Roman Catholic

Marriage Dispensations

This is revised version of two separate articles that I wrote for the Island Register. The original was a discussion of the concepts of consanguinity and affinity in Roman Catholic marriage records. I later wrote a second post to discuss other forms of marriage dispensations as well as to answer questions from and clear up confusion over the first. I have both edited and combined the two posts here.

The original article was also published in Issue #93 of the American-Canadian Genealogist, the quarterly journal of the American-Canadian Genealogical Society.

What are marriage dispensations

According to my dictionary, a dispensation means:

Exemption from penalty or duty laid down in ecclesiastical, etc., law: granting of licence by pope, archbishop, or bishop, to a person to do what is forbidden by ecclesiastical law.

Therefore, the granting of a marriage dispensation meant that part of the marriage ceremony was contrary to established rules, either by omitting certain procedures, or by allowing things not normally permitted, or both.

What types of marriage dispensations exist

The three types of marriage dispensation that I've encountered in my own research are:

  • Dispensations of Banns: Marriage banns were supposed to be published on three consecutive Sundays. Often, we see the priest note that the marriage was performed after the publication of only one or two banns, "having dispensed with the other(s)..." or "having granted a dispensation for the other...". A dispensation of one or more marriage banns could mean: there was no resident parish priest available to perform services on three consecutive Sundays; the couple lived some distance from the church and could not attend on a regular basis; or the couple was already living common-law and the marriage ceremony was simply legalizing, in the eyes of the church, a relationship that already existed for some time. Finally, banns might be dispensed with if an existing marriage was being rehabilitated (the ceremony was performed a second time to remove any doubts about its legitimacy).
  • Dispensations of Parental Consent: Parental consent was required if either the bride or groom, or both, had not yet reached the age of majority. Dispensing with parental consent could mean the parents were deceased, or that they lived some distance away and it was impossible or impractical to contact them for their approval.
  • Dispensations Consanguinity and Affinity: Special permission was required if the bride and groom were related by either blood (consanguinity) or marriage (affinity) to a degree of third cousin or closer. More distant relationships were not noted and did not require special permission from the church.
How were dispensations granted

The power to grant a marriage dispensation was, to my understanding, held by the Diocese (ie: the Bishop or Arch-Bishop) and not by the individual priest. However, priests were sometimes extended the powers to grant dispensations without having to apply to the Diocese in every case. If the priest wasn't granted those powers, or if the dispensation in question was outside of the limits set for him, then a special application to the Diocese would have to be made.

Some marriage records make note of the priest's power to grant dispensations, and there is often a date attached to it which is separate and distinct from the marriage date. The date should inform the researcher if the dispensation in question was covered by general powers or via a specific dispensation request to the Bishop. For example, if the powers are dated several years prior to the marriage, the dispensation was covered by general powers. A date just a few weeks or months prior to the marriage might indicate that a special application had been made. The special powers may also be spelled out directly by the priest. Unfortunately, not all priests noted the granting of any powers, even for the most exceptional of cases.

While a marriage record which includes a dispensation is proof the dispensation was granted, there are cases where applications were rejected by the Bishop and the marriage was never performed (see Dispensation Request from Father Angus MacEachern, 16 July 1817 for one such example). So, your ancestor's attempt to marry their first love may have been refused, making for an interesting footnote to the family history!

I am unaware of exactly how dispensation requests were supposed to be made or handled at each level. There may or may not have been a formal procedure to follow. However, some of the early correspondence between the Prince Edward Island priests and the Bishop of Québec discusses individual cases, although not always at length.

To be honest, though, from the correspondence I've seen, it's rare for the letters to name individual parishioners for any reason. This might indicate that a separate, formal procedure for discussing dispensations existed and, therefore, there was no reason to mention it in general correspondence. Or, it might simply indicate that few exceptional requests were made. Regardless, the correspondence between the Prince Edward Island priests and the Bishops of Québec is an additional resource available to researchers.

Dispensations of Consanguinity and Affinity

Priests had to make a note in the marriage record if the bride and groom were closely related by either blood (consanguinity) or marriage (affinity).

If the bride and groom were third cousins or closer a dispensation was necessary before they could be married. Dispensations of consanguinity and affinity were granted by degree.

