The Beginnings

The Beginnings

There cannot be too many Societies of prestigious and international note which had their origins over cups of tea in the British Centre at San Silvestro in Rome. However, it was the result of two newly qualified Canon Lawyers who met, chatted, and discussed the idea of an Association of Canon Lawyers in England. All this was in 1952, long before the announcement of the Council or a new Code or anything so stimulating hit the press.

After the two Canon Lawyers returned to England nothing immediately happened. But there were conversations about that original thought. Then in early in 1956 one of those two Canon Lawyers (Father Daniel Shanahan) started further discussions, but this time with other well qualified Canon Lawyers, outstanding amongst whom was Monsignor Lawrence McReavy. One by one the intrepid Father Shanahan recruited other interested persons, namely his original Roman contact Father John Humphreys and Father Gerald Moverley, Father John Barry and Dom Peter Flood, OSB who brought to the group his expertise in Common Law as well as Canon Law.

By joining up in 1956 with the Catholic Conference of Ecclesiastical Studies, the group explored the possibility of establishing an Association of Canon Lawyers. That year, 1956, saw a hiccup in those plans; and it was only in 1957 that the group saw a “lift off” of an association called The Canon Law Society.

Within hours, Dom Peter Flood had drafted a Constitution. Then there were the delicacies of making contact with the English Bishops. Happily Monsignor McReavy had been a young priest at the same time as the current Archbishop (who was also President of the English and Welsh Bishops). Clearly the correspondence shows that this approach to the Archbishop was very much a matter of courtesy from Monsignor McReavy’s side; however, it was taken very seriously indeed by the Archbishop.

It will be recalled that generally in the 1950s, the only qualified Canon Lawyers (apart from Seminary Professors), were usually Bishops’ Secretaries or Chancellors. The wags had it that an association of Canon lawyers could only spell trouble, discussing their Bishops with each other! However, this was probably only a canard, although the correspondence on this does not dispel the possibility.

The initial meeting of the Society took place in June 1957 and the first formal meeting was in January 1958 at Southwell House, Hampstead. This is the reason why the 50th Anniversary of the Society is being celebrated between 2007 and 2008. Happily a full account of these very early days in the history of the Society still remains, together with some of the early foundation correspondence which can be read on another page of this site

It was at this very first meeting that Father John Barry suggested that the Society should produce an abstract of whatever canonical material was being published at the time. It will have been noted in the “correspondence” that Cardinal Godfrey was anxious that any publication of the Society should be produced under his authority. It was precisely for this reason that Father Barry arranged for the publication of Canon Law Abstracts to take place in Scotland and therefore outside the remit of the Archbishop of Westminster. Canon Law Abstracts was never subject to a nihil obstat or imprimatur. You can enjoy reading the history of Canon Law Abstracts on this site.

The early meetings of the Society took place in the month of January at Southwell House in Hampstead. The meetings in these dark winter evenings took place in very creepy conditions around Epiphanytide. The reason why January was the month for the meeting of the Society was apparently that it was a convenient time for seminary professors to meet. This is a little odd because even including Scotland and Ireland there could only have been half a dozen seminary professors who attended. But the Epiphany meeting was obviously popular and they continued well into the seventies. But it was in the early sixties that the meeting was moved from Hampstead to the Sisters of Marie Reparatrice in Wimbledon. The accommodation was extremely pleasant as were the meals, the atmosphere and the Conference Room.

Some very important work was done at Wimbledon. It was there that the Society became electrified by the announcement of the New Code. It was at Wimbledon that the work on, and the fate of, the Lex Ecclesiae Fundamentalis was spelled out; this was followed by comment by the Society on the Schema de Poenis and on the Schema De Sacramentis. On another page you can read about the Society’s involvement in the Revision of the 1093 Code.

One of the participants in the final stages of the revision of the Code was Bishop Joseph O’Connell, Auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne and long time member of the Society. You can read his reflections on the Revision and specially on its final days.

Even before the promulgation of the Code, discussions had taken place about its translation into English and the preparation of a Commentary on the Code. It was agreed to work with the Canon Law Society of Australia and New Zealand for the translation. Two Canonical experts represented the CLSANZ, namely Father Frank Harman of Melbourne and Father Geoffrey Robinson of Sydney. An initial meeting of the two Australians with Monsignor Sheehy and the undersigned (who was President at the time) took place in February 1983 in Bombay. It was agreed that the work of translation would take place in England. Accordingly Fathers Harman and Robinson and Monsignor Sheehy flew to England at the end of March 1983. Nobody had any idea of how long a translation would take. But happily an arrangement was made with the Sisters of Charity and the Vincentian Fathers for the translators to make use of Langdale House and Damascus House on the Ridgeway in Mill Hill, North London. The pattern of work over the 6 weeks of the translation was roughly this: the four translators worked together in the morning; midday mass, lunch; a siesta, work from 4pm until 7pm; supper and then more work between 8pm and 11 pm.

