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Impotence & Marriage

Over the years I have received a number of questions about disabilities and marriage. I am always reminded about one of my first ministerial tasks at the Washington Hospital Center in the District of Columbia. A 22 year old marine had experienced a training accident which left him a paraplegic. His young and very attractive fiancée was ever at his bedside, holding a hand which could no longer feel hers. He wanted to die. Certainly he did not want to tie her down to a man the doctors insisted would always be an invalid. Her response was to remain by his side and to offer tears of intercession for his pain and their lost dreams. Many years have passed since our encounter, and I am still unsure what might best be said in such a situation. It was not a time to come down on their hopes with a debate about the laws of nature and of the Church. I shared their space, offered them prayers and what consolation I could muster, but I could not take away the depths of their loss.

The marital act open to new life and seeking the good of the beloved is a sign and seal of the sacrament. The marriage covenant is consummated and renewed by it. Cognizant of our nature as bodily persons, the Church is also realistic and pragmatic enough to realize that marriages which shortchange sexual intimacy often fuel the fires of infidelity and alienation. The question here is not simply one of disability, but of the type of disability. Blindness, deafness, loss of certain limbs, etc. pose no such impediment to marriage. Even infertility does not negate the right of marriage if no deceit is present when the vows are made. However, can a person mentally deranged or seriously incompetent get married? No, not if they lack a conscious awareness of the nature and obligations of marriage. A paralyzed person, might be fully aware of the responsibilities of marriage, but be incapable of fulfilling them. The law of the Church in such cases is simply a reflection of the natural law. Having said this, once consummated, a tragic accident of such a nature would not abrogate the bond. The initial consummation, uncoerced and unimpeded by contraception, makes a sacramental marriage indissoluble.

What recourse would a couple have in getting married if one of the members is paralyzed from the neck or even from the waist down? Depending on the situation, the bishop himself may not be at liberty to grant a dispensation for marriage. This would especially be the case if there is no real possibility of recovery and consummation of the bond. Having said this, a very grave concern of the Church would be the use of oral sex as an attempted substitute for the marital act. While permissible in the old morals manuals as a precursor to intercourse, it cannot be sought as an ends unto itself. It falls on many of the same arguments as masturbation and homosexual interactions. Moving on, it is possible that some degree of medication and therapy might restore enough function to fulfill the marital act. In such a case, marriage could be permitted. Further, modern technologies have made available various pump mechanisms (requiring surgery) which would make possible an erection. If there is some transmission of seminal fluid, then again, marriage might very well be permitted. This position is not a reduction of the human person to a gross physicalism but the recognition that our living bodies, inextricable animated by souls, are the real expressions of our identity. Unless forsaken for the kingdom, the needs of these personal bodies– our very selves– cannot be underestimated. Having said all this, there is still another avenue a couple might pursue, although a sexual dysfunction might be coercive in its regard– virginal marriage. They could live their lives promising perpetual virginity along the lines of the Virgin Mary and the good St. Joseph.

Whatever a couple in such a fix decides to do, they will definitely know the Cross. It is my hope that the Church will always show them the redemptive value of joining our sufferings to the passion of Christ. What this world takes away, the next will restore. What this world leaves us, we can utilize for the coming of the next.



Father, this is an interesting summary, and thank you for writing and posting. Here is my question. I have been married for almost 20 years. For the past 7, I have suffered from impotence due to diabetes. My wife and I were blessed with 4 children before the impotence occurred, and were always open to children in our marriage. Since becoming impotent, I have respected my wife’s opinion that we are to remain chaste from now on. Although I have tried all available impotence remedies, none work for us. I would never ask her to do anything she is uncomfortable with, but I cannot grasp how we are forbidden from being intimate even though we can no longer have intercourse. I understand that intercourse is meant to be both procreative and unitive. Impotency has removed our ability to be procreative, but why are we no longer allowed to be unitive, not through intercourse (which we would gladly do if it were at all possible), but through oral or digital stimulation? In the case of sterility, couples are encouraged to be unitive without being able to be procreative. This identification of intercourse as the only unitive act for couples suffering from the heartbreak of impotency pains me. My wife cries about the loss of intimacy. How can this be right? Must we lie together every night and never experience any physical love again? At least a priest’s or homosexual’s decision to remain celibate isn’t constantly tested every night by having the object of their desire lying right next to them. They can remove all “near occasions of sin.” Short of moving out of the marital bed, further removing some of the marital intimacy, I have no recourse to lessen the constant reminder and struggle to understand why the Church deems this to be better for us. It does help to get this off my chest. I do not feel comfortable discussing this with anyone.


Dear Simon, I am sorry for the frustration both you and your wife feel. If you have not already, the problem of impotency might be something better discussed with a professional counselor sympathetic to Catholic teaching. When I discuss generalities, it can come across as cold. Certainly, as a celibate priest, I can in no way appreciate the full personal dynamics of such a situation. You are right; there is a vast difference between a man who sleeps alone and one who rests in bed with the female object of his desire and affection.

I am unable to give you the answer or clarification I know you wish to hear. Although I suppose given the nature of your bond, the moral gravity of an illicit act of affection might be lessened.

While impotency prior to a marriage is an impediment, it has no appreciable effect upon the sacrament afterwards, given that there has been consummation, not to mention, children.

While you suggest a parallel with the question of potency without fertility, the pivotal difference is that the mechanics of the marital act remain the same. It is still the type of act that naturally can result in children and to which the male and female bodies complement each other. Such cannot be said where male potency has been compromised and oral or digital manipulation is pursued.

The Church’s understanding of marital intimacy is more than sexual excitement and physical intimacy. It is the bonding of flesh and souls, with one another and with Jesus. Oral sex and digital manipulation might arguably be closer to masturbation than to the marital act. And while there might be some legitimacy when practiced in tandem with the marital act, the Church resists any complete substitution.

However, if you disagree, I would simply suggest that you regularly bring the matter up in confession, out of respect for Church teaching, and do the best you can to live the Christian life. God knows you love each other and any transgressions from weakness and longing between a husband and wife in such a situation would seem to be small matters to be kept between yourselves and your confessor. It may happen one day that some new therapy or medication may cure the problem. We cannot know the future and should struggle to do the best we can in the present.

There are priests out there who might say, go ahead do what you want, it does not matter. But I cannot in good conscience do that. What I can say is do not despair and know that God is infinitely forgiving and understands how unfair and difficult life can become. If we trip from time to time, he will help pick us up.

Finally, there are some wonderful ways to express intimacy that might restore the romantic elements you both knew when dating and in courtship. Candy and flowers always go a long way. Ballroom dancing is making a come-back. Picnics and boat rides are good. Holding each other tight on a porch swing and sharing lots of hugs and kisses is not so bad either… or so I am told. As spouses you can cuddle and flirt and if things get a little out of hand, well God called you together as lovers and in the heat of passion the boundaries might become blurred on occasion.

Trust each other.
Keep faith in God and in his mercy.
Respect the teachings of the Church.
I will be praying for you both.


Dear Father Joe, I am a young Catholic man (age 24) engaged to be married and have been researching for personal interest “Josephite Marriage” or “White Marriage.”

As I understand it, under Canon Law, a couple where one of the partners is antecedently and perpetually impotent may not contract any marriage.

As I understand it, what a couple exchange in the marriage vows is the right to demand the marital debt from one another (if the request is reasonable and opportune).

In a “virginal marriage” this right is not used by the mutual consent of the couple. This right is mutually given up for the “sake of the kingdom.”

In a “virginal marriage” there is a mutual agreement not to use a right exchanged (the right to the marital debt).

In an antecedently and perpetually impotent couple, the right to the marital debt cannot be exchanged. Hence, there can be no marriage. One cannot exchange what one does not have.

Hence (from what I’ve gathered on the internet), no marriage can take place between a couple in which one or both partners are antecedently and perpetually impotent not even if the non-impotent party agrees to live a virginal marriage. God bless.


Yes, Robert, you are quite right that canon law stipulates that “a couple in which one of the partners is antecedently and perpetually impotent may not contract any marriage.” Actually, Canon 1084 §1 says that it “invalidates the marriage.”

Note, however, that my post was also very tentative, saying that virginal marriage was a course that such a couple “MIGHT pursue” and that “a sexual dysfunction MIGHT be coercive.” I know the prohibition seems absolute on paper, but I have known cases where exceptions were made, particularly if the dysfunction were not absolute.

