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Celibate Marriage: Validity and Consummation | Catholic Life

Celibate Marriage: Validity and Consummation

When thinking about celibate marriages it is essential to differentiate between a valid marriage and a consummated marriage. All real consummated marriages are by definition valid, but not all valid marriages are consummated. In fact, every valid marriage is for a time valid and not consummated.

Of course there are many celibate marriages which are consummated since one only needs to engage in conjugal intercourse once in order to consummate a marriage. In the same way that some priests are celibate but not virgins, so a couple could engage in conjugal relations prior to choosing celibacy. This is the case with many Saint couples, and we know it because they had children prior to renouncing conjugal relations.

But what about those who choose a pure Josephite marriage? What about virgins who marry with the intent of never consummating the marriage? The status of their valid marriages is clear under canon law.

When is a couple really married? When they give consent during the wedding: “The consent of the parties, legitimately manifested between persons quali-fied by law, makes marriage.” When vows are exchanged a couple is married. They are not in some state of limbo prior to consumation, they really are married.

What are the fancy Latin names for unconsummated and consummated marriages? “A valid marriage between the baptized is called ratum tantum if it has not been consummated; it is called ratum et consummatum if the spouses have performed between themselves in a human fashion a conjugal act which is suitable in itself for the procreation of offspring, to which marriage is ordered by its nature and by which the spouses become one flesh.”

Is consummation assumed by the Church? “After a marriage has been celebrated, if the spouses have lived together consummation is presumed until the contrary is proven.”

Can we just assume that those crazy enough to not consummate their marriages must not have been validly married in the first place? “Marriage possesses the favor of law; therefore, in a case of doubt, the validity of a marriage must be upheld until the contrary is proven.”

But what about if a marriage is not consummated and one wishes to marry someone else? “A person bound by the bond of a prior marriage, even if it was not consummated, invalidly attempts marriage.”

But what about the fact that the Pope can dissolve unconsummated marriages, even if he does not do so? The whole point is that dissolution is necessary to free spouses from marriage because the marriage is valid, even though not consummated. If that were not the case then they could simply get a decree of nullity.

But I have never met someone in a celibate marriage. It can’t be real! Thankfully, experiencing something personally or knowing someone who has is not necessary for something to be real.

But this doesn’t make sense. Have you considered that perhaps you should do more reading about Catholic marriage?

Why would anyone do this? Because they were called to.

But what would the point be in marriage without sex or children? Celibate marriage does not necessarily without children. The couple may have children prior to taking vows of celibacy, or they may adopt. And the “point” is the same as it always should be with vows of celibacy: to follow God in the way that one is called. Ask yourself what point there is, besides carnal desire, in any marriage where the couple is either infertile or avoiding children. And you will have something of your answer.

Maybe there was a point in celibate marriage back in the early days of Christianity, or maybe the Middle Ages but it should not be allowed now! Take it up with your local Ordinary.

So, what was your point with all of this? Simply that consummation is not necessary for validity, and that if married couples mutually choose to never engage in conjugal relations they violate nothing in Church law.

What other protestations do you think I should add to my list?

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31 Responses to “Celibate Marriage: Validity and Consummation”

  1. practicinghuman 01. Sep, 2010 at 7:06 am #

    It strikes me as a bit odd to say that persons are married when they exchange their vows. Maybe some of this oddity hits me in particular because in the Orthodox Church, the marriage service does not include the exchange of vows. The “crescendo” of the service would be our crowning, but the crowning is not one distinct moment in time as the bride and groom are considered “crowned” for the first 40 days of their marriage. We have another service where the crowns are removed; although if I recall correctly, the time frame for this service can really be any time. But a lot of couples choose to have their crowns removed after their honeymoon. There is definitely a level of discrete chopping of what it means to be married that produces a ton of discomfort. I don’t know if the Catholics have the same traditional vows, but is not “to have and to hold” a promise of sexual intimacy?

