How patriarchy ‘calls into question the validity’ of a sacrament

Religion News Service links to a Catholic Answers post on weddings that teaches me something new:

Then there are the wedding customs that actually conflict with Catholic marital theology. One significant example of this phenomenon is “giving away the bride.”

Catholics believe that the man and woman give themselves to each other in marriage. The reason why the question “Who gives this woman to this man?” never appears in a Catholic marriage liturgy is because the freedom of both parties to marry each other is so important that any suggestion that there is a lack of freedom by the bride to enter into the marriage — that she has, instead, been “given” into marriage by her father alone or by her parents together or by anyone else — could call into question the validity of the marriage.

That makes sense.

Some follow-up questions for Catholic Answers:

What other patriarchal traditions might be damaging to marriage?

What other sacraments might have their validity undermined by patriarchal traditions that actually conflict with Christian theology?


I can think of a few.

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  • Jim Roberts

    Nicely said.

  • Lorehead

    It’s interesting how what we now think of as a “traditional church wedding” developed. In the Middle Ages, a couple married each other: if both were of age and exchanged vows (or promised to marry in the future, then had intercourse), they were married. No priest had to be involved at all, and a marriage could be secret. Surviving legal records show that, if there was later a dispute over whether two people were in fact married, they would bring witnesses to testify that they were or weren’t.

    By the 13th century, people had figured out that they could protect themselves and save a lot of trouble by having a priest record their marriage in writing, and in 1215, along with other reforms, priests were forbidden to witness clandestine marriages, but their role at the time was still as witnesses.

    A feudal overlord could then sometimes force a woman to marry against her will, or even take away a widow’s children, and one of the less-well-remembered abuses of King John was using this power to raise revenue, taking bids for women “in the king’s gift,” and forcing widows to bid for the promise not to be forced to remarry. Several clauses of the Magna Carta address this.

    It was not until the Council of Trent in 1563 that weddings had to be conducted in a church, and also that forced marriages were formally abolished. Even then, clandestine marriages performed before that date were still acknowledged as valid.

  • Yes. This.

  • aunursa

    A priest and a rabbi were talking one day. And the conversation eventually turned to the rabbi’s piety. The priest kept on urging him.
    “Come on, Rabbi, this is the 21st century. Why don’t you lighten up? When are you going to break down and have a ham sandwich?”
    The rabbi replied,”At your wedding, Father.”

  • hamletta

    I’ve become the default sound & lights operator for weddings at my (ELCA Lutheran!) church, and they all do the “Who gives this woman?” thing.

    Like fingernails on a blackboard, it is.

  • stardreamer42

    When my now-ex and I married, I flatly refused to have anything to do with the whole “who gives this woman” thing; I was 31 years old and had been living independently for a decade, and I most emphatically did not belong to anyone else! I also chose to walk down the aisle by myself, because I didn’t care for the implication that I had to have some man to lean on.

    What I did, in order to give my parents something to do in the ceremony, was to have 3 candles on the altar. My parents lit one of them, my in-laws lit the second, and then after the pronouncement, my husband and I each lit a taper from our parents’ candle and jointly lit the central candle. I thought it worked pretty well.

  • arcseconds

    That’s interesting. This didn’t match my recollection, which is that the Church had considered marriage a sacrament from pretty early on, but apparently it was considered a sacrament, it’s just that you didn’t need a priest for it.

    That’s based on a 5 minute google peruse, so, you know, use at your own risk :)

  • arcseconds

    Oh, and actually, I do recall reading a passage about this very topic, but clearly didn’t understand it completely until now.

    Just goes to show how much contemporary prejudices can grip one’s mind, I guess. Or how thick I can be, one of the two.

  • christopher_y

    Meanwhile, or a little bit later, when the fundies (Puritans) came to power in England in the mid 17th entury, the abolished church weddings by law. Only civil marriages were recognised.

  • The_L1985

    That’s beautiful. I love the symbolism there. :)

  • That’s really nice (._.) I like that.

  • lalouve

    In the Church of Sweden, traditionally the couple walk in together, signifying their free chocie to join in marriage. Most clergy refuse to do the ‘handed over by other man’ business, though the crown princess choosing to do it that way, and the American TV series, are undermining our traditions….

  • histrogeek

    “The Church” is a tricky concept. The Roman and Eastern Churches pretty early on did, but the Protestants got a bit hazy on the “sacrament” issue in general. Lutherans and Anglicans went more or less with the 2+5 formula, 2 are actually from Jesus and thus necessary (baptism and communion) and 5 are traditional and not necessary (including marriage). Other Protestants starting with Calvin and Zwingli went with either just 2 or 1 or what’s a sacrament?.

