Friday, May 06, 2005

Do-It-Yourself Wedding Vows, Redux

My previous post about do-it-yourself wedding vows seems to have sparked some dismay, and even disbelief. Apparently the idea that the Church can and should define the manner in which its members ought to be married seems oppressive and unreasonable to some.

One commenter asked, very reasonably, whether the Church would "discount" the marriage and lives of those putatively married with self-created vows "because of a technicality". Another commenter worried that we could go back to the era of "Gosh, Father, I got a couple of words out of order in the 47th Hail Mary! Does my rosary still count..." .

Firstly, neither the Church nor I advocate the sort of rubricism envisioned by the comments excerpted above. But the sort of thing I was referring to in my previous post was much more serious than slipping up on a technicality or two. We're not talking about how many candles are lit on the altar, or whether Dad gets to walk the bride down the aisle. I was trying to convey my point in a humorous, tongue-in-cheek way, which I suppose is always prone to misinterpretation.

The Rites of the Church are intended to confect or minister sacraments, and the sacraments are the principal source of sanctifying grace for the Church. The Church, as custodian of the sacraments, which were entrusted to Her by Christ, is very concerned that their integrity be safeguarded. This is for your own good, so that you in fact receive the very sacraments instituted by Christ, and not some counterfeit. Therefore, the Church's rites are normative for the manner of receiving or ministering the Sacraments with which they are associated. The instructions contained in the liturgical books of the Church, and their associated rubrics, have the force of law and are binding upon all Her members. The Church has the right to bind her members in this way, because she has been entrusted with the sacraments, and because of the Power of the Keys given to the apostles. That is why the duty to marry according to the laws of the Church is one of the Precepts of the Church.

The Sacrament of Marriage, like all other sacraments, has certain essential ingredients. They are Fidelity & Indissolubility, Communion, and Openness to Children. A couple must give consent to one another publicly, before the Church's designated representative and witnesses, in a manner expressing sincere intent to undertake those essential ingredients, in order to validly enter into a sacramental marriage. If one or both parties does not intend the good of Fidelity, for example, then the marriage is not valid. An essential ingredient is missing. The Marriage Rite of the Church is designed to contain or embody all of these aspects, so that all of the necessary ingredients, or goods, are represented. If the couple sincerely intends what the vows given by the Church contain, there can be certainty on their part and among the faithful that they are indeed sacramentally married. This kind of certitude is a Good Thing.

Now, if you start monkeying around with the Rite, you risk obscuring the essential goods. If you go too far, you can obscure them so much that they're indiscernible. In the example of self-written vows I gave below, I defy any of my readers to find the good of fidelity and the good of openness to children within them. Those vows would be patently invalid. If a couple got "married" with such vows, the Church would judge the marriage invalid, not because it wants to "discount" whatever good the couple has lived in their life together, but because an essential ingredient is missing. The lack of that essential ingredient must be remedied. Fortunately, such things can readily be remedied. One such way is the procedure known as convalidation.

Is it possible to come up with other formulations of marriage vows which would contain the same meanings as those supplied by the Church? Of course it is. That is why, as some commenters noted, Catholics can, with permission from their bishop or his designate, get married in non-Catholic churches. But the permission is required. Why? To make sure that (a) the couple is properly prepared and disposed to enter a sacramental marriage, with all its essential ingredients, and (b) to make sure that the marriage rite celebrated in some way actually reflects the goods contained in the sacrament. If a Catholic man wants to marry his Baptist fiancee in her Baptist church, such permission will be readily granted, because we know (at least so far) that, while the Baptist church does not share our view that a christian marriage is sacramental, nonetheless the rite expresses the goods contained in a sacramental marriage. If you ask for episcopal permission to get married by a Wiccan priestess in a sunset ceremony invoking Gaia and the spirits of the four winds, you'll be disappointed.

But the real question is why would you want to use "do-it-yourself" vows in your Catholic wedding ceremony? To express your individuality? Sorry, but that's not what a wedding ceremony is about, at least for Christians. To make the ceremony "more personal"? Sorry, but wrong again. Such an attitude is indicative of the modern American privatistic attitude about marriage, rather than a Catholic understanding. The wedding is not about "me & thee", it is about the couple being united in Christ through the Church, which is the only way we are brought into union with Christ in any form.

In approaching the Church for any sacrament, a certain degree of humility is required. We need to recognize that we are in need of Grace, Grace which only Christ can give us, Grace which He has chosen to give us through his Church. To say, in effect, "I can come up with something better than Christ's Church", does not speak of such humility.