Monsignor Sheehy and Monsignor Brown worked through the text produced during the day. It was dictated on to tapes and at about 11 pm or midnight (sometimes later) it was sent by courier to Mrs Veronica Mars. She began her typing directly after breakfast and sent the typed text back to Mill Hill around lunchtime. This was exhausting but the routine was kept up without a break for six weeks when the work was completed.

In the meanwhile, a publisher (Harper Collins represented by Mr Geoffrey Chapman) had been found and the text was passed to the publishers in late May 1983. It was also necessary to agree terms with the Holy See; as well as canvass support from as many Episcopal Conferences as possible. Eventually the translation was approved by the Conferences of Australia and New Zealand, Canada, England and Wales, India, Ireland, Scotland and South Africa, as well as by the Episcopal Conference of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. Within a further six weeks an index was produced. The publication took place in September 1983. A warm letter of thanks and appreciation was received from Cardinal George Basil Hume.

Directly the translation had been published, the Society turned its attention to a Commentary which had also been proposed. Measures were taken to involve various persons in the preparation of the Commentary; and the Editorial Board was initially composed of Monsignor Gerard Sheehy and Monsignor Brown. The whole work took a long time. In 1990 Monsignor Brown and Monsignor Sheehy went to Ottawa to discuss cooperation with the Canadian Canon Law Society. This was instantly given; and Father Frank Morrisey joined the Editorial Board. Some twelve years were involved in the CLS Commentary, but comfort was taken from the fact that the first Commentary on the 1917 Code had taken even longer. Again Harper Collins was the publisher for the Commentary in Sydney, London and Dublin. The title was Commentary on the Code of Canon Law: Letter and Spirit. The first launch of the Commentary took place in Dublin at Clonliffe College on 30 January 1996; and a week later in London. A white leather-bound copy of the Commentary was presented to the Apostolic Nuncio at Wimbledon. This was to be presented to the Holy Father by the Secretary of State. The Society was warmly thanked by the Sostituto of the Secretariate of State, Archbishop of Giovanni Battista Ré on 6 March 1996. By the 31 March 1996 over 5,000 copies have been sold.

In February 1990, Mgr.Sheehy and Mgr Brown went to Ottawa to negotiate the assistance of CCL on the preparation of the CLS Commentary.

← Mgr. Sheehy

Monsignor Brown never tired in his efforts to get work down and he replied on many people to take dictation. Even the unexpected!

Monsignor Brown never tired in his efforts to get work down and he replied on many people to take dictation. Even the unexpected!

Following the publication of the Code in January 1983, discussions took place between the CLS and the CLSANZ about the next step. Monsignors Brown and Sheehy flew to Bombay to meet with Father Frank Harman (second from left) and Father Geoffrey Robinson (far right) in February 1983. Also pictured here is Archbishop (later Cardinal) Pimenta of Bombay with Mgr. Sheehy on his left.

Following the publication of the Code in January 1983, discussions took place between the CLS and the CLSANZ about the next step. Monsignors Brown and Sheehy flew to Bombay to meet with Father Frank Harman (second from left) and Father Geoffrey Robinson (far right) in February 1983. Also pictured here is Archbishop (later Cardinal) Pimenta of Bombay with Mgr. Sheehy on his left.

The smiles on their faces tell the story!

The smiles on their faces tell the story!

The Editorial Board at work: Father Frank Morrisey and Monsignor Mgr. Jean Thorn from Canada

The Editorial Board at work: Father Frank Morrisey and Monsignor Mgr. Jean Thorn from Canada

The translation and the Commentary took place well into the Society’s history. To go back to the sixties, a decision was taken which shaped the future of the Society, the January meetings continued at Wimbledon, but in 1967 a change in the place of work of the Society was suggested.

This was during the Presidency of Bishop Gerald Moverley. The President and the Secretary viewed a place called Woodhall. Woodhall had been purchased by Bishop Gordon Wheeler of Leeds as a Pastoral Centre for the Diocese Bishop Moverley remarked, as we drove over the hill and saw Woodhall in the distance, “what a good place for a Canon Law Conference”.