    English Puritans and Separatists who were ultra-anti-Roman thought the 2+5 formula smacked of Papism, a sort of gateway drug for Catholicism (they thought everything was), so marriage-as-sacrament got kicked to the curb.

  • AdrianTurtle

    Is it a problem to have a priest or minister say, “By the power vested in me by the state of New York, I now pronounce you husband and wife?” I’m not a Christian, but I didn’t think they believed their clergy ought to act as agents of secular authority.

  • Kubricks_Rube

    Then there are the wedding customs that […] could call into question the validity of the marriage.

    So it’s standard for florists and bakers to ask about this before agreeing to work a wedding, right? They can’t very well be expected to endorse invalid marriages!

  • ReverendRef

    In the Episcopal church, the whole giving/presenting thing is optional. I try to dissuade couples from using it. If they are really insistent, I’ll try to get them to use the version where both the man and woman are presented (not given). But, to be honest, if they really want to do that, I’m not going to die in that ditch. There are other, more important, parts of the service where I put my foot down.

  • but I didn’t think they believed their clergy ought to act as agents of secular authority

    This hasn’t been a problem in any of the denominations I’m aware of – the main problem with secular authority is that they don’t have enough of it!

  • ReverendRef

    I don’t have to say, “By the power vested in me by the state of X.” Our service reads, “Now that N and N have given themselves to each other by solemn vows, with the joining of hands and the giving and receiving of a ring, I pronounce that they are husband and wife, int he Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

    However, I still have to sign the paperwork from the state and send it in. I’m still trying to get people to go get hitched by the local judge first and then come back to church if they want a church thing, but not much luck there.

  • Original Lee

    A very interesting book, “The Knight, the Lady, and the Priest,” by Georges Duby, looks at marriage and changes in attitudes, laws, and ceremonies in France. IIRC, almost any combination of free will and forced marriage occurred over many centuries.

  • Lorehead

    It’s worth noting that, by the 1590s, when Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, the play presents their secret marriage as completely valid, but Shakespeare wrote in the character of Friar Laurence because by then it required a priest. (He was no friend of the Puritans, who outlawed the theater. And Christmas.)

  • SisterCoyote

    There are other, more important, parts of the service where I put my foot down.

    Out of curiosity, if you don’t mind, what would those be? You’ve mentioned before that people often try to skip the counseling sort of stuff beforehand – what about the service gets throat-clearing and side-stepping?

  • arcseconds

    Yes, but Lorehead was talking about times prior to the Reformation, so by ‘early on’, I mean well before that :)

    In fact, i meant also from prior to the ‘official’ east-west schism in 1054, where ‘the Church’ becomes a far less tricky concept.

  • I think that if a priest is going to perform a legally binding wedding, it’s right that he ought to publically announce that it’s the secular authority vested in him that makes it count.

  • EllieMurasaki


  • ReverendRef

    Yes, the pre-marriage counseling sessions are mandatory. But to be honest, I’ve never actually had anyone ask me if they could skip those. But other things include:

    Music: I know there’s the whole “coming together to become one flesh” thing, but no matter how much you argue “I am he and he is me,” we aren’t using I am the Walrus. Some music is just not appropriate for the wedding ceremony.

    Dates: I won’t do weddings during Lent because it’s a penitential season. I generally won’t do them during Advent, but I’m less firm about that.

    Vows: I don’t deviate from the traditional vows that are in the BCP. In other words, you don’t get to write your own.

    Unity Candles: No.

    Photographs: No flash photography during the service, with the exception of a bride/couple shot entering/exiting. The photographer is not allowed to roam.

    Alcohol: None before the rehearsal or the service. If you show up drunk, the wedding is cancelled.

    There are a few other things, but those mainly have to do with how to treat the building (don’t damage it and clean up your mess).

  • EllieMurasaki

    What’s a unity candle?

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    I remember hearing about an Society for Creative Anachronism wedding where they decided to be really old-school about it.

    :”And if anyone present has any reason why these two should not be joined in holy matrimony…. they must defeat the Best Man in hand-to-hand combat!

  • ReverendRef

    It’s a large-ish candle with two smaller candles on each side. The two small candles represent the individual person. Those two people then light the larger candle together representing the two people coming together as one.

    A few comments upthread, it sounds like stardreamer42 used one. It seems to have worked in that context, but it’s not part of the marriage liturgy in the Episcopal church.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Oh okay. Thanks.

  • Justme

    The main reason for the abolition of clandestine marriage was the fear of bigamy; that somebody secretly married could go on and, not telling anyone, marry somebody else..

    It was also so that, if there was some valid objection to the marriage (one of the parties were already married, the parties were too closely related, etc), that information could become known. Clandestine marriage were banned at 4th Lateran in 1215. That also banned forced marriages..

