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Roman Catholic Church

Betrothal: re-establishing an
ancient Catholic marriage type

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An ancient optional type of Roman Catholic marriage:

During the 12th century CE, a conflict existed between the Romans and northern Europeans over precisely what established a marriage. Gratian, the master of the school of law at the University of Bologna, suggested a compromise. Vestiges of that settlement remain to this day as Canon 1061 in the Catholic Code of Canon Law. 1061 states that mutual consent makes a marriage ratified and valid; sexual intercourse makes it ratified and consummated -- and therefore indissoluble.

From the 12 to 16th century, there were two permissible marriage types, depending upon whether the couple gave their mutual consent for marriage before or after living together:

bulletMarriage or nuptialia: The couple was married by mutual consent, then started to live together and engage in sexual intercourse. The result is an indissoluble marriage, that usually resulted in pregnancies. This is the only marriage type to survive to the present time.
bulletBetrothal or sponsalia: The couple first became recognized as unmarried spouses in a church ritual. They then lived together, engaged sexual intercourse, and typically launched a pregnancy. The couple then went through a wedding ritual by mutual consent. The end result was an indissoluble marriage.

These two optional marriage styles continued to be available until the Council of Trent (1545 to 1563 CE) when the betrothal form was banned. With the passage of four and a half centuries since the Council, the betrothal form has been almost completely forgotten. 1

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Today's situation:

During the late 1970s, the U.S. Census Bureau created the acronym POSSLQ (for Partners of the Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters). In 1992, the Bureau in 1993 determined that 6,085,284 POSSLQ couples were "living in sin." 2 Probably about this time, most American opposite-sex couples of all religious affiliation -- and none -- started living together before marriage in the U.S. 6 By 2007, we strongly suspect that most Roman Catholic couples have adopted this practice in spite of their church's teaching. Chuck Lamar, a deacon at Light of the World Parish in Littleton, Colorado, who has 20 years' experience helping couples prepare for marriage has said:

"A great percentage I see -- I'd guess it's well over 50 percent -- are already living together when they come to be married." 7

The Roman Catholic church does not approve of cohabitation before marriage, The Family Life Office of the Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati has stated:

"The Catholic Christian community looks upon marriage as the public promise of a man and a woman to a covenant of mutual unselfish love, fidelity, permanence and openness to children. Further, the Sacrament of Marriage is a sign of Godís love for humanity and Christís love for the Church. Couples who cohabit (that is, who live together in a sexual relationship when not married), have not formally pledged themselves to these values, nor has the Catholic Christian community formally committed itself to supporting the couple. Lacking a public acknowledgment, the community cannot be sure of the couplesí intentions. Such a couple cannot sacramentally model Godís love for humanity and Christís love for the Church. Therefore, the Church doesnít approve of cohabitation, nor see it as a fitting or appropriate preparation for marriage. By desiring a sacramental marriage, the engaged couple is asking for 'a marriage in the Lord,' and for God to be the 'third partner' in the marriage."

The Parish of St. Joseph in the Diocese of Gaylord, MI states:

"Catholics who do not marry according to the laws of the Church exclude themselves from the right to receive Eucharist until they have corrected their situation according to the Church. This is also true with those living together before marriage. Living together before marriage is a serious affront to the Catholic Christian belief about human sexuality, sex, and the Christian family and reflects an attitude of opposition to the values of the Catholic Christian community. Statistics indicate that those living together before marriage have a higher rate of divorce." 4

Still, the modern living together arrangement bears many points of similarity to the betrothal or sponsalia of the to 12th to 16th century Catholic custom: They decide to live together by mutual consent, engage sexual intercourse, and typically avoid a pregnancy through the use of birth control -- whether Natural Family Planning (NFP) or conventional means. Later, the couple may go through a ritual wedding by mutual consent. The end result would then be an indissoluble marriage. What is missing from the Middle Ages betrothal is some form of simple church ritual by which the couple could indicate to the congregation that they were about to cohabitate and ask for the support of the membership in their decision to live together.

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The proposal:

Michael Lawler (director of the Creighton Center for Marriage and Family, and a professor emeritus of Catholic theology at Creighton University) and Gail Risch (an instructor of ethics at Creighton) jointly wrote an article that was published in the 2007-JUN issue of U.S. Catholic magazine. They conclude that, in recent decades, most Catholic couples have "reverted to the pre-Tridentine sequence: cohabitation and sexual intercourse, then the wedding." ("Pre-Tridentine" means "before the Council of Trent," of 1545 to 1563 CE).

The authors note that unmarried couples who live together can be divided into two groups, which they describe as "non-nuptial cohabiters" and "nuptial cohabiters:"

bulletNon-nuptial cohabiters: Couples who have no firm expectations of marrying in the future.
bulletNuptial cohabiters: Engaged couples who have definite plans to marry in the future. They view living together as a step on the road to marriage; they look and act like married couples in many ways. They are committed both to each other and the relationship.

They suggest:

"Given the current research that demonstrates that not all cohabitors are alike, we propose the re-introduction of an ancient ritual of betrothal for nuptial cohabitors, followed by intensive marriage preparation in the Catholic pastoral tradition. ...

"Our pastoral proposal is straightforward: a return to the marital sequence of betrothal (with appropriate ritual to ensure community involvement), sexual intercourse, possible fertility, then ritual wedding to acknowledge and mark the consummation of both valid marriage and sacrament."

"Since these couples will have already initiated their marriage through betrothal, their intercourse would not be premarital but marital, as it was in the pre-Tridentine Catholic Church. We envision a marital process initiated by mutual commitment and consent lived in love, justice, equality, intimacy, and fulfillment in a nuptial cohabitation pointed to a wedding that consummates the process of becoming married in a public manner. Such a process would meet the legitimate Catholic and social requirement that the sexual act must take place only within a stable relationship." 1

According to the Catholic News Agency:

"In the article, Lawler and Risch proposed a 'modern-day betrothal' situation which they claim reflects Catholic tradition. They noted that in the 13th and 14th centuries couples were often first betrothed ó a mutual consent to spend the rest of their lives together ó before they were actually married.

" 'The first sexual intercourse between the spouses usually followed the betrothal ó a fact of the Catholic tradition that has been obscured by the now-taken-for-granted sequence of wedding, marriage, sexual intercourse,' Lawler and Risch wrote."

" 'Such a process would meet the legitimate Catholic and social requirement that the sex act must take place only within a stable relationship,' they wrote." 9

One conflict that the authors did not touch upon is the problem of birth control. Many would consider it immoral for a betrothed couple, for whom a married relationship is still in the future, to start a pregnancy. So most couples would wish to use a reliable birth control method. Yet the Catholic Church teaches that the use of any artificial methods of birth control are a very grievous sin. There does not seem to be any simple solution to this problem, other than that taken by the vast majority of married Catholic couples: to ignore the instructions of the hierarchy.

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Reactions of non-Catholic faith groups:

bulletAnglican: The Liturgical Commission of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia has created a Liturgy for the Blessing of a Relationship. It's preface states:

Most liturgies celebrate relationships with God and with one another. The liturgy for marriage expresses and celebrates a permanent legal and spiritual relationship between a ''Man and a woman.' This experimental liturgy is designed to enable two people to express and celebrate a special relationship before God and their friends and family. The relationship is defined by the couple in the course of the liturgy, after which we ask God's blessing and the community's recognition and support of this relationship. 5

bulletWiccan and some other Neopagan traditions: Many Wiccans recognize their relationships with a ritual of handfasting. This can take the form of a regular marriage that is registered with the state or province. It can be a temporary, although renewable bond, lasting a year and a day. "There are probably as many rituals for this as there are people who have joined themselves together." 8
bulletLiberal religious groups: Many have non-marital union services by which the denomination recognizes the loving committed relationship of a same-sex couple. Some faith groups may make this ritual available to opposite-sex committed couples as well.

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The Catholic Church's reaction:

Archbishop Elden F. Curtiss of Omaha denounced the suggestion as contrary to Catholic doctrine. He also said that neither of the articles' authors is a reliable theologian. He wrote that:

"Couples who live together without marriage do in fact live in sin objectively. ... Because the position of the authors is contrary to church teaching about the intrinsic evil of fornication, I have disassociated the Omaha Archdiocese from the Center for Marriage and Family at Creighton University." 9

The Catholic News Agency commented:

"The separation of the Omaha Archdiocese and the Center for Marriage and Family is a particularly sharp one because the archdiocese is considered a national leader in premarital counseling. FOCCUS, a marriage preparation inventory developed by the archdiocese's Family Life Office, is widely used by Catholics and Protestants." 9

The Archbishop's strong negative reaction may have been influenced by a new program launched on 2007-JUN-27 by U.S. bishops to promote healthy, marriages.  The program, which is restricted to opposite-sex relationships, started later in the same month that the betrothal article was published. 10

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References used:

  1. Michael G. Lawler & Gail S. Risch, "A betrothal proposal," U.S. Catholic magazine, 2007-JUN, at: http://uscatholic.claretians.org/
  2. Harold S. Martin, "On living together before marriage," Brethren Revival Fellowship, 1995-SEP/OCT, Volume 30, #5, at: http://www.brfwitness.org/
  3. "Marriage Preparation," Family Life Office, Archdiocese of Cincinnati, at: http://www.catholiccincinnati.org/
  4. "Marriage," Roman Catholic Parish of St. Joseph, Diocese of Gaylord, MI, undated, at: http://www.stjosephwestbranch.org/
  5. "Liturgy for the Blessing of a Relationship," Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, 1992-MAR, at: http://liturgy.co.nz/ This is a PDF file. You may require software to read it. Software can be obtained free from: 
  6. Larry Bumpass & Hsien-Hen Lu, "More than 50% of first marriages are preceded by cohabitation," Trends in Cohabitation and Implication for Childrenís Family Context, Unpublished manuscript, Center for Demography, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI, (1998).
  7. Abigail Kelly, "Can this marriage ceremony be saved?," U.S. Catholic magazine, 2001-NOV-19, at: http://www.marriagepreparation.com/
  8. Reverend Helen J. Carol Thompsonm "The History of Handfasting," Handfasting Info, at: http://www.handfasting.info/
  9. "Archbishop severs ties with Creighton University marriage center over immoral proposal," Catholic News Agency, 2007-JUN-29, at: http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/
  10. "US Bishops launch media campaign to strengthen marriage," Catholic News Agency, 2007-JUN-29, at: http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/

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Copyright © 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2007-JUL-21
Latest update: 2007-JUL-21
Author: B.A. Robinson

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