    • Rae 01. Sep, 2010 at 7:18 am #

      Ah! I actually thought of that during a re-reading and the fact that it wouldn’t be the same for the Eastern Churches. Unfortunately I don’t know much about that or where I would even find the information online. So I thought I would just stick with Latin Rite Catholicism since it is where most of my readers are coming from.

      And I’m not sure about the “have and hold” thing, but my stance is that whenever the words of the liturgy don’t match with Church law and theology that it is the words that should change. :-)

      • practicinghuman 01. Sep, 2010 at 1:18 pm #

        I’m probably going to want to shoot myself for asking after reading your response to this question, but what sort of press do marriage vows get in the Theology of the Body? Can Latin Rite Catholics write their own vows? Like I said, the Orthodox Church doesn’t have any vows outside of one’s baptismal vows.

        Additionally, things in the Eastern Rites of the Church are less clear. There is no *one* moment. Even something as certain as when the bread and the wine are the Precious Body and Blood is not confined to a single moment in time. But there’s a sense that honors the process.

        I found this quote from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom that describes some of these unfolding processes; he’s referencing Creation.
        It is only a step forward, a movement upward, a new unfolding, in the way in which one can speak of a flower that begins to be a seed, that becomes a blade, then becomes a stem, then becomes a bud, and then opens up to the glory of things. So appeared these days. Every moment is perfect. And yet, compared with the next one, it is as yet unfulfilled, or rather it finds its fulfilment in the next motion, in the next stage, in the same way in which the seed is fulfilled in the blade, fulfilled in the stem, fulfilled in the bud and fulfilled in the flower perfectly, gloriously open. There is no moment when one can say ‘This was less’, although one can say ‘We never suspected in what we saw at first, the glory, the splendour of what it became afterwards. We will have occasion to come to this point later, because this is exactly what we find in the genealogy of Christ.

        • Rae 01. Sep, 2010 at 5:52 pm #

          I don’t think that vows are mentioned in the Theology of the Body, though I’ll look back to see if they are. We can’t write our own vows, and unfortunately I don’t have my book with the three options to choose from on hand, and I can’t remember the exact wording! The only part of the nuptial mass that the couple can write is the “prayer of the couple” and the intersessions, but there are many parts were there are multiple options from which to choose. And at some times there is the option to include references to future children or not (usually excluded when the couple is older).

          My understanding is that for Eastern Catholics participating in the wedding liturgy is their version of giving consent, but again, I am really ignorant on this. :-)

          I love your explanation of process rather than a black and white moment.

        • Telling It Like It Is 2007 05. Jul, 2013 at 4:35 am #

          I’ve been married in the Roman Catholic church and no to the best of my knowledge no one “writes their own vows” It’s part of the sacrament of marriage, I didn’t know that the eastern orthodox didn’t have vows I mean to me that’s so basic the both of you looking one another in the eye and vowing before God and man that you will be husband and wife for the rest of your life. It doesn’t get more real than that IMO

  2. Sarah 01. Sep, 2010 at 7:10 am #

    Excellent article…I was actually just looking for information on this subject. Thanks!

    • Rae 01. Sep, 2010 at 7:18 am #

      Glad it was useful.

  3. alison 01. Sep, 2010 at 7:40 am #

    Ok, so you were quiet for too long…I knew something big was coming! (just playing)
    So I am finding this next topic pretty interesting, because I admit I don’t know much about it. But I guess part of me feels I don’t need to know anything about it. Just like I don’t need to know how many times couples have sex, I don’t need to know how many times they don’t have sex! I have read about couples for whom sex is very painful and therefore don’t partake, so I guess the idea isn’t that foreign.
    Maybe as a point of personal preference, but I prefer that questions (or protestations as you say) not be answered with a question. But then again, I also assume that you’re going to be writing more about the ‘why’ in later posts!

    • Rae 01. Sep, 2010 at 5:56 pm #

      I completely agree that we don’t need to know about the sexual choices of others.

