I apologize that it has taken me so long to get this answer posted. This is an excellent question.
The Church’s teaching is this: that a couple must be open (referring to the disposition of the heart) to the possibility of having children. The vow they take in their marriage is to accept children lovingly from God. If a couple gets married, completely closed to the possibility of ever having children, they are not truly married in the Church. They may have a “civil” marriage, but it is not sacramental.
If there is any physiological reason why a couple can not have children, that does not stop them from being able to be married in the Church. As long as they have not deliberately chosen to exclude children from their marriage, they can be married in the Church and their marriage will be considered valid.
Even in the case when one of the partners has deliberately rendered himself or herself sterile, they can still enter into a valid marriage, if they are repentant of that act. Many misinformed people are making bad decisions out there – poorly directed, and poorly formed in their conscience . . . they do not have a proper understanding of God’s plan for marriage and the gift of fertility. If they have made a mistake and are now repentant, they can still enter marriage – open to the possibility of children. For with God, all things are possible. Perhaps they might choose to adopt. Perhaps they might be blessed with a child through miraculous intervention (it has happened!) or perhaps they will decide to have a reversal of the surgery.
In the case of a hysterectomy, the possibility of a couple naturally having children of their own is completely removed (again, with the exception of miraculous intervention). Nevertheless, the couple can be open to the possibility of children – prepared to accept children lovingly from God – even if the possibility is completely remote.
It also does not mean that they necessarily must adopt children either. A couple does not have to be open to adoption. However, God may place that on their hearts at some time.
There are many ways in which the love of a man and a woman can be fruitful. There is the obvious manifestation in having children. But a marriage can bear much spiritual fruit with or without children. Some couples, through no fault of their own, can not have children. This is, generally speaking, a tremendous cross for a couple to bear – for it is deep in the human race to want to procreate. Nevertheless, God has a plan and a design for each of us. "For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for good and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope." (Jeremiah 29:11) And though we might not understand it now, all things will be revealed in His time. His ways are far beyond ours. His vision for our life far exceeds our own. We must learn to be docile to His will, and do our best to accept and bear the crosses which we have been given – trusting that the cross is the only path to resurrection.
Christopher West, in his book Good News About Sex and Marriage: Answers to Your Honest Questions about Catholic Teaching, he states:
In order for the marriage of Catholics to be validly established, spouses must: (1) not have any impediments to marriage; (2) follow the proper form of the sacrament; (3) have the proper capacity to exchange consent and do so freely and unconditionally; and (4) consent to what the Church intends by marriage, that is: fidelity, indissolubility, and openness to children.
I highly recommend Chris West’s book. I believe no Catholic home should be without it. I do not recommend it as a “coffee table” book to be left lying around for small children to read. But it is a unique work in that it offers easy to understand, clear and honest answers to the Church’s teachings about marriage and the meaning of human sexuality. It is a fabulous resource. You might also want to check out his other many great resources at: www.giftfoundation.org. I can not recommend these resources highly enough.
I hope this answer gives and adequate response to your excellent question. We pray each day for our readers, and ask that you would remember me, my family and this ministry in your prayers as well.
In His Most Holy Name,