While confidentiality does not allow me to reveal many details, I can say this much:

1. Such cases were referred to the local bishop.

2. Only after a canonical, medical and pastoral investigation were decisions made.

3. Bishops themselves (in contact with Rome) gave dispensations from the canonical impediment (somewhat controversial because a few of us thought it might be elevating a juridical process over natural law) or argued that Canon 1084 §2 took precedence.

4. Both partners had to make a faith profession and renounce any and all sexual activity for the sake of the kingdom. It was understood, however, that if the problem of impotence should later find medical resolution, that the bishop had the authority to release them from their vowed celibacy.

5. A theoretical conjecture was noted whereby future medical discoveries might restore the partner’s lost sexual capacity.

6. A rather progressive interpretation was given to this law: “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” (Canon 1084 §2 ).

When bishops give such a dispensation and/or ruling, and the news goes public, as you might suspect, there is a lot of controversy. This is particularly so because not all bishops would grant such permission anyway. Speaking as a mere parish priest, I have serious reservations about it, myself.

One case that I recall revolved around the fact that the woman was the paralyzed man’s principal caregiver as well as his best friend. It was also taken into consideration that they were engaged before the accident. Being devout Catholics they wanted to be together, but did not want to commit the scandal of cohabitation outside of marriage. I heard of another case, where a couple already had a child out of wedlock (before the incident that caused paralysis), and they wanted to provide a home with both a father and a mother.

The situation and question can became increasingly complicated, as you can see.

Somewhat as an aside, the whole question of impotence and how it is defined often comes up. Some men resort to implants and pumps so that they can have an erection. While this permits them to have sexual intercourse, this does not mean that they have much if anything in the way of sexual pleasure or sensation because of it. Just the thought of such extremes leaves me almost speechless.

The situation of allowing impotent men to marry, for the male is where the gravity rests in our theology, is a serious risk on many levels. People are sexual beings. A young woman married to a paralyzed man would naturally desire sexual congress with her husband; the real danger exists that improper acts might be committed and even adultery. The impotent and/or paralyzed man is also taking a terrible chance, as he may find himself emotionally frustrated at not being able to fulfill his marital duty toward his spouse. They might also commit the sin of invitro-fertilization after harvesting sperm cells. In the past, paralyzed people were almost always refused the marriage rite; however, medical discoveries have made people increasingly optimistic about recovery of some sensation and mobility. I am not sure yet if this current optimism is well enough founded on hard science to recommend liberality regarding impotence and freedom to marriage. If impotence is not reversed, the healthy spouse could readily leave the marriage and seek an annulment on the grounds that there was no consummation. Such cases go to Rome. In any case, this leaves the handicapped man open to abandonment.

Aquinas admitted that sexual copulation was not essential to marriage, thus why virginal marriages are even possible; however, he was quick to assert that marriage gives both spouses the natural right over the other spouse’s body for the purpose of the marital act. A permanently paralyzed and/or impotent man cannot consummate the bond, either in actuality or potency. Nevertheless, the female spouse has a right to that unitive act that furthers both fidelity and procreation.

It should be added that if a man is injured (becoming paralyzed and/or impotent) after marriage and its consummation with the marital act, the couple remain married and must endure with faithfulness and courage the plight that has come to them.


Please, someone tell me this particular column is a cruel joke, kind of like a news story from the Onion website.


About a tragic subject, for sure, but this page is entirely serious.


Father Joe, good reasoning in your discussion; my prostate removal has left me not only with ED but also with the absence of seminal fluid. Periodically, I use injections for an erection which “sometimes” is shared with my wife depending on timing, etc. When this happens, it is used to a good moral use well within Church guidelines. But on many other occasions, there is neither erection nor fluid. My wife and I feel that we need to keep our intimacy strong or the relationship will fade leaving both of us blind to each other’s love. Is oral not an option at our age of 64 and married 41 years? Thank you and confused.


Sexual expression and/or the marital act are precious gifts to married couples. However, if the marital act should become difficult or impossible, then the couple should explore chaste forms of affection and signs of love, as with the initial courtship. Dinner and a movie, snuggling on the couch, holding hands and taking walks, kisses and cuddling, etc. You also have your memories.


I have been told by a priest that artificial insemination is allowed if one’s spouse is sterile by deformity (but not impotent) and that to alleviate the “frustration” of the woman to bear a child of her womb, the Church would not reject this couple or child. Is there precedent for this?


What the priest told you is not true. Artificial insemination is forbidden without exception by the Church. The reasoning is that every human being should come into existence through the marital act. There can be no third party intervention in the act of bonding and mutual surrender of the spouses to each other and to divine providence. There is a precise act that God has instituted for the creation of human beings. Artificial insemination and IVF can create the mentality that children are commodities. Further, Christianity teaches that children are a gift from God; no one has a RIGHT as such to a child.

If a couple violate moral law and defy the Church, the Church would not reject the couple and/or the child. The child is innocent and cannot be faulted for the misbehavior of parents, no matter whether it be through illicit fertilization procedures or acts of rape or incest. The parents can know absolution if they express some small degree of sorrow and subsequent respect for Church authority.


Father Joe, I met my wife in Medugorje. We wrote letters to each other over the years and fell in love. One day she said to me over the phone, “When you find out about me, you will have the choice to come or go.” I didn’t know then what it meant. I had many guesses in my mind. But none were reasonable. Then one night while in prayer I heard what I believe was the Lord. He told me what was wrong with her and asked me if I would love her. I said yes. A few moments later the phone rang and it was her. I told her what was wrong and she was surprised. I also told her that I would love her.

My wife had cancer when she was 2 years old. They took her uterus, vagina and eggs. Everything was taken leaving a scar and a clitoris. There is no penetration.

I went to Medugorje with her again and asked a priest if marrying her was the right choice despite her impotency. He said we could be together as long as we lived as the angels do.

She further went and talked to her local bishop who said marriage in the church was not possible, but we could do a legal marriage to be together so long as we live chastely.

The day we got married, it was not our intention. It was the only day my sister could organize with the judge, April 14, 2006— Good Friday of that year.

We have lived together for 3 years now. My wife does have feeling in her clitoris and I am a fully capable male. If we did do anything, would it be wrong for us to do? Can we get married in the Catholic Church? If not, do we seek this Virginal Marriage from our local bishop and would it constitute as a marriage inside the church?

Also, we ran into a priest who said our legal marriage was wrong, we couldn’t adopt kids, and he tried to make my wife promise we would separate after some time. He said he wouldn’t give her absolution in confession unless she promised to do so. She did not promise it. She came to me in tears.

I love my wife. She has stuck with me through a war, taken care of me, and we both share a cross. I couldn’t see myself with anyone else. Do I need to seek a miracle and if so, how do I do that?


I would suggest that you seek out someone in the diocesan chancery and/or authorities in Catholic medical ethics. Infertility would not prevent marriage. The issue is impotency and the marital act. There are many points here which are unique to your case and would need to be explored by experts, both in medicine and in Church law. I can only speculate, but would it be possible to surgically refashion a type of female genitalia for her? I know there have been cases of men, particularly those with paralysis, who have had pumps surgically inserted to make the marital act possible. Oral and anal sex are disapproved as beneath human dignity and do not constitute consummation of the bond. A virginal relationship would pose no particular problem, but a Catholic marriage respecting sexual intimacy poses important hurdles for you both. Vowed virginal marriages in the Church are fairly rare, and usually require that a couple denounces vaginal sex, not that they are incapable of it.

I am sorry for the suffering you both endure and regret that you feel hurt by the hard counsel of a brother priest. I wish I had more answers for you or those you so desperately want to hear. Even if you should be asked to refrain from Holy Communion, go to Mass each Sunday and pray daily with each other. Yours are not sins of malice. Your struggle is with love, affection and the frailty of the human condition. You will both remain in my prayers.


Father Joe, re: Josephite Marriage, and your previous discussion of it, I fail to understand just what kind of union results from the exchange of promises, (of chastity and fidelity), in a marriage in which one of the principals is irreversibly impotent. Is there a real covenant? One which is just as binding civilly and religiously as in a normal marriage? Can’t understand why the healthy party in such cases can’t just, willy nilly, choose to walk away, without considering the medium of divorce or annulment.


I did say that “a sexual dysfunction might be coercive in its regard– virginal marriage,” meaning that such an alternative would be problematical. The post was originally written some time back and I am not sure I meant a “Josephite marriage,” probably just an analogous spiritual friendship. A true Josephite marriage would imply that a couple freely opted not to exercise their genital prerogatives. Impotence means there is no choice, no potential for the marital act.


