paraplegic marriage


I saw this article this evening.

Can someone tell me if the facts regarding canon law and such are true?

Thank you

Documentary spotlights Catholic denial of paraplegic weddings

Associated Press Writer
NEW YORK - Flavia Fontes was talking on the phone when a headline in a small Brazilian newspaper caught her eye: A paraplegic man was forbidden to get married by the Roman Catholic Church because he was impotent.

“I just had such a gut reaction,” Fontes says. “I could not believe that the church would do this to somebody who probably had many obstacles in his life.”

Even though Fontes, a Brazilian filmmaker living in New York, was already immersed in another project, she decided she needed to capture Hedir Antonio de Brito’s story. The result is “Forbidden Wedding,” which premieres on the Sundance Channel at 9 p.m. EST Monday.

De Brito was two weeks away from marrying Elzimar de Lourdes Serafim, a widow, in August 1996, when he received a shocking letter from the local bishop denying their application for a marriage certificate. According to canon law, any man or woman who is impotent and unable to have intercourse cannot get married.

After de Brito agreed to share his story with Fontes, she spent the next two weeks in Patrocinio talking with the couple, their families, townspeople and local priests. Although many were sympathetic, few were willing to talk to Fontes on camera for fear of retaliation from the church.

De Brito came from a religious family, and his mother initially opposed his marriage. Over time, she accepted her son’s relationship with Serafim but, in turn, was ostracized by her friends because he was speaking out against the church.

Over the next four years, Fontes researched canon law back in New York. She eventually flew to Rome in hopes of interviewing some cardinals, but was told they were on vacation. She returned to Brazil two more times to finish the film.

De Brito became a paraplegic at 15 when he was shot on the way home from the movies. The bullet tore his lung and hit his spinal cord, and doctors only expected to him to live a year and a half.

While his friends were out dating and having fun, he was in and out of the hospital, undergoing 25 operations.

But de Brito didn’t give up hope of finding love. “All humans long for companionship and I am no exception,” he says at the beginning of the documentary.

Their friendship and mutual acceptance - she had no education, he was in a wheelchair - soon developed into romance and they decided to marry. Wedding plans were well underway when a local priest asked de Brito during premarital counseling if he was impotent and de Brito answered him honestly. The priest told de Brito he couldn’t marry the couple, which the bishop’s letter confirmed.

“If (de Brito) had left the issue in doubt, it wouldn’t have been a problem,” said the Rev. Dr. Bernard Olszewski, a canon law expert and vice president for academic affairs at Hilbert University in Hamburg, N.Y. “Unfortunately, he gave full disclosure. In a pastoral sense, it would have been better for the priest to have a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.”

“Sexuality is the whole body. It is your smile, your hands, the way you look at one another,” he says.

Serafim sweetly describes her first kiss with de Brito, which she initiated. She had planned to do it on Christmas but couldn’t wait that long. She stole a kiss from him, and, shocked by her own boldness, did it again to make sure it had really happened. The next day he bought her flowers and a present and told her he didn’t want to see other women.

“This relationship is real,” she says. “Our love is sincere.”

One priest Fontes interviewed in the documentary agreed, making an emotional appeal that the law is merely piece of paper that hurts people and that sex doesn’t affect the essence of the relationship. Another argues from a practical standpoint the church cannot enforce the law without having inspectors all over the world.

A third priest defends the bishop for upholding the church’s principles, noting the law is not a secret and all priests are obligated to follow it.

The bishop who enforced the law would not speak to Fontes, and Vatican officials declined comment when reached by The Associated Press.

Fontes meticulously presents both sides in the documentary, but it’s clear she finds the canon law antiquated.

“When I think about this story, I think it’s a metaphor for how much the church has stopped in time and has not modernized itself,” she said in an interview.

But at its core, she said, it remains a love story about human sexuality, the rights of the disabled and faith in Brazil.

“I wanted to take the small story and show that it was something that came from a bigger power,” she said, “that even though it had taken place in Brazil, it could have happened anywhere. It just happened that this man made it public.”


