#32: Scapulars & Spatulas


32.1  As Fr. Neil McObstat, Assistant Pastor at St. Purgatory’s Parish in West Dullsville, used to say: You might have been raised a Catholic ifyou know the difference between a scapular and a spatula. For those of you who missed out, the scapular is pictured above on the left…this is the common Brown Scapular, which even some Catholics may not realize is considered a “habit” of the Carmelite Order, that is, a religious garment, albeit in symbolic miniature. Needless to say, the connection to the shoulder-blade, or scapula, is intentional.

32.2  Today’s brief survey of Roman Catholic concepts of kinship or “consanguinity” is by way of correcting a mistake I made back in 21.5. And it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: I will be making a good faith effort (no pun intended, truly) to be as accurate as possible, but I’m obviously no expert. No clear-thinking individual would base a life-altering decision, let along risk the fate of their immortal soul, on what I have to say…consult your local pastoral authorities!

32.3  And what I said was that 2nd cousin marriages were not valid in the Catholic Church…this was the rule in my day…and it remained the rule until Canonical reforms were put in place in 1983. Today, 2nd cousins can marry in the Church without the need of dispensation. Even first cousins may with dispensation, altho one will not be granted in states where 1st cousin marriages are not legal, and that’s about half of them. I have, as of today, gone back and changed what I wrote back then. That’s the beauty of the internet…would that we could edit books or newspapers as easily! And here are the current relevant Canon Laws:


32.4  Now 1019.1 and 1078.3 taken together simply mean you can never, under any circumstances, marry your son, daughter, parent, grandparent, grandchild, etc. “Second degree of the collateral line,” as we shall see, refers to siblings. As the Brits say, all those are right out. Is “natural” is a nice way of saying “illegitimate”? And I’m assuming 1091.3 acknowledges the possibility of double cousins or other multiple relationships. But of immediate interest to us is 1091.2.

32.5   In the collateral line, [marriage] is invalid up to the fourth degree inclusive. Even without, for the moment, spelling out precisely what the fourth degree is, it should be noted that “invalid” means you cannot do it unless you get a dispensation,which you almost always apparently can. This is the current rule, and I have verified it on the very clear and concise website of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. But then, I innocently enough compared this to a copy of  the Baltimore Catechism I had  dated 1911, where I found on page 89


32.6  So what are they saying? Even with the liberalization, it was less stringent back then? Or take this, from Uncle Wiki…


But it’s 4th degree now, post-1983 reform. Obviously, something did not jibe. Much digging followed, and I uncovered this fascinating fact: Since its earliest days, the Catholic Church had been juggling 2 different systems of determining the degree of a blood relationship. This led to much confusion, and even to a complicated old joke, the punch-line of which was you could marry your first cousin but not your second cousin! (You couldn’t actually, but the point was to mix the 2 systems in a sort of medieval Abbott & Costello routine…)

32.7  Before going any further, I must distinguish between 2 uses of the word “degree.” It is commonly used to indicate the distance of a cousin…first cousin, second cousin, third cousin, etc. This is the degree of cousinhood. But in a broader sense, there is the “degree of consanguinity,” which reckons the relatedness of all relatives, not just cousins. These 2 systems give results that will not match, and should not be mixed and matched. Again, degree of cousinhood is not the same as degree of consanguinity. But even restricting ourselves to the latter, there were in simultaneous use 2 different forms of that, hence the seeming inconsistencies I sited above.

32.8  You know, as valuable as the internet is as a giant encyclopedia on everything, sometimes you must go back to good old-fashioned books. In this case, it’s a very informative volume entitled “A Summary of the Roman Civil Law” by Patrick MacChombaich de Colquhoun, published in 1849. OK, I read it on the net, but you get my point. But the gist of it is this: because of where Christianity developed, as opposed to say Africa or Australia, its administrative side has always been inexorably tied with that of the Holy Roman Empire. And indeed, concepts of common law in the United States, and British common law from which they are derived, all harken back to Roman Civil Law.

32.9  And the word “administrative” is important, because in the view of the Church, some laws are of a divine nature and as such are forever unalterable. Who can marry whom, beyond the direct line and siblings, falls under the category of ecclesiastical…Canon Law…and these have changed over the centuries.

