Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Catholicism and the "Modern Notion" of Consent

So bear with me. There's this "modern notion of consent" that we've seen some objections to, the one that had been given in the book Yes Means Yes, a group of feminist essays about dismantling cultures which aid and abet rape. In particular it seemed to run up against understandings about what it meant for a husband and wife to have a 'marriage debt' to each other. And a few weeks ago I finally got it formulated for myself as to what I don't like about the modern notion with respect to the Christian view of marriage. (In particular, a feminist friend of mine, and Eric, and others, have all served as sounding boards for my formulations.) I'm going to pull pretty heavily from commenters Eric, Nick and CJ to try and establish certain points. So enjoy.

Eric had said:
Your first question was what I meant by saying there is no analogy between modern "consentual sex" and marriage. I said this because your first post had a comment along the lines of "I would agree to such-and-such a statement in the book, provided its in the context of marriage." If you look up "marriage debt" you will see why there is no analogy.
The statement you're speaking of, I believe, is:
Obviously my stipulations about the proper and moral context of this initiative differ from that of secular feminism, but within a marital framework, if we truly consider the husband and wife equal in dignity, regardless of whether we're complementarians or egalitarians, is there any good reason not to treat the two as having an equal weight not only in consenting to their bodily union, which the serious thinkers on the subject in the Christian tradition has already taken seriously, but also in initiating it, in asking for that special bodily intimacy?
I need to write shorter sentences. I'm going to "trim the fat" a little, but I'm leaving the original there in case I trimmed something essential by mistake. (Please, someone let me know if I trimmed something essential.
[W]ithin a marital framework, if we truly consider the husband and wife equal in dignity [...] is there any good reason not to treat the two as having an equal weight not only in consenting to their bodily union [...] but also in initiating it, in asking for that special bodily intimacy?
I am in agreement that the modern notion of consent can't be applied here. Perhaps I spoke hastily or was slightly mis-phrased. What I do maintain is that reading Paul's injunction that a couple not deprive each other except by mutual consent does not imply that persons must, whenever asked, consent, except for the reasons Aquinas lists. Aquinas obviously has some major concerns about concupiscience--concerns with no small reason--but seems to overstate the case. The natural reading of the text seems to me, again, a guy with no Greek lexicon, to indicate that a marriage ought to have a healthy sex life unless there's some reason not to--not that every request must be met unless there's some reason not to. That said, I definitely don't think it's good for 'deprivation' to last longer than a few days without mutual consent; at that point I'd call it borderline; much further and I'd be willing to go as far as sin. I will say I think it's more important that two persons in a marriage have the same understanding of marriage debt, and that this understanding be consistently applied regardless of gender, than that every person who calls themselves Christian or Catholic has that same understanding. That is where I draw the line; if there is still disagreement, we will have to agree to disagree about this.

Now Nick had written, regarding the modern notions of consent:
The modern notion of consent operates in this framework: "You can only *use* me when *I* gain something from that *use*". That's prostitution. Pope Leo XIII called it "legalized concubinage."
I actually agree with what Nick is saying about the modern notions of consent; they do seem to (mostly) boil down to a mutual use. I think one big concern of the Yes Means Yes people is to correct hatever imbalances there might be in perceptions of the importance of male vs. female enjoyment of the act itself. That in itself is fine. I should hope the Church doesn't teach that one is more important than the other. And I don't at all think it would be Christian or loving to be unconcerned with how much one's spouse enjoys having sex. As a general pattern it does seem like the ideal presented by the Yes Means Yes crowd veers more in the direction of consenting mostly if not almost only when one is seeking pleasure. I should note that nowhere in the book have I actually read that said--but the overall tone suggests that consensual and pleasure-seeking sex is the ideal. And I sort of agree with them on that, but not really. I'll get back to that.

