Mary’s Marriage

by Jimmy Akin

in Canon Law

A reader writes:

I was sitting at a wedding this weekend and the Deacon was talking
about how we get married just as God had ordained with Adam and Eve,
Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Mary and Joseph.

Mary and Joseph immediately struck me as odd because, unlike everyone
else, their marriage is distinct from all others in our Catholic
Tradition in that they did NOT have sex.

And then your discussions of impotence and sex (HERE and HERE) came screaming
back to me in that they left the impression with me that in order for
a marriage to be valid, then the husband and wife must be able to as
well as actually share in the marrital act together.

So, I was left wondering… since Mary and Joseph did not share in the
marrital act, is their marriage valid? 

Yes. A valid marriage comes into existence upon the valid exchange of matrimonial consent between two parties that are free to marry each other and not otherwise impeded.

If the parties are not both baptized (as was the case with Mary and Joseph) then the marriage is a non-sacramental one, but nonetheless valid.

If both parties are baptized then the marriage is a sacramental one.

If the marriage is sacramental and the parties then consummate it, it becomes indissoluble by anything except death. Otherwise, it is at least potentially dissoluble.

Consummation thus changes the status of certain marriages (sacramental ones) but it is not necessary for marriage to be valid. Consequently, it was not necessary for Mary and Joseph’s marriage to be valid.

Could a couple get married
today, always abstain from the marrital act, and still have a valid

Yes. This is known in Church history. It is referred to as "Josephite marriage" after St. Joseph. With a billion Catholics in the world, there are likely a number of such couples out there right now.

If so, then why does impotence really matter? 

Impotence is the inability to perform the marital act. Perpetual and incurable impotence is an impediment to marriage because marriage involves exchanging the right to conjugal relations. Giving valid matrimonial consent means binding oneself to pay the marriage debt if the other party reasonably requests it.

Therefore, if you don’t have the ability to pay the marriage debt then you cannot truthfully promise to render it to another. Consueqently, you cannot give another the right to conjugal relations with you, and thus you cannot exchange valid matrimonial consent.

It is possible, however, to exchange the right to conjugal relations even if neither party plans to exercise that right. To parties can plan never to have conjugal relations and yet exchange the right to do so should one or the other (or both) change their minds.

If Mary and Joseph entered marriage planning on not having conjugal relations then they still granted each other a right even though neither intended to use it.

On the other hand, it may be the case that they planned on having conjugal relations but the intervention of the Holy Spirit in conceiving Jesus before they came together caused them to change their plans.

Couldn’t an
impotent couple marry in the hope – like Abraham and Sarah – that God
will provide in some way?

A couple in which one or both parties was perpetually and incurably impotent cannot marry. However, a couple in which one or both parties are not perpetually impotent (i.e., are sometimes able to pay the marriage debt) or are curably impotent (e.g., via pharmaseuticals or surgery or counselling) can marry.

The case of Abraham and Sarah was different. Abraham and Sarah, though their union was infertile for much of their
marriage, could and did have marital relations. Impotence thus was not
the issue.

Their issue was not impotence (the inability to have sex) but infertility (the inability to have children). The latter is not an impediment to marriage since the parties are still able to pay the marriage debt to each other and so are able to validly exchange consent to marriage.

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Eric Giunta July 11, 2005 at 12:33 pm

When writing about marriage some time ago, Pope John Paul II described Mary and Joseph’s marriage as being a true Sacrament.
I think in this he was following the opinion of some Fathers that Mary and Joseph were, indeed, baptized.
Anyone have more details on this?

Other Eric July 11, 2005 at 2:09 pm

Hi Jimmy!
I thought that entering into a marriage intending not to consumate it, or to have children were seen as grounds for annulment, that is, a finding under Church Law that no marriage took place.

lourdes July 11, 2005 at 2:19 pm

I know of a couple who have been married for many years. They were married in the Catholic Church. Prior to the marriage he was in an accident and became a paraplegic. They have since adopted two children. This doesn’t seem to overcome the impediment to marriage. I’m confused!

Zhou July 11, 2005 at 4:20 pm

I’m not a canon lawyer, and I don’t play one on television, and I’ll defer to Jimmy on any points.
Can. 1060 Marriage possesses the favor of law; therefore, in a case of doubt, the validity of a marriage must be upheld until the contrary is proven.
Can. 1075 §1. It is only for the supreme authority of the Church to declare authentically when divine law prohibits or nullifies marriage.
Can. 1107 Even if a marriage was entered into invalidly by reason of an impediment or a defect of form, the consent given is presumed to persist until its revocation is established.
This seems to imply to me that all marriages are presumed valid until proven by the authroity of the Church to be otherwise.
Can. 1078 §1. The local ordinary can dispense his own subjects residing anywhere and all actually present in his own territory from all impediments of ecclesiastical law except those whose dispensation is reserved to the Apostolic See.
§2. Impediments whose dispensation is reserved to the Apostolic See are:
1/ the impediment arising from sacred orders or from a public perpetual vow of chastity in a religious institute of pontifical right;
2/ the impediment of crime mentioned in ⇒ can. 1090.
§3. A dispensation is never given from the impediment of consanguinity in the direct line or in the second degree of the collateral line.
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.
So, it looks to me like the local episcopal authority can provide dispensation for something like permanent impotence caused by an accident, and the couple can still have a valid, sacramental marriage.

