Q: If God established marriage for the procreation of children, does it affect the validity of a marriage if one spouse is infertile? What if you know for sure that you can’t have children, can you get married in the Church anyway? How does that work? –Donna
A: As we’ve seen before in this space, the Church holds that marriage is, by its very nature, ordered to the well-being of the spouses and the procreation and upbringing of children (c. 1055.1). As Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church in the Modern World stated nearly 50 years ago, “By its very nature, the institution of marriage and married love is ordered to the procreation and education of offspring, and it is in them that it finds its crowning glory” (Gaudium et Spes 48). And both Gaudium et Spes (50) and the Catechism (1652) observe that “children are the supreme gift of marriage.”
At the same time, of course, we all know that some marriages are childless because at least one of the spouses is simply unable to have children. Could infertility have an effect on the validity of a marriage celebrated in the Catholic Church?
Strictly speaking, the answer is no. Canon 1084.3 states clearly that sterility neither forbids nor invalidates a marriage. If a couple marries in the Church, and later discovers that one of them is infertile, this fact in itself does not affect the validity of their marriage. And if someone already knows in advance that he (or she) is unable to have children, he is nonetheless able to marry in the Church. It is possible, however, that a spouse’s sterility might be related to some other canonical issue that could possibly lead to a finding of marriage nullity. Let’s take a look.
First of all, the canon just mentioned includes a technical caveat, that it is “without prejudice to the provisions of canon 1098.” This legalistic lingo means, in short, that even though sterility does not ipso facto invalidate a marriage, the marriage might still be null if it falls into the category described in canon 1098. And canon 1098 pertains to marriages which are entered into through deceit, when one party consciously conceals something from the other in order to secure his/her consent to marry.
This canon was discussed more fully in “Canon Law and Fraudulent Marriages,” but in short, if someone knew in advance that he (or she) was infertile, and deliberately hid this fact because the other person would otherwise not agree to the marriage, this would constitute fraud. Fraud can invalidate a marriage if it concerns an issue significant enough to disrupt conjugal life—and ordinarily an issue like the ability to have children certainly fits the bill! Note that fraud is not limited to a spouse’s fertility, as canon 1098 can pertain to any issue serious enough to disrupt married life, once it becomes known to the other spouse.
Another potential factor that might cause the marriage of an infertile person to be found null is the reason for his/her sterility. Did the person voluntarily undergo surgical sterilization, in order to avoid ever having children? If this is the case, a marriage tribunal might very well find that the marriage is null because of defective consent on the part of the sterilized spouse. As we saw in “Contraception and Marriage Validity,” failure by one or both parties to consent to the essential elements of marriage as the Church understands them renders a marriage invalid (c. 1101.2). A fundamental openness to the possibility of having children constitutes a fundamental part of married life, since the procreation and rearing of children is considered one of the essential elements of marriage. If we assume that the person who freely chose to be sterilized really understood the Church’s teaching on the subject, it would be logical to conclude that he (or she) simulated matrimonial consent at the time of the wedding—since he clearly had no intention of ever having children with the other spouse!
Finally, a person’s infertility could affect the validity of a marriage under canon law if it actually prevents the couple from consummating the marriage (see “Canon Law and Consummating a Marriage” for more on what this means). Canon 1084.1 tells us that by its very nature, impotence that is both antecedent and perpetual, whether on the part of the man or of the woman, invalidates a marriage. We adults generally assume that we understand full well what the term impotent means in this context—but both the wording of this canon, and canonical jurisprudence regarding this ground for marriage nullity, are extremely precise and warrant a closer look.
The term impotence as it is used here refers to the physical inability to have normal sexual intercourse. (Note that to invalidate a marriage, the canon asserts that the impotence must exist “antecedent” to the wedding—which means that if a spouse becomes impotent at a later date, this fact has no effect on the validity of the marriage.) To cite the most obvious examples, if a man has no penis, or a woman has no vagina, this would clearly prevent a married couple from ever consummating their marriage, and so the marriage of such a person would be invalid. There are, however, plenty of other reasons why a couple might be physically unable to have sex, some of which may be related to the man or woman’s emotional or psychological state, which in many cases can eventually be overcome. If the possibility exists that the impotence could be resolved through medication and/or therapy, that would mean it isn’t perpetual—and in such a case this canon would consequently not apply. Marriage tribunals therefore tread carefully whenever faced with an alleged case of marriage nullity due to impotence.
While we’re on the subject of what exactly constitutes impotence, it’s worth noting that back in 1977, theologians and canonists sought to clarify the Church’s position on those men who are physically capable of sexual intercourse, but who are infertile because they cannot ejaculate semen produced in the testicles. Does such sexual activity—which of course will never lead to conception—constitute a true “conjugal act,” sufficient to consummate a marriage? Since this question related not only to the canonical issue of marriage validity, but also to the Church’s theological understanding of marriage itself, it was addressed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). The CDF clarified the matter by asserting that the sexual activity sufficient for a valid marriage does not require such “true semen” to be ejaculated by the man. This is completely consistent with the law today, and also underlines the fact that while the physical ability to complete a sexual act is required for a valid marriage, fertility is not.
To sum up, we can see from all this that once again, canon law follows theology—and the Church’s theological teachings on the essential elements of marriage find their legal expression in the canons that pertain to this sacrament. Spouses should at least be open to the possibility that they might have children, even if they already know or suspect that they will never actually have any. They also have to be physically able to consummate the marriage by engaging in sexual intercourse with each other; a permanent biological inability to do this constitutes an impediment to marriage. But if all other canonical requirements for a valid marriage are in place, a consummated marriage which never results in the birth of children is still a true marriage! To quote the Catechism again,
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 (1654).
It’s true that children are a blessing from God—but God can and does bless some valid Catholic marriages in other ways, and canon law recognizes that fact.