Historical Background

One of the initiatives of Monsignor Gerard Sheehy during his Presidency was to create the Research Sub-Committee. One of its tasks was to investigate the possibility of a specialised course dealing with Jurisprudence. The idea was to follow up something on English speaking lines that had been initiated at Brescia by the Gregorian University, as a “summer schoolâ€.
Quite a lot of members of the Canon Law Society had attended the Brescia Courses; had enjoyed them and had learned from them. However, the initiative contemplated by the CLS had been something certainly academic on the Church’s jurisprudence; but also very practical.

Moreover, the practicality of the Course could be increased by having a gap between two modules of the Course; each module a month long. This would allow people to apply what had been learned (over the four weeks of the first module) to their practical work in Tribunals until they attended the second module of four weeks.

This was the scheme produced by the Research Sub-Committee. Initially it was essentially seen as an updating course for those already involved in Tribunal work. It was considered to be a course for persons already deployed as Judges, Defenders and Advocates. However, simply because of the need for training of personnel for tribunals, the admissions standard had to be expanded to the level of experienced Auditors and others.

Structure Of The Course

The structure of the Course – after the pilot of 1987/1988 – was found to be the right and most convenient arrangement. Consequently, it was adopted for subsequent Courses with only a few modifications and some fine tuning. The original venue was changed from Damascus House, Mill Hill, to St Paul’s Retreat Centre, Teddington, and then in 2007 to the Gillis Centre, Edinburgh.

One of the things that was learnt from the experience of the Courses was that the detailed daily programme itself – although taking in the required periods of public lectures, private study and meetings and seminars – was better established by the students themselves; with one of them taking charge of the “ground arrangements”; with another student in charge of the liturgy celebrated daily during the Course.

The Cost

When the initial report was written in 1989 the cost per student was something well below £500. The costs have now risen (specially with removal from Damascus House to approximately £1,200 per module, involving £2,400 for the whole Course. This has been held level for several years.

The Lecturers (who are all members of the Canon Law Society) are not paid for their lectures; and are merely reimbursed for their travelling costs and the cost of their keep on the Course.


Originally the students were asked a set of questions which dealt with the domestic and the academic elements of the Course. However, more recently, although questions were asked about the domestic arrangements, the comments sought about the actual academic side of the Course were much more searching. Hence, even the lecturers benefited from these comments.

Development of the Courses

Between 1987 and 2007 there have been 110 participants, with twenty lecturers. The participants have come from all the Tribunals in England and Wales; from all the Regional Tribunals in Ireland; and from the then National Tribunal in Scotland. They have also come from Dioceses as far apart as Wa in Ghana, Yola in Nigeria, Kinjirapally in Kerala, and from Imphal in Manipur, in India.   More than twenty Dioceses were covered; eight countries and four Regional Tribunals.

All the traditional grounds have been covered on each entire Course, total and partial simulation, force and fear, error, deceit, condition, impotence, invalid convalidation, and a thorough coverage of all the aspects of Canon 1095 nn.1-3. Text books have been provided for research; together with Rotal and local decisions; and the Conference Centre (Below: Gillis Centre, Edinburgh) has always provided photocopying facilities; and the students were encouraged to bring their own computers or laptops.

The marking of the work of the students has been broken up into a mark for each individual for the week – their participation as students, the amount of interest shown; and for the written work. These weekly marks were put together with an overall score, advised to each participant, as well as to the funding Superior or the Diocese at the end of the Course.                      

Recruitment of Participants                       

One of the principles worked upon in recruiting participants was that each participant had to be vouched for by a Diocesan Bishop; this applied to priests, deacons, female religious, lay women and lay men. Interestingly all the participants at the first course were priests. Since that time there have been fourteen Deacons, twenty religious as well as lay men and women. Half the participants are now employed at full rate salaries in Tribunals.

However, it had also been the principle of the Courses that the optimum number of participants should be twelve; and no more. It has also been determined that it is not helpful for the participants to join the last part of one Course and complete the work in the first half of the next Course. This was found to be disruptive of the community spirit which each course developed; and was therefore not good for the morale of the participants.

With these principles in view, it has already been necessary to begin canvassing Bishops, together with Judicial Vicars, as early as March for the Course which begins the following January. This recruitment of participants involves a considerable amount of work, quite apart from the vital assembling of lecturers.