Well, I didn’t read the whole article, but unless I am gravely mistaken, Canon law holds that a man unable to complete the marital act cannot marry.



I hope that canon law isn’t that bad. I thought that infertile couples are meant to adopt children.

my Mother my Confidence,


[quote=coralewisjr]I hope that canon law isn’t that bad. I thought that infertile couples are meant to adopt children.

my Mother my Confidence,

Infertile couples can marry validly; only impotent couples cannot.


[quote=coralewisjr]I hope that canon law isn’t that bad. I thought that infertile couples are meant to adopt children.

my Mother my Confidence,

How would they be-able to consummate the marriage if he was impotent? Infertility is a different thing all-together.


I agree this is a sad tale, but I agree with the church here. Infertility is a seperate issue. Permanent impotence will become an issue eventually if this couple were to marry.

What about when she wants children? (And she probably will!) Most adoption agencies would not place a child in this home? Should the church change canon to allow this couple to have IVF, surrogate mothers, ect…?? What about her own natural sexuality? Marrying an impotent man in this situation would be much like becoming a nun, but I doubt she thinks that way now?

Eventually, I think there would be a further seperation from the church at some point and certainly a deep resentment would begin to fester in such a marriage.

I don’t begrudge this man companionship, but marriage is not just long term companionship - it must be much more to be a valid, strong marriage.

I would like to add I think it was very brave of the priest to ask this question (I think it shows he truely does want to marry those who understand the faith and will have strong marriages) and for this man to answer honestly, I think he truely does want to follow the church. I would like to think that the priest will be able to continue working with this couple.


I’ve never heard this, and I guess I don’t quite fully understand this. What does the church think if he had been shot 1 week after, or even on his wedding day, and became a parapalegic then?

A parapalegic could adopt as well as an infertile couple could, couldn’t they?


It’s not a question of “feelings”, though. If the condition came about after the marriage, it has no bearing on the validity of the marriage itself. If before. . .well, it may sound harsh, but we are talking “Marriage” here. We aren’t talking about 20th or 21st century Westernized “marriage” (note the small ) which is all above L-O-V-E (and S-E-X) and about people’s RIGHTS, and about all the “trappings” and all the “trimmings” and all the MATERIAL things which we equate with “marriage”.

Marriage is a covenant relationship.

Now, to make an analogy: In the Eucharist, in order to have valid Eucharist, one of the requirements is VALID MATTER–IOW, wheat bread and grape wine.

Now, lots of places (and lots of people) have “broadened” or “included” such things as leavened, sweetened bread and non-alcoholic wine or grape juice (and we aren’t just talking Protestants).

It doesn’t MATTER (ha-ha) that to the average John and Jane in the U.S. “bread” means anything with a “flour” and “liquid”. We are pretty “savvy” about breads, and have fad after fad (multi grain! Oat bran! Triticale and flax seed! Organic rye! Sourdough! Focaccia!) and also pretty dismal adulterated stuff (Wonder Bread). And we are pretty “cosmopolitian” with our ideas of wines, and have all sorts of adulterations (sulfites etc) which are all too common in our heavily pasteurized/homogenized/bland era.

What DOES matter is that, despite what we “picture” or “feel” about the bread and the wine for Eucharist, the only VALID matter is plain wheat bread and plain grape wine.

Similarly, the only VALID matter for a true, sacramental, Covenant CATHOLIC MARRIAGE is a man and a woman, both of whom must be “potent”. . .i.e., capable of COMPLETION of the MARITAL ACT. Either the man or woman might be sterile–that is, not capable of fathering or bearing a child. . .but they both must be capable of intercourse.

Abram and Sarai were a 'barren" couple. Zachary and Elizabeth were a “barren” couple. Hannah was a “barren” wife. And yet, even though supposedly they were not “capable” of bearing or fathering children, they DID.

Without the possibility of the act of union itself, there is no possibility, not even for the “barren” person, that the gift of a child might ensue.