    But forced marriages were also banned by Gratian in his Decretals:

    “You have sworn that, forced by necessity, you plighted your faith to give your niece in marriage to a certain soldier. If, as is said, she rejects this man entirely, and maintains the same determination of will, refusing to marry that man, we, at the dictate of equity, decree: You can not force her, unwilling and resisting, to be associated with this man in marriage.

    Those who will be of one body should be of one mind. Otherwise, if a virgin is joined to a man against her will, she may decide to separate, contrary to the Lord’s [Mt. 19:9] and the Apostle’s [1 Cor. 7:10] commandment, or she may fall into the crime of fornication. The responsibility for this sin will clearly redound against him who joined her against her will. The same applies equally to a man.”

  • Lorehead

    Indeed, the requirements that marriages be public, that the banns be read, and later that they be conducted in the local parish and not elsewhere were aimed at people who were trying to cheat the system. These were all cases of making the best practices that had gradually developed into formal rules.

    Can you provide a reference for your claim that the Fourth Lateran Council banned forced marriages? I don’t see it in canons 50, 51 or 52, but rather in the canons of the 24th session of the Council of Trent, chapters 6 and 9:

    Worldly inclinations and desires very often so blind the mental vision of temporal lords and magistrates, that by threats and ill usage they compel men and women who live under their jurisdiction, especially the rich or those who expect a large inheritance, to contract marriage against their will with those whom these lords or magistrates propose to them. Wherefore, since it is something singularly execrable to violate the freedom of matrimony, and equally execrable that injustice should come from those from whom justice is expected, the holy council commands all, of whatever rank, dignity and profession they may be, under penalty of anathema to be incurred ipso facto, that they do not in any manner whatever, directly or indirectly, compel their subjects or any others whomsoever in any way that will hinder them from contracting marriage freely.

    Undoubtedly this had been condemned by many people before it was formally made anathema.

  • Guest

    The photographer at my wedding was allowed to take photos during the ceremony, but he had to stand in the narthex and use a zoom lens. We ended up choosing one of those photos for the largest print that the package included, rather than one of the staged ones taken later.

  • Wait a minute. Someone wanting to use “I Am The Walrus” is more of a problem than treating a woman like a piece of property to be handed from one man to another?

  • You’d rather he make a bigger deal about refusing a woman’s desire to have herself given and received than about being really tacky?

  • And now I know something I didn’t know before.

    My parents–my very Catholic parents–were upset that there would be no “father giving the bride away” analog in our Wiccan handfasting. “So your father gets no role in the ceremony at all, is that it?” was how my mother put it.*

    And now I find that “giving the bride away” isn’t even supposed to be a part of a Catholic wedding?

    What the hell? We had that argument for even less reason than I thought?


    *The officiating High Priestess suggested a fantastic role for all parents involved. Mothers, fathers, and grandparents each came up and tied a knot in the handfasting cord, and, as they did so, offered some advice from their own experience on the subject of marriages and making them work. That way their wisdom was both literally and symbolically present in the tie binding the new husband and wife together.

    (On the subject of wedding ceremony role subversion: We did have a “best man” and “bride’s maid” analog, but we called them “bride’s witness” and “groom’s witness” because their very important role–in addition to being the friends dearest to our hearts who made our dreams come true by sharing the moment with us–was to sign the marriage license and certificate on the dotted lines that said WITNESS.)

  • Oh, I love it!

  • Maybe it’s more that RevRef is picking his battles here. Where the father is giving the bride away, it probably reflects the couples’ (or the bride’s parents’) strongly held beliefs such that those holding the beliefs won’t handle a flat-out “no” very well. It’s less likely that couples choose the Walrus as a reflection of strongly held beliefs, and would bow to RevRef’s veto there with more grace.

    (Or maybe the Walrus bit here is just RevRef’s joke. One with unfortunate implications, perhaps, but still…)

  • Carstonio

    By a flat-out no, do you mean that the Reverend would refuse to perform that part of the service? A better approach might be turning away such couples altogether, perhaps advertising that he performs only egalitarian weddings.

    Although I oppose the concept of bride as property, I also support the right of a freely consenting couple to have their wedding ceremony that way. That’s an important qualifier – I suspect many such brides feel obligated to follow tradition or to please their families.

  • Amaryllis

    There is no “who gives this woman” in a Catholic ceremony, verbally. But most modern American Catholics follow the prevailing social custom of having the father escort the bride up the church aisle to the altar to stand beside the groom, so I guess there’s still a bit of an implication. Is that what they were upset about?

    But it is custom, not liturgical requirement. But the way some people go on about The Wedding, and even The Reception, and lately even The Proposal, you’d think there was only one way to have a “real” wedding and you’d better include every last little custom or you’re doing it wrong/

  • Amaryllis

    I won’t do weddings during Lent because it’s a penitential season.

