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Homosexuality and Marriage

by Fr. John Harvey, OSFS


Father Harvey explains why true homosexuals (both men and women) should be counseled against entering into the sacrament of Matrimony. He first discusses the canonical aspects of the problem and then offers a pastoral approach to the homosexual.

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Homiletic & Pastoral Review

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Joseph F. Wagner, December 1961

I. Canonical Aspects of the Problem

The fact that homosexual practices have wrecked many marriages has caused a psychiatrist and a canonist to consider the possibility of making homosexuality an impediment to marriage. Dr. John R. Cavanagh holds that steps should be taken to prevent unhappy marriages between a heterosexual and homosexual individual. Homosexuality should be made an impediment to matrimony, because "the homosexual cannot give proper matrimonial consent, . . . cannot develop a selfless love necessary in marriage . . . is psychologically impotent in a heterosexual relationship."1

Dr. Cavanagh is concerned with the genuine homosexual who, he argues, lacks the heterosexual orientation necessary for true marital consent.2 This individual is called psychologically impotent by Dr. Cavanagh in the sense that he lacks the desire for heterosexual relationships, possessing indeed a positive aversion for such acts.3

In the development of the canonical aspects of the problem, Msgr. Vincent P. Coburn agrees with Dr. Cavanagh that homosexuality can destroy the free consent necessary for a valid marriage.4 Likewise, he follows Dr. Cavanagh in drawing a distinction between physical and psychological impotence, and in holding that the homosexual is psychologically impotent despite the fact of sexual intercourse on rare occasions. He adds that the intention to practice homosexuality does not invalidate the marriage, but a condition (present or future) concerning homosexuality could form grounds for annulment provided adequate evidence could be produced to demonstrate that the validity of the contract depended upon the fulfillment of the condition of heterosexuality and that the condition was not fulfilled. In practice, Msgr. Coburn stresses, this would be almost impossible.5

Finally, from a survey of material presented by twenty-eight Catholic physicians, Msgr. Coburn sums up their collective judgment that about fifty per cent of the genuine homosexuals are functionally impotent in the canonical sense. On the other hand, sixty-five per cent of the physicians affirmed that homosexuals are capable of giving free consent in marriage.6

Some Questions Raised

These views of Dr. Cavanagh and Msgr. Coburn raise the following points:

1. It is not clear whether the proposed invalidating impediment would be regarded as arising from purely ecclesiastical law or from divine law. Were it made an impediment by purely ecclesiastical law, it could be dispensed from, and thus would function like a caution light to the heterosexual fiancée, who would enter marriage with her eyes wide open.

2. Nothing is said about the female invert. With certain qualifications noted later, the female invert, or homosexual, shares the characteristics and problems of the male.

3. More recent trends in the study of homosexuality, moreover, avoid sharply etched differentiations among homosexuality, bisexuality, and heterosexuality, and stress the complex balance of masculine and feminine traits in those considered normal. There are many gradations of homosexual tendencies ranging from the more pronounced types whose only affective interest is their own sex, through bisexuals who seem equally drawn by both sexes, to heterosexuals who exhibit an occasional and transient attraction to members of their own sex.7 In practice, it is difficult to distinguish between a true homosexual and a heterosexual, and between a bisexual and a homosexual. In theory, moreover, there is much difference of opinion concerning the very nature and significance of inversion and concerning its causes and curability.

If, then, psychiatrists themselves do not agree on basic definitions and classification of homosexual types, how is the ordinary priest engaged in pastoral practice going to discern the traits of the true homosexual during the course of a few interviews? Would he not be basing his judgment concerning the existence of true homosexuality on rather flimsy evidence? How could he use it as a form of canonical evidence to block a proposed marriage or to invalidate one already celebrated?

4. Equally difficult to prove would be the kind of condition made by the involved heterosexual person. It is extremely unlikely that the latter before marriage would make the existence of heterosexuality in the other person a condition for the validity of the contract. It is still more unlikely that the heterosexual would affirm such a condition before witnesses to make it juridically useful. Granted, however, that such a condition were made before marriage in the presence of witnesses, there would remain the difficulty of proving canonically after matrimony that the other spouse was truly homosexual. In many cases marital relations have already taken place, and any effort to prove that the other person is not heterosexual will be canonically futile. He may be homosexual and psychologically impotent, but canonically he has consummated his marriage. Needless to say, the same reasoning applies to the female homosexual who has consummated her marriage.

