On the Capacity to Marry

And we're back.  It's been a busy spring.

While we've been doing online marriage prep instruction for over three years now, this month we're teaching our first live class.  Last week we went through the real meaning of the marital vows and the topic of physical impediments to marriage was covered.  As usual, the fact that impotence (Note:  not the same thing as sterility.) renders one incapable of marriage comes as a surprise to many people, especially when hearing it for the first time.  When some in the class struggled to wrap their minds around whether it was just for the Church to "deny marriage to a couple" on these grounds, I didn't do a very good job of explaining it.  So I wrote up a clarification email to our students and thought I'd post it here.

After thinking about the questions raised last week regarding physical impediments to marriage (i.e., impotence), we wanted to offer a more accurate answer.

When asked to confirm that "the Church really won't allow the paralyzed, for example, to marry," our response was essentially, "yes, that is correct."  However, a more accurate answer is "actually, the Church denies marriage to nobody."...
Let us explain.  Marriage is a natural human institution that Jesus Christ elevated to a Sacrament through His Church.  The nature of this unique human relationship requires certain realities, which were covered in Class #3 (freely chosen, without reservations, etc.).  Without being overly invasive, the Church does her best to ensure that the couple seeking a valid marriage meets these requirements.  In other words, the Church, as an act of love and mercy, attempts to prevent couples from living a lie.  If the couple purposely hides the fact that they are actually incapable of swearing/consummating/living the vows of marriage and the wedding ceremony takes place, it's not as if they've "pulled one over on the Church" and "tricked" her into marrying them.  They're still not married!   

For example, if the bride is already bound by other marital or religious vows, the groom has a sex addiction, the bride is being pressured by her family to marry, the couple has signed a pre-nuptial agreement, or the "bride" is actually a man, they are simply incapable of marriage.  If one of these realities becomes known, the Church has an obligation, out of love, to prevent the swearing of fraudulent vows they are incapable of living out.  It would actually be quite cruel to knowingly allow/encourage couples to attempt the impossible, swearing blasphemous oaths at great damage to their souls.

And this applies to the case of impotence.  It's not about denying impotent persons marriage.  Their condition, however tragic the case might be, renders them incapable of marriage.  What makes marriage different from any other type of loving, committed relationship?  Comprehensive union - mind, soul, AND body.  The Church attempts to prevent the impotent person from swearing an oath he is incapable of living.  He simply cannot make a total gift of himself, so how can he promise to do so?  It would be like me promising to give you each one million dollars (I'm a teacher, remember, so I'm incapable of fulfilling such a promise!).

While sentimental feelings for others (especially the disabled) makes it natural, at first glance, to question whether this is a justified requirement, confusion surrounding this issue actually cuts to the heart of the heated marriage debate currently raging within our culture.  The traditional view of marriage is that it's a conjugal union - that is, a permanent, exclusive one-flesh union between one man and one woman, for their good and the good of any children conceived of this union, distinct by its totality.  We now battle a revisionist view of marriage claiming that it's simply an emotional union, distinct by its intensity.  The current advocacy for so-called "same-sex marriage" is only the latest trend served by this view, as it was made possible by previous movements toward incoherent, incomplete (contracepted) "unions" and no-fault divorce.  

A false premise aiding this sentimental confusion is that marriage is the "ultimate" human relationship and without it a human being is denied fulfillment.  This is a lie!  First of all, the "ultimate" relationship, the only one that completely fulfills the human heart, is with God.  We can't expect our spouse to "complete us", because only God can do that.  (Sorry, Jerry Maguire fans.)  Second, marriage is only one type of many relationships which can foster happiness and lead us to holiness.  Non-sexual relationships with family or friends can be just as intimate and fulfilling as marital relationships, if not more so.  How about Sts. Francis and Clare?  Ignatius and Francis Xavier?  Benedict and Scholastica?

I could go on (as you well know :), but the bottom line is this:  The question is not "why does the Church deny marriage to impotent men, same-sex couples, minors, etc?"  She doesn't.  Is the couple claiming to seek marriage fully capable of freely/honestly swearing and living the vows of one-flesh conjugal union without reservation?  This is the question.  If the answer is no, then the Church ought not pretend otherwise and sanction an attempt to live the impossible.  To expect the Church to turn a blind eye to reality, while sentimental, has nothing to do with compassion or kindness or love.  There is no love without truth.

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