Nick went on to say:
The Catholic notion of "consent" (so-called) operates in different framework: "Through Charity (in which *I* love God and neighbor selflessly), *I* give myself to *You* in order that *You* grow in holiness and maturity as Spouse." (1 Cor 7, esp v3-5) Now, in a fallen world this is not easy for most of us, but it's a clear ideal, which the One True Church promotes and guards.
Yes. This goes along with what CJ had said in his response to Eric:
[S]ex within marriage must be understood [...] active consent, while not getting us all the way there, does reclaim some of that essence. It is an active giving and an active receiving. Yes, there is a marriage debt. But that marriage debt in light of the Christian Gospel is not to be fulfilled in the way we view, say, the ten commandments. These are, in fact, marriage debts owed by Christ's Church, his bride. But she is not to fulfill them because she has to, but because she wants to.
I actually agree with this, for certain definitions of "want." Of course forcing someone to go to Mass and take communion against their will would be wrong, but to convince them to will such so even if they didn't particularly desire it would not be. I definitely don't want to do service when I do in the sense of actively desiring it, but I do in the sense that I actively will it. Clearly there is a space in which we can will something, without wanting it in the colloquial sense, though in the sense of going to Mass or making love with our spouses desiring it is certainly the ideal.

So, as I see it, the things that are wrong with the 'modern notion' of consent seem to be:

1) It's tied up too much with seeking of pleasure in a hedonistic sense.
2) It does not, at least not prima facie, allow for consent to a reasonable sexual life with another person in the future.

So the overall tone of YMY, as I said above--and I have said this, and I may be wrong--but to me it suggests that consensual and pleasure-seeking sex is the ideal. And like I said, I sort of agree. I agree if we mean the pleasure of contemplating God, the pleasure of the proper union of spouses, the pleasure of two persons given to each other in Christ. In other words, pleasures that transcend the hedonistic. As for criticism (2), consent seems very much an immediate and for-the-moment thing in modern thought, and there is truth to this; a lack of consent for a sexual act makes it wrong. But in Christian marriage there is a sort of implied consent which does not imply one's consent whenever asked, but more of an agreement not to deprive one's partner of that facet of the relationship; there does seem to be an implicit agreement that one will consent in the future, sometimes, but not all of the time.

So with all of this in mind--here's my moral heirarchy. Here's what I'd call "good, passable, ehn, bad, worse, abhorrent" with respect to different uses or misuses of the 'marriage act'--specifically, here, the act within the Christian context of marriage. I think this does apply more or less to other marriage as well, but I can only claim to speak most fully about what I see as the ideal coming from my perspective as a Catholic.

Good: Husband and wife with a healthy sex life, because they want (desire) to have one.
Passable: The same, but because they want (will) to have one.
Ehn: The same, but just to pay their marriage debt. So, really, probably not as healthy as it could be.
Bad: Either a lack of sex that constitutes "deprivation" on the part of one partner or the other, without mutual consent for prayer. Here's where we cross the line into sin, as we've clearly violated a Scriptural mandate. (Again, I can't know for each couple when this line is crossed.)
Worse: Coercion on the part of one partner or the other under threat of sin.
Abhorrent: Marital rape.

I'm not sure if there's a giant difference between my descriptions for "passable" and "ehn." So I'm not sure exactly how else I'd construct Christian marital consent; obviously this was not a rigorous process for me, and quite frankly I don't know if it's something I want to try and construct with much more rigor unless I find myself breaking into academia and studying Catholic sexual ethics as part of my living. So there it is, for now at least.

Anyway, Hope you all have enjoyed this ride as much as me. Comments as usual are welcome. This will probably be the last Yes Means Yes post for quite awhile.

5 comments:

Rachel said...

Could you clarify what you mean in your "Worse" scenario? I would like to understand more clearly how it differs from both "Bad" and marital rape

Dan Lower / KKairos said...

"Bad": A case in which there is no act being coerced because there is no act, period.
"Worse": Coercion which is not physically violent and does not fit the definition of rape.
"Abhorrent": Coercion which is physically violent or fits the definition of rape.

For the record, my working definition of rape is the one from To Kill a Mockingbird "carnal knowledge of [another person] without consent." Obviously getting into the topic of coercion or pressuring, we'd want a more rigorous definition (of consent, rape or both), but that's what I have going in. (I do think coercion is wrong even if it does not everywhere and always amount to rape; hence spirituality-based coercion is in the "worse" category.) But what I said in this comment about those categories roughly corresponds to what I was thinking when I finished the post.