I came across this post today when trying to look into this issue as it has been bothering me. I may be wrong, but I thought that in the case of a “properly functioning” couple, John Paul II drew a distinction between oral sex for men and women. As I understand the teaching, since the female orgasm has nothing to do with conception, oral stimulation of the woman is permitted even if not in conjunction with a completed act of intercourse. At least that’s how I have had the teaching explained to me. If that’s the case, I still can’t wrap my head around why, for a couple for whom conception is impossible (i.e. a couple where one partner is impotent), the teaching would be any different. In other words, I didn’t think the “no oral sex without completed act of intercourse” rule was about conception and being open to life, not about mechanics of the act. If the couple would be open to life but for the impotence, I’m not sure how oral sex for this couple is different than the permissible oral sex on a woman in a normal-functioning couple.


I do not recall the late pope making any such distinction that would permit female masturbation. The marital act is defined as that sexual act which is the type of act that is open to the transmission of human life. Pleasure for both men and women is an enticement for intercourse that is required for the propagation of the species. It is also an ingredient in the fidelity of the spouses. While the old moral manuals permitted a certain level of foreplay to facilitate the marital act, as well as manipulation of the female if the male climaxed too quickly, such stimulation apart from intercourse was frowned upon. As far as I know, nothing has changed. I suspect someone taught you wrong. Where is Pope John Paul II supposed to have said otherwise? The late pope gave an emphasis upon spousal fidelity that was sometimes eclipsed by procreation in Catholic thinking; but nothing in his theology of the body overturned basic morality.


I went back and looked at what I had read, and I suppose you are right that oral sex on a woman is not permitted in and of itself. But here is what I read (by Christopher West) that is still not quite what you are saying:

“The acts by which spouses lovingly prepare each other for genital intercourse (foreplay) are honorable and good. But stimulation of each other’s genitals to the point of climax apart from an act of normal intercourse is nothing other than mutual masturbation… An important point of clarification is needed. Since it’s the male orgasm that’s inherently linked with the possibility of new life, the husband must never intentionally ejaculate outside of his wife’s vagina. Since the female orgasm, however, isn’t necessarily linked to the possibility of conception, so long as it takes place within the overall context of an act of intercourse, it need not, morally speaking, be during actual penetration… Ideally, the wife’s orgasm would happen simultaneously with her husband’s [orgasm], but this is easier said than done for many couples. In fact, if the wife’s orgasm isn’t achieved during the natural course of foreplay and consummation, it would be the loving thing for the husband to stimulate his wife to climax thereafter (if she so desired).”


Yes, he is correct. I have not written anything which contradicts this. Onanism is still a sin, no matter whether alone or with a partner. Strictly speaking, this regards the male “spilling the seed.” Foreplay that includes male climax is not foreplay. Rather, it has wrongly been substituted for the marital act. Similarly, after intercourse, the manipulation of the female by the husband so that she might climax has been judged as lawful by moralists.


I recognize that Christopher West is not an official authority in the Church, but if what he’s saying is true, while I’m wrong that female stimulation is permitted as an isolated act, it would appear that oral sex as foreplay is not “frowned upon” as you say, nor is some female stimulation prohibited even after sex (which does not confine it just to the realm of “foreplay”). This is also consistent with what is written in the book “Holy Sex,” written by a number of modern Catholic theologians.


What West writes is okay, however, your commentary is not clear. Foreplay is only frowned upon if the male climaxes without true intercourse. But, as I said, then it is not foreplay but simply oral sex or masturbation. Give me the quote where I am wrong and I will correct it. Peace!


Are implants to treat impotence banned by Church teaching where there are no other alternative treatments to achieve a valid marriage?


Implants, as such, are not banned.


Are surgically implanted pumps allowed as a means of overcoming impotence?


It is a tricky and somewhat controversial business. Evidently bishops will sometimes give a dispensation for marriage after the implantation of such pumps. The argument is that with this intervention the impotence is no longer absolute. I am not sure if all bishops are happy with such a compromise. Particularly in cases of paralysis, it might make the mechanics possible, but the man would still not feel anything. How would this affect their mutual self-donation and bonding in the marital act? There may be little other recourse after marriage. If paralysis or injury brought about such serious impotence in a man prior to marriage, I would probably advise a reconsideration altogether. People are not machines and the flesh is weak. My perspective might seem cold, heartless and cynical. I do not intend to come across this way. But I have seen too many relationships of this sort, between a woman and impotent man, fall apart with the most devastating consequences. Could not such men settle for simple and chaste friendships?


My question is not related directly to this topic, but I have been searching for an answer and cannot find it, so figured I’d try here.

Thirteen years ago, upon learning that I was pregnant with our sixth child, my husband, against my wishes, had a vasectomy. This nearly broke our marriage and it took a long time to recover. (He was not raised Catholic and is a convert who struggles with the ban on contraceptives.)

Since that time, there have been a few occasions (very few) where during sexual activity he has engaged in self-stimulation along with the mutual activity. Usually, this all ultimately ends up with penetration taking place and the completion of the sex act as it should; but on a couple of occasions, he has ejaculated outside of [the body].

As the ejacula no longer carries sperm, and as the intent at the beginning of the sexual activity was to complete internally, is this a mortal sin?


First, the vasectomy was wrong and sinful for several reasons. It is regarded as a mutilation of the human person and the generative powers. It reflects a contraceptive mentality wherein the openness to human life which is intrinsic to the marital act is spurned. Upon repentance, and where possible, the Church would also recommend repair of the damaged faculties.

Second, there may have been emotional healing, but an important element of the sacramental reality of your marital covenant remained wounded.

Third, given the vasectomy, it would seem that the matter of a ban upon artificial contraceptives would be a “personally” mute point. He has embraced perpetual infertility over periodic sterility. Many lifelong Catholics also dissent upon this matter. He may have been a convert, but did he “convert” enough?

Fourth, while an element of manipulation may be understood as foreplay and preparation for the marital act; such activities must not be pursued in themselves or seen as independent. Human beings are not animals and the marital act should not be reduced to cold mechanics. It is ideally a self-donation and surrender to the beloved. While accidents do happen, we should still be watchful against the sin of Onanism.

Fifth, the intention behind the actions that surround the marital act do have moral weight. However, the fact that the ejacula is deficient or void of sperm does not matter in this situation of self-manipulation or arousal outside the marital act.


Erectile dysfunction (ED) treatment has evolved a lot from traditional times. Earlier this problem was believed to be caused by psychological factors only, but now we know better, so have the treatments.


What do you do when you have been married for nearly 9 years and your husband has never been able to properly [fulfill the marital act]? The cause being diabetes but you didn’t know this until recently. He is able to bring you to climax [through manipulation] but you find this, although better than nothing, very much unsatisfactory. Also you can’t talk about how you feel with him. Also facing the temptation of other males on the scene for which intercourse would be very easy. Is this a real marriage or should it be annulled?


Dear Rosie, I am far from an authority upon such issues and this is a somewhat delicate question. However, there are a few points I would like to note:

First, as a married couple you should be able to dialogue with your spouse about your personal needs in this relationship. It might be hard, but nothing can be done to help the situation unless you work together.

Second, your marriage should go deeper than issues like pleasure in the mutual act. It is important, but you have both entered into a covenant where sacrifices will have to be made.

Third, I would urge you to avoid both actual temptation and fantasies toward adultery. Take the matter of divorce and annulment off the table. You have been married for almost a decade. Fight for your marriage and love one another, “for better or for worse” until death do you part.

Fourth, do not be afraid to work with a doctor who might be able to help you both. Not all physical problems can be overcome, but sometimes situations can be much improved. Peace!


I have a question. You said, “Somewhat as an aside, the whole question of impotence and how it is defined often comes up. Some men resort to implants and pumps so that they can have an erection. While this permits them to have sexual intercourse, this does not mean that they have much if anything in the way of sexual pleasure or sensation because of it. Just the thought of such extremes leaves me almost speechless.”

And later, you suggested that the woman who had surgery for cancer at age 2 that removed her vagina (and uterus, and ovaries), have surgery to create an artificial vagina. Can you help me understand Church law regarding these types of surgeries? And why have you tied male sexual pleasure as a necessity of the marital act? Especially since, as you pointed out, “Second, your marriage should go deeper than issues like pleasure in the mutual act. It is important, but you have both entered into a covenant where sacrifices will have to be made.”

