Once upon a time, to prevent ‘secret marriages’ and mix-ups

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | February 8, 2015

The history, and demise, of announcing marriage banns

Did you know that the church frowns upon secret (clandestine) marriages? It’s not too fond of abrupt marriages either.

One of the biggest names in secret weddings in church history was Henry VIII’s to Anne Boleyn. It took place in January 1533. She was pregnant (with the future Elizabeth I) and Henry had not received the requested church annulment from his wife of 23 years, Catherine of Aragon. (He never did.)

In 1683, Louis XIV, France’s renowned Sun King, married his mistress, Francoise d’Aubigne, less than three months after his wife, Maria Therese of Spain, died in 1683.

The church’s aversion to secret weddings doesn’t often have to do with concern over the example of big names like Henry and Louis. Rather, as “The Catholic Encyclopedia” notes: “From the beginning of Christian society, the marriage of its members was looked on as a public religious act.” This is because all the sacraments, including marriage, are meant to take place in the church: which means in the community that is the body of Christ on earth.

So, for the first four centuries of the church, the local bishop had to be told of any proposed marriages among the flock — and approve of it. As the parish system evolved, it became the responsibility of the parish priest to review upcoming marriages to make certain they were legal by church law. That meant things like finding out who might be already married to someone else, who was too closely related to a proposed spouse or who might not yet be a member of the Christian faith.

As the church grew and spread, the priest’s responsibility became the responsibility of everyone in the community. From here came a custom that was formalized by church councils in the 13th and 15th centuries and continued until 1983 (in the United States): the announcing of marriage banns.

Banns — even though some children may have thought the word was “bands” — derived from an old English verb, bannan, meaning “to summon, command or proclaim.”

Three times — often on three consecutive Sundays, but a holy day in the span would suffice — the priest was to announce upcoming marriages from the pulpit. He would give the names of the man and woman, the names of their parents, their places of birth, where they lived — and had lived, their ages and their marital status. If the couple were members of different parishes, this had to be done in both parishes. If their parents lived elsewhere, the banns had to be announced in their parishes as well. In fact, the banns had to be announced in every place where the man and woman had ever lived for at least six months since their births. With the advent of printing, the banns also needed to be published. First this was in the church building and, later, in the church bulletin.

A priest could not refuse to publish the banns, except if one member of the couple was not Catholic.

Once the banns were announced, it became the obligation of anyone who knew a reason “why this couple should not be joined together” to come forward and tell the priest. He, in turn, had to record these concerns and investigate them if he felt they had any validity. While it might not have been a sin to hide from the priest any knowledge you had about a possible impediment to an upcoming marriage, you were “answerable before God” if you did so.

Impediments to a marriage ranged from being too young to marry, to being unable to have children, to being too closely related, to being married to someone else.

In 1983, the Code of Canon Law was changed in regards to the investigation of “the freedom to marry” and it was left up to the national conferences of bishops to decide on the rules. In the United States, the need to announce or publish marriage banns was ended. Instead, the bishops decreed specific norms regarding the preparation of a couple for marriage. These include marriage preparation classes and pastoral education; questioning the couple about “their freedom to marry”; requiring proof of baptism for non-Catholics; and seeking any additional documentation (such as affidavits of parents) in order to clarify any questions about a Catholic party’s freedom to marry.

Why go through all this trouble? The church isn’t being nosy. Instead, it is trying to help a couple prepare for a lifetime together, and for the health of the family they are starting. As the U.S. bishops note, “When the Catholic Church teaches that marriage between two baptized persons is a sacrament, it is saying that the couple’s relationship expresses, in a unique way, the unbreakable bond of love between Christ and his people.”

Marriage is meant to last for life and the church wants to make sure a lasting foundation is established before the marriage vows are ever spoken.

After that, bring on the (wedding) bands.

Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; the Code of Canon Law; usccb.org; catholicdoors.com; and “The Manual of the Holy Catholic Church.”

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