Why The Catholic Church Cannot Marry the Impotent

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.[1]

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 sterilityrefers 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 v***** 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.[2] What isan 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.”[3]

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.[4] 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 Humanathat,

“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.

By Trent Horn

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  1. Wow. Every time I decide to " come home ", I read something like this.
    I love the spirituality of the Catholic Church, but that's as far as it goes.
    The Catholic Church does not OWN God or His gifts of Marriage and Communion, so GET OVER IT!!!

    • Kim, the Catholic Church doesn’t “own” God or his gifts as you say, but it is God who gave the Church His authority, when He gave Peter the keys to the Kingdom of heaven.

    • The ‘spirituality’ as you call it of the Catholic Church is based on it’s interpretation of Gods will for mankind, is built on it’s traditions, without the foundations that spirituality couldn’t exist. Sorry Kim you can’t have it both ways. I really can’t see the problem here. Marriage is a Sacrament, it’s there to gain the gifts all parents need to build a family. It’s not some civic legalisation of relationship. It’s not so that you can celebrate your relationship and love with your family and friends. that’s all just by-products of the vow you are making before God and the receiving of Gifts from Him to help you.
      I’m not at all surprised that every time you decide to ‘come home’ something stops you. The Devil doesn’t want you to return, and will do all he can to stop you. I will pray to St Michael for your protection against the forces that are placing these obstacles in your path and the Holy Spirit to give your spirit strength and the wisdom to follow the truth once more.

        • Nowhere in the common bible does it add that every religion can come up with its own book of rules besides the Holy Bible. Mary & Joseph went on to lead a normal married life. They had more children. Why does “the church” teach that Mary lived a virgin? They pray to statues , but claim to follow the commandments. The bible specifically states to pray to God & no one else. Does the church just skip over things that are inconvenient to them. Catholics should spend more time reading their bibles & stop blindly following the words of men. So many that have been deeply involved in the coverup of pediphile priest. All those men should be defrocked & filed w charges for their serious crimes. Instead they have the audacity to add addendums to the bible like it was a book of hymes instead of the word of God. Hypocrites , them all.

      • The Catholic church is a tender and solicitous mother…always acting prudently to protect her children from being deceived to eternal ruin. What’s a bowl of porridge in exchange for the greatest good…our birthright of eternal life in heaven?

    • Not really, you guys. Canon law is not “Black Letter Law” as we know it in our legal system based on English Common Law, but is rather based on Roman Law (as are many Western European codes of law, and as such are highly nuanced, not depending on precedent, though that may or may not be considered, and as such, it’s guidance is very flexible. I think that is a very good thing.

  2. A marriage is a living thing, like a woman or a man. As with people a living thing can die. Therefore marriages can die. The couple can get divorced when the marriage dies. It’s not like a cake. It’s like a third being, made up of the two people. You’ve heard the phrase “Love is alive”? Well, sometimes it dies, and when it does, people must recognize that.

    • Otto, Jesus said, “Have ye not read, that he who made man from the beginning, Made them male and female? And he said: For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they two shall be in one flesh. Therefore now they are not two, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.” –Matthew 19:4-6
      He is recalling Genesis 2:24: “Wherefore a man shall leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they shall be two in one flesh.”
      The plan of God “from the beginning” (and Jesus would know, since He is God and was there in the beginning) is that a man and a woman marry, and once they do, they are “one flesh.” Now, what happens when you separate one flesh? You don’t get two individuals, you get a destroyed whole.
      The Church recognizes there may be valid reasons for a civil divorce, say, spousal abuse or one spouse is spending the family into utter ruin. In cases such as this, the civil divorce protects a spouse or the family. But that civil divorce is only recognized in the eyes of the state. In the eyes of God–“What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder”–the sacrament of holy matrimony continues even after a civil divorce. That is why a divorced person can’t remarry. It would be adultery.

      • Adultary unless you pay the church a little over 2k at last check for an annulment. Explain how paying the church separates those one flesh?

  3. Brilliant, logical, moral and reasonable. This is the truth the catholic church holds of a married life for commitment for man and woman to be one flesh. God’s purpose of marriage, the nature of marriage, the biological nature of marriage, the psychological bond of the couple, the antecedent and perpetual impediment in marriage, annulment and divorce. Love is not mere fleeting feelings but a free and voluntary commitment for better or for worst, in sickness and in health for richer and for poorer, indeed only death can set the married couple apart.BUT WHY DID GOD DID NOT CONDEMN KING DAVID AND KING SOLOMON HAVING SEVERAL WIVES AND SO WHY CAN’T WE, IF WOMEN AGREE??????

    • Because as Jesus reminds us, from the beginning man was to leave his parents, marry his wife, and the two shall become one. That’s it. The Bible is replete with other forms of marriages that are not what God ordained.

  4. I do not understand—Couples get married in their 70’s and 80’s were we sinning–we sure were not thinking or capable of having children!My husband was 79 and I was 72-we were married in Catholic church in 2008.

    • Mary, As the article states, it is not infertility (not being able to have children) that is the impediment to marriage but, impotence (not being able to physically have sex.) That is why older people can get married. A valid marriage doesn’t depend on having children.

      • Wait a minute. My husband had is prostate removed…can not have intercourse. We’ve been married 50+ years; adopted children. I am sooo confused! Are we sinning now?

