The Founding Of Canon Law Abstracts

The Founding Of Canon Law Abstracts

In an article appearing in the 1974 Canon Law Society Newsletter Monsignor Gerard Sheehy recalled that, at the first ordinary meeting of the Society in June 1957, prophetically, Monsignor John Barry suggested: “Would it not be a good idea if we did some little publication like abstracting from periodicals?”. That was the birth of one of our most significant contributions. It was endorsed at the General Meeting of the Society of the following year. This was the birth of Canon Law Abstracts.

Cardinal Godfrey, Archbishop of Westminster, had approved the idea of the Canon Law Society subject to the condition that it should not publish anything within his “jurisdiction” (England and Wales). In strict compliance with that condition, Monsignor (then Fr.) Barry, who was based in Scotland, saw to it that publication of Canon Law Abstracts should take place North of the border. He produced the first four issues (1959 – 1960) in Gestetnered form; and thereafter, from 1961 onwards, he arranged for the printing to be done professionally by Meigle Printers Ltd, a firm in Galashiels in the Scottish Borders. Meigles continued to print Canon Law Abstracts until as recently as 2005, at which point printing was transferred to a firm nearer London – it being assumed by then that Cardinal Godfrey’s condition was no longer applicable!

From the very beginning, Canon Law Abstracts was produced on a twice-yearly basis, and the sequence has continued uninterrupted from 1959 up to the present, so that the 2008/2 issue will be the hundredth in the series. The first printed issues (from No. 5 onwards) cost 4 shillings each (4s 3d   post   paid),   and   the   annual   subscription was 8s. 6d (the price in fact being given as “8/6 or $1.50”, showing that from the outset it was envisaged that there would be a transatlantic readership). Requests soon started coming in for a reprint of the first four Gestetnered issues, and to avoid the complications of reproducing them in their original form it was decided to rework them into a single “omnibus” edition at the inclusive price of 8s 6d.

Monsignor Barry was to remain at the helm of Canon Law Abstracts for twenty-five years, at the end of which he wrote: “I don’t believe in editorials. But perhaps Number 50 of Canon Law Abstracts, which heralds the end of twenty-five years of editorial hassle, is the right place to say a word. Fifty numbers have been devoted to the law of the 1917 Code. The next number, No. 51, will, please God (and in his service, if an after-thought is permissible), appear in January 1984. By that time the 1983 Code will be in force. In future we shall therefore use as our points of reference the Canons of that Code. To quote St. Paul, “The time has come for me to be gone”. I hope the next number will have a new editor”.


There were in fact four new editors: Fr. Ivan Payne (1984 to1992), Fr. John Aveyard (1992 to 1995), Sister Ishbel MacPherson (1995 – 1998), and the undersigned (1998 to the present), but during most of that time Monsignor Barry was certainly not “gone”, as he continued to be involved in the publication and himself to supply abstracts right up to the time of his death in 2003.

In content and form Canon Law Abstracts remains essentially the same as when it first made its appearance, even if it is now a bit fuller and a bit glossier. Its basic aim is to provide an accurate summary of as much of the periodical canonical literature as possible, without attempting to pass comment on the merits of any article. Even to the point of scrupulosity (e.g. in the avoidance of descriptions such as “useful”, “interesting”, “timely”, etc.), Canon Law Abstracts limits itself to bringing the article to the attention of the reader, who may then choose to consult the original and come to his or her own conclusion as to its quality or usefulness.

As to the physical preparation of the journal, things have moved on from the days when the printers would be given a bundle of papers for them to type out and send back for proof checking. Nowadays the entire issue is prepared on a PC and e-mailed to the printers, together with a list of subscribers so that the printers can attend to the whole operation of printing, packing and posting. Formerly this would involve Mrs. Clare Pearce – until recently the administrative secretary of the Society – having to package each copy individually (about 900 copies in each mailing), so the new system is certainly a great improvement in terms of labour saving. (Also, the fact that the printers don’t have anything to do with the actual typesetting means they can’t be blamed for any spelling errors!).

Of course Canon Law Abstracts could not exist without those who actually produce the abstracts, and I would like to echo the sentiments of Monsignor Barry when he said, twenty-five years ago: “I want to thank all our contributors who have slaved for nothing but the glory of God, and even had to buy the periodical which they abstract.” Over the years there have been dozens who have “slaved for nothing but the glory of God” in supplying material for Canon Law Abstracts. Some abstractors produce a substantial number of contributions for each issue, and their efforts are highly appreciated. Several have kept up this work over a long period of years, and in this connection perhaps one name may be singled out for special mention, that of Canon Dermod Fogarty, who was among the original group of abstractors and who continues to contribute to this day.

Who knows what developments the future may hold?   The internet is obviously taking over in most areas of life, and from time to time the suggestion is made that Canon Law Abstracts might eventually be produced electronically, with internet access becoming the norm. There is already a modest website ( which provides an index of the articles that have appeared since the year 2000, and the idea is that this index will eventually be expanded to take in the titles of all the articles that have appeared since 1983. Perhaps electronic publishing is indeed the shape of things to come, but – at least in the Canon Law world – there still seems to be a strong inclination to continue to produce journals in paper format, and there are no immediate plans for Canon Law Abstracts to move away from that format for the time being.

On reaching one hundred issues of Canon Law Abstracts it may also be time to think of introducing new divisions or categories into the publication, to reflect the growing interest in topics such as ecumenism, Church-State relations, the relationship between Canon Law and Civil Law, the means of social communication, issues relating to the family, and the foundations and theory of Canon Law. This will obviously require some thought, and any suggestions from readers would be welcomed.

Even if there is a certain amount of what Monsignor Barry described as “editorial hassle” it is also a privilege to be able to work with such a number of dedicated individuals and to have the pleasure of meeting up with them at the Canon Law Society Conference and other events. Their example and work may well inspire others to join in this task of providing what one hopes is a genuine service to the Church and the world of Canon   Law. It is a world that is constantly being renewed and updated; and a number of recent events in the life of the Church are, I am sure, helping people come to the realization that the juridical dimension of the mystery of the Church is not something that can simply be dismissed or ignored. Let us hope that this is a sign that we are entering a new era of appreciation of the importance of Canon Law for ecclesial life and the good of souls.

28 September 2007

Fr. Paul Hayward