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Dear visitor: Summer is here, and you may be thinking about a well-deserved vacation, family get-togethers, BBQs with neighborhood friends. More than likely, making a donation to Catholic Answers is not on your radar right now. But this is exactly the time we most need your help. The “summer slowdown” in donations is upon us, but the work of spreading the gospel and explaining and defending the Faith never takes a break. Your gift today will change lives and save souls for Christ this summer! The reward is eternal. Thank you and God bless.


Promise of future Christian marriage

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Betrothal (Lat. sponsalia), the giving of one’s troth—that is, one’s true faith or promise. Betrothal, in the Catholic Church, is a deliberate and free, mutual, true promise, externally expressed, of future marriage between determinate and fit persons. It is a promise, compact, or agreement—not merely an intention; and, like all contracts, it must be entered into with deliberation proportionate to the obligation which it begets; it must be free from force, substantial error, and grave fear. The promise given must be mutual; a promise on the part of one only, with acceptance by the other, does not constitute a betrothal. The consent, of course, as in all contracts, must be true, or sincere, not feigned; it must be given with the intention of binding oneself, and this intention must be expressed verbally, by writing, or by action, in person or by proxy. Lastly, this contract, like matrimony, can exist only between two definite persons whose capacity is recognized by the Church; that is, between whom there is no matrimonial impediment, either as regards the licitness or validity of the contract. The betrothal is a promise of future marriage, and hence it differs from the marriage contract itself, which deals with that state as in the present.


—Formal betrothal is not customary in the United States, or in English-speaking countries generally, as it is among certain nations, where the ceremony is sometimes solemn (before ecclesiastical witnesses) and sometimes private (made at home before the family or friends as witnesses). Among English-speaking peoples the betrothal, if it occurs, is generally without the presence of a third party. In Spain (S. C. C., January 31, 1880; April 11, 1891) and in Latin America (Acta et Decreta Conc. Pl. Amer. Lat., p. 259, in note 1) a betrothal compact is considered invalid by the Church unless written documents pass between the contracting parties. This practice obtains in other countries also, but its observance is not necessary to validate the agreement.


—A valid betrothal begets chiefly two effects. There arises first an obligation in justice, binding the contracting parties to keep their agreement; viz. to marry at the time specified; or, when the date of marriage is not agreed upon, whenever the second party to the compact reasonably demands the fulfilment of the marriage-promise. Marriage, consequently, with a third party is forbidden, though not invalid. There arises, secondly, owing to an ecclesiastical law, a diriment impediment, known as “public decency”, extending to relatives in the first degree of the parties betrothed. Hence, a marriage contracted between the male party to a betrothal and the mother, sister, or daughter of the other party; and, vice versa, between the woman and the father, brother, or son of the man, would be null and void. This impediment continues to exist in all its force, even after the betrothal has been legitimately dissolved. The first of these effects, an obligation of justice, may arise, it will be seen, from a betrothal compact which has not all the essentials of the definition given above; not so, however, of the second effect. It is sometimes stated that a betrothal does not bind in English-speaking countries. This is inexact, to say the least. There is no exception at any time, or in any country, to the binding force arising from a valid betrothal, even though it be not public (S. C. S. Off., August 11, 1852), or to the impediment begotten thereby. Engagements very frequently, though not always, are rather proposals of matrimony than promises as explained above, and in them an essential element of the betrothal is wanting (Sabetti, Theol. Mor., n. 838, qu. 30; Kenrick, Theol. Mor., nos. 23, 37).


—A betrothal may be dissolved: (1) By the mutual and free consent of the contracting parties. (2) By a diriment impediment, which subsequently arises between said parties. In this case the innocent party is released from his or her obligation, but not the one through whose fault the impediment arose. The latter may be held to the contract, if the impediment be such that the Church can dispense from it. (3) By a valid marriage entered into with a third person. (4) By protracted delay on the part of either of the contracting parties in fulfilling the agreement to marry, in which case the innocent party is released from obligation. (5) By one of the contracting parties choosing a higher state of perfection, as for example by solemn profession in a religious order, by the reception of major orders, etc. (6) By any notable change in body or soul or worldly state of one of the parties—any grave circumstance which if it had happened or been known before the betrothal would have prevented it. To these may be added the impossibility of contracting matrimony, and a dispensation granted by the pope for just causes.


