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Impotence, infertility and marriage

My friend and I were having a discussion over whether a person who cannot have children can get married in the Catholic Church. What does the Church teach on this? — A reader in Crystal City

This question regarding the inability of a person to enter into marriage because of the inability to have children has two dimensions: impotence and infertility. Before addressing those issues, let us first recall our belief about marriage as revealed by God.

In Genesis, after Almighty God created man and woman in His own divine image and likeness, we read, "God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it’" (Gn 1:28). In the second creation account, Adam says about the woman Eve, created from his own flesh by God, "This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called ‘woman,’ for out of ‘her man’ this one has been taken"; then continuing, we read, "That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body" (Gn 2:23-24). Throughout the Old Testament, we see the goodness in the eyes of God the husband and wife coming together as one, expressing their marital unions in conjugal love, and participating in God’s creative love.

Marriage, therefore, with its blessing of unitive and procreative love, is a reflection of the covenant, that bonding of life and love between God and His people. Our Lord affirmed this teaching in the Gospel. When questioned about divorce, Jesus said, "Have you not read that at the beginning the Creator made them male and female and declared, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, and the two shall become as one’? Thus, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore, let no man separate what God has joined." Moreover, St. Paul used the image of marriage in describing the union between Christ and the Church. Holding true to this revelation, we as Catholics rightfully believe marriage to be a sacrament.

Given this teaching, the Catechism asserts what are traditionally termed "the three goods of marriage": indissolubility, faithfulness, and fertility (cf No. 1643-54). These "goods" are expressed verbally in the vows taken during the Rite of Matrimony when a couple declares their total and unconditional love for each other. These "goods" are also expressed physically when a couple consummates their marriage. Therefore, for a couple to enter validly into the Sacrament of Matrimony, they must offer not only their free and informed consent in the exchange of vows but also consummate the marriage in the act of conjugal love. Moreover, their conjugal love as husband and wife continue to be a sign of their sacramental union.

With this in mind, let us address the issue of impotence. A man or woman who suffers impotence, either physically or psychologically, cannot enter into marriage because he or she cannot physically consummate the marriage. According to the Code of Canon Law, antecedent and perpetual impotence at the time of marriage invalidates the marriage (No. 1984.1). In sum, a person who is impotent cannot enter into marriage validly. Quite simply, a marriage must be consummated. (Note that impotence that occurs after the consummation does not impact upon the validity of the marriage; for example, if a husband suffers prostrate cancer later in life and undergoes surgery or treatment which renders him impotent, the marriage still retains its validity.)

Infertility, on the other hand, involves an inability to conceive a child. Here, the couple can express their conjugal love to each other, but one or both cannot physically conceive a child. However, infertility does not prevent a person from validly entering into marriage. The Code of Canon Law affirms, "Sterility neither prohibits nor invalidates marriage" (No. 1084.3). Appreciating the suffering of an infertile couple, the Catechism states, "Spouses to whom God has not granted children can nevertheless have a conjugal life full of meaning, in both human and Christian terms. Their marriage can radiate a fruitfulness of charity, of hospitality, and of sacrifice" (No. 1654). In this case, a couple can consummate the marriage, but they just cannot conceive children.

Therefore, while impotency presents an impediment to entering into marriage, infertility does not. They are distinct and different issues. Nevertheless, we must pray and support those individuals who suffer these crosses. 

Fr. Saunders is dean of the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College and pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria.
Copyright 1998 Arlington Catholic Herald, Inc. All rights reserved.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1998