Even canonical societies can find their origins in unlikely places. The British Club associated with San Silvestro in Rome would not immediately strike one as the most obvious “locus originis” of the Canon Law Society of Great Britain and Ireland. And yet it was there, it would seem, over a cup of tea, that the idea of having such a society in these islands was first voiced. The partakers of the tea were Fathers Dan Shanahan and John Humphreys, colleagues and contemporaries at post-graduate studies in Rome. They agreed that the idea was a good one, about which “something should be done”. The year was 1952. The Second Vatican Council had not even been dreamed of – though many of the forces which brought it into being seven years later were already at work in the Church.
When these two recently-qualified canonists returned to England that same year, 1952, one of the pressing issues facing very many dioceses was “what to do about matrimonial tribunals?”. It was specifically in this context that, in the summer of 1954, Father Shanahan, who had become the Chancellor of Brentwood, spent a couple of months on tour of a number of diocesan Chanceries and Tribunals in the United States. The venture was sponsored (at a time when the sponsoring of such ventures was by no means so much “the done thing” as it is today!) by Bishop Beck, then Bishop of Brentwood, subsequently Archbishop of Liverpool – to whom, and not only for this foresight, the Canon Law Society owes an abiding debt of gratitude.
During the American tour Father Shanahan not only collected much valuable information and material on the working of marriage courts, but he also came into direct contact with the Canon Law Society of America and at Washington D.C. with the Institute of Research and Study in Medieval Canon Law. The dream was beginning to take shape. On his return home Dan got in touch again with John Humphreys, who was by then the vice-officialis of the Birmingham Tribunal; they were joined by Father Gerald Moverley, another Roman contemporary who at that time was Secretary to Bishop Heenan in Leeds. All three agreed that a first step must be some kind of meeting of Canonists and of those engaged in canonical activities : practical problems could be discussed, and at the same time the idea floated of a more permanent organization. Where to hold such a meeting? – under whose auspices? – how to organise it?
It was at this point that the idea was conceived of making an approach to the Catholic Conference of Ecclesiastical Studies, an institution established some thirty years earlier to provide an opportunity for the exchange of ideas and information principally among seminary professors of theology and philosophy. The 1956 meeting of that conference was to be held at Easter, at Torquay. In a letter written five months later Dan Shanahan says that “we had intended to get a caucus together at the Conference…..at Torquay, but in fact only G. Moverley and myself were able to attend, and we were rather depressed at the flop,” That, incidentally, was the letter which opens : “I enclose a copy of a letter that I have received from Dr. Wroe, Secretary of the Conference of Higher Studies. He always calls me “Dr. Moverley”, with the delightful imprecision of a dogmatist”.
The Torquay depression was fortunately short-lived. In the course of that 1956 meeting, our two stalwarts had succeeded in persuading the executive Committee that it could risk the presence of a group of canonists at the following year’s Conference : the only condition was that the members of any such group would come to the meeting as individuals and would attend the delivery and discussion of all the papers; apart from that, they could have time for discussion among themselves, without disrupting the programme of the Conference. Even more, the Committee very generously suggested that the canonical group could, if they wished, have one of their number deliver a formal paper to the Conference, provided it would be such as to be of general theological or philosophical interest.
The months following that Easter of 1956 were months of intense‘recruitment’, spearheaded and organized by Dan Shanahan, with the active co-operation of John Humphreys and Gerald Moverley. Various ‘key’ people were approached in England and Wales : the response was almost universally not only favourably but enthusiastic. The net was spread up to Scotland (John Barry and John McQuade), across the sea to Ireland (Gerard Sheehy), even across the Atlantic to the United States (Monsignor Jacob C. Shinar of Pittsburgh, who was our first American member). On the 21st September of that year a particularly felicitous step was taken when Father Shanahan invited Doctor Lawrence L. McReavy of Ushaw College, even then a mighty figure in canonicalcircles, to interest himself in the project. Inter alia, the letter said: “We would like the benefit not only of your support, but also of your advice”, and in a characteristic phrase, Dan Shanahan added : “If you think the whole idea is crazy, I trust you will say so before we go too far and make fools of ourselves to no purpose” ! So far from judging the idea “crazy”, Doctor McReavy at once gave it his whole-hearted support and active help, thereby alone almost ensuring its success. He was to become our first President.
