I Now Declare You Man and Wife

Author: Father Edward McNamara


I Now Declare You Man and Wife

ROME, 18 JAN. 2011 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: In the last 10 years I have attended a number of Catholic marriages and in none of them does the priest ever say, "I now declare you man and wife." What happened to that simple declarative statement and why has it been excised from the marriage vows? — G.B., Richmond, Virginia

A: As far as I have been able to ascertain, this particular formula never formed part of the Roman Catholic rite of matrimony. These words, or variations of the same, do form part of the Anglican and some other Protestant rites.

Since the media are not exactly sticklers for detail when it comes to ritual, many people have seen and heard this supposedly Catholic phrase in countless movies and TV shows. For this reason, they might expect it when they attend a real Catholic wedding.

The closest Catholics come to hearing a similar expression is in a wedding celebrated according to the extraordinary form of the Roman rite, which was in general use until the early 1970s. After the couple exchanged vows and before blessing the ring, the priest says, "Ego conjúngo vos in matrimónium. [I join you in matrimony] In nómine Patris, et Fílii, et Spíritus Sancti. Amen."

With the reform, the above expression was dropped from the Rite of Marriage. Among the reasons for eliminating it was that, since the celebration would henceforth be in the vernacular, the use of the first person singular could easily leave the impression that the priest acted as the minister of the sacrament, analogous to the way he acts when he says, "I baptize you" or "I absolve you." The Latin tradition, however, holds that the couple themselves are the ministers of the sacrament. The Catechism says:

"1623. According to the Latin tradition, the spouses as ministers of Christ's grace mutually confer upon each other the sacrament of Matrimony by expressing their consent before the Church. In the traditions of the Eastern Churches, the priests (bishops or presbyters) are witnesses to the mutual consent given by the spouses, but for the validity of the sacrament their blessing is also necessary.

"1626. The Church holds the exchange of consent between the spouses to be the indispensable element that 'makes the marriage.' If consent is lacking there is no marriage.

"1627. The consent consists in a 'human act by which the partners mutually give themselves to each other': 'I take you to be my wife' — 'I take you to be my husband.' This consent that binds the spouses to each other finds its fulfillment in the two 'becoming one flesh.'

"1628. The consent must be an act of the will of each of the contracting parties, free of coercion or grave external fear. No human power can substitute for this consent. If this freedom is lacking the marriage is invalid.

"1630. The priest (or deacon) who assists at the celebration of a marriage receives the consent of the spouses in the name of the Church and gives the blessing of the Church. The presence of the Church's minister (and also of the witnesses) visibly expresses the fact that marriage is an ecclesial reality.

"1631. This is the reason why the Church normally requires that the faithful contract marriage according to the ecclesiastical form. Several reasons converge to explain this requirement:

— Sacramental marriage is a liturgical act. It is therefore appropriate that it should be celebrated in the public liturgy of the Church;

— Marriage introduces one into an ecclesial order, and creates rights and duties in the Church between the spouses and towards their children;

— Since marriage is a state of life in the Church, certainty about it is necessary (hence the obligation to have witnesses);

— The public character of the consent protects the 'I do' once given and helps the spouses remain faithful to it."

For these reasons the priest no longer uses the first person singular but rather receives the consent of the couple by saying:

"You have declared your consent before the Church. May the Lord in his goodness strengthen your consent and fill you both with his blessings. What God has joined, men must not divide."

* * *

Follow-up: "I Now Declare You Man and Wife" [2-1-2011]

After our musings on the rite of marriage (see Jan. 18), an Illinois reader commented: "What are the origins of the practice of the father giving away the bride? Is it another practice that crept in from the Protestants? Like the unity candle and other novelties that crept in? It seems reminiscent of when women were seen as chattel under English and American common law. It seems very odd that so many women, who want to be equal in so many ways, have the idea of a fairy-tale wedding where she is treated as an old piece of furniture. It is a little concerning, because such a demonstration of a strong sense of possession almost could be considered as grounds for invalidating consent. Is she truly doing this of her own free will? I seem to remember a professor saying that the proper form of a Catholic wedding procession is for the bride and groom to process in together, and the reality is that it is not going to happen that way. Then he briefed us on how it usually happens."

