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.