Woodhall was not far from the A1 and Richmond. Bishop Moverley’s idea germinated and in May 1968 there was indeed a Conference of Canon Lawyers at Woodhall. This was not a de jure meeting of the Canon Law Society as such; but of course, all those who attended belonged to the Canon Law Society! After a very successful Conference it was agreed to repeat the Conference the following year; and at the 1969 Conference at Woodhall those present agreed to put to the Canon Law Society’s AGM in January 1970 the motion that the Woodhall meeting should become part of the Canon Law Society’s work. This was agreed at the AGM and thus began the May meeting of the CLS in a variety of locations ever since. Nonetheless the Wimbledon meetings continued until 1976 when the May meeting took over as the formal AGM of the Society.

It was at the Wimbledon meeting in January 1967 that Monsignor John Humphreys had suggested an exchange of nullity sentences around the country. This suggestion didn’t work at first; but eventually these emerged Matrimonial Decisions for England and Wales (MDEW). The first volume of MDEW appeared in 1969 covering Sentences given in 1967 and onwards. [

Because MDEW (and later MDGBI) has been produced since 1969 (with decisions given from 1967) it has also been an unconscious monitor of the development of Jurisprudence; both for the Society and Internationally. Monsignor Gordon Read, a prolific contributor to the CLSN has written a commentary on the development of Matrimonial Jurisprudence on what might be called the traditional grounds Father Aidan McGrath, OFM has written a commentary on the development within the Society’s existence of the newer (psychological) grounds for nullity (those which were eventually covered by Canon 1095).

The Canon Law Society Newsletter was first published in June 1969. This again was a suggestion of Monsignor John Humphreys! The first number introduced itself and its intentions. CLSN goes to each Member of the Society and is not sold separately. It is also abstracted in Canon Law Abstracts, and it is featured on the Canon Law Society’s website. This present number of March 2008 will be No.153 of CLSN.

During the time the Society was happily commenting on the Code, it had also been asked by the Conference of Bishops of England and Wales to do some work on what the Americans termed “Due Process”, but what was eventually in England called “The Reconciliation Procedure”. This was not one of the Society’s happiest projects as can be seen on this website.

During its 50 years of history, the Society has celebrated a variety of special events. To celebrate its 21st year, the Canon Law Society arranged a prestigious lecture by Lord Hailsham in October 1978. Lord Hailsham gave a paper called Modern Reflections on the Natural Law. The full text of this lengthy paper was issued as a pamphlet in early 1979 (CLSN 89, December 1978). Archbishop George Patrick Dwyer attended and chaired the Lecture and spoke warmly of the paper and of Lord Hailsham. Another event was the Society’s Silver Jubilee in October 1982. The Society’s Conference that year took place at All Saints Pastoral Centre at London Colney, and members were bussed to London for a Mass at Westminster Cathedral celebrated by Cardinal George Basil Hume, with a reception at the Cathedral Centre (now St Paul’s Bookshop). There was also a commemorative number of the Newsletter edited by Father John Chaloner. He has glanced through the issues during his Editorship and produced some reflections.

In May 1992 the Society held its annual Conference in Rome at the Domus Mariae, a coach journey from the centre. Papers were given by Archbishop Tauran, Monsignor Serrano-Ruiz, Father Francis Daneels and Archbishop Schotte; together with an address of welcome from Cardinal Castillo Lara. The Holy Father addressed Members at a private audience on 22 May 1992 (cf. CLSN 90, June 1992). A general description of the Conference was written up by Father Robert Ombres, OP

At the end of the Conference in Rome in 1992 there was a Papal Audience. This happy picture shows (front line from the left) Fr. Gordon Read, Monsignor David Cousins, Bishop Gerald Moverley, the Holy Father and Monsignor. Brown

At the end of the Conference in Rome in 1992 there was a Papal Audience. This happy picture shows (front line from the left) Fr. Gordon Read, Monsignor David Cousins, Bishop Gerald Moverley, the Holy Father and Monsignor. Brown


One of the problems experienced by all Tribunals concerned the adequate training of personnel. The Code requires that Tribunal Judges and Defenders and Promoters must have at least a Licentiate in Canon law, if not a Doctorate. Some time back it took two years to acquire a Licentiate. It is now three. Some Bishops felt that they did not have enough priests who could be spared for that length of time in canonical studies Nonetheless, clearly it was necessary for Tribunals to have properly trained personnel, whether priests or sisters or other lay persons. As early as 1977 there were courses offered to train people in this country. One such course was provided by the Southwark Tribunal in January 1978; another was held at the Franciscan Study Centre in Canterbury in July 1978 (cf. CLSN 35, December 1977)

In 1980 two sets of Courses were offered through the Society; a major Course was for Judges, Defenders and Advocates. This course involved a week’s residence and lectures; a 6 month gap working in a Tribunal and then a further week’s residential course. The lecturers were to be drawn from experienced personnel of the Society.

The first of these Courses was scheduled for November 1980 and the second for June 1981. There were also minor courses for Priests, Religious and Laity. They involved an afternoon, evening and the following morning. Several of these minor Courses took place around the country but they eventually petered out. (cf. CLSN 45, June 1980).

There was then a further initiative eventually called the Canon Law Societys Jurisprudential Course. These courses involved two by four week modules (residential) addressed by lecturers of the Society. They were intended for training in Sentence writing. The first segment of the Course started in November 1987 for four weeks and a second course (first segment) in January 1988. the students studied particular grounds with a lecturer over a week. The student was then given a real case and was required to write a sentence. Subsequently there was an individual session with the lecturer; and then a group session. This continued for four weeks. There was then a gap of a year and a further four weeks.

It was important that these courses were notified to the Signatura Apostolica. The Signatura gave its blessing to the first Course. Recently it has been noticed that when permission is sought from the Signatura for a non-qualified person to be appointed as a Judge, the Signatura makes distinctions between those who have followed the CLS Jurisprudential Course and those who have not.

Another venture of the Society was a series of three Canon Law courses for Contemplative Sisters. A request for such Courses had come from a meeting of Contemplatives of all Orders in the country. Accordingly the first such Course took place in 1987. The aim was to have a small group of sisters present and to tape the lectures. Hence the lectures became available to a very wide audience. Three such Courses were given by Father Frank Morrisey, OMI (cf. CLSN 78, June 1989; and CLSN 86, June 1991).

It may have been noticed that there was a degree of almost frenzied activity of the Society during the 70s and 80s. However, this seemed to quieten down in the 90s. Then a bombshell hit the Church in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland; namely the allegations (and facts) of clerical child abuse. Following the arrival of the new Archbishop of Westminster, shortly to become Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, a report was commissioned to be headed by Lord Nolan. The first draft report was received by the Bishops in September 2000 and the final report was presented not long afterwards. The Canon Law Society was asked to help with comment on the final Nolan report. Subsequently a further report was commissioned by the Bishops to review the working of Nolan. Unhappily the topic is still open.

One vignette produced by CLSN relates to costs, subscriptions and Conference expenses. So far as I can recall, I paid a subscription of £2.00 in 1961. This went up to £3.00 in March 1970; and then to £10.00 in 1975; subsequently to £30.00 and then £40.00 and most recently (2005) the subscription was raised to £100.00. Another measure of the cost is the Annual Conference fee. The cost of the (residential) Conference at Fox Rock in Dublin in 1974 was £12.50 with a Registration fee of £5.00. The cost of the Spring Conference in Ilkley in 1975 was £17.50 with a £6.00 Registration fee. The cost of the Conference in the last couple of years has been way over £400.00. Whoever pays this sum (whether the individual member or the Tribunal) the increase in the subscription has certainly not diminished the number of those attending Conferences)

The Society has greatly benefited by the statistics which have emerged in the CLSN. For students and lovers of statistics, figures from MDEW and then from the diocesan statistics gathered by the Secretariat of State have been reproduced annually.

There is an interesting list of the names of Presidents and Secretaries from the beginning to the present.

One of the features of the life and history of the Society has been the visits of members of other Canon law Societies to CLS Conferences; as well as the travels of the CLS president and others to conventions abroad, viz USA, Canada, Australia, India and South Africa.

A regular visitor (although actually an Honorary Life Member of CLS) is Father Francis Morrisey, OMI. Fr. Morrisey taught a very large number of English Canonists when they followed their Canon Law courses at St Paul University in Ottawa. Another long standing visitor has been Monsignor Martin de Groot from Holland. He tells how a former Bishop of Haarlem had encouraged him to join the Canon Law Society.. Bishop Geoffrey Robinson of Sydney has had a very long association with the CLS. He was one of the translators of the Latin Code. He also participated in two extremely important International Meetings arranged by the CLS. These two Conferences, one in Dublin and the other in Ottawa concerned the Revision of the Code. They dealt with De Processibus in 1977 in Dublin; and De Populo Dei in Ottawa in 1978. Bishop Robinson has commented upon that cooperation between the Societies.