It seems to me that whatever couples decide upon as being mutually agreeable to bind them together as a couple should be permissible, whether that is allowing impotent couples to come together in intimacy of their own choosing or allowing couples to marry who know that what they currently have in a physical relationship (i.e., paraplegics, etc.) is all they can lawfully have. I should think that the binding thread here is LOVE. Having read the entire page today, it seems to me that the unlawful marriage of the couple from Medjugorie is far more of a loving union than Rosie’s marriage of almost a decade. My heart goes out to all the couples here. You are struggling with much. And I am struggling to understand myself.


The marital act is defined by the Church in light of natural law. Other forms of intimacy and/or sexual congress have neither the capacity to consummate the marital covenant nor any significant degree of fecundity. The general subjective experience (which often includes some degree of pleasure) furthers the good of fidelity between spouses. My emphasis is not directly upon pleasure but upon the capacity of a couple to engage in non-contraceptive sexual intercourse as a requirement for marriage.

As for the reconstruction of genitalia, the morality hinges upon the repair of something impaired, as through accident or cancer. Such repair is not always possible. Further, no such reconstruction should seek to alter the external gender in contradiction to that given at birth and in the DNA. The Church opposes so-called sex-change operations and views such measures in terms of self-mutilation and the unlawful or immoral damaging of physical faculties.

You would accept as legitimate “whatever couples decide upon as being mutually agreeable to bind them together as a couple.” However, by extension, this is also the erroneous argument posed by homosexuals seeking the recognition of their unions as a form of marriage. The problem is that the marital act between a man and woman, defined as non-contraceptive vaginal intercourse, allows for no substitutions. One can feign the act, either through choice or because the actual act is impossible, but such neither consummates nor renews the marital covenant. Instead of a virtuous act which brings grace, there would be the commission of sin instead. That is the Catholic view, again based upon divine positive law and especially natural law. Love and friendship are indeed important. But one can have both outside of sexual relationships. Indeed, as a celibate priest, I have dedicated my life to the love of God and to the service of his people. Marriage is not the only sacrament of love. The ordination of a priest is a sacrament of love. Indeed, our common baptism into the family of God is the first and most basic sacrament of love. The right to marriage is not absolute. If it were, we would have to pass out spouses just as we distribute bread to the hungry. It does not work that way.

26 Responses

  1. I believe you are fully wrong in what you said.

    FATHER JOE: You may believe such, but my view is in sync with Catholic moral teaching.

    As stated by others, all this sexual morality is not based on the Bible and Jesus, but rather a staunch application of the Onan and Thomas Aquinas’ Aristotelian view.

    FATHER JOE: Jesus did not really speak to this issue in Scripture. In such cases, we can reckon that he confirmed the Jewish objection to Onanism and the emphasis upon progeny as an essential good of marriage. It is peculiar that you can say that this sexual morality is not based on the Bible and then in the next breath criticize it as a “staunch application” of Onan. The Catholic position takes into consideration both Scripture and the natural law. This is as it should be.

    If I’m not wrong Thomas Aquinas used to call woman “defective men.”


    When it comes to St. Thomas Aquinas and his view of women, a number of correctives to your assessment are in order. The great philosopher of the Church is citing Aristotle who writes that “the female is as it were a defective male.” Aquinas is a Catholic and as such he believes that God created both men and women. What God creates is good and cannot be viewed as defective. The greatest human being to ever live after Christ as the God-man is the Virgin Mother. She is purely a creature but graced as the jewel of our race. Again, she cannot be defective. Indeed, she is the New Eve.

    Aristotle’s assessment was flawed because he did not properly understand the biological mechanisms of reproduction. Aquinas is not much better off but while he cites his great authority he cannot buy into his view because of the role played by women in salvation history. What God creates in nature is good.

    In addition, when the Catechism and RCC was strong, women didn’t have a voice and their needs were not important.

    FATHER JOE: This is also not entirely true. While many of the voices were male, they echoed the deposit of faith. Women and their needs were always important. Indeed there are a number of women doctors of the Church: Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, and Thèrése of Lisieux. Women played an instrumental role in certain formulations of the universal catechism. Many of these faithful catholic women are well-known authors and/or professors in our Catholic colleges and universities: Alice von Hildebrand, Janet E. Smith, Helen Hull Hitchcock, etc.

    However, with the power women wield with divorces and in the world today, these applications are ludicrous.

    FATHER JOE: Divorce is not a positive element for men or women. Indeed, Jesus forbade it in the Gospel of Matthew and argued that it contributed to adultery. While you seek to enlighten us, your attempts at illumination again and again fall short… through ignorance or just because of the blindness of bigotry.

    I also do wonder if the Vatican will change its views on this when all the liberal Catholics stop giving them money, since we know conservative Catholics aren’t enough to fund the whole Catholic Church.

    FATHER JOE: Revisionists do not give— only faithful individuals and groups like the Knights of Columbus. Catholic teaching and morality is not subject to the highest bidder. It is not subjective or capricious.

  2. Fr. Joe,

    I have two questions, please:

    My husband is a young man (27) and we have two children together. Recently he confided to me that he cannot always become erect when he wants to and believes his medical diagnosis will be some form of erectile dysfunction. Is it appropriate to use medications such as Viagra for the purpose of maintaining the rhythm of our marriage bed?

    Also, during pregnancy, is sex still permissible though there is no further chance of transmitting human life at that time?

    Thank you for your help on this matter.

    FATHER JOE: In answer to your first question, married men are permitted to take medication to facilitate a normal sexual life with their spouses. In response to the second, a spouse does not have to be fertile for married couples to engage in the marital act. It simply has to be “that type of act” which is open to human life. People in their seventies and eighties might be intimate even though conception is impossible (or highly unlikely).

  3. We are looking for the guidance of our church on the issues brought about by my husband’s prostate surgery. In our ignorance we had not thought about any prohibition of the marital embrace due to the results of the surgery but…

    1. I read somewhere that if the husband can not ejaculate, as is the case after prostate surgery, then the couple has to practice celibacy in marriage. Is that true? We want the church’s guidance on this.

    If that is not the case, then the other question is:

    2. Is it OK to use pills, mechanical pumps or penal injections to allow the husband to have an erection thus permitting the marital embrace to occur with the possibility of an organism although no ejaculation can not occur?

    I can’t find answers, only more questions, as I searched the web. Your input will be appreciated.

    FATHER JOE: It may be permissible through medication or technological intervention to make possible the marital act. Such is sometimes facilitated for men with degrees or paralysis who desire marriage in the Church. It might be good to seek the intervention of a Catholic hospital with ethicists who could further advise you.

  4. Please don’t let the evil of discouragement take your heart. There’s always someone who will be there for you. Let time move on. Forgive us our sins and forgive those who have sinned against us. He does not lead me year by year nor even day by day, but step by step my path unfolds the Lord directs my ways. Don’t depend on feelings depend on God and He will change our feelings.Hope will come again don’t look for it. It will come.

  5. ROSAMUND: When I wrote a year or so ago in a way which you described as ‘prurient’, seeming to include me in an improper act, I was merely trying to discover if my 38 years of ‘marriage’ were really just that.

    FATHER JOE: My use of the word “prurient” had to do with your explicit description which I felt challenged the family nature of my blog and which was unnecessary for a priest to hear outside of Confession. It was not meant as pejorative.

    ROSAMUND: I was reeling from having discovered, at the age of 67 and 36 years after the wedding, 5 years after my husband went into care with vascular dementia, what the term ‘male erection’ really means. I had found a medical (I stress) website which explained visually what I had only encountered in unhelpful verbal terms.

    FATHER JOE: You may recall me telling you that I was no expert in such things, just a parish priest.

    ROSAMUND: I was horrified and have not yet fully recovered. I had always thought it a strange misnomer, attributed that to male vanity, and had been astounded at the stud dog when I took the bitch to be mated, concluding that God made dogs very different from men, which I found rather odd of Him.

    FATHER JOE: Maybe this was not clear in your initial communication? Are you saying that you were ignorant about the nature of a man’s physical sexuality?

    ROSAMUND: I write to expostulate on your comments: you do not seem to allow for total innocence (attending a girls’ school and a women’s college leaves little knowledge of men at all). He was 17 years older than I, and I was frightened on the wedding night, and attributed that to the total failure of sexual satisfaction throughout the marriage.

    FATHER JOE: But you seem to be saying that this ignorance lasted decades into the marriage and after having conceived a child. This challenges credulity but I would take you for your word. Did not you and your husband have conversations about your joint intimacy?

    ROSAMUND: The first (stillborn) child, as I explained, was conceived in an odd way three months after the wedding, and even then I didn’t understand that that was the moment we were man and wife (if we were). When being prepared for labour I heard the nurses comment that part of the hymen was still present; in my stupidly innocent way I assumed that was my fault, that I was wrongly built, and I said so.

