Impotence As Impediment

by Jimmy Akin

in Moral Theology

A reader writes

Dear Mr. Akin,

One of my friends, who has all kinds of questions about the Church, sent me this.  Usually I have a good answer.  This time I’m stumped.  I do remember that the Church used to deny marriage to those incapable of performing the marital act.  I hadn’t realized that was still the case.  My grandfather remarried at age 85 and he was definitely impotent after prostate cancer and chemo.

She then provides


Okay, here’s what the Code of Canon Law says:

Canon 1084

§1 Antecedent and perpetual impotence to have sexual intercourse, whether on the part of the man or on that of the woman, whether absolute or relative, by its very nature invalidates marriage.

              §2 If the impediment of impotence is doubtful, whether the doubt be one of law or one of fact, the marriage is not to be prevented nor, while the doubt persists, is it to be declared null.

§3 Without prejudice to the provisions of Can. 1098, sterility neither forbids nor invalidates a marriage.

Now, I’ve quoted all three parts of this canon because folks often confuse infertility (sterility) with impotence (inability to have sex). It’s important to be clear on the distinction. When you commit to marriage, you are committing to a relationship in which the other party has a right to have sex with you (at least at opportune times). You are promising the other person to fulfill the marital duty (which is a euphemism for sex) upon the reasonable and opportune request of the other party.

That act may be fertile or infertile. It is always infertile in the case of a couple past the age of childbearing and, even in younger people, is infertile during most times of the month. But one is still capable of fulfilling one’s marital duty.

If one is impotent, however, one cannot do this. Some folks become impotent during the course of marriage, but as long as they weren’t impotent when the marriage began then then there was no barrier to them validly contracting a marriage. The loss of potency is thus a tragedy that may befall one in a marriage.

Frequently, though, the impotence is not permanent. Many (maybe most) men experience transitory impotence from time to time. That’s quite common. Even when the impotence is longer-lasting, we’ve got all kinds of treatments (up to and including the use of surgery or surgical implants) to make it possible for the vast majority of individuals to be able to fulfill the marital duty at least some of the time. Given the change in the medical treatments we have, we either are living or will soon be living in a world in which only the total absence of the relevant anatomy or severely debilitating psychological conditions (e.g., a pathological fear of sex, perhaps due to a trauma) would genuinely render one perpetually impotent.

Consequently, this is a vanishing problem.

But . . . if someone really is permanently and untreatably unable to perform the marital act from the very beginning of the marriage onward then the person is not able to give valid matrimonial consent.

Marriage is a union in which you give someone the right to have sex with you, and if you are unable to fulfill this commitment then you aren’t capable of granting someone this right. I can’t give someone right to have me turn lead into gold for them unless I first have the ability to turn lead into gold, and in the same way, a person permanently and untreatably unable to have sex cannot grant someone the right to have sex with them.

Marriage is not only companionship or love. An impotent person can have those things as much as anybody. But an essential characteristic of marriage is that it involves an exchange of the right to have sex (and actual sex, not just quasi-sexual behaviors).

Now, in your grandfather’s case, it does not seem to me that prostate cancer or chemo automatically results in complete and untreatable impotence, even at an advanced age. I suspect that in his case the impotence was at least doubtful, in which case it fell under
              §2 and would be permitted.

Neither is it clear to me that the gentleman in the news story was completely and untreatably impotent. The story says that he’s paraplegic (not even quadraplegic), but in an age of surgical implants, that does not guarante a total inability to perform one’s marital duty. It would be difficult, and he might need his wife’s help to do so, but it seems to me that unless there’s something that the story doesn’t mention that (following the needed surgery) this gentleman potentially would be able to give a woman the right to intercourse with him and thus would have the ability to get married.


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ken May 17, 2005 at 9:34 am

Would there be any sin in a truly impotent Catholic marrying a person in a civil ceremony, say for insurance benefit, etc?

Jordan Potter May 17, 2005 at 9:47 am

Jimmy’s the expert here, but in my own view, the answer is yes. That arrangement would seem to be fraudulent, a deliberate simulation of marriage, and therefore invalid as well as by its very nature dishonest.

