A revolution took place in December 1975. Compared to other upheavals on the world’s stage during that decade it was only a tiny revolution. It did not hit the headlines, but it was a revolution, nonetheless. It happened when the Society’s Newsletter took on a new format – from loose stencilled sheets to a style involving photographic reduction. At that time the Newsletter was typed by Mrs Veronica Mars on an electric typewriter, long before the computer became de rigueur. (She still types it). The new format enhanced the professionalism of its production, a professionalism that had its driving force in the Editor, Monsignor Ralph Brown. Apart from the period beginning in 1976 when he was appointed Vicar General in Westminster, he has edited the Newsletter from its earliest days and is still editing it now .
I was one of the three who followed the first Editor; the others being Monsignor David Cousins and Monsignor James Joyce. My tenure ran from December 1976 to September 1982. When leafing through back numbers, I was struck by the highlights and memories they revived. Some of these I have set down. The first number I edited (December 1976) reminded me that in those days the Society held an annual one and a half day Winter Conference (in addition to the Spring Conference) at which there were guest speakers and three year elections. In January 1977 the Winter Conference was at the Marie Reparatrice Convent in Wimbledon and on that occasion Edward Walker took over from Bernard Nesden as Treasurer.. It was noted at the time that Bernard would still continue in his role as Choirmaster and M.C. at future Conferences. That, too, brought back memories. Bernard fulfilled the role of M.C. with a military precision that would have been the envy of an R.S.M. but he tempered it with a delightful humour that was second to none.
March 1977 saw the issue of a policy statement from the Archdiocese of Chicago on “Remarriage of Persons with Proven Psychic Disorders”. It was supplied by the then Judicial Vicar of Chicago, Father Bill Schumacher. He reported that at his local divorce court – Cook County, the “largest divorce court in one location in the world” – they adjudicated on no less than 19,000 divorce cases in 1975. I always relished receiving reports from Bill. They came from “The Desk of W.A. Schumacher” and conjured up an image (at least for me) of an ecclesiastical style mogul smoking a huge cigar and a green eyeshade.
In June 1977, a translation of a Decision from the Signatura coram Staffa (29.11.1975) was reproduced. This Decision became rather celebrated and was known as the “Utrecht Sentence”. It reflected the then on-going battle between the Dutch Courts and the Signatura and amongst other things it came down quite heavily against the concept of what could be called “creeping nullity”. The commentaries that followed filled many pages of the Newsletter with a very high quality of debate and the exchanges continued into the following year (1978). There was one from Cyril Murtagh, then from Dan Shanahan, and yet another from Maurice Dooley.
The usual venue for the Annual Spring Conference in the seventies was the Passionist Monastery at Ilkley, Yorkshire, but in reading the June 1977 number I recalled that the Conference that year was held in Scotland for the first time. It was the tenth Spring Conference and it took place at Middleton Hall, Gorbridge, Midlothian. At the A.G.M. it was decided that there would be no more Winter Conferences and that the Spring Conference would be extended so as to provide a wider coverage of topics.
The Spring Conference in 1978 was back in Ilkley. It was the year when the Society reached the twenty-first anniversary of its foundation and it was good to be in the company of two of the founding fathers, Bishop Moverley and Monsignor John Humphreys. Quite a few working parties were in operation at that time. One was working on a major document on marriage, requested by the Bishops’ Conference; others were working on the schemata for the revision of the Code. At the A.G.M. it was announced that Father Frank Morrisey, O.M.I. had been made an honorary life member of the Society. To mark the twenty-first year of the founding of the Society, Lord Hailsham gave a commemorative lecture at the Hall of Gray’s Inn, London, in October 1978 on ‘Modern Reflections on the Natural Law’. The lecture was subsequently published separately by the Society.
Dom Peter Flood, OSB, one of the founding fathers, died in December 1978. I remember Dom Peter as a larger than life figure, a man of firm views strongly held, but one who epitomised courtesy and kindness. As I recall, he and Fr. Anselm Cooney, ODC, invariably seemed to occupy the same individual seats at the front, year in, year out. If one of them stood up and held the floor, the other would follow suit. Monsignor Sheehy, who was then President, spoke fondly of Dom Peter in the December 1978 number of the Newsletter describing him as a “veritable institution among us … a surgeon-cum-lawyer-cum-monk: quite enough in itself to make him a singular figure. He never lost the delightful, almost childlike capacity to enjoy being singular.”