32.10  In the beginning…the Catholic Church reckoned kinship the way Roman Civil Law did…the degree of consanguinity was determined by counting the number of steps from one person up the family tree to the closest common ancestor, then back down the tree to the second person. That ancestor was often called the “root,” and you may see it said that using this system, you count all the individuals involved, excluding the root. These 2 methods…counting all parties concerned except the root, and counting the steps or generations up and back… are just different ways of describing the same thing. I think counting steps is clearer…you don’t have to remember what it is again you’re supposed to exclude…and I will use it exclusively.

32.11  Thus, technically, there was no such thing as the first degree. Or rather, you and your parent were related in the first degree, since there is one step between you and them, and they are in a sense the common ancestor of you both. But as direct line marriages were beyond consideration, this was not a factor. Here are the degrees of siblings and cousins as reckoned by the Roman Civil System:


32.12  From a genealogical standpoint, it’s worth noting that the “root” is just one person, either male or female, and thus half-siblings, half-1st cousins, etc., are no different than full relations.


Why not simply figure cousins by degrees in the sense of 1st cousin, 2nd cousin, 3rd cousin, etc.? Because you also needed to determine kinship across generations, what we would call cousins removed and great grand uncles & aunts.


32.13  But here’s the rub…as Christianity spread, it encountered another way of doing it, used by most of the Germanic tribes to the north and west, notably the Franks. (Caution: Franks have nothing to do with France…what are now the French were then the Gauls, referred to as Gallic, which again should not be confused with Gaelic. “Franco” refers to the French, while “Frankish” means the Franks.) They reckoned kinship in a simpler way: counting the number of generations up to the common ancestor, but not back down. And if this number was different for the 2 individuals involved, the larger number was used. Call this the Canon Law System…and summarizing Charts 108-110 here are the 2 systems compared:


32.14  Use of the Canon Law System became so widespread that it was viewed as de facto official, and in the 12th century Pope Alexander II made it officially official. Still, the old Roman Civil System was so ingrained that there was unrelenting confusion between the 2 systems. But we can now see that it is the Roman Civil System that’s in use today, if the Archdiocese of Los Angeles is any indication…while that quote from the Baltimore Catechism was using the official Canon Law System.

32.15  And while laws across the US today form a bewilderingly complex rat’s nest, it looks to me like, as would be expected, the Roman Civil System is also the common law concept that’s been incorporated into most statutes. For example, in the state of Georgia, you may not serve on a jury if any other party to the proceeding is “within the 6th degree” of consanguinity to you. That only covers up to 2nd cousins, since they don’t want to disqualify everybody. If we took this to mean the Canon Law System, that would be up to 5th cousins.

32.16  BTW, I believe it’s correct to take “within” and “up to” in the “inclusive,” rather than “exclusive” sense…that is, the mentioned degree is included in the prohibition. Thus, being within a specific cutoff point also includes being exactly at the cutoff point.

32.17  Finally, a word about dispensations. I’m taking an educated guess by supposing that the relaxation of these restrictions was to encourage more people to marry within the Church…and in any event, it would apply to relatively few couples, I would think. But I was puzzled to find numerous 2nd cousin…and even occasionally 1st cousin…marriages among my French Canadian forebears, who were presumably Catholic to the core. That is, until I got a look at some of the things that qualified a bride and groom for a dispensation in olden days.

32.18  These included…the keeping of property in the family…the lack of a dowry otherwise…preservation of the peace between families or states…intercourse already having taken place…I’ll bet you wouldn’t’ve imagined any of these, right? Also…lack of male acquaintances or the difficulty of prospective suitors in coming to the bride’s home. Then such practical matters as: the hope of safeguarding the faith of a Catholic spouse…or of converting a non-Catholic spouse…or to avoid the possibility of a civil marriage in lieu of a religious one. Plus, if worse came to worse, relatives could wed due to the excellence and merits of the parties.

32.19  Mind you, it was mostly parents arranging these marriages, so “love” had very little to do any of this. And not to get too cynical about it, but there was always a monetary donation involved. To quote from the above Catechism: These alms are used for good purposes in order to avert God’s displeasure in such marriages. Indeed, it was noted that these dispensations were granted by the Church “with great unwillingness.” But still, it was done. Till next time, go with God…and do come back!


Copyright © 2011 Mark John Astolfi, All Rights Reserved


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