5. Inasmuch as consent to marriage is both internal and external, it is difficult to prove that it does not exist internally when it has been manifested externally.8 The internal is presumed to exist. In the practical order, then, it would be rare that a person would be proved as incapable of true marital consent who has consummated his marriage. But if a homosexual were found after the ceremony to be incapable of marital consent, in all likelihood it would be due to other mental disabilities which would have produced the same incapacity in a heterosexual person.

6. Msgr. Coburn's very limited survey bears out the contention that there are many variations of opinion concerning capacity for consent in the homosexual. The same lack of certitude is found in his twenty-eight physicians on the questions of impotency and curability of homosexuals as is found in the psychiatric and medical profession as a whole.

7. The theory that pronounced homosexual traits render one incapable of marital consent is not accepted by those writers who claim that homosexuality is largely a matter of choice.9 It would be practically impossible to prove that a female homosexual did not give proper marital consent when she has borne her husband five children.

A Case in Point

For all these reasons it is difficult to conceive of an invalidating impediment based upon evidence of the presence of homosexuality before marriage.10 Let me illustrate my position further by another pastoral case. Engaged to be married, a twenty-two-year-old man is picked up by the police for solicitation in a public toilet. The same thing had happened four times before, but always when he was intoxicated, and always with strangers. Was he homosexual? Apparently, he wanted to prove that he was heterosexual by having subsequent sexual relations with his fiancée. Did this prove him heterosexual or bisexual? From a few incidents can we know in what category to place him? Maybe he is psychologically impotent although physically potent with the opposite sex! Would the proposed canonical impediment to marriage apply to him? He seemed like a bisexual, and marriages between bisexuals and heterosexuals have a very high percentage of failure.11 Actually, against advice he married several years ago, and he seems happy with his wife and child.

II. Pastoral Approach to the Homosexual

Instead of more speculation about the confusion which the proposed canonical impediment would bring, it seems better to recommend another approach involving pastoral rather than canonical considerations. Efforts should be made to persuade genuine homosexuals and persons of confirmed bisexual tendencies to give up the idea of marriage and to practice perfect chastity in the world. To this end a practical program should be spelled out. Since there are different degrees of inversion and of apparent bisexuality, it will be necessary to adapt the pastoral approach to the specific type with whom one is dealing, and to go still further in the refinement of counsel in consideration of the individual's personal history.

Sources Other Than the Counselee

Presupposing that the priest is already aware of homosexual characteristics in the counselee who desires to marry, he should endeavor to discover whether the person is a true invert or an apparent bisexual. This difference is not easily observable, and the help of a psychiatrist would be invaluable. At first glance one may conjecture that the counselee is a bisexual. After all, were he truly homosexual, he would not have the physical attraction to the opposite sex which leads presumably to the desire for matrimony. However, it is known that some homosexuals (a minority, to be sure) marry for social propriety, business reputation, or as protection for continuation of clandestine homosexual practices. Very probably from such individuals the priest will derive little direct information, even in the premarital investigation, but he should be alive to other sources, such as warnings from acquaintances of the counselee which amount to a solid suspicion of the presence of pronounced homosexual traits. Perchance, these cautions may come to the priest through the fiancée who, nevertheless, may be all too ready to dismiss them. Unfortunately, however, it is possible for the male or female invert to conceal completely an inversion so that neither the priest nor the fiancée (fiancé) suspects it. For this there is no present remedy.

