The Personalist and Sacramental Meaning of “Paying the Debt”

Certain moral virtues regulate activities internal to the agent, such as his own passions and the motions that are bound up with them (e.g., temperance and fortitude, dealing with how much I should eat, or how much I should get angry). But the moral virtue of justice perfects the agent’s rectitude in his dealings with others: our acts towards another are right or wrong depending on what we owe that person, the debt we should pay. All acts that intrinsically involve others, that seek to give others their due or that which belongs to them, pertain to the virtue of justice.

The traditional language of “rights” or “debts” of marriage bears a deeper and more positive meaning than some commentators recognize. For it is of fundamental importance, 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. Everything of each belongs to both in common, with the sole exception of conscience, by which freedom and personhood are safeguarded.[1] Consider the marriage vows: I, [name] (the sign of my identity), give myself to you, [name], to be your lawfully-wedded husband/wife… The exchange is not limited tobiasandsarahand retractable contract: it is absolute, 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, flings, and so forth.

A comparison with religious vows is 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 (ora et labora), and a full willingness to accept the yoke of the other “in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health,” in the bright splendor of the first years or the dark night that will be coming down the road.[2] “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, towards 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 to every other: you are not your own.

Seen from this perspective, the marriage rights—“paying the debt,” in an old-fashioned way of speaking—means infinitely more than superficial canonical definitions. For in truth, this notion of paying the debt to one’s spouse extends to the whole of life: give to him what he merits, give to her what she owns, give what he or she needs, what each of you promised solemnly to give—yourself! This is no matter of “I want x and you can provide it.” It is, rather, “You are everything to me” (take this, of course, in a non-idolatrous sense), “and God has prepared my way to Him such that I need your help, your friendship, your life, in order to follow it. By your vow you made yourself mine, you chose to need everything that I am, you bound yourself to be my servant. And I did the same for you: I made myself yours, I chose to depend wholly on you, I bound myself to you as a lifelong servant.”

“You are not your own.” We incur an eternal debt to God simply in virtue of having been created ex nihilo by His wise and beneficent will. We owe Him our very being, because He makes us to be, He gives to us the actus essendi, the constant flowing font of our personhood, the dynamic energy that constitutes us as real entities instead of possible ones. Moreover, He saves us: “you have been redeemed at a great price” (1 Cor 6:20). Marriage is analogous to creation: the man makes the bride to be his wife, he gives to her the actus uxori, just as she gives him the actus viri. She is a wife because of him, and he is a husband because of her: husband and wife are totally correlative. God refashions them 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 the interdependence upon each other) passes from possibility to reality: it becomes a real being, ens reale, no mere idea or ens rationis. The bride and bridegroom undergo a paradigm-shift of eternal proportions, remaking who they were and proclaiming who they will be: the past and the future are re-born in the present act of vowing, which calls down from heaven a piercing sword of grace to separate forever life-outside-the-vow and life-inside-the-vow (similar to the difference between the temple precinct and the Holy of Holies), or put otherwise, the life “around” vocation and the life “within” vocation.

The married, although they do not acquire a sacramental character in the strict theological sense, are truly changed: their exemplar foundation has shifted from self to other, from isolation to communion. They acquire a new and all-pervasive relation to another (relatio ad aliud), rooted in the core of their being, 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 members, 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 will continue in heaven, not as it exists on earth (“for when they shall rise again from the dead, they shall neither marry nor be married but [be] as the angels in heaven,” Mk 12:25) but in a transfigured higher state of the perfect union of souls that was only imperfectly realized in this life.

The foregoing reflection 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, the act forfeits its meaning. Outside of marriage, the act undermines itself—it defeats its own higher purpose and becomes a nihilistic ritual, of which the more intelligent and artistic are bound to grow tired, or a bestial gesture having neither personal value nor content. 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.”[3] 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.[4] 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. There is no abiding truth, no transcendent beauty, no immortal goodness to the outer act of union apart from a union of inner acts of understanding and willing, which in the husband and wife become and express one inner actuality. 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-made-one) redounds to the beauty of the outer act (two-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.

[1] For love to be free and conscious, it must be the result of a non-compulsory, non-coerced act.

[2] See my article “Marriage: Cross and Crown” [http://www.onepeterfive.com/marriage-cross-and-crown/] for further reflections along these lines, particularly on the evil of divorce.

[3] “Doch alle Lust will Ewigkeit,—will tiefe, tiefe Ewigkeit!”: “Yet all joy wants eternity—deep, deep eternity!” (from “Zarathustra’s Roundelay” in ch. 59 of Thus Spake Zarathustra).

[4] See my essay “On the Ideal Basis and Fruition of Marriage,” in Second Spring, 12 (2010): 43–53, available at www.academia.edu/7337988/On_the_Ideal_Basis_and_Fruition_of_Marriage

Peter Kwasniewski, Ph.D. is a founding professor of Wyoming Catholic College and a widely-published author on liturgy, sacred music, Thomistic theology, and Catholic social teaching. His most recent books are Sacred Choral Works (Corpus Christi Watershed, 2014) and Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis: Sacred Liturgy, the Traditional Latin Mass, and Renewal in the Church (Angelico Press, 2014). He lives with his wife and children in Lander, Wyoming.
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  • Mitchell Kalpakgian

    A beautiful, eloquent exposition of Christian marriage and the sublime ideal God created it to be.

    • ProfKwasniewski

      Thank you, Mitch. God bless you!

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