  • First Degree: Siblings - the couple were one degree, or one generation, away from a common ancestor (share a common parent).
  • Second Degree: First Cousins - the couple were two degrees, or two generations, away from a common ancestor (share a common grandparent).
  • Third Degree: Second Cousins - the couple were three degrees, or three generations, away from a common ancestor (share a common great-grandparent).
  • Fourth Degree: Third Cousins - the couple were four degrees, or four generations, away from a common ancestor (share a common great-great-grandparent).

Marriages to the first degree were never permitted, by either civil or canon law.

Relationships of the fifth degree or higher (fourth cousins and beyond) were not noted and did not require any dispensations.

If a couple were second cousins through only one line, the dispensation might be recorded as "third degree", "third degree simple", or "third degree pure". If they were related as second cousin through two separate lines, the dispensation might be recorded as "third degree double" or "third degree on one side and third degree on the other side", etc.

Removals were also recorded: a marriage to a second cousin once removed would receive a dispensation of the "third to fourth" or "third and fourth" degree. I have not seen an instance where two or more degrees of removal (i.e.: second cousin twice removed) was ever noted.

Dispensations of affinity were treated in the same manner as dispensations of consanguinity. Effectively, once you were married, your wife's blood relatives would be considered to have the same relationship to you as if they were actually blood relatives to you as well. If a widowed man decided to marry his late wife's first cousin, the couple would receive a dispensation to the second degree of affinity.

Half-relationships would fall under the category of consanguinity, since the couple were still blood relatives even though they shared only one common ancestor rather than two. Step-relationships fall into the category of affinity, since the common point between the two families is a result of marital rather than blood ties.

In some communities, close ties amongst the families meant that many couples received dispensations of both consanguinity and affinity.

The priests were supposed to record all relationships of the fourth degree and closer - so, a couple who were related in four different ways should have received four different dispensations. Unfortunately, this was not always done. As well, each priest used slightly different terminology in their records - it might take some practice to figure out exactly what each priest meant. The best thing to do is to trace out some dispensations, where the lineages are known from other sources, to determine that particular priest's terminology and accuracy. The accuracy depended on two things: the priest's desire to get it right and complete; and the couple's accuracy in recalling and reciting their own lineages (garbage in- garbage out!). Like anything else in genealogy, one must never take anything for granted.

Unfortunately, not all of the priests made a concerted effort to determine whether or not a couple was related. So, some couples who should have received dispensations didn't. This is regrettable, since marriage dispensations might be the only way to trace families when there are gaps in the records (as occurs on PEI). This is especially true for the Acadian families: the "grand dérangement" or expulsions left many records either incomplete or lost altogether.

Dispensations are also useful for immigrant families since they might highlight blood or marital connections from the Old World.

Example of a marriage record with dispensations of consanguinity

The following marriage record, taken from the parish registers for St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church, Indian River, Prince Edward Island, includes multiple dispensations of consanguinity. It states that the couple were first cousins once removed through one line, and second cousins once removed through two others. One, if not all, of those relationships required a special dispensation from the Bishop which was received a couple of weeks prior to the marriage:

On the 10th February 1863 after three publications of bans of marriage between Alexander McLellan son of Roderick McLellan and Mary McDonald on the one part, and Ann Hickey daughter of William Hickey and Mary McLellan of this parish on the other part, and after receiving a dispensation from the Bishop of the Diocese in the second and third degree single and third and fourth degree double of consanguinity being dated the 26th January last and there being no other impediments discovered, I the undersigned received their mutual consent to marriage and gave them the nuptial benediction in presence of John Hickey and Catherine Hickey. Signed: James MacDonald.

Along with the marriage dispensations, the names of the couple, and the date of marriage, this record also includes the names of their parents (with the maiden names of the mothers), an approximate place of residence of the bride, and the names of two of the witnesses. Some records can include much more information, such as: the groom's residence and occupation; where he originally came from if an immigrant or recent arrival to that parish; whether or not the parents were alive or deceased; and the relationship, if any, of the witnesses to the bride and groom.


Marriage dispensations can provide some insight into the couples involved, their families, and their situation. Genealogists should be aware of them and make note of them in their files. It's also important to check the original records whenever possible since this type of information is often excluded from transcripts, indices, and finding aids.

Please note that I am not an expert on this subject. However, I hope this will help some researchers to glean a little more information for their files.

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