Serving weddings was always a prize assignment in pre-conciliar Catholicism, although not necessarily for the noblest of reasons. Assuming a generous groom or best man, serving a wedding may have cost you a couple of hours on a Saturday, but it usually netted the altar boys five dollars each. And in those innocent, pre-inflation days, you could buy a lot of baseball cards with five bucks.
The one part of the wedding business I didn’t much appreciate then was listening, time and again, to what was called the “pre-nuptial exhortation.” This was an instruction which the priest-celebrant read to the couple after the Gospel reading and before the exchange of vows. It must have taken no more than six or seven minutes to get through, but to a twelve year-old with a crisp five dollar bill burning a hole in his pocket, it seemed an eternity.
Twenty-six years into my own marriage, I recently dug that exhortation out of an old missal and discovered that it said many sensible, even beautiful, things.
It recognized that marriage is a covenant before it is a contract: for marriage requires “a complete and unreserved giving of self.”
It emphasized that marriage is an icon through which we come to know the love of Christ for the Church, which, as St. Paul teaches, is a spousal love. As the self-sacrificing union of Christ and the Church is to be the pattern of Christian marriage, so in living that kind of union do we come to know the depths of Christ’s constant self-gift to the people who are his body.
The exhortation also hints at marriage as an icon of the Trinity, when it reminds the couple that “you begin your married life by the voluntary and complete surrender of your individual lives in the interest of that deeper and wider life you are to have in common. Henceforth you belong entirely to each other; you will be one in mind, one in heart, and one in affection.” The self-giving and receptivity of husband and wife, two unique persons, begets a deeper and wider life, their marriage, which is born from their love and yet is somehow unique in its own right. Here was a preview of what John Paul II means when he describes marriage as the “primordial sacrament” through which we begin to glimpse the interior life of God, a trinitarian community of self-giving and receptivity. The unity of the “one flesh”—husband, wife, and their nuptial covenant—is a radically free, “trinitarian” unity: an image of God the Holy Trinity.
The exhortation even anticipated, if briefly, the Holy Father’s teaching that sexual love within the bond of marital fidelity is a form of worship: “No greater blessing can come to your married life than pure conjugal love, loyal and true to the end.” Pre-conciliar Catholicism had a reputation for prudishness. That one sentence in the pre-nuptial exhortation should have signaled that prudery was not the baseline of the Catholic view of sexual love.
How much of this rich Pauline and trinitarian imagery got through to a young couple on their wedding day? Perhaps not a lot. But it was there in the missal to be pondered in the future. It spoke to the many other married couples attending the wedding. And, in one case at least, bits and pieces of it stuck in the memory of an altar boy, to be unearthed for future reflection a little farther down life’s path.
Because the Church is an organized society, it has laws; because marriage is of the essence of any organized society, the Church has marriage laws. In one high school religion class, I seem to remember being required to memorize the thirteen “diriment impediments” to a canonically valid marriage. It was not an approach to marriage that teenagers found compelling.
Happily, much of that has now changed. The Second Vatican Council reclaimed the biblical concept of marriage as a covenant community and the 1983 Code of Canon Law followed suit. The old “pre-nuptial exhortation” anticipated this contemporary development of doctrine and legal practice. It’s well worth re-reading. For today, as ever, the future of marriage is the future of civilization.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.