Marital Impurity-The Plight of the Suffering Spouse

    "I read your piece, and it is very fine indeed. -Fr. Stephen F. Torraco"

    This is an article that was written by a dear friend who is also a talented author.  She wanted me to spread this far and wide.  Due to the delicate nature of the topic, which is something she understands all too well, she asked that her name not be used.

    Contrary to what many have been led to believe, the Roman Catholic Church’s ban against the use of artificial birth control has never been lifted. Many, if not most Catholic pulpits across the United States remain eerily silent on the subject. Even in the Confessional, spiritual directives on marital chastity are often vague and ambiguous. Marriage preparation classes skirt the issue almost entirely; at best, they may offer a brief overview of Natural Family Planning, with no mention of the fact that is the couple’s only option (other than complete abstinence) for the spacing of births (if good and serious reasons arise, Humanae Vitae #16!) throughout the fertile years of their marriage.

    Despite this virtual “black out” on the Church’s adamant ban against the use of contraception, there are still Catholics, who by the Grace of God, have somehow been exposed to the fullness of Church teaching on marital chastity. Their consciences lead them to obediently abide by these teachings and they do so, often in scorn, by the general Catholic population. Still, they persevere, many having large families while the world looks upon them as outdated and ridiculous. The spouses find strength in their faith and in each other.

    Among this group of traditionally practicing Catholics, there is another population; silent and unseen, that carries a heavier burden; specifically, those who are saddened by marital impurity over which they have no control. It is no mystery, nor is it hard to fathom, that for some Catholics, the practice of marital chastity is very difficult, if not impossible, due to the demands of an un-cooperative, unbelieving spouse. Those who are faced with this seemingly impossible dilemma have suffered, sometimes for many years, in sorrow and shame. They may stay away from the sacraments month after month, guilt ridden and sorrowful, and in the worst case, may eventually end up leaving the Church entirely because the burden of guilt becomes too overwhelming.

    The Holy Spirit, in keeping with His divine promise to be with the Church until the end of time, has not abandoned those who suffer in marriage in this way. Seventy years ago, this subject was mentioned quite specifically in the Encyclical, Casti Cannubii, written by Pope Pius XI in 1930. This teaching has been largely forgotten and is virtually unknown by many who are in desperate need of its teachings. Following are pertinent excerpts relating to the plight of Catholic spouses who suffer with marital impurity.

    “Holy Mother Church knows well that not infrequently one of the parties is sinned against rather than sinning, when for a grave cause he or she reluctantly allows the perversion of the right order. In such a case, there is no sin, provided that, mindful of the law of charity, he or she does not neglect to seek to dissuade and to deter the partner from sin…For in matrimony as well as in the use of the matrimonial rights there are also secondary ends, such as mutual aid, the cultivating of mutual love, and the quieting of concupiscence which husband and wife are not forbidden to consider so long as they are subordinated to the primary end and so long as the intrinsic nature of the act is preserved.

    The Holy Father continued with these words of loving, spiritual guidance:
    “We are deeply touched by the sufferings of those parents who, in extreme want, experience great difficulty in rearing their children. However, they should take care lest the calamitous state of their external affairs should be the occasion for a much more calamitous error. No difficulty can arise that justifies the putting aside of the law of God which forbids all acts intrinsically evil… There is no possible circumstance in which husband and wife cannot, strengthened by the grace of God, fulfill faithfully their duties and preserve in wedlock their chastity unspotted. God does not ask the impossible, but by His commands, instructs you to do what you are able, to pray for what you are not able that He may help you."

    For a clearer understanding, some key passages have been highlighted and given a more detailed explanation.

    “Holy Church knows well that not infrequently…
    The Church is recognizing, in no uncertain terms, that having an unbelieving, un-cooperative spouse in a Catholic marriage is more than just an isolated occurrence. The Church has not forgotten you! If you are a spouse in this situation, take comfort in knowing that you are not alone in your trials. Many are with you in spirit, offering up their own sufferings to a merciful God, just as you are. Join in this communion of saints!

    …one of the parties is sinned against rather than sinning, These precious, comforting words are meant to convey a hopeful message of non-culpability on behalf of the submitting spouse. When your spouse, to whom you are conjugally obligated, refuses to cooperate, you are left with no alternative except to comply. The Church, in its wisdom and mercy, acknowledges this. In submitting to the will of your spouse in this way, even though it involves a perversion of the right order, you are not held culpable in the eyes of God. However, there are several conditions attached to this, including the following passage which must be taken to heart and understood completely.

