When Marital Sex Is a Sin

In a recent column, David O’Brien, the associate director of religious education for lay ministry in the Archdiocese of Mobile, Ala., recounts the story of Agnes and Jake, devout Catholics who conceived and delivered four children during the first five years of their marriage.

Agnes described how Jake “wanted to be a good father and husband, and he couldn’t see how that could happen if we continued to have more children. In short, he was getting a vasectomy.”

Agnes had a strong Catholic formation, and understood that married couples should not engage in sexual acts that have been intentionally blocked or “rendered infecund.” She struggled with Jake’s new stance and dug her heels in.

She wondered how she could possibly be an authentic witness to the Gospel “if within my marriage, I was no longer open to life? How could I minister to other women and encourage them to be bold in their faith if I wasn’t living it myself? And what do I teach my children about marriage and sex when their father and I weren’t aligned?”

She went through an emotional roller-coaster: “At first, I cried. Then I yelled. Then I argued, calmly and intelligently. Then I cried some more. I shared with my husband excerpts from Kippley’s Sex and the Marriage Covenant and the encyclical ‘Humanae Vitae.’ We listened to Christopher West and Scott Hahn in the car.” Nonetheless, her husband was unchanging.

As it became clear that Jake would go ahead with the vasectomy notwithstanding her protests, Agnes confronted a question that many serious Catholics have had to contend with in their marriages. She wondered whether it would still be allowable for her to engage in marital relations with her husband after the vasectomy. When one spouse is involved in this so-called “abuse of matrimony,” the other is placed in an awkward situation. A husband can struggle with a similar problem when his wife refuses to get off the pill and stop contracepting. While the contracepting spouse is clearly doing something morally wrong, doesn’t the non-contracepting spouse also sin by cooperating in an act that the other spouse has made infertile?

Pope Pius XI addressed this issue as far back as 1930, but the clearest teaching of the Church came in a 1997 Vatican document called the “Vademecum for Confessors.” It notes that cooperation in the sin of one’s spouse, by continuing to engage in the marital act when the spouse has taken recourse to contraception, can be permissible when “proportionally grave reasons” exist for doing so, and when one is earnestly “seeking to help the other spouse to desist from such sinful conduct (patiently, with prayer, charity and dialogue; although not necessarily in that moment, nor on every single occasion).” The document and sound counselors say that participation in such an act would not be in and of itself immoral on the part of the non-contracepting spouse, but these counselors would also say that the one trying to lead the Christian life ought not to initiate sexual relations with the contracepting spouse.

Thus, while Agnes would not be obliged to facilitate her husband’s sin, she could herself, without sin, engage in marital relations with him if she thought refusal to do so might lead to other sins, such as temptations to infidelity or divorce, as long as she continued to seek and encourage a change of heart and a change of perspective in him.

While Agnes came to understand this point in her head, she hesitated in her heart. After battling with Jake for over a year, she found herself burned out and exhausted. One night, after crying through the night, a sudden and unexpected thunderstorm came through. As she heard the intense raindrops falling, she reflected that the raindrops were like God’s tears. She realized that God, too, is in a kind of broken marriage, a difficult marriage with the humanity He loves. She considered how the Church, while being His spotless mystical bride, has members who are often unfaithful, hurting the Lord and blocking His life-giving love. “And yet,” she reflected, “He never holds back. He comes to us, over and over again.” Indeed, God continues to give His body to the Church on Her altars, ever beckoning us to conversion and perfection.

Agnes decided that for the time being, if her husband sought marital relations, she would consent, while patiently seeking to convince him that his unilateral decision about the vasectomy was a mistake. She hoped to bring him to consider a reversal of the vasectomy. She sought to keep communication on the matter open and active, entrusting this painful trial in their marriage to God: “I lift up our marriage, our intimacy, and our continued conversion to God who knows our hearts.”

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  • waynergf

    There was no mention of Natural Family Planning…did Jake and Agnes investigate and discuss this option?

  • A more fundamental question is one of love. If Jake loves his wife, he should be concerned for her good first, primarily her spiritual good. Even if he doesn’t understand all this, having the operation, knowing it will cause her constant anguish, is the opposite of love. It sounds like there are deep issues – primarily his selfishness and lack of understanding of the nature of love – that he needs to face.


