Intersexed Marriages

by Jimmy Akin

in Moral Theology

A reader writes:

I have an odd question for you, raised by a friend of mine.  Some children ARE born "trans-gendered".

She writes: 

Intersex = overarching term for anyone born with a physical form not clearly "male" or "female" by current definitions of the terms. Can cover everyone from those born with[out the usual parts men and women normally come with], through XY females and XX males (those born appearing female or male but with a chromosomal sex at odds with their physical form).

Can they marry?  Does this come down to possiblity to bear children, in that if it’s not possible, a marriage cannot take place?  Can an XY female marry an XY male?  Or an XX Male and XX female?

I’m really confused on how to approach this issue.

You’re not alone in being unsure how to approch this issue. At present, the Church also seems to be. There are no authoritative statements from the Magisterium on the subject (to my knowledge), which means that the subject is in play for moral theologians to discuss. Eventually a consensus is likely to develop among moral theologians and, after that or in conjunction with that, a magisterial intervention may occur that creates an official position.

Till then, we just have to do the best we can figuring these things out. So let’s start with what seems certain and work our way out from that.

One thing that is certain (since you asked about marriage) is that a man can only marry a woman and visa versa.

It is also generally held as a certainty that all individuals are really either male or female. Sex in humans is binary. There are no alternatives or gradations in it. We may, in some cases, have a hard time determining which sex a person is, but ultimately they are one or the other.

But suppose, for a moment, that this were not the case. Suppose that, at some point in the distant future, the Church concluded that there are individuals who are not men or women but who have a defective gender. In such an eventuality, it would seem that those individuals simply would not be capable of marriage. Their situation would be analogous to individuals today who are incapable of marriage because they cannot perform the marital act (i.e., they are totally and incurably impotent). The situation of such individuals would be tragic–as is the case of individuals today who are incapable of contracting marriage–but that would seem to be the case for such individuals.

Now let’s suppose that the hypothesis on which that scenario is built is false–that all humans really are either male or female, as is generally assumed. In this case the trick would seem to be figuring out which gender a person is in an ambiguous case and then, to the extent medical science would allow, using corrective methods (e.g., surgery) to enable them to live and function as much as possible as what their gender is.

In determining what sex a person is, there seem to be two kinds of clues available to examine: anatomy and genetics. Unfortunately, at present neither of these can be turned to as an infallible guide.

In the case of anatomy, some individuals are born without sexual anatomy (or without a complete set of sexual anatomy). Others are born with a surplus of it (and a mixed surplus at that).

In the case of genetics, some individuals are missing a sex chromosome (e.g., they are born with just a single X chromosome; I don’t know if any are born with just a Y chromosome) or they are born with too many sex chromosomes (e.g., they have XXX, XXY, XYY, XXYY, or some other pattern).

Sometimes also anatomy fails to match genetics, as in the case of an "XX male" or an "XY female."

At this point moral theologians have not yet figured out how to resolve these ambiguous cases. The correct strategy is debatable and may depend on the facts of a specific case. Here are some of the options:

  1. If the individual appears to have functional anatomy, go with the anatomy rather than the genetics. In other words, treat XX males as males and XY females as females.
  2. If an individual lacks functional anatomy, go with genetics and use reconstructive surgery to help the person out. I.e., if someone is genetically male then help him surgically to have the appropriate anatomy. If someone is genetically female then help her surgically to hav the appropriate anatomy.
  3. If an individual has two sets of anatomy (whole or partial) then go with genetics and use surgery to correct the anatomical situation.
  4. If someone has a defective chromosome pattern (X, Y, XXX, XXY, XYY, etc.) then treat the person as whatever their anatomy would indicate.
  5. Treat genetics as the ultimate determiner of sex. In the case of an XX male, use surgery to supply female anatomy. In the case of an XY female, do the same to supply male anatomy. In the case of a defective chromosome pattern, use the presence of a Y chromosome as a determiner of maleness, so X and XXX and XXXX individuals are female and Y, XXY, and XYY individuals are male. Use surgery to correct any problems that exist.

