If I don’t have kids, is my marriage invalid?

Msgr. Charles PopeQuestion: In a recent section of Letters to the Editor (Feb. 9-15 issue), a woman who could not get pregnant (in her words, she is barren) during her 40-year marriage feared that her marriage was invalid because pregnancy and children were never in the picture due to pre-existing infertility. Her concerns emerged from a prior article on same-sex “marriage” which said, in her interpretation, that “a marriage with no chance of children is wrong.” My question is, does the Church teach that Catholic married couples who are infertile have an invalid marriage?

Tim Donovan, via email

Answer: Certainly not; the marriages of infertile or older couples are valid and true marriages. What the Church asks of every couple is that they remain open to the good of children and acknowledge that the key work or fruit of the institution of holy matrimony is the procreation and rearing of children. This does not mean that every marriage actually bears the fruit of children, but only that marriage is ordered to this. It is only couples that intentionally exclude the possibility of children who contract invalid marriage.

Consider a few scenarios. Couple No. 1 is young and marries, fully expecting to have children and raise them up in the Lord. However, several years into the marriage and after consultation, they find that they, for some natural reason, are infertile. This infertility is not their fault; it is due to some natural and preexisting cause. Their marriage remains valid since they entered into it in good faith and were open to the good of children. This is all the Church asks in terms of this matter for a marriage to be valid.

Couple No. 2 is younger, but it is known by both parties that one of them is infertile. Perhaps the woman had a hysterectomy due to cancer. Here, too, the infertility is due to natural causes and the couple is not intentionally excluding the good of children. They simply foresee that it is unlikely — barring a miracle — that they will have children or their own. They may or may not adopt children in the future, but all the Church asks in this matter is that they be open to the good of children (however unlikely) and not intentionally exclude the fact that the procreation of children is integral to the institution of marriage.

Couple No. 3 is older, in their late 50s and early 60s. It is highly unlikely that they will bear children of their own. But the Church does not forbid them to marry. It only asks the same thing: that they remain open to the good of children and acknowledge that the procreation of children is integral to holy matrimony. Their infertile condition is due to natural causes and does not mean they willfully exclude the good of children, hence their marriage is valid.

So, the key point is that, when a man and woman approach the Church for marriage, they cannot willfully exclude having children. Likewise, they affirm that having children is essential to the institution of marriage, which is the first and essential purpose of sexual intercourse in marriage. The Church also requires that the couple affirm that they are intending to enter into a union that is indissoluble, lifelong and in which they intend to love and support each other.

What makes same-sex unions invalid is not merely that they are infertile, but that they are willfully infertile, and also that they violate the biblical structure of marriage: one man for one woman till death do they part, open to bearing fruit through their children (cf. Gn 2:24, 1:28). As for being willfully infertile, this is because homosexual acts are intrinsically incapable of bearing the fruit of children, to which the sexual act is ordered. Same-sex couples are not accidentally incapable of bearing children due to natural causes; they are willfully so by intentionally engaging in sexual relations that are unnatural and incapable of procreation. Heterosexual couples can also offend in this regard in some of their sexual relations by using contraception or engaging in sexual practices that cannot result in procreation.

Hopefully these distinctions and stipulations will help those who might have misunderstood or absolutized what was said in the recent article.

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. at blog.adw.org. Send questions to msgrpope@osv.com.

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