  • djgrimm

    It seems to me there is a moral difference between initiating or consenting to relations with a spouse who uses contraceptive drugs or devices, and doing so with a spouse who has had a sterilization. Although the spouse’s intention of avoiding pregnancy is the same, the character of the act is different. While the “trying-to-do-the right-thing” spouse might be concerned to avoid repeated sins of contraception on the part of the spouse, having relations with a spouse who has been sterilized does not involve repeated sins of sterilization.

    And couldn’t “grave reasons” also include accomplishment of the other purposes of marriage, i.e. just satisfaction of the right-thinking spouse’s sexual appetites, promotion of spousal harmony, etc.?

  • nearstar

    This is stupid! If she didn’t have sex with him, he’d have no reason to have the vasectomy. So, by her giving in, she’s justifying it. That’s certainly not giving him a reason to consider a reversal.

  • regina

    Nearstar – are you saying Pius XI is stupid?

  • rakeys

    Wow, I am sure glad that my wife and I are on the same page in following God’s plan for sexuality.

    I agree with waynergf. Agnes should look into Natural Family Planning, preferably with Jake. She then could consent to having intercourse with Jake during her nonfertile days, but abstain during her fertile period. While this is not ideal, at least Jake’s vasectomy would not interfere with their openess to life.
    Agnes could then still encourage Jake to have a reversal. But at least Agnes would not be doing anything to block her fertility, since she could not get pregnant anyway when she is not ovulating. They could have sex almost three weeks out of the month with no problem, and abstain 7 to 10 days, just like other NFP couples.

  • janetdjm

    A vasectomy is not’s God’s Way, its man’s. It is not an absolute fix, for vasectomies have a failure rate of .15 and have complications. My brother in law got a vasectomy, and their youngest son was conceived after the attempt to sterilize him, and they are very glad for the gift this child has been in their lives. God had a plan!

    I am sorry if Jake does not respect and honor Agnes’s decision to trust and depend on God. Not only will it impact them spiritually, mentally, and emotionally regarding their sexuality, there are physical risks of long term complications. About 50% of men after a vasectomy will develop anti-sperm antibodies. The immune system has to break down the sperm that gets ejaculated into the body. This could lead to a higher incidence of autoimmune disease (diabetes, lupus, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and more). Several studies have noted that men who undergo a vasectomy have a higher incidence of developing prostate cancer, especially 15-20 years after their vasectomy. Some men report chronic pain that does not go away, reduced libido, and couples report less marital satisfaction. A good resource is Couple to Couple League:

    For those who have had a vasectomy and want to restore how God made their body, mind, and spirit to function, check out One More Soul’s physician directory:

    I agree with the suggestion that she practice NFP, and abstain from relations in her fertile time, and continue prayer and offering up of suffering and sacrifices for her husband’s conversion of heart to love God fully.

  • sexisgood

    What a load of dung !!! This article is an example of why My wife and I have problems. We have 6 beautiful children, but after the 5th I said please no more. Like I said, We have 6.
    NFP, O please,I dont think so.
    I did not want to be, STILL, raising children into Our 60s.I had a vasectomy. It nearly cost My marriage because of the attitude/teaching of the church.
    I have left the church over the stunted teaching (we wont get into the other sins)of this “Institution”.
    The church has NO business in the bedroom of anyone !!!!!

  • Mary

    One or two of the above replies are compassionate, several are pharisaical from those who have never faced the problem, and one is filled with anger. I will tell my story, and you can judge me as you see fit.

    I converted to the Catholic faith at the age of 30, after we had 3 children. While studying the faith I saw the reasoning against using contraceptives, so stopped them. A fourth child was conceived, a son. When the day arrived to become one with the Catholic faith, my husband said, “If you become Catholic, “you free me from our marriage vows.” Before our son was born, he had been unfaithful as he promised, and insisted on a vascectomy as a condition of remaining together. I had 4 children, the oldest 6 and the youngest newborn, all who needed a father in their lives.

    A long story is not necessary here, except to say that the vascectomy only slowed our inevitable divorce, with four years of intense suffering in the interim.