    …when for a grave cause
    …Understanding the meaning of these words is crucial. The words “grave cause,” imply personal circumstances of a very serious nature. Great care must be taken before “grave cause” is used as a reason. That cannot be overstated enough. Remember, this is between you and God, from whom you can hide nothing.

    …he or she reluctantly allows the perversion of the right order. This can be a fine line to walk; the body must do what comes naturally, but what the mind and heart do not want it to do. It is the ultimate test of faith, courage and strength. Our Lord, before his crucifixion uttered the words, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” In the case of a spouse who must reluctantly submit to sexual acts, just the opposite is true. It is the flesh that is willing with a spirit that is not! The submitting spouse must take heed to ever protect and preserve a spirit of purity through prayer and meditation. Be careful! Continual compromises against personal chastity can dull the conscience over a long period of time. A strong prayer life must be cultivated, including frequent Confession, lest the spirit of reluctance lessen and the true end of sexual relations be handed over to lust.

    In such a case, there is no sin… In this statement, the Church has absolved the submitting spouse, in these special circumstances.

    …provided that… he or she does not neglect to seek to dissuade and to deter the partner from sin…Instruct the ignorant! Admonish the sinner! Put these spiritual works of mercy into action in your marriage. The Church does not expect a submitting spouse to simply “give in” and forget the truth. Even though physically complying, you are obligated to keep your erring spouse ever mindful of the sinfulness. This can be a difficult thing to do; especially in the case of the abusive spouse. Reminders must be occasional, but consistent; gentle, but firm. Again, it is a fine line to walk. The ultimate goal of a submitting spouse is to “win over” the heart of the unbelieving spouse through kindness, good example and prayer. It can and has been done!

    “There is no possible circumstance…Here, the Church offers her assurance that your problems are not unique. Others have likewise suffered in the past, and many to come will be facing the marital challenges that you now face. Be consoled by the Church’s recognition and sympathy for your sufferings!

    …in which husband and wife cannot, strengthened by the grace of God, fulfill faithfully their duties AND preserve in wedlock their chastity unspotted. Rooted in the truths of the Mercy of God, the Church wants you to know that you can hope for the grace of purity in your marriage. Despite the sorrowful circumstances you find yourself in - the Heavenly Father assures you of his Grace. He sees all. He knows exactly the trials you are being tested and purged with. He promises His abiding Grace to all who seek it. Remember that trials and sufferings are meritorious and that God does turn all evil into good.

    …to do what you are able, In the sad situation of being married to an un-cooperative, un-believing spouse, what you are able to do is keep your own conscience clear and allow yourself a sense of peaceful resignation to your current plight. You can attain this by having a correctly informed conscience through awareness of the true teachings and consolations of the Church. Strengthened by the sacramental grace bestowed upon you on your wedding day, you are also able to perform all the duties required of your vocation and to do what you can to keep the love alive in your marriage.

    …to pray for what you are not able. What you are not able to do is to be the conscience of your spouse. Although you are “one flesh” you are two distinctly, separate souls. Your spouse is uniquely accountable for his or her own actions in life and although you can (and must!) be a good example in faith, ultimately, your spouse’s salvation is self-determined. Also, you are not able to change your situation. For better or worse, this is your spouse. Except for extreme cases, you are bound by your wedding vows and must remain married to this person until death. Do not waste precious time with regrets and depression. Perseverance will win you your crown in Heaven. Praise be to the Lord!

    Please note: The following will help to further clarify issues presented in the above article.
    In 1997, the Pontifical Council for the Family issued a document called "Vademecum for Confessors Concerning the Morality of Conjugal Life." It is addressed to confessors and seeks to offer some practical guidelines for the confession and absolution of the faithful in matters of conjugal chastity. It also intends to offer a reference point for married penitents so that they can draw ever greater advantage from the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The Vademecum, in its paragraph n. 13, addresses the cases of *cooperation* in the sin of a spouse who voluntarily renders the unitive act infertile. (It is necessary to distinguish *cooperation* in the proper sense, from violence or unjust imposition on the part of one of the spouses, which the other spouse in fact cannot resist. In such a case, one could not properly speak of "cooperation.") This cooperation can be licit when the three following conditions are jointly met: 1) when the action of the cooperating spouse is not already illicit in itself; 2)when proportionally grave reasons exist for cooperating in the sin of the other spouse; 3)when one is seeking to help the other spouse to desist from such conduct (patiently, with prayer, charity and dialogue; although not necessarily in that moment, nor on every single occasion.) Furthermore, it is necessary to carefully evaluate the question of cooperation in evil when recourse is made to means which can have an abortifacient effect.