Marriage is first and foremost a natural institution elevated by Christ to the dignity of a sacrament. Because it is a natural institution, marriage is far more deeply entwined with the mores of each society and historical epoch than the other sacraments.

This reality is one of the principal reasons why the early Church did not immediately develop its own rite of matrimony but generally deferred to local custom, except in those aspects that were incompatible with the Christian faith. Even the first hints of a specifically Christian rite, given by Tertullian around the year 200, with more detailed description in the fourth and fifth centuries, show a ceremony incorporating Roman civil customs. The specifically Christian elements consisted in the wedding being celebrated either before the church doors or inside the building, the formula of consent invoking Christ or the Trinity and the celebrant's blessing.

This combination of civil and religious elements is the reason why the Church still allows, and even recommends, that each bishops' conference develop its own rite in accordance with legitimate local customs, while always assuring the essential element of mutual consent. It also goes some way in explaining why some marriage customs, traditions and superstitions prove very resistant to theological considerations.

The principal indispensable conditions for a valid Catholic wedding are accepting that it is an exclusive indissoluble bond that is open to having and raising children as well as for mutual assistance of the spouses. The couple must also be free to marry each other.

As well as the necessary freedom to wed, free consent is also required. In the Catholic Church, it is consent that makes a marriage, and this must be of necessity a free act of the will. If there is any coercion or grave external error regarding the future spouse, then the marriage would be invalid.

However, themes such as freedom from coercion must be taken within the social context of each epoch and society. For centuries, and in some countries even today, marriages were arranged by parents on behalf of their children. It is also a fact that in many cases, and not just among the wealthy, marriage was also a business transaction between families in which such things as conserving and accumulating property, overcoming disputes and forging pacts were also taken into account. Women were at a disadvantage in these exchanges since, according to common law, all their property rights went to their husband and yet, even he was subject to the choice of his parents.

In the wedding rite of a 10th-century Romano-German Pontifical, for example, the couple and their relatives present themselves to the priest. He first interrogates them regarding the existence of possible impediments. Having received a negative reply, the priest then asks the father of the bride, or her legal guardian, if he is willing to cede his patriarchal authority to the spouse. After an affirmative response, the priest then interrogates first the groom and then the bride to see whether they freely accept each other as husband and wife. The legal requirement of transmitting patriarchal authority to the groom lost ground and disappeared from the rite from the 12th century onward.

In all probability, however, such customs are the remote origin of the father leading the spouse down the aisle even though, strictly speaking, this procession is outside of the liturgical rite. (The rite only began when both spouses reached the altar.) Nor was the procession universal; in some Baltic countries parents did not attend the wedding itself but waited at home for the couple to return from the church.

The idea that the couple had to first fall in love and choose one another was uncommon. On occasion the couple met each other for the first time at the wedding. Although either man or woman could always refuse a specific proposal of marriage, the accepted belief was that parents knew best and that the natural affection between the sexes would develop over time. Since this mentality formed part of the ethos of the time, it did not restrict the necessary freedom to constitute a valid marriage.

Times and notions have changed and, at least in Western society, the choice of marriage falls upon the couple. This is one reason why, for the first time, the rite foresees the option of either an entrance procession or the celebrant greeting the couple at the altar. If there is a procession, then "The ministers go first, followed by the priest, and then the bride and the bridegroom. According to local custom they may be escorted by at least their parents and two witnesses."

This procession rite admirably expresses the theological reality that the couple are the ministers of the sacrament and also underlines its ecclesial context of their being members of the Church. Yet it is still a relative novelty, and I don't think we can expect it can quickly substitute the millennial practice of the father giving away the bride. Nor will it easily chase away the superstitions that it is an ill omen for the groom to see the bride in her gown before the ceremony begins. If the bride is walked down the aisle by her father, then once more this is outside the liturgy. For the liturgy officially begins when the couple are greeted by the priest at the altar and not when the bride enters the church.

As we saw with the case of the rite of transmitting patriarchal authority, customs do eventually change and in this case are already changing. For example, I observed such a wedding procession in Latvia about 15 years ago, and it would appear that it was already fairly established. Factors such as the increased independence and mobility of young people, as well as better formation in the theological understanding of marriage, will in time make the option of the procession increasingly common and eventually standard.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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