Advice for the Bisexual

Suppose, however, that the engaged person opens his conscience to the priest and reveals tendencies to both sexes, like the previously mentioned apparent bisexual. What advice should the priest give? He should recommend that the young man practice complete chastity for an extended period of time to demonstrate that he has learned to master his passions. This period should be at least nine months to a year. If during the same period he continues to have a strong physical attraction toward his fiancée, he has a good chance of becoming a good husband. But if during the same period he slips several times into homosexual practices, he should either call off the engagement, or he should defer marriage for another long period of time, while informing his fiancée of the reason. She may want to withdraw from such an engagement. (In most instances an apparent bisexual should inform his fiancée of his tendency. In no way does this communication of knowledge about a tendency imply admission of failures in chastity, which belong strictly to the internal and sacramental forum. Sufficient knowledge should be imparted to the heterosexual person to acquaint her with the probable dangers she may encounter. If she is willing to take the gamble — against which she should be counseled strongly — she is free to do so. Of course, there is no obligation of self-revelation when the tendency is a thing of the past or when it is very weak and transient.)

Sometimes it becomes clear to the apparent bisexual that he sought homosexual acts principally because of the absence of the opposite sex. This insight may be the fruit of visits with the psychiatrist whose advice should be noted by the priest. If it is fairly well established, then, that the young man in question sought homosexual expression only as substitutive fulfillment, and if he has mastered this tendency during an extended period to be determined by the counselor-priest, it seems reasonably certain that he can live happily in marriage. Dr. Henry supports this opinion, affirming that the higher the degree of self-control exercised before marriage in suppressing deviate tendencies, the greater the chance the person has of making a happy marriage:

To the extent that a person of either sex has engaged in sex variant activity he or she is less likely to make a satisfactory heterosexual adjustment. The chances of making such an adjustment are less to the extent that substitutive sexual behavior has been prolonged.12

Again, unless the apparent bisexual has given up his homosexual friends and milieu definitively, the priest should not advise him to marry. As long as he remains indecisive between love of man and love of woman, he is not ready to share life in common with a woman. It is tragic illusion to imagine that marriage will transform him from his deviate condition into a heterosexual orientation. Many case histories show how futile such advice turns out to be.13 Finally, let it be repeated, the same principles apply to the apparent female bisexual as to the male.

Male and Female Inverts: Some Differences

Before going on to a discussion about the advisability of marriage for the genuine invert it will be profitable to note a few observable differences between male and female inverts. The female differs from the male in such matters as the greater depth of her attachments, her avoidance of erotic transvestism, her ability to keep her anomaly secret, and the allegedly deeper sensitivity of her conscience to the guilt of homosexual desires and acts. Perhaps this more sensitive conscience in female homosexuals induces them more readily to seek moral guidance than their male counterparts.

While all sorts of consciences are found among male and female inverts, it is noted in pastoral practice that the female is more docile than the male. She is not so likely as he is to defend her way of life by involved arguments of a pseudo-intellectual stripe, and she is more ready to admit the obviously emotional character of her homosexual attachments, to which she may continue to cling, not as a rebellion against moral principles, but really out of fear of the vacuum which she imagines will follow her renunciation of her beloved. In general, in the female there is more weakness and less pride.

Non-Married Male Inverts

To come back to the problem, if caution is the keynote in helping the apparent bisexual, it is more so in counseling someone who, possessing all the characteristics of the invert, desires to marry. Previous to his article in the Catholic Psychiatrists' Bulletin,14 Dr. Cavanagh had held that the invert should refrain from marriage until he had cleared up the condition of inversion. The person should be told that he can be cured only on condition that he wants to be cured. Homosexuals who come to a psychiatrist usually want to be cured and should be encouraged to make the strenuous effort necessary to bring it about.15

From the Bulletin it is not clear that Dr. Cavanagh has relinquished this position, but, at any rate, other students of the problem feel that there is only a remote chance that the homosexual will be able to extirpate such a deeply imbedded tendency and to redirect his sexual instinct toward the opposite sex.