    FATHER JOE: The issue may not simply be consummation but lack of knowledge for purposes of consent.

    ROSAMUND: The doctor who told us to try for another baby at once, because of our ages (I was 32 and my husband 49) puzzled me, and even more so shortly after, when a second baby was on the way (conceived, I was told, because I had so recently given birth): the same doctor rushed in, wrung my husband’s hand saying ‘congratulations, how did you manage it?’ and saying nothing at all to me — that did flummox me. After the first delivery, my husband lost all affection for me; of course, I now understand: his inadequacy had been revealed, and he must have felt very humiliated. He told me about 8 years before he died that ‘what ruined the marriage was that I was a virgin when we married’. I didn’t understand, then. The second child was born alive, and absorbed all his affection from then on, though there were still attempts at intercourse, frequent, and for me totally unsatisfactory.

    FATHER JOE: Efforts at the marital act do not have to be perfect or physically satisfying to consummate the bond. The primary purpose for intercourse was still accomplished, the propagation of children.

    ROSAMUND: I finally discovered his problem a matter of months before he died, and as he still had some cognition, I told him, calmly. He sniggered. And now I feel I have wasted 38 years of my life, and will never know real love now.

    FATHER JOE: I still find it difficult to follow what you are talking about. You married this man. No one forced you to do so. Love is more than just having sex. You must assuredly appreciate that. I must be missing something.

    ROSAMUND: But you have blamed me for what I wrote. Perhaps you don’t really understand women?


    It is not for me to blame you for anything. Sometimes people fault themselves but focus their upset or anger upon others… like a spouse or the Church or an individual who wants to help. You asked about the marital act and I answered. The question was not about the nature of pleasuring women but about the consummation of the sacrament. As a celibate priest there are certain topics I would not presume to write upon. Within my limited competence, I did state the following:

    “The conversation here is about the bond of marriage, particularly the ‘sacramental’ union of husband and wife. The marital act is an act of vaginal intercourse between a man and woman after they have had their vows witnessed by a priest and two witnesses. The marital act must be free from coercion, open to fidelity and ‘proles’ or the propagation of new life. Once consummated, the marital act in the future signifies a renewal of the marriage covenant. It must always be that type of act by which human life is transmitted. Any sexual congress that is less or other than this is not the marital act.”

    This was the answer to the question you asked about consummation. Your reaction was to ridicule the Church. You wrote: “I begin to think the Catholic Church is living in cloud cuckoo land.”

    Would you now attack me and my credibility? I recall being very courteous to you. I wrote:

    “You are not worthless. You should not feel humiliated. We are all God’s children and we do the best we can. Life is often not easy but we are loved. You are complete and whole just as God made you. Let the past go and live fully in the present. Human beings are not defined by sexual activity…. I will keep you in prayer. God bless you.”

    This is still my advice to you. And you still have my prayers.

  6. Dear Father, let the peace of Jesus be with you.

    I am a married woman and my husband is sexually impotent. He had tests and there is no organic problem. He was born to an average family with parents and four sisters. His parents didn’t want further children but the social pressure overcame them. He was born early in the eighth month and had a long stay in an incubator. He was raised as a loved child. He had learning difficulties— dyslexia. He is a unique and successful person.

    I don’t know what to do. I feel in prayer that Jesus can heal him and that Jesus wants me to love him.

    How can we together overcome this situation? I hope u can help us.

    Best regards.

    FATHER JOE: Diana, I have no ready-made answers and can work no magic. It may be the tests have missed something. If the problem is not biological, then it may rest in his personal psychology. Have the two of you sought marriage counseling? This is a matter where a couple should seek help from a professional. Along with this, it is good that you both place yourselves and your marriage in God’s hands. Men are not the same when it comes to such matters. A man may have little drive. Some suffer from a sexual disorientation. Others are preoccupied by anxieties that hinder the marital union. The two of you need to talk with each other and to a counselor. What are your feelings for each other? Is there a mutual longing for touch and intimacy? What was your sex life in the past? Is this a new problem or something that has plagued the two of you from the very beginning? As long as there has been one marital act, the marriage is consummated. How long have you been together? Are there any children? I really do not know enough about you to give any concrete advice. In any case, I am no expert, just a parish priest. I will pray for you.

  7. I’m 40 years old and I suffer from bipolar. I and my wife are recent converts to the Church. I had a vasectomy 9 years ago. I am terrified of having more children because of the effects of my illness on other people and my ability to raise children. I have the opportunity to get a vasectomy reversal which panics me due to the potential of any complications coming from the operation as all operations carry risk. Do I go through with the vasectomy reversal and practice NFP for the rest of my life? I have one 14 year old daughter.

    FATHER JOE: Sterilization is, as you know, regarded as serious sin. However, you had the vasectomy prior to converting to the Catholic Church. I do not believe that you would be required to go under the knife again. You have lost a great gift in your fertility but now must concentrate upon fidelity to your wife and the care for your daughter. Be the best husband and father you can be. Love your family and stay close to the Lord. I know some couples in your situation who still practice NFP as a gesture of respect for Church teaching on the openness to life and to demonstrate contrite hearts. The Church must teach what she understands to be the truth. But we also realize that life can be messy and we struggle daily with our brokenness. Do the best you can and leave the rest to God. I suspect most good confessors would give you the same counsel. I will pray for you and your family.

  8. Father Joe, my husband is a music liturgist and theology professor at a major catholic university. 12 years ago after the birth of our fifth child and 3 miscarriages, he had a vasectomy even when I begged him not to and thought it was against our vows. Since his vasectomy, he claims to be impotent but never sought treatment to help us regain an intimate relationship. He has anger management problems and has broken my ribs and frequently can’t control his anger with his children or me. After a really bad episode, I took our 3 youngest children not in college to live with my mother. He locked me out of our house and tried to claim I was capable of destroying property, but had to drop allegations due to not having merit. He is 6’3″ over 200 lbs and I am 5’4″ and 100 lbs.

    He has tried to claim I want a divorce and yet he is the one that won’t speak to me when I am at Mass with our children (or sit with us during the Homily or offer the sign peace). He used over $500,000 of my parents’ money and has managed to still put our house in debt, so has been forced to sell. I have prayed and went to counseling to try to get help for us — him, but I’ve been told he has to hit bottom and realize he needs help or will never accept it.

    I need to protect my children and to date he has paid no child support which I tried to get without filing for divorce. To my shock he wants me to draw up, through his lawyer, a divorce settlement, but telling all his colleagues and priests he works with that I have abandoned the marriage. He has kicked me out during holiday time and recently told me to “go to Hell”. We had to put eviction orders in place for both our house and my mother’s house. Both our lawyers are saying that the situation is incapable of reconciliation and we must divorce. I am in a struggle with my husband, my faith and ultimately my children’s well being and future.
    If I tell the priests he works with the truth, he may lose his job along with free tuition benefits for my children as well as any child support I may be entitled to.

    How can he teach Theology at the college level, lead the liturgy (music director) at both the parish and university chapel and had a vasectomy and yet claimed his wife caused him to be impotent?

    My counselors say I am blind and that the only reason he would have a vasectomy and claim to be impotent is there is someone else. despite all that I have said he is very charismatic and has great powers of manipulation.

    what am I to do – I appear to have no way out morally and I have to provide for and protect my children.
    How could he hate so much and lead others in faith?

    FATHER JOE: I am so sorry about your situation. First, the current situation cannot be sustained. If he has attacked you and broken ribs then you should contact the police. Second, in addition to the dangerous abuse against you he has deliberately decided not to fulfill his duties toward you as your husband. Third, he has squandered your resources and placed the family security in jeopardy. Fourth, he has neglected his children. It sounds like the situation has gone way beyond the help of possible marriage counseling. While I cannot know for sure all the consequences of revelation; you still have every right to take legal action and to speak to your priest. Indeed, there may be a moral imperative to do so. I agree that it sounds like a situation where other things might be going on for your husband. Certainly, there is manipulation. But you and the children are in danger, both physically and psychologically. I will keep you and your family in prayer.

  9. Dear Father, is age a serious reason to use NFP? My husband is 13 years older than me and has insisted after 3 children he was too old to bear the stress of having more. When we married he was 32 and I was 19. I always wanted children but my husband is fine being celibate for long periods of time. My husband was very depressed with each successive pregnancy (God blessed us with 3 more babies despite our attempt to use NFP). I feel so much resentment toward him and have tried dealing with celibacy by sleeping little, getting physical exercise and working as hard as I can. He is now 62 and I am 49, but I know if I ask him to be intimate it could result in another pregnancy. Can you pray for me or suggest other ways to cope? Thank you.

