In response to a recent article about the return of nuptial care cloths, one reader commented:
It’s a beautiful, ancient custom. However, it was never part of the American ritual books (as far as I can tell.) Use it in France all you like, but ‘bringing it back’ in the US would be anachronistic and contrary to custom (Father Ryan Hilderbrand, on Twitter, 09/15/2021).
It would be difficult to find a pithier summary of the problem facing Catholic traditionalists in the United States. Anti-Catholicism, the desire of Catholic immigrants to assimilate, the battering waves of reforms throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries all contributed to an American landscape uniquely impoverished of Catholic customs.
Typically, being ‘traditional’ means doing what was done before you. As G. K. Chesterton put it, it is the “democracy of the dead.”
For many of us, that chain of custody has been broken. We keep looking further back – not 1969 but 1962, not 1962 but 1955, not 1955 but 1911 – in an attempt to find the most accurate, authentic, traditional way of doing something. Sometimes, the net result is a well-intentioned manufacturing of something that never existed – such as claiming that Jesus Christ spoke Latin at the Last Supper.
Where do wedding customs fit into this conversation? It can be just as difficult to suss out what is the ‘most traditional’ way to plan a wedding. For example, white has long been associated with virginity and important feasts, ergo it is a fitting color for a wedding. What we think of as the traditional white wedding dress, though, comes to us from the Protestant Queen Victoria. Is a white wedding dress traditional?
Similarly, it was not always common throughout the West for grooms to wear wedding bands. As recently as 1951, a priest asked the American Ecclesiastical Review if the “double ring ceremony” was permitted. Indeed, the Rituale Romanum makes no mention of the groom receiving a ring. If we adhere strictly to the ritual texts, should husbands not have wedding rings?
“The Double Ring Ceremony Again,” American Ecclesiastical Review (February 1947), 146.
Some Catholics are further frustrated by how secular some wedding customs have become. The customs of recent generations may not inspire us, so it is not surprising that we look further afield for traditional wedding customs.
With traditional weddings on the rise, Catholic couples have turned their fervor to traditional betrothals. By a significant margin, betrothals are the top search term and top pages on latinmasswedding.com. They have made their appearance on social media sites like @1962bride on Instagram.
However, if one were to look for the Rite of Betrothal in the Rituale Romanum, you would come up empty-handed. Like the groom’s wedding ring, it doesn’t exist.
So where exactly does our traditional Rite of Betrothal come from, and what are they exactly?
What are Betrothals?
Betrothals have also been called betrothments, solemn/formal/ecclesiastical engagements/betrothals/betrothments, sponsalia de futuro, verba de futuro, and for the juridically inclined, canonical engagement. Sometimes these terms were used synonymously; sometimes they were not. Sometimes they meant simply an engagement; sometimes they referred to a set ceremony. The subtle differences have been expounded upon extensively in canonical treatises (such as Canon de Smet’s two-volume Betrothment and Marriage).
Complicating the matter is that wedding customs tend to be intensely regional, and rarely written down. For example, A medieval French betrothal rite (also found by Dr. Michael Foley in Wedding Rites) mentions wrapping the couple’s hands in the priest’s stole and kissing a page of the Missal that has a picture of the Crucifixion.
Even if it was written down, wedding customs frequently deviated in practice. (Will future historians be able to rely on the accuracy of your wedding program?)
In the current Code of Canon Law (1983), betrothals receive the following explanation:
A promise of marriage, whether unilateral or bilateral, called an engagement, is governed by the particular law which the Episcopal Conference has enacted, after consideration of such customs and civil laws as may exist. No right of action to request the celebration of marriage arises from a promise of marriage, but there does arise an action for such reparation of damages as may be due (1062).
The previous Code of Canon Law (1917) gives us more detail:
The promise of marriage, whether one-sided, or bilateral, is null and void in either form unless it is made in writing and signed by the parties and either the pastor, or the local Ordinary, or at least two witnesses (1017).
From a canonical perspective, a betrothal must be made in writing, and witnessed by a priest or two witnesses.
Now that we know the basic components of a betrothal, how old are betrothals, and where did our particular rite of betrothal come from?
One can do little better than to read Dr. Foley’s history of betrothals. I will presume to add a few of my own sources that I have found to complement his.
Dr. Foley found evidence for the practice of betrothals in Tertullian, Ambrose, Augustine, and the Council of Elvira. To use Tertullian as an example:
Touching such, however, as are betrothed, I can with constancy ‘above my small measure’ pronounce and attest that they are to be veiled from that day forth on which they shuddered at the first bodily touch of a man by kiss and hand. For in them everything has been forewedded…
The medieval period saw an explosion of interest in canonical concerns. Pope Nicholas I mentioned both betrothals and engagement rings in a letter in 866:
Now then, our men and women do not wear upon their heads a band of gold, silver, or some other metal when they contract a marriage pact. Instead, after the betrothal is celebrated — which is the promised pact of future marriage made with the consent of both those who contract the pact and those under whose power they are — the betrothed man joins the bride to himself with vows through the finger marked by him with the ring of faith and the betrothed man hands over to her a dowry (dos) pleasing to both people along with a document containing this agreement in the presence of those invited by both parties.
