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Jacob Long
Jacob Long

Betrothal BEST

Formal betrothal is not customary in the United States or in English-speaking countries generally, as it is among certain nations, where the ceremony is sometimes solemn (before ecclesiastical witnesses) and sometimes private (made at home before the family or friends as witnesses). Among English-speaking peoples the betrothal, if it occurs, is generally without the presence of a third party. In Spain (S. C. C., 31 January, 1880; 11 April, 1891) and in Latin America (Acta et Decreta Conc. Pl. Amer. Lat., p. 259, in note 1) a betrothal compact is considered invalid by the Church unless written documents pass between the contracting parties. This practice obtains in other countries also, but its observance is not necessary to validate the agreement.


A valid betrothal begets chiefly two effects. There arises first an obligation in justice, binding the contracting parties to keep their agreement; viz. to marry at the time specified; or, when the date of marriage is not agreed upon, whenever the second party to the compact reasonably demands the fulfillment of the marriage-promise. Marriage, consequently, with a third party is forbidden, though not invalid. There arises, secondly, owing to an ecclesiastical law, a diriment impediment, known as "public decency", extending to relatives in the first degree of the parties betrothed. Hence, a marriage contracted between the male party to a betrothal and the mother, sister, or daughter of the other party; and, vice versa, between the woman and the father, brother, or son of the man, would be null and void. This impediment continues to exist in all its force, even after the betrothal has been legitimately dissolved. The first of these effects, an obligation of justice, may arise, it will be seen, from a betrothal compact which has not all the essentials of the definition given above; not so, however, of the second effect. It is sometimes stated that a betrothal does not bind in English-speaking countries. This is inexact, to say the least. There is no exception at any time, or in any country, to the binding force arising from a valid betrothal, even though it be not public (S. C. S. Off., 11 Aug., 1852), or to the impediment begotten thereby. Engagements very frequently, though not always, are rather proposals of matrimony than promises as explained above, and in them an essential element of the betrothal is wanting (Sabetti, Theol. Mor., n. 838, qu. 30; Kenrick, Theol. Mor., nos. 23, 37).

In case of refusal to complete the contract by marriage an action before the diocesan court is permissible. Bishops, however, are counseled not ordinarily to enforce marriage in such cases, as generally it would prove unhappy. In English-speaking countries these matters are, as a rule, taken into the civil courts, where the only remedy is a breach-of-promise suit, the penalty being a fine. In the United States, before the civil law, betrothal has only the moral force of a mutual promise. Betrothal in England was once a legal bar to matrimony with another; at present the only legal remedy for the violation of the betrothal is an action for breach of promise.

Jewish and Roman laws and customs must have influenced the early practice of the Church anent betrothal. The Jewish laws of marriage, and consequently of betrothal, were based in a great measure on the supposition that it was a purchase. In the law of Moses there are certain provisions respecting the state of the virgin who is betrothed, but nothing particularly referring to the act of betrothal. Selden's "Uxor Hebraica" gives the schedule of later Hebrew contracts of betrothal. Where the contract was in writing, it was written out by the man before witnesses and delivered to the woman, who must know its import. Rome, on the other hand, at the beginning of the Christian Era, had ceased to consider marriage as a wife-purchase. Marriage, and still more betrothal, was a purely civil compact, verbally concluded. Under later Roman law, which constituted a basis for our ecclesiastical legislation, betrothal was looked upon simply as a contract of future marriage, stronger indeed than the engagement, since to enter into a second betrothal compact was held to be as infamous as bigamy itself. No legal forms were prescribed for the early Roman betrothal, but the compact was generally accompanied by the man's sending to the woman the iron betrothal ring (annulus pronubus). As the Empire grew in importance, so did the betrothal contract, while at the same time its obligations were more frequently disregarded. Hence the practice of giving earnest-money, or pledges of fidelity (arrhoe), came into prominence; another step led to gifts being bestowed by the parties, one upon the other. The kiss, the joining of hands, and the attestation of witnesses were other elements introduced. Even in England formal engagements of this kind were common down to the time of the Reformation. As barbarian influence, however, began to affect the Empire, the betrothal took o