“I (name) take you, (name), to be my wife/husband. I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honour you all the days of my life.”
We hear these vows in movies and at weddings so often, that many of us can recite them without prompting. Good for you if you can! Our wedding vows were never meant to be a one-time thought on our wedding day. They are intended to be a daily mantra.
But what do they really mean and how do we remain faithful to our vows?
Taken in the context of the full wedding liturgy, which includes the Statement of Consent, the Vows and the Exchange of Rings, four essential characteristics are evident.
- Freely given. Inherent to the marriage promise is the idea that the marriage is freely entered. Sometime this freedom may be undermined such as when there is undue pressure from family, friends or the fiancé or there are unfortunate circumstances such as a pregnancy. One’s free consent might also be limited by the presence of mental illness or addictions.
- Total and unconditional. Marriage is unique among contracts in that it demands a willingness to share everything unconditionally, without an exit clause. When couples mutually respect this call, a beautiful synchrony results where each spouse is able to confidently rely on the generosity of the other.
- Faithful and exclusive until death. Life-long, sexual exclusivity is a central principal of Christian marriage. Fidelity ensures that all children conceived by the spouses will be raised by their biological mother and father. It also encourages the couple to direct their sexual passion and relationship energy towards strengthening the marriage bond.
- Open to life. Children are both a wonderful blessing and a great responsibility to a marriage. The capacity of the couple to cooperate with God to bring new life into the world who will be loved by him for eternity is a truly profound ability.
Regrettably, with the exception of the first characteristic (freely given), all these features of married love are considered negotiable in the wider society. Beginning in the 1960s, the uptake of contraception and sterilisation challenged the vow of being open to life. This was followed in the 1970s with the social acceptance of divorce and remarriage which is a contradiction of the second characteristic: total and unconditional. Finally, the explosion in internet pornography in the past decade has normalised sexual infidelity on a daily basis.
In the space of half a century, what the secular culture defines as marriage is barely recognisable to the Catholic vision. Sadly, even many Christian denominations have surrendered their position on some of these aspects, making it necessary to distinguish between Catholic Marriage (Matrimony) and Secular Marriage.
But it’s more than just definitions and semantics – the erosion of the foundational principles that define marriage also make marriage less stable and less attractive to the next generation. As a result, young couples are increasingly choosing permanent cohabitation, serial monogamy or at best, delaying marriage and childbearing until their thirties.
Moreover, a vast chasm has opened between those who uphold the traditional, ‘conjugal’ view of marriage and those who are formed by the secular understanding. Without a common vision of what marriage is, debates in the public square are doomed to fail and increasing numbers of people will discard marriage as irrelevant to modern life.
More than ever, our culture needs the radical witness of long-time, faithful couples to provide a counterpoint to the cynical disillusionment about marriage.
To deepen your appreciation of the wedding vows, take each phrase and write down what you understand it to mean.For example: “I take you” – means that I freely, and willingly, join myself to you. It means that I accept you, all of you, as you are and knowing that you will change and grow. “I take you” today and every day.
- I take you
- To be my wife/husband
- I promise to be true to you
- In good times
- And in bad.
- In sickness
- And in health.
- I will love you
- And honour you
- All the days of my life.