Let me cite a few authorities. A male invert who has written about other male inverts holds that marriage for male inverts is a mistake, although he admits that he has only a limited knowledge of the effect of marriage upon inverts, based on the testimony of the few married men who admitted their inversion. He feels, however, that his view is buttressed by common sense. If one is dealing with a true invert who lacks attraction toward the opposite sex and is even repelled by them, how can one expect a happy marriage?16

Anomaly's insight has been strengthened by other more empiric and extensive studies over the last thirty-five years.17 The conclusions of these studies are similar: for true male inverts marriage is neither a happy nor a successful venture. Besides having a deviate tendency, many have indulged in homosexual practices before marriage, and this rendered them still less fit for conjugal life. Henry adds other reasons which militate against a happy marriage: (1) emotional dependency upon someone other than the spouse; (2) aversion from sexual intimacy with women; and (3) hope of moral compromise, i.e., social marriage with continued clandestine homosexual behavior.18

In this complex problem the question remains unanswered whether a true male invert who has never succumbed to any homosexual act would be able to fulfill well the role of husband in Christian marriage. Would that we had some case histories indicating that chaste inverts had made a happy adjustment in the marital state! Lack of such data is indicative of its non-existence. While it may be regarded as defeatist to judge that such individuals cannot live properly in this normal state of human life, nevertheless the evidence at hand would not favor the counseling of marriage. Though he possess virtue, the chaste invert would not be able to give his wife a full measure of affection, and she would not be able to understand the nature of his difficulty despite the fact she were made aware of it before marriage. Finally, even the hope of eventual cure (or redirection of the sexual instinct) is very thin.19

Non-Married Female Inverts

The same advice against marriage should be given to the true female invert, i.e., a woman who has been physically attracted to members of her own sex over a long period of time, and who lacks physical attraction toward men, even in some cases having a horror of such. On the surface there seems to be a difference between her anomaly and that of the male. It seems that the female invert could render the marriage debt faithfully, bring children into the world, and fulfill at least the essential duties of wife, mother, and homemaker. Despite her distaste for marital relations it seems that she could fulfill the role which God assigns to most women in this world. Again, it seems that it is easier for a female invert to submit to marital relations than it is for a male to initiate them. But it only seems! Pastoral experience does not bear out such speculation. In one case a woman who had overcome her tendency to homosexual activity, begun after marriage, appeared like a happy wife and mother of five children. But there were all kinds of defects in the marriage: extreme frigidity toward her husband; lack of desire to take care of her own children; continual preoccupation with things outside the home; and depression with suicidal temptations. This woman was not aware that she had homosexual tendencies until several years after marriage, but its apparent suddenness in her life does not make it any easier to shake off.

With all the more reason, then, a woman who is aware of these inclinations before marriage should be dissuaded from entering matrimony. It should be pointed out to her that indications of frequent failures in marriages of female inverts are noted by authorities, for reasons similar to those enumerated for the male invert.20

The priest should be on the alert to spot the female invert who intends to marry for the sake of appearance, as well as the heterosexual woman who intends to marry a homosexual because she finds him so attractive. Both types are asking for trouble, although they may feel that they can make the marriage work. Every effort of dissuasion should be used to avoid probable marital shipwreck.21

Marriage is for a lifetime, and yet there is "no other serious contract regularly subscribed to with less intelligent preparation and consideration. This irrational behavior in selecting a mate is due to the intensity and impulsiveness of sexual attraction . . . Passion is readily disguised as love, and when two persons are 'in love' they usually have thoughts of marriage. Marriage without love is almost certain to fail, but the frequency with which love blossoms and then dies makes it an uncertain criterion for the success of the marriage."22

In many marriages between a female invert and a normal man, or between a normal woman and a male invert, the beginning may be bright, but very soon the deep incompatibility between the partners asserts itself, and divorce or separation are frequent results.23 It seems wise, then, to guide homosexuals away from marriage, however great the social pressures or the passing attractive qualities which he or she finds in friendship with a person of the opposite sex. The radical right to marry is not under attack. It is a question of counsel, a matter of opinion, but opinion well substantiated, that all true inverts, male and female alike, should not marry. In place of marriage let the priest counsel them to a chaste life of apostolic activity in the world.

Limitations of space require that I omit from this article considerations about the married invert24 and that I set down only the broad outlines of a practical spiritual program for the homosexual or the person of confirmed bisexual tendencies with the hope of filling in the details at a later date.