And, while we all want “love”, it is not necessary that such love be in a “marriage”. First, while it is certainly not the man’s FAULT that he is impotent, if he DID marry the woman he would effectively be DENYING her any sexual intercourse (as is pointed out, adoption might “give” children, so it is not the question of “child bearing” per se but it is the question of what is at the HEART of a Marriage–a covenant–and that is what Jesus Himself said). What did He say?

For this reason a man shall leave his family, and cleave to his wife, and the two shall be ONE FLESH together.

Not: A man shall “marry” a woman, and the two of them shall forever remain unfulfilled as a “couple” because somebody wants the “name” of being “married”, wants to have a live-in companion and call him/ her “husband” or “wife”.

God doesn’t make things “easy” for us all the time. Only God knows why this man carries his particular burden. But it isn’t up to humans to “change around” the definition of a valid sacramental covenant marriage just so people can be “happy”.

It doesn’t matter whether something “feels good”. . .it matters whether something is RIGHT, is TRUE. A truth may “feel” pretty darn ROTTEN to a fallible human being. . .but that doesn’t make it untrue. I will pray for the man, but I see here the “Catholic” counterpoint to “civil unions” and “gay marriages”. . .that it is not what marriage IS that is important to people but only that some individual BE HAPPY.


I don’t have much to add to the discussion, but here is the relevant Canon:

Can. 1084 §1. Antecedent and perpetual impotence to have intercourse, whether on the part of the man or the woman, whether absolute or relative, nullifies marriage by its very nature.
§2. If the impediment of impotence is doubtful, whether by a doubt about the law or a doubt about a fact, a marriage must not be impeded nor, while the doubt remains, declared null.

§3. Sterility neither prohibits nor nullifies marriage, without prejudice to the prescript of can. 1098.


While I understand the church’s stance regarding impotence I’m not sure I understand the difference between infertility and impotence. Does the act of intercourse itself make a difference? I also wonder about the assumption by Rob’s wife that adoption isn’t an option as most agencies would not place a child in this home. Does this hold true for Catholic adoptions too? I have severe cerebral palsey and while I am able to complete the marriage act, according to church teaching, my wife and I and should have childen, even though I am very limited in my mobility, much the same as a paraplegic would be. How can it be that my wife and I should have children yet this couple cannot marry and adopt children as they would be found unable to care for children? And if my wife and I use contraception, it is a mortal sin. It seems a little unfair.

My other question is: If this couple decides to live together without marriage, would that be acceptable? Does it matter if they are joined in marriage as they would be together as a brother/sister in the physical sense? Would she be sinning in the sense she is “living with a man” and not seeking a man she could marry and have children with?


the state of being unable to produce offspring; in a woman it is an inability to conceive; in a man it is an inability to impregnate

  • impotence, impotency
    an inability (usually of a male) to copulate

    erectile_dysfunction, male_erecticle_dysfunction, ED
    *impotence resulting from a man’s inability to have or maintain an erection of his male organ.


  • The big difference is the ability to have normal marital relations or not. An infertile couple can have normal marital relations, but unfortunately can’t become pregnant.

An impotent person, usually a male who suffers from erectile dysfunction can’t have a normal marital relation. The impediment is permanent impotence.

Furthermore an infertile couple is under no obligation to adopt children to be considered open to life. That is a choice they make themselves. If a couple decide not to adopt they are still open to life as long as they don’t use any artificial methods to hinder conception.

If you google “infertility” and “impotence” you will find enough information so you can see the difference.

I,myself is infertile (non-spesifikk infertility). My husband and myself are very open to life. I’m in my forties and he is in his fifties. We got married the same day I was received into the Catholic Church, Nov. 28., 2004.

They “you” here is meant to be adressed to you all and to no spesifikk poster.:slight_smile:


I think this is sad, and personally I’m not sure I agree with it. But I will yeild to the Church’s authority.


[quote=Rob’s Wife]Most adoption agencies would not place a child in this home.

Respectfully, I must disagree. My husband is paralyzed and we have adopted two children, and the agency didn’t give it a second thought.


