Dear Grace: Should a man and a woman marry in the Church when they already know up front that they are physically unable to have children due to sterilization by hysterectomy in the woman.
I am assuming that by your question you are asking if it is permissible by the Church for them to marry under these circumstances. The answer is yes, they may marry even if they are incapable of having children due to sterility, as long as the condition is known to both of them and has not been kept hidden in any way (Canon 1084, § 3; 1098). The Church would have to counsel this couple very carefully in order to be certain that each of them understands what they are undertaking. It would need to be explained to them that, in entering into marriage, they both completely understand and accept that no natural children will ever be born to them. This would include children brought about through any means artificial such as in vitro fertilization, artificial insemination, and surrogate motherhood. Use of these biotechnologies would be in direct opposition to the moral law of God for marriage and would therefore not be an option open to them (Donum Vitae).
Regarding hysterectomy, we know that it is a procedure that involves removal of the uterus, thus rendering pregnancy impossible. Hysterectomy is therefore a sterilizing operation. An important question here is: what was the reason for the hysterectomy? If the surgery was performed specifically to prevent pregnancy, then this would have been a grave sin against the human body. The woman would have to approach the Lord in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, asking forgiveness for this serious offense before entering Holy Matrimony.
We know, however, that sometimes hysterectomy is performed for therapeutic reasons when it is done to preserve the life or health of the woman. This would be morally permissible and would not require Reconciliation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states it this way: “Except when performed for strictly therapeutic medical reasons, directly intended amputations, mutilations, and sterilizations performed on innocent persons are against the moral law” (CCC #2297).
So, we see that a prior hysterectomy does not necessarily prevent a couple from marriage, but they would have to consider cautiously what this would mean to their future together. Perhaps your question stems from confusion between sterility and impotency. Sterility is the inability to reproduce, while impotency is the impossibility to perform the sexual acts of marriage. Impotence, unlike sterility, by its very nature invalidates marriage (Canon 1084, §1). This is because the sexual act is the action by which the husband and wife literally become one flesh and express their exclusive and irrevocable commitment by giving themselves totally to each other. Without the ability to have sexual union, the marriage cannot come into existence. In other words, the couple must be capable of consummating their marriage by sexual union. Let us say clearly that we are not talking about what may happen later in marriage to cause impotency. As long as the marriage was consummated in sexual union, then it is valid. Remember, marriage is for life. Once a valid marriage comes into existence, it is indissoluble (CCC# 1640).
Adoption would, of course, be a wonderful possibility for this couple. There are so many unwanted innocent children in the world who are in need of a loving home and parents to care for them. This is indeed a way that a married couple can be open to life and fulfill the law of God for marriage.
Grace MacKinnon is a syndicated columnist and public speaker on Catholic doctrine. Readers are welcome to submit questions about the Catholic faith to: Grace MacKinnon, 1234 Russell Drive #103, Brownsville, Texas 78520. Questions also may be sent by e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org. You may visit Grace online at www.DearGrace.com.