    Random history: the Skellig islands, off the coast of Ireland, followed the Julian calendar after everybody else had switched over to the Gregorian, so Lent came two weeks later there. If you were still single by Ash Wednesday when in the opinion of the community you shouldn’t be, you’d be asked rather pointedly when you would be “going to the Skelligs.”

    At one time there was supposedly a custom for unmarried young men and women to make a pilgrimage to the Skelligs during Lent, the girls to pray for good husbands, the bachelors to repent of their sins. But if you take a boatload of unattached young people and strand them together on a lonely island, apparently prayer wasn’t the only the activity indulged in, Lent or not.

  • Carstonio

    “So your father gets no role in the ceremony at all, is that it?”

    If any father had made that complaint, it would be easy to attribute that to selfishness and entitlement. But how odd that a bride’s mother raised the issue. Maybe if you were also departing from the tradition of seating the mother of the bride last.

    The old cliché is that the wedding is all about the bride, with the groom being mostly a bystander. That attitude infantilizes women, the sexist belief that women crave attention.

  • Kirala

    Darn Christians and their War on Christmas.

  • Kirala

    It also presented technical difficulties in my parents’ wedding and in my sister’s – two for two in my immediate family. Mom couldn’t get her candle to light (in their version, each individual lit zir own candle), and my sister’s candle kept drowning in its own wax and flickering out. I try not to read that as a bad omen. (They’re still going strong after five years; fingers crossed!)

  • ReverendRef

    It’s not necessarily “more of a problem,” it’s just a different problem. I would prefer that the act of “giving away the woman” be removed from the service altogether. But the fact remains that it is an option, while “I am the Walrus” and unity candles are not. So while I strongly urge the couple not to incorporate it, if she really wants that, I’ll let her.

    And, no, nobody has actually ever requested “I am the Walrus,” or “Muskrat Love,” or anything else along those lines. But that might have something to do with how I present what are appropriate musical options.

  • FearlessSon

    I wonder if any priest preforms weddings “By the power of Greyskull…”

  • Tapetum

    Huh – we had the reverse problem. My husband and I had already been married at town hall (Tax purposes), and the priest (Episcopal) at our church would not perform a wedding ceremony, but only a blessing if we were already married. So, we didn’t tell him. Fortunately the state didn’t seem to have an issue with two sets of marriage papers belonging to the same couple. It could have been awkward if we’d had to get divorced in order to get remarried.

  • Tapetum

    Pretty much the same set of rules the Episcopal church my husband and I were married at went by. Except that we were actually married on a Sunday in Lent by special dispensation of the bishop – family coming from extremely far-flung places, so we had to go with whenever we could actually get them there. Outside of that it was very traditional, with only minor issues of the priest being more conservative than we were happy with (could have lived without the homily on wives obeying their husbands), but the best we could come by in rural South Carolina.

  • ReverendRef

    Now it’s my turn to say, “Huh …” There is a rite for the blessing of a civil marriage which, in all reality, is the same service as a wedding ceremony except the wording recognizes that the couple is already married, i.e. “You have taken N to be your wife,” instead of, “Will you have this woman to be your wife …”

    The readings, prayers and pretty much everything else is the same. Was it possible there was a too short discussion about what a marriage blessing looked like?

  • ReverendRef

    South Carolina … not known for being a bastion of liberalism. Their bishop worked hard to sever ties with the Episcopal Church. If all you had to endure was a bit about obeying your husband, you probably got off easy.

    That whole “obey your husband” thing isn’t even part of the service. It’s a partnership, people. And why is it that the three verses of women obeying husbands always trumps the nine verses about husbands respecting their wives??


  • Tapetum

    It’s possible. It’s also possible that the priest was being a twit. He was generally not thrilled with us to begin with because we were a couple of newly arrived Yankees and far too liberal for his taste. Plus I had *gasp* non-Christian friends* as part of the wedding service. I wouldn’t have put it past him to make the blessing sound undesirable in the hopes that we would skip the church wedding altogether.

    *I asked him ahead of time if this was all right, and he said “Yes” and then spent the whole of rehearsal prowling the wedding party looking for the non-Christians.** He finally latched onto one of my bridesmaids that was Jewish and then relaxed, having found the interloper. Which was hilarious because of the wedding party of ten, there were only three that were Christians, and two of those were Catholic. The remainder were a Wiccan, an athiest, a Jew, two agnostics, and two members of the Baha’i faith.

    **We stayed at that church for only about another year after the wedding (we became members about six months beforehand) – they fired the organist for having the bad taste to get sick, and we bailed.