During this time, the Church struggled with “clandestine marriages”: unwitnessed marriages, which could be made and broken easily, because of the lack of witnesses. Insisting that betrothals (and banns) have a public component, it was hoped, would reduce this problem. (Unfortunately, this insistence came with its own problem: betrothed couples sometimes presumed the physical rights of married couples. As recently as 2008, a U.S. Catholic article made the exact same case.)
Trent’s desire for unity and standardization in the face of Protestant splintering had the unfortunate consequence of erasing some local customs. Betrothals may have been one of the unfortunate victims of the uniformity; it is difficult to say if betrothals were celebrated with any regularity after Trent.
In 1908, Pope Pius X put betrothals back on the matrimonial radar with the decree Ne Temere, revising marriage and betrothal laws. The laws took effect on Easter Sunday, 1908.
The Vatican published a new typical (Latin) edition of the Rituale in 1925.
In the United States, interest in betrothals rose gradually in the 1920s and 30s, with a significant uptick during and after World War II.
“Ancient Church Ceremony.” The St. Louis Register, August 12 1955.
In 1947-1952, Father Philip T. Weller published his three-volume English translation of the 1925 Roman Rituale. While no rite of betrothal appears in the Latin Rituale, It does appear in the appendix of Weller’s Volume I: The Sacraments and Processions, published 1950. (This is not the only nuptial invention of Father Weller’s edition.) Here, at last, is the rite of betrothal in use today!
As a testament to the level of interest in betrothals, Father Weller’s rite was not the only rite of betrothal on the midcentury market. In 1955, Grailville published Promised in Christ, a booklet with both a rite of betrothal and a crowning of the bride (a striking ceremony worthy of its own post). The booklet said:
Although the formal engagement has not been in wide use in English-speaking countries, it is very well known in other parts of the world and it is in keeping with Christian tradition that the engagement promises of a young man and woman be exchanged publicly before the altar of God. There is no prescribed form for such a betrothal, and where the custom does exist in the United States, several procedures are in current use. The betrothal in this booklet is an arrangement by the Rev. Philip T. Weller, worked out some years ago on the occasion of the engagement of one of Grailville’s students. This procedure has since been published in Volume I of Father Weller’s translation of the Roman Ritual, and is included here with the kind permission of Bruce and Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, publishers of the Ritual [emphasis added].
While I have not found the text of the ceremony itself, in American Catholic Etiquette, Kay Toy Fenner referenced a rite of betrothal by Father Martin Hellreigel.
Kay Toy Fenner. American Catholic Etiquette. Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1965
Franklin, James. “Catholics Reviving Betrothal Custom.” Boston Globe, December 5 1977.
While it is always possible (and likely, in my experience) that we may find more sources that complicate or clarify this timeline, we can see a narrative emerge: while never widespread in the United States, betrothals (i.e. a more formal engagement) were common throughout Christendom since the early Church. There was no universally prescribed rite; there were likely many regional differences. It is possible that interest in betrothals dropped after Trent. In postwar America, Catholics sparked a renaissance of betrothals. Several rites were in circulation, with Father Weller’s being the most common. Betrothals faded after the 1960s, were sporadically ‘rediscovered’ and refashioned in the 70s and 80s, and rediscovered again in the past few years. A vibrant online presence of traditionalists and traditional material has helped to raise awareness of betrothals even further.
A Closer Look at the Weller Rite of Betrothal
Fr. Weller’s Rite of Betrothal starts with Psalm 126. This is a fitting start, as the Gradual, Tract, and Communion of the Missa pro Sponsis are from the following psalm. As a betrothal anticipates a marriage, this psalm anticipates the texts of the wedding Mass.
After an allocution from the priest and an exchange of promises between the couple, the couple “plights their troth,” a particularly beautiful phrase that appears again in some wedding vows, and is at least as old as medieval England.
The priest wraps the couple’s hands in his stole – an ancient practice that pays homage to our Ancient Roman roots – and blesses the ring.
The priest then reads from Tobit and the Gospel of John.
In the priest’s final blessing, the priest mentions Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – who will appear again during the magnificent Nuptial Blessing in the wedding Mass: “May the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob be with you…”
With their complicated and inconsistent history, betrothals typify so many issues when trying to be traditional without the help of the previous generation. Betrothals were not commonly practiced in the United States, but they were practiced to at least some degree throughout the last century. Our Rite of Betrothal may be comparatively new, but the texts are old. The act of solemnizing one’s engagement is very old indeed, and can be found throughout Christendom and from the earliest days of the Church. There is opportunity for research and debate about the exact history and timeline of betrothals, but one can confidently consider them a traditional and praiseworthy practice.
For the full text of Fr. Weller’s Rite of Betrothal, click here.
For a masterpost of resources about Catholic betrothals, click here.
Photo by Allison Girone, used with permission.
 “Betrothals: Their Past, Present, and Future,” Studia Liturgica 33 (2003), 37-61.