As you can see, these alternatives are not all exclusive of the others, though some are (e.g., 4 and 5 are directly in opposition).

I am a bit doubtful that the Magisterium would ever sign off on option #5. One reason is that it is radically different than the ways of handling these situations that Catholic health care providers and moralists have had up to now when helping children with ambiguous sex. Similarly, we’ve been living since the beginning of the human race (or almost the beginning, anyway) with folks who have one outward sex even though a genetic test would raise questions about it. It seems asking an awful lot to mandate that a XY females or XX males undergo surgery to switch their outward sex. This is a burden that they’ve never been asked to undertake before (though, of course, one may point out that we’ve never had genetic tests before).

I suspect that a patchwork of options, like the ones mentioned above, are likely to emerge in practice and in discussions among moral theologians. I suspect that the Magisterium will initially be hesitant to sign off on any of them.

Ultimately, it may conclude (I didn’t say will conclude) that neither anatomy or genetics (nor hormones, to mention something we haven’t touched on here but which play an important role in embryonic sex development) are alone fully determinative indicators of sex and that in hard cases whether one is male or female must be determined by looking algorithmically at a combination of these factors, as above.

Once the issue of what sex a person is has been sorted out–however it gets sorted out–it is then possible for that person to marry a person of the opposite gender, assuming that he or she is otherwise capable of contracting marriage.

The key here (given the concerns you raised above) is not whether the person is capable of fathering or bearing children. Fertility has never been a condition for validly contracting matrimony. What has and is a condition of that is the ability to perform the marital act. As noted, individuals who are perpetually and incurably impotent cannot contract marriage because they cannot truthfully promise to render the marriage debt (i.e.,sex) since they are incapable of rendering it.

If, however, through surgery or other medical means, they have been made capable of performing their marital duty (whatever their anatomical configuration was earlier in their life) then they are capable of marrying a person of the opposite gender.


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Jason June 27, 2005 at 8:46 am

“Every human being is by nature a sexual being, and belongs from birth to one of the two sexes. This fact is not contradicted by the phenomenon of so-called hermaphroditism–any more than any other sickness or deformity militates against the fact that there is such a thing as human nature and that every human being, even the deformed or sick human being, has the same nature and is a human being precisely because of it. In the same way every human being is a sexual being, and membership of one of the two sexes means that a person’s whole existence has a particular orientation which shows itself in his or her actual internal development.”
–Pope John Paul II, “Love & Responsibility”, pg. 47

Eric Giunta June 27, 2005 at 8:59 am

Is it possible that a person might have the genetics of one sex, but have the psychological mind-set of another?
In other words, is it possible for someone to be a “man trapped in a woman’s body” or vice-versa?

Jeremy Holmes June 27, 2005 at 12:58 pm

The JPII text posted by Jason says what I want to be true. Can anyone provide me a supporting argument? Many thanks.

Bubbles June 27, 2005 at 2:20 pm

With all due respect to the Holy Father, this is not an area of expertise for him. His reputation within the curia is that he was incapable of confronting issues and allegations of divergent or perverse sexualities when it came to Bishops. Other people’s children people were forced to pay for that avoidance. His can hardly be considered an authoritative voice here.

Eileen R June 27, 2005 at 4:40 pm

Bubbles, I think it’s rather telling that you associate these real physical problems with divergent or perverse sexualities. Can you show any evidence that JP II did? Even if your statements about him were true what would that have to do with this different issue?

Steven D. Greydanus June 27, 2005 at 7:39 pm

Zing! Well said Eileen.

Rebel One June 27, 2005 at 10:19 pm

Actually, in fairnes to Bubbles, it has been reported in the Catholic press that John Paul II routinely refused to entertain reports that particular episcopal candidates were homosexual because in his experience behind the Iron Curtain such charges were used by Communists to discredit individuals. If this were true (and I have no idea if it was), it could explain *part* of how the sex abuse crisis got to out of hand.