[quote=rayne89]I think this is sad, and personally I’m not sure I agree with it. But I will yeild to the Church’s authority.

Christopher West compares Catholic marriage to chocolate chip cookies. Can you bake cookies without chocolate chips? Yes. Are they chocolate chip cookies? No, and they can never be.

He acknowledges the elements of a marriage that a paralyzed person can achieve: love, companionship, commitment, responsibility, mutual self sacrifice, but without the essential component of a Catholic Marriage – the ability to consummate the marriage act in openness to life – no “chocolate chip cookies.”


[quote=Viki59]Respectfully, I must disagree. My husband is paralyzed and we have adopted two children, and the agency didn’t give it a second thought.

:clapping: Yay! :dancing: God bless you all.


[quote=mercygate]Christopher West compares Catholic marriage to chocolate chip cookies. Can you bake cookies without chocolate chips? Yes. Are they chocolate chip cookies? No, and they can never be.

He acknowledges the elements of a marriage that a paralyzed person can achieve: love, companionship, commitment, responsibility, mutual self sacrifice, but without the essential component of a Catholic Marriage – the ability to consummate the marriage act in openness to life – no “chocolate chip cookies.”

There a Catholic marriages that a never consumated because from the start that was the intention - I think they are called Josephite Marriages. Are you saying you can’t have a deep committed relationship without sex? That you can’t have a strong personal bond with someone without sex? Infertile couples don’t have the ability to be open to life - the only difference is one can go through the physical act and one can not, that’s what makes or breaks a marriage?

Like I said I do not question the churches authority - but my heart has a hard time reconciling it. Ofcourse the church is infinately wiser than I and so I will accept thier authority in this matter.


The marital act must be consumated. Not only for a Catholic marriage but also civil ones. I personally know a man whose “wife” refused to consumate the marital act. They separated 5 years later. His lawyer told him that instead of going through divorce proceedings, he would qualify for a civil annulment. A civil annulment was granted. And so instead of dividing the marital assets 50-50, they reverted back to what each individual brought to the “marriage”. This worked out for him because he had owned a house prior to the wedding. If it was a divorce instead of annulment, she would have gotten half of the house.

I bring this to your attention so that you do not single out the Catholic church as being the only ones to require consumation for it to be a marriage.

Secondly, with penile implants as well as erectile dysfunction drugs, I question whether, paraplegia would be an impediment to marriage anymore. Also, in the case of a woman with paraplegia, there is no physical problem in this regard.


Maybe there is a medical operation (like a penial pump) that could solve this problem!


[quote=Catholic2003]Infertile couples can marry validly; only impotent couples cannot.

Can someone clarify this statement?
It was my understanding that if a person knows they are infertile they cannot be married in the church.
I have a cousin who had to have a hysterectomy at 19 and I know she has never married…I thought it was because of the church’s position.

I thought infertility/impotence fell under the same call as homosexuality - in that it means a different calling for the person of that condition…they are called to a celibate and chaste life by default (as opposed to those of us who get to choose a celibate life through Holy Orders or not, by choosing marriage, though everyone is called to life a chaste life).

Also, if impotence/infertility afflicts the person after a valid marriage that couple’s marriage continues to be valid, correct?
Thinking about a young married couple who perhaps get involved in an auto accident or swimming accident or something like that which renders one or the other unable to produce children…if the situation happened before they were blessed with a child. They’re still called to live a spiritual life together through their marriage covenant, right?


If they cannot copulate why do they need to be married? In other words, what would they have after the wedding that they don’t have now? I doubt living together would be a sin, since there is no chance of fornication (correct me if I am wrong please). They can still have a loving, committed relationship without being married. People seem to think the word marriage should apply to whatever kind of relationship they want, as if that title (or lack thereof) validates/invalidates their relationship. But marriage describes a very specific kind of relationship. If theirs doesn’t meet the criteria it is not a marriage. That doesn’t mean it is not a great, very meaningful relationship. It just means the relationship in question does not require a sacramental blessing.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit