Why Christian couples ‘belong’ to each other and have a marital ‘debt’ to pay
The traditional language of “rights” or “debts” in marriage was criticized a great deal before and around the time of the Second Vatican Council and has all but disappeared from Catholic discourse. Nevertheless, it bears reexamination. For it is important to recognize, particularly in our times of confusion over indissolubility, that once a marriage comes into existence, something in each spouse belongs, by right, to the other, and no longer simply to oneself.
Consider the marriage vows: “I, N. (the sign of my identity), give myself to you, N., to be your lawfully wedded husband/wife…” The exchange is not a limited and retractable contract: it is uninhibited, irrevocable, selfless—the self is commended to the care of the other, I am no longer “my own business,” for I belong to the other, I am in some sense her possession. The spouses can make claims on each other because each has a true and conclusive right over the other. That is precisely the import of vows, as opposed to agreements, contracts, arrangements, alliances, liaisons, or flings.
A comparison with religious vows may be helpful. The woman who “enters religion,” as the saying goes, makes an irrevocable and unconditional vow to be spiritually wed to the Lord Jesus Christ; the man who enters religion vows to be wholly at His disposal and in His courtly service. This is no mere rainy-day fallback, but the consecration of one’s entire life to another.
That is why both marriage and religious life demand serious preparation, clear-sighted intention, constant labor and prayer for perseverance, and a full willingness to accept the yoke of the other “in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health,” in bright splendor or in dark nights.
“You are not your own”—this is the resplendent cry that bursts from the mouth of the Apostle (1 Cor 6:19). You, husband, and you, wife: you are not your own, you belong to each other, and you therefore owe each other everything. This owing of the debt extends itself naturally, spontaneously, and fittingly to the children, toward whom the parents incur responsibilities and from whom they receive the blessings of joy, support, and suffering: a real participation in the paschal mystery of Christ. Every member in the family belongs, in various ways, to every other. No one is only his own.
You are not your own. We incur an eternal debt to God simply in virtue of having been created from nothing by His wise and beneficent will. We owe Him our very being, because He makes us to be, He gives us the “act of being,” the flowing font of our personhood, the dynamic energy that constitutes us as real entities instead of possible ones. As if that wasn’t enough, He saves us: “you have been redeemed at a great price” (1 Cor 6:20).
Marriage is analogous to creation and redemption. God refashions the spouses as husband and wife through their freely-given vows, and in a mystery of one-many, once-always, the exercise of their separate wills brings about their union of life and love. Through the vows, the relationship (by which I mean their dependence on each other) passes from possibility to reality: it becomes a real being, no mere idea or fancy.
The married, although they do not acquire a sacramental character in the strict sense, are truly changed: their foundation has shifted from self to other, from isolation to communion. They acquire a new relation to another, rooted in their reason and will, by which they are newly constituted in the kingdom of God and in the domain of this world. So intimate is this relation that only death, the literal dissolution of one of the spouses, can put a temporal period to it. Yet inasmuch as the beatified soul of man bears within itself all that it has done within its vocation for the glory of God, the bond between spouses can continue in heaven—not as it exists on earth (cf. Mk 12:25), but in a transfigured higher state of perfect union that was only imperfectly realized in this life.
The foregoing helps to show why the physical union of man and woman makes sense only in the context of marriage. It is traditionally called the “marital (or nuptial) act” precisely because it is that act whereby the spiritual debt of the vows is symbolically and actually paid; it is the transient image of an enduring commitment, the momentary evidence of an ever-present intention to love and serve.
Without a vowed communion of souls, this act forfeits its meaning. Outside of marriage, the act undermines itself—it defeats its own higher purpose and becomes either a nihilistic ritual of which the more intelligent and artistic are bound to grow tired, or a bestial gesture without personal value. For there cannot be a uniting of bodies worthy of human persons unless there is a prior union of souls in the plighting of solemn vows, whereby man and woman bestow upon one another the exclusive right to each other—whereby they give themselves to each other. Anything else is self-contradictory, or worse, mediocre, what Nietzsche would call “half-and-half.”
The hearts of man and woman desire “deep, deep eternity” (Nietzsche again). Our hearts desire the Whole, and will not rest until we have the Whole. Marriage is a spiritual whole, a common good, made up of intrinsic parts: the husband and the wife. Remove the whole, and the parts dissolve, just as the hand loses its very substance when severed from the body, and remains a hand only equivocally. Damage the whole, take away the principle of the whole, and the parts perish, just as a human being dies when cut in half, or as the body decays when the soul departs.
A nuptial vow is the binding together of two spirits, so that their grace, peace, joy, and charity may overflow into and be reinforced by their bodily togetherness. The beauty of the inner act (two-persons-united-by-one-vow) redounds upon the beauty of the outer act (two-persons-in-one-flesh). The truth of the inner act precontains and magnifies the truth of the outer act. The goodness of the inner act purifies and illumines the outer act. This is another way in which it is true to say: “What God has joined together, let no one put asunder.”