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Posted Apr. 24, 2020 by DOM No comments yet

Catholic Marriage: Infertility vs. Impotency

I’ll admit it: at one point, I was confused about the Catholic sexual ethics of infertility. On one occasion, I was having coffee with a secular friend who asked me all kinds of questions about what married couples could and could not do, Josephite marriages, the difference between infertility and impotency, and even bizarre hypotheticals like “what if one of the spouses developed a disease that made having sex fatal for six months?!” While I can’t promise that this post will answer that last question, hopefully it will make the Church’s teachings on impotence and infertility a bit clearer.

The Catholic Church teaches that those who are impotent—that is, those who are incapable of having sexual intercourse—cannot marry. (I know, to the modern ear, like my friend, this might sound odd and even harsh). Because procreation and unity are the two natural ends of marriage, and because both of these ends are fulfilled in the sexual embrace, it follows that the sexually impotent cannot marry. As per the Code of Canon Law No. 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.” By “antecedent” and “perpetual,” it is meant that one cannot be impotent either before marriage (antecedent) or permanently during marriage (perpetual);[1] this means that one is considered impotent if they cannot have intercourse at all or if they cannot have intercourse specifically with his or her spouse.

It is important, however, to clarify what being impotent does not mean. Impotence is not infertility. While impotence means the inability to have sex, infertility means the inability to conceive children. Thus, impotence and sterility/infertility are not the same. The Church does not consider infertility as an impediment to marriage, and married couples who suffer from infertility have marriages just as natural and valid as those who are able to conceive children.

But one might object: how can an infertile couple fulfill the procreative end of marriage if they cannot conceive children? In answer to this question, the Church maintains that a couple can be infertile but nonetheless remain open to life. How can this be, knowing that their marital embrace will not result in conceiving a child? If we remember back to our earliest posts on the meaning of nature, we established that human beings possess a distinct human nature, one impulse of which is an inclination to procreate. Like all mammals, human beings are endowed with the complimentary sex organs in order to carry out this task. These sex organs have an end or a purpose: to facilitate procreation.

Sometimes, there is a defect in the sex organs that makes the fulfilling of this end impossible: if the sex organs are constructed such that a man and a woman cannot properly unite, then this would be a case of impotence. However, sometimes the impediment is not due to the functionality of the sex organs, but due to other factors that make conception impossible. In other words, if a couple is capable of having intercourse, then they are still capable of using their sex organs for their natural purpose, even if they know that the procreative end of the sex organs cannot be achieved.

We encounter these kinds of scenarios in our day-to-day lives all the time. For instance, it does not betray the natural end of the digestive organs to eat one when is not hungry. I can enjoy a piece of cake even if I know it won’t nourish me because eating in general is the natural function of my digestive system. The fact that my body is not nourished by the cake does not mean I have done something wrong. However, imagine now that I eat an inordinately large portion of cake for the express purpose of purging it later. This would be an abuse of my digestive organs, if I intentionally used my organs for a purpose contrary to their nature.

In this way, couples who affirm the natural end of the sex organs while struggling with infertility are nonetheless open to life despite for some reason not being able to have children. They do nothing to make intercourse sterile but give themselves to each other as they are. By having intercourse, the couple affirms the natural end of procreation in itself. They affirm that the sexual embrace between husband and wife is naturally designed for the procreation of children.  We can think about it this way: an infertile couple may know with almost complete certainty that they will not conceive a child. But the infertile couple is still open to life in the sense that if, against all odds, sexual intercourse did lead to conception, the married couple would be open to this new life. Why? Because this is what sexual intercourse was designed to do.

This is also the same logic behind Natural Family Planning. Unlike the couple suffering with infertility, a married couple may decide that a certain time is not practical for conceiving a child, so they reserve intercourse to the infertile time when conception is unlikely. However, the married couple is still open to life in the sense that if they were to conceive a child during this time, they would nonetheless be open to children. They do nothing to sterilize an act of intercourse by abstaining from sex at that time.[2]

Again, couples that struggle with infertility are no less open to life than couples who have no problem conceiving, and their marriages are no less valid or fruitful. As St. Pope John Paul II said in a message to infertile couples in a 1982 homily, “You are no less loved by God; your love for each other is complete and fruitful when it is open to others, to the needs of the apostolate, to the needs of the poor, to the needs of orphans, to the needs of the world.”[3]

In our next post, we will continue to discuss infertility and the licit methods for treating it. We will see that some methods of treating infertility, even certain technological ones, are perfectly licit, while others are gravely immoral.

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[1] By the way, this comment is merely a logical distinction. It in no way affirms that people ought to have sexual intercourse before/outside of marriage.

[2] The same logic is behind Josephite marriages (an extremely rare example). If a married couple decides (together!) that they are called to abstain from intercourse, this does not render their marriage invalid, since they are still capable of having intercourse and are thus open to life. The Josephite couple recognizes and affirms the natural end of the sexual embrace, and it is still an integral part of their marriage even if they are not actively trying to conceive children

[3] Pope John Paul II, “Homily at the Mass for Families During the Apostolic Pilgrimage to Nigeria, Benin, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea” (Rome, 13 February 1982) http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/homilies/1982/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_19820213_onitsha-nigeria.html

About the Author: Bridget Groff is an M.A./Ph.D. student in the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America. She currently works part-time at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as an intern for the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage.