Recently it has been noted that the Signatura Apostolica has indicated the value of the Course in considering dispensations for Tribunal Judges who do not have any canonical qualifications. It seems that when a participant has concluded the Canon Law Society Jurisprudential Course, the Signatura may consider a dispensation.

At the conclusion of the Course (both parts) and if the participant has reached at least 70% mark, a certificate is awarded.

In the light of all the above, the general view of the CLS Jurisprudential Course around the country has been very positive, and the whole programme has developed and improved its effectiveness for Diocesan and Regional Tribunals.    

26 March 2007
Monsignor Ralph Brown

Approval Of The Signature Apostolica

Initially, for the two parts of the first course (16 November to 12 December 1987; and November to December 1988) there had been five lecturers for the eight segments of the course. When that first course had been completed (it had been regarded as a pilot project) a report was made back to the Research Sub-Committee; and then to the Executive Committee of the Canon Law Society. This same report – after consideration by the Executive Committee – was sent to the Signatura Apostolica with a letter from the President at the time (Monsignor David Cousins) on 22 November 1989. A reply dated 4 December 1989 was received from the Prefect of the Signatura Apostolica, namely Cardinal Achille Silvestrini and was also countersigned by Bishop Zenon Grocholwleski, the Secretary.

That letter indicated that the Course “must be recognised as an interim solution to the difficulty which Dioceses have in obtaining qualified Tribunal personnel”. The Prefect also sent his best wishes and encouragement for the next Course which was shortly to follow. This reply was dated 4 December 1989; and since that time there have been eight more Courses and the most recent was concluded in February 2007. Since the first Course there have been twenty lecturers involved, all of them with similar academic credentials and canonical experience.

Sentence Writing Course Information

Principally the course is designed to increase familiarity with marriage law jurisprudence to help judges or prospective judges become more familiar with the task of judging and sentence writing in marriage nullity cases.

The course is useful for canonists with a Licence, whom Bishops have appointed or wish to appoint as judges, who wish to improve their sentence writing or who have little or no experience of sentence writing.

The course lasts 8 weeks – over two years, four weeks each year in the month, usually, of January/beginning of February, as the calendar dictates.

The cost of the course per person per part, includes all tuition, materials, board and lodging, etc, for one month. As members of the Society, all the teachers give of their time and expertise without charge. The number of participants is a minimum of 7 a maximum of 12, for each course. Each week a different teacher presents the material.

Part I
Week I: Introduction to canon law; Introduction to canon law of marriage; Introduction to Christian anthropology; procedures; proofs.
Week 2: Introduction to sentence writing and the ground of fear and force.
Week 3: Grounds of error and deceit.
Week 4: Grounds of simulation.

Part II 
Week 1: Grounds of impotence, ignorance and condition
Week 2: Grounds of Lack of Use of Reason and Grave Lack of Discretion.
Week 3: Ground of Inability to assume and fulfil the essential obligations of marriage.
Week 4: Ground of Error determining the will; cases of Invalid Convalidation, the bonum coniugum.

Each week participants take part in classes, and receive and read articles and materials on the topic being presented.

Apart from Part I, Week I, the participants write a sentence on the corresponding ground for that week, have a one-to-one tutorial with that week’s lecturer and finish that week’s topic with a group seminar.

The academic week runs from the Sunday night (7.00pm) to the Friday afternoon (2.00pm) as a residential course, with participants booked into the Course venue over the weekends so that they can rest and enjoy the local sites as well as, importantly, read and study. Ultimately, it is up to each participant (and their superior) if they are able to stay on Saturdays but it is included in the price and is strongly recommended as it is considered part of the course. (No deduction in cost is made for those who cannot or choose not to stay.)

All applications for the course should be recommended and supported by a Diocesan Bishop, Judicial Vicar or other Superior.

Anyone wishing to find out more about this course can contact the Course Co-ordinators.  In your correspondence please state the name of the Tribunal you are associated with and the position held.

Course Co-Ordinators:

V. Rev Kristian Canon Paver and Mrs Berenice McNeil

Plymouth Diocesan Tribunal Office,

St Boniface House, Ashburton,

Newton Abbot, TQ13 3J

T: 01364 645411

E: kristian.paver@prcdtr.org.uk 

Reflections Of A Graduate

It was to Gateshead that we travelled in May 2007 to attend the annual Conference of the Canon Law Society of Great Britain and Ireland. We were going to graduate in Gateshead!

