As brides increasingly forego some old-fashioned customs to have a more feminist wedding, we’re seeing the details of weddings change more and more. Whether you’re planning your own wedding (congratulations, by the way!) or attending the wedding of a friend or relative, you might have noticed that there are some big differences between Catholic weddings and the majority of ceremonies that you see in movies, on Instagram, or IRL. At first glance, a Catholic wedding might seem antiquated or even patriarchal. If you take a closer look at the ceremony itself, though, you’ll see that Catholic weddings align more with a feminist perspective of a marriage between equals than you might think.
Let’s start with the obvious differences: Catholic weddings always take place in a Catholic church, so there are no Catholic ceremonies in a field under an archway of flowers, in the courthouse, or on the beach. Also, for a Catholic wedding, the couple doesn’t write their own vows. Instead, they choose one or two options provided by the Church. And finally, unlike non-Catholic ceremonies that are usually shorter, a full Catholic wedding Mass can take upwards of an hour from start to finish.
But, if we pay attention to the particulars of a Catholic wedding – including the options that couples can choose from behind the scenes – we’ll learn about the Church’s belief in the equal dignity between women and men, and the importance that both make a free choice whether to be married, and to whom.
The Wedding Procession: Entering as Equals
When you think of a wedding procession, the classic example of the bride walking up the aisle, arm-and-arm with her father, to meet her groom probably comes to mind. Once the bride and her father reach the altar, someone will ask who “gives the bride away.” That wording dates back to the 1500s in the Church of England, during a time when women were seen as property and weddings were looked upon as a sort of business transaction.
In fact, the custom of asking who “gives the bride away” isn’t even Catholic! In the official guidelines of the Catholic Church, a father giving his daughter away to her groom isn’t mentioned. Instead, the guidelines recommend that the couple walk up together at the beginning of the wedding Mass or ceremony.
Why? Well, during Catholic Masses, the person who processes in last is the minister of the sacrament (normally a bishop or priest). But in the wedding Mass, the couple can choose to process in last because they are the ministers of the sacrament of marriage. Serving as ministers of a sacrament means that the bride and groom act as a channel of grace for each other, in the same way that a priest serves as the channel of grace for an infant in baptism. Everyone gathered together that day, including the priest, are witnesses of the couple’s vows and their new marriage.
My husband, Joseph, and I chose this option for our own wedding procession. Despite the raised eyebrows, we loved the idea that no one was “giving anyone away,” but rather we were coming to the wedding (and marriage!) together – as equals.
The Vows: Freely Choosing Marriage
Although couples marrying in the Catholic Church don’t have the option of writing their own vows, the vows written by the Church emphasize the freedom of both the woman and the man as they enter into marriage. This is because freely choosing to marry the other person is a requirement for the sacrament of marriage to take place.
In 1968, Pope Paul VI explained that, in marriage, “this love is not, then, merely a question of natural instinct or emotional drive. It is also, and above all, an act of the free will…” Before a bride and groom profess their vows to each other, the priest asks them a series of questions concerning their freedom, their fidelity, and the fruitfulness of their vocation to marriage.
By asking if the couple has come to the altar “without coercion, freely, and wholeheartedly,” the Church emphasizes that marriage is not something that people can be forced into. It’s something they should enter into freely and with excitement and joy. If that’s missing, something is wrong.
Next, the priest asks if the couple is prepared to “love and honor each other for as long as [they] both shall live.” The Church wants couples to love and honor each other mutually. Marriage isn’t one-sided, asking just the wife to honor her husband, or just the husband to honor his wife.
Then, the priest asks the bride and groom if they are ready to accept any children that God gives them, and if they’re both committed to raising those children in the Church. The Church expects the husband and the wife to decide together how God is asking their marriage to be fruitful. If children are a fruit of their marriage, the Church also expects both parents to be equally responsible for raising children in the Faith.
Finally, before the couple vows to be faithful to each other in good times and bad, the priest asks them both to declare their consent, saying, “Since it is your intention to enter into the covenant of Holy Matrimony, join your right hands and declare your consent before God and his Church.” This declaration of consent, that both the man and the woman are wholeheartedly entering into this marriage, is yet another emphasis on the equality between spouses that the Catholic Church values in a marriage.
So, if you’re thinking about having Catholic Mass for your own upcoming wedding, taking a closer look at the wedding ceremony can be a great way to dive deeper into a Catholic understanding of marriage. The Church wants both men and women to come to the altar as equals and vow that they arrived there by their own – and independent — free choice. Feminist vibes, indeed.