EricBrooks said...

I assume you already know that I did not, nor as far as I know do any teachings on the marriage debt, suggest that one spouse tyrannically demanding sex from the other is any sort of ideal, or that only those specific exceptions listed by Thomas are relevant. C.J. has a point. Ideally this ought to be done according to Charity, but it's not like the debt simply disappears if it's not done according to Charity. Ideally all laws are fulfilled by Charity. Ideally you won't steal because you are motivated by Charity, but you still shouldn't steal even if all you can manage is fear of punishment. Likewise spouses have duties to one another even if they are not motivated by divine Charity in their fulfillment, even if it is not always consentual in the sense of both spouses being "in the mood" as they say.

The main problem I see with your hierarchy is the lack of a definition of "healthy sex life." Usually when people use this phrase they mean something like "having sex frequently and enjoying it a lot." That's what it seems to mean in popular usage, and I've certainly heard this put forward as an ideal by the "all couples should use NFP all the time crowd," but I really see no reason why it should be seen as an ideal. In fact, I think it's quite normal for couples not to have sex much after a certain "honeymoon" phase wears off. Of course, the modern "sexperts" will tell you this is a crisis and you have to do a million stupid tricks to re-ignite your sex life, and I know I've heard Catholic speakers suggest much the same thing in a somewhat less filthy way. In reality I think it is often a sign of a maturing love rather than a fading love, of a marriage that is coming to be based less on the passions. If "healthy sex life" means frequent enjoyable sex, then we must say spouses should never mature beyong a relationship based in the passions, whereas they should. All people are called to conquer their passions. Sexual pleasure may in some ways connect to deeper feelings than other bodily pleasures, and because it is connected to love and procreation it has a high symbolic value, but we should keep in mind that it is a bodily pleasure we are talking about and not some sort of pseudo-sacrament. If you have some evidence that Catholic tradition tells us that the frequent enjoyment of bodily pleasure is the foundation of a sound marriage, I'd like to see it. As it is, the more usual teaching which can be found all over the place is that procreation is the primary end, and pleasure has use primarily as a release from concupiscence (like when Paul says marriage is for those who cannot live like him, that it is better to marry than to burn). Rather than the gospel of the great Catholic sex life, I think we would do much better to remind each other that genital pleasure, like all bodily pleasures, is a passing thing, something we ought to work to overcome in our taming of the passions, and certainly not something we should spend all our time obsessing over. I've had enough of Christians trying to sell marriage by saying it's good for one's sex life. That is simply not what marriage is about.

I don't know what you mean by "healthy sex life," so I'm just going off about what it ought to mean, and the common meaning which I feel should be avoided.

There's lots of talk nowadays about sex in marriage being "self-giving," and doubtless there's something to this, but intercourse is simply not the fulfillment of the love of Christ which is commanded of husbands for wives. We cannot realize this love by preaching the healthy sex-life, but by preaching freedom from slavery to the passions. My guess is that spouses in healthy marriages are concerned about sex and a healthy sex life less than a fifth as much as theologians whose minds are dominated by questions of intercourse and genital pleasure. Must theologians buy into the sex-centric worldview of post-Freudian civilization?

Dan Lower / KKairos said...

When I say healthy, you may assume that here on out I mean "morally sound"--some of the notion of often and enjoyable made its way into what I said, but (a) I don't necessarily think it's wrong for a couple to want a marriage which is aesthetically pleasing on multiple levels, so long as this desire is kept proportionate to reason and (b) when I said "healthy" I was thinking more in the sense of being existent at all than in the sense of being really really enjoyable. Baseline--what "healthy sex life" to me means, is "one that exists in a way that does not violate the Pauline injunction not to deprive each other except by mutual consent."

I assume you already know that I did not, nor as far as I know do any teachings on the marriage debt, suggest that one spouse tyrannically demanding sex from the other is any sort of ideal, or that only those specific exceptions listed by Thomas are relevant.

On "any sort of ideal"--I knew you would think any such monstrosity far from ideal. On "exceptions listed by Thomas"--I didn't think his list was really too unreasonable, so I actually didn't know one way or the other, but I wouldn't have been surprised if that had basically been your list.

