The laws of the church

Look to the law

So yesterday the Roman Catholic Church elected a new Pope. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, is now Pope Francis I, Bishop of Rome.

So… could anybody have been elected Pope?


Did the person elected have to be a Cardinal?


Did the person elected have to be a priest?


Now The Legal Genealogist is sure of all of these answers… but how?

Because of the law. In this case, canon law — by definition, the “body of ecclesiastical jurisprudence which … is composed of maxims and rules drawn from patristic sources, ordinances and decrees of general councils, and the decretals and bulls of the popes.”1 Or, in plain English, the codified, organized, written laws of the Catholic Church.

They explain so much about the election of the Pope — and about ordinary every-day records genealogists use and rely on if their families were Catholic.

For the election of the Pope, you can go to Canon 335, which says special laws apply when a Pope is to be elected.2 For the special laws, look at the Universi Dominici Gregis, which basically says any Catholic man can be elected and if he isn’t already a bishop he gets ordained one right away.3

There’s a terrific overall explanation of the process at the Georgetown Law Library website you can read, which boils the qualifications down to this: “a single male of good standing within the Catholic church.”4

So now you know. No, not just anybody can be elected Pope, but the person doesn’t have to be a Cardinal, or even a priest.

But canon law does so much more. Just as one example, it explains the marriage record you see here — the marriage of Jacob E. Rose and Honora Helena Small on the 12th of June 1902, in St. Mary’s Church, Mount Vernon, Illinois. Yeah, I know it’s in Latin; no, that’s not my strong suit either. But what it says, in essence, is that Jacob wasn’t Catholic, he and Honora had had a civil marriage earlier, they managed to get a dispensation for the fact that he wasn’t Catholic, and the religiously-invalid civil marriage was validated in the church marriage.5

In fact, it even tells us that Jacob wasn’t a baptized Christian at all — because the dispensation was of an “impedimento disparitatis cultus” (actually a misspelling; it’s “disparitas cultus”)– an impediment involving someone regarded as an infidel, such as a “pagan, Mohammedan, (or) Jew.”6

What else can we learn from canon law? Well… let’s see here. You find a baptismal record and there are three sponsors listed. Is that a Catholic record or a record from, say, a Lutheran Church? It had better be Lutheran, because canon law limited (and limits) sponsors to two: one male and one female.7

You find a baptismal record and you know it’s from a Catholic church. How old were the sponsors (godparents)? If it was before 1983, they had to be at least 14.8 After 1983, they had to be at least 16.9

If you find a 19th or early 20th century Catholic baby wasn’t buried in the same plot with her parents, chances are she didn’t live long enough to be baptized. Until well into the 20th century, the unbaptized couldn’t be buried in consecrated ground.10

So if the question is why your Catholic ancestors did something you wouldn’t expect them to do or didn’t do something you would expect them to do, look to the law — the canon law — the law of their church.


  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 167, “canon law.”
  2. Canon 335, Code of Canon Law (1983), Official Website of the Vatican ( : accessed 13 Mar 2013).
  3. Ibid., “Universi Dominici Gregis” (Apostolic Constitution of Pope John Paul II on the Vacancy of the Apostolic See and the Election of the Roman Pontiff, 22 February, 1996).
  4. Papal Election Research Guide,” Georgetown Law Library ( : accessed 13 Mar 2013).
  5. St. Mary’s Church, Mount Vernon, Illinois, 1875-1907 Baptisms, Marriages, Deaths, First Communion, Confirmations, Rose-Small marriage, 12 Jun 1902; Diocese of Belleville, Belleville, Illinois; digital images, “Illinois, Diocese of Belleville, Catholic Parish Records, 1729-1956,” ( : accessed 13 Mar 2013).
  6. P.M.J. Rock, “Disparity of Worship,” 5 The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York : Robert Appleton Company, 1909); html version, ( : accessed 13 Mar 2013).
  7. Canon 873, Code of Canon Law (1983), Official Website of the Vatican ( : accessed 13 Mar 2013). For the 1917 Canon 764, see “The New Law,” ( : accessed 13 Mar 2013.
  8. Canon 766 § 1 (1917), “The New Law,” ( : accessed 13 Mar 2013.
  9. Canon 874 §1(2), Code of Canon Law (1983), Official Website of the Vatican ( : accessed 13 Mar 2013).
  10. Emma Pankey, “The Tradition of Separate Burials in Ireland: Cilliní and Place,” Spectrum: An Online Journal, Fall 2012, University of New Hampshire Anthropology Dept. ( : accessed 13 Mar 2013).
Print Friendly
This entry was posted in General, Primary Law. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The laws of the church

  1. Jeff says:

    The Catholic rules for electing the Pope are similar to the rules in the House of Representatives for Speaker of the House in that you don’t have to be a serving member of the House to be elected Speaker of the House.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      While it’s technically true that the Speaker doesn’t have to be a member, there’s never been a case where the person wasn’t — and I suspect that given the place of the Speaker in the succession, electing someone who wasn’t would trigger a constitutional challenge.

  2. Otto Vervaart says:

    Thanks for this new angle to approach church law concerning papal elections! Just a minor remark on the dispensation record: The Latin super impedimento disparitatis cultus is in my view correct. It means “on the impediment of a disparity in worship”. “Disparitatis” is the form for the genitive of disparitas. The genitive of cultus happens to be “cultus”, and this is probably misleading…

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Otto, you’re not the only one to tell me my Latin was wrong and the priest was right. I should know better than to try to deal with Latin – I have enough trouble with English@

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>