      I edited the question/answer that I think you’re referring to. Please let me know if you meant something else. I was trying to be amusing (ha!) but not to annoy.

    • Bill 21. May, 2012 at 10:16 pm #

      Yes, it is very, very possible that I am iocnrrect in bringing the eunuch discussion into the mix to discuss whether or not married people must have children, but then again we have little help otherwise. Sometimes Paul would give his opinion on a matter and tell the church that he has no word from the Lord so that he as an apostle had to make an apostolic declaration absent of subsequent teachings by Jesus. In some sense we are analogous here. We have nothing that goes back to Jesus and the apostles where they say, In the Kingdom of God a man and a woman who are married sin against God if they do not seek to serve as God’s conduit for creation when they have sex. We could suggest that people in Jesus’ day would have assumed that sex is for creating a family. That is worth considering, but not a clinching (or even strong) argument for me since they believed many, many things about the world that we know today is not true. So their basic worldview is worth considering, but I don’t think that this makes it inherently better than our own in all areas.If we are going to discuss the quality of the matter we may say the ancients had a better life because they didn’t minimize sex to pleasure (though I hardly find sex between married people as being minimized since it is a strong and essential bond for marriage itself, even for couples who cannot have children!), but we could also say they had better conversations because they didn’t discuss these matters on blogs. In some sense it is neither here nor there since we live now and they lived then and there is no reason to pretend this is not so.As far as how contraceptives work, each couple must be responsible for the Lord to know how it works in good conscience. And I think that is my understanding of the whole matter, it is a conscience thing. We have no command and I don’t think the simple fact that we can have children means that it is always best that we do.

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  4. Salome Ellen 01. Sep, 2010 at 1:29 pm #

    What I don’t understand is why anyone would subject themselves to the additional challenges of matrimony (and I would never question that it was valid) without having access to the additional graces of matrimony, some of which are bestowed through the conjugal act. If one’s call is to pleasing the Lord in celibacy (cf. I Cor. 7:32, 34), why would they chose to encumber themselves with a spouse other than Christ? As a penance? I find THAT a terrible view of marriage! (I’m willing to hear good arguments; this is just my initial reaction.)

    • Rae 01. Sep, 2010 at 6:00 pm #

      I think the most common might be where the couple feels that it is the vocation which God chose for them more than something they are choosing for themselves. Who knows how the discernment process typically goes though!

      I also know of one case where the woman felt called to virginity, and the man felt called to take care of her in her call. It is certainly unusual though.

      And I completely agree that it seems dreadful to imagine someone choosing marriage as a penance, even though I used to tease my husband that he must want to marry me in order to shorten his time in Purgatory.

  5. Melody 01. Sep, 2010 at 2:35 pm #

    I certainly wouldn’t say a celibate marriage was invalid or somehow not moral. Of course I am assuming that they mutually decided this, and it wasn’t just that one of them woke up one morning and decided this was how it was going to be. And I agree with Alison that I don’t need to know who is having sex or who isn’t.
    I’m just guessing maybe this arrangement would be a lot more common for people who marry late in life. Barring some kind of special circumstances (handicaps or health issues come to mind) I’m thinking it just isn’t too likely for your average twenty-something couple.
    I remember a few years ago that there was a couple in the news where a priest refused to marry a couple because the man was paralyzed and they would not be able to sexually consumate the marriage. They did end up getting married in the Church after all, I assume by someone else. The consensus was that this wasn’t an impediment to valid marriage. Of course the news media had way too much of a good time with that story, and a lot of bad theology got thrown around.

    • Rae 01. Sep, 2010 at 6:07 pm #

      I agree that this is extremely unusual for young couples (though I don’t think it is exactly common for older couples).

