In some places you will find “Marriage Banns” in your parish bulletin. But what is it all about?

In the early Middle Ages, secret or clandestine marriages became a problem. The Church had no required form for celebrating marriage at that time, and so a couple could choose to marry privately and without any pomp or ceremony, and even without witnesses, friends or family in attendance. No one would really know if they were married.

It was only in the year 1215, at the Fourth Lateran Council, that the Church required a recognizable and public form of celebrating marriage, a requirement that was repeated by the Council of Trent in the late 1600s and made binding for all Catholics worldwide in 1908.

Before there was a required form for Catholic marriage, when a person approached the Church for marriage it was difficult to know whether they had been previously married. It was not unheard of for a person to conceal a previous marriage rather than disclose that fact. Hence, the Church began to require the publication of the Banns of Marriage. This is an announcement of an intended marriage, naming the persons to be married, which is publicly read or posted three times. It is similar to the dramatic scene often shown in film and television (though it is not a Catholic practice) of the officiant of a wedding solemnly declaring in these or comparable words, “If anyone knows why these people should not be married, let him speak now or forever hold his peace.”

The Code of Canon Law permits the local conference of bishops to establish norms for marriage banns (see Canon 1067). In the United States, this has been left to the determination of the local bishop. Many bishops today permit the local priest to dispense from the publication of banns if he judges that there is no practical need for them. Other bishops require the publication of banns only in specific situations, such as when a Catholic is marrying an unbaptized person. Canon 1067 also requires questioning the parties and witnesses to establish the freedom of spouses to enter marriage, so banns are often omitted or dispensed if the parish pastor is satisfied that he already has sufficient information to ensure that a couple is free to enter marriage.