As we go about rediscovering elements of our rich tradition — a movement which was given great impulse by the document Summorum Pontificum, published on 7/7/07 — one of the things that one sometimes encounters now is young couples who wish to celebrate a “betrothal” ceremony upon getting engaged. I have celebrated one such ceremony in my almost-11 years as a priest.

Dr. Peter Kwasniewski published an article today on New Liturgical Movement about how to recover a more sacred celebration of the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony (HERE). One of the things he suggested was that couples pursue a traditional “betrothal” as part of their path to marriage. I quote:

The ceremony of betrothal should be restored as a sacred way of marking the period of engagement and preparation. Lest this suggestion be viewed as a form of throwback romanticism, it is worthy of mention that one sees betrothals happening quite regularly at the more traditional colleges listed in the Newman Guide. My wife and I were betrothed in a ceremony led by the priest who married us about six months later, and the idea occurred to us in the first place because we’d seen so many others doing it. However, the rite is still not known as well as it should be known, and the recent publication by the USCCB of a pathetic “blessing of engagement” could throw some people off the scent of the real deal. The traditional rite of betrothal is available in a number of places, e.g., herehere, and here. A Google search turns up a number of good articles on the subject.

(I agree about the insipid new blessing that has been created. Just use the traditional one!)

Many young people have little difficulty in seeing an allure in these traditional ceremonies. What has also been lost upon us — besides the habit of keeping these traditional practices — is the understanding of their true meaning. In that regard, I thought it might be helpful to write a brief “FAQ” on betrothal.

What is betrothal?

In some traditional betrothal or even marriage vows, the archaic phrase, “to thee I pledge my troth” is included. Here we see the root word for “betrothal” — “troth”. The dictionary defines this as a promise of fidelity, especially with regard to marriage. “Pledging one’s troth” is pledging oneself to another person and excluding all others.

The moralist Jone says, “Betrothal or engagement is a promise made with mature deliberation by which one person obliges himself to enter into marriage with another person of the opposite sex” (Moral Theology, no. 661). He further specifies that for a betrothal to be valid (i.e., for it really to happen and be legally binding), it must be made in writing (no. 662). This reflected the requirements of the 1917 Code of Canon Law.

Is betrothal required for marriage now?

Jone clarifies that betrothal was not necessary then, even. However, the question still remains: is it necessary now? The Code of Canon Law has the following to say at canon 1062:

§1. A promise of marriage, whether unilateral or bilateral, which is called an engagement, is governed by the particular law established by the conference of bishops, after it has considered any existing customs and civil laws.
§2. A promise to marry does not give rise to an action to seek the celebration of marriage; an action to repair damages, however, does arise if warranted.

The word used for “engagement” in Latin is the same as “betrothal” (sponsalia). This canon refers to the concept of betrothal.

This canon is the only one that speaks of betrothal and its says nothing about necessity. It is not required at all. This is included in the law because in some places the practice of betrothal remains (not merely as a rediscovery of traditional rites but as a concept still current in the broader society) and that practice even gives rise to legal obligations.

Bottom line: betrothal was optional in the past, it is optional now.

What is the value of betrothal now?

Understanding that it is optional, yet is a promise made before God and enriched with the Church’s blessing, this means that betrothal is a sacramental of the Church. Every sacramental disposes us to receive graces that help us on our Christian journey. A couple that devoutly seeks betrothal as part of their preparation for marriage desires to receives special graces from God to help them make a good preparation: i.e., one that is chaste, mature, firm in resolve, etc.

Therefore, a couple should not seek betrothal just because it’s “traditional” and “traditional is cool”; they should seek it because they are desirous of the special graces that it affords and want to avail themselves of all the benefits that the Church offers them as they approach the married state.

The canon mentions particular law of the Bishops’ Conference. Do the U.S. Bishops have any laws on betrothals?

The complementary norms (particular adaptations by the Bishops’ Conference and approved by the Holy See) for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops may be found on this page: HERE. As you can see, by clicking the link for canon 1062, it says:

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops intends to issue no norms regarding the promise of marriage as mentioned in canon 1062, §1, without prejudice, however, to the prescriptions of canon 1062, §2 regarding an action for reparation of damages.

In other words, no norms. Except insofar as a failure to honor a betrothal could give rise to a suit for damages. As far as I know, there is nothing in most civil jurisdictions that recognizes a civil legal value in betrothals. I am not a civil lawyer, however.

The thing about the concept of betrothal is that it harks back to times when a promise to marry might have also had civil effects. Someone who did not keep his or her promise, then, might have been liable to damages for that failure. It’s difficult to see how this could be the case nowadays — or, at the very least, how there could be much that would be worth pursuing in civil law about it. Perhaps in cases of grave deception or error concerning a person; I’m not sure. I just can’t see that there is any civil value to this anymore.

What obligation arises from betrothal?

Jone identifies the obligation as that of “marrying in due time” (no. 663). Therefore, it would not seem to make sense for a couple that has gotten engaged, but does not plan to marry for several years — as seems to happen so often nowadays — also to seek betrothal. A lot can happen in those few years. And, under the influence of divine grace and more mature reflection, they could actually reach the conclusion that marriage is not the right course of action and so revoke their engagement.

My sense is that betrothal more than a year in advance of a planned marriage is probably not the best choice. I would probably discourage a timeline greater than a year and delay betrothal if a couple approached me with that intent.

Can a betrothal be broken off? 

Yes. Since a betrothal is a promise, the procedure for dissolving promises given to us in law can be followed. Canon Law gives bishops and pastors the power to remit certain types of promises and oaths (canons 1196 and 1203). In the case of a betrothal, the pastor (priest in charge of the parish that the person lives in — not necessarily the parish where they go to Mass) or the bishop could dispense the couple from their promise to marry.

Since a betrothal happens validly when it is not only celebrated with some sort of external ceremony but when it is put in writing and witnessed, then it would also seem fitting that the breaking of the promise of betrothal be put in writing by the legitimate authority and duly witnessed.

A betrothal can be broken by mutual agreement (John no. 664). It is important to note also that Jone and other moralists do not consider it a grave sin if a betrothal is “unjustifiably broken” (no. 663) — unless this gives rise to damages of the sort for which there could be a lawsuit. Again, it’s hard to imagine such a case in our current civil law framework — at least, as far as I know.

I intend to get engaged soon. Should I seek betrothal? 

The answer is multi-faceted:

  1. If you understand betrothal as a promise to marry from which arises a pledge of special graces from God, and approach it in a sane way (excluding superstition or magical assumptions, such as that betrothal will “fix” some fatal problem in your relationship);
  2. If you have reached this understanding after mature deliberation about your intention to marry and if the proposal of engagement has been accepted by your intended spouse;
  3. If you are not having an overly-long engagement (I recommend a year or less);
  4. If you are also seeking to live in a way that is pleasing to God, avoiding unchastity and certainly not cohabitating;
  5. If you understand that betrothal has not been considered necessary for a valid or successful marriage;
  6. If you understand that although it has the nature of a promise, betrothal is not binding under all circumstances and can be broken off;
  7. If you approach a priest who knows what betrothal is and has at his disposal the means of celebrating it —

— then yes, by all means, seek betrothal.

The recovery of these traditional practices has not only a spiritual benefit but helps to emphasize for both the spouses and others the sacredness of marriage and the seriousness of engagement. The Church’s blessing can help and enrich this stage of a couple’s relationship — and the Church also rejoices to accompany couples through this wonderful stage of their life.

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