      Antecedent and perpetual impotence is an impediment to marriage, but if there is any doubt about it (including doubt about whether it will certainly be perpetual) then the person may marry. So maybe there was a question about whether the man might someday have a surgery that would cure him? Canon 1084.1-1084.2

  6. Frugal Librarian 01. Sep, 2010 at 9:31 pm #

    it is called ratum et consummatum if the spouses have performed between themselves in a human fashion a conjugal act which is suitable in itself for the procreation of offspring, to which marriage is ordered by its nature and by which the spouses become one flesh.


    Marriage is “ordered by its nature” for the production of children and only through the conjugal act do they become one flesh. Why would one enter into a celibate marriage? You do not become one flesh, and the marriage is not acting in accordance with nature.

    • Rae 02. Sep, 2010 at 4:33 am #

      I updated the list of questions and answers for you. :-) And my Catholic faith teaches me that natural is good and supernatural is better.

    • Agustin 30. Jul, 2014 at 8:15 pm #

      Dear you (and me)We are, in fact, Enoughin fact, we are more than EnoughWe are infiniteand snntrgaod beautifuland wiseand full of more goodness than the world can endure.[and, oh… how I/we need to hear this over and over and over]

  7. Claire 03. Sep, 2010 at 6:01 pm #

    This was interesting. I was actually misinformed, if I understand this correctly. I know of a couple who had been married a number of years before they consummated the marriage. It was a health/emotional issue for the wife, I believe. There were many who knew about this (somehow, though I have no idea how!) and several devout Catholics were counseling the man to have the marriage annulled. (he did not wish to) At the time I heard of this situation, I did not realize that the marriage was actually valid and not “eligible” for anullment. Interesting.

  8. practicinghuman 13. Sep, 2010 at 3:53 pm #

    Okay, not to resurrect an old thread, but something came up on my Twitter feed regarding a condom factory in Brazil using natural rubbers in a sustainable way to combat HIV/AIDS in the country. It seems almost that if a person has HIV/AIDS contracted before marriage (and let’s face it being born with the virus, contracting the virus through a blood transfusion, or being exposed to the virus through rape are all ways of getting the virus without obvious sin), then they have an obligation to endure a celibate marriage because of the “grave responsibility” to avoid exposing other persons to the virus. I find the compounding natures of these issues to be particularly difficult, but is the Church saying that HIV+ persons must remain outside of the mystery of marriage?

  9. John 30. Oct, 2010 at 2:13 am #

    This entire discussion is just another example of the Roman Catholic church’s sexual hangups. But what do you expect, when it has a priesthood that is either celibate or homosexual?

    • Rae 30. Oct, 2010 at 7:06 am #

      Why do you say “or?”

  10. Ann 17. Dec, 2011 at 8:47 pm #

    As a relatively young person in a celibate relationship, I found this post very interesting. My partner and I are in our early and mid thirties and have been in a relationship for nearly seven years– most of the time, living together. However, we are both virgins, and plan to be for the indefinite future. Most people (including our families) can’t comprehend this situation and think we are being dishonest, but it has become a natural existence to us. We are not devoid of sexual desire, but our convictions will not allow a sexual relationship without being open to new life– and at this time that would be difficult due to numerous other obligations, including taking care of aging parents in different countries by ourselves. Unlike come of our other Catholic friends, who married years ago, we don’t want to use artificial birth control, even temporarily. Thus, in our minds sex is not an option. Yet we feel called to be together in every way, and we are able to share intimacy on many other different levels. No one understands our situation, and because of the impression our live-in relationship has created in the community, a Josephite marriage seems like a viable option to me, if nothing more to confirm our commitment to one another, and to prevent people from accusing us of “living in sin.” However, this idea doesn’t go over to well with my partner (non-Catholic)– he assumes that a marriage isn’t a marriage without consummation.

