marriages are declared null in Church tribunals due to the failure to properly transfer the ius in corpus; usually because one or both of the parties was really thinking “I retain the ability to revoke the right to the sexual act, at a time of my own choosing”. Surely, in a civil legal marriage in which the ius in corpus had not been properly transferred in this way, perpetual consent would not have been intended to be given, and therefore rape is possible?

Secondly, I do not think that the ius in corpus must include 24/7 availability. Rotal jurisprudence has held that the limitation of the right to sexual acts at certain times e.g. illness does not vitiate matrimonial consent. Even if sexual refusal in a certain case is sinful, that does not necessarily legitimise forceful attempts to redress the situation. Theft is wrong; that does not mean we can always use violence to get our property back.

Thirdly, there is the jurisprudence and theology surrounding ratum sed non consummatummarriages. This refers to the power of the Roman Pontiff alone to dissolve the bond of a sacramental but non-consummated marriage, whereas a marriage ratum et consummatum is dissoluble by no human power; only death. For many years the question was debated whether or not sexual intercourse with violence or against protests (i.e. rape, by most people’s understanding of the word) could qualify as the consummation needed to make a marriage extrinsically indissoluble. The 1983 Code of Canon Law settled this question by requiring the act to be performed humano modo i.e. with the voluntary consent of both parties. This interpretation of humano modo is supported by the December 20th 1986 circular letter of the Congregation for the Sacraments, which is itself pretty similar to a responsum ad dubium of the Holy Office of February 2nd 1949. The point of the diversion is this: the Church makes provison for for the possibility of non-consensual sexual intercourse as early as the wedding night. Furthermore, it judges that such non-consensual intercourse is apparently not the object of the consent to ius in corpus exchanged in marriage.

Finally, trying a different tack, let’s look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church. 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.” or “Stuprum ingressum indicat per vim, cum violentia, in sexualem alicuius personae intimitatem...” Note that the definition is based on force or violece, not on ‘consent’. It seems to me that your argument against the existence of marital rape is based on a legalistic application of ‘presumed consent’, when consent – presumed or actual - is not part of the definition of rape.

As an aside, I think you are subconsciously mixing your modern and older understandings of marriage. Quoting the Council of Trent, you speak of the “marital covenant”. In fact, the idea of marriage as a covenant basically begins with Vatican II, at least for the Western Church.

All that said, I think you are correct to note the increasing trend to decouple marriage from sexual intercourse, which we see has resulted in the current epidemic of contraception, abortion, homosexual unions et cetera. Keep up the good work!

Ben Trovato said...


Thanks for this informative comment. I will think further on the implications of this...

Mark said...

"Some seem to have read it more carefully and said it is wrong.

Nobody has told me why it is wrong."

I daresay you saw my comment on James' blog, which didn't say why I thought you were wrong.

In my case it was ignorance - I only had the strong impression that you were barking up the wrong tree. I'm glad wiser heads than mine have been on the case.

Ben Trovato said...


That's fair enough - as indeed was your comment on James' blog. There were others more vociferous and less constructive...

And I am glad, too, that someone was around to help me think this through more thoroughly.

Vincent said...

I wonder if I might have been reading too much into the Catechism definition of rape. Was there a reason for defining it by force not consent, perhaps based on some moral theology or European legal history that I'm not aware of? Is it formulated that way for the very purpose of avoiding arguments over 'presumed consent'? Or is it not significant at all? Still, I think it's interesting enough to merit noting.

Ben Trovato said...


I don't think you made too much of it: it says what it says and was clearly very relevant to refuting my argument.

I don't think we need to double-guess why it was written the way it was written. What it says is actually very clear.

For what it's worth, I had looked in the CCC for anything it had to say about marital consent but had not looked up 'rape.' Had I done so, I could have saved you and me both a lot of time. However, it has been valuable for me - and possibly others - to have thought this through more thoroughly. Thanks once again for your contribution.

(I take it you have seen the follow-up post to this one...)