Sunday, August 17, 2014

Can I be forgiven after having a vasectomy? (The vasectomy question, Part I)

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.


Anonymous said...

The first sentence under "To answer the question" is missing something. I think you mean demand a reversal not demand the vasectomy.

Anonymous said...

A friend was injected with Depo Provera against her will. Are she and her husband obliged to abstain until the effect wears off?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Matthew, Thanks! Corrected!

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Anonymous, please use a pseudonym.

The difficulty is that Depo Provera seems to cause abortions in addition to being contraceptive. However, if she was injected against her will, then it seems quite clear that she need not abstain from marital relations. Depo Provera, though abortifacient, is not always the same as "committing an abortion", for the act is often not direct enough to be considered the intentional and direct killing of an unborn child.

Indeed, while we are sad to know that children will likely be miscarried, it is also good to recall that their souls will continue to exist for all eternity in perfect natural happiness (if we accept limbo) and that they will get their bodies back one day too. Thus, there is a great good which comes from this sad event.

However, if a couple were to willingly undergo Depo Provera, there may be more difficulty in this point -- yet, it seems to me that (even in this last case) marital relations would not necessarily have to stop.


What if in TX said...

Father, I feel like I took the cowards way out by having a tubal ligation after my second child was born. Before my two children I had three miscarriages. The two pregnancies were high risk because I had a lot of difficulties and illnesses during them. I was told by the Doctor that my next pregnancy could kill me and the child. The Priest told me that it was necessary because my life had been at risk. But I still wish I could have had more children even if it cost me my life. What if GOD still wanted me to have more children and I interfered.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

What if,
I am very sorry to hear that the priest gave you such terrible advice ... indeed, not only is that objectively a serious sin on his part, it is also a canonical crime (a lesser form of what is called "solicitation"). He could be punished with a just canonical penalty.

However, for your part, remember that God always can bring good from evil ... indeed, he would not have allowed this sad event without intending to bring about something very good. Yes, I am sure that God has many good things in store for you! Do not be overcome with sorrow, for there is still time for you to become a saint. +

Erin Manning said...

Father, I find this discussion fascinating. May I ask a few hypothetical questions here?

1. Is there an age within “childbearing years” at which the cost of a reversal (tubal or vasectomy) would be disproportionate to the likelihood of a successful pregnancy? For instance, if a Protestant couple were converting to Catholicism and had come to grieve over a previous sterilization decision, would it be disproportionate to require a reversal, even if the couple could afford it and there were no health risks from the reversal itself, if the wife were perhaps somewhere between 40 to 45 years of age?

2. If the couple had undergone the sterilization because of a grave risk to the mother’s life or health from subsequent pregnancies, and a reversal would mean the strictest NFP use possible, would it, again, be disproportionate to require the reversal for absolution? I am not suggesting here that there is no difference between NFP and sterilization--they could not be more different!--but wondering if requiring surgical reversal when there is already little to no possibility of a successful future pregnancy (especially if the risk to the wife’s health could easily cause her death and/or the death of any unborn child she might conceive) would be out of proportion to the spiritual gain.

3. In any situation where a reversal is not possible due to financial or health risk from the surgery itself (not the health risks of possible future pregnancy, which I agree are a separate concern and may possibly be appropriate to address with NFP or another Church-approved method), could the couple’s sincere sorrow for this sin take the form of a voluntary practice of occasional abstinence from the marital act? I realize that for a confessor to require such an ongoing penance would be problematic, but if the couple were to present a plan for such a thing based upon some brief and reasonable periods of abstinence for the remainder of what would have been their childbearing years, would this suffice as evidence of their sincere sorrow especially when reversal isn’t possible?

Anonymous said...

Red Cardigan, I had a child at the age of 40, 43 and 45, after this I have had four miscarriages.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Red Cardigan, Great questions!
1) I think that this would be determined on a very case-by-case basis -- and the couple's consciences would have to be the guide when the couple is very near the end of child bearing years.
2) I do not think that the dangers of a pregnancy could legitimately be used as a reason to not get a reversal. That seems to be contraceptive.
3) I think you are quite right in suggesting that a couple could voluntarily embrace periodic abstinence as a means of making reparation for a vasectomy -- perhaps during the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent, or (depending on the woman's age) following "NFP" styled abstinence periods. Obviously, this would not be required, but it could be a good sign of contrition.

Peace! +

Anonymous said...

My husband had a vasectomy without telling me, about 15 years ago. He later told me, explaining that he did it to save me from excessive difficulty, after the birth of our fourth child. He said he was willing to carry the guilt because I would never violate my conscience that way. I discovered what he had done under circumstances that I can only call miraculous. The grief it gave me was so overwhelming I could hardly cope with it. A priest told me that I didn't have the moral right to insist that he reverse it, but I couldn't stop feeling devastated. My husband went back to the doctor that performed it, and told him that he'd rather have his arm amputated than live with what he'd done. The doctor performed a reversal free of charge. We conceived a son within the next month or two, and named him after Pope John Paul. After him we had three more live births.
I can't begin to express how much it affects us to consider how close we came to not having our beautiful children. We love them so much it hurts. This is one of the reasons why I look at sin differently now. I don't see it so much as a crime that deserves a penalty, I see it more as a *loss* of blessings. Gifts from God that we rejected because of the lack of the proper moral disposition.

Erin Manning said...

Thank you for answering my questions, Father! If you have time, I have more. :)

1. In the case of #2 of my example, would it be correct to say that they may, after the reversal, continue to practice a method such as NFP in order to avoid conception completely due to the serious risk to the mother’s physical life and health?

2. A quick look at costs for both tubal and vasectomy reversal surgeries suggests that the procedures may cost between $5,000 and $10,000 (depending on many factors that will vary by patient, location, etc.). It seems that insurance often does not cover these procedures (though that may change). Given that it may be proper for confessors to require reversal in cases where the affordability of the procedure is not a question at all, it is still quite likely that an expense of five to ten thousand dollars may be outside the range of affordability for many people. Has there ever been a pro-life Catholic effort to create a charitable fund to assist repentant Catholics to reverse tubal ligations or vasectomies?

Jerry said...

The problem I have with all of this is contraception is NEVER preached about. There is no responsibilitly by our priest to truly educate the people on this very important issue. When is NFP ever preached, it is not, because it is a heated topic. As a result white Catholics, since the sexual revolution are literally contracepting themsleves out of existance. What a pity.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

The cost of a reversal would have to be taken into account by a confessor. Even if a couple had to save up money for the reversal, they could still receive absolution straight away.

Unknown said...

My husband and I repented and reversed our vasectomy and have 3 more children here (1 miscarried.) I shudder to think of where we would be without the reversal. It brought a more complete healing to our marriage, I believe. The pull of the secular culture is so strong, I do not believe people understand the gravity of what they do when they sterilize. Thank you for writing this. I am always praying for conversion and for our priests to be strong leaders in defense of life-giving marriages.

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