    Yet, all of my children are the joy of my life, especially my little discarded pill – not so little now.

  • elice

    Hmm. I think that this article is weak. Maybe I feel this because of my own story and struggle with this issue. I was the one that was using birth control in my story with a husband that was trying to get me to “come around” to a different way of thinking. It took him awhile but he was successful. I have always been pro-life but didn’t realize how taking the pill was contradictory to this. It was a hard decision and is still work but I feel that it has been worth it. I decided to start practicing NFP after my third and last child. I am not looking to have more children(but would welcome it) and feel empowered to achieve this on my own and not rely on someone or something else to control this. Ok so all of you haters that are saying that I still practice birth control in some form-whatever! I can best explain it with this story I once heard:
    There were two men that were starving and needed to feed their family. Once went out and robbed a store to get food and other needed items. The other went out and got a job, earned money and fed his family. Both achieved the same end result but the way they went about it was entirely different. One good, one bad.
    I think the most important lesson in the story above as I would compare it to my own is that the issue of birth control is not always the root of the problem. Communication and respect in a marriage is critical. I love my husband with all of my heart and want to be the best wife for him. This might require me to get out of my comfort zone and move away from all that society has taught me my whole life. The journey is hard but rewarding. Everything in life worth having is hard-running a marathon is hard but feels great in the end. Delivering a baby is hard but what joy you get from that!
    Where is the faith people?!

  • terrygeorge

    well it is a very tough situation to be in.

    agreed of course that God’s direction for married couples as rightly passed on by His church, His body on earth, is that we remain open to the possibility of children in the marital act. i am sorry if anyone has difficulty with that and pray for them (would be glad to discuss it further), as well as for all who are in troubled marriages because of a spouses refusal to accept God’s teaching.

    i believe the article and then the discussion are off on a mistaken tangent however. in 1 corinthians 7 saint paul instructs spouses not to withhold themselves one from another with only one exception, that being by mutual consent to abstain temporarily for prayer followed by rapid return to marital activity. given this explicit instruction, i believe the church has taught through the centuries that it is actually sinful for one spouse to withold from their mate. oddly enough, it is actually akin to the very act of contraception because it is an unwillingness to give the gift of ones complete self to ones rightful spouse. furthermore there is another new testament passage (sorry i cannot recall where) that explains that it is even better for a spouse to be subjected to the immoral activity than to withhold themselves. i believe that would be a rather direct application of scripture to these couples situations.

    i think this is a lot of room for better understanding of these issues in our church and society. lets pray we do our part to help. let us swerve neither to the right nor to the left but serve God please. may God bless us to please Him. amen

  • Mary

    I fear we have a theological problem in the answer. Agnes need not worry that she is not open to life. She is making no moral choice against life, and, as I shall show, there is material contraceptive act in which she would be participating. Her husband is not contracept-ing. He has mutilated himself against her will, with the intention of sterility. His initial act is contraceptive in nature, and it may be that he subsequently continues to morally assent to contraception, BUT he does NOT continue to commit a material act of contraception each time he has marital sex. Therefore, there is no contraceptive act in which his wife could participate. The only way she could sin would be to herself intend the sterility. The couple’s situation is identical to that of a couple in which the woman has had her tubes tied. They may continue to have marital intercourse, and are under no obligation to reverse the surgery, but the one who intended the evil should repent.

  • Mary

    There was a type of a left out “no” in the previous answer. Here is the correction.

    I fear we have a theological problem in the answer. Agnes need not worry that she is not open to life. She is making no moral choice against life, and, as I shall show, there is NO material contraceptive act in which she would be participating. Her husband is not contracept-ing. He has mutilated himself against her will, with the intention of sterility. His initial act is contraceptive in nature, and it may be that he subsequently continues to morally assent to contraception, BUT he does NOT continue to commit a material act of contraception each time he has marital sex. Therefore, there is no contraceptive act in which his wife could participate. The only way she could sin would be to herself intend the sterility. The couple’s situation is identical to that of a couple in which the woman has had her tubes tied. They may continue to have marital intercourse, and are under no obligation to reverse the surgery, but the one who intended the evil should repent.