In the next installment of this article (to appear in the next issue of HPR), titled "Counseling the Homosexual," I shall discuss the necessity, purpose and nature of a spiritual plan of life, and shall propose a typical plan.


1 Guild of Catholic Psychiatrists' Bulletin, Washington, D.C., vol. 7, no. 2 (April, 1960), pp. 96-109 at p. 102.

2 Op. cit.

3 Loc, cit.

4 The Jurist, "Homosexuality and the Invalidation of Marriage," vol. 20, no. 4 (October, 1960), pp. 441-459 at p. 453.

5 Op. cit., pp. 455-458.

6 Op. cit., p. 458.

7 Alfred C. Kinsey, Wardell B. Pomeroy, and Clyde E. Martin, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, W. B. Saunders Co., 1948, Philadelphia, Pa., pp. 638-641.

8 Msgr. Coburn adds that the allegation of a condition to extricate oneself from marriage would end "in greater disorder . . ." Op. cit., p. 456.

9 Paul Waring, Dean Travis Bryce, "Homosexual Freedom" (privately printed) 1961, pp. 1-2; Michael J. Buckley, Morality and the Homosexual, Westminster, Md., Newman, 1960; T. Gilby, "Not All That Anomalous," Blackfriars 41 (Nov. 1960), pp. 402-408.

10 Of course, it may happen that homosexuality is a factor in impotency of the man especially, but then the invalidation of the marriage is due to impotency, not to homosexuality.

11 George W. Henry, All the Sexes, New York, Rinehart and Company, Inc. 1955; p. 81: "When the sex variant pattern has become well established prior to marriage, the outlook for success is poor . . . In a group of forty males and forty females whose variant sexual patterns were well established, a group selected with reference to marital adjustment, only four of the men, and seventeen of the women had been married. Almost all the marriages resulted in failure." A breakdown of the factors in these unions is found on pp. 82-84.

12 George W. Henry, Sex Variants, N.Y., Harper & Brothers, one-vol. edit., 1948, p. 1048.

13 Henry, All The Sexes, p. 81ff.

14 Op. cit., p. 102.

15 Fundamental Marriage Counseling, Milwaukee, Bruce, 1956, pp. 205-206.

16 Anomaly, The Invert, London, Bailliere, Tindall and Cox, 1948 (first published, 1927), pp. 95-116.

17 D. West, Homosexuality, London, G. Duckworth and Co., Ltd., 1955, pp. 120-121; J. Tudor Rees and Harley Usill, They Stand Apart, London, W. Heinemann, Ltd., 1955, pp. 103-104; 129-130; Henry, All The Sexes, pp. 331-332; G. Hagmaier, Proceedings of Second Institute for Clergy on Problems in Pastoral Counseling, N.Y., Fordham U., 1957, p. 179.

18 Henry, All the Sexes, pp. 331-332.

19 Desmond Curran and Dennis Parr, "Analysis of 100 Male Cases Seen in Private Practice," British Medical Journal, April 6, 1957, pp. 797-801. The authors found in twenty-five cases that were matched with a control group that there was no difference between the groups as regards change in sexual orientation, but the treated patients came to terms with their problem better. They remark: "We believe that claims for the cure of homosexuals should be treated with reserve unless the Kinsey rating before and after treatment is stated and relevant evidence adduced clearly. It seldom is" (p. 801). Cf. also B.M.J., "Homosexuality and Prostitution: Memorandum of Evidence for Departmental Committee," Dec. 17, 1955, pp. 163, 170. This report holds that clinically the orientation of the true homosexual is commonly regarded as irreversible and not amenable to treatment, though individuals may be deterred from homosexual activities and helped to make a good social adjustment.

20 Henry, All the Sexes, pp. 33.3-336; Benjamin Karpmann, The Sexual Offender and His Offense, pp. 314-315.

21 Henry, op. cit., p. 337: "Marriage to a well established homosexual can scarcely ever be recommended."

22 Loc. cit.

23 Loc. cit.

24 I gave brief treatment to this point in Theological Studies, "Homosexuality As a Pastoral Problem," vol. 16, no. 1, 1955, p. 98.

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