    FATHER JOE: My father was 42 when he married my mother aged 21. He was 21 years older than her but still gave her the gift of seven children. Yes, it was harder when Daddy got older, but he loved her and regarded his children as their true treasure. No matter what age, your husband is required to make you happy and to do his duty. At 49, you are reaching the end of your own fertile years. The question about NFP will soon be mute. Note, however, that while NFP is permitted by the Church for spacing births, its use would be a sin if motivated by selfishness and a contraceptive mentality to avoid children altogether. Instead of being depressed, your children should by your husband’s great joy!

  10. Dear Fr. Joe, my husband and I have been married for 27 years. We have four beautiful grown children. Our children were conceived quickly (the first after only three months of marriage, I was 18 and my husband was 19). At the time my husband was not Catholic though he supported my faith. After the fourth child was conceived, we had some financial setbacks (It was the recessions and my husband was laid off, I was an at home mom with three children under 4, working part-time as I was able, we lost our insurance). My husband was working three part-time jobs and relying on family to help support us. My husband had come into full communion with the Catholic Church and we had been practicing NFP but hadn’t been very successful at spacing our children (probably due to our immaturity and the lack of proper education–we received the “how to’s” but not the “why’s” from the our local NFP chapter).

    There was a great deal of pressure from family (who were supporting us–including Catholics) and friends to have my husband get a vasectomy. At my insistence, we went to our Pastor to ask for help. He told us that we had a responsibility towards our four children, that we needed to support, and to “follow our consciences” (which at the time was not properly formed). That was his only advice. Needless to say, we caved and my husband had the vasectomy. This caused much heartache and emotional and psychological stress over the next decade. It was only after we truly embraced our Catholic Faith and started to really form ourselves in the teachings that we fully realized what we had done. We continue to grieve the choice we made and we would readily seek a reversal if we could afford it (though it has been almost 20 years), but financially we have never really been a position to do so. On a side note, my husband has come to recognize that this action affected him mentally and spiritually and he believes it has a big role in his constant struggle to support our family (which he does, but there is never any extra). We have even spoken about adoption, but again, the cost is beyond our means. The pain we share over this is comparable to the loss of a loved one. We are very involved in our local parish. We have taught classes on the Theology of the Body, and have openly discussed the harm this decision makes on the relationship between husband and wife with the hopes of preventing other couples from the same pain. Our four children understand our pain and the beauty of NFP and have thus far embraced it (only one is married so far and they are very open to life). We have confessed our sin but still struggle with the fact that our intimacy is not open to life. We are still attracted to one another and love each other deeply but there is something incomplete about our coming together as man and wife. We realize that this is the temporal punishment for our sin and we accept it. Here is my question: are we in a state of sin every time we come together in the marital embrace, since we have not been able to have the vasectomy reversed? Most priests either don’t want to address the issue honestly or don’t fully understand it. I would appreciate any counsel you can provide.


    I cannot know for sure what counsel the priest gave many years ago, although I could well understand his timidity and reserve. It is one thing to give general moral guidance; it is quite another to become directly involved in the intimate life of a particular couple. We very much want to respect the privacy of our people and not to lay too heavy a burden upon them. He saw that you were a struggling family with four children. Certainly you had already manifested openness to human life. You were afraid and while one might note the priest’s indecisiveness or the pressure from family and friends, the decision was yours to make and that is where the gravity remains. Now, this is all past tense. You must trust the Sacrament of Penance and know that you have been absolved. If God has forgiven your weakness, then you need also to forgive yourselves. It serves no purpose to agonize over children who might have been conceived; focus squarely on the four God gave you and the love that you share as husband and wife.

    Couples do many things in ignorance for which they later berate themselves. Contraception damages the marital act. In some cases such intervention even changes the basic nature of the act. For instance, condomistic intercourse is intrinsically immoral, even among elderly and/or infertile couples. It feigns the marital act only. Vasectomies until recent times were not easily reversed. If such were the case, the Church would not want to condemn couples every time they had sexual congress after the wrongful destruction of a human faculty.

    You are both nearing 50 years of age. While sometimes an attempt to reverse a vasectomy is recommended, you have both probably reached the natural end of your fertility as a couple. Yes, I know that a man can remain fertile well into his senior years, but, his actual fertility (morally speaking) is weighed in conjunction with his spouse in the context of the monogamous marital union. Time passes quickly and it is too late to change matters. Please do not look at lawful expressions of your marital union today as wrong or sinful. There is still a type of fecundity shared by couples who cannot conceive. The requirement is that the marital act must be that type of act by which human life is generated (proles), not that such reproduction is certain or likely. This is the basic rule about which you must be aware from the Theology of the Body and from classes on natural family planning. The goods of fidelity and unity are fostered no matter whether age or sickness has destroyed reproductive capacity.

    Prior wrongful human intervention is arguably mute at this stage in your life together as a couple. Share what you know of God’s mercy and truth because many couples are today where you were years ago. If you want to offer a small gift to God in reparation for past offenses, you might follow a pattern of periodic abstinence as practiced by couples in natural family planning. However, this or another such practice is up to you in dialogue with your spouse and possibly your Confessor.

  11. Fr. Joe, I have a followup question that;s kind of been in the back of my mind. Would my unique situation be an impediment to religious life (joining a convent, nunnery)?

    FATHER JOE: No, according to current disciplines, there would be no impediment. Other than a physical for general health, it should not even come up as an issue.

  12. I have a question about female ‘impotence’ (not sure if that’s the right term for that), but I’m curious as to if my case is an impediment to marriage or not (mostly in case someone asks – I also don’t feel a need to marry someone – perhaps I’m called to chastity). In one post, you said, “the morality hinges upon the repair of something impaired, as through accident or cancer. Such repair is not always possible.”

    When is it not possible? Here’s the condition that I was born with. From what I’ve been told, at 2 months of development, there are two glands that are supposed to form male or female parts, and in me, they never formed. So, I have no reproductive organs, and no “openings” to them (I don’t like using the actual terms as they feel “dirty” to me for some reason. Maybe it’s because my childhood gynecologists kept pushing for reconstructive operations “in case I meet a guy,” to quote one, as well as giving other hints of pursuing certain lifestyles, which I know is immoral). — The fact that the hospital I went to had (in?) famously liberal gynecologists sort of gives me pause.

    Anyway, would such a thing be morally permissible in that case or not?

    FATHER JOE: The discussion in Catholic circles almost always deals with male impotence and the required consummation through the marital act. Obviously, the reason is because the female is regarded as having a more passive or receptive role. Your situation creates a genuine problem: no reproductive organs and no possibility for vaginal intercourse. Reconstructive surgery would not simply have to repair a faculty but create one altogether. Besides the cosmetic appearance or general operation, would such be morally considered true female sexual genitalia? In any case, without such, no marriage would be possible in the Catholic Church. If allowed, the Catholic moralists would insist that such reflect the DNA sexual identity. Males who have sex-change operations do not really become females; they become castrated and mutilated males.

  13. What do you tell a parent who thinks that just because the spouse is disabled and she cannot be sexually intimate, she is not his wife? Obviously, he does not know the whole meaning of intimacy and marriage. Do you have any advice? They will not go to therapy.

    FATHER JOE: I would remind him of their vows. They promised “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.” They pledged a bond that would last until natural death. Promises are meant to be kept. As long as the marriage was initially consummated, they are husband and wife. Marriage is also friendship and a shared life. There is emotional intimacy, too. Such crazy reasoning as put forward by your father would excuse adultery for soldiers and their spouses separated during military operations. The lack of sexual intimacy can be hurtful but it does not destroy the bond or need for fidelity. Does your father not love his wife? Will he not go to the Cross for her as Christ did for his bride, the Church? If he will not hear reason and they refuse to seek counseling, there is little you can do.

  14. Dear Father Joe, I am not a practicing Catholic; however, I am very interested in this thread! My Father has been sick (and impotent) for the last 11 years. He is also not Catholic. Three years ago he met a nice woman near his age via the internet. She has engaged in both oral and in “other ways” of reaching self-satisfaction. My Father is very blunt and candid about his impotency and quite happy that he has found someone that is okay with this. He is close to death, maybe six months and this woman, who is according to her a devout Catholic, has obtained approval through the Catholic Church for them to marry. We, the family feel she is anxious to marry him because there will most certainly be financial gain. She told him they could not live together unless they were married. So he agreed to it. But they have been having sexual relations that are only satisfying to her for two years! I am very untrusting of this woman who has him convinced she is very GODLY…yet, according to what I have read here, she has been living in sin for the duration of their relationship. And she stays with him for months at a time.

