Without children, is a marriage valid?
KARL KEATING: Catholic couples who are not open to children are not validly married . . .
Of course it is! If that weren’t the case, then no couple would have a valid marriage until their first child was born. A marriage is valid as soon as the vows are exchanged and the marriage is consummated — that is, when the first sexual union takes place.
Until a child is conceived and born, a husband and wife can’t be sure they will have a child, no matter how much they might want one. Perhaps they are unaware of a medical problem that makes it impossible for them to have children.
That said, there is a sense in which the claim is true. If a bride and groom never have children because, right from the first, they never intended to have children, their marriage is invalid — not because of the absence of children, but because they did not meet the requirements for a sacramental marriage.
Marriage has two aspects, the unitive and the procreative. A man and woman join themselves in holy matrimony. They perform the marriage themselves — they aren’t “married by” the priest. The priest only serves as the Church’s chief witness. A deacon could also serve as the Church’s chief witness. Once the couple gives proper consent, the two are married. This consent must include an openness to the goods of marriage — both the unitive (“the two of them become one body” Gen 2:24) and the procreative (“be fertile and multiply” Gen 1:28). If this openness is absent, the consent is imperfect, and no sacramental marriage results. Although the parties live together, they aren’t really husband and wife. They have no marriage.
Some people think that married people aren’t really Catholic unless they have many children. Children, of course, are a great blessing, and it is a wonderful thing to see large families. But not every couple is able to have many — or even any — children. The validity of the marriage and the worth of married people as Catholics are not measured by the number of their offspring.
As Blessed Pope Paul VI discussed in his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae (On Human Life), every marriage must remain open to new life, and that is all God requires. This openness means that contraception is always a grave evil and is never morally right. Yet, if there are serious circumstances (such as the poor health of the mother), parents may limit the number of children they have through abstinence or modern, scientific, natural family planning, which takes account of a woman’s natural infertile periods but does not, as contraception does, eliminate all openness to new life.
KARL KEATING is the founder of Catholic Answers. This column is reprinted with permission from his book “What Catholics Really Believe — Setting the Record Straight: 52 Answers to Common Misconceptions About the Catholic Faith.”
Conjugal love … is open to fertility. By its very nature the institution of marriage and married love is ordered to the procreation and education of the offspring and it is in them that it finds its crowning glory. Children are the supreme gift of marriage and contribute greatly to the good of the parents themselves.
God blessed man and woman with the words: “Be fruitful and multiply.” Spouses to whom God has not granted children can nevertheless have a conjugal life full of meaning, in both human and Christian terms. Their marriage can radiate a fruitfulness of charity, of hospitality, and of sacrifice.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1643, 1652, 1654