Wedding Nights

I will admit that I started posting about celibate marriage now because I thought that others were disputing the traditional nature of something which seemed indisputable to me. I enjoy the abstract consideration of just about every theological topic and find that blogging not only allows me to clarify my understanding, it also gives others the opportunity to point to what I am missing.

But I have been working on draft posts about celibate marriage for much longer because I think that the misunderstanding surrounding the Church’s teaching on marriage causes very real harm in very real, very normal marriages.

One of the most common errors that I have seen embraced by Catholics is the idea that a marriage must be consummated in order to be valid. I do not regularly talk with people in real life about their sexual relationships, but many times when the topic of natural family planning comes up for newlyweds,  someone will say something about how the couple must engage in sexual intercourse on their wedding night in order to consummate the marriage and make it valid.

This is a theological error which is deplorable due to its consequences in real life.

It is certainly good for a newly married couple to consummate their marriage at whatever appropriate time they so desire. But it is quite bad for them to be pressured into a poorly timed first sexual encounter due to the mistaken idea that they are not really married until they consummate their marriage!

The spiritual benefit of not rushing consummation should be obvious from the readings offered for the wedding liturgy. There is a reason that the Church suggests a reading from the book of Tobit where the couple spend the first three nights of marriage in prayer rather than in “their own wedlock.” In fact, the Douay-Rheims offers this translation:

Then Tobias exhorted the virgin, and said to her: Sara, arise, and let us pray to God today, and tomorrow, and the next day: because for these three nights we are joined to God: and when the third night is over, we will be in our own wedlock. For we are the children of saints, and we must not be joined together like heathens that know not God.

Sure, Tobias had to be more than a little scared in order to make such a point of honoring God rather than lust, but the point is simply that every Catholic should see the goodness of offering oneself to God prior to giving oneself to one’s spouse sexually!

The practical reason for not rushing consummation is, if anything, more obvious. Most couples in our culture go through elaborate wedding rituals which leave them to start married life in a state of pure exhaustion. While exhausted sex may be fine later in marriage, a couple who has engaged in an entirely chaste courtship should be only vaguely familiar with each other in terms of physical intimacy. I am convinced that “betrothed love” allows for greater physical intimacy than that which is otherwise appropriate, but there remains a large distance between what the newly married couple should be familiar with and consummation.

It is nothing short of a tragedy that so many couples who deeply desired to love each other well are led to hurt each other and their marriage by exhaustedly hurrying through what should be a long delightful process, and in the name of making sure that they are really married!

There are, of course, couples for whom consummating the marriage immediately is appropriate for many reasons. But I have heard so many stories of young women who look back on their wedding nights as one of the worst parts of their marriages. And many of them were under the impression that this misery was actually required by the Church!

Stepping back to take a look at what the Church actually teaches about marriage should enable us to correct this problem and appropriately encourage soon-to-be-married couples to do exactly what is appropriate for them to most fully express their married love. For many that would mean not consummating their marriages on their wedding nights.

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19 Responses to “Wedding Nights”

  1. mary 12. Sep, 2010 at 11:56 pm #

    I always loved the idea of waiting 3 days, like in Tobit. As a young adult, I told myself that’s how it was going to happen. But by the time my wedding became a reality, it didn’t really happen.
    However, at my wedding reception, my husband and I were having a good time with family and friends, dancing and chatting and catching up, and at 11:15, my mother-in-law, told me it was time to go, because I had to consumate my marriage before midnight. I was stunned. I had never heard of having a time limit to consumate the marriage. So we got sent off to bed. It was pretty awkward after that anyway, so I didn’t really want to be around after my mother-in-law had brought up our consumation of marriage in conversation.
    She’s a pentecostal Christian, so i guess these attitudes aren’t just for Catholics.

    • Rae 17. Sep, 2010 at 7:02 pm #

      I cannot imagine dealing with your mother in law! You’re right though that this isn’t just a Catholic problem.

  2. practicinghuman 13. Sep, 2010 at 8:07 am #

    Thanks for calling attention to the passage in Tobit. One of the things that I try to remember is that a newly-married couple is a newly-established entity. It takes time for people to get to know each other and to figure out what it looks like to pursue God in their new station. I appreciate the thought that God should be prioritized even in the couple’s immediately private lives.

    • Rae 17. Sep, 2010 at 7:03 pm #

      Agreed.

  3. Claire 13. Sep, 2010 at 5:10 pm #

    Wow, Mary’s story is terrible! I have never heard that before.