Lurker June 28, 2005 at 2:18 am

I’m not sure whether the role of hormones should be discounted in the criteria. There can be fetal development contrary to what the person’s genetics should dictate, resulting in a genetic female having male physical characteritics and vice-versa, depending on the hormonal environment in the womb. And where there are physical traits that wouldn’t have otherwise been there, so could there be personality traits one would typically associate with the opposite set of sex chromosomes, even independently of whether they have the “correct” anatomy. We know some of how testosterone, oxycontin, prolactin, estrogen (or a deficiency thereof) etc. can affect behavior, attachment, emotions, and so forth. Also, such an individual may continue to have such a hormonal “imbalance” throughout life *because* of they way they developed. It seems to make sense that some could “feel” to be of one gender when their chromosomes say otherwise, and I’m not sure that how a person feels in their gut should be taken lightly. What would be difficult to separate would be whether it is completely hormonal, or at least partly attributable to the extent to which the parents encouraged such a kid to grow up as the gender the parents have decided the kid is.
Why I say I’m not sure about the importance of hormones and gut feelings: I happen to be tomboyish, not by appearances but in the way I think, and what I’m interested in and not interested in. So, at least apparently, even in healthy, normally-developed people, hormones don’t always result in a nice, neat package that meets our cut and dry definition of what a man is like or what a woman is like. Oversimplification of gender traits and gender roles is something that has always bothered my sensibilities, and so I’m not sure how much weight it would have if an intersex, genetic male were to say to me, “I feel like a woman”.
Not that I’m lumping in transsexuals with the intersexed, but in the case of transsexuals who really max out on being an ueber-feminine dame, I want to ask, “What are you thinking? I’m a woman and I don’t act like that!
Was this a useless post or what… Sorry if I didn’t say much of anything helpful. I guess if there’s a bottom line here, it’s just: People are complicated, so let’s be willing to challenge some paradigms. I certainly don’t have answers either.

momof5 June 28, 2005 at 6:33 am

From a biological point of view, I can see us having more of these discussions in the future. With all of these women on the Pill, HRT, etc., and excreting synthetic hormones into the environment, we can’t expect NOT to have some people being born with mixed-up sexual characteristics.

Liam June 28, 2005 at 5:51 pm

It would be interesting to know if any intersexed people were raised to the episcopacy and conferred orders on other people….
Believe it or not, this question is quite salient, and would probably help determine how the Church would approach this issue, given its imperative to assure the validity of conferred sacraments, especially orders.

tina June 30, 2005 at 2:02 am

I cannot for the life of me understand why people won’t simply accept that intersexed people are created by God and that such conditions are not a defect or a sickness. The binary “male/female or nothing” system is driven by the same thing that makes people refer to “the two party system” of American politics when there have always been more than two parties in the US and always will. It’s human nature to try to simplify and polarize everything, but even a casual look at the plant and animal kingdoms will show that God’s design includes all kinds of organisms that are not male or female, or maybe are both at the same time. If you are really so worried about it, go deal with the sea slugs- they are as a rule hermaphroditic.
I guess if you aren’t intersexed it’s easy to say that those who are “need help” and should voluntarily abstain from marriage due to their “deformity”.
As an intersexed person, I am also amazed and horrified to hear people recommend performing surgical sex reassignment on children without their knowledge or consent, and then turn around and moralize about people with gender identity disorders going against God’s will by seeking the same surgery. What is doubly absurd is that many transsexuals are actually diagnosed as being intersexed when they get a medical workup before transitioning- but are treated by the moralists as disturbed and defective for seeking surgical correction of their condition; the same surgery that would have been forced upon them had they been diagnosed as babies and “corrected” to match their genotype.
Another monumental insult is that those people whose forced sex reassignment in infancy doesn’t match their inner sense of gender (because nobody asked them) are run through the wringer for their “lifestyle choice” if they try to correct their lives and go back to being the person they would have been all along- the way God created them.
Perhaps Christians might want to actually heed the words of Christ himself on the subject-
Matthew 19:12 – “For there are some eunuchs, who were born so, from their mothers’ wombs: and there are some eunuchs, who were made eunuchs by men: and there are eunuchs, who have made themselves eunuchs for sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive it, let him receive it.”
Galatians 3:28 – “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, *there is neither male nor female*: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Anyone who does an unbiased study of the subject will find that like supposedly racial traits touted as God’s law and/or science in the last few hundred years, many if not most “gender traits” and behavioral differences are a result of cultural influence/stereotypes and other conditioning and claims that they are innate or instinctual or God’s will have no basis in fact. Don’t forget that it wasn’t too long ago that politicians and preachers would speak about how God didn’t want blacks and whites living together in the same neighborhoods. It was God’s law, then they tried science; now it is just indefensible. I predict that the binary sex/gender model will end up discredited as well and probably a lot sooner than most people think- ironically enough, it will be attempts to legally define “man” and “woman” for the purposes of denying people the right to marry that will cause the whole thing to unravel and be seen for the sham that it is…even genetic male/female sex is not a binary thing and is scientifically and legally indefensible.
Regardless, I’d think twice before recommending cosmetic surgery on one of God’s children because I didn’t like what I saw between his/her/it’s legs.