 

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The Nature of Marriage Blog: Chastity

Posted Mar. 6, 2020 by DOM 1 comment

Chastity: The Married and the Single Person

What is chastity? Some think that to be chaste means simply to abstain from sex or sexual behavior. This misunderstanding perhaps stems from the fact that we most often hear about chastity vis-à-vis our dating relationships, wherein practicing chastity means to restrain our sexual desires out of respect for our partner and out of respect for the gift of sexuality itself. Or, we might even have been led to be believe that sex in itself is wrong and dirty. However, while chastity certainly involves bodily restraint, chastity is much more than just bodily restraint, and chastity in no way supposes that sex is bad.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that Chastity is “the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being” (CCC, 2337). The Catechism continues and explains that chastity protects the powers of love and life (see CCC, 2338). In other words, the virtue of chastity helps us protect ourselves and others since it frees us to live our sexuality according to our state in life.

All people, whether they are single, dating, married, or consecrated (lay or religious), are called to a life of chastity. Married integrated sexuality first by respecting themselves and God’s design for marriage. They live their individual gifts of sexuality by generously giving of themselves to each other as they vowed—faithfully, permanently, and open to life. Spouses protect the unitive and procreative nature of the conjugal embrace by keeping it whole and holy.  That means that they reject contraception, sterilization, and abortion. When needed, chaste married couples use Natural Family Planning (NFP) to attempt to either achieve a pregnancy or postpone one. The chaste married couple mutually grows in their respect for each other, cherishes their gifts of sexuality and fertility, and never violate each other, their marriage, or God’s gifts. Chaste married couples reject anything that would harm these gifts adultery, contraception, abuse of any kind, including pornography.

Clearly, then, the virtue of chastity is not merely a prohibition against sex, or else married people would be called to a life of abstinence! Rather, chastity is the right ordering of our inherently sexual nature and the proper expression of sexuality in our everyday lives. But you might be thinking: What about unmarried people? What does it mean for single people to integrate their sexuality in life without engaging in sexual acts? Indeed, one might object that to integrate sexuality into one’s life without engaging in sexual acts presupposes the very definition of chastity that we are rejecting: if “integration” for single people just means “not being sexual,” then to be chaste must mean, simply, to abstain from sex.

However, this objection assumes that the terms “sexuality” and “sexual acts,” have the same meaning, limiting the scope of sexuality to mere genital expression. As Dr. Theresa Notare, the assistant director of the bishops’ NFP Program notes,

“Today’s culture insists that genital activity is the most important aspect of human sexuality. This view holds that people have a need to be satisfied genitally in whatever manner makes them happy….This utilitarian view of human sexuality and sexual relations sees human sexuality as limited to the genital and treats the sexual partner as nothing more than an object to be used. It offers a greatly diminished understanding of human nature.”

Put differently, we must not assume that to be sexual means to engage in sexual activity. All people belong to one sex or the other; all people are born male or female. To be a man or to be a woman is to live one’s sexuality. If we grant that our sex influences the way that we think, act, and relate to other people, then our biological sex is integral to the way we behave in our daily lives. If we consider that human beings are by nature social creatures that seek community with others, then we see that there is an inextricable link between how we fulfill this aspect of human nature with the fact that human beings are essentially gendered. In the context of our social nature, the biological reality of sex and procreation takes on a deeper meaning. Notare is helpful again on this point: “Within the context of human nature, pro-creation also speaks of our need to be in relation to each other–to build family, to have community. If we hope to live in a sexually mature way, our basic challenge in life is to integrate our sexual feelings with all other aspects of being human.”

This emphasis on the interpersonal aspect of human sexuality is what Karol Wojtyla deemed a personalistic approach rather than a sexological approach to sexual ethics. By personalistic sexuality, Wojtyla means that sexuality is, primarily, a term for the relation between the sexes; the conjugal act itself is understood in context of the former.[4] By contrast, the sexological approach to sexual ethics places the conjugal act at the heart and center: we understand human nature in terms of sex, not sex in terms of human nature. This personalistic expression of our sexuality is especially clear if we remember that the virtue of chastity should be understood in relation to theological virtue of charity or love. Love is not merely a sensual or psychological phenomenon whereby we desire another person insofar as they give us pleasure. Rather, love is willing the good of another and seeing them as a whole person in themselves, not as an object for us.

By understanding sexuality as, primarily, a social relation between people of the opposite sex, we can see how the single person’s sexuality is no less than the married person’s. It is tempting to think of marriage as the fulfillment or culmination of sexuality, that everyone’s sexuality is incomplete or lacking until it finds expression in the conjugal act. This is not true. It is especially important for the single person to realize that their sexuality is not diminished because they cannot have sex. The single person’s sexuality is not merely a diminished or immature form of married sexuality. Rather, the single person’s sexuality is good in itself because it is an expression of the more fundamental reality of sexuality: the interpersonal relation between men and women. Without downplaying the significance of the marital union, getting married and having sex is just one way of expressing this interpersonal relation.

For the single person, every time you treat someone of the opposite sex with kindness and respect—that is a chaste expression of your sexuality. Every time you express your unique, God-given strengths and gifts (especially in a way that benefits your community)—that is a chaste expression of your sexuality. Every time you thank God for your sex and revere the different but complementary aspects of men and women—that is a chaste expression of your sexuality.

[1] By “unmarried,” I mean dating or even engaged couples, as well as lay or religious people who have taken vows of celibacy. While the vow of celibacy is a unique way of expressing the call to chastity (in effect, one consecrates his/her life to a nuptial relationship with God), and while the celibate person practices chastity in an importantly different way from the single person who hopes to marry, the broader question with which I am concerned is: what does it mean to be a sexual person while abstaining from sex?

[2] Theresa Notare, “Sex and the Single Person,” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, April 3, 1998, http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/abortion/sex-and-the-single-person.cfm)

[3] Notare, “Sex and the Single Person.

[4] Karol Wojtyla, “The Problem of Catholic Sexual Ethics,” in Person and Community: Selected Essays, vol. 4 (Peter Lang, 1993), 282.

About the Author: Bridget Groff is an M.A./Ph.D. student in the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America. She currently works part-time at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as an intern for the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage.

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