—In case of refusal to complete the contract by marriage an action before the diocesan court is permissible. Bishops, however, are counseled not ordinarily to enforce marriage in such cases, as generally it would prove unhappy. In English-speaking countries these matters are, as a rule, taken into the civil courts, where the only remedy is a breach-of-promise suit, the penalty being a fine. In the United States, before the civil law, betrothal has only the moral force of a mutual promise. Betrothal in England was once a legal bar to matrimony with another; at present the only legal remedy for the violation of the betrothal is an action for breach of promise.


—Jewish and Roman laws and customs must have influenced the early practice of the Church anent betrothal. The Jewish laws of marriage, and consequently of betrothal, were based in a great measure on the supposition that it was a purchase. In the law of Moses there are certain provisions respecting the state of the virgin who is betrothed, but nothing particularly referring to the act of betrothal. Selden’s “Uxor Hebraica” gives the schedule of later Hebrew contracts of betrothal. Where the contract was in writing, it was written out by the man before witnesses and delivered to the woman, who must know its import. Rome, on the other hand, at the beginning of the Christian Era, had ceased to consider marriage as a wife-purchase. Marriage, and still more betrothal, was a purely civil compact, verbally concluded. Under later Roman law, which constituted a basis for our ecclesiastical legislation, betrothal was looked upon simply as a contract of future marriage, stronger indeed than the engagement, since to enter into a second betrothal compact was held to be as infamous as bigamy itself. No legal forms were prescribed for the early Roman betrothal, but the compact was generally accompanied by the man’s sending to the woman the iron betrothal ring (annulus pronubus). As the Empire grew in importance, so did the betrothal contract, while at the same time its obligations were more frequently disregarded. Hence the practice of giving earnest-money, or pledges of fidelity (arrhce), came into prominence; another step led to gifts being bestowed by the parties, one upon the other. The kiss, the joining of hands, and the attestation of witnesses were other elements introduced. Even in England formal engagements of this kind were common down to the time of the Reformation. As barbarian influence, however, began to affect the Empire, the betrothal took on more the semblance of wife-purchase.

The Church, at the beginning of the third century at the latest, recognized betrothal as a perfectly valid and lawful contract. In the fourth century, in Africa at least, according to the testimony of St. Augustine (Sermo viii, 18; Sermo xxxvii, 7; Sermo cccxxxii, 4, etc.), espousals were contracted in writing, the instrument (tabulce), signed by the bishop, being publicly read. At the same time the dowry, if any, was given, or nuptial gifts were exchanged. Pope Benedict I (573-577), writing to the Patriarch of Gran, declares that it is connubial intercourse that makes two one, that mere betrothal would not prevent a man from entering into wedlock with the sister of his betrothed. The question of relationship, then, arising from the betrothal contract was mooted even at that early period. Gregory the Great (590-603) allowed a woman who was betrothed to dissolve her engagement in order to enter a convent (Bk. VI, Ep. xx).

At the end of the ninth century betrothal had become a very frequent subject of Church legislation. From a reply of Pope Nicholas to the Bulgarians in 860 (Responsa ad Consulta Bulgarorum, c. iii) it is apparent that the preliminaries leading up to a marriage in the Church were: (1) The betrothal or espousal; the expression of consent by the contracting parties, and the consent also of their parents, or guardians, to the projected marriage. (2) The subarrhatio, or delivery of the ring by the man to the woman by way of an earnest, or pledge. (3) The documentary transfer, by the man to the woman, of the dowry, in the presence of witnesses. The marriage was to follow immediately, or after an interval more or less protracted. These rites are still recognized in modern uses. The ceremony of betrothal is found in a measure in the present nuptial service. There is a declaration of consent, which, since the marriage follows immediately after, is de prcesenti. The placing of the ring on the finger of the bride by the bridegroom constitutes the subarrhatio, while in many places transferring of the dowry is represented by a medal or coin—a relic of Salic law and of wife-purchase. (See Martene, De Antiq. Ecc. Ritibus, I, ix, a. 3, n. 4, speaking of a ritual of the Church of Reims.)


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