Poster April 7, 2007 at 8:19 pm

This comment is not directed at the post or other comments, but rather a commentary on this matter which affects lives of individuals born with Intersex conditions.
Because we are human, we sometimes do not remember to love all others, including those born differently. Those born differently are made still in His image, albeit with a physical evil (i.e. an intersex condition). We know that God allows us to be born in an imperfect physical world so that we do not rely on ourselves but come to love and rely on the perfect God (2 Cor 1:8-9). Sometimes we forget this and when we do, we unknowingly encourage moral evil. Without charity, the Christian is nothing (1Corinthians 13:2).
Lack of charity toward man leads to collective violence on an unrecognized and unimaginable scale.
There is one very horrific truth about the path uncharitable behavior toward individuals born differently leads. This truth is available to all Chrisitians: the documented mass abortion of babies following prenatal detection of Intersex conditions through abnormal ultrasound findings, amniocentesis, or Chrionic Villus Sampling (similar prenatal testing for Transsexual conditions may not be far behind). This is where lack of charity leads, to the dehumanizing of the human condition. What is charitable in these acts? Where is charity?
Charity is the grace that proves the Christian to be mature in his faith and practice.
Charity is the epitome of perfection in the Christian life. It is the “greatest” of the three abiding virtues (1Corinthians 13:13). It is the “bond of perfectness” (Colossians 3:14) and the “end of the commandment” (1Timothy 1:5). Charity specifically refers to the love that we have toward other men. Paul stresses that we are to walk “charitably” toward our weaker brothers (Romans 14:13-15). He praised the Thessalonians because “the charity of every one of you all toward each other aboundeth” (2Thessalonians 1:3). In 1Peter 4:8-9, Peter told the believers, “And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins. Use hospitality one to another without grudging.”
The Bible speaks of charity to point us to a specific kind of love. Charity is the love toward others that suffers long with them and is kind (1Corinthians 13:4), that does not behave unseemly, seek to get its own way, or is easily provoked (1Corinthians 13:5); that rejoices not in the iniquity of others (1Corinthians 13:6); that bears, believes, hopes, and endures (1Corinthians 13:7).
Intersex Christians, like all children of God, are God’s creation for which all should be thankful. However, these gifts from God suffer when other Christians do not treat them charitably. Indeed, all Christians then suffer with them (1Corinthians 12:26).
Ironically, Intersex Christians, through their own faith and suffering bring about hope in God and, through endurance, salvation. Their’s is a witness to the greatest gift available to mankind: God’s gift of eternal life. These Christians make God’s gift visible to all other Christians and non-Christians alike. In this way too their life narrative is a gift for which others should be thankful.
(*) (a) The various clinical conditions which have been associated with the term “Intersex” are now commonly known as Disorders of Sexual Differentiation (”DSD”). An excellent resource to begin understanding what DSD’s are, their prevelance, and their etiology can be found at A thorough list of peer-reviewed references can be found at the end of these materials.
(*) (b) Many decades ago, Dr. John Money promoted a theory that suggested babies with ambiguous genitalia could be reared as either a boy or a girl, because Nurture, not Nature (aka Man, not God), created mans gender identity. This atheist’s theory was shattered long ago, see for the story. But a Christian would have known that this theory was not based on truth because “God created man in his own image . . . male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). As stated by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales (ironically in opposition to the Gender Recognition Bill in that Country): “There is no convincing evidence that a gender can really be changed or acquired, much less chosen.” One day each of our own personal witness, combined with a greater education of the knowledge of the biological conditions will result in the various Christian denominations to recognize that the human body and it’s spiritual soul, gendered, is one body, and at the same time a number of parts. The parts may be afflicted with a physical evil (i.e. cleft palate, dwarfism, intersex, transsexuality) but these do not thereby condemn the body or the soul. “Those parts of the body, which we think to be less honorable, upon these we bestow more abundant honor.” (1Corinthians 12:23)
(**) A comprehensive review of what is currently known in the scientific field about transsexualism can be found at A thorough list of peer-reviewed references can be found at the end of these materials. As you can see, a growing body of scientific evidence points to a neurological/biological/genetic basis for this condition.
(***) (a) “let us stop just saying we love each other; let us really show it by our actions” (1John3:18)
(***) (b) We cannot save ourselves but Jesus says, “For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible” (Matthew 24-26).
(***) (c) “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this let him receive it” (Mt 19:12).
(****) (a) “In our study population, the overall rate of termination was 81%”
“Variation in the decision to terminate pregnancy in the setting of fetal aneuploidy.”, Prenat Diagn. 2006 Aug;26(8):667-71.
(****) (a) “In all cases with a fetal abnormality seen on ultrasound, pregnancy was terminated.”
“Parental decisions following the prenatal diagnosis of sex chromosome abnormalities.”, Eur J Obstet Gynecol Reprod Biol. 2004 Sep 10;116(1):58-62.
(****) (a) “Forty-nine of 89 pregnancies with sex chromosome aneuploidy were terminated.”
“Factors influencing parental decision making in prenatal diagnosis of sex chromosome aneuploidy.”, Obstet Gynecol. 2004 Jul;104(1):94-101.
(****) (a) See for yourself by executing a search at the National Institutes for Health Website and enter any one or more keywords such as “sex chromosome aneuploidy parental decision abortion”
(****) (a) Prenatal testing for the hormonal or genetic predisposition for transsexualism cannot be far behind. Collective violence enabled by society against such embryos could result. Watch a free video on the latest knowledge in biology of sex and gender, on the recent findings which have challenged previous beliefs about the roles of anatomy, environment, and genetics in the determination of gender, and the evolution of sexual determination at goto session 11 Biology of Sex and Gender.