Likewise spouses have duties to one another even if they are not motivated by divine Charity in their fulfillment, even if it is not always consentual in the sense of both spouses being "in the mood" as they say.

That's the biggest problem with the modern notion; there's too much of an attitude that says--and this is something I picked up on as a general attitude, not as a hard and fast rule--"don't consent without a seeking of pleasure.

Of course, the modern "sexperts" will tell you this is a crisis and you have to do a million stupid tricks to re-ignite your sex life, and I know I've heard Catholic speakers suggest much the same thing in a somewhat less filthy way.

Really? Which ones? I really am curious. I mean I could guess at a few, and I know some Protestant pastors have said some things which seem along those lines. But I am curious about which Catholics. I am also curious who this always-use-NFP crowd is...I don't know if I've quite encountered them on the internet or elsewhere.

I've had enough of Christians trying to sell marriage by saying it's good for one's sex life. That is simply not what marriage is about.

intercourse is simply not the fulfillment of the love of Christ which is commanded of husbands for wives.

I agree--if we read the relevant passages as literally as possible the ultimate fulfillment of this love would be a willingness to be crucified for the sake of one's wife (which seems to me about right.) Even if it's not so literal as Crucifixion but only death, I still agree.

Must theologians buy into the sex-centric worldview of post-Freudian civilization?

No.

Finally I do think it's relevant to talk about aesthetic and 'lower' pleasures and how marriage puts them in their proper proportion and makes them better by giving them a morally satisfying context, and that it can be beneficial to use this contrast between the pleasures of being married and the pleasures of an unmarried sexual relationship as a pointer to God's ultimate plan for all things, including sexuality and human romantic relationships. Now of course that can't be our whole tack, because as you pointed out, sex isn't the point of marriage. But it can still be helpful. I think the bigger challenge in the culture today might rather be trying to explain why children are important to marriage and that there is some natural link between sexuality and fertility that shouldn't be broken, and trying to explain how Christian marriage transcends being an acceptable framework for sex.

M.A. Schmitz said...

I would like to point out that when it is not reduced to physical pleasure, sex within marriage is pseudo-sacramental, precisely because sex is the consummation of the marriage covenant. And thus its repeating is a renewal of the marriage covenant. (though some indeed take that a bit too far)

For St. Thomas, a person who sought sexual intercourse with their spouse in order to avoid unchastity, would be guilty of a venial sin (unless both spouses submit to each other as a mutual rendering of the debt) (In sent. 4, d.31, q.2, a.2; ST, sup., q.49, a.5). In other words, a unilateral demand to fulfill the marriage debt can be sinful on the part of the seeker.

To quote one of the good moral theologians of today, "Like all other affirmative obligations, this one [obligation to engage in marital intercourse] has limits, and it must be understood correctly. Nobody can have an obligation to do what is wrong, and so there is no obligation to cooperate in intercourse if the couple morally ought to abstain, whether to avoid pregnancy or for some other reason. Again, the obligation is to engage in marital intercourse, and so there is no obligation to cooperate if contraception is used, or if one's spouse cannot engage in a human act [ie. is drunk of otherwise incapable of making a moral act]...If either party wishes for any reason not to have marital intercourse, the other manifests love and strengthens marital communion by complying with that wish, and so should abstain without resentment. At the same time, not every reason for abstaining is so morally compelling that it would be wrong for the couple to have marital intercourse if both are willing." (Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus, Vol. 2, Living a Christian Life, 640) He goes on to say that 'unreasonable' refusal is grave matter.

In an earlier section, Grisez talks about the fact that not all instances of intercourse between married people constitute a marital act. No one is obligated to consent to an act that will not be in fact, a marital act, ie., one that expresses and fosters conjugal love. (Grisez, 634)

If one is in a state where the act would be sinful, and thus less than marital, such as the case of wanting to use the other precisely for sexual pleasure, thus hurting the communion of persons and damaging the good of the marriage, the other indeed has a positive obligation to refuse.

Post a Comment

Feel free to join the conversation!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.