The CLS Jurisprudential course has long been a fruitful source of recruitment to the Society. It has become the custom for the Certificate of Graduation of those who have completed the course to be presented at the CLS Conference. Some observations on being a New Member and a Graduate of the CLS Jurisprudential course have been written by Father Aidan Prescott.

An ecumenical aspect of the history of the Society was the introduction of the Lyndwood Lectures in 1996. The first of these was given by Monsignor Brian Ferme on William Lyndwood’s Provinciale.

At the beginning of the Society’s existence, Dom. Peter Flood, OSB, had drafted the Constitutions. Although there was no specific ban in the Constitution on membership of women, in fact there were no ladies who were Members of the Society in the early years. When I was running the Woodhall Conference in 1968, I had asked two ladies who worked for the Westminster Tribunal to help with the administration at the Conference. Following this Dom Peter Flood complained to Cardinal Heenan and to the Holy See about the presence of women at a Conference for Priests. Cardinal Heenan sent for me and told me about this, and I must have gone slightly ashen. I had never been delated to the Holy See before. Cardinal Heenan twinkled and said: “You are nobody until you have been delated to the Holy See at least twice.” This was interesting and very comforting. It seemed important to look at the beginnings of Ladies in the Society. With her usual generosity, Sister Ishbel MacPherson, SND has written a piece she has entitled “From Small Acorns…”.

It has already been mentioned that there are very few present members who joined the Society before 1960. One of the features of the Society’s life at Woodhall was a very striking and deeply valued bonhomie. Early memories of the social life of the Society have been dredged up by Monsignor Cyril Murtagh, whose membership dates from the early sixties. It can be seen that the development of the Society has taken place, really, under the impetus of the New Code. But no Society is ever made up solely of its projects, initiatives, contributions to Law and Jurisprudence. All of these are indeed important, but the real substance of any Society or professional body is made up of the people who exercised their wisdom, expertise, energy as well as their strength, courage, ingenuity, imagination and persistence.

On looking back on the history of the Society, one must recall the equipment that we had then and have now. In the sixties we were reproducing papers by wayof those horrid blue stencils. Then waxed Gestetner stencils. Then we moved to Xerox machines and all manner of copying machines. We moved from “steam” to Remington typewriters to word processors; then on to computers and PCs and laptops. The changes in the way we have worked over fifty years have been spectacular. Fr. Peter Kravos has written a piece on how we have progressed to modern day IT.

One of the most interesting parts of the preparation of this number for the 50th Jubilee celebrations has been to reflect upon the Founding Fathers, all of them now gone to their rich reward, as well as others who have been part of the Society’s strength and importance.

Because of the existence of the Canon Law Society Newsletter, the obituaries of some thirteen past members have been discovered and closely re-read. The names include the Founding Fathers, and others known and loved by the Society.

Each of the obituaries tells the story of one of the Members. Probably the most poignant concerns Monsignor Canon Desmond O’Ryan – known as Des – of the Diocese of Portsmouth. He had been very unwell in 1977; he was then diagnosed with cancer; and he was unable to attend the 1977 Conference, but did so in 1978. He was asked to present a paper to the Conference in 1979. However, because of a serious deterioration in his condition he was unable to attend. The paper was read for him by Monsignor Cyril Murtagh. At that Conference a very large “Get Well” card was sent to Desmond conveying the prayers and the thoughts and assurance of Mass from all the members.

Desmond replied to Bishop Moverley and said how grateful he was for the card from Ilkley and for the Bishop’s letter. He knew he was dying. He wrote “should my call come before you meet again, would you express to the members my delight and pride at having been in their company. You will be aware that I have always known that my qualifications and expertise were not up to those of most of the members, and it is only as a representative of the simple country parish priest that I was amongst you: scant law, but common sense, and alas worldly experience. Oremus pro invicem”. He died not quite eight weeks after he wrote those words.

This represents the life, common sense and spirituality which we would all like to be ours. His tribute to the Society is one which we would all like to make.

The survey of the history of the Society can end on a high note. We pray that the words of the Holy Father in May 2008 in Rome will send the Society into a further half century of dedicated work for the Church.

1 November 2007                                          Monsignor Ralph Brown