The Canon Law Society of Australia and New Zealand began - as do many good things - in the late night conversation of good friends with a common interest. It began in Rome about 1960 in St. Peter's College, that forcing house of canonists in the days before Vatican II. In 1956 Owen Oxenham, John Clarke and I, newly-arrived innocents abroad, went to call on Archbishop Sigismondi, Secretary of Propaganda. He asked what we intended to study. In the manner of canon lawyers of the time Owen and John announced confidently that they were there for law. I was amused and a little puzzled when Sigismondi demanded : "Why do people come here from all over the world to study the Gospel of Gasparri and not the Gospel of Jesus Christ?"
Three of those who were to do much to change that situation were Owen, Joe O'Connell and Ron Mulkearns. In the course of his thesis research Owen came across the Canon Law Society of America. He proposed to the others that we could benefit from a similar society in our part of the world. They agreed and many nights were given to examining the idea and determining its functions and features. There is a great leap in faith from student vision to professional action. Eventually all three returned to Australia. When they met, Owen still spoke of the need for the society. Eventually Ron asked, in his forthright way, why he did not do something about it. Stirred, Owen returned to Brisbane and leapt into action. Anyone who has seen his formidable organizing abilities engaged will not be surprised that the Canon Law Society was born. With the aid of the late Frank Douglas and Miss Joan Lane, he set about finding the raw material of the Society - and very raw some of it was. They went through the Catholic Directory to search for anyone with a degree in Canon Law. Despite the universal Gospel of Gasparri, there were not enough to form a solid group. They extended their list to include all Marriage Tribunal members, seminary lecturers and holders of degrees of any kind. A number of things were illustrated in this decision - the intention to combine the professional with the practical, the breadth of vision which saw that Law did not exist in an ecclesial vacuum.
The result was a questionnaire sent 17 October 1966 to 165 possible starters, all clerics. Of these 42 had degrees in Canon Law, including a few Baccalaureates. There were 44 with other degrees, mainly ecclesiastical. Others , mainly tribunal functionaries, numbered 54. (The inconsistency of the numbers is explained by the fact that some, like the author, were approached personally, not by mail.) All were asked if they thought a society were desirable, what its aims should be, whether they were willing to belong to it, where and when the first meeting should be. There were 65 returned questionnaires. The answers revealed much about the condition of the Australian Church and of canonical practice in the year after the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council.
A number recognised that professional expertise had to break out of the seminaries. The obvious move was to the tribunals. No further need was mentioned. There were a few recognitions that the orientation should be pastoral, Kevin Barry-Cotter picked up a principal theme of Vatican II, suggesting that the aim should be service of each other and of the Church. Kevin pointed to another consequence of the Council which Australia and New Zealand were slow to take up - the need to make our distinctive contribution to our own life in the Church and to that of the universal Church. We were always looking to what others did and imitating it. He noted that, while we had been a testing ground of much contemporary missionary law, we were still a silent voice in the Church. The experience of more developed associations, like the Canon Law Society of America, was seen as a model, but few had significant knowledge of them. The almost unthinkable revision of the Code was mentioned, but it was difficult to imagine contribution to it. The state of mind was optimistic, practical, but largely blank. Of the 65 respondents 53 assembled in the New Farm Hall in Brisbane 19-22 June , 1967 for the constituent assembly, which became the inaugural meeting of the Canon Law Society of Australia. That makes this 1991 meeting the twenty-fifth. The representation was wide. One bishop came, through two left, F. Carroll being called to the Delegation from the Hall. There were 12 Religious and representatives of 14 dioceses, 5 in Queensland, 4 in NSW, 2 in W.A., 1 each in Victoria, S.A., Tasmania and ACT. One of the Religious, B. Courtenay, C.M., whose early death was a loss to the Society, came from Mosgiel, N.Z. Among the diocesans present Brisbane naturally had the highest number - 12 - but there were 7 from Sydney and 4 from Melbourne. From there Joe O'Connell, Ron Mulkearns, Frank Harman and Harry Jordan MSC came together by car, a travelling synod in themselves. Of the total numbers 26, almost exactly half, had Canon Law degrees, mostly doctorates.
The above is an extract from the presentation by Rev Dr Thomas Boland D.Eccl.Hist. at the twenty-fifth Annual Conference of the Society, September 1991, “Canon Law Society: 1967-1991 An Historical Perspective”.