Vincent July 11, 2005 at 4:38 pm

According to Roman Cholij, deacons, priests and bishops in the early Church couldn’t marry (or remarry, if subsequently widowed) after ordination because they committed themselves to the “lex continentiae” upon receiving Holy Orders:

If a bishop, priest or deacon (and subdeacon from the fifth century onwards) was prohibited from having sexual relations once in orders, then it is obvious that his commitment to continence would be the major impediment to subsequent marriage (quite apart from the general disfavour shown towards second marriage). For there could be no real marriage unless it was potentially open to sexual consummation. The same law of continence would also impede the unmarried deacon or priest from marrying.
(emphasis added)

How does Cholij’s statement (especially the part I emphasized) square with the Josephite marriage?

Devin Rose July 11, 2005 at 6:21 pm

I think that Mary and Joseph were truly married, as binding and indissoluble as any Sacramental marriage that has ever been. How does this square with the theology of marriage? Well, the Holy Family was in SO many ways, an extraordinary exception to the “rules” that govern ordinary human relations.
Mary was sinless from conception and so was Jesus. St. Joseph, while perhaps not sinless from conception, is claimed to have been sanctified from birth in some private revelation. Jesus was born of a virgin woman by the Holy Spirit: never before and never again will that occur.
So it doesn’t seem far fetched to me to say that Mary and Joseph’s marriage was real and true in every way–even without the marital embrace–because God so deemed it.
What greater love between spouses has ever existed than the love that Mary and Joseph shared for one another? Think about it: They spent decades with Jesus Christ himself, rearing him from birth to manhood.

John July 11, 2005 at 7:43 pm

“Pay the marriage debt?!?” That’s about the ugliest legalistic expression for lovemaking between husband and wife I’ve ever heard. It’s the type of euphemism that reinforces the stereotype of Catholics believing sex is inherently dirty. If that is some old, well-honored expression first used by some brilliant canon lawyer and saint five centuries ago, then let’s allow the use of that term to die a quiet death rather than resurrect it for gleeful ridicule by the Church’s enemies.

Steve Cavanaugh July 13, 2005 at 9:20 am

the term “pay the marriage debt” is indeed an old, well-honored expression. It is based on these verses:

The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does. (I Corinthians, 7:3-4)

While our culture emphasizes each person’s individuality and rights, the Scriptures and Catholic theology in general is always quick to pair rights with duties. If a wife has conjugal rights regarding sex, then the husband has corresponding duties (and vice versa). This is not a full explanation of the physical love of husband and wife, but is definitely a part of it.
The Church’s enemies ridicule us over everything: eating the body and blood of the Lord, loving enemies, showing mercy. We should expect different?

Peter July 13, 2005 at 11:01 am

Why is a sacramental, non-consummated marriage considered to be “at least potentially dissoluble”?
Is there a scriptural basis for this exception? How does this exception fit with the Catholic theology of marriage? Or does it fit?

Maureen July 14, 2005 at 4:52 am

Sex as a duty and debt owed by each married partner to each other is not an ugly concept. Shakespeare used it and loved it. Heck, I thought it was beautiful when I encountered the concept in Yentl. Didn’t you ever go see Yentl? It hits very hard on the fact that marriage is a reciprocal thing, not a matter of one person having power and the other grovelling at his (or her) feet.
If someone said to me, “For the sake of the love I bear you and the promises we made to each other, I owe you no less than to give all of myself to you tonight,” I don’t think I’d think it was ugly.

Darlene July 4, 2006 at 10:24 am

The Bible says that Joseph did not have sexual relations with Mary UNTIL after Jesus was born. You will remember also the text where Jesus was teaching and was told his mother and BROTHERS were outside. The book of James is believed to have been written by Jesus’ brother (half-brother actually, since his father was Joseph rather than God.) Nevertheless, I appreciate your comments that marriage is about so much more than sex.

bill912 July 4, 2006 at 10:44 am

Darlene, If you want to read a good discussion of this, go to the post “Ever Virgin” from last week.

Honora July 4, 2006 at 2:04 pm

I’ve always loved Archbishop Sheen’s take on it:

Sherri Irvin September 4, 2007 at 8:01 pm

I am trying to convert to Catholicism. Because my husband has not had an annulment with his first wife, a Catholic, I cannot join the Church. I am so sad. I have wanted to be Catholic for 45 years and now I am denied because of whom I married – 24 years ago! Ironically – if I divorced him tomorrow the Church would accept me. Obviously this is a great issue.

Eileen R September 4, 2007 at 8:15 pm

Sherri, this is a post from two years ago. I just noticed you’d posted a comment on the sidebar of the blog. If you need help in answering these questions, I’d suggest phoning Catholic Answers at 619-387-7200. They provide a free service where a staff member can talk to you and research your questions. They’ll know the canon law applicable to this case, which random people on a blog might not.
I’ll pray for you and your husband.

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