The Church teaches that “the matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring, has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament between the baptized” (Canon 1055).
For Latin rite Catholics, the husband and wife are the ministers of the sacrament, while the pastor of the parish or his delegate presides as the official witness of the Church. In the United States, the religious minister of a marriage is also the official witness for the state. How did this arrangement came about?
The origins for this practice can be found in antiquity, and even in non-Christian cultures. Weddings were and still are very important events, affecting not only the lives of the spouses, but also their families, their communities and their future progeny. For that reason, in most cultures, weddings were and are public events requiring an official witness. Accordingly, the higher the stakes for a marriage — sharing and distribution of property and assets, etc. — the greater the number of witnesses. Since marriage has civil effects (property, taxes, tort law, estate law, etc.) it has been regulated by civil law from antiquity till today.
In the Church, at least since the time of the Council of Trent, Catholic marriages had to be witnessed by the pastor of the parish or his delegate, plus two other witnesses. This is called the “canonical form.” The fundamental purpose of this public canonical form was to address the widespread abuses inherent in “common law” marriages. If a common law marriage fell apart, a spouse rarely had recourse to a just settlement and would simply be abandoned, having to carry on raising the children and supporting the household without the assistance of her husband. With the canonical form, there are witnesses for the marriage (as a public event), thus allowing spouses to support their claims with the testimony of a witness.
Two centuries after the Council of Trent, common law marriages were abolished in England and Wales by the Marriage Act of 1753. After that date, any person living in the British Empire had to be married by an Anglican minister, and that included those living in the American colonies.
With the independence of America in 1776, and the U.S. Constitution (1789) guaranteeing religious freedom for its citizens, henceforth any elected official or religious minister, not just ministers of the Anglican Church, could be the witnesses of marriage, not only for the religious dimension of the marriage, but also for the civil effects.
Today, in practice, just about anyone who is over 18 years old can serve as an “officiant of marriage.” In the state of Illinois, for example, no law exists that would require a religious minister of any denomination or no denomination to register with any government office in order to perform a marriage.
In the Roman Catholic Church, the priest assists at the wedding. After the ceremony, he signs the civil marriage license noting his title, his name, the name of the Church where the wedding took place and the date of the marriage. The names of the spouses are listed on the marriage license, and the couple has 60 days to complete it and turn it in to the county clerk, where it is kept in the permanent registry.
Rev. Francis Hoffman, J.C.D., is Executive Director of Relevant Radio. Follow him on his Facebook page “Father Rocky.”