As my colleague Jim Blackburn recently noted in his blog post on attending weddings, now is the time of year when wedding invitations show up in the mail. It is also about this time that we at Catholic Answers receive questions about wedding ceremonies.
Marriage is of such importance to a well-functioning civilization that societies have their own customs for weddings, customs that are not always inherently religious in nature but reflective of the values of their people. If the society also has a predominant religion, those customs can take on religious overtones. So, for example, cultures that emphasize the importance of the husband as provider and caretaker for his family have customs by which the groom presents his bride with a gift of lasting value.
In some traditionally Catholic cultures, the custom of the "bride price" was "baptized" by having the groom give the bride thirteen gold coins, thirteen being explained as the number of Christ and his apostles. Las arras, the gift of coins, is a lovely cultural gesture, extraneous to the nuptial liturgy but not at odds with Catholic theology, and so Catholic wedding celebrants generally have no problem allowing couples from cultures that have this custom to incorporate it into the nuptial liturgy.
Not all social customs commonly found at weddings today are compatible with Catholic theology, though. Two such customs are commonly found in American weddings celebrated among Christians.
The unity candle is not part of the nuptial liturgy and is not strongly symbolic of Catholic piety or theology in the same way that other social customs are, such as the flowers the bride (or the couple) sometimes offers to the Blessed Virgin. It is one of many "unity emblems" marketed by the wedding industry to a largely non-Catholic society that usually scorns the idea that spiritual realities can be conveyed through physical objects. For Catholics, the primary symbol of unity at a nuptial Mass is the Eucharist. Unlike a candle which can be only a symbol—and a rather arbitrary one at that, not being strongly representative in itself of the concept of unity—the Eucharist is a sacrament, and therefore accomplishes the unity it signifies.
Some wedding celebrants dislike extraneous social customs and discourage them. I can only recommend that a priest's or deacon's preference to exclude a unity candle be respected. If the family will be disappointed unless there is a unity candle lit in honor of the wedding, then perhaps the couple could do so at their reception. The reception is a fine place for social customs that do not easily fit into a marriage ceremony or a church setting (such as pelting the couple with rice, confetti, or bubbles).
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. I strongly urge Catholic wedding celebrants, parents, and couples to stoutly refuse to foster or participate in "giving away the bride," on the basis of religious principle.
Perhaps you might be wondering about the fact that a father usually does escort his daughter down the aisle in a Catholic marriage liturgy. The reason this could cause you to wonder is because people often conflate the act of escorting a bride down the aisle with the act of "giving away the bride." Actually, these are two separate, distinct rituals. Although the honor of escorting the bride customarily is undertaken by someone who has had a hand in rearing her, anyone may escort the bride down the aisle to meet her groom. Once the bride and her escort reach the head of the aisle though, no question is posed as to who is "giving away the bride."
All in all, the Church is quite lenient in allowing social customs into Catholic nuptial liturgies (additional examples include the first kiss, wrapping the bride and groom with cord, the sword arch at a military wedding, and jumping over a broom at an African-American wedding). While I believe the preferences of priests and deacons should be respected by a couple, I also believe that priests and deacons should not present their preferences as mandates by the Church (as in, "The Church doesn't allow unity candles!" when in fact it is the priest or deacon who does not want to include a unity candle).
But everyone involved in putting together a wedding—couples, families, and celebrants—should remember that some social customs are not just extraneous to the liturgy but are at odds with Catholic marital theology. That is why customs shouldn't be introduced into nuptial liturgies out of sentiment or out of a desire to please people but only because they have been carefully examined and found to be compatible with the Catholic ideal of marriage.