When some people learn that the Catholic Church cannot (or as they usually phrase it “will not”) marry those who are impotent, they express shock or outright indignation. Isn’t this discrimination against the disabled? Why does someone need to be able to have sex in order to get married?
Before I explain why the Church cannot marry the impotent, I want to outline exactly what the Church teaches on this subject. According to the Code of Canon Law in section 1084:
§1. Antecedent and perpetual impotence to have intercourse, whether on the part of the man or the woman, whether absolute or relative, nullifies marriage by its very nature.
§2. If the impediment of impotence is doubtful, whether by a doubt about the law or a doubt about a fact, a marriage must not be impeded nor, while the doubt remains, declared null.
§3. Sterility neither prohibits nor nullifies marriage, without prejudice to the prescript ofcanon 1098.
So what does this mean? Antecedent and perpetual impotence refers to the inability to have vaginal intercourse both before the marriage begins and throughout the entire duration of the marriage. Absolute impotency is the inability to have intercourse with anyone while relative impotency is the inability to have intercourse with one’s spouse. In the latter case, the impotent person is theoretically able to have intercourse with someone else.
Impotency is not an impediment if it can be treated with medication or items that allow intercourse to occur. But if it is untreatable (as well as antecedent and perpetual) it “nullifies marriage by its very nature” or it makes the marriage invalid.
Two Common Misinterpretations
It’s important to remember that what I described above does not mean the following:
1. If a person becomes impotent during his marriage the marriage is now invalid. As long as the marriage was consummated at some point prior to the impotence, the marriage is not rendered null. Impotence must be antecedent and perpetual in order to be an impediment.
2. If someone is infertile they can’t get married. Impotence refers to the inability to have sexual intercourse while infertility or sterility refers to the inability to procreate. For example, a healthy woman who has a hysterectomy is infertile but not impotent. In contrast, a woman who has a vagina that cannot accommodate the male member is impotent but she may still be able to become pregnant through illicit means like artificial insemination or IVF. This means she is not infertile even though she is impotent.
Paragraph 3 of canon 1084 makes it clear that the inability to produce offspring is not an impediment to marriage. What is an impediment to marriage is the inability to have vaginal intercourse.
A Sample Case
“Why shouldn’t the impotent be allowed to have the same kind of happiness the rest of us have in marriage?” asks the critic.
In order to put this question in the proper light, let’s examine another couple and see what would be the most compassionate way for the Church to respond to their marriage.
Imagine that Gene and Clara get married but soon discover that they are unable to have sexual intercourse. Despite all of their best efforts to treat the problem, the impotence remains, and the two are never able to have sex. They decide that a marriage without the possibility of sexual intercourse is not really a marriage at all, and they want out.
How should the Church compassionately respond to Gene and Clara?
One way the Church cannot respond to this problem is by granting Gene and Clara a divorce. The reason they can’t is because divorce is impossible. Just as you can’t separate the ingredients of a cake after you’ve baked it, you can’t separate a man and a woman after they’ve been validly and sacramentally married. Jesus clearly said of married couples, “they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matt. 19:6).
The Marriage That Never Was
However, the Church can grant Gene and Clara an annulment, or a declaration that they were never validly married in the first place. The partner who is not impotent would then be free to leave the current bond, if he or she desired, and marry someone else.
There are several kinds of impediments to marriage, but the bottom line is that an impediment exists when a couple lacks a necessary prerequisite to marriage. For example, “shotgun weddings” where young people are coerced by their parents to marry due to something like an unplanned pregnancy are not valid because the couple has not freely chosen to marry (canon 1103).
Marriage is the full, free, and total gift of self to another person for life. Without freedom you can’t have marriage, so these kinds of “marriages” can be rendered null, or invalid, if a person in the bond seeks an annulment.
But, just as marriage has to be free, it also has to be a full and total gift of self, which includes the bodily gift of self through intercourse. Since Gene and Clara were not able to give themselves to one another in this way both prior to their wedding and forever after making their wedding vows, they had no way of keeping those vows.
Can’t Have it Both Ways
Indeed, the claim “they should be free to be just as happy as the rest of us are in our marriages” used to defend marrying the impotent is what justifies allowing Gene and Clara to have an annulment due to impotency. The potent partner has the right to the full gift of self through marital intercourse, or the right to be “as happy as the rest of us are in marriage.” As a result, the Church declares their kind of marriage to be null or invalid so that the potent partner can be free to be in a marriage where the gift of self is possible.
But now we have a problem for those who believe that the Church should allow impotent couples to marry.
If the Church allows Gene and Clara to have an annulment then the Church can’t turn around and validly marry another couple that has exactly the same impotency Gene and Clara’s union had. The Church would be lying if it said this other couple could be validly married in spite of impotence when impotence was the reason Gene and Clara’s marriage was rendered invalid. If one condition renders couple A’s marriage to be invalid, and couple B has that exact same condition as couple A, then couple B’s marriage would also be invalid. This is simple logic that the Church can’t just “ignore.”
Now let’s look at some common objections to this teaching:
“What about Mary and Joseph? If sex is so important to marriage, then how can you say they were truly married when the Church teaches that Mary was a virgin her whole life?”
If a couple mutually agrees to not engage in sexual intercourse (or have what’s called a Josephite marriage), then that marriage is valid because they are able to consummate the marriage (which is not the case in impotent unions). But it is also dissoluble, since the two have not become “one flesh.” (Canon 1142)
For a marriage to be valid a couple must only be able to have sexual intercourse -- they don’t have to actually engage in sexual intercourse.
“So you’re telling me that a 20-year-old war veteran who has his genitals mutilated while serving our country can’t marry his sweetheart when he comes home?”
