Friday, March 02, 2018

Luther: "if wives aren’t having sex with their husbands, the state should either force them or put them to death"

This popped up over on the Catholic Answers discussion forums:

I agree that we should be careful to be balanced and chartiable in our treatment of Luther, making sure that claims are factual. However we can’t whitewash him either. He did say some terrible things. For example, it is simply factual that he said—in “On the Estate of Marriage” that if wives aren’t having sex with their husbands, the state should either force them or put them to death.

It's refreshing to find someone over on Catholic Answers admonishing others to be balanced, charitable, careful, and factual, and avoid whitewashing in regard to Martin Luther.  It's also true, Luther did say some "terrible things." Let's take a look at the example provided and see what's going on. Was Luther the misogynist and abuser the Catholic Answers participant is making him out to be?

The participant provided the bare reference,"On the Estate of Marriage." No edition or page number was provided. Even though sparse, Luther does say something similar to what's being purported.  This treatise from Luther dates from 1522. It can be found in WA 10 II, 267-304 and also in LW 45:11-49. The section of this treatise that's being referred to is found in LW 45:33. An online version of this text from LW can be found here.

The third case for divorce is that in which one of the parties deprives and avoids the other, refusing to fulfil the conjugal duty or to live with the other person. For example, one finds many a stubborn wife like that who will not give in, and who cares not a whit whether her husband falls into the sin of unchastity ten times over (LW 45:33).
Here you should be guided by the words of St. Paul, I Corinthians 7[:4–5], “The husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does; likewise the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does. Do not deprive each other, except by agreement,” etc. Notice that St. Paul forbids either party to deprive the other, for by the marriage vow each submits his body to the other in conjugal duty. When one resists the other and refuses the conjugal duty she is robbing the other of the body she had bestowed upon him. This is really contrary to marriage, and dissolves the marriage. For this reason the civil government must compel the wife, or put her to death. If the government fails to act, the husband must reason that his wife has been stolen away and slain by robbers; he must seek another. We would certainly have to accept it if someone’s life were taken from him. Why then should we not also accept it if a wife steals herself away from her husband, or is stolen away by others? (LW 45:33).

In the section of the treatise being mentioned, Luther was examining grounds for divorce. If a spouse is unable to fulfill the marital obligation and produce children, a divorce may be appropriate in some instances. For instance, if a spouse goes into a marriage with full knowledge of impotence, but keeps it a secret, this could be grounds for a divorce. Another ground is adultery. If the adultery is secretive and only the offended spouse knows, Luther says,"he may rebuke his wife privately and in a brotherly fashion, and keep her if she will mend her ways. Second, he may divorce her, as Joseph wished to do" (LW 45:31). Exposed public adultery though should fall under the rules of the civil authorities, similar to that situation set up under Mosaic law. The state is responsible to enforce the rules of marriage, not the church. 

Luther goes on to discuss a situation in which a spouse refuses sex. He cites Paul "do not deprive each other except by agreement." To willfully deny the other spouse is to rob the other spouse, and is something that is so contrary to marriage, it's like dissolving it. Luther recommends the state step in to compel the spouse, or face the death penalty. That is, marital duties are so crucial to marriage, they need to be taken very seriously. To willfully deny the other spouse is to rob the other, and is actually an act of killing a marriage. To kill a marriage is so terrible, it should meet with severe penalties.  When Luther suggested the death penalty, the point was the seriousness of violating marriage ordinances. That's how seriously Luther took spouses being committed to each other.

I've discussed the quote before: Luther: On Putting Women and Adulterers To Death.  Similarly in regard to adultery, Luther said, "The temporal sword and government should therefore still put adulterers to death, for whoever commits adultery has in fact himself already departed and is considered as one dead" (LW 45:32). The sixteenth century was not the twenty-first century. The Roman Catholic Church also believed in the death penalty for certain sins during the sixteenth century. The question is, should Luther's ideas about these marital sins warrant the death penalty? In Luther's mind, the sin was so grievous, it did because it interfered and violated God's divine marriage ordinance

I am not an advocate of the death penalty, nor of Luther's view on this, but I can't help but wonder what would happen if a society took marriage and sexuality at least as seriously as Luther did, by recovering the paradigm that marriage functions under a divine mandate. Luther's notion of invoking the death penalty does seem extreme, if not ridiculousI've not come across anything in the historical record that demonstrates Luther's view was followed during Luther's lifetime, so perhaps the civil authorities thought it extreme and ridiculous as well. However, I don't think Luther's point was simply an example of misogyny, abuse towards women, and a perpetuating of male dominance. Rather, both sexes fell under the same guidelines he proposed.    


John Q Public said...

You are 100% correct that this would also have been the view of the Catholic Church during Luther's time. This should give all Christians pause. Almost all people who claim to be Christians today are just Progressives.

James Swan said...

hmm... I didn't say that the Roman church held the same view as Luther, but if you have evidence they did, I would love to see it.