    Having said all of that, she does seem to have genuine feelings for him and as his congestive heart failure has gotten worse, she does take wonderful care of him. He called yesterday and one of his only audible sentences was that the Church had approved them to marry. So it will be in the next two months. Is this woman disobeying the Church yet using it to rush him? Honestly, we do not expect him to live two more months. Please advise!


    If your father is totally impotent, the priest does not have the authority to marry them. There are cases that have been approved by various bishops, although I am not privy to the arguments put forward that would allow such a dispensation. Is it possible that they have kept the issue of impotence secret from the priest? The question is asked by clergy but there is no medical verification required. In any case, your father and this woman are adults and, as long as they are both in their right mind, have a right to make their choices. At the same time, I certainly appreciate the concern you have for your father. As for the lady involved, did she actually reveal to you the intimacy between them and how she finds sexual gratification? It surprises me that such things would be shared with the family.

    These “other ways” that you mention would not be judged as morally licit. It is true that such a legal marriage would make her the chief recipient of his inheritance unless there is a will. Is there tension about this in the family?

  15. ‘You’ plural is this? For your information a virgin bride ‘does’ nothing.

    FATHER JOE: Plural and one, there is giving and receiving. There is self-donation, gift and reception. There is the transformation of the gift. There is loving intimacy. If the contribution of the spouse were “nothing” then the marital act would be corrupted and reduced to masturbation. The beloved is not simply an object to satiate personal desires or passions. He or she is a person with whom a genuine relationship is established.

  16. Thank you for your prayer, Fr Joe. I am sorry I was too embarrassed to be explicit. What I referred to was not stimulation but consummation by inserting finger and thumb together with the appropriate organ in order to achieve some degree of penetration (which caused conception, though the baby was stillborn). Part of the hymen was still present at the time of birth. Was this something the Church really allows?

    FATHER JOE: I am neither a canonist nor a physician. The rudimentary elements of the mechanics in the marital act is something about which I would defer to them. It is true that not every means by which a child might be conceived is morally legitimate. If you bypassed a true marital act then the issue of consummation (as the Church understands it) would be called into question. However, the prurient details do not interest me and I would shy away from discussing relative questions of length, time and substance.

  17. You seem to assume that all husbands are affectionate and know how to cuddle and caress their wives. Mine never did, nor did he ever speak endearments during the act. Added to which, I discovered after marriage that he was essentially impotent and could only consummate the marriage by using his fingers — as, I suspect, advised by his priest friends. I begin to think the Catholic Church is living in cloud cuckoo land.

    FATHER JOE: A bad marriage could hardly be made the model for good ones. You ridicule the Church for problems that were your own and that of your husband. In any case, dactyl stimulation cannot in itself “consummate” the sacrament of marriage. It is not the marital act.

  18. I do not understand what is meant by consummation. My husband (who died last April) was never capable of a true erection, and I only learned (from a medical, not pornographic) website last year what ‘erection’ really means; he consummated the marriage with finger and thumb after 2 months, and I conceived. The baby was to have been born by C-section but died in the womb three days before so a normal birth was arranged. While preparing me for this the nurses discovered that ‘part of the hymen was present’. Was this a consummated marriage? When I took the family bitch to be mated I was amazed, and came away thinking ‘dogs are much more highly sexed than men; how odd, why did God arranged things like that?’ We had been married 24 years at that point. We would have been married 38 years last month. Or were we married at all in fact? Did I endure all those years of feeling humiliated and worthless for nothing? I only really began to love him when, having succumbed to dementia, he was in a nursing home for the last seven years. I do feel I have wasted my life; why did he blame me for what he called the ‘failure’ of the marriage, blaming me for being a virgin when we married?


    The conversation here is about the bond of marriage, particularly the “sacramental” union of husband and wife. The marital act is an act of vaginal intercourse between a man and woman after they have had their vows witnessed by a priest and two witnesses. The marital act must be free from coercion, open to fidelity and “proles” or the propagation of new life. Once consummated, the marital act in the future signifies a renewal of the marriage covenant. It must always be that type of act by which human life is transmitted. Any sexual congress that is less or other than this is not the marital act.

    It may be that you are confusing consummation with some measure of sexual pleasure? There is no guarantee that the mechanics between couples would always or even frequently be perfect. Digital manipulation (with the hand) does not constitute the marital act. However, given that he was able to conceive a child with you (not using outside interference or technology) would normally mean that the marriage was consummated.

    You are not worthless. You should not feel humiliated. We are all God’s children and we do the best we can. Life is often not easy but we are loved. You are complete and whole just as God made you. Let the past go and live fully in the present. Human beings are not defined by sexual activity. This is the mistake that so many make politically these days. Opposition to the pill and abortion is not a war against women and their healthcare. The defense of marriage between a man and woman is no attack against the human dignity of homosexuals as persons.

    I will keep you in prayer. God bless you.

  19. Hello Father Joe,

    I’m terribly embarrassed revealing my most closely guarded secret but I’m reaching my wits end over my marriage situation. I’ve never heard of anything like it before. I married my wife 22 years ago. On our wedding night we had (what I believed to be) a richly rewarding consummation of our marriage. Upon sunrise the next morning I awoke feeling magnificently happy facing our honeymoon and life together, building a good size family with great optimism. Much to my surprise my new bride was horribly depressed and upset. I could not understand her attitude nor could I cheer her in any way.

    Since then I have received horrible verbal and physical abuse on a regular basis. These abuses escalated greatly on the day after our rare occasions of intercourse. We would only copulate every 2 or 3 months or so, which for the 1st few years was a great difficulty to me on its own; but after years of being repeatedly told how repulsed she was to have sex with me, and how disgusting I was for wanting to sleep with someone who she both hates and is repulsed by, I eventually was brow beaten into the realization that I must never sleep with this woman again. For a decade now I have been involuntarily celibate. We sleep in separate rooms and live our lives as separately as two people under the same roof possibly can.

    We’ve been to marriage councilors, both priests and secular but she never likes what they have to say because they are apparently as wrong about things as I am. I have gone from an optimistic, happy, healthy man to a quite, withdrawn, ill person with no hope for future happiness in this life. I’ve had to be quiet to keep things from erupting in front of our 13 year old daughter (my miracle child). If not for her I would’ve left by now.

    Am I entitled to an annulment? Does God really wish for me to spend out the rest of my days in abuse? I believe I can endure this if I must until my daughter is old enough to go her own way. But once she’s living her own life, am I obliged to stay with someone who hates me through no fault of my own?

    Thank You & God Bless,


    Kevin, it sounds from what you say that there was a problem from the very start. Having heard only your side of the story, it is hard for me to judge the situation accurately. It sounds, however, that she has a psychological issue with the expression of human sexuality. (Nothing is said about the possibility that intercourse is physically unpleasant or painful for her.) If there are clinical reasons that can be supported by professionals, she might be judged as incapable of fulfilling her marital duties from the very beginning. While there was consummation, the vows of marriage mandate that a couple surrender their bodies to each other. It would be one thing if a couple grew apart; it is quite another for her to have a reluctance and aversion to sexual relations with you throughout the entire marriage. It would probably have been best had you brought this to a priest soon after you were married. If she never intended to fulfill her vows or if she was incapable of living out the promises and duties of marriage, there might be grounds for an annulment. Given that you were married by a priest, this would require both a divorce and the application of a formal case. You would have to tell your stories in a narrative and collaborating evidence as well as witnesses would be required for the Tribunal.

  20. I am married to a person who has suffered impotence since high school. He did not mention this to me before and I felt in bed that he hated me. I asked many times about it but he did not open up to me. And I didn’t have idea that he was impotent.

    We have one baby girl, despite his impotence. I am the one who repeatedly urged him on but I was not satisfied.

    My frustrations lead me to find another boyfriend and now I am in relationship with him.

    My husband told me now the reason why he acted the way he did. It is now so confusing and I feel sorry for forcing him to make love. In this current situation, it is my choice, either to choose my life with my boyfriend and have a secure life or to listen to the call from my husband.