    Instead, as new Catholics while we were engaged, dh and I heard all sorts of jokes about being “at the wrong point” in the woman’s cycle on one’s wedding night and that might mean waiting a few days or weeks or whatever (assuming you are using NFP to try to avoid). So it never occurred to me that one HAD to consummate within a certain timeframe. I also knew of a couple who did not for months afterwards, so it was certainly not something I expected needed to happen immediately.

    However, one thing that I have gotten from your posts on this subject, Rae, is that even if this couple I knew had NEVER consummated the marriage, it would still have been valid. Without actually having it articulated to me in those words, I had somehow come to believe that consummation was necessary in marriage—at some point.

    • Rae 17. Sep, 2010 at 7:06 pm #

      I’ve encountered (only online, thank goodness!) people who believed that they had very serious reasons to avoid pregnancy, but who also thought that they had to consummate the marriage in order for it to be “real” so they “had to” disregard their serious reasons if fertility was indicated on the wedding day. That always really bothered me because why on earth would serious suddenly not be serious simply because it is one’s wedding?

  4. alison 14. Sep, 2010 at 2:30 pm #

    I’m curious now about Jewish custom because I do believe that traditionally there was time after the ceremony for the bride and groom to have relations before the ceremony. Is that just another “rule” that changed with Jesus’s coming? I guess I, like Clare, assumed that marriage with consummation at some point was valid, even if not right away. I don’t know where I got that from though.

    • practicinghuman 14. Sep, 2010 at 2:42 pm #

      My understanding is that the best man would wait outside of the bridal chamber and announce when the marriage had been completed. Given that weddings at the time lasted a week (or more), I don’t think it’s outside of the norm.

      Additionally, I think it’s intriguing that we have removed the rite of betrothal from the religious observance. The Orthodox marriage service involves a short rite immediately before the wedding service. Incidentally, the rings are exchanged during the betrothal service, and the couple receives their crowns (symbolizing martyrdom) in the wedding service.

    • Rae 17. Sep, 2010 at 7:07 pm #

      What time period are you thinking of? Are you thinking that the Tobit story can’t be real? Or that it would apply to Christian marriages? Not quite sure what your thought applied to.

      • alison 17. Sep, 2010 at 8:23 pm #

        Well, just that literally part of the marriage ceremony was the consummation (done in private, naturally), because consummation =(ed) valid marriage. I heard this from a Jewish friend so I don’t know the time period they gave you but, eventually Tobit and Sarah did consummate their marriage. Anyways, just trying to figure out how consummation changed with Christianity. I’m just curious.

  5. Melody 14. Sep, 2010 at 4:54 pm #

    “My understanding is that the best man would wait outside of the bridal chamber and announce when the marriage had been completed.”
    Nothing like a little pressure to amp up the wedding stress! Wonder how many couples faked it and saved the real thing for when there weren’t bazillion relatives outside the door.

    • Rae 17. Sep, 2010 at 7:10 pm #

      Makes me think that good husbands would be known for the scars they got drawing blood from their own bodies in order to fool the people outside (since, if I know the story Alison referred to it was about proving the wife’s virginity) rather than consummation itself.

  6. Marc Cardaronella 16. Sep, 2010 at 8:06 pm #

    Very interesting. I never considered this before. Just didn’t put celibate marriage and consummation together. So where does the idea of marriage consummation/validity come from then?

    • Joshua Michael 17. Sep, 2010 at 6:46 am #

      My best guess is that it’s due to a confusion between annulments and the Petrine Privilege.

      • Marc Cardaronella 17. Sep, 2010 at 6:51 am #

        Could you explain? I’m not quite getting that.

        • Joshua Michael 17. Sep, 2010 at 7:59 am #

          I think that the idea that consummation is required for a marriage to be valid is due to people mixing up the requirements for annulments and the requirements for the exercise of the Petrine Privilege.

          Annulments are a declaration that a valid marriage never existed, while the Petrine Privilege is the ability of the Pope to dissolve a valid marriage if consummation has not occurred (in some circumstances). Most people aren’t familiar with the details of Catholic marriage law and thus think that consummation has to do with validity.

          But perhaps I misunderstood your original question?

  7. Julia Brown 14. Oct, 2013 at 5:12 am #

    Thank you for this!!! I feel such relief knowing that an unconsummated marriage is still valid, because my husband and I were not ABLE to consummate our marriage for four years. Yes, you read it right, not able for four years. Physical problem, which was later resolved, now we are expecting our second child. I remember a priest once telling me that our marriage could be annulled because of that. Didn’t make us happier, since we truly loved each other and wanted a SOLUTION, not a way out. In our hearts we always felt we were rightfully married, though, because we had chosen each other freely til death do us part and not just if sex would work. Thank you for this!!

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