  11. Telling It Like It Is 2007 05. Jul, 2013 at 4:47 am #

    My wife and I are both practicing Catholics and we live in a celibate marriage. We met and married when we were both in our fifties, I have been discussing with my wife the idea of having our marriage vows repeated on the next feast day of St Joseph in March I guess I can see why most modern day Americans would see this as odd but I will direct you to this blog posting which says it better than I could – this fellow’s take on it is exactly how I feel about it


  12. jennifer 07. Jul, 2014 at 12:07 am #

    Your vows make it valid but you also need to consummate it in order for the marriage to not be dissolvable. I haven’t heard of a necessary time frame per se but I’d imagine it would make sense to consummate the same day (night) as your wedding.

    • Aimee 29. Jul, 2014 at 9:27 pm #

      Hi :)
      I don’t agree that consummation will prevent it from being dissoluble. Emotional and spiritual promises are stronger than the carnal act of sex and more intimate. Also, I don’t agree that it makes sense to consummate the same night.

      For example, if someone lives their life extremely pure, sex can be intimidating to do the first night.
      I do not expect to have sex the first night.
      Especially after being exhausted from the wedding. I plan on enjoying my first time and taking my time to get there, whether it be that night, or whether it be in three years etc. Sex is an intimate act and other acts leading up to it can sometimes be just as intimate or even more so.
      Why rush?
      enjoy and savor the steps before sex, the touching, the kissing, master it. Then sex will be sooooo amazing. Why master all of those things before the wedding and have sex right away? Sex can definitely wait. Especially when people are super virgins and will be nervous about it. There should be no pressure to have sex. Ever. Even if married.

  13. Imran 29. Jul, 2014 at 9:33 pm #

    I agree Aimee, Sex itself is never intimate. It’s a biological act, what causes intimacy during sex are the reasons and the emotions to give yourself and share yourself completely and willingly with that person… this is what makes sex intimate. Otherwise RAPE would be intimate too etc
    Also, would the casual sex many people have before marriage with other partners count as more intimate relationships than if that person later decided to have a celibate marriage? no. often times celibacy is the most intimate gift a person can give.
    The spiritual and emotional promises are much more stronger than the carnal act.

    • Katie 11. Nov, 2014 at 7:16 pm #

      Sex IS intimate though! Yes, the actual biological act is incredibly intimate. You can’t get more intimate. That’s exactly why rape is as traumatizing as it is… it’s an intimate act forced upon someone as a violation. Entering another persons body is personal and intense and is even ideally an act of worship in the light of Theology of the Body. That is why it’s a sad thing for people to ‘make love’ to people outside of marriage, or casually, because it is a desperately intimate act that should be reserved for the most loving and devoted relationship and ends up being objectification and glorified masturbation. It’s the denial of the intimacy and value of that act that causes the moral breakdown.

      That being said. Being celibate in your marriage is holy, sacrificial, and awesome, and God definitely works there in a powerful way. You have all the basic value of a marital relationship, but the bonus of sacrificial purity, and I agree that down to basics the sex act in a marriage is not what MAKES it… its a whole and complete intensive relationship, and it’s a bit silly to think of it as ‘incomplete’ without it. Like 15 minutes once a week (or much less for some) is going to make or break a healthy loving marriage between two considerate Godly partners who have a life together.

  14. Nick 06. Jan, 2015 at 12:39 pm #

    “But what about those who choose a pure Josephite marriage? What about virgins who marry with the intent of never consummating the marriage? The status of their valid marriages is clear under canon law.”

    This absolutely needs to be addressed by the Catholic Church. From what I have read regarding the Catholic Church and marriage this would not be defined as a valid marriage. Yet the Church still allows these marriages? All aspects of marriage must be clearly defined by the Church especially in todays society. The fact that this type of Marriage has not been addressed is very discouraging and a bit frightening in todays world. Allowing “exceptions” into the definition of marriage can only lead to problems in both marriage and society.

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  16. Mike 13. Feb, 2019 at 6:19 pm #

    That topic is interesting to me, as I am in a relationship and the idea of a Josephite marriage is something her and I have talked about. It seems it would be helpful for couples living this way to know others who are doing the same. Do you have any resources that would be helpful or know of any way to get in contact with others who are currently living in a Josephite marriage?

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