Reading the posts about disabilities and marriage, I am reminded about one of my first ministerial tasks at the Washington Hospital Center in the District of Columbia. A 22 year old marine had experienced a training accident which left him a paraplegic. His young and very attractive fiancee was ever at his bedside, holding a hand which could no longer feel hers. He wanted to die. Certainly he did not want to tie her down to a man the doctors insisted would always be an invalid. Her response was to remain by his side and to offer tears of intercession for his pain and their lost dreams. Many years have past since our encounter, and I am still unsure what might best be said in such a situation. It was not a time to come down on their hopes with a debate about the laws of nature and of the Church. I shared their space, offered them prayers and what consolation I could muster, but I could not take away the depths of their loss.
The marital act open to new life and seeking the good of the beloved is a sign and seal of the sacrament. The marriage covenant is consummated and renewed by it. Cognizant of our nature as bodily persons, the Church is also realistic and pragmatic enough to realize that marriages which shortchange sexual intimacy often fuel the fires of infidelity and alienation. The question here is not simply one of disability, but of the type of disability. Blindness, deafness, loss of certain limbs, etc. pose no such impediment to marriage. Even infertility does not negate the right of marriage if no deceit is present when the vows are made. However, can a person mentally deranged or seriously incompetent get married? No, not if they lack a conscious awareness of the nature and obligations of marriage. A paralyzed person, might be fully aware of the responsibilities of marriage, but be incapable of fulfilling them. The law of the Church in such cases is simply a reflection of the natural law. Having said this, once consummated, a tragic accident of such a nature would not abrogate the bond. The initial consummation, uncoerced and unimpeded by contraception, makes a sacramental marriage indissoluble.
What recourse would a couple have in getting married if one of the members is paralyzed from the neck or even from the waist down? Depending on the situation, the bishop himself may not be at liberty to grant a dispensation for marriage. This would especially be the case if there is no real possibility of recovery and consummation of the bond. Having said this, a very grave concern of the Church would be the use of oral sex as an attempted substitute for the marital act. While permissible in the old morals manuals as a precursor to intercourse, it cannot be sought as an ends unto itself. It falls on many of the same arguments as homosexual interactions. Moving on, it is possible that some degree of medication and therapy might restore enough function to fulfill the marital act. In such a case, marriage could be permitted. Further, modern technologies have made available various pump mechanisms (requiring surgery) which would make possible an erection. If there is some transmission of seminal fluid, then again, marriage might very well be permitted. This position is not a reduction of the human person to a gross physicalism but the recognition that our living bodies, inextricable animated by souls, are the real expressions of our identity. Unless forsaken for the kingdom, the needs of these personal bodies– our very selves– cannot be underestimated. Having said all this, there is still another avenue a couple might pursue, although a sexual dysfunction might be coercive in its regard– virginal marriage. They could live their lives promising perpetual virginity along the lines of the Virgin Mary and the good St. Joseph.
Whatever a couple in such a fix decides to do, they will definitely know the cross. It is my hope that the Church will always show them the redemptive value of joining our sufferings to the passion of Christ. What this world takes away, the next will restore. What this world leaves us, we can utilize for the coming of the next.
Fr. Joe Jenkins