We should always empathize with those who suffer from disabilities and help them cope with the loss of a major bodily function.
But in recognizing that impotence is an impediment to marriage, the Church does not deprive this young man, or anyone else, of many of the goods he seeks that can be found in a marital relationship. He and his sweetheart may still promise to care for one another and share life's joys and trials together, provided they don't have a sexual relationship. Indeed, if they were unable to engage in sexual intercourse, then why would they need to marry at all?
One objection is that through marriage the couple, especially a young couple, can live together and have a non-sexual relationship without causing scandal. But while this is a noble goal it can't overcome another difficulty. Such a cohabiting situation would be a near-occasion of sin for a couple that is striving to lead a non-sexual relationship, which includes abstinence from all forms of sexual arousal.
Of course, a critic might say that there is nothing wrong with these behaviors provided they occur among married people. Therefore, the Church should marry an impotent couple so that they can licitly engage in sexual activity they are physically able to enjoy such as passionate kissing, fondling, mutual masturbation and oral stimulation. But the problem with this argument is that these acts don’t become moral just because a couple gets married. It is intercourse, not marriage itself, that justifies sexually arousing activities -- even though it is marriage that allows a couple to have sexual intercourse.
For example, if a married couple engages in arousing activities like mutual masturbation, then they must complete the act through intercourse or they will have sinned. Activities like oral stimulation and mutual masturbation are like “freeway on-ramps” that get us up to speed in order to complete the marital act. Reducing sex to only these activities is like reducing eating to only chewing and tasting food without digesting it. It distorts the purpose of these acts and takes them out of their proper orientation towards being a total gift of self through life-giving love (i.e. sexual intercourse).
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said in Persona Humana that,
“the deliberate use of the sexual faculty outside normal conjugal relations essentially contradicts the finality of the faculty. For it lacks the sexual relationship called for by the moral order, namely the relationship which realizes "the full sense of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love." (9)
In fact, we have a moral obligation to not place impotent couples in situations where they will be tempted to engage in sexual behaviors that do not lead to intercourse. Such an occasion of sin will certainly arise if we say they are married and are now free to “act like” a married couple.
“Marriage is more than about sex you know. What about the promise to love and cherish one another? What about being friends and weathering the storms of life together? Leave it to Catholics to make everything about sex.”
It’s true marriage is more than sex just as singing is more than making noise. But you can’t sing if you can’t make noise and you can’t be married if you can’t have sex. Why? Well ask yourself this -- What makes marriage different than any other kind of friendship or family relationship?
The answer: SEX!
In any other kind of relationship it would not be strange to choose to live together (roommates or widowed sisters might do that), to love one another, or to care for one another even for the duration of one’s life (some adult children do this for their parents). But it would be strange to be in a friendship that involved sex and just plain gross to be in a family relationship that involved sex.
Sex within marriage, on the other hand, is not “strange” because marriage is the only kind of relationship where two people fully give their entire being, including their physical selves, to one another.
Ironically, it’s because our culture makes everything about sex that this objection prevails. Even faithful Catholics have been indoctrinated to believe that sex is “no big deal.” It’s just the kind of thing that can happen when you have too many margaritas.
But this is incorrect.
When a man and woman marry they pledge their whole being, body, mind, and soul to the other person. While friends can share experiences and family can share genetic history and kinship bonds, only in marriage do two people completely share one another. Other relationships may change and fade away over time, but only in marriage do two people literally, not figuratively, become one flesh.
The couple’s reproductive systems, incomplete on their own, become complete through intercourse since they are now ordered towards the good of procreation. This is similar to how a person and a transplanted heart become one body, despite having separate DNA, because both parts are now ordered towards a public good (keeping the person alive).
Likewise, in the marital act the man and woman become one not just because they both have pleasurable feelings, but because they are both ordered towards the public good of procreation. Even if procreation does not occur, they are still ordered towards that good as well as the good of unity itself (which is good both for them as a couple and good for any children they might create).
Simply put, the world’s most intimate and complete declaration of love, marital union, is incomplete without the corresponding physical act that fully expresses the desire for total self-giving, or sexual intercourse. Without the possibility of intercourse the “one flesh” goal of marriage can’t be achieved, and that is why the antecedently and perpetually impotent cannot marry.
We should help anyone who struggles with impotence see that they can have many of the goods in life that married couples enjoy. Goods like friendship, confidants, and even tender physical affection.
We should also help them see how the universal call to chastity, whether it’s for the disabled, those who desire marriage but have not found anyone to marry, or even for the happily married, is a good thing. The graces God gives us in living a chaste life in service of him outweigh any physical goods we might deprived of in this life -- goods of which we will not give a second thought to in the life to come.
 Because the nature of what marriage is requires the possibility of sexual intercourse, a bishop cannot dispense an impotent couple to be married just as he cannot issue a dispensation to allow a man to marry even though he is already married to someone else. Both cases involve violations of divine law that apply to everyone equally, not ecclesial law that a local ordinary can relax with a dispensation.
 Infertility is not an impediment in and of itself, but it can be an impediment if it is known prior to the marriage and is not disclosed. This is what paragraph three refers to when it references canon 1098.
 See note one, but the Church can, in some cases, provide a logical reason to allow some marriages to be valid that are normally invalid due to their violation of ecclesial law. In these cases, a dispensation is issued to alleviate the burden of the Church’s law. But no dispensation can make a marriage valid if that marriage violates the natural law, which includes impotent marriages because marriage, by its very nature, requires the possibility of sexual intercourse.
 There is a dispute among ethicists about the exact kind of sexual activity that is acceptable among older couples, that may or may not be impotent, but still have difficulty completing the marital act. However, this area of ambiguity does not negate the principle that healthy married couples must direct sexual arousal to climax within coitus.