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:
§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.