Phil April 10, 2007 at 10:51 pm

In the end I think every case will need to be treated on its merits. Scripture tells us about barren women, for example. How can we be sure that these were all genetic women? How can we be sure that some were not genetic males with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome? It gets even more complicated. What would The Church say to a woman with complete AIS who wanted to live and be considered male? She would have XY chromosomes. How would the Church deal with a request from such a person to change her baptismal certificate, for example? Would the request be refused on the basis of her anatomy or granted on the basis of her karyotype? Would the ultimate decision perhaps be made on the basis of her identity?
There’s no easy formula for dealing with this phenomenon and at the end of the day I think we have to go with the person’s identity. At least in the case of the physically intersexed we can see a reason for any kind of gender confusion.

J.R. Stoodley April 11, 2007 at 2:03 am

just to clarify something Jimmy was uncertain of above, Y only individuals are sometimes concieved but die early in development. I don’t remember for sure if they are ever born but I don’t think so.
Also X only and XXX individuals are clearly female, while XYY individuals are clearly male. XXYs (and I suppose XXYYs though I don’t recall ever reading about them) are the main genetic ambiguity, in addition of course to XX males and XY females.

adequate September 30, 2007 at 4:03 am

I’ve basically been doing nothing to speak of. Basically nothing seems worth thinking about. I feel like a void, but that’s how it is. I’ve just been hanging out doing nothing.

ann October 4, 2007 at 5:20 pm

Today was a complete loss, but oh well. I don’t care. So it goes. Nothing going on , but shrug. Not much on my mind these days. Such is life.

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