Eric Giunta May 17, 2005 at 10:28 am

I believe you are mistaken.
An (permanently) known-impotent man can validly marry in the Church, so long as the other spouse is aware and does not object to this and has no intention of consummating the marriage.
The Church does, in fact, know of non-comsummated marriages. Their known as “Josephite Marriages.” These are considered valid and naturally indissoluble; the Church may, however, dissolve these for good reason.
You read about these unions in several early Saints’ Lives; exact names escape me at the moment.

Jimmy Akin May 17, 2005 at 10:53 am

I am not mistaken. The Josephite marriages are still real marriages because they involve the exchange of the *right* to have marital relations with the other party. This is why the above post is carefully phrased in terms of an exchange of rights, not the intention to have sex. One can exchange rights even if the parties have no intention of exercising those rights.
When there is a actual and permanent *inability* to fulfill the marriage debt, though, there is no marriage, per the canon I quoted.

Eric Giunta May 17, 2005 at 12:19 pm

Ah, I see . . .
Thanks Jimmy!

Ed Peters May 17, 2005 at 1:02 pm

OK, let’s go.
Ken: Yes.
Potter: Right.
Eric: Wrong.
Jimmy: Right.
Eric II: Good.
Jimmy: careful. The ecclesiastical jurisprudence is not technology specific yet. IOW, technological advances might not render “canonical impotence” a non-category.

Jimmy Akin May 17, 2005 at 1:44 pm

True. “Vanishing” was not the best word to use. “Shrinking” would have been better, but that term might have its own problems.

Blushing May 18, 2005 at 1:53 am

How does a woman’s lack of climax throughout an entire marriage factor into this, if at all? (Let’s assume for argument’s sake that we don’t know whether it’s a permanent condition–the means of finding out for sure involve unchaste experimentation and unchaste therapy methods). Does it affect the “unitive” aspect of intercourse negatively at all? (–In that true sexual relations are never being had?) Lack of female climax–female impotence, I guess you could call it–doesn’t necessarily affect the procreative aspect since a woman’s climax helps, but isn’t completely necessary in that regard.
We have to be careful where we go with this if we dismiss the female climax as completely insignificant. If it is dismissed as unimportant to experiencing true sexual relations (i.e. rendering it to be just a “perk” or just a natural means of giving women a drive and an aim), and isn’t at the very least considered fully important to the unitive aspect of sex as an end in itself, then it could follow that female masturbation would then be condoned, but not male masturbation, since it’s clear that a male’s climax is integral (clearly procreative) and it’s what makes sex what it is, whereas a female’s would not be; and, as such and having no purpose as an end in itself, wouldn’t have to be restricted to only the marital act like a man’s climax is supposed to be.
I’ve always wondered about this–how procreative and unitive break down. The rules seem too simple as they are and neglect these biological differences when some clarification is really needed. Is a woman who is never climaxing actually never fully experiencing the marital act? Has such a marriage even been truly consummated? If the female climax is unimportant as an end in itself and if it’s “tough luck” if the woman misses out, then it would also have to be demonstrated how female masturbation is still to be considered wrong. And in most instances, the male climaxes first and if the woman has a thoughtful partner, the act continues after the procreative aspect is over and done with, rendering any additional post-sex stimulation from that point to help the woman, to be no more a part of a marital act than as if the man were simply masturbating her at any other time. Timing seems to take on some importance, although the rules seem to be written as though everyone always experiences simultaneous climaxes, which is not the case at all.
I guess another way to be consistent just for consistency’s sake is to declare female climax as a residual “perk”. It’d be unnecessary for completion of each marital act but would be a licitly received gift if the woman should be so lucky during any single act. It may not seem fair, (although fairness unfortunately isn’t really always a relevant concern when rules must be followed) and it also begs the question of whether additional stimulation after a male has climaxed is morally licit, and how such stimulation may be performed if it is morally licit. Genital-only? Manual? What if it’s better for the woman if she just pushes the man aside and does it herself? And if that’s okay, there’s a whole other can of worms!
It seems that the only way to be consistent is to aim for female climax as an equally desired end-result, possibly falling into the “unitive” aspect as well as the procreative one (because to some extent it does help facilitate the travels of sperm). And if we go that route, still you have the problem of wondering whether a marriage without female climax has ever been truly consummated and whether the sex is really fully what we call “marital relations”, even if the couple has children.
Very sorry to be so graphic; I hope my writing is not considered to be out of line for this blog, but it’s a very real situation and thousands of times more common than people think, and the details should be ironed out if possible. This seems to be a great place to come with questions and get thoughtful answers. We’ve got half of the world’s population (loosely speaking but you know what I mean), and their partners, out there wondering what sex and chastity really means for both of them, and why :-)