  5. Gwen Zimmer
    I never heard of this subject …… Most people who get married don’t even know if they are impotent or not. Also, you and I knowtth
    that people in there 70’s can’t have kids but if they were married before and have children through that marriage. Then, the church
    would know they weren’t impotent. I have never heard this before now.

  6. I feel the Catholic Church is way off base on this matter. There are so many circumstances which are out of control by individuals and to say they can not marry is absurd. The canon law of the Church is man made not God made. It seems there are several areas of “canon law” which need to be totally deleted!!!!

  7. In the example of Gene and Clara, we are told that the Church’s position is “compassionate” towards the fully potent partner.
    What of the impotent partner, whose loved one is now told to leave and find another fertile partner? Where is the compassion here?
    What if the couple still wishes to be married, but is told that this is impossible? Is this compassionate?
    The fact of the matter is, we are only forced into these situations if we insist that there can be no divorce, that marriage can only be accomplished through vaginal intercourse, and that sexual activity is only valid if ending with vaginal intercourse. The former has some biblical basis, and the latter are based off of philosophy that many Catholics (and most non-Catholics) find highly dubious.
    If you choose to be Catholic, fine. If you choose, as a Catholic, to believe that these restrictions are truly valid, or that the Church speaks with divine authority on this matter, fine. Live your life in this way. The rest of us recognize that a lot of harm is being done by imposing such stark limits on the lives of others.

    • A valid marriage is not based on feelings. The non-impotent spouse has the right to intercourse in a valid marriage. According to God’s teachings, marriage is the only place where sexual feelings and needs (which are very strong) are completed because it is designed to lead to children and those children need a stable, committed home to grow up in. The commitment of marriage was created for that and to protect women who are the vulnerable people in the relationship. Otherwise you are just friends.

  8. I read an article about “Marital bed must always be sacred’ couldn’t remember exactly the title, where it says that it is a sin to use foreplay prior to intercourse whether complete or incomplete. Any sexual act other than the act for procreation even within marriage, the article says, is intrinsically evil. Please comment.

    • That is not true. You can pretty much do what you want as long as it ends in vaginal intercourse to completion. As the article states, foreplay is the getting ready for intercourse, not something to just take its place.

    • The problem is disintegration of the spiritual and physical nature of the person. The affirmation of the body came through the front door with the incarnation of Christ, and God comes to use through a physical world. We are embodied spirits; if we separate these do, it is human willfulness. Angels are pure spirit (no body) and animals are only material (no human spirit).

      Marriage is not simply spiritual without a physical sign- God designed the “two shall become one” to happen both spiritually (vows) and physically (intercourse)

      We live in a culture that treats sex like we are animals (just a bodily experience void of meaning). You are suggesting we treat marriage as a purely spiritual notion void of the physical sign. Without deeper consideration regarding the human person and what marriage is, we stay at the superficial level of feelings. As long as people have feelings, that makes it marriage.

      There are a lot of things physical limitations affect. If I cannot see, I can’t get a driver’s license because of the nature of what driving is. Until you define the nature of the thing called driving, denying it to someone who cannot see won’t make sense. Or worse, it will seem cruel.

  9. Tina I think you are alluring to the article on 44 sins against marriage and I equally concede to your doubt. A piece in that article equally contradicts a piece here which allows a sterile woman or one whose vaginal cannot accomodate a manhood to because insemination can make aid the woman’s productivity; meanwhile the earlier article condemns insemination and tags it one among the sins against marriage save my understanding is shallow

  10. The comments are flying. The standard of God is high. We tend to justify in order to feel good. We tend to look through the eyes of mankind and not through the eyes of God. Is it easy to look through the eyes of God? No it is not, however, the choices we make we will face in eternity. God rules, not you. God sets the parameters, we are to apply them to glorify God and not ourselves. He knows we are going to struggle and He has placed various measures in place to help us. At the end of the day, it is not about feeling good, it is being good. Obedience to the Word of God is what are called to do and not out of fear of punishment, no, it needs to be out of willingness not to dissappoint Him.

  11. that “impotence” is (medically) a really really hard to document as “perpetual” thing. It is on the letter, and non practical for not-marrying as for nullity claims. Sexual even reproductive intercourse needs just a minimal contact nor that you are thinking about. Relax on that, it is an EXTREME and rare cause of impeding. You do not go to th epriest or bishop saying “I am afraidn I am unable to have intercourse, perpetually” with a medical certificate which says so to the letter. NO WAY

  12. This is heresy within the Church and is condemned by God! … Nothing is impossible for God! Do not forget that the mother of John the Baptist was already past the age of being able to conceive. Do not forget that Sarai the wife of Abraham was unable to conceive for many years. The Catholic church may be headed by Rome, but it’s law are not always God’s laws. Many of it’s laws were conceived by man. Follow what God puts in your heart, not what men condemn you to do.

    • The article is about impotence (the ability to consummate), not fertility. Infertility is NOT an impediment to a Catholic marriage.

  13. This is so so…. I think a marriage teaching university should be built and made compulsory for everybody by the church lest we all go to Hell Fire for committing sins in a marriage that the church teaches is not valid because of impotence thereby necessitating the need for sexual gratification. Nevertheless, this post is just so educative especially the portion that says physical arousal of sexual desire in marriagemust end in the actual act of intercourse. Even fornication is possible in marriage then.

  14. I have a question which as a Catholic has bugged me for a long time.
    how does an abled bodied person know if they are impotent unless they have sex and according to the Catholic Church sex should be reserved for marriage?!!

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