The “we” in question were the most recent participants in the Jurisprudential Course run by the Society. Eleven of us (4 ladies, 6 priests and a deacon) successfully completed the course in February 2007, having honed our skills in writing sentences on the various grounds for nullity. We were the last group to experience the hospitality of the Selly Park Sisters at Teddington (Photo above) and the first to experience a warm welcome North of the border at the Gilllis Centre in Edinburgh. 

Seven of the group arrived at The Swallow Hotel for the Conference; only two of us had attended a conference before. Very soon we were clutching conference papers and wearing our name badges suspended on their fine Golden Jubilee ribbons. There were smiles and laughter as we met up again and across the crowded room we saw, here and there, the familiar faces of those who had taught us. If for some of us the prospect of attending the Conference was a bit daunting, then we need not have worried because friendliness was the hallmark of the week. Beyond the obvious seriousness of the papers presented each day, which were often thought-provoking and sometimes provocative, it was clear to more than the casual observer that this Society was not just concerned with the minutiae of Canon Law. Animated conversations and the sound of laughter in the restaurant and around the bar bore witness to old friends reunited and new friendship being forged.

Bishop Kevin Dunn, himself a Canon Lawyer, formally welcomed us to the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle. He reminded us of the significance of Lindisfarne and Durham to the English Church, and of the important contributions of Aidan, Cuthbert and Bede. Paul Zielinski sought to counter the its-grim-up-North view of Gateshead by reminding us of the Angel of the North, the new Sage Centre and the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. However, we might say that he rather hedged his bets by including Bede’s World on the itinerary for the optional trip on the Wednesday afternoon.

During the course of the week we were presented with papers on a range of topics. The week was topped and tailed by papers on priestly formation, delivered by Anthony Randazzo and James Conn respectively. Frank Morrisey shared his thoughts on the situation about rights in the Church and Mark Chopko gave us a fascinating insight into the interface between Civil and Canon Law in the United States with regard to the abuse of children by clergy. Evelyn Mann spoke on the subject of gender dysphoria, giving a thought-provoking, and at times, uncomfortably detailed presentation. Perhaps the most provocative paper of the week was presented by Brendan Killeen, who spoke on the role of love within marriage. At first sight this topic does not appear to be remotely controversial. However, Brendan, drawing on the fruits of his recently completed doctoral thesis, suggested some possible canonical developments, not least in the canonical understanding of non-consummation. If Brendan did not convince all the audience with his arguments, he did at least demonstrate that love and Canon Law were not mutually exclusive terms.

During the week there were also two question and answer sessions: one on Canon Law relating to marriage, the other on more general canonical issues. A panel of experts, drawn from the Society’s membership, answered questions submitted in advance. The questions were answered with a lovely mix of wisdom and wit, and there were also some interesting interventions from the floor. These sessions were amongst the most engaging and enjoyable of the week, allowing experts and audience to interact much more directly. Needless to say the session on marriage was particularly pertinent for those of us working in Marriage Tribunals.

The Annual General Meeting of any Society can be a rather tedious, if necessary affair: due in part to an almost unvarying agenda year after year. There was, however, something different about this year’s AGM. John Conneely, having served two terms as President, stood down. As members we had the opportunity to thank him for his tremendous work on behalf of the Society. Those of us who had recently completed the Jurisprudential Course had particular reason to thank John for his wisdom, kindness and helpfulness. Members were also able to express their gratitude to Margaret Foster and Clare Pearce, standing down as General Secretary and Administrative Secretary respectively.

One of John Conneely’s last tasks, as President, was to present seven of us with certificates to show that we had successfully completed the Society’s Jurisprudential Course. Beforehand, this ceremony had jokingly been referred to as our graduation. There may not have been a cap or gown in sight, but there was a generous and warm applause from the distinguished gathering of Canon Lawyers.

The last big event of the week was the gala dinner. We had a thoroughly enjoyable evening with good company and a pleasant meal. A number of speeches followed, including one by Bishop John Cunningham, who fascinated us with his witty observations of Conferences past, not least the tales of Spartan accommodation and indifferent food, together with other funny stories. On a more serious note, it was clear that the Society could be very proud of its achievements over the past fifty years and the significant contribution its members have made to the Church in our countries.

Friday dawned, another conference drew to a close and we headed for home. We were glad to have graduated in Gateshead. We experienced a warm welcome in the North East, not least from fellow members of the Canon Law Society of Great Britain and Ireland. I suspect that we will be attending many more Conferences in the years to come. Here’s to next year in Rome. Now that does have a ring about it!

18 September 2007
Reverend Aidan Prescott