    FATHER JOE: I am not sure what you want me to tell you, but given the facts presented, here are my thoughts. Your husband may have suffered from impotence but the fact that you had a child is evidence that it was not absolute. He should have been honest about his difficulties, but he certainly tried to please you. Marriage is about more than sexual satisfaction. You were wrong to seek a boyfriend and this new relationship is immoral. It is the sin of adultery. If your husband will have you, you should break it off and return to your husband and the child’s father.

  21. Dear Father,

    Not sure this is the right place to get the answer I have been seeking for many years.

    11 years ago I had my 4th child. I learned during that pregnancy through frequent bleeding that my uterus had a vein pull away and it hangs loosely and when I get pregnant it engorges. Obviously all blood flow increases at pregnancy for the child.

    I lost half my blood one month before my son was due and had to have him early [to save my life] and was told I survived just barely. [He was put in NICU for immature lungs] I was also told that though they could not specifically state I would die, but my chances of death were great if had another child. Additionally I might not survive or the child may not survive if I were to burst my vein at a much earlier gestation period in which they could not stop it. I was saved only when they induced labor and my son’s head made a tourniquet over the vein to stop the bleeding and the clot that came out was so huge it was the size of an infant and burst over the bed. Which by the way, with every heart beat I lost tremendous amount of blood so much so it was everywhere as they wheeled me to a room and had be switched from the blood soaked bed.

    I went to three separate priests seeking help if I should listen to the doctors and get a tubal ligation. I was also told since I was even younger that eventually I would need a hysterectomy because I am prolapsed and my other organs are being pushed down and close to exiting my body. [AS one doctor plainly showed me in the mirror] I chose the tubal because I felt it kept me open to the possibility that God could still give a miracle if this was His will versus a hysterectomy. I agonized for 10 months over this dilemma. Though at the time the doctors weren’t concerned with a hysterectomy as much as a tubal since I was undecided about completely making it impossible to ever have another child. Unfortunately, I asked for a reversible tubal, the doctor went ahead without my knowledge and made it a complete tubal.

    Anyway, for the sake of my life, because NFP failed for me as the last two I conceived during my period [but 1 day prior copulated] which usually my period lasted 5 days and the least likely time to be impregnated since I was not ovulating. Making my body very irregular for whatever reason, [maybe due to my hyperthyroid?] would put my life in peril if we continued to have relations.

    My husband [who said he would convert and be baptized] and still has not done so, is not Catholic though he attends Mass with me.

    He more than likely would have been tempted away from fidelity if I had decided we ought to be celibate because he could not do that.

    Am I demanded to be celibate? Would this be a case of a virginal marriage or whatever the name? And would it be grave to continue to have sex? Or grave to not have sex if it leads him away?

    I have also confessed the tubal on top of getting it under the direction of different priests and none of them demanded that with this choice I had to become celibate.

    I am totally confused on this matter.

    In fact why would any priest suggest I go ahead with the operation in my case if they felt I would have to be celibate? Is it because of technology and sonograms and doctors knowing what causes the problem and how to fix it a reason to consider my situation different being I had planned to otherwise be open to life had I not been plagued with this? And had had 4 children previously?

    The advice was given that I had to be there for my other children. I guess the temptation in being married and both fully capable of wanting sex, it would have been an extreme difficulty to deny my spouse sex for reasons outside of my control?
    Thank you.


    Direct sterilization for purposes of contraception is deemed immoral.

    However, sometimes women will have surgery for cancer in the uterus or fallopian tubes, fibroids, and excessive bleeding or hemorrhaging. Moralists in the Church subscribe to a principle of double-effect. It may be that the correction of a faculty will have the side-effect of infertility. The details and motivation in such situations are quite pertinent.

    There is no mandate that infertile couples should remain celibate. Older couples get married in the Church and they are encouraged to share the marital act even though there will most probably be no offspring. All the Church demands is that their sexual intimacy be that “type of act” which by its design is directed in the human species to the generation of new life. When procreation is impossible, the marital act still furthers the goods of fidelity and unity between the spouses.

    Natural family planning efforts have improved a great deal over the years since the days of the rhythm method. Charting temperature along with mucus examination is much more effective, particularly with irregular cycles, for purposes of spacing births. Of course, this would still require periodic abstinence. If a spouse could not be trusted in this regard, just having contraceptive intercourse would not insure fidelity. Without real sacrificial love, marriages become cold and sometimes fail entirely. Genuine surrender and love makes possible the practical partnership of marriage.

    Virginal marriages are such from the very beginning. Such a decision must be mutual and there can be no undue coercion, as with absolute impotence. Impotence is not in itself sterility, but rather the inability to engage in sexual intercourse. Some simple souls confuse the terms.

  22. Lovely. Thank you for that simply put, compassionate, boldly honest explanation of the matter of impotence, marriage and virginal marriage.

  23. I think this article is offensive and ridiculous. Why should a handicapped person be denied marraige or any type of sexual fulfillment just because he or she can’t have intercourse? I don’t think God is that smallminded.


    By the same reasoning do you think that people with a same-sex disorientation should be encouraged to commit sin? No, such is in opposition to Scripture and natural law.

    I might want to fly unaided like a bird, but no amount of flapping my arms will allow me to take off. No, such a desire just does not reflect the reality of how God has made me.

    The marital act is the means that God established for consummation of the marriage covenant. If you cannot fulfill the duties of husband and wife, then you should not get married. There is nothing ridiculous about this, just practical. People can still be friends. Married people with such problems can seek to restore elements of chaste courtship and pure romance.

    It is no wonder that a society, approving of sexual deviation and addicted and involved with pornography, fornication, cohabitation and adultery should reject such teachings.

    You have become used to having the marriage bed defiled. God is not the one who is small-minded here, nor the Church.

  24. We are soon to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary and we have eight grown children. Some years ago, my husband became diabetic and he has all the conditions that make a man completely impotent. But we still love and need each other physically. If intercourse were possible, we would be overjoyed. But without the needed physical and emotional contact, our marriage becomes miserable and we can hardly be in the same room without irritability.

    Two priests told me in confession that it would not be wrong for us to have physical contact even if it leads to orgasm without intercourse. But I still struggle from scruples. Does God really want married couples to lie together night after night on fire with desire and live as celibate when the secondary purpose of marriage is to remedy concupiscence? Does it matter if his seed falls on the ground when it can’t do anything anyway in a 68-year old wife who had a hysterectomy 30 years ago? What are we to do?


    I am not an expert on the mechanics of human sexuality. I would defer to doctors on how couples might seek to restore the place of the marital act when age and disease makes it difficult. The essential gravity for this post was how impotence was an impediment to marriage in the Church. As a follow up, the discussion moved to subsequent impotency and how it may become a cross that couples must endure. I would not be deceitful to you. The Holy See defined a few years ago that even condomistic intercourse between elderly and infertile couples so as to avoid infection was wrong. Why? It was because the marital act must always be “that kind of act” which promotes both (proles) procreation and (fides) fidelity. The use of condoms, or for that matter an alternative form of sexual intimacy, would fail the test. Acts that are inherently closed to fecundity are judged as morally unacceptable.

    The Church is not insisting upon the actual ability to reproduce; but the donation of the man and the receptivity of the woman in the conjugal union (vaginal intercourse) is not something that can be replaced with alternative forms of eroticism. Having said this, couples do the best they can and realize that the flesh is weak. They cling to one another in love. Married couples may not have absolute control of every element of their intimacy. If you ever feel that you fell short of what God would ask of you, then turn to God’s mercy. You should not allow this to overly worry you in conscience.

  25. Was man made for the sabbath or was the sabbath made for man?

  26. Dear Fr Joe,
    Your logic and your compassion (tempered by Canon Law) is faultless and this is such a hard truth to follow but one that is clear for a theologian at least. I am also reminded of a poem by a dear deceased Jesuit Priest which some might also find helpful, but some might also see as irrelevant but I would love to share it with you:

    The School of Compassion
    By Robert Murray SJ

    Clare, do you remember the child who asked me
    to bless the corner where you’d buried your mouse?
    And I who had unlearned the logic of childhood
    gave you cold answer of book-theology:
    ‘mice have no need of grace or blessing,
    but only humans who choose evil and good’.
    But now I have learned in the school of compassion
    I did not pass over the yearling squirrel
    lying cold and stiff in the Wealden lane,
    but lifted him gently and reverently laid him
    cradled by roots of a wayside oak,
    briefly his playground and now his long home.
    Over his body, torn head to still tail,
    I traced the sign of the world’s mending
    and said ‘little brother, more innocent than I,
    remember me in the peaceable kingdom’.

    By Robert Murray SJ

    With heartfelt love for all of God’s struggling creation, Paul

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