The 1957 meeting of the Catholic Conference of Ecclesiastical Studies duly took place at Endsleigh Training College, Hull, from Monday to the Friday of Easter week, the 22nd to the 26th April. The groundwork of our ‘Founding Fathers’ was well rewarded. No fewer than nineteen ‘Canonists’ attended the meeting, all anxious to discuss the new idea and if possible to bring it into effect. After some discussions four of their number (Dan Shanahan, John Humphreys, Gerald Moverley, and the late Dom. Peter Flood, OSB) sat through a lengthy session – in the Shanahan bedroom! – drafting the Constitutions of the new Society. Dom Peter, inter alia medical doctor, Benedictine monk, doctor also in both canon and civil law, was the chief architect.
On Wednesday the 24th April 1957, the entire canonical group which formed part of that meeting of the Conference of Ecclesiastical Studies at Hull, met together and after some discussion and amendments voted unanimously to adopt the Constitutions, and to establish themselves as the “Canon Law Society”. The dream of Dan Shanahan and his associates had become a reality.
On the following day Father Shanahan himself delivered to the Conference a paper entitled “Aequitas Canonica – a Study in XII Century Legal Philosophy.”
Before passing from that historic 24th April 1957, it is well worth recording a memory which remains still fresh with those who were there. It is the memory of a delightfully characteristic intervention by the late Monsignor Bill Denning of Southwark, one of our pillars through all the years, even during his very last years when struck by grievous illness. He made an impassioned plea that we should not restrict our membership to those with canon law degrees or indeed to those with any ecclesiastical degree : not for Bill any form of elitism; the essential requirement was the dedication and sheer hard work of which he was to prove himself such an accomplished exponent.
Doctor McReavy was elected President of the new Society; Father Shanahan, Secretary. Father Moverley became the first Treasurer. Other members of the first Committee were Fathers John Humphreys, Urban Judge, OFM and Frank Davis. The annual membership subscription was fixed at ten shillings!
The newly-found Society got down to work without delay. Its first ordinary meeting was called for Whitsun week 1957, the 11th and 12th June. Its location was the Jesuit Retreat House in Southwell House, Hampstead which was to be our ‘home’ for many years. Twenty-two members attended. The cost per person, including overnight stay, was twenty-four shillings! Three formal papers were read, thus initiating a stream of academic contributions which has flowed steadily ever since.
It was at that meeting that Monsignor John Barry of Edinburgh proposed that “the publication of extracts from periodicals on Canon Law and Moral Theology would be a valuable help to those engaged in the teaching or practice of Canon Law.” This was the birth of “Canon Law Abstracts.” As is the wont with so many good ideas, the sponsor of this one very quickly found himself charged with the task of implementing it – a task which for a quarter of a century he fulfilled with a distinction and a painstaking energy which was the admiration not only of our own members but of so many scholars throughout the world.
It was during the course of the preparation for that first meeting of the Society that the question arose of seeking a form of recognition or at least of “nihil obstat” from the ecclesiastical authorities. Since the meeting was to be held in the Diocese of Westminster, the President wrote to the then Archbishop Godfrey on the 15th May 1957. The reply of the following day was welcoming but cautious : “perhaps the approval of all the Bishops would be required”. This gave Doctor McReavy an opportunity to state a principle in which he has always firmly believed, one which has well served the Society as a guideline ever since: we were not seeking formal “canonical approbation” : we would have been glad of, at most, a simple commendation :’ in other words, wrote our first President, “we would value an assurance from Your Grace that our venture and its objects are laudable in themselves and can laudably be pursued, subject always, of course, to the observance of the requirements of the common law in any of our undertakings, (e.g. publications etc.) which brings us within its terms. Over the ensuing months there followed a delicate correspondence (see Appendix below). These letters help to show the spirit of the time, the stance of the Canon Law Society in its service of the Church, and the positive encouragement of the Hierachy. On the 29th October, 1957, Archbishop Godfrey of Westminster wrote to Doctor McReavy and was happy to inform him “as President of the Society, that the Bishops (at their recent meeting) agreed to give their encouragement to this Society.” Never mind that the Society had already held its first formal meeting at Southwell House in June. It was the suggestion of Monsignor Barry to publish Canon Law Abstracts in Scotland and away from Westminster!
15 September 1982 Monsignor Gerard Sheehy