Vasectomy, contraception, and confession
The following question was sent to me by a priest who reads this blog:
Recently, I had a discussion about proper administration of the sacrament of Penance regarding a man who confesses having had a vasectomy. This is the question: must the man who receives a vasectomy, in order to receive absolution validly, seek a reversal of the vasectomy?
The simple answer – “Is a reversal required for absolution?” – “No, a reversal is not always required, but YES it is often required as following from true sorrow for the sin.” However, there is much to consider.
In answering this question, we will also answer the related question: Can I be forgiven for having a tubal ligation?
Sterility is not an impediment to marriage
Before discussing the question of whether a reversal is required for the absolution of a vasectomy, we must note that sterility (whether by nature, by force, or by choice) is not an impediment to marriage.
From the Code of Canon Law:
Can. 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 of ⇒ can. 1098.
If a man is perpetually impotent, he cannot contract marriage. This is an impediment which cannot be lifted by the Church, i.e. there is no dispensation which can be granted to allow a man who is truly and perpetually impotent to marry.
If a man is merely sterile, he can contract marriage. In fact, he does not even need any dispensation at all. It is only required that, if he knows of his condition, he inform his future wife (can. 1098).
In a subsequent article, we will consider the history of the development of the Church’s teaching on sterilization, but for now it will suffice to state that a vasectomy (and clearly also a tubal ligation) causes sterility and not impotence. For impotence is the inability either to effect penetration, or even with penetration to complete the act with the emission of semen.
Now, the general consensus of theologians is that the emission which occurs after a vasectomy suffices for a “potent” marital act, even though it lacks spermatozoa – hence, the man is not impotent by virtue of a vasectomy.
(As I say, we will consider this point in a subsequent article, for now we refer our readers to the academic work of Joseph Bajada, “Sexual Impotence: The Contribution of Paolo Zacchia” which is published through the Gregorian University in Rome and available as a preview on GoogleBooks [here]. We will refer especially to page 66 and following.)
Is sex after vasectomy always contraceptive?
A marital act is not contraceptive simply by virtue of being sterile. Indeed, contraception is best defined as:
“Every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible.” (CCC 2370, Humanae Vitae 14)
Clearly, a vasectomy done for the purpose of frustrating the fecundity of the sexual act is contraceptive. The same holds for a tubal ligation.
However, the mere fact that one has been sterilized does not necessarily mean that every sexual act after that sterilization is an act of contraception. Indeed, this is most clear in the case of a man (or woman) who has been sterilized against his will. If sterilization meant that every future sexual act was contraceptive in nature, the Church would not allow these to be married – but she does allow it, for “sterility neither prohibits nor nullifies marriage.” (Can. 1084.3)
Thus, if an unmarried man or woman engages in self-mutilation through a sterilization procedure, but later repents of this act, he is not in any way prohibited from contracting a future marriage. Which, by necessity, means that he is permitted to engage in intercourse even after the sterilization. Which means, quite obviously, that these sex acts after the commission and repentance of sterilization are not evil in themselves, and therefore are not contraceptive.
What is always necessary to be forgiven after a vasectomy
From this, it should be clear that a reversal of a vasectomy is not absolutely required in order to receive sacramental absolution. Indeed, if the sexual acts after a vasectomy (once repentance has been gained) are not necessarily contraceptive, then it is clear that a reversal is not absolutely required.
Notice how this is different from the use of contraceptive methods: If a man confesses using a condom in marriage, he cannot be absolved unless he firmly resolves to no longer practice contraception – he has to stop using the condom. The same holds for the pill, or other forms of contraception.
However, in the case of a past sterilization, there is no current (or future) contraceptive act which must be stopped. The contraceptive act was in the past and, though it has negative effect on the present, it is forgiven.
What then is necessary in order to be forgiven for a vasectomy? Repentance. True sorrow is the sole absolute requirement.
However, we do maintain that there are many cases in which a reversal is at least highly recommended and (on a moral level) even required.
Why a reversal is often a moral requirement to be forgiven for a vasectomy
While it is true that a reversal is not absolutely necessary, it is often the case that a reversal is to be strongly recommended and may be morally necessary for absolution. Indeed, if a reversal can be gained without serious health-risk and also without great financial hardship, then a reversal would seem generally to be a natural desire flowing from true sorrow.
The following applies only to those who are in child-bearing years so as to have a real hope of conceiving children:
If a man is truly sorry for having committed a vasectomy, and if he is easily able to get it reversed, then he will clearly get it reversed. Indeed, if a man could easily get a reversal but refuses, we must ask the question: Why not get a reversal? Is it because he enjoys having sex which has no hope of procreation? If so, then he is clearly not repentant for having obtained the vasectomy in the first place – and then he cannot be absolved, since he lacks contrition.
Nevertheless, if there is some good and just reason why a reversal cannot easily be obtained, then there is no need to get a reversal in order to receive absolution.
What is clearly not permissible is for a man to get a vasectomy and then fain sorrow thereafter so as to receive absolution – there are no “loopholes” into heaven. If a man is sorry for his sin, he tries to rectify the situation, and (if the procedure is safe and easy) this would mean a reversal of the vasectomy.
This is summed up well by E. Christian Brugger and William E. May as follows:
“An external sign that a person has repented is that he or she seeks to reverse the vasectomy or ligation. A reversal is not required in order to marry in the Church. And if attempting a reversal were to cause serious burdens (e.g., grave financial difficulty or threat to health), then the attempt would not be morally obligatory. But in the absence of serious burdens, we believe a sterilized man or woman for the good of the marriage should attempt a reversal. This of course would not apply to couples who are past childbearing age.” (taken from a Zenit Daily Dispatch post, “Sterilized Couples Seeking to Mary”, 14 July 2010 – [here])
To answer the question:
The Father, who wrote regarding whether a reversal of the vasectomy ought to be demanded before absolution is given in confession, deserves a clear answer.
What must be demanded is clear sorrow and repentance, together with resolve to avoid sin. Thus, the confessor must see true repentance in order to grant absolution. If a sterilized man is married to a woman past child bearing years (or if a woman who had committed a tubal ligation is now past child bearing years), then it is clear that sorrow can be shown without any reversal procedure.
However, if a man is in a marriage which could yet bear children, it would be extremely difficult to ascertain true repentance without the intention to reverse the sterilization (given that the process can be obtained safely and without extensive hardship).
Thus, a confessor would often require a reversal of sterilization for those couples in child bearing years, or, in the absence of this reversal, some other act that clearly demonstrates true repentance for the sin and a desire to have never committed the sin in the first place (and we cannot think what could possibly demonstrate this if an easy reversal procedure is rejected).
Our next post on this subject will consider whether a vasectomy renders a man incapable of contracting marriage.