A sense of romanticism sometimes prompts couples to think that the celebration of marriage is “their day,” when in truth it is one of the important sacramental celebrations of the Church. It is a wonderful thing that the couple feels so close to the celebration, wanting it to reflect their joy and hope and their personal histories. They open their whole selves to God’s grace in accepting the gift of marriage to another. Still, it is the Church’s celebration and not the couple’s own. This is especially true of the content of marriage — what the Church calls the “object of consent.” The Church has received the gift of married life from its author — God himself — and joyfully celebrates that gift with the spouses. The spouses receive the gift; they do not define marriage for themselves. Their openness to receive the gift in its fullness is expressed in their “consent” to the gift, their consent to marry one another as God has defined marriage.
The Code of Canon Law for the Latin-rite Catholic Church contains an essential element of basic contract law: the words and actions of the couple during the wedding celebration are the best indications of their intentions (see Canon 1101). The canon says that the “internal consent of the mind is presumed to be in conformity with the words and actions used” by the couple in the wedding celebration. Hence, the words used by each spouse when he or she consents to marry (the “vows”) are very important.
The Rite of Matrimony offers great freedom to the local conference of bishops to adapt the words and symbols of the wedding liturgy to local culture and customs, but it does not allow the couple the same type of freedom in altering the Church’s liturgy. For a time there was laxity among some clergy in allowing couples to change the words of consent or to compose their own vows. This led to some unusual expressions of the couple’s consent to marry. Hopefully this experimentation has ended, because the couple does not have the freedom to write their own formula for the exchange of consent.
There are other opportunities for the couple to compose and include a prayer or reflection within the Church’s Rite of Matrimony, and even more freedom for the couple to include their own spiritual reflection on marriage within the rehearsal before the rite, or the reception following the rite. However, apart from the several options for standard and approved texts that the couple may choose from within the Rite of Matrimony, the couple is not free to compose their own vows in a Catholic wedding.
Msgr. William J. King is a priest of the Diocese of Harrisburg.