The undisputed master of statistics in those days was Maurice Dooley. In the March 1979 edition of the Newsletter he produced figures which showed that in 1975 one in every 46 Catholic Church marriages involved one divorced partner. Statistics for Tribunals in five of the English speaking countries as well as the world totals revealed that in 1976 there were close to 95,000 marriage cases before the Courts, and 53,000 were concluded in one way or another. The United States had the greatest of the overall number, some 56,000 in all – 70% of the world total (or 119 per 100,000 Catholics.)
The Newsletter for September 1979 paid tribute to Monsignor Desmond O’Ryan, then Judicial Vicar of Portsmouth, who had died in August that year after a long battle with cancer and who continued to work almost to the end. Desmond was the first successfully to petition the Signatura Apostolic for a Third Instance hearing in England but, as Cyril Murtagh said in his tribute, success of this kind was secondary: his basic motivation was always that of justice for some poor unfortunate person, as he would put it.” When the Society met at the Requiem Mass celebrated for him in the crypt of Westminster Cathedral in October that year, the sad news was given of the sudden death of Robert O’Brien, KCSG, KSS. who, in the words of Bernard Sims’ tribute in the December number for that year, was the Society’s “best known and highly respected lay member”, a lawyer who was of great standing in his profession and exemplary in his service to the Church.
In June 1980 it was announced that Bishop Gerald Moverley had been appointed first Bishop of the newly created Diocese of Hallam. The Newsletter for that month reported on the Spring Conference in Ilkley earlier that year at which Monsignor Sheehy stepped down after completing two terms of office as President. Bishop Moverley, a former President, in referring to Monsignor Sheehy’s total dedication to the Society, said, “The great work during his time as President was the revision of the Code of Canon Law, and he directed the Society’s comments on the draft legislation with a learned and yet light touch.” He added that under his chairmanship the annual Conferences were always very happy occasions and that speakers “were introduced with sincere and beautifully modulated words and the discussions directed with humour and goodwill. During his Presidency the Society increased in stature in every way …”
News of the death of Monsignor Canon William Denning on 31st October 1980, another of the original members came through as that issue was going to press. Obituaries written by Canon Walter Gasche and Monsignor Jeremiah Curtin appeared in the December edition. I was already accustomed to Monsignor Curtin’s exquisite turn of phrase (as he was the Rector of the Beda College where for some reason he was called Cabbie) and his tribute to Canon Denning contained the following gem: “Many years ago as junior seminarians, he and I were taught by Father Louis Woodruff, a classical scholar whose interest in world affairs was reputed to end with the Peloponnesian war. Under his guidance we were introduced to one, Rhadamanthus, who earned praise in Plato’s Apology as an exceedingly learned and just Judge. William Denning was a modern Rhadamanthus who could always be relied upon for a balanced judgement. This gift came to him in much the same way just as some singers, not always clerical, are born with a sense of perfect pitch”.
In 1978 the number of cases before the Tribunals of the world had reached 122,465, of which 122,064 were marriage cases. The preponderance of nullity cases was again in the United States: 42,405 completed cases or 83% of the world total. Put another way, it represented one nullity case for every 8 Catholic marriages that year. These statistics appeared in the March 1981 number and were part of an exhaustive list of figures provided once more by Maurice Dooley.
The 50-fold increase in the number of nullity cases tried in the United States in the late seventies and early eighties drew hefty criticism from the Signatura and this, together with the views of U.S. canonists, occupied the Newsletter in June 1981. This issue also considered the phenomenon of the transfer of cases to “laxer tribunals,” rather neatly described as “case-hijacking”.
The Silver Jubilee of the Society was celebrated in 1982 and a special Conference was held at All Saints Pastoral Centre, London Colney. In his opening address as President, Ralph Brown, welcomed the eight distinguished speakers: Father Geoffrey Robinson, Monsignor Dan Shanahan, Fathers Winfried Aymans, Ladislas Orsy, Clarence Gallagher, Jean Beyer, Frank Morrisey, and Archbishop Dermot Ryan. He described them as “luminaries of the canonical world” as indeed they were. Each had been asked to make a contribution concerning the new law which was then moving towards promulgation and the full texts of their papers were produced in the Silver Jubilee number of the Newsletter. Membership of the Society at that time was over 500. The President paid warm tribute to the four Presidents who had preceded him: Monsignor McReavy, Bishop Grant, Bishop Moverley and Monsignor Sheehy, and to the founding fathers, three of whom – Monsignor Daniel Shanahan, Bishop Gerald Moverley and Monsignor John Humphreys - were present. Amongst the founding fathers he included Monsignor John Barry who had founded and edited the Canon Law Abstracts for twenty-five years. At the end of the Conference Monsignor Sheehy glanced back at the Society’s history and gave a fascinating insight into how it all began. Rev. John Chaloner