  • bep35

    This story wouldn’t happen in our state (SD) where the husband must have his wife’s consent before he can get a vasectomy.

  • wgsullivan

    We like to separate Christ and His Church. When our Pope speaks on matters of faith and morals it is Christ speaking. We need to honor Christ’s teaching and know He has the best in mind for us. This way we can be happy for eternity.
    I know, easier said than done but this is our faith.

  • No mention of NFP. Our problem was condom use. I was consistent with NFP and after Confession and direction, abstained when I knew I was fertile. It was difficult at first but then accepted. I believe this is the only way this can be dealt with. Our priests need to be more informed and comfortable with directing NFP when there is a serious need.

  • stmonicastears

    There are some good comments above….along with some not so good.

    To quote a very orthodox Catholic nun to her RCIA class, “It doesn’t matter whether you sway to the right or the left of Peter, either way you stink”.

    The Church’s teaching on this issue of faith and morals, i.e contraception/sterilization, requires the assent of baptized Catholics. It is the Church’s God-given responsibility to teach us and it is our responsibility to God to comply. We are not reguired to understand; we are only required to be faithful. This is found either explicitly or implicitly in scripture.

    The issue of contracepting/sterilizaton is a symptom of a much bigger problem, namely lack of, or poor evangelization and catechesis. As Catholics we must be counter-cultural. We live in a secular, relativistic society where many Catholics find this too difficult or don’t try. This is why many in the Church and society at large will never “get it”.

    I converted after 13 years of marriage. My husband a cradle Catholic and I both knew the Church’s teaching on contraception and sterilization, but because neither of us were evangelized or catechized properly we thought we “knew better”. An obvious sign of our indoctrination into relativism.

    After 7 years of contracepting, I decided after my second son, I wanted no more children and got a tubaligation; something I have rgreted ever since particularly as I get older.

    Ten years ago, after 28 years of marriage and 16 years after I entered the Church, our marriage was all but destroyed. We had been living as strangers for over 10 years, we barely spoke and certainly did not share the same bed.

    Then by the grace of God at the death of my mother-in-law we both were deeply converted to the faith. I instantaneously knew the horror of the sin I had lived the previous 28 years. We both hot-footed it to reconciliation (my first). My confessor was a very kind and gentle man who reassured me of God’s forgiveness. I was advised I was not required to seek reversal of the procedure but counseled me to mutually agree with my husband upon a time of periodic abstinence, similar to the NFP method.

    Again by the grace of God, our marriage was miraculously healed.

    We have since become involved in a marriage prep program called One in Christ by Fr. Thomas Aschenbrenner of Chicago. The books can be found at http://www.theologicalforum.org/default.asp?ci=43. This program presents both the sacramental theology and the practical “tools” of Christian Marriage so that couples reach an understanding of how marriage is an opportunity to assist the other in attaining Heaven and what that means for their lives together here on earth.

    Why God allows situations described in this column to exist, we will not know this side of Heaven. What we do know is God allows everything to work for good unto those who love Him.

    If I were Agnes, I would implore Jake to learn and follow NFP. I would live my faith fully as a witness to him. Then I would follow the advise of Padre Pio, “pray, hope and don’t worry.”

  • confuseddemp

    my husband already had a vasectomy, so does that mean that all sexual relations that we have are immoral and sinful? Neither of us wish to reverse his vasectomy, however, does this mean that we must discontinue having sex? It doesn’t make sense to abstain from an act that we are supposed to do as a married couple. 

  • cld

    I dont believe catholic church requires a visectomy reversal. See catholic answers and talk with your local priest.

  • Sue

    They should have appreciated they could have babies. It’s a gift! I had a tubal reversal 4 yeArs ago and still can’t get pregnant. I had my tubes tied because I listened to my mother who is no longer a Catholic. I’m 43 now and wish I could.

  • woahdood

    Why don’t you try reversing it and then practicing NFP? Otherwise, marital intercourse is lacking in its moral foundation. To be moral, normal sexual intercourse must be (1) marital, (2) unitive, and (3) procreative. You have to worry about satisfying the third element. This does not mean having as many children as biologically possible, but it does mean openness to life.