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.
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
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.