A Profile of American Canonists

Author: Duane L.C.M. Galles


Duane L.C.M. Galles

Copyright, 1995, Duane L.C.M. Galles

A canonist or canon lawyer is usually described as someone who has studied canon law and has a degree in the field. Under canon 1421 #3 of the <Code of Canon Law> the minimum qualification for the office of judge of a canonical tribunal is the pontifical degree of Licentiate in Canon Law (abbreviated J.C.L.). "Pontifical" simply means that the institution is authorized by the Holy See to grant ecclesiastical degrees and the licentiate is a two-year graduate degree program in canon law. To canon law it is what the Juris Doctor or Bachelor of Laws degree is to civil law. The Doctorate in Canon Law (J.C.D.) is a further graduate degree and usually requires another year of study and a thesis.

It is not easy to get a profile of this profession. Little is written about it in the mainstream press. Since the lead article of this issue deals with what canon lawyers—or at least some of them—have to say about the possibility of ordaining women as deacons, we thought <Christifidelis> readers might find such a profile of interest. Traditionally, the canon law profession is divided into two parts, those who work in the chancery (or diocesan business office) and those who work in the tribunal. The former deal largely with personnel or clergy and church property matters and the latter, for the most part, do marriage cases. Some canonists do both types of work.

With the coming of the 1983 Code of Canon Law and its emphasis on the rights of the faithful, some canon lawyers have begun to do advocacy work and represent "clients" in somewhat the same way as would a lawyer in the secular legal system. Such practitioners are relatively rare and, to the best of our knowledge, the St. Joseph Foundation remains the only organization with the defense and vindication of ecclesial rights as its sole purpose.

For many years, Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington, DC and St. Paul's University in Ottawa, Ontario were the only institutions offering a degree in canon law in the North America. Recently, Duquesne University in Pittsburgh inaugurated a two year program leading to both Master of Church Administration and J.C.L. degrees, with canon law courses taken at Louvain, Belgium. We might add here that many canon lawyers in North America received their degrees from pontifical universities in Rome and elsewhere in Europe.

The Department of Canon Law at CUA was established in 1906. While it appears the first American layman to get his canon law degree there did so in the 1920's, it was not until 1969 that the first woman got her J.C.L. from that institution and so became eligible to join the "canonists' club." From its inception until 1990 the Department awarded 535 J.C.D. degrees. Of these, 13 were to women. During that same period it awarded some 1,100 J.C.L. degrees and of these 46 went to women religious, 8 to lay women and 5 to lay men.

The Canon Law Society of America is the professional organization of canon lawyers in the United States and was organized in 1939. A photo of its first meeting in 1941 shows some 76 men in attendance and their attire suggests that one member was a layman (1.3%) and the remaining members were priests. But just as not all American lawyers are members of the American Bar Association, so not all American canonists are members of the Canon Law Society of America (CLSA). Nevertheless, it seems likely that most active canonists are CLSA members and, if this is so, a profile of the CLSA's membership at least gives something of a profile of American canonists.

In a recent report CLSA noted that it had 1,572 members. These included 1,269 active members (81 percent of the total), 269 associate members and 34 institutional members. Eleven of the "active" (or voting) members were honorary members. This means that by reason of special past service to the Society they are not required to pay annual society dues of $100.00. Nor were the 34 student members (a new category, incidentally) who were included in the associate membership category required to pay dues. In order to be an "active" member one needs a licentiate in canon law degree. For purposes of comparison we may note that the Society reports that in 1994 canon law tribunals in the United States included 704 fully degreed canonists on staff plus another 463 officials without the J.C.L. degree who worked under an indult (or special permission) from the Vatican. This suggests that the CLSA membership is fairly representative of American canonists.

It will not be a great surprise to learn that the 1994 CLSA profile varies not too radically from that of 1941. No one, for example, will wonder that the vast majority (80 percent) of CLSA's members are clerics. Forty-nine members are bishops (3 percent), 1,181 are priests (75 percent) and 26 are deacons (2 percent). Women religious account for 139 members (9 percent) and four religious brothers are members. One hundred thirty-nine is also the number of secular lay members. If you have wondered why it is not easy to find a canonist not in the employ of a diocese, these figures will be illuminating.

We have seen that this group of canonists is in the large part concerned with Catholic America's marriage problems. They staff the tribunals which produce declarations of freedom to marry. Of CLSA's members 73 (4.6 percent) are married and we presume that all 73 are among the 139 secular lay members. However, given the temper of the times, one cannot be too sure.

This, then, is a small statistical portrait of American canonists.