On vasectomy and impotence
We continue our discussion of various issues related to repentance after the commission of a vasectomy. In our earlier article [here], we discussed why a reversal would sometimes (even oftentimes) be required in order to receive sacrament absolution after a vasectomy – though it is not mandated as relating to the amendment of life, but seems to be closely linked to true contrition and repentance when the reversal procedure can be obtained without excessive cost, pain, or danger and when the couple is of child-bearing age.
To our earlier question, we may add another: Can a man who has had a vasectomy validly contract marriage without getting the vasectomy reversed?
The simple answer to this question – “Is a reversal required for marriage?” – is, “No, a reversal is not required.” However, again, there is much to consider; and, in some cases, a reversal would seem to be required by the conscience of the individual (even if not by the law of the Church).
The whole question will hang on the following point: Is a vasectomy only “sterilization” (as it is commonly assumed to be), or does it cause impotence? While it would seem a silly question, we will see that impotence is defined in a broader way than many assume.
The state of the question: Can a eunuch get married?
(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.)
We will not here enter too far into the history of the debate, however, a few points must be mentioned. There is a document from Sixtus V in the year 1587, Cum frequenter. This document, a Papal Brief, discusses (in part) whether men who have been castrated are permitted to enter into marriage. The answer is in the negative, on account of the fact that such men are impotent and unable to engage in the marital act.
Prior to this document, there were three opinions held by theologians:
1) That men who had been castrated (or who, for any reason, had no testicles) could contract marriage, so long as they could effect penetration. There is no concern as to whether there is an emission of any fluid.
2) That men who lacked testicles could contract marriage, only if they could both effect penetration and also emit some form of seminal fluid.
3) That men who lacked testicles could not contract marriage even they could effect penetration and emit fluid, because this fluid was not “verum semen” produced by the testicles.
Technically, the brief Cum Frequenter does not support or reject any of these opinions, for Sixtus V only states that those men who are unable to penetrate are also unable to marry. The Papal response does not discuss the question of those who are able to penetrate, but who are unable to emit either any fluid or only some generally-seminal liquid which is not “true semen”.
Finally, we must note that there is no concern whether the “true semen” actually be capable of producing a child – the question is whether it originates from the male genitalia or not.
Sterility and impotence
(See the article of Thomas J. O’Donnell, “Impotence and Sterility” [here].)
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 possibly be granted to allow a man who is truly and perpetually impotent to marry.
(However, we do note that, if the impotence is doubtful and perhaps could be cured, marriage may be contracted.)
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).
But the real question is how we are to define sterility and impotence. If impotence simply means the inability to penetrate, then a vasectomy does not result in impotence – it is truly only a “sterilization”. However, many have defined impotence as not merely the inability to penetrate, but further the inability to emit true semen which originated from the testicles.
Indeed, we must state that penetration alone cannot be considered sufficient for potency. Rather, the emission of some sort of seminal fluid is necessary – for mere penetration does not constitute the marital act, for there is no completion.
(Perhaps in a later article, we may show that the use of a condom does not merely make the marital act to be sterile, but truly impotent – therefore, the act is not considered as being completed when a barrier contraceptive is used)
Thus, the general teaching of the theologians (today and always) is that marital potency means not merely penetration but also ejaculation.
While it was debated whether the fluid emitted had to originate in the testicles or not, the common opinion today is that it is sufficient that any broadly seminal fluid be emitted, even if it lacks spermatozoa and does not originate from the testicles (but, as it must be “seminal,” urine is clearly insufficient). This opinion is supported by the most recent documents from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (13 May 1977):
1. Whether the impotence that renders a marriage null consists in the antecedent and perpetual incapacity, whether absolute or relative, to complete the conjugal act.
2. If affirmative, whether the conjugal act necessarily requires the ejaculation of semen produced in the testicles.
Regarding the first: affirmative; regarding the second: negative.
This means that the failure to emit semen originating from the testicles is not the same as impotence. So long as some fluid is able to be emitted, the man is not to be considered impotent.
(We do note that the Roman Rota seems to have taken a diverse opinion from that of the CDF on this point – and it is no surprise that there should be no little difficulty in this area, as the science is still relatively new. However, none should scoff at the Church as she diligently strives to solve a mess which she never created in the first place.)
Vasectomy only causes sterility – no dispensation is required
As a vasectomy results only in sterility, it is clear that no dispensation is required for marriage – since sterility is no impediment. From this, it is clear that the objective law of the Church does not mandate a reversal of the vasectomy in order for the man to contract marriage.
Notice, as an aside, that a tubal ligation is not even mentioned in the discussion up to this point – as the presence or absence of an egg has absolutely no bearing on whether the marriage can be consummated. However, what we are about to say (through the rest of the article) could well be applied also to a woman who has had a tubal ligation and then seeks marriage in the Church.
The motive for a reversal from the conscience
E. Christian Brugger and William E. May state the following opinion:
“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])
May and Brugger are right in stating that “a reversal is not required in order to marry in the Church.” Indeed, sterility is no impediment to marriage.
However, they are further correct in stating that the conscience of the individuals would often seem to mandate a reversal – at least, when the couple is of child-bearing years, and when a reversal would not be a great burden.
Indeed, in order to be married in the Church, the couple must be “open to life”. This does not mean that the sterilized couple has to actually expect to have children – even old couples who are well past child-bearing years are able to be married. However, it does mean that the sterilized couple must repent of the act of sterilization.
At this point, we return to our earlier article and state that it would be very difficult to see true repentance if the couple refused to undergo a reversal in those cases when a reversal could be gained easily and without any great danger (assuming that they are of child-bearing years). Hence, we say that the law of the Church does not mandate a reversal, but the “intention to be open to life” on the part of the couple may move their consciences to mandate a reversal.
Furthermore, if the couple is in child-bearing years and could easily gain the reversal but simply refuses to do so, the priest would have to find some other evidence of repentance (since repentance is necessary to the intention to be open to life). It is hard to see what other evidence could be given when a reversal is rejected without any good reason.
On the other hand, if there is a good reason as to why a couple does not chose to have a reversal of the sterilization, there is nothing in the law of the Church to impede them from marriage even without the reversal surgery.