Maureen May 18, 2005 at 4:36 am

Actually, I believe Pope John Paul II wrote about this very subject (in some of his Theology of the Body stuff, not in the context of canon law). I seem to recall that he opined that making sure the woman got hers was part of the man’s marital responsibilities.
That said, I cheerfully admit to knowing absolutely nothing else about the issue. :)

Ed Peters May 18, 2005 at 5:54 am

Female climax is totally irrelevant to the canonical concept of consummation.

Lauda Jerusalem Dominum (dcs) May 18, 2005 at 7:07 am

it also begs the question of whether additional stimulation after a male has climaxed is morally licit, and how such stimulation may be performed if it is morally licit
The answer to your question can be found in a moral theology text such as Jone. In short, the answer is yes.
But as Dr. Peters writes, female climax is not really a consideration when speaking of consummation since it does not affect a woman’s ability to render the marriage debt.

Chris May 18, 2005 at 8:04 am

Dumb question……so then by these standards were Joseph and Mary really married?

Ed Peters May 18, 2005 at 8:27 am

Chris: Yes. They expressed true consent to marriage. They simply never exercised their full rights under the marriage.

Blushing May 18, 2005 at 8:42 am

Female climax is totally irrelevant to the canonical concept of consummation.
…female climax is not really a consideration when speaking of consummation since it does not affect a woman’s ability to render the marriage debt.

Not relevant, not a consideration. Okay, I’m following, but it still leaves questions unanswered. This seems to imply that it’s not significant at all, or that the woman’s ability to render the marriage debt is what matters, not her ability to receive rendering of her own dues. Why is this? Is it simply because her climax isn’t relevant in the way of the procreative aspect of sex, and that it’s unimportant in her ability to pay her dues–and why aren’t we considering whether she is able to receive what is owed to her in return? How can we say this without also diminishing the importance of the unitive aspect? Since JP II said that effort has to be made in that area, then it is important, after all, and this seems to contradict any declaration that it’s not relevant or not a consideration.
So if she isn’t able to climax and her husband isn’t able to get her to, what then? He might have the physical ability with other women to render such a debt, but not with this particular woman, he doesn’t–because she’s not capable in her position to receive to the full extent intended. This would be a serious problem, would it not? If part of the unitive aspect of sex is this mutual receiving of pleasure, and it’s just not happening, then what? It’s not sex as intended, and not a complete marital act. Marital rape is wrong for much the same reason (no unitive aspect–though of course there are many other differences), and any sexual act without regard to a partner’s pleasure (the unitive aspect) is wrong or at least not ideal in the way God intends, for this reason. And yes, of course the unitive aspect is concerned with love, but we cannot deny that we’re all meant to experience physical pleasure as well. It’s how we’re designed and how God wanted it to be for us. That’s also part of the unitive aspect.
With so much emphasis on battling non-procreative sexual acts these days, the unitive aspect has seemed to take a step aside, when there are still important matters that require attention. Can anyone point me to a link where I can read what Jone has to say about these matters?
Based on what I know about the procreative and unitive aspects of sex, that God wills us to enjoy it and designed us this way, I am not able to grok the concept of irrelevance where female climax is concerned. If female climax is irrelevant to the marital act in the way of fulfilling a debt obligation to her spouse, and is irrelevant to procreation, then it also doesn’t seem to follow that it is to be confined only within the marital act.
I seem to see an elephant in the room and feel like I have to speak up because it seems that something is either not quite right, or I’ve been missing some key element regarding chaste, ideal marital relations or female sexuality. Many thanks; please don’t take my inability to understand as anything other than wanting to learn. :-)

Lauda Jerusalem Dominum (dcs) May 18, 2005 at 9:45 am

This seems to imply that it’s not significant at all, or that the woman’s ability to render the marriage debt is what matters
No no. Only that it “doesn’t matter” when speaking of consummation. That is, a woman who is unable to climax isn’t unable to consummate a marriage. I don’t mean to say that the wife’s satisfaction shouldn’t be given due attention in marriage.
Can anyone point me to a link where I can read what Jone has to say about these matters?
I hope this is not a “family” site. . . .
Wives who do not obtain complete satisfaction may procure it by touches immediately before or after coition since the husband may withdraw immediately after ejaculation. Some authors believe she may do so also when the husband withdraws in an onanistic manner. The same cannot be said of the husband should the wife withdraw since the seed would thus be wasted. (Jone/Adelman §752)

ken May 18, 2005 at 10:03 am

Okay, what exactly is this Jone/Adelman? Is it a book?

Laurel May 18, 2005 at 10:26 am

Blushing, I have a few comments for you but sorry I can’t find any links right now to more authoritative or better explanations. (But you should try to find the Theology of the Body reference that someone mentioned–that sounded good.)
I read a pamphlet by CCL one time that explained some of the things you are asking about. It was detailing exactly which things are permissible and which things are not within marriage. If I remember correctly, their idea was that most stimulatory practices (which are otherwise unacceptable) ARE acceptable within the context of a normally consummated “marriage-act.” So, doing things immediately before or afterwards were accepted as part of the act, as long as the procreative part was completed in the normal fashion (you know what I mean–I am trying to be as discreet as possible). Of course, the woman pushing the man aside and finishing her part by herself would not be permissible because the whole idea is the mutual giving and receiving from each other. The importance of female [fulfillment] would NOT supercede that! (in my understanding).
Also, before I continue, I want to take a step back and look at the big picture for a second. It is each person’s “job” to give to the other. It is not my job to make sure I am as pleased as possible. However, believe me, I know how hard it is not to pay more attention to ourselves because we KNOW exactly how we feel, and we sometimes suspect he may not know, and he seems to be fulfilled by the whole thing so we’re not as worried about him. But really, it is the man’s job to worry about the woman’s fulfillment (in my understanding). So if during the whole act all a woman can think about is how physically unsatisfied she feels, then she has some emotional and spiritual problems to deal with that are perhaps more pressing than the physical issue.
However, I think if it is troubling a woman, she should talk with her husband about it. If her husband takes this seriously, then it will probably affect his own fulfillment. I mean, even if he is physically fulfilled by the act, he will be mentally unsatisfied in a way until he is able to satisfy his wife. (I think this is where the “relevance” comes in. On the man’s side.)
Also, I think there is no question that it can be “unitive” regardless of this issue. There is a physical closeness and uniting of flesh. There is a sharing in an intimate act that is open to life. And there is grace that comes from each instance of consummation of this sacrament.
And besides, it seems to be the way God made us that [this] is easier for men than women. I’m not sure it’s even reasonable to expect [it to happen] every single time for the woman.
Okay, but a couple more suggestions (besides the implied suggestion from my first long paragraph). I have run into a couple of different suggestions for women to help their bodies be in as good of condition as possible. One was that certain vitamin deficiencies may contribute to this problem. I don’t remember exactly what they were, but I think I read about it in “Fertility, Cycles, and Nutrition” by Marilyn Shannon, from CCL.
The other suggestion was a certain exercise that is recommended to prepare for childbirth. The childbirth class said it also helps with the problem that you have raised, as well as incontinence. It is called the “kegel” exercise, named after the muscle that is contracted. (Do a google search for it, and you may find various descriptions of how to do it. It is definitely nothing immoral.)
You may also consider praying about whatever your particular concerns are. If it’s legitimate, God cares about it.
I think those are all the comments I had. Please don’t take my comments in a “preaching” or “shaming” tone–I have much to learn (and put into practice) myself.
Jimmy, if we are being too explicit for your blog, please let us know.

Laurel May 18, 2005 at 10:31 am

One additional suggestion that I forgot. Maybe if the man is looking for a way to physically satisfy his wife he could try to stay in longer instead of withdrawing right away (if he is able to do this).

Lauda Jerusalem Dominum (dcs) May 18, 2005 at 12:01 pm

Okay, what exactly is this Jone/Adelman? Is it a book?
Moral Theology, Fr. Heribert Jone, O.F.M. Cap., tr. and adapted by Fr. Urban Adelman, O.F.M. Cap. Very widely used moral theology text intended for confessors.

O.S. May 18, 2005 at 8:14 pm

Theology of the Body (links to entire text)

c.c. May 24, 2005 at 10:42 am

Some of these same questions have been bouncing around my head for a while, and it seems there are very few satisfying answers.
It seems that some people opine that female orgasm is a part of the act, and so it is the husbands duty, by justice, to help his wife achieve one, even if this is post-coitus. (Christopher West advocates something like this)
A rejoinder to this idea is that, if it is allowable post-coitus, why not pre-coitus? If partial unity is acceptable, what difference does the order matter?
All of this comes down to what does unitive mean? The two orgasming at the same time = union. The male and then the female after is surely somehow less unitive, but not allowing her to orgasm may exacerbate this lack of union. So what do we end up with?
I think the solution to this is that we have to absolutely focus on the procreative nature first, lest we fall into purely a striving for a lesser but real union. (For example, moral theologian Grisez argues that impotent spouses may touch one another to derive pleasure, even if they are incapable of completing the sexual act. Despite Grisez’s valuable contribution to the Birth control commission, this specific opinion seems blatantly wrong.)
But I think we have overlooked something in the discussion so far. It has focussed on allowing the wife to orgasm, but treating this reality as if it were no different than a man’s orgasm – except that it not be necessary for the completion of the conjugal act. We have not even begun to delve into the nature of female orgasm (including multiple orgasms) and what that means for the nature of the sexual act.
This is a very complex/neglected field of moral theology. It seems that there are a lot of opinions being floated by different theologians – but like I said at the beginning, nothing wholly satisfying.

c.c. May 24, 2005 at 10:46 am

Also, regarding Jone- I don’t understand how self induced orgasm after the sexual act is not masturbation. Clearly this door is opened if we admit that the husband is allowed to do this to his wife post-coitus. Whatever we understand unitive to be, I think it must clearly rule out this first instance as one of selfishness (both on the part of the husband and the wife)

Dale Meyn May 28, 2005 at 11:00 am

Mr. Aiken, re the 5-17-05 note on “Impotence as Impediment” just a comment on sterility. It is not per se an impediment, but if one who is sterile enters into marriage while concealing this fact from the spouse, it becomes a possible cause of invalidity. Ordinarily both parties have the right to expect the marriage to be fruitful, so the injured party could optionally petition that the marriage be declared null on the basis of fraud. This of course would not come up if both were in their 70s, for example, as there would be no expectation of fertility.

Trevor May 29, 2005 at 9:13 am

Dale, I think your comment conflicts with the answer that Jimmy (affirmed by Ed Peters) gave on the issue.
Jimmy quoted Canon Law to substantiate his answer:
Canon 1084
§1 Antecedent and perpetual impotence to have sexual intercourse, whether on the part of the man or on that of the woman, whether absolute or relative, by its very nature invalidates marriage.
You didn’t give any sources for your assertion, which appears to conflict with the Canon quoted.

Trevor May 29, 2005 at 12:28 pm

I apologize to Dale for my last post. I read what you said totally wrong. I thought you said “impotence” when you actually said “sterility”. Please forgive my ignorance.
And readers, please disregard my previous post. Thanks.

K Mull October 10, 2005 at 7:55 pm

Thinking here is cluttered. It’s simple, the letter writers grnadfather is a Catholic. Catholic marriages aren’t consummated until the couple has done the dirty deed.
However if the man is impotent, even if this happened in the long ago, there are a numebr of herbs he can take for it, like pinewood resin or something.

Keith February 2, 2006 at 1:37 pm

I’ve been a regular blog reader of Jimmy’s blogs lately. I’ve seen he is getting a lil lazzier then he was ever before he start writing blogs. Even in this article I don’t agree him on few points.

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