"I'm engaged and worried about the fact that my new husband and I might not be able to consummate our marriage for nearly 3 weeks. And I cannot shake this horrible knowledge that our marriage isn’t valid, isn’t complete until then. I’m worried I will really just feel like a glorified roommate. I don’t know if you have any writings or resources that might assist in praying through this."
Ladies and gents, I've been working as a Natural Family Planning instructor for over ten years, and I cannot tell you how many engaged Catholic couples I've worked with who have wrestled with the idea of a sexless honeymoon. If you have discerned a serious reason to postpone pregnancy at the beginning of your marriage, I just want to let you know that you are not alone in feeling anxious, worried, or even angry that you might need to abstain on your wedding night or even all through the honeymoon.
So this message I received recently was not unique, in one sense, but I thought I'd take time to address it here in two parts:
1. Is an unconsummated marriage still valid?
2. Recommended resources to help you pray through this situation.
Part I: Validity
NERD ALERT! This may be more information than you ever wanted about marriage, but I'll serve it up anyway because I find it fascinating. I'm not a Canon Lawyer, so... I offer this without authority on the matter beyond my formal theological training. The reader can decide how much that is worth.
When it comes to Sacraments, we talk a lot about "validity." This is because Sacraments require specific forms and specific matter in order to effect their unique graces. Do we believe that God can work outside these specific forms and specific matter? YES! God is God. But, as a Church, we operate under the assumption that for ordinary circumstances, we need to follow particular guidance in order to be assured that the Sacrament has been effective.
So, what makes a marriage valid? What is needed for us to be assured that Sacramental marriage, has, in fact, been effected?
We need the right matter:
The consent to enter into the lifelong sacrament of marriage, expressed freely by a baptized woman and a baptized man. Notice that the "matter" is actually the consent which is exchanged. The man and woman do not have to physically be present to get married to each other because it is possible to give consent through a designated proxy. (Diagnosed with COVID and can't attend your own wedding? We have a solution for that!)
We need the right form:
What form does the consent take? The Rite of Marriage currently contains four different forms which are accepted:
One of my favorite and little-discussed aspects of Catholic marriage is that it is the one Sacrament which does not have a priest or bishop as the ordinary minister. In Catholic theology, it is the man and woman who actually administer the Sacrament of marriage to one another.
So while it is common for someone to say, "Oh, that's Fr. Gerry. He's the priest who married us," it's very inaccurate to say so! Fr. Gerry witnessed your marriage and perhaps celebrated your wedding Mass. But he did not marry you. You married each other.
As soon as a valid marriage has been contracted, we enter an interesting canonical space where the marriage is said to be ratum tantum, which means "ratified only." It is not until the marriage has been consummated through sexual intercourse that the marriage is then ratum et consummatum, or "ratified and consummated."
This is, I believe, where my emailer found herself struggling, because it seems that sex between spouses is really THE THING which seals the marriage. Certainly civil marriage seems to operate that way, because in some cases it is precisely consummation through sexual intercourse that "actualizes" the marriage in the legal sense. Absence of consummation could be grounds for annulment.
Not so in the Catholic Church. I'll explain more in a moment, but for now I'll just point out two very important couples to have on your radar here:
Mary & Joseph
Sts. Louis and Zelie Martin, the parents of St. Therese of Lisieux
Catholics teach the perpetual virginity of Mary, meaning that she remained a virgin even after Jesus was born. This means that she and Joseph never had sex. Of course they didn't have the Christian Sacrament of Holy Matrimony as we know it today, but would anyone say their marriage wasn't valid?
Likewise, when Louis and Zelie Martin were first married, they agreed to a Josephite Marriage, meaning a marriage without sexual intercourse. Both of them had tried to enter religious life and wound up falling in love with each other. Louis, especially, thought that they could model their spousal relationship after that of the Holy Family. Eventually, a priest convinced him that sex could be good and holy, and the Church has been blessed with great saints as the fruits of that openness to sex.
So is a marriage without sex valid?
Yes, it is.
But is it somehow incomplete without sex?
When a marriage is ratum tantum, it is still a valid marriage and retains all the aspects of Sacramental marriage... with one minor change.
Sacramental marriage is, by nature, indissoluble. Christ tells us this. But Canon Law makes an interesting distinction between what we might call internal indissolubility compared to external indissolubility.* If a valid marriage has taken place, the couple (the ministers of the Sacrament) cannot "undo" it, no matter what. Internally, from their own power, they are incapable of dissolving the marriage.
BUT...if a marriage is ratum tantum (or specifically, ratum et non consummatum) then it is technically dissolvable by an external ecclesial authority, the Roman Rota.
Can. 1141 A marriage that is ratum et consummatum can be dissolved by no human power and by no cause, except death.
This is not the same thing as a declaration of nullity, which is issued if it is found that a valid Sacramental marriage never was created in the first place. If you've heard someone say that not consummating the marriage is grounds for annulment, what they mean is that antecedent knowledge of perpetual impotence is a diriment impediment and therefore grounds for nullity. What Can. 1142 is talking about is a completely different situation: it is addressing the dissolution of a completely valid, but un-consummated, marriage by an external authority.
How does this work?
I don't know.
I'm really happy I don't work in a profession where I am required to know and I will admit that it really doesn't make sense to me.
But it doesn't have to make sense, because what this highlights is that while it is true that one aspect of Canon Law is dependent upon consummation, validity itself is not dependent upon consummation. A marriage cannot receive a declaration of nullity on the grounds that the couple has not had sex. And this means that the Sacramental graces given in marriage are not dependent upon sex, either.
JPII's Theology of the Body shook the modern Catholic world and opened up new ways for us to speak positively about the importance of sex, the spousal meaning of the body, and the meaning of marriage and love in the Divine plan. But an over-emphasis on sex can lead us to a sort of cultural amnesia about the importance of small, daily, acts of dying to self in marriage and the ways in which our marriage is called to sanctify ourselves and the world.
So you may feel like a glorified roommate, but just remember this:
Neither you nor your soon-to-be spouse has ever had a roommate which helps you become a living icon of Christ and the Church. And that's what you are, even if you haven't had sex yet, because that is what marriage does for us.
The average married couple will not have sex once a day.
But they will do dishes, fold laundry, cook meals, share a laugh, and pray together daily (okay, the last one is aspirational for all couples, but we definitely should!)
I guess that means that my first recommendation if you are staring down the barrel of a sexless honeymoon or an abstinent wedding night is to invite you to ask God to help you see the little graces right now in your engagement, and to prepare you to receive and be aware of the BIG graces He will give you in the "little things" of your marriage.
We'll pick up Part II very soon!
*Canon lawyers, if you have found this blog, please accept my apology! I'm intentionally not using your terminology because it's... well, it's a little obfuscating for the un-trained masses such as myself. It is my hope that readers will be slightly less confused if I use these terms instead.
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Christina has been an NFP instructor in the Boston Cross Check Method since 2013. She is on a mission to change conversations about body literacy and NFP within